Karma, which is a Sanskrit word, means action, work or deed. It refers to the sum total of all deeds one has done or got done through his mind, speech or body ; either in this life or in the previous lives.
Karma also refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect which states that an action is always accompanied by its consequences. Result of a deed is inherent in the deed itself. No one can escape the effects of his actions. Anything good or bad one does through his thoughts, words or senses creates an equivalent response which comes back to him, sooner or later, in one form or the other. As one sows, so shall he reap. This doctrine known as the karmic cycle governs one’s life perpetually.
A word of caution here. Karma as the law of cause and effect is not the same thing as karma yoga, the path of selfless action. Whereas the former refers to the principle that every cause has an equal effect, the latter relates to the performance of one’s duty in a detached manner.
The doctrine of karma is not optional but mandatory. Everyone has to abide by this law. This law of cause and effect can be said to be a spiritual equivalent of the Newton’s law of motion which states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Being universal in nature, the doctrine of karma is impartial. It is not biased in favour of or against anyone.
Not only the outward life, the law of karma applies to the inner being also. Apart from the worldly rewards and punishments, any noble or evil deed produces corresponding pleasant or unpleasant vibrations inside which cause a sense of satisfaction or guilt in the mind. That is why it is said that one is not only punished for his evil deeds but also by his evil deeds.
Every moment of life, one is doing something or the other. Corresponding good or bad results are, thus, continuously being created. These fruits accrue to the individual who is performing the actions. Some of these results are expended in this very life ; and others remain pending. Since the unconsumed fruits of actions must eventually be consumed, the impressions of such pending results are carried along by the soul as it passes from one life to another. The pending results, thus, become the basis on which the quality of one’s next life is determined. In that life again, actions produce results and cause yet another birth. Impelled by the chain of some non-fructified actions and unconsumed fruits of some other actions, one keeps on moving from birth to birth. The load of one’s karma is carried by the soul from life to life. In other words, man evolves in accordance with his actions ; and the cycle of cause and effect does not break even at death.
No one can avoid, evade or cheat on karma. Every deed has to bear its favourable or unfavourable fruits. One has to face the consequences of his deeds, either in this life or in the future lives. But it does not imply that doctrine of karma is the same thing as fatalism. The doctrine of karma does not subscribe to the view that all events are decided in advance by a supernatural power ; and human beings have no control over them. This doctrine does not negate the role of personal efforts in one’s evolution. On the contrary it assures that one’s materialistic growth and spiritual attainment is in his own hands.
Karma is not a doctrine of distress but a harbinger of hope. Though born with a certain karma which determines one’s ancestory, heredity and circumstances ; one has the freedom to liberate himself from the past karma by performing righteous action in the right spirit. Today’s action is tomorrow’s karma. When one gives up his wicked ways and firmly resolves to abandon evil in future, soon he overcomes grief.
From the viewpoint of the self, karma is neither good nor bad. Every karma binds the soul to the wheel of birth and death. Chains of gold bind as firmly as the chains of iron. The aim of any spiritual practice is to free oneself from the bondage of works. Bhagavad Gita has provided the mankind with the science of spirituality and a way of life by which the doctrine of karma, the natural order of cause and effect, can be transcended. The state of transcendence can be achieved not by any arbitrary interference with the laws of nature but by breaking the chains of karma through cultivation of an attitude of detachment and an unshakable faith in the Divine. Through such devotion, one discovers himself to be the unchanging self which is beyond the bondage of works.
To conclude, the law of cause and effect is impeccable, universal and totally unbiased. Yet, it can be transcended by gaining knowledge of one’s true nature. When one realises himself to be the imperishable soul, he attains that realm of reality which is beyond the burden of karma. He then reaches that state of being which is beyond any sorrow.