Tools for Personal Transformation: Karma

4 kinds of karma to enhance your spirituality

The Bhagavad Gita says “the course of karma is unfathomable.” And so it is.

Spirit in action

In Sanskrit the word karma means action. Sanskrit provides a precise vocabulary for this abstract field that can help us navigate through it with more assurance. Every action creates an experience, and the memory of that experience is referred to as samskara. They are the mental impressions or patterns formed by repeated experience. These are seeds of memories both in our personal and collective consciousness as a result of past experiences.

As samskaras aggregate and combine with each other, they generate what are called vasanas. These are the latent tendencies for future actions. They are attitudes, inclinations and the seeds of desire. It would be fair to say that karma, memory and desire are the software of our soul as it travels through cosmic time. The samskaras and vasanas are the applications that our thoughts and actions write. The output or display of this process is referred to as samsara, the wheel of time. It is like playing a computer game that continues to direct, limit and reinforce our choices based on our past decisions. Time plays out like a wheel, going around and around, repeating the same patterns again and again.

A very simple way to interpret karma is that it is a conditioned response, the past influencing the circumstances of the present, as well as our tendencies for conditioned patterns of behavior. We become bundles of conditioned reflexes, constantly triggered by people and circumstances into predicted outcomes. Hence, karma is considered to be a prison, a bondage. The goal of the spiritual journey is to escape the prison of karma and bring about the true response of our soul, which is creativity. The more creative and unpredictable our response to the world, the more we are aligned with the creator of the universe. That’s why the freedom that arises from transcending karma is referred to as liberation or moksha. In knowing our true essence beyond time, space and causality, we become free of the wheel of samsara.

Frequently when people refer to karma, they ask, “Does karma imply a deterministic universe?” The answer seems to be that the universe is simultaneously deterministic and creative. Where we fit in this immense landscape depends on our state of consciousness. The freer our consciousness is, the more freedom of choice we experience. In the state of avidya (ignorance), we function deterministically; in the state of vidya (enlightenment), we have infinite creativity or choice. Although the past determines the circumstances of the present, the choices we make in the present are a function of our state of awareness. The more awake we are, the more unconditioned and creative our responses to those circumstances will be.

The 4 kinds of karma

The Vedic seers made distinctions between different types of karma. The first type is called sanchita karma. This constitutes the entire database of all our past actions. And, because the seers did not view human existence as limited to one physical lifetime, they understood sanchita karma as the vast stockpile of karma that encompasses countless lifetimes in our past.

The second type of karma, prarabdha karma, is the particular actions that are programmed to be experienced in this lifetime. Prarabdha karma is actually a subset of sanchita karma in that it represents a small fraction of the karma from the pile of sanchita karma that is activated and ready to be experienced during the span of a lifetime. It is like taking a plateful of food from the kitchen for your meal — there is a lot more food in the kitchen to be eaten, but one plateful is all that is served up and ready to be eaten, and it is all you need at this time and place. These two types of karma represent past actions that will have consequences in our present and future circumstances. This is the part of karma that feels like fate and determinism.

Kriyamana karma is action that we create in the moment. It is the choices we make in our life now — what socks we put on in the morning, or what salad we order at lunch. Agama karma is the action of planning in the future. It is about the goals and intentions we have for what we want to happen in the future. Both kriyamana and agama karmas are actions that represent our creativity, actions that feel free and undetermined.

Karma powers combined

But all these aspects of karma blend into each other as well. The free choices we make now then become our determined karma in the future. We can also perform spiritual actions now that modify or transcend the binding influence of our past actions. When we experience our non-local Self, the Atman, in meditation, we awaken that inner essence that is beyond the influence of time, space and karma. So even though we think and act in the world of karma, we are no longer identified with it and therefore our Self is no longer bound to it. Also, as the silent witness, or sakshi, develops over time through meditation, simply being aware of our karmic patterns, or vasanas, will gradually serve to dissolve their intensity and grip on us, and thus more creativity and choice are available to us in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

Finally, we can use the tool of sankalpa, or intention, to create new karmic patterns in our consciousness that will be supportive of our spiritual freedom, instead of enmeshing us in samsara further.  

Karma is a prison to the soul, but the action of spiritual practice is karma that can liberate us from it as well. The Bhagavad Gita also says “yoga is skillful karma.” If we learn to act from Self-awareness, every action is an act of creativity and freedom.

Read the first and last parts of this series.

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