Karma (Part One)
One of the most beautiful words I have heard is one of humble origins, that being Karma (pronounced Khur-Ma, not Car-Ma). This simple word from the Indian language of Sanskrit meaning ‘action’, is perhaps one of the most misused and misunderstood words in the world. There has been a car company named after it. There are hundreds of videos on YouTube depicting scenes of alleged instant cause and effect of one’s actions. Millions have resigned themselves to their lot in life because they believe their suffering or lack of success is due to Karma. People have named their children using this beautiful unisex word. Many find hope that Karma will eventually “get” the person who commits a bad act. But the meaning and implications of Karma are far deeper and nuanced than the surface explanation that most have come to accept; that Karma is a sum of good and bad deeds, a life balance sheet of sorts. Many look at it as a ledger maintained by some divine accountant “up there” who then uses it to determine your score (and final destination) after your body dies. This is tragic because the real meaning of Karma could not be further from the truth. This misunderstanding has led millions of people (especially in India) to approach life in a fatalistic manner and accept all manner of injustice and mistreatment of various kinds. I have personally seen people who are miserable and unhappy with their lot in life yet do nothing about it because “it’s my Karma”. Millions go through elaborate rituals and ceremonies in hopes of shedding their bad Karma or not passing it along to their offspring. At best, most view Karma with unease and disdain or as a tool for payback and at worst, as an acceptance of misery and suffering.
What is Suffering?
While suffering is commonly equated with Karma, it has nothing to do with it. I wanted to briefly discuss this because it helps dispel the myth that suffering is because of one’s Karma. Why do some people suffer more than others? Why do some people get badly ill while others seem to be healthy all the time? Why does the rich man with millions of dollars look so miserable while the beggar is full of joy at finding a half-eaten banana in the bin? Why didn’t God create everybody with equal levels of happiness and good fortune? What is the point of all this inequality that seems to lead to untold suffering? These are fundamental questions that have bothered humanity since the beginning without any clear answers. To begin to answer these questions, we need to first realize that the sole cause of human suffering is ourselves. Understanding that statement requires us to make a distinction between pain and suffering, as both are used interchangeably. Pain is generally a physical condition that is caused by some injury or illness to the body and it’s the body’s way of telling us something is wrong. Pain is useful and in fact, critical for our survival and well-being. Suffering, on the other hand, is completely psychological and manufactured within our minds. One small example is a couple I know who were quite content and happy in their modest home in suburban Seattle. The tech boom, which they were not part of, made all their friends very wealthy and who bought homes in “desirable” neighborhoods. The wife still suffers from not living in these places and is always going on about how she loves her home and location and would not want to live with these richies. Yet, her eyes and social engagements say otherwise with suffering that is completely self-created and only in contrast to others. If she lived, like millions do, on the streets of Mumbai or Nairobi and was given her current home, she would think it was a divine miracle. Like this, people suffer all manner of rubbish because they live in constant contrast and comparison to what they don’t have or worse, what others have. From my observations, the more wealth and abundance somebody has, the more they seem to suffer their state of life. In this same way, Karma is not what is happening to you but rather, the way you react to it. Amusingly, human beings are able to suffer just about anything; married/single, rich/poor, kids/no-kids, fat/thin, etc. Hence suffering is not really about circumstance but rather the way we have made ourselves to react to things that happen. Another example I cite often is of a cloudy or rainy day in Seattle of which we have many months of. Many locals look outside and lament the fact how miserable it is. A person who has just landed from Dubai or Las Vegas comes outside the airport and is filled with joy at the beautiful rain and slate grey skies. The clouds and rain are oblivious to any of them and carry on regardless. In the same way, life is neither suffering nor bliss but rather it is what you want it to be. Life has no inherent quality whatsoever just like the clouds and rain in the example above.
So, what IS Karma?
It is very easy to define the word Karma as an ‘act’ or ‘action’, but the concept is far deeper and infinitely nuanced than that simple definition. Let’s start by examining what you call your ‘life’ which is nothing more than a finite stretch of energy (birth to death), controlled by a certain amount of information that has been accumulated since birth. These two elements together form a sort of software platform that runs you and can be looked upon as a Me Operating System (MeOS). From the moment you are born till this moment, this MeOS is continuously being modified and determining who you are right now. Every family member, friends, holiday, pets, food, and the myriad of things you experience in life, all are influencing you all the time. Every thought, emotion, or driver comes from this MeOS which determines your action, the result of which modifies the MeOS in a sort of forever perpetual feedback loop. The information that feeds this MeOS actually goes far beyond your time of birth via reincarnation and rebirth which we will example a bit later. But even leaving that aside, the fact you are ever changing, even in this lifetime, via the million modifications being made to the MeOS on a constant basis, is what is called Karma; that which causes life.
There are actually 4 types of Karma but for the context of this blog, we will look at two. The first is called Sanchita Karma which is the enormous store or warehouse of knowledge that goes back to the very beginnings of life. This is the information that determines body function, survival instincts, emotions, sense functions, and the near infinite bits of information needed for life to exist and function. Far more present is also all the impressions of your forefathers, the genetic memory of the sum of all bacteria and microbes that live within you and lived within your ancestors, in fact everything going back to the original single-celled organism we all evolved from. This near infinite amount of past memory controls almost everything we do and shatters the grand ideas we have about our self and person. In our teens we rebel against our parents but in our 40s we begin to speak, act, and even look like them. Does this mean we are hopelessly entangled with our past that we have no way out of this Karmic prison? Not at all…. entangled yes but not hopelessly so. In a later blog, I will explore ways we can lessen the burden of Karma or even begin to transcend it altogether. The second type of Karma that we care about is called Prabdha Karma. If Sanchita Karma is the warehouse of past lives, ancestors, etc., Prabdha is the retail shop that you have opened in this lifetime hoping to get rid of some stock from the warehouse. The amount allocated depends on the vibrance of your life and how much you can handle at one go. People suffer even what has happened 5 or 10 years ago so they would collapse if too much was allocated from the warehouse. This is why we have such a sheer amount of diversity of personality and drivers within the same family and even between twins. Each of us have a different level of vibrance and thus different amount of stock in our retail shops.
All of this makes it sound like Karma is something bad and a shackle around your life that must be resented. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, without Karma, none of us would be here in these bodies that were built with Karmic memory. The entire basis of your existence inside this physical body is only possible because of Karma. Karma is the power that gives you the basis of life and pulling it, like an electrical cord, means you will drop dead. What is bad about Karma is your unawareness and ignorance of what it is and how you can handle it. Continuing using the MeOS analogy, we can better understand what Karma is and how we set ourselves up to accomplish certain things in this lifetime. This is like a computer that has an operating system (OS) like Windows or Linux to run it and a whole lot of applications (Apps) like Word or Photoshop to get things done using the functions provided by that OS. Think of all things in this existence as having a basic OS that provides all the rules by which this entire reality exists. Things like gravity, energy, states of matter, magnetism, water, etc. and the infinite number of interactions that are possible between it all. Upon this OS are loaded Apps that perform functions based on what has been allocated for this lifetime in the form of Prabdha Karma. For example, a stone would have a very basic app that allows it to exist in a solid state and not do much else. Rules would apply such as if a force is applied to it, it would shatter or if it was heated, it would become molten. Animals and non-human creatures would have far more apps that govern what they can or cannot do. And at the ultimate level, humans would have a staggering number of apps possible and more importantly, the free will to add, modify, or delete apps. All the things in existence would also be loaded with tests or mandates we have come here to experience or perform. Those tests are analogous to Karma and something that cannot be uninstalled or modified, even by humans. As an aside, it IS possible to delete or altogether ignore these tests but that is only attainable by somebody that came here nearing enlightenment (Jesus as an example) or made a staggering leap higher to transcend Karma (Gautama the Buddha). But those concepts are far outside the scope of this blog or even my ability to comprehend just yet. Trying to avoid the tests also does not make them go away, and in some sense, actually can accelerate accumulation of even more tests. Being so focused on not encountering something, like an illness or job problem for example, amplifies your intent and thoughts around the very thing you are trying to avoid. This creates more Karma and worse, does not solve the one you had to begin with. The only things we can do is to complete the tests (regardless of pass or fail), ignore the test (have to do it next go around), or unentangle yourself from the test (transcend it). The last one is the most interesting and all of these will be explored later on.
There is one further and very important dimension to our actions that is the very foundation of Karma and really the only thing that matters in terms of accumulation. And that is the intent behind your action which is termed volition or cetanā in Buddhism. It is defined as ‘the faculty or power of using one's will’ and is the why behind any action, physical or mental, that you do. And volition is the single deterministic component behind whether a Karmic act is positive, negative, or indifferent. Note that this is not the same as some good or bad based on moralistic bounds or religious mandates. All the Karma that has been accumulated in the past or is generated in the present is ALL based on volition. So while Karma means action, it is the volition behind the action that causes accumulation and thus is the basis of Karma. People assume performing acts of charity or contributing to good causes creates positive Karma but it is more nuanced than that. If the action is performed for and with the expectation of positive Karma, the opposite happens. Your intention makes all the difference. If you say something out of love but somebody is hurt by it, that is their Karma, not yours. But if you say something out of hatred or anger and the other person does not get offended by it, that is your negative Karma and their positive. The accumulation of Karma is solely determined by your intention, not by its impact externally. Let’s look at examples to try to illustrate this.
Two friends love football (the real one, not the American handball), beer, and going to church on Sunday. On this Sun, the match is on during Sunday service. As both are walking towards Church, Sam decides he’s going to pop into the local pub and watch the match while Bill, overcome with guilt, decides to carry on to church. During service, his mind keeps thinking about Sam watching the match and drinking pints of beer. He begins to get jealous of the good time Sam must be having. Sam is also thinking about Bill, but in admiration of the strength his friend has in going to church regardless of the match. Who accumulates more negative Karma? The answer is a paradox because it is Bill, the one who gave up the match and beer to go to church. Why? Because Karma denotes action of the body, mind, and energy, it’s not only about action but also intent. Bill went to church feeling guilty but really wanted to be at the pub with Sam. In doing so, he made a choice based on reward of going to church and hence accumulated more Karma than Sam who just made a choice with no expectation or guilt. This example also illuminates another mistake which most people make which is to assume Karma is only based on external action. Many think that doing acts of charity will get them good Karma but it is more subtle than that. Karma is all about volition and not the action itself.
To provide another example, imagine Sal stole your girlfriend and you hate him for it. You; (1) confront him and in the heat of arguing, you shoot him dead, (2) invite him over for dinner, have a nice evening and after a few drinks, shoot him dead, (3) plan for weeks on when and where you can kill him with the most pain to him and then you get it done, (4) you are normal outwardly to Sal but internally you plot a thousand ways to kill him. It is not difficult to guess which one would be the worst of the four options in terms of Karma. The word worst here is not meant in the context of morality but rather the amount of bitterness and hatred that went into it thus creating the most suffering for you. It is this level of suffering in plotting and anger the associated anger that is negatively impacting and modifying MeOS.
You are a good person and generally lead a life where you are nice to others, help the sick, give to charity, etc. You are a happy person and love your whiskey, whether its sipping after dinner or sampling many with your close friends. Later in life, you develop liver cancer and must live on a bland diet with zero alcohol. You and friends lament why God would let something like this happen to a nice person. But your own action (Karma) of drinking produced a consequence that was tied to the action and one you were warned about. There is no God involved in this transaction.
Finally, murder is universally regarded by religion and law as a terrible thing and is punished by death in many places. But somebody murdered Hitler, so should they be punished by man or the divine? The answer, of course, is no because that person’s intent was the betterment of humanity by stopping somebody who had murdered so many and brought suffering to millions of others.
It is interesting to note that legal systems in most of the world take intention into account when determining the punishment. For example, pre-meditated murder carries a far more significant penalty (death in some cases) versus an involuntary killing. But it is very important to realize the Karmic consequence or accumulation is not a punishment but rather the MeOS adapting to the Karma you are constantly creating. In that sense, the play of your life is happening based on your action and tendencies and not according to some system of right and wrong and definitely not because somebody up there has determined it so. You and you alone are responsible for the play of your life and the MeOS simply organizes itself to fulfill your inclinations and desires.
The Karmic Lab
An analogy that I learned from my dad is very interesting in its concept and implications. It is a different and perhaps more practical way of looking at Prabdha Karma and why we are here. That being looking at this existence as a lab and that we have come here to perform certain experiments for our own growth. This, like most things spiritual, is predicated on the fact that we are all spiritual beings and part of the same energy fabric of the cosmos but have been allowed to have an individual experience in a physical form. In the spiritual or energy state, we have utter clarity to how it all works, why, etc. but are unable to have experiences to further our growth towards Karmic dissolution (i.e enlightenment). Say for example we want to experience what it is like to be cheated on or even stabbed, or be poor, or be slaughtered after being in a cage… none of these can be experienced in the pure energy state of spiritual existence. So, a gross, material reality is created where we can setup such experiences as experiments to learn and evolve from. In the first example, the goal would be to experience the pain of being cheated on but manage to come out of it, ideally with love and no negative (or positive) entanglement. In another example, as a millionaire, you had a strong desire to see what it is like to suffer for a single meal or living in abject conditions. This was to see if you could still maintain love and happiness in that condition as you were miserable (depression, anxiety, etc.) as a rich person. Further, to help accomplish these experiences, you make an agreement with other spiritual beings to play the role of the murderer, lover, friend, boss, etc. Thinking about this concept really helped me connect many of the dots between why almost everybody who has a near-death experience says that they realized it is ALL connected. In Anita Moorjani’s excellent book ‘Dying to be Me’, she states that after she came back from being clinically dead, she realized everything and everyone is connected and that even the worst rapist and murderer has a place in this existence. This is also why I believe the yogis and even Elon Musk when they say this entire existence is just an illusion (Maya as described in Hinduism) and that all the world is indeed just a stage. I recently connected yet another dot on how this illusion of an existence is possible but that is a story for another blog 😊 Coming back to Karma, in this existence, it really does not matter what you do (being happy, murdering, doing charitable work, greed, etc.) but the why, your volition, is everything that does matter. If you murder somebody truly believing you are doing it as a good act (Hitler for example), I really don’t think there is much Karmic accumulation. If this existence is truly a lab, the only person that really gets hurt or benefits is you, ultimately. Finally, I have also come to slowly realize that heaven and hell are right inside us and we can suffer or be joyous without having an entity with a pointed tail and horns poking at us. In fact, we can self-manufacture far, far more suffering (and Karma) by ourselves without a single other entity being involved.
So, what determines volition? Why are some people naturally loving while others seem miserable all the time? The answer here lies in a word that deserves a separate discussion on its own which is the self. It is the fundamental belief that you are an individual, a being that is separate from all else. It is this identification with individuality that determines your volition. Identification with these narrow notions of individuality that makes you engage with the world selectively rather than inclusively. The endless oscillations between like and dislike or craving and aversion, further hardens this sense of separateness and freezes into a personality that generates more Karma for retail and the warehouse. As pointed out by many enlightened beings, these oscillations within individuality also create desire, which is what is really the source of our imprisonment with Karma. But it is a not a prison of an external making but rather one where we are making the choice by generating Karma, and then coming here to get rid of it. We come willingly and joyfully and this is also why I am convinced no enlightened being can change our path here. Jesus could have very easily eliminated the suffering for all his followers but did not. Gautama the Buddha also had the power to relieve people of suffering, but he did not. Why? It is because if they had done so, all the tests you created for yourself would have been invalidated guaranteeing a return ticket to do it all over again. What they did do is to offer humanity the ultimate gift of a path out of being bound to the Karmic wheel, Jesus via universal love and Buddha via Equanimity. This is also why I think there is an in-built aversion to killing oneself because doing so invalidates all the tests and accomplishments to that point in life. I don’t think there is some divine penalty to suicide more than your own suffering generated by the fact you have essentially wasted an incarnation by invalidating it. I think they also know we are all part of the same whole but are having this individual experience to learn. Think of Karma as a bubble you have erected around yourself and continue to reinforce it. When you finally prick this wall and burst the bubble, you become part of the whole again as you always were. Just like what is inside the bubble was never really separate from what was outside, so too are you not separate from the whole.
As you can tell by now, reincarnation sort of goes hand-in-hand with Karma as the latter mandates it to burn up the warehouse stock of Karma. I try not to go too much into religious beliefs but in this case, there is no way around it. Even if you don’t believe in reincarnation, you can see why it is a prerequisite for Karma. As stated beautifully by Sri Paramahansa Yogananda in his ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’, “The Karmic law requires that every human wish find ultimate fulfillment. Desire is thus the chain which binds man to the reincarnation wheel.” It is our own actions and desires that create ever more Karma that requires us to keep coming back to this gross material reality. But again, this is not some punishment but rather our own desires finding expression and thus being fulfilled. We choose to come here for our own experience and growth so that our spiritual form vibrates ever higher towards the ultimate union with God or creation itself. Hence, its takes many, many lifetimes to burn through all the stored Karma and reach enlightenment. As stated before, that word does not mean some grand achievement but more that you have found a way to not accumulate more Karma and have dissolved, completed, or transcended all your stored Karma. That path is available to all, and it is inevitable everything and everyone will reach enlightenment. Going back to the MeOS analogy, it is like buying a new computer that comes with the latest OS and preloaded Apps. Except in this case, you get a new form with the same base MeOS but the loaded Apps are your allocated Karma for this lifetime. Just like you move apps and documents from your old computer to this new one, same with Karma. You cannot uninstall them, modify them, or otherwise avoid them as they are running in the background all the time. But you can complete what they mandate, thus causing them to end. You can also transcend them via letting go and that also causes the app to finish. But, if you do manage not to do either in a lifetime, it just goes back to the warehouse where you will have to again bring it back to the retail store in another lifetime. A bit later, in a separate blog, we will explore in more detail ways to lessen or transcend Karma.
Quantum mechanics and Karma
A field that fascinates and intrigues me almost as much as Karma is Quantum Mechanics. What I have read and understand so far is stunning in its implication which is that of a scientific explanation for spiritual elements. Just one example is how quantum explains the Hindu concept of Maya which is that all this existence is an illusion and created (and destroyed) on demand via virtual particles and obeservation. I will be writing a lot about quantum but within the context of Karma, it is quantum entanglement that is most relevant. Entanglement, at its most basic level, simply states that when two particles are entangled with each other, what happens to one affects the other irrelevant of where they are in the time/space continuum. Here is a video that provides a simple explanation of what it is. An often-cited example is that of and electron and proton where the spin state of one particle (+ or -) affects the spin state of the other. Even when they are separate in time/space as was done at CERN, changing the spin of one particle causes the other to spin in the opposite manner thus maintaining +/- balance. In Karma, every interaction we have creates some level of entanglement. While craving an ice cream on a hot day is easily fulfilled, things like kids and lovers create deep and lasting entanglements which in turn creates massive quantities of Karma. The attachment one has to their kids is perhaps the most significant, both in terms of entanglement and generation of Karma. Kahlil Gibran’s beautiful quote on children, “They come through you but not from you”, illustrates why we should not get attached to even our children. Both quantum and Karma agree that any action enacted by us has a corresponding energy response in creation and can create entanglement. Thus, the less entanglements we have or create in this lifetime the better of we are in terms of being at ease with our Karmic load. If we can identify and actively unentangle ourselves from the things we have attached to, that is lessening of the load and also reduces further accumulation of Karma. In my experience so far, the easiest things to unentangle with is objects and desires such as wanting a new house or a holiday in an exotic location. While it is still great to enjoy these, the key is not to become attached or entangled with each via craving or aversion. On a recent trip to Italy, I realized as I was packing that I was no longer craving the trip as I used to in the past. Yes, I was looking forward to it and it would be fun, but if for some reason it was canceled, my inner happiness would not change much, if at all. That is because I have slowly become happy inside myself and able to (slowly) treat external events with equanimity. And that is one of the keys to Karmic entanglement and reduction. To just look at something for what it is and now what you wish it to be is a big step towards inner bliss and un-entanglement.
Of all the spiritual and philosophical paths I have explored so far, none has fascinated and intrigued me more than Karma. I was exposed to it very early on in life as it is an integral part of Hinduism and spoken about quite freely. But it is not till recently that I have started to grasp the sheer enormity of it and the profound implications it has in answering all the questions about life I have grappled with since I was born. Karma, to me, is the single thread that can unravel the mysteries of this existence and provide the first steppingstone towards liberation. From the most profound question of ‘why am I here’ and ‘what is the meaning of life’ to ‘why was that 12 year old girl murdered’ and ‘why does the cruelest of men have the best of fortunes’, all have an answer in Karma. It not only makes sense to me at the intellectual level, but is also evidenced at the existential level time and again. After this awakening of sorts, I have been able to observe clear and present Karmic drivers in my own life and start the process to address them. Whether the means is via fulfillment of a desire or transcendence of one, each step forward begins to ease the burden just a little. In the short time I have started doing this, I have seen a slow permeation of ease into all aspects of my life. Many things that I used to bother me, cause me to think, or otherwise become entangled in some manner no longer do so. I am able to look at it, experience it fully even, but there is little or no entanglement left at the end. I also now feel a base sense of happiness no matter where I am or what I am doing. My sense of craving and aversion have both become noticeably muted which feeds the default state of happiness. My hope is if I can continue to make this a way of living my life all the time, I will not only accumulate less Karma but live life with ease and joy.
Karma is not something to be feared or even looked at with disdain. It is just something you need to understand and embrace which will allow you to awaken and live with joy and exuberance. In my next blog, I will explore ways in which you can lessen the Karmic burden and even able to transcend and evolve beyond it. Done properly, I am convinced that the life experience itself will be forever enhanced and you can truly live life as we were meant to… with utter joy and consciousness. Until next time…