What Karma Is and What Karma Isn’t

I hear this a lot: “What comes around goes around.”

I love saying it. And I love saying, “Bad Karma” and “That’s just karma, dude,” and what I really mean with that is, “you had it coming,” or “tough break,” or “it couldn’t be helped,” but like many people who grew up with too many Judeo-Christian notions it’s hard to really embrace Eastern philosophy without letting those old Christian concepts leak in, and I promise you,  I am getting it all wrong, because karma is not “what comes around goes around.”  And it’s not: “You deserve that.”  Not at all.

I like best what Paramhansa Yogananda defined it: karma is a habit.  

The way I understand it, karma is the cycle that happens because a certain perception, thought or action (good or bad, doesn’t matter) takes root and creates a cycle of circumstances and effect that is hard to break.  Karma isn’t what happens to you because you messed up: karma is what happens to you as a result of a continuous cycle of attitudes, actions, thoughts, and perceptions.  That is why those who think of karma as a “come around goes around” situation sooner or later start saying that karma doesn’t work: all the crooks seem to always get away with things, and we are always stuck with the short end of the stick. The irony here is that your being stuck with the short end of the stick is exactly what karma is about.  It’s about how you can cultivate habits that influence everything in your life.

Here is an example of how karma is comparable to habit: if you’re in the habit of being rude to people, it’s your karma that you will always be alone or disliked.  That is, the consequence of the cycle of your treatment of others is your karma, which in this case, is loneliness.  Moreover, karma is also the fact that you’re rude to people: the cause is inseparable from the effect.  You have somehow managed to cultivate a habit of rudeness.  This habit has now become your karma, which includes the consequences of your being rude to others, as well as the habit itself since the habit is something that you cultivated yourself, and therefore is now your karma.

So, as you can see from the above example, karma is not retribution: it is merely the consequence of your actions, which are the consequences of a habit from which you never broke free. In this case, the consequences are easily seen, but in some cases, we have to go deeper into Vedic thought to understand how karma works.

For example, Yogananda once alluded to the fact that for some people poverty is karma, and he really did mean it in the context of habit. Those who do not understand karma can get angry at the idea that poverty is someone’s karma, but that’s because once again they make the mistake of understanding karma as some kind of divine decree or divine justice.  Saying it’s your karma to be poor is like saying you deserve it, which is ridiculous! Of course, they get offended: nobody wants to be told that they deserve being poor, sick, burdened with physical challenges, etc. But this is not what karma is, really, people, believe me. It’s not how karma works.

Karma is the habit of your soul, it’s a natural manifestation of all the collective actions and thoughts of all your lifetimes. And no, it isn’t a “you get coal for being bad and candy for being good” kind of situation. Let me illustrate why that would be the wrong analogy.

Think of this example: you are born to a family where your mother owns nothing but the clothes on her back and your father is either unemployed or nonexistent. This is your “normal” environment in which you grow up. You seldom if ever come into contact with anyone who encourages you to do anything with yourself because, well, look at your role models: they have done nothing or could do nothing for themselves and they have no expectations, not for themselves nor for you. These are the kind of circumstances that cultivate your “karma” or cycle of habit. Chances are, that in this lifetime, you will be poor because your habit is to think of yourself as poor and to surround yourself with poor people whose attitudes are (not wrongly or rightly) attuned to breeding only poverty. Not only will you probably never have any real opportunities: if those opportunities by some stroke of luck did come your way, chances are you might not recognize them or know what to do with them. It is not because you’re bad, or stupid, or deserving of poverty; it is simply because you are stuck in a cycle where getting out of your poverty would require unusual effort, unusual help, and, let’s face it, unusual luck.

Unfortunately, in the Vedic cosmos, this has consequences beyond the cycle of one lifetime. If your karma is poverty,  you may seek a karma of poverty because this is what is familiar to you, just like for many people who were born in dysfunctional families abusive lovers continue to show up. This is because abusiveness, for better or for worse, is what is familiar for them, what is normal: they had abusive parents raise them, so when they grow up they (unconsciously) seek that abusive figure in their partners. It’s not what they desire; it’s not even what they may consciously choose, but it’s an invariable cycle that will continue to happen for as long as the person who is stuck in it continues with the same perceptions, habits, and patterns, and for as long as that person continues to blame “fate” (which in a sense they would be right) and doesn’t get help, they will continue to get sucked in abusive relationships.

If abuse is your habit, then abuse is what you will continue to find long after you have left your parents’ home. Similarly, if poverty is karmic (a habit of your soul) then the tendency will be for your soul to incarnate in those circumstances that will invariably bring on poverty and continue the cycle of poverty — until you break whatever it is about your soul that seeks poverty and continues its vicious cycle.  In the meantime, your soul will incarnate again and again when it finds conditions that are familiar to it and to its habit or karma. Therefore, for as long as certain attitudes, perceptions, etc. exists, the soul will likely continue to seek conditions that will result in poverty. By contrast, a soul who believes it deserves riches and privileges will only seek to reincarnate during those circumstances that are most favorable to riches and privileges. That is why it seems that the privileged always get away with things. Because, well, they do!

You could be someone who is stuck in a cycle of violence, too: you could be someone who can never conceive of attaining anything without fighting to the death for it, and this attitude will be reinforced with each lifetime where this attitude manifests the same results. The more you drink of that toxic poison, the more toxic you will get. Just as it’s true that if you’re born in violent circumstances (whether it’s in some gang-ruled district of LA or in some corner of Afghanistan) it’s likely that your future will be ruled by that violence and that you won’t break from it. It takes a truly special person and some truly special effort and opportunity to break you out of that cycle of violence if you’re born into it. Well, I’m sorry to say, but that’s karma: and I mean, karma works the same way. The more you grip violence as a habit of life, the more that violence will be your life, now and always, in all future lives — until you change.

It also means that it works the other way: if you cultivate a habit of nonviolence, of generosity, etc. slowly but surely (maybe not in this lifetime) the karmic habit will be broken, and you will start to find yourself in circumstances that are favorable to continuing a cycle of generosity and non-violence. It is not because you are saintly and some divine entity willed you to be rewarded. This is very different than the Christian idea of service and reward. This is a habit.  Your actions and words dictate the environment that you create for yourself from moment to moment.

Because it is the natural law.

Because it is the law of the cosmos to find balance.

Because it is the law of the cosmos for all things to reap according to their nature.

To make matters even more complex, Yogananda also teaches that karma doesn’t just manifest on the individual level. An individual is responsible for his karma, but a country’s karma is the responsibility of the country as a collective, and the karma of an age is also the responsibility or habit of an entire age.

There are countries that seem unable to ever evolve out of a cycle of constant war. The karma of an entire country is a habit of the people who hover in that country. In an age when we only value materialism, it is and will be the karma of our age to be ruled by materialism. And so on.

So, you see, karma is neither “god’s plan” not divine retribution, which is really what you’re saying when you’re saying “what comes around goes around.” You’re saying, “sooner or later you’re gonna get yours.”  You’re saying, “you have it coming.”  And when you’re saying “my karma is sickness” you’re not saying that you deserve sickness: you’re saying that sickness has become your cycle.

And as if this weren’t complicated enough, in some tangential sense, karma really could, in some cases, mean “what comes around goes around.”

For example, if in one life you were so careless about life that you engaged in and encouraged in others to engage in cruelty to animals, sooner or later, when you eventually reincarnate as an animal, (because it’s inevitable, because time is infinite, because all that can possibly happen will eventually happen) you’re going to be on the receiving end of that cruelty that you proposed, initiated or contributed to way back in that other life. (But time isn’t linear so you may end up being a baby who dies of poisoned water in one lifetime and be born as a Senator who passes a bill to allow the poison to seep in the water in the next).

There is no enthroned entity who determines your karma: it is you.  Karma is a Vedic concept which predates Buddhism by hundreds, maybe thousands of years. There are plenty of divinities in Vedic philosophies, but ultimately reality is a natural law. The Brahman (not to be confused with Brahma, a divinity) is more akin to the cosmic soup or unified field of quantum theory than it is to any Judeo-Christian concept of omnipotent divinity.  Vedic philosophy is about the natural order of an infinite cosmos which possesses infinite creative possibilities within it.

I suspect that the reason why so many of us yogis and Buddhists and what-nots mistake karma for divine decree or retribution is because most of what we know about karma comes to us from English translations of Sanskrit texts that are replete with terms that have no literal translation in our language. Moreover, I think it’s nearly impossible to separate language from culture, and ultimately even the most open-minded and well-meaning translator is bound to filter these Eastern concepts through the lens of Western thought, which is invariably influenced by Judeo-Christian thought.

Karma, if it were translated properly, would probably have a really long and awkward translation like, “it is in the natural order of the universe that such thoughts, words, and actions as should arise and manifest will have natural consequences, which may be long term or short term, but that will invariably reverberate through time and space and  manifest in realities that are direct consequences to those thoughts, words, and actions, and thus create a self-perpetuating cycle.”

It’s much easier to say Karma.  It’s such an elegant term.

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Published by laura

I'm the author of two short story collections, a story cycle, and a collection of short memoirs. I am an educator, literary translator, journal editor, and writing coach.

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