Karma: Cause or Consequence? - Part 1

by M. Govindan Satchidananda

The term Karma brings to mind notions of law and justice, reward and punishment, as well as judgment and fate. In the Christian and Judaic context it seems to include the concept of sin and punishment. As such, it is not something we care to dwell upon; but rather dread. Because it is related to such difficult concepts, we generally prefer to avoid thinking about it; too often our attitude is "I don't understand it," or "it is dfficult to understand." If we do think about "karma" it raises so many unanswered questions, including:

  1. What types of karma are there?
  2. Why do bad things happen to good people?
  3. Is my life determined by fate or by my free will?
  4. What is grace? What does it have to do with karma? How to obtain it?

Before attempting to answer these question, however, let us attempt to define karma. A simple definition is that karma is a law or principle of nature which requires that every action, word or thought has an effect or consequence; or that every action has a reaction; or with regards to our human incarnation, it is the power which by its continuity and development as a subjective and objective force, determines the nature and eventuality of the soul's repeated existences. So karma is cause and consequence. In short, karma is the action and consequence of the mind, speech and body.

Question number 1: What types of karma are there? Is there Good Karma? Bad Karma?

In Yoga-Sutra II.12, Patanjali refers to types of karma: "The reservoir of karma rooted in the afflictions is experienced in seen (present) and unseen (future) existence."

Because of the existence of the afflictions (klesah) of ignorance (avidyà), egoism (asmità), attachment (ràga) aversion (dvesa) and the clinging to life (abhinivesah) we accumulate and express karmas. There are three types of karma:

  1. pràrabdha karma: those presently being expressed and exhausted through this birth;
  2. àgama karma: new karmas being created during this birth;
  3. sanjita karma: those waiting to be fulfilled in future births;

The receptacle for all the karmas is known as the karma-àsaya, "the reservoir, or womb, of karma" or "action-deposit."

The karmas wait for an opportunity to come to the surface and to express themselves through the klesah. One strong karma may call for a particular birth and body to express itself, and other closely related karmas will also be expressed or exhausted through it. This goes on until one attains Self-realization and ceases to create new karmas.

We need to understand that we are simply living out our karmic destiny. Time is karma, the sages say. We have our own karmic map. We also need to understand that each person has his own karma and acts according to it. We wonder why someone acts a certain way, or lives a certain way. He is wondering the same about us. Each of us is programmed with a certain nature. Our opinions of what is perfection come from what we were taught and how well we have learned our lessons. The circumstances of our life occur because of our karma. But we have free will as to how we will deal with these, positively or negatively. If we choose to deal with these negatively, for example, in creating suffering for others, the reactions return to us in more intense or terrible forms. Dealing with circumstances patiently, creating happiness for others, neutralizes the karmic consequences gradually.


  1. Record the major lines of your karmic map. What have been your life's major desires? What have you been most attached to? What have been your life's major events? Turning point? Lessons?
  2. Reflect on this statement: "To break free of karma we must realize that we have already attained what we are seeking."

Good and Bad karma?

In Yoga-Sutra II.14, Patanjali tells us: "Because of virtuous and non-virtuous karma, there are [corresponding] pleasurable and painful consequences."

If we bring happiness (hlàda) to others we gain pleasure; if we bring suffering (paritàpa) to others we will reap pain for ourselves. If we allow true happiness for ourselves, we automatically make others who are near us happier -- whether or not they know that initially. Our habits, or subconscious impressions (samskàras), largely determine our actions. Therefore the quality of our birth (jàti), lifespan (ayuh) and life experience (bhogaþ) is determined by our subconscious impressions (samskàras). Therefore we should cultivate thoughts, words and deeds, which will be edifying to ourselves, and to others.


  1. Cultivate thoughts, words and deeds, which will be edifying for yourself and others, but first listen to and reflect on your innermost guidance, and avoid egoistic reactions.
  2. Record situations when you have consciously made an effort to say or do something you knew would bring joy to others. How did you feel as a result.
  3. Record situations when you have avoided saying or doing something you knew would harm others. When you failed to avoid them? How did you feel afterwards?

Question number 2: Why do bad things happen to good people?

When accidents, acts of aggression, natural disasters, unexpected losses occur, causing sufferiing or death to persons who appear to be completely innocent, or who have lived virtuous lives, we may well wonder "Why do bad things happen to good people?" The cause may be either: fate, that is prarabdha karma or sanjita karma,, the consequences of acts performed in this life. When the bad things are really terrible, usually it is the former: inescapable fate, the consequence of past life actions. Because a good person in this life generally does not commit acts which would result in terrible consequences. Small errors of judgment or mistakes in words or actions do of course, bring consequences, often immediately. But the above question is usually in response to tragic events which occur to the innocent. Their previous lives prarabdha karma is bearing consequences in this life. The suffering inherent in tragic events is mitigated to the extent that one cultivates vairagya or detachment; if one can remember that "Who I truly am is unaffected, because I am the witness, not the body, not the mind, not the emotions, then such events may also provide one great lessons. Not only may we learn detachment when tragic events occur,, but we can also distinguish what is permanent from what is impermanent, what brings joy versus what brings suffering. Ultimately such events help us to distinguish the True Self from the body-mind personality. It is not that we suppress or consider as unreal the suffering which the mind, body or emotions may endure, but that we see it for what it is: a passing phenomena. By going into the suffering deeply and through it ultimately, we become liberated from it.

Jyotish, or Vedic astrology, may enable us to foresee prarabdha karma. While we cannot avoid such karmic events, we can mitigate their effects by preparing ourselves physically and mentally, as well as by avoiding those activities which may exacerbate the suffering. There are positive karmic events as well whose benefits may be amplified by preparation or decisiveness or timely action. A yogi however, does not seek astrological forecasts except in rare, significant situation which may involve others, for example, a marriage, or newborn baby's life preview. A yogi prefers to cultivate equanimity and willpower, come what may. Over reliance upon astrology makes one a slave to one's karma, through fear and 'self-fulfilling prophecy." The right use of will coupled with reflective insight and yogic discipline is generally a better use of one's energy and intelligence. One learns to master each situation as it comes. A yogi seeks to surrender to what may come, to purify himself of desires, preferences and fears, and so become a perfect instrument for the Lord. "Not my will but Thy will be done," allows "the jiva to become Shiva" ultimately, as Divine Grace descends in the form of Self-realization and other siddhis.


  1. Make a list of things you worry about? Afterwards, ask yourself why? Record what comes up for you? Then contemplate on the question: "Who worries?"

Question number 3: Is my life determined by fate or by my free will?

While fate and karma are related, they are not equivalent. Fate is those events which occur despite all of ones efforts to bring about an alternative result. It is prarabdha karma, the consequences of previous incarnation's actions, being realized in the present life.

Karma as we have see earlier is of several types, and includes a play between good and bad karma. One may mitigate bad karma, which has caused suffering to others by good karma, such as charitable acts, which brings joy to others. This mitigation may occur in the present life, for example, in the case of someone who makes amends for rude behavior to a friend, and so obtains their foregiveness. Knowing that all thoughts, words and actions bear consequences, therefore the wise avoid evil and seek only the good. In this way they accumulate a great positive balance of merit which may offset or at least weaken the effects of evil acts.. They speak only what is necessary and edifying for others. They recognize the great opportunities that exist in acts of charity and compassion. By acting selflessly they also purify themselves of egoism (anava). The deluded on theother hand, act from egoism, and seek advantage for themselves over others. In so doing they cause pain to others, and inevitable karmic consequences for themselves, either in the present or future incarnations. They also strengthen their own egoism, and sink further into delusion.

Fate is unavoidable karma, no matter how great is one's balance of positive karma. Whether it brings difficulty or pleasure, the way we respond to it with equanimity, remembering: "this too shall pass." The wise realize that fate provides to them another opportunity to "let go" of attachments, to remain equaniminous, and to center themselves in the awareness of the underlying satchidananda (Absolute being, Consciousness and Bliss.)

Free will is a delusion as long as one is a slave to the ego's fears and desires. Free will can be exercised only when one is aware and unattached to desires, and the dualities of life. By cultivating vairagya (detachment) one sees beyond liking and disliking, success and failure, loss and gain, pleasure and pain, to the Truth of things. Abiding in the awareness of the Truth, one can act "freely," no longer a slave to fear or desire. One can act powerfully as an loving instrument of the Divine. "Not my will but thy will be done," becomes the mantra of those whose will has become freed from egoistic, karmic and deluded tendencies. Otherwise, "free will" is a delusion, merely a servant of egoistic desires and preferences. "I prefer to have…" or "I prefer to do…"says the ego. "It does not matter.." and "I am love" says the soul. Kriya means "action with awareness," and its systematic practice enables one to bring awareness into all actions, in all five dimensions. It is a powerful antidote to karma: "action with reaction."


  1. Repeat these affirmations "Not my will, but thy will be done." Or "May Your will be done, and not mine," and "As you will, as you will.".
  2. When the unexpected occurs, before reacting, pause, and reflect. Let go of the emotional reaction.
  3. Look for opportunities to bring joy to others. Increase your merit of good karma. Avoid words, thoughts and actions which may bring suffering to others.

In a subsequent editorial we will explore related questions, including: "What is grace? What does it have to do with karma?" and "How can Kriya Yoga neutralize karma.?"

Karma: Cause or Consequence Part 2

Copyright: M. Govindan Satchidananda, March 2005


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