Some years ago while staying at the ashram of the Indian saint, Ramana Maharshi, nestled at the foot of the forest covered mountain of Arunachala, I read the great sage’s sacred words, etched above a doorway: “Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen, try as you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to prevent it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is to remain silent.”
His words are a key to karma and destiny. As someone who would try and make things happen, forcing outcomes and who struggled with surrender, these words were like magic. I have never forgotten them and I think reading this wisdom, while steeped in the stillness that the great saint’s presence has imprinted on the area he lived, helped the words to land deeply in my soul.
On a personal level, the words mean a lot to me as I can directly see how karma impacted the course of my life very early on. As a baby I was given up for adoption, and it’s always seemed to me that my life at that point was like a river with multiple tributaries branching out in different directions, depending on the lottery of which parents took me home with them. And really, it’s a bit like that for all of us. We are born into certain circumstances, cultures, places on earth, wealth or poverty, with specific genetics, talents and drawbacks. We don’t have any control over these circumstances… or do we?
Nothing raises more questions, or is more misunderstood than the notion of karma. Karma is a Vedic Science, with roots in India, and is a central teaching of many spiritual traditions including Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikkhism, Taoism and Jainism.
The wheel of karma is the idea that everything in our life takes place due to past actions and that present actions affect future lifetimes. Karma is linked to rebirth. Each and every action we take in life ripples out from us like a stone hitting the water. The ripples have untold effects on others, and will flow back to us at some point in the future. The fruit of our previous actions are like echoes, and they cannot be escaped. Karma is intricately linked to causality. Once you become conscious and access the higher stages of awakening and enlightenment,becoming no longer identified with the “self”, then you can step off the karmic wheel of life, that endless cycle of rebirth, and your personal karma goes. This is the aim of spiritual practice.
What is karma?
The principle of karma or “law of karma” is the notion that all of life is governed by a system of cause and effect, action and reaction, in which your deeds have corresponding effects on the future. Karma is a precise science.
It is a universal law, in the same way that gravity is a law of nature. If you jump off a skyscraper, you will very likely die, and if you harm someone, you will be hurt at some point. Science has discovered that everything in nature obeys laws. These natural laws are impartial and indiscriminate.
The law of karma states that as you sow shall you reap, but a hundred times over. The tennis ball hitting the wall, has to rebound. Every single action we take, is like a little seed we plant. The seed will eventually grow and, just as in nature, some seeds flourish more quickly than others. Some seeds will ripen fast, and others could take decades or lifetimes. But, one thing is certain, the seed will ripen and we will have to face the result of our actions. Your world is 100% the result of your previous actions, words and thoughts.
The consequence or effects of one’s karma can be described in two forms: phalas and samskaras. A phala (fruit or result) is the visible or invisible effect that is typically immediate or within the current life. In contrast, samskaras are invisible effects, produced inside the person, because of the karma, transforming and affecting his or her ability to be happy or unhappy in this life and future ones. In this way, karma is a principle of psychology and habit. Karmic habits or seeds, create the nature of humans, influencing your self perception and thus your life experience.
The science of karma is further complicated by different levels of karma. We have personal karma, family and ancestral karma, societal karma, national karma and so on. All of these levels of karma interact with each other.
In Vedanta and Yoga teachings, there are three types of karma: Prarabdha karma – karma experienced during the present lifetime, Sancita karma – the store of karma that has not yet reached fruition, and Agami karma – karma sown in the present life that will come to fruition in a future life.
Karma works through a process of various rebirths. Good or bad actions create impressions (samskaras) or tendencies (vasanas) in the mind, which in time will result in more action and karma. The seeds of karma are carried in the subtle body, or energy body, in which the soul transmigrates.The physical body is the field in which the fruit of karma is experienced and where we create more karma. Maybe the hell that many religions speak of is simply the unbearable and painful situations we create for ourselves by our past bad actions.
You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger. – Buddha
Why do good things happen to “bad” people and bad things happen to “good” people?
Karma is a way of explaining misfortune in the world, for those who do not appear to deserve it. Could their misfortune be due to wrong actions in their previous life? Through this lens, we can understand why one person in a car accident survives and all the other passengers don’t.
There was a story about a mother who was breastfeeding her baby during an earthquake when a pillar collapsed, killing her. Yet, her tiny baby survived and was discovered unharmed in the wreckage, lying at her breast. There is no logical explanation for this event and people drive themselves crazy trying to understand why certain things happen the way they do. Understanding karma can help to end this mental torture. Karma is also a way to explain things like child prodigies, who are exceptional artists or musicians at a young age, with little to no training.
Have you ever found yourself thinking, or saying: never mind, karma will get them? I know I have. In moments of anger, betrayal, hurt, I have definitely thought ‘don’t get so worked up about this, karma will seek them out’. But, as I deepened in my spiritual practice and yoga studies, I began to understand that karma is not this bogeyman with a big stick, beating you up for your misdemeanours to even the score. Yes karma is a universal law, but it is far more significant and meaningful for our own awareness and success in human life than I first imagined. Understanding karma more deeply, helped me to move from being a victim to being more empowered.
The real meaning of karma
If you truly understand karma, so much can fall away. Repetitive negative thoughts about your life drop away when you realise that you have absolutely created and caused EVERYTHING that is happening to you right now. At some point in your life, you chose it, by your actions. This is very sobering on the one hand, and yet, can be equally liberating. It means you have the power of a positive response, no matter what the situation. It’s not about blaming yourself, or others. Nor is it about casting judgement when someone is ill, or has something bad happen to them. It’s more like a humility, an understanding that perhaps you have hurt someone else, perhaps you have betrayed another, or taken something from someone else, in a forgotten time. Understanding karma is about opening your heart to greater compassion and kindness, for yourself and others. I try to remind myself, when someone betrays me, that it is hugely possible that I have betrayed them in the past. And so, instead of reacting angrily, it would be better to deal with my own hurt, consider the situation deeply before responding, and not create further bad karma for myself. This is in no way endorsing being weak, or not standing up for yourself. It’s about being aware. I think this is what Ramana is speaking about when he says it’s best to remain silent!
“When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realise that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn both peace and joy.” Dalai Lama
Understanding karma is a key to living well. You can use the laws of karma to create success in your life. For example, if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, then genuinely help others to become entrepreneurs. This will create positive karma for you, and sow the seeds for the opportunities you are creating for others, to arise for you. If you want to heal something in your own life, help others to heal. The law of karma is about choice.
Sometimes we can’t control what is happening in our world, but we can absolutely control how we respond to what is happening. This is hugely challenging when in the heat of an argument, or when you’ve been rejected or wronged. But, if we can stop and be aware in that moment and respond with wisdom, we can very likely save ourselves from the endless cycle of hurt and loss. Whether you believe in karma or not, it is affecting you and the principles can help you live a better life.
Some helpful practices
Beyond good karma, there is akarma, devotional service, which brings the ultimate freedom from karmic entanglement. Some practices that can support the ability to balance karma, and find inner peace, are Loving Kindness Meditation or Metta, and the Buddhist practice of Tonglen.
In Loving Kindness Meditation, you open your heart to send prayers and good wishes out for all beings. Beginning with yourself you can pray: May I be well, May I be happy, May I be at peace. Then you move onto friends and family members, repeating the phrases, while visualising your loved ones. Finally you move onto someone you are having difficulties with, bring them into your mind and repeat the heartfelt prayers that they be well, happy and at peace. You can also use Loving Kindness Meditation to pray for groups of people, animals, or the whole world.
Tonglen is a more advanced practice and is also called giving and receiving as it is a practice of breathing in suffering and breathing out peace or healing. Coming to a meditative space, you connect with your feelings, breathing in any fear, agitation, resistance, accepting what is there for you, with kindness, then breathe out compassion and healing for yourself or all beings. Tonglen is used to take on and transmute the suffering of others, so for example you could breathe in the suffering of refugees and send out hope, love and peace. As you breathe in and out you hold the wish to take away the suffering and then the wish to send comfort and happiness. These practices can help you open your heart, go beyond the ego, and discover a broader perspective on life.
So often I’ve mused over the meaning of Ramana’s words, and each time my awareness cracks open a little more to understand the silent emptiness his wisdom conveys. The words journey with me and have given me great comfort, saved me countless hours of worry and brought deep peace. His wise words are not a call to inaction. On the contrary, they are a call to inner action, to introspection, and acceptance. In the stillness we unravel the past, without creating more drama for ourselves in the future. We discover our heart and the meaning of life, which is to help others and love one another.
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself”. – George Bernard Shaw