Most spiritual seekers know the term karma, but not all understand it in the same way. In Advaita Vedanta karma is unambiguously defined. For once as a term: karma, a Sankrit word, means action, activity, act – just that. In the following, however, I refer to the common understanding of karma. Most Western seekers have an idea of karma, which encompasses something like: destiny, assignment for this life, punishment for bad deeds committed in former lives.
The karma concept of Advaita Vedanta
Karma presupposes reincarnation: Every being passes through many incarnations; in the course of those it develops spiritually. A human being is a being which can act out of free will. His actions (karmas) have consequences: every action is a cause and has an effect. This law of cause and effect is the law of karma.
When it rains the ground gets wet. When I sleep too little I become tired. If I switch the light off it is getting dark. The effect of such actions is immediate, we are not surprised that it comes about and often it is intended. However, there are also other causal connections. When I go daily to the tanning salon I get a tan. The first effect. Later my skin becomes wrinkly and like leather. The second effect. And if I am unlucky, eventually I acquire skin cancer. The third effect. So the effects of our actions do not always come about straight away, furthermore we do not always recognize the connection between the action and it’s effect.
The law of karma works in a similar way: In the continuum of many lives some effects of some of our actions do not come about until later lives. If I have carried out many positive actions in a life but had no opportunity to harvest their fruits, these will be granted to me in another life; same with negative actions and their fruits. Thus from our restricted perspective sometimes paradoxical situations occur in which somebody constantly harvests something that he apparently has not earned at all – in the positive as well as in the negative sense.
The law of karma works all by itself, it does not need anybody who gets it going, makes adjustments or even corrections. It is a neutral law as for example the law of gravity.
Questions and answers
Who determines which actions are positive or negative?
Basically, positive is that which is not harmful to others or turns away harm; negative is that which causes damage or does not turn it away, although it would be possible. One’s own measure for ethical action can only be: I think and act in a way that I wish others should think and act in my situation. I treat others in a way that I would like to be treated by them. Whether the result of this approach is always optimum is secondary. What counts is that my motivation is authentic.
Which effects of my actions carried out in former lives will take effect in a given situation?
Those that accord with the given time frame.
And what about the rest?
It waits for a suitable time frame.
Not everything can be experienced at every time and it is not always possible to experience exactly the circumstances with exactly those kinds of people with whom I must experience.
Don’t I accumulate new karma in every life – what about that?
Yes, in every life karma is collected and after the death of the body is added to one’s own karma package. From this package we take a small package with us into the next incarnation.
Then I will never finish to work off all my karma!
Right. The only possibility to accrue no more karma and to leave behind all present karma in one blow is enlightenment.
Can I avert my karma or make it invalid?
No. Karma has to be experienced.
What if I have fulfilled my assignment?
Karma is about reaping the fruits of former actions, it is not an assignment. Whoever learns from his mistakes will not repeat them and, hence, will not accrue this kind of karma again; whoever does not learn from them is likely to repeat the mistakes and will therefore have to master similar karma in later lives too. But both will have to harvest their karma in this life. It has already been caused and will inevitably unfold it’s effect.
Then I have no free will!
Yes, you do – in the end it is free will that brings about karma. Neither the fighting dog, which bites a child to death, nor the cholera bacterium that actuates a disastrous epidemic accrues karma because they do not have free will.
Humans, however, are equipped with free will. Still there are things in the life one can change and others that one cannot change. The former are subject to free will, the latter are an expression of karma.
A human being can use his free will in three ways in order to at least not accrue more negative karma:
1. calmly accepting as his karma what he cannot change and make the best of it.
2. sowing good actions to harvest good karma sometime later
3. striving for enlightenment which will carry him beyond any karma.
How do I find out whether something is karma or is subject to my free will?
Try out. The issue anyway comes up only with negative karma. Since who would even want to find out whether the surprise heritage of a few million dollars can be made invalid by his free will? But if I fall ill, for example, this alone is an expression of karma. Naturally I will try to recover again. Yet if I find out that I cannot cure the illness, I must recognize this as my karma too.
Is the idea of karma not a dualistic idea?
Yes. The law of karma is just an auxiliary idea that enables the seeker to explain the world to himself – relaxing the mind and freeing it up to the knowledge of the non-dual reality that is in, through and beyond everything.
This auxiliary idea is also helping the seeker to develop certain qualities, most of all equanimity, which again serves him in his search for truth.
In the end Advaita Vedanta is always and exclusively about understanding truth.