Karma, convenient excuse or a beacon of light?

Self-transformation is arduous work, especially at first; but each tiny change brings with it the joyful awareness that your life is gradually becoming a force for peaceful change.”

Karma is an expression used to rationalize everything from why one’s life is happy or miserable to why one’s car broke down.  But, what does karma truly mean? Karma originated from the Sanskrit word ‘kri’, to mean the effects of actions. Good actions lead to good outcomes –pleasure and happiness – while bad actions lead to bad outcomes – pain and suffering.  Should we then interpret karma to imply that the goal of life is seeking actions that give rise to pleasure and happiness and avoiding actions that cause pain and suffering? 

The answer is no.  The Hindu philosophy highlights that the goal of life is neither pursuing pleasure nor avoiding pain.  Instead, it is recognizing that thoughts and actions have consequences - not only to oneself but also to others.  It is taking concerted efforts to guide our thoughts and actions in the right direction and seeking the knowledge that we need to shape our conduct and character.

What is the source for such knowledge? The source is our own minds.  Although we mistakenly assume that the external events are the cause of our pleasure and pain, it is not so.  External events, for example, the birth of a child or the death of a spouse, occurs regardless of how one reacts to them.  We could be overjoyed by the birth of a child or distressed by the death of a spouse.  But, when we dispassionately inquire into our minds, we comprehend that both emotions - happiness and sadness - are temporary and fleeting.  We should let neither to overwhelm. Instead, we should consider external events as necessary to train one’s conduct. In this sense, the external events are like the blows a blacksmith levies on a hot iron rod to make it malleable and get it ready for productive use.  

Training one’s mind, however, demands that we look deep into our own minds.  It requires that we analyze the mind and learn why the mind reacts the way it does and what we can do to take control of it.  Knowledge arises only when we engage in such efforts.  For example, when Newton saw the apple falling to the earth - instead of going up towards the sky - he did not ignore it as a routine phenomenon. Instead, he contemplated over it and discovered gravity as the cause behind the apple’s fall to earth. Gravity would exit even if Newton had not discovered it.  But, Newton’s investigation into the phenomenon and his discovery contributed both to his own progress as a scientist and to the advancement of science.  Similarly, when take charge of our emotions and learn to control our thoughts and actions, we not only become a better person, but, we also contribute to the welfare of others. That is the essence of karma.

In summary, karma is not a passive ‘inheritance’ from our past lives nor an easy excuse to justify our failings. Instead, karma is a beacon of light that guides us.  When we ignore it, we lose our way and, when we follow it, we reach the right destination.

Dr. Ram S. Sriram

Feb 11, 2018
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