Why are some people born rich and others poor?
Why does it seem like good people suffer and wicked people never face the consequences of their actions?
It all comes down to karma.
And what is karma?
The universe runs on a system of cause and effect called karma so that no good or bad deed is ever overlooked.
In this article, we’re going to dissect how that system functions and what you can do to change your karma.
- Samsara – The Cycle of Life and Death
- What is karma?
- How Karma Works
- Can you Change your Karma?
- Right Action to Change your Karma
- Moksha – Freeing yourself from the Cycle of Birth and Death
Samsara – The Cycle of Life and Death
To understand what karma is, you first have to understand the nature of the universe.
Life is cyclical.
When you are born, you are destined to die. And when you die, you will be born again.
In fact, human life shouldn’t be seen as a reference point to anything; it’s simply too short.
Instead, the evolution of your soul should be your reference point. Like a change of clothes, when your body dies, your soul picks up another one that is suitable to your state of consciousness and continues on its journey.
The Soul’s Journey
Consider that none of the negative qualities you claim to own are your nature. In Sanskrit, the word that comes to mind is mala. Mala is dirt, a stain or an impurity.
Negative qualities are exactly that. They are mala in the layers of your consciousness. They only define you to the extent that you identify with them and like stains on clothing, they can be washed away. Emma Newlyn gives an in-depth explanation of the five kleshas or veils of suffering to help understand the nature of mala.
Considering this, the evolution of your consciousness can be measured by the amount of mala you see in your life.
Let’s take a step backward.
Before you can even get to the point of working on cleansing your consciousness, you live through millions of births.
According to the Padma Purana, there are 8.4 million species of life on earth. They are separated into six groups: aquatics, trees, insects, birds, animals and humans and you take birth as one of these, according to the qualities of your consciousness.
Of all of these types of births, a human birth is the most prized. A human is not bound by the laws of nature and has the freedom of choice. The way that this freedom of choice is used, determines your future births and your karma.
What is karma?
The literal translation of the word karma is action and there are two classes of action: sakama and nishkama.
The word kama means craving. This type of action is performed with the expectation of receiving something in return. You go to work because you expect to be paid. You behave or dress in a certain way because you want to be praised. This is sakama karma.
Nishkama karma is an action that is performed without any desire or expectation for the fruit or result of that action. Instead, the action is an expression of joy, love and devotion. This is nishkama karma.
These two types of karma are important to understand because one of them keeps you bound in the cycle of life and death (sakama) while the other one takes you toward spiritual liberation (nishkama).
How Karma Works
Karma operates on three levels: mental, vocal and physical; your karma is not limited to what you do, it includes what you think and what you say.
Every single one of your karmas or actions has a fruit or consequence called karma phala. Think of it like throwing a ball up into the air, in this situation, your karma is the act of throwing the ball. It doesn’t matter how gently or how hard you throw the ball, it must come back down, and this is the phal (fruit) of your karma.
In addition to the physical fruit, your karma leaves an impression on the consciousness known as samskara. Samskaras are ideas, emotions, memories and concepts associated with a particular karma. It is this samskara that goes on to become mala on your consciousness and seeds for future action. In this example, perhaps the ball came back down and hit someone on the head without them knowing it was you who threw the ball. If, in the future, you want to achieve the same result, you will remember this event and most likely try to do it again.
Like this, your destiny is decided by your thoughts, speech and actions every single moment. You are responsible for these and ultimately for everything you experience in life.
Three stages of Karma
As hinted at previously, there are stages to karma: intention, action, and consequence. Think of these as the seed, tree and fruit respectively.
Your actions begin with an intention or a seed. The intention leads you to perform the action (the tree) and the action produces consequences (fruit) that then go on to plant the seeds for future action.
You experience this phenomenon constantly. Every single one of your actions is preceded by an intention and goes on to produce fruit and plant a seed for future action.
Oftentimes, you aren’t even aware of the seeds that fructify into actions. They exist in the form of samskaras or subtle impressions on the mind. In modern lingo, you could call this self-limiting beliefs, patterns and mindset.
The tricky part with this is that your limiting beliefs are often below the radar of your awareness. That’s to say that you may not even be aware that the way you perceive the world may be incorrect.
Putting it into context
A common example of this is being hurt or offended by something that someone says or does. When you believe that someone is against you or has done an action to you or against you, you’re falsely interpreting the situation based on insecurity or negative past experiences (impressions on the mind). It is not the truth.
The truth is that the other person has something going on in their mind and in their life and they’re responding to that instead of you. In any situation, you’re a messenger to other people and other people are messengers to you.
The role of a messenger is to water the seeds of karma and encourage the tree to grow. Your role is to exercise your free will as a human being and not let destructive seeds sprout.
The more that you give in to the desire to instinctively strike back, the more seeds of misery you’re planting. These seeds will sprout in their time and bring the same misery you’re showering on your messengers right back to you.
Can you Change your Karma?
When we talk about changing our karma, we’re referring to the fruits of our karma, i.e. the things that we must experience in life. Wanting to change your karma is wanting to avoid the consequences of your past actions.
If suffering from terminal illness is the fruit a past action, can you change it?
Yes and no.
Corresponding to the three stages of karma, there are three types of karma. Of these three types, two of them can be changed or avoided.
Three Types of Karma
Prarabdha karma is karma that has already started yielding fruits. This is karma you cannot escape. The trees of these karmas have matured and have started yielding fruit (consequences). You must experience and go through these fruits.
Sanchita karma is accumulated impressions of past karmas in our consciousness, i.e. seeds for future karma. Here, negative karmas are mala on your consciousness. These seeds of karma are currently growing, they haven’t started to bear fruit yet and so through right action they can be avoided.
Agami karma is karma that you are currently performing, this karma will yield fruit in the future. Agami karma is the easiest and most direct karma that can be changed. Simply by altering your actions and going against your self-limiting beliefs, you will have started to change your karma.
Right Action to Change your Karma
Every tradition no doubt expounds their own philosophy on how to change your karma. When you dive into it, you’ll find that there are parallels in every tradition.
Seva – Selfless Service
Seva is also known as karma yoga or selfless service. This method of changing your karma is pretty universal.
Going back to the classes of karma, seva falls under nishkama karma: action that is performed with no expectations for the fruits of the action. This type of karma cleanses your consciousness of mala.
This means that when you volunteer somewhere, you aren’t volunteering to be recognized or receive something in return. You’re volunteering for the sake of volunteering: out of love and compassion, you want to spend your time giving back.
The desire for thanks or gratefulness in return for your actions counts as wanting something in return. Seva done with this desire for people to praise and thank you, is no longer nishkama karma. It has become sakama karma which goes on to plant seeds of further karma in your consciousness.
The strength of seva
Why does seva work?
Why do so many traditions emphasize seva?
Seva works to cleanse your karma because it brings up a lot of resistance in the mind. When you put yourself out there in that manner, the mind, which is used to performing action for some reward, rebels. It acts up in many ways and these complaints arise from your karma.
You’ve been conditioned to not want to give back selflessly. The more that you perform seva anyways, the more that you’ll be able to break free from the hold that your mind has on you.
Seva directly burns your karma. As you burn through your karma, the more you’ll be able to perform seva with love, devotion and the desire to serve. These qualities are part of your true nature and can never be taken away from you.
Jyotisha – Vedic Astrology
The skies at the moment you’re born provide you with a road map of your life. They foretell your good karmas, your bad, as well as material and spiritual aspects and events that will happen in your life.
When equipped with the knowledge of your karma and the influences of the stars and planets on your life, you’re able to take countermeasures to minimize or eliminate negative effects and maximize the positive.
The strength of Vedic astrology
Vedic astrology attributes the events in your life to precise planetary transitions and movements. The tendency to get in accidents, meet someone, have a successful marriage, be successful in business, all of these things and more are directly related to the movement of planets in your birth chart.
The strength of Vedic astrology is the precision with which it reads your chart and foretells the events of your life. After that, it doesn’t just leave you with a trail of negative karmas coming your way, it gives you precise remedies for all malefic effects or defects in your chart. Explore Archana Patchirajan’s blog for vedic insights and remedies for current cosmological events.
Yoga is union with the Self. It’s a carefully curated, scientific method put together by Sage Patanjali to free you from this samsara – this cycle of life and death – once and for all.
One of the ancient definitions of yoga given by Sage Patanjali is
“Heyam dukham anagatam”|Patanjali Yoga Sutras 2.16|
which means to eliminate misery before it even arises or to nip it in the bud.
The eight limbs of yoga have been specifically designed to do exactly this; nip the buds of your sprouting negative karmas.
The strength of yoga
In fact, blocked nadis or energetic channels are an energetic manifestation of your samskaras (impressions on your consciousness).
These blockages also manifest physically. You can evaluate the extent of your negative karmas by evaluating the state of your body: shaky limbs, poor balance, shortness of breath, tight hips and shoulders are all indications of negative karma waiting to be released.
A body that is hollow and empty is free from the cycle of life and death.
Through patience and consistent practice, the layers of your existence are cleansed of impurities (mala). Mala is washed away and all traces of it disappear from your life as if it never existed.
As with seva, the practice of yoga brings up many, many things. And as with jyotisha, you aren’t left on your own to deal with the resistance in your mind; Sage Patanjali has laid out guidelines for how to deal with any situation that may arise in life.
Explore a Meditation Case Study where aspects of the practice of yoga are combined to stop overthinking and bring the restless mind to stillness in just 30 minutes. Here, you are actually cleansing and bringing peace and harmony to the many layers of your existence.
Moksha – Freeing yourself from the Cycle of Birth and Death
What is the point of burning through all of your karma?
Why should you bother trying to remedy things from lifetimes ago?
Beyond improving your mental health and experience of life, at the end of this road, is liberation or moksha.
Moksha is reuniting with that from which you have come.
Burning all of your karma frees you from this samsara once and for all – it means you never have to go through the cycle of life and death again. You can finally rest, knowing you’re home, you’re safe and that you’ll never get lost in this world again.
The very first step you can take to approach this, is to not worry about karma. “Gahana karmano gatihi,” in the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says, “Unfathomable are the ways of karma.”
Don’t try to understand what seeds brought about the fruits you’re currently experiencing. Just continue performing actions that are natural to you. Go through what you have to go through and restrain the mind to prevent it from becoming attached to the fruits of your actions.
Maintain your discipline and allow the rest to happen on its own.