The first 150-200 words may seem a bit heavy! But they had to be written so that what follows next could be appreciated by one and all. Hold on till the beginning ‘introductions’ and ‘definitions’ are done and I promise that you will get a lot of food for thought!
What is Karma Yoga?
The definition of Karma Yoga is pretty straightforward. It is understood as the ‘discipline of action’. It refers to achieving the ultimate goal of human life through the path of action. So, now arises the question as to what is the ultimate goal of human life? According to Sanathana Dharma (loosely translated as ‘the eternal law of righteousness’), the ultimate goal is the realization of the Truth. And what is this Truth?
The Truth is that all beings are part of the same ‘Being’. Just like there are hundreds of varieties of cells which constitute a single body (of an animal, bird or human), the hundreds of varieties of beings constitute a single ‘Cosmic Being’. This ‘Cosmic Being’ is termed as God, Consciousness, Energy, Spirit, Atma. Realizing this Truth that “I am a part of the cosmic whole” and living accordingly is the ultimate goal of life. In spiritual terms, this is called realization, moksha or freedom (from false identities that we have about ourselves). And achieving this realization through the path of action is Karma Yoga! This means that one ensures that every action one does benefits this cosmic whole and not just the 'individual'. This is akin to saying that the part of the body - hand, leg or eye for example - works for the benefit of the whole body and not just for itself.
What is Karma?
There are complete theses on what is Karma, how many kinds are there and how it affects beings. The endeavor of this article is not to go into those details. I just wish to share a few aspects of Karma which Bhagawan Baba mentions which will surely help us accept life better. Knowing these aspects helps us understand answers to some common questions like
“Why does bad happen to good people (and vice versa)?”
“What should I do when something unexpected, bad or/and evil is happening to me?”
“Why should I not rejoice in another's pain, even if it is of my enemy?”
Being born a Hindu and having had the great good fortune of spending years in the physical presence of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the concept of Karma came very naturally to me. It was as natural to me as Newton’s third law is for anyone who has passed high school -
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
From what we read from history, Sir Issac Newton was not just a scientist but a true seeker and a spiritualist. It is no surprise therefore that he worded his ‘scientific’ law in such philosophical words.Those words, according to me, are exactly the words of the law of Karma.
For those that are absolutely new to the term in this perspective, Karma is the fruit of the sum total of all actions one has done in the past and is doing in the present. It is the ‘reaction’ to ‘action’ done or being done. And the ‘past’ could refer to several lifetimes before the present according to what Bhagawan has said. Though Newton’s third law describe the law of Karma, it does not describe it in its entirety. There are subtle aspects of the law of Karma which Bhagawan Baba has explained so lucidly and in detail.
With that introduction, it is time to look into some of these ‘very interesting’ aspects.
The 4 aspects of Karma
1. As you sow, so shall you reap
This is very easy to understand. Swami says that if one sows a lemon seed, one cannot expect a mango tree from the act. He explains the same variously. He narrates the story of a shepherd boy who runs to his mother telling that there is an abusive demon in the hills who always speaks harshly to him. The mother then teaches him the concept of an echo and advises him to send out positive and love-filled words. The shepherd boy learns and is delighted. It is the same concept in the example of the mirror used while explaining the greatest secret in life.
So, that, I feel, is one important aspect of Karma - one always reaps what one sows. This is the point at which a dozen questions pop up in mind. And Swami knows that! That is why He explains another subtle yet profound aspect.
2. Different reactions occur in different time-frames
Swami explains this through a very simple example. He says that when a thorn pricks the foot, the hand immediately rushes to pluck the thorn out of the foot. The reaction is almost instantaneous. When one eats food, digestion happens in hours and energy is released for functioning. The reaction takes some time here. But when a seed is sown, it takes years for the tree to bear fruits. The reaction in this case takes a lot of time.
That is another important aspect of Karma. Though one always reaps what one sows, the time-frames for the different reactions vary and are very complicated to understand. The next aspect is the most beautiful one. It answers many questions and is a derivative of this second aspect.
3. Action and reaction are a definite combo, but they can get vastly separated in time
As the previous point showed, reaction times can greatly vary. Now suppose, one performs an action A for which there is a reaction A*. This A* may be delayed by 3 months say. Suppose in 3 months time one performs action B and then, since the 3 months are up, he/she receives A*. The person now makes the grave mistake of assuming that A* is the reaction to B! That brings on confusion.
So, a thief commits a robbery and obtains a getaway car to make an escape. Immediately, we say, “He did evil and was rewarded with a getaway car”. The mistake here is in assuming that the getaway car was the reaction for his robbery. NO! The robbery is B here while the getaway car is A*. In a similar manner, we can understand a good act receiving an apparently bad reaction. Thus, though action-reaction is a combo, they are often separated in time.
Now, does that not make it clear why a good person seems to get punished while a bad person seems to get rewarded? It also inspires us that irrespective of what happens to us, good or bad, we must only do good. We do not know what we have sown in the past but we can at least ensure that we sow only good seeds for the future!
4. There is no escape from action/reaction
Bhagawan Baba has reiterated what Lord Krishna says in the Bhagvad Gita that action is inevitable. Every moment of our lives we are performing action. The only time we cease to perform action is when we die! This in turn means that every moment of our lives, we are constantly generating reactions, good and bad, which we have to experience in the future or in future lives.
This makes it appear as though we are caught perpetually in this action-reaction cycle. How do we break out of it?
Breaking out of the action-reaction cycle
The underlying logic to break free from the so called clutches of Karma is expounded beautifully by Baba in HI discourses:
Karma as such has no capacity to bind; it is the conceit, 'I am the doer' that brings about the attachment and the bondage. Again, it is the desire for the fruit of action that produces the bondage. For example: the zero gets value only when in association with a digit. Karma is zero; the feeling of 'doership' when associated with Karma breeds bondage. So give up the sense of ‘I’ and the Karma that you do will never harm you.
Bhagawan Baba presents us with Karma Yoga as the solution to break out of this cycle. He defines four types of action or Karmas. And they are present as a hierarchy.
a. Action for action sake - Sadly, most of us are stuck in this. We do our work at our workplace because we need the money. Or we work at home because we have no other choice. We do not enjoy it and therefore errors, mistakes, carelessness and callousness creep in. No explanation is needed to say that this kind of action is not desirable.
b. Action done with dexterity - (Yogaha Karmasu Kaushalam) Here, the person involved in action seeks to do it with dexterity and finesse. He/she seeks the rewards of doing a job well - a raise in salary, appreciation from peers and superiors, better career growth etc. Though this is a better form of action, it suffers from a major disadvantage. Since it is based on expectations, when things don’t go the expected way, there is disappointment, frustration and anger.
c. Action done with dexterity without expectation - (Karma Phala Tyaga) In this kind of action, the person involved performs to his/her best for being the best. There is no expectation of any kind of reward from others. Satisfaction is taken as a reward. Swami says that though this form of action is higher than the previous two, there is the danger of one losing motivation. It leads to questions like, “Why am I doing this? The whole world thinks of me as foolish. What am I gaining ultimately?”
d. Pure action - (Pavitra Karma) According to Baba, this is the highest form of action- that which constitutes Karma Yoga. Every action is done to please God/Atma/the Spirit. One puts in his/her best and gets the reward that the Lord is pleased. Thus, all actions are done not only selflessly without any expectation of any reward, but are also dedicated to God as an offering unto Him. And this dedication is to the Lord who is the indweller of all beings.
And here comes the beauty of engaging in this kind of action or Pavitra Karma. Swami says that once all actions are dedicated to the Lord, in love for Him, God accepts the fruits of the actions along with the actions. Thus, one is able to break free from the chains of action-reaction.
Well, how much ever is written about Karma, learning happens only in an experiential manner. Hundreds of doubts may still arise. But if we are sincere and wish to enjoy the benefits of such Karma Yoga, let us dive into pure action - action with love, truth and understanding - and dedicate it to our dear Lord! Let our expectation be only to bring a smile on His face. That will happen and that smile will ensure that the smile on our face is never erased.
And that, one only has to experience! I speak with the deepest conviction based on my experience.
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Saipriya on August 23, 2018:
Sai Ram Brother,
This post answered my question about Karma.
The question I always wondered on has been answered.
Vinee kachroo on April 07, 2018:
Om Sai Ram
Rajinee.S on February 14, 2018:
Thank you. Aum Sai Ram.
Kishore Raviprolu on January 13, 2018:
Thanks for this wonderful article on Karma Yoga!! really inspiring.........
Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on June 09, 2013:
@Manjula Prasad - Thank you so much. I am overwhelmed and feel that God is showering love and affection on me through you.
Manjula Prasad London on June 08, 2013:
Swami's beloved and very special son you are. When I come there, I would like to meet you, and hug you. I may be old enough to be your grandma, but through you , Swami is teaching me, and I find it easier to walk the steep and narrow path . God bless my son.
Kokila Vaidyanathan on June 07, 2013:
This is beautiful....such lovely analogies...it reminded me of our study circle which we did on Karma theory for about 7 years...and we could have continued for many years...ultimately we agreed that let's just to the action that pleases HIM....and leave everything to Him coz He knows the past present and future...Sairam
Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on June 06, 2013:
@ Sudha - PERRRRRFECT!!! Thank you. That is a real gem you have extracted and presented here. I have incorporated the same into the article as well. :)
Sudha on October 16, 2012:
Karma as such has no capacity to bind; it is the conceit, 'I am the doer' that brings about the attachment and the bondage. Again, it is the desire for the fruit of action that produces the bondage. For example: the zero gets value only when in association with a digit. Karma is zero; the feeling of 'doership' when associated with Karma breeds bondage. So give up the sense of ‘I’ and the Karma that you do will never harm you. Karma done without any desire for the fruits thereof will not produce impulses; that is to say, there will be no impulse for birth even. The spiritual aspirants of the past, performed Karma with this high ideal in view. They never felt that they were the ‘doers’ or ‘enjoyers of the fruits’ of any act. The Lord did, the Lord gave the fruit and the Lord enjoyed the fruit - that was their conviction! You too should cultivate that faith.
subrahmanyam on October 13, 2012:
Thank you very much, Aravind. Now I understand fully. We mistakenly associated the getaway car as B*, not realizing that B* has not yet happened.
Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on October 12, 2012:
@ Subrahmanyam -
very correct what you have said. My example was in a different time-frame. I meant to say that some good done in the past got the thief the getaway car. So, robbery was B and A* was getaway car, the result of some good action A in the past. B*, the reaction to the robbery is yet to happen.
subrahmanyam on October 12, 2012:
thanks so much. a very minor clarification, so I understand better your interpretation of the robber example
the time line is
A B A*
so robbery is A, B is the getaway car, A* is yet to occur, correct?
You say "The mistake here is in assuming that the getaway car was the reaction for his robbery. NO! The robbery is B here while the getaway car is A*."
should the robbery not be A? or am i missing something?
An Impressed Reader on October 11, 2012:
Thanks for the enlightening answer! Swami's examples are too good ..
Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on October 10, 2012:
@Charles Hilton - Thank you so much for your kind and appreciative comment. Karma has been on my mind for a long time and thus the soul-searching. :)
@saisarannaga - I agree with you on that! :)
@tpudayashankar - Please share it with all. Thank you lots.
@Madhavi Alapaty - Am so happy that this hub could be of use to teach children as well... Felt very happy reading what you wrote...
Madhavi Alapaty on October 10, 2012:
Very Inspiring article on Karma. thank you for posting !! I learned new information on law of karma. One day my daughter asked me a question about 'if i did something in my past life..why should they affect me in this life as i haven't done anything in this life'..i got my answer now how to explain it to her from your blog. God Bless You Aravind !
tpudayasankar on October 10, 2012:
Bro Arvind, this is an excellent piece of presentation put in a simple manner and impressive way. If I do not share this to others I would be committing a great mistake. Worth reading time and again. Sairam
Charles Hilton on October 10, 2012:
Excellent hub and very well written---and on a wonderful, very interesting and useful topic.
Voted way up!
saisarannaga on October 10, 2012:
The lifelike photo of Swami inspires which demonstrates "Yogaha Karmasu Kausalam". Sairam.
Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on October 10, 2012:
@ Sai Santosh - Thank you so much for that discourse excerpt. It is so simple and beautiful to follow.
@ An Impressed Reader - Swami says, "You take care of your Dharma/goodness and your Dharma/goodness will take care of you." He gives the example of a lamp in a dark hallway. That lamp is Dharma/goodness. If one holds it, irrespective of who is crashing against objects in the hallway, the 'holder' is kept safe.
In this context, we can say that if someone is taking advantage of our goodness, it is also our karma getting fulfilled. It is only proper that we generate no fresh karma by simply offering it to the Lord and leaving it at that. Then, the Lord will make us do the right thing without the attached emotion or passion.
That is my feeling. :)
And yes, thoughts definitely count as actions in a subtle plane and come with their own attached karmas!
An Impressed Reader on October 09, 2012:
And about thought being a form of action, what is the nature of consequences of the thoughts that we have ? One thing I have read about and realised through experience is that it acts like reflection and resound .. What we think invariably comes around to affect us .. Good or bad depending upon the nature of the thoughts that we entertained ..
Are there consequences to thoughts apart from that?
An Impressed Reader on October 09, 2012:
Good post brother..
I have a question .. Sometimes if we go on doing what is right irrespective of situations and nature of people around us, people tend to take advantage of that .. So should we not consider if the circumstances deserve our doing what is right? If someone is going to make use of my being good and doing right action all the time to his/her advantage and my disadvantage, should I not think twice before performing my actions? I need not do anything that is wrong but I would consider refraining from doing that right action which is only affecting my peace .. What do you have to say on this?
Sai Santosh on October 09, 2012:
Thank you brother for sharing your thoughts. Here is a beautiful quote of Swami on 'Pure Karma'
Everybody aspires for happiness. Where is happiness? Without working hard, you cannot get happiness. During ancient times, people would offer their salutations to action (karma) before undertaking it; they chanted thasmai namah karmane (salutations to action). In India, some people follow this sacred tradition even today. A dancer salutes the anklets before tying them to the feet. Even an uneducated driver offers his obeisance to the steering wheel before driving the vehicle and some cricketers too, pay their respects to the ball before starting to bowl. First and foremost, offer respects and express gratitude to karma before undertaking it. Make it a practice every day. It will then give good results. Understand your duty and perform it to the best of your abilities. Then, you will earn the deservedness to experience happiness.
- Divine Discourse, Apr 15, 2003.