Understanding Karma

Towards an Ethical Way of Life

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Most of us have heard the term karma, a Sanskrit word (कर्म) implying the interlinking of cause and effect. Karma signifies a moral caution and a stimulus to become responsible in life because when we cause harm to others by accident or even design, consequences will come back to us at some point.

The Dhammapada is one of the most sacred and best-loved of Buddhist texts. It points out the method of self-realization, by the way of moral conduct:

  • Like garlands woven from a heap of flowers, Fashion from your life as many good deeds.

The text further enlightens on the nature of the karmic fruit:

  • For while the fools mischief Tastes sweet, sweet as honey, but in the end it turns bitter and how bitterly he suffers!
  • Fresh milk takes time to sour, so a fool's mischief Takes time to catch up with him. Like the embers of a fire It smoulders within him.
  • A fool is happy Until his mischief turns against him.
  • A good man may suffer Until his goodness flowers.
  • As dirt thrown against the wind, mischief is blown back in the face of the fool who wrongs the pure and harmless.
  • Nowhere; not in the sky, nor in the midst of the sea, nor deep in the mountains, can you hide from your own mischief.
  • Never speak harsh words, for they will rebound upon you - Angry words hurt And the hurt rebounds.
  • But the fool in his mischief forgets lights the fire where-in one day he must burn.
  • He who harms the harmless or hurts the innocent; Ten times shall he fall Into torment or infirmity, Injury or disease or madness, Persecution or fearful accusation, Loss of family, loss of fortune.
  • Life is an Echo. What you send out comes back.
    Wilfully you have fed Your own mischief. Soon it will crush you as the diamond crushes stone.
  • As iron is corroded by rust Your own mischief will consume you.
  • If you kill, lie or steal, Commit adultery or drink, You dig up your own roots.
  • You are the source of all purity and impurity.
  • What you give to others Will be given back to you, And more.
  • For whatsoever you do, you do to yourself.

Here is what is known as the Golden Rule where Confucius argues that the central principle of ethics is not to do what you would not want to have done to yourself:

Tzu-kung asked, "Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all ones life?"
The Master said, "Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."

The Bible too guides us to right action:

"All things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

We are responsible for what we are; and whatever we wish ourselves to be we have the power to make ourselves. If what we are now has been the result of our own past actions, it certainly follows that whatever we wish to be in future can be produced by our present actions; so we have to know how to act. Why should we do good to the world? Apparently to help the world, but really to help ourselves.

According to the law of karma, the action one has done cannot be destroyed until it has borne its fruit; no power in nature can stop it from yielding its result. If I do an evil action, I must suffer from it. Similarly, if I do a good action, it is bound to bear good results. Can there be a higher motivation for an ethical existence on this planet?

Indeed, the law of karma is the best motivation we can have for right thinking, right action and right living. Karma however, is not god's code of punishment. It is not passive or defeatist. Rather, it puts men and women at the centre of responsibility for all that they do and all that is done to them. Thus is it rightly said:

  • Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
  • Watch your words, for they become actions.
  • Watch your actions, for they become habits.
  • Watch your habits, for they become character.
  • Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Natures dispensation is simple. Each of us has been given a field of life. We are free to sow whatever we want in this field, which is our karma-kshetra. In other words, we must eat the fruits of our own harvest. This is identical with the biblical idea that "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." ~ (Galatians 6:7)

Many of us usually equate karma with evil and sin. This is probably because we become aware of karma only when we are hard-pressed with difficulties, taking for granted all good things in our lives. The fact however remains that: "Men are not punished for their sins, but by them." (Elbert Hubbard)

Understanding karma is getting to know the knowledge of the secret of work. We see that the whole universe is working and is perpetually in a state of dynamic flux. Why? Because it is the only way in which we can justify our existence and residence on this earth, and go on actively creating and fashioning our lives.

According to Vivekananda: "The world is a grand moral gymnasium wherein we have all to take exercise so as to become stronger and stronger spiritually."

Put in the immortal words of Kahlil Gibran:

"You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life's procession that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite."
"Trickery succeeds sometimes, but it always commits suicide."

While the idea of karma is an admonishment to do good or at least do no harm, being focused on what one should not do instead of what one should be doing as a healthier approach to life.

Rather than focus on the negative, can we focus on the positive and get to know life in all its richness and diversity. The only way to do this is to know one's self and to know one's self as a piece or a part of life and then to celebrate life. In celebration it is very difficult to do any harm because knowing life creates happiness and joy that is independent of any external phenomena and a freedom from creating negative karma.


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