What Is Karma, Really?

The idea that karma is a moral justice system in which positive thoughts bring good things and negativity is curse is not accurate. Here's why it's important to understand the true meaning of karma.

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We’ve heard it a million times: “That’s karma!” and “What goes around comes around!” or my personal favorite, “Karma’s a bitch!” And while it has become a reliable belief system that good deeds, positive energy, and kind thoughts breed an easier, happier future, the idea that negativity means bad karma, a curse on our own lives, is a faulty one.

Karma is not a moral justice system. Karma is the Sanskrit word for action, and action is what rules our lives. The word karma is rooted Hinduism, but its understanding is derived from Buddhism (a branch of Hindu theology).

In Hinduism, it is largely believed that the soul, purusha, survives death and is reborn into a new body, inheriting  karma from a past life. Buddhism is different. Buddha taught a doctrine called anatman—the idea that there is no soul, no self. Instead, Buddhism focuses on the five skandhas, or aggregates) that explain the common experiences of sentient beings: form, sensation, perception, thought, and consciousness. These things are not the true “self”—they are how a personality is formed through interaction with the material world. Basically, the “self” isn’t permanent, which means that karma isn’t permanent.

See also: Seeing Eye to Eye: Comparing Yoga + Buddhist Traditions

What karma is—and isn’t

Often, we get stuck on translating karma into event-based theory—doing good deeds and having positive thoughts— rather than seeing the larger, philosophical foundation on which it was built.

Karma Yoga is Yoga by Action, and is clearly defined in the Bhagavad Gita by Lord Krishna: “Work alone is your privilege, never the fruits thereof. Never let the fruits of action be your motive; and never cease to work…Be not affected by success or failure. This equipoise is called Yoga.” (Bhagavad Gita)

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Karma Marga, The Path of Action, is understood as an active yogi’s realization through his/her own divinity through work and duty. (p 22, Light On Yoga, BKS Iyengar)

These definitions have been tainted by our Westernized culture built on guilt, shame, and hustle mentality. We cling to our work and our duty; in fact, we allow them to define our worth.

We see any mistakes we make as bad and faulty—then we label our own being as bad and faulty.

Karma in your everyday life

If karma is action, and the yogic path relies on karma, then our yoga is an active work in progress; a co-creator with the universe.

It is so easy to confuse karma as “I cut someone off in traffic two years ago, so that’s why this bad thing is now occurring,” when it’s really “my thoughts, feelings, and words fuel my actions, thus feeding the karmic cycle of life.”

Karma is action channeled by thought. If your friend walks around saying “I’m doomed,” she is not simply condemning herself, she is repeating a familiar, negative thought pattern that can wreak havoc on her present and future decisions.

It’s important to understand the root meaning of familiar Eastern principles like karma, so that we don’t perpetuate an unfounded belief system that victimizes our psyche and our souls. Karma doesn’t hand out rewards or punishments, it’s an energetic exchange that is created, powered, and contained by the Self.

So the next time you feel good about yourself, speak kindly, observe moments of self-judgement, give yourself another chance: that’s a karmic boost. When you feel badly about yourself or something you have done recently or in the past, use the mantra “next time, I will do better.” It’s not good vs. bad, it’s a constant work in progress on our journey through this life—that’s karma!

See also: I Began to Truly Live Yoga When I Quit Doing This One Thing

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