What is Karma?

Karma is a universal law that relates to  thoughts and actions which create a cycle of cause and effect. Essentially what we create comes back to us, in some form.

If we offer goodwill to others, this goodwill comes back. If we offer pain to others, the law of karma states that equally we will have to experience that pain. The law of karma applies to actions, words and thoughts. Even our inner thoughts also create karma.

The great Spiritual Masters teach ‘do unto others, as you would have done to yourself’. In a way this is the logical consequence of the law of karma. The way we treat others, is how ultimately we will be treated ourselves. If we are mean-spirited and unkind, we will experience this ourselves. If we are kind and compassionate, this also will have a karmic effect.

It has been said that karma is really an opportunity to meet ourself. It is only when we see the consequences of our actions that we can learn from them. If we could act in isolation, then we would never learn. Thus karma could be seen as an opportunity to learn, to progress – and not a ‘punishment’ for past wrongs.

Instant Karma.

The Buddha taught that our thoughts are like boomerangs which unmistakably come back to their creator.

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought.
If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him.
If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought,
happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him. “

– Lord Buddha

If we think negative thoughts, that negativity is our instant bad karma. We create our own heaven or hell by what we allow into our mind. If we offer loving thoughts, that is our instant good karma. There is a short analogy. Suppose someone tries to speak ill of you – they are in effect trying to give you something (let us call it a ‘gift’). But, if you totally reject their ‘gift’ of criticism, if we reject their offering, it stays with that person. Therefore, if we criticise others, that negativity becomes part of us. Our negativity is our instant karma.

Beyond Karma

The law of karma may encourage us to do good deeds on the basis – that if we do good to others, we will benefit in the future. This could make us rather calculating, we count up our good deeds and expect a reward. This makes our action conditional. A different spiritual attitude is to do an action unconditionally, i.e we are motivated by a selfless love – rather than an expectation of reward. This is a higher and nobler ideal.

If I Suffer does that mean I have bad karma?

The law of Karma is complex. If we experience suffering, it may be due to karma we created, but we can’t say someone’s suffering is definitely due to his bad karma. Saints and innocent people can suffer due to hostile and evil people. When the Christ was crucified it wasn’t anything to do with bad karma, but the consequence of human ignorance.

Also, what we call suffering may be an experience the soul learns from. We will never invite suffering, but there are different ways of responding to it. Sometimes, what we call suffering – but to our soul it is a necessary experience that can help us in our eternal journey.

“Actually, karma cannot be truly understood apart from the soul. It is for the sake of the soul’s growth that karma exists.”

– Sri Chinmoy [1]

How Should we react to others’ suffering?

A danger about the law of karma is that we take a view that if people suffer, they must deserve it. This can make us indifferent and callous. If we see people suffering we can ignore it or we can take a more enlightened approach. We can feel their suffering as ours and see what we can do. By judging others we will not alleviate their suffering, but offering good will helps them to be healed.

Karma and Reincarnation

Life seems unfair. Evil people escape justice, good people suffer. But, the great sages say that this is not our only life. The karma we create may be experienced in this life or another. If we believe in reincarnation, we know there is never an escape from our actions – only a delay.

Grace and Karma

The law of karma can seem inexorable, with no escape. But, there are other spiritual laws that can transcend karma. Spiritual scripture says, if we sincerely invoke grace, if we sincerely ask for forgiveness, then God can mitigate the impact of our karma. As Sri Chinmoy says:

The law of karma applies to everyone, but one can transcend it through one’s meditation. The law of karma exists and yet can be transcended by realisation, oneness with God and the power of spirituality. [1]

The important thing is our inner attitude, if we have sincerely resolved to avoid past mistakes, if we sincerely want to make a fresh start, the law of grace may mitigate much suffering which we are due.



The law of karma is complex, we cannot look at the world and relate it all to past actions. Spiritual Masters say, it is really impossible to understand the way karma works. But, what does help, is to remember the law of karma means we are always meeting ourself, we are always meeting what we offer to the world. Therefore, don’t just think what is best for you. Think how you would like to be treated by others.


[1] Sri Chinmoy, Yoga And The Spiritual Life. The Journey of India’s Soul, Agni Press, 1971.

[2] Sri Chinmoy, Yoga And The Spiritual Life. The Journey of India’s Soul, Agni Press, 1971.

photo top: Tejvan

2 thoughts on “What is Karma?”

  1. Tejvan,

    I have friends who firmly believe in the art of karma. They live their life vicariously through this mantra.

    Yet to me, it seems hard to believe that every little thing we do has a direct cause and effect to our future.

    I completely agree with your view that “A danger about the law of karma is that we take a view that if people suffer, they must deserve it”

    We must treat others equally, no one person should suffer. And as a pessimist towards Karma, I don’t judge people’s suffering as being an affliction of bad karma.

    Just my two cents.

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