What is Karma?

What is Karma?

Karma is a word that is effortlessly thrown around; we all know what kinds of things give us “good karma” or “bad karma.” But despite the pop-culture associations, Karma is an important concept in many Eastern religions like Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism.

The basic idea that underlies karma is that good, unselfish actions lead to good outcomes and bad, selfish, or negative action leads to negative outcomes. “You reap what you sow” is another way to think about it. This idea of consequences for all actions, both negative and positive, is expanded in Hinduism (as well as other belief systems) to carry over to subsequent lives. In Hinduism, those who act only in their own interest will suffer rebirth, while those who retreat to pray and find enlightenment will be freed from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Karma was defined in a time that was very different from our own. Nowadays, retreating into spiritual study could be defined as an extremely detrimental and selfish act, depending on your responsibilities. Nor is it a reality for most of us to retreat from all worldly objectives – we all need to work in some way. So how does Karma relate to our actions in the modern world?

There is actually a stream of yoga called Karma Yoga that answers that question. In Karma Yoga, prayer, or the practice of yoga, is done through unselfish action. In Karma Yoga, one serves the world to benefit others and this is considered to be spiritual work.

There are a couple key points about Karma Yoga that are important to point out. In yoga philosophy, a Karma Yogi serves to benefit others in the way that best suits them individually. I can perform Karma Yoga as a mother, a truck driver, an executive, or a yoga teacher. The second point is in how I approach my duty: unselfishly, always in the service of others, unattached to the outcome, and never for fame or gain.

Now, it could be argued that all actions, even those to benefit others, are inherently selfish. We do nice things to make other people feel good but also to make ourselves feel good. So is there no hope for unselfish action?

The key in Karma Yoga is to let go of the outcomes of your actions, which means acting without expectation of outcome or reward. Karma Yogis see the fruits of their actions as spiritual offerings.

Most of us act with some expectation of reward, whether it’s a bonus at work, praise from a loved one, or some reciprocal action in return. According to yoga philosophy, the problem with acting with expectation of reward is that we become very attached to that reward, and we end up miserable if we don’t get what we want. If we are lucky enough to get it, then we are afraid to lose it.

Karma Yoga is a path to enlightenment because it teaches us how to let go and act purely out of kindness and compassion. Karma Yoga is also a simple path to start down: service can be anything from donating to a charity to volunteering to doing a kind deed. Even doing your normal everyday tasks but practicing the devotion of those tasks to others is Karma Yoga.

So, today, choose one action that you can devote to another being. Can you do something nice for your partner and let go of their hoped-for reaction? Can you help someone out at work and let go of the need for reciprocity? Can you anonymously donate to a charity or donate a few hours of your time to volunteering?

Your Karma Yoga will be as unique as you are, but it all leads down the path to more kindness, generosity, and calm in the world.