Confronted with the complexities of earth-bound life, man struggles for a Way-out. Wherever he turns, he finds his upward flight thwarted by unseen barriers. Why all the seeming inequalities in the world? Why is man's way blocked to his primal Home - the Home of his Heavenly Father? Why cannot man redeem his unknown past? Where should he turn for the saving Light of the "Pure Science of Being?" These queries lead the inquiring mind to an investigation of the universal law of action and reaction.
The term "Karma" frequently appears in various Indian philosophical and religious writings. Indeed, it has been so often bandied about by priests and preachers that many have come to consider it as an imaginary stumbling block in the path of spiritual salvation. Being a term foreign to the West, usually it is passed on without sufficient clarification. All the Masters of the lower reaches or grades of ascent, speak of liberation through performing action without attachment to and desire for the fruit or result thereof. This, however, is but a partial truth and half-way knowledge.
The mind is accustomed to taste the fruit of its actions. How will it give up this habit? Sadhans (i.e. mental and physical exercises) may be employed as instruments to discipline the mind to a certain extent. But in the long run, the mind's habit of enjoying its experiences will assert itself. The mind can give up worldly pleasures only when it gets some kind of higher pleasure.
The Saints have experienced a far more exquisite pleasure - ecstatic bliss - by contact with Naam (the Word of God or the Divine Sound Principle). Once absorbed in this Sound Current or Naam, the mind is drawn away from the world. The mind has the habit of running after worldly objects and of jumping from one thing to another. What we have to do, then, is not to stop its flux which is but its natural characteristic, but only to turn its direction from downwards into the world outside to upwards into the world within. This means harnessing the wandering wits and channelling the mental energy into a proper course as would ensure results that are of a lasting and permanent nature. This comes through regular practice or absorption in Naam. This is the only method by which the mind may gradually be trained and ultimately rendered innocuous with sublimation of the mental currents; the soul comes to its own and can proceed unencumbered and unhampered on its way to its original source: the Oversoul or the All-soul. Thus the Saints Who have Themselves trodden this Path - the Path of Surat Shabd Yoga (absorption in the Holy Word or the Sacred Sound) - can also not only enable us to free ourselves from the Karmic cycle of action and reaction but also provide us an access into the Kingdom of God which lies within.
Now the question arises: How can the Karmas be wound up or rendered ineffective? In the labyrinth of the laws of Nature, in which we are inextricably involved, there is an outlet provided for those who are really in search of Self-knowledge and God-knowledge. The access to this outlet or the Way-out of the dense jungle of Karmas spreading far back to immemorial past is made manifest by the saving grace of the True Master. Once He has taken us in His fold and contacted us with the eternal Holy Word or the Sound-Current, we are put out of the reach of Yama or the angel of death representing the negative aspect of the Supreme Power and the dispenser of justice in the universe, to each according to his actions.
Every act of a living being done knowingly or unknowingly, irrespective of whether it is yet in the stage of latency or thought form, a mental vibration, or is uttered by words of mouth or is actually done by a physical act, constitutes Karma.
Lest the reader get confused by the term "Karma," it is better to understand this word in its proper context. Originally, the word Karma stood for and represented sacrificial rites and rituals, and yajnas performed by individuals as prescribed by the sacred texts. Later on, however, it came to include all kinds of virtues, social and self-purifying, like truthfulness, purity, abstinence, continence, ahimsa, universal love, selfless service and all deeds of a charitable and philanthropic nature. In short, great stress was laid on the cultivation of Atam-gunas which tended to discipline the mind and divert the mental powers in the right direction, so as to serve the higher purpose of liberating atman or the spirit in bondage.
Karmas are generally classified as prohibited, permitted and prescribed. All Karmas that are degrading and derogatory in nature (Nashedh) are classed as prohibited because indulgence in vices is sinful and the wages of sin are death. These are termed Kukarmas or Vikarmas. Next come Karmas that are upgrading and help a person in attaining higher planes like Swarag, Baikunth, Bahisht or paradise. These are Sukama Karmas or Sukarmas, that is Karmas performed for fulfilment of one's benevolent desires and aspirations and as such are permissible and therefore permitted. Finally, we have Karmas the performance of which is considered obligatory as enjoined by the scriptures for persons belonging to different varns or social orders (Brahmans or the priestly class engaged in the study and teaching of scriptures, Kshatriyas or the warrior race consisting of fighting forces for purposes of defense, Vaishyas or the people engaged in commercial or agricultural pursuits, and Sudras or the people serving the foregoing three classes); and at different stages in one's life called Ashrams (Brahmcharya, Grehastha, Vanprastha and Sanyas corresponding roughly to the formative period of one's education, the stage of married family life as a house-holder, the ascetic stage of a recluse or a hermit engaged in deep meditation in the solitude of a forest and lastly the stage of a spiritual pilgrim giving to the people the fruit of his life-long experience, each portion being of 25 years computing the life-span to be of 100 years duration). These are called Netya Karmas or Karmas the performance of which is a "must" for each from day to day in his vocation and period of life.
As a code of moral conduct, the law of Karma, makes valuable contributions to man's material and moral well-being on earth and paves the way to a better life in the future. In all the four spheres of human life - secular, material or economic, religious, and spiritual, as denoted by the terms Kama (fulfilment of one's desires); Artha (economic and material well-being); Dharma (moral and religious basis upholding and supporting the Universe); and Moksha (salvation) - deeds or Karmas play a vital part. It is, of course, the moral purity that figures as a motivating force for attaining success in one's endeavours. In order that the Karmas bear the desired fruit, it is necessary that they be performed with single-minded and purposeful attention and loving devotion.
Besides these, there is yet another form of Karma - to wit, Nish-Kama Karma, that is, Karma performed without any attachment to, or desire for, the fruit thereof. This is superior to all the other forms of Karmas which more or less are the source of bondage, yet this type helps a little to liberate one from Karmic bondage but not from Karmic effect. It may, however, be noted that Karma per se has no binding effect whatsoever. It is only Karma born of desire or Kama that leads to bondage. This is why Moses taught "Desire not" and Buddha and the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, time and again, laid emphasis on the need for desirelessness. Karma thus is at once the means and the end of all human endeavours. It is through Karmas that one conquers Karmas and transcends Karmas. Any attempt to overstep the Law of Karma is as futile as to step over one's shadow. The highest of all is to be Neh-Karma or Karma-rehat, that is to say, doing Karma in accordance with the Divine plan, as a conscious co-worker with the power of God. This is being actionless in action like a still point in the ever-revolving wheel of life.
Again, the term "Karma" may be distinguished from the word Karam. "Karma" is a Sanskrit term meaning action or deed, including mental vibrations and words of mouth, while Karam is a Persian word meaning kindness, mercy, compassion or grace.
Now as to the nature of Karma: according to Jain philosophy, Karma is of the nature of matter, both physical and psychical, one related to the other as Cause and Effect. Matter in a subtle and psychical form pervades the entire cosmos. It penetrates the soul because of its interplay with the matter without. In this way, a jiva builds for itself a nest as does a bird, and gets fettered by what is called Karman-Srira or the subtle body and remains bound therein till the empirical self is depersonalized and becomes a pure soul irradiant with its native luminosity.
The Karman-Srira or the Karmic shell, enclosing the soul, consists of eight prakritis corresponding to the eight types of Karmic atoms producing different types of effects. These are of two types: (1) Karmas that obscure the correct vision, as for instance (i) Darsan-avarna, hindering right perception or apprehension in general; (ii) Janan-avarna, those which obscure right understanding or comprehension; (iii) Vedaniya, those which obscure the inherent blissful nature of the soul and thus bring about pleasurable or painful feelings, and (iv) Mohaniya, Karmas which obscure right belief, right faith and right conduct. All these Karmas work as smoke-coloured glasses through which we see the world and all that is of the world. Life has poetically been described as "a dome of many-colored glass" that "stains the white radiance of Eternity."
(2) Then there are Karmas which go to make a person what he is, for they determine (i) bodily physique, (ii) age and longevity, (iii) social status, and (iv) spiritual make-up. Each of these types is known as Naman, Ayus, Gotra and Antraya respectively.
In addition there are divisions and sub-divisions under these, running into hundreds of ramifications.
The Karmic particles spreading in space, are willy nilly attracted by each soul according to the pressure of the activity indulged in. This constant influx of Karma can be checked by freeing the self of all types of activity of the body, mind and senses and stabilizing it at its own center; while the accumulated Karmas may be curtailed by fasting, tapas, saudhyaya, vairagya, prashchit, dhyan and the like: that is to say, austerities, reading of scriptural texts, detachment, repentance and meditation etc.
Buddha too laid a great stress on constant endeavor and struggle with a view to ultimate victory over the law of Karma. The present may be determined by the past; the future is our own, depending on the directive will of each individual. Time is one endless continuity - past irresistibly leading to the present and the present to the future as one may like it to be. Karma ceases to affect only with the attainment of the highest condition of mind which is beyond both good and evil. With the realization of this ideal all struggle comes to an end, for then whatever the liberated one does, he does without attachment. The ever-rotating Wheel of Life gets its momentum from the Karmic energy and when that energy itself is exhausted, the giant Wheel of Life comes to a stand-still, for then one reaches to the intersection of time and the timeless, a point which is always in action and yet still at the core. Karma provides a key to the life processes; and one's consciousness travels from stage to stage until one becomes a really awakened being or Buddha (the enlightened one or the seer of the Holy Light). To Buddha, the universe, far from a mere mechanism, was a Dharma-Kaya or body pulsating with Dharma or life-principle, serving at once as its main support.
In brief, the Law of Karma is Nature's stubborn and inexorable law from which there is no escape and to which there is no exception. As you sow, so shall you reap, is an ancient axiomatic truth. It is the general rule for earth-life. It also extends to some of the upper physio- spiritual regions, according to the order of density and peculiarity of each. Karma is a supreme principle superior both to gods and men for the former too, sooner or later, come also under its sway. The various gods and goddesses in different realms of Nature take a much longer time to serve in their respective heavenly spheres than human beings, but all the same they have ultimately to reincarnate in flesh before they can aspire to, and win, final emancipation from the Karmic round of births.
All works, acts or deeds form a vital device in the Divine plan to keep the entire universe in perfect running order. No one can remain without some kind of work (mental or physical activity) even for a single moment. One is always thinking or doing one thing or another. One cannot by nature be mentally vacant or idle, nor can one stop the senses from their automatic functioning: eyes cannot but see and the ears but hear; and the worst is that one cannot, like Penelope, undo what is once done. Repentance though good in itself, cannot cure the past. Whatever one thinks, speaks or acts, good or bad, leaves a deep impression upon the mind and these accumulated impressions go to make or mar an individual. As a man thinks, so be becomes. It is from the abundance of the mind that the tongue speaketh. Every action has a reaction, for that is Nature's law of Cause and Effect. One has, therefore, to bear the fruit of his actions: sweet or bitter, as the case may be, whether one may like it or not.
Is there no remedy then? Is man a mere plaything of fate or destiny who works his way in a purely pre-determined order? There are two sides of the matter. One has, to a certain extent, a free will, wherewith one, if he so chooses, can direct his course and make or mar his future and to a great extent even mould the living present to his own advantage. Armed with the living soul in him of the same essence as his Creator, he is mightier than Karma. The infinite in him can help him to transcend the limitations of the finite. The freedom to act and the Karmic bondage are but two aspects of the real in him. It is only the mechanical and the material part in him that is subject to Karmic restraint, while the real and vital spirit in him transcends all and is hardly affected by the Karmic load, if established in his native God-head. How to get established in one's own real saroop, the Atman? This is what we have perforce to learn if we aspire for a way out of the endless Karmic web.
The trouble with most of us is that we do not give thought to our actions. We, at every step, heedlessly go on collecting the load of Karmic particles without realizing that there is a power within that keeps a count of all we think, say or do. Thomas Carlyle, a famous thinker, says: "Fool, thinkest thou that because no Boswell is there to note thy jargon, it therefore dies and is buried? Nothing dies, nothing can die. The idlest word thou speakest is a seed cast into time, which brings fruit to all eternity." Similarly, Aeschylus, the father of Greek drama in the pre-Christian era, tells us:
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