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Karma: Meaning and Definition

Article excerpt from Hinduism Today:

Karma: We Mold Our Lives Like a Potter Fashions a Pot

Karma has quite a karma. Long after India's seers immortalized it in the Vedas, it suffered bad press under European missionaries who belittled it as "fate" and "fatalism," and today finds itself again in the ascendancy as the subtle and all-encompassing principle which governs man's experiential universe in a way likened to gravity's governance over the physical plane. Like gravity, karma was always there in its fullest potency, even when people did not comprehend it.

The early seers who brought through the Vedas were practitioners, mystics and divine oracles who put into practice the knowledge of karma. To them, Karma -- from the root kri, "to do" -- was a power by which they could influence the Gods, nature, weather, harvests and enemies through right intent and rites righteously performed. Thus by their actions they could determine their destiny. Through the ages, other realized souls explained the workings of karma, revealing details of this cosmic law and, when the tradition of writing came into vogue, recording it for future generations. In this way they established karma as perhaps the fundamental principle of Hindu consciousness and culture then and now.

Primordial and unborn, karma is anadi, "beginningless." Its Rig Veda definitions are linked to the performance of the homa, the potent fire rite that temporarily opens a window between the three worlds -- physical, subtle and causal. With Sanskrit mantras, mudras and meditative powers, Vedic priests precipitated a flow of shakti from highly evolved souls, Mahadevas, residing in inner worlds, securing the blessings of the Gods, insuring happiness for the clan. Neglecting the rites or misperforming them made negative karma and invited calamity and loss of wealth.

Communities were tight knit, and the clan prospered or suffered collectively. When one person did transgress, elders suspected not so much an individual's willful intent to do malice as malperformance of the homa. The ritual was held responsible for sustaining a spiritual force-field strong enough to ward off demonic entities that torment, confuse and misguide weak individuals. Priests assumed primary responsibility for the well-being of the community.

Indologist Herman W. Hull, author of The Vedic Origins of Karma, writes: "In the context of Vedic ritual thought, good and bad apparently refer to a valuation of action based on ritual exactitude: good being equated with the correct performance of the rite, bad with the incorrect performance." Swami Vivekananda, who spoke and wrote on karma extensively, commented on this understanding of the law: "The Vedic doctrine of karma is the same as in Judaism and all other religions, that is to say, the purification of the mind through sacrifices and such other external means."

The Upanishads (circa 1500-600 bce), the philosophic treatises of the Vedas, show how karma relates to the individual and his or her actions -- with questions of morality, responsibility, reward and retribution. They clearly command the individual to be responsibly concerned about personal conduct and not expect the priesthood alone to secure and safeguard one's karma through the performance of sacred rites. As Sage Yajnavalkya says in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: "What becomes of this man? Indeed, one becomes good by good action and bad by bad action."

Karma in Mystical Vision

The yogis of the ancient Sankhya philosophical system offered a deeply mystical vision. They scrutinized karma to profound levels of magnification and stressed its bearing on the soul of man. What they saw was a plasmic jelly pulsating within the subtle bodies of each person. Embedded in this plasma, which persists from life to life, are the seeds of all past thought and action. In each lifetime, certain of these karmic seeds are released into the nerve system with coded impulsions and tendencies affecting present actions. The effects were most commonly understood to determine three spheres of life: a) jati, family and occupation; b) ayus, health and length of life; c) bhoga, quality and enjoyment of life.

Karma as a Cosmic Building Block

To the rishi seers, karma appeared with such fundamental force and substantive reality that they perceived it as one of the thirty-six primary evolutes of form, called tattvas, which range from Parashakti, pure consciousness, to prithivi tattva, earth. Karma is number eight, called niyati tattva, a spiritual-magnetic energy form. This identification of its magnetic quality is a crucial clue to understanding how karma "comes back," rather than just "goes out." Each karma, or action, generates a vibration, a distinct oscillation of force, a vasana, or subliminal inclination that continues to vibrate in the mind. These vasanas are magnetic conglomerates of subconscious impressions. Like attracts like. Acts of love attract loving acts, malice attracts malice. And each action, karma, continues to attract until demagnetized. This is accomplished through re-experiencing it, or resolving it with understanding -- rather than compounding it with reaction -- or through other subtler spiritual means and practices.

Karma Goes Global

"What goes around comes around," sings country Western singer Willie Nelson. His ballad about "getting back what you give out" dominated US and European radio waves for years and became the West's homespun Upanishad on the Hindu concept of karma. You can hardly watch TV today without a subtle lesson in this cosmic law of cause and effect. Everywhere, karma has squeezed through the white picket fences of non-Hindu religions and irrevocably attached itself to the global ethic emerging worldwide.

But karma has suffered a chronic association with the word fate. Fate is a Western idea, derived largely from the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It means, with wide variation, that one's life has been set by agencies outside oneself. Karma is exactly the opposite. "`It is the coward and the fool who says this is fate,' goes the Sanskrit proverb," said Swami Vivekananda. "But it is the strong man who stands up and says, `I will make my fate.'"

Karma Glossary

karmabhanda: The bonds of actions, i.e., being bound to rebirth.
karmadosha: Sinful work or vice, blunder; evil consequences.
karmadushta: Corrupt in action.
karmaja: Act-born; resulting or produced from an act, good or bad.
karmajiva: Livelihood earned by work, trade, profession.
karmakshaya: Annihilation of work.
karmakshetra: Place of religious acts.
karmanirhara: The removal of bad deeds or their effects.
karmanishtha: Diligent in performing religious actions.
karmapaka: Ripening of acts, matured results of acts of former births.
karmaphala: The fruit of actions.
karmarambha: The commencement of an act.
karmashaya: "Holder of karma." Describes body of the soul.
karmasamya: Equipoise of karma.
karmasiddhi: Successful action.
karmatyaga: Abandoning worldly duties and obligations.
karmavasha: The necessary influence or repercussion of actions.
karmavidhi: Rule of action; mode of conducting ceremonies.
karmayoga: "Union through action;" selfless religious service.
kriyamana karma: Actions being made. Karma being created.
papa: Wickedness, sin, crime. Wrongful action. Demerit from wrongdoing.
prayaschitta: Penance. "Predominant thought or aim; weighing heavily on the mind."
prarabdha karma: Actions set in motion. Sanchita karma released to bear fruit in one's current life.
punya: Holy, virtuous; auspicious. Meritorious action.
sanchita karma: The entirety of all karmas of this life and past lives.

Reference: A Sanskrit English Dictionary, Sir Monier Monier-Williams.

[KARMA is pronounced as "karmuh," the "uh" being subtle.]

For a deeper understanding on Karma, check Karma Yoga.