Karma definition: Most people are wrong about the meaning

“Karma’s a bitch,” right?

We hear that all the time. Somebody does something good, they get good karma. Something bad happens to someone, that’s because they had bad karma.

But that’s not how it works.

Surprised? Me too! We all think we know what karma means, but do we?

What is the definition of karma?

The truth is, most of us have it wrong. And this misunderstanding doesn’t help any of us.

When you truly understand what Karma means, it can be used as a powerful tool for personal development.

Want in on this amazing tool for personal development? Read on to find out the true meaning of karma and how it can impact your life.

What is karma?

Karma is a Sanskrit word meaning “action.” It refers to a cycle of cause-and-effect that is an important concept in many Eastern Religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism.

In its essence, karma refers to both the actions and the consequences of the actions.

Importantly, karma is not set in stone, is not out of our control, and is not indirect. By this, I mean you don’t do good things with hopes of getting a randomly good outcome (karma is not doing your chores this week in hopes of winning the lottery).

Instead, it means that the steps of your life, your spiritual development, and your personality are directly molded by your thoughts and actions. Present you affects future you.

Don’t believe me? Let’s ask a Buddhist master for their explanation of karma.

A Buddhist Master’s Simple Explanation of Karma

To begin with, let’s get one thing straight:

Karma has nothing to do with “fate.” If you do something negative, it doesn’t mean that something negative has to happen to you to “even it out.”

Karma is based on your actions and thoughts in every single moment.

So what is the definition of karma, then?

I love this simple and clear explanation of karma by Barbara O’Brien of the buddhism.about.com blog:

“The word “karma” means “action,” not “fate.” In Buddhism, karma is an energy created by willful action, through thoughts, words and deeds. We are all creating karma every minute, and the karma we create affects us every minute.It’s common to think of “my karma” as something you did in your last life that seals your fate in this life, but this is not Buddhist understanding. Karma is an action, not a result. The future is not set in stone. You can change the course of your life right now by changing your volitional (intentional) acts and self-destructive patterns.”

Action, not fate! Karma is the energy we create from our actions, from our thoughts. It’s a dynamic force!

What is the meaning of karma?

The meaning of karma is literally “action, work, or deed.”

However, when we talk of karma, what we are referring to is ” the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect).” Thanks, Wikipedia! 

So, is it just “you reap what you sow?” Close, but that’s not all of it!

While karma has a strong core of “cause-and-effect,” it’s more that your actions and thoughts will affect how you live your life. It’s less of a “Oh, I picked up recycling outside so I’ll get a good thing later on,” and more of a “the good actions I choose now will mold me into a virtuous person.”

To quote from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, “A man of good deeds will become good.”

You see? It’s in the doing of the good deeds that we make ourselves better people. That’s karma!

Why do we get karma wrong?

Why does mainstream society get karma so wrong?

Why is it that karma in pop culture is just “you get what you deserve?”

How did we develop this view?

  1. Because pop culture takes the easy route. It’s easier to say “bad makes bad” rather than “there’s a dynamic energy system that responds to our every action.”
  2. Because we have this misguided perspective that we aren’t in control of our destinies.

What?

I’m serious. Karma is not fate. Karma is an internal power that we create, for good or bad.

When we shift this to say “that’s karma,” when a bad thing happens to us, we are giving up our internal power. We are giving up our ability to change things.

It’s because of this false view that we desire to transform karma into a sort of cash machine based on our ethical and spiritual behavior.

However, if we can let go of this understanding of happiness, we can see that all we need is to live deeply in the present moment with mindfulness and discover our true nature.

Karma is simply energy. It’s our intentional thoughts and actions. The energy we generate now and in the future will affect us. It has nothing to do with reward or punishment. Karma is unbiased and it’s ours to control.

(The simple fact is that Buddhist teachings can change your life. Check out our new no-nonsense guide to Buddhism and eastern philosophy here.)

Karma explained

Let’s take a look at some examples of how karma actually works.

First let’s look at bad karma (it’s best to get the bad out of the way first).

What are some examples of bad karma?

  • Oppressing people
  • Abusing power
  • Stealing
  • Cheating

When you create bad karma, you will bear bad results. Some of these results could be:

  • Enfeebling society
  • Destroying your close relationships
  • Losing your sense of self
  • Being punished by society

And good karma?

  • Volunteering in your community
  • Loving others as yourself
  • Choosing what is moral over what is easy

When you create good karma, good results will come. What are the results?

  • Strengthens society, which ultimately benefits you
  • Increases your wisdom
  • Helps you keep your negative emotions in balance
  • Heals your soul

You see? When you perform certain actions, you will bear certain consequences. This is how karma works.

Simple definition of karma

Ok, perhaps this is all getting a little too complicated. You need a simple, easy definition of karma.

Here it goes:

Karma is the entire process of cause-and-effect where our actions and intentions directly influence our future.

Karma is a dynamic process; it’s not something you bank for a rainy day. When we say “that’s karma” after a bad thing happens, what we actually mean is “that is the natural result of the negative actions that were taken.”

Spiritual meaning of karma

So how does karma relate to our spirituality? How is karma different than just simply “cause-and-effect?”

Why is it that karma is an energy, as opposed to just an observation?

It’s different for every religion. Let’s take a quick look at how certain religions discuss karma.

Karma in Hinduism

In Hinduism, karma plays an integral part in the cycle of a soul’s rebirth. The actions you have taken in the past will affect your reincarnated self in the future.

Hinduism has three types of karma:

  • Sanchita: our accumulated karma. This is the karma of actions we have already undertaken
  • Prarabdha: ripened karma. This is karma that is ready to be experienced in our present state
  • Kriyamana: current karma. This is the karma that we make now, which will be experienced in the future.

Karma in Buddhism

Buddhism is less straightforward when it comes to karma. What is important to understand is that Buddhism does not view karma as fatalistic. In Buddhism, you can change your karma through changing your thoughts and actions. Karma is also less tied to actions and more about a person’s thoughts and state of mind.

Karma in Jainism

In Jainism, karma is a physical substance, rather than an energy. Karma is attracted to the soul through the actions of the soul itself. The soul then undergoes rebirth in relation to the karma it has accumulated.

Laws of Karma

In Hinduism, there are several laws that govern karma. Here are the most important:

  1. Whatever you sow, so shall you reap.
  2. What you refuse to accept shall continue for you.
  3. Wherever you go, there you are.
  4. Whenever there is something wrong in your life, there is something wrong in you.

Even if you don’t identify as a Hindu, you can see that these rules are very applicable to our lives. Put in good, and you will cultivate good. Put in bad, and you will reap bad.

Watering the garden of your mind: How to use karma as a guiding force

“Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.” – Eckhart Tolle

The best way to think of karma is an energy that you’re creating every moment. Every intentional action or thought generates this energy.

We feel this every day, and it’s not stored for future punishment or reward.

However, if you’re reacting with anger all the time, you’re conditioning the mind for anger. Similarly, by reacting to things with peace and calm, you’re conditioning the mind for peace and calm.

All these qualities, such as anger, discontent, joy, harmony, etc can be seen as flowers and the seeds they sprout from.

When we’re born, all these mental qualities and emotions are seeds. Now imagine these seeds resting in the garden of your mind and constantly being either watered or neglected with your intentional thoughts.

Depending on what you do, you’re either watering the bad seeds or watering the good ones. These seeds can eventually grow into flowers or they can wither and die.

The important thing to realize is that the energy we give to these flowers is our karmic energy.

By living with mindfulness we can observe this karmic mind which is becoming conditioned in our minds and begin to change how we react in our daily lives.

Mindfulness gives us the ability to choose which flowers we water and which we don’t. Without mindfulness, we’re simply reactive to conditioned thought patterns.

So to use karma as a force for our own personal and spiritual development, a force for great good, you need only shine the light of mindfulness on your life to identify your karmic energy and work to heal any karmic energy holding you back.

Here’s an excellent example of how karma can come back to reward you in the future:

If you want to dive deeper into the meaning Karma, check out this excellent 30-minute video on what karma means:

In conclusion

Karma is a dynamic spiritual cycle of actions and effects that we directly control through our thoughts, decisions, and actions. When we create positive choices and thoughts, we will receive positive outcomes. Not because it is fated, but because this is the natural consequence of the previous actions we took.

By living with this knowledge of karma, we can let go of mental baggage and worries that we think are assigned to us and instead take control of our life.

Sure there are going to be outside factors that affect your life. But if you deepen your understanding of what true peace looks like, you’ll have the ability to experience life fully no matter what’s going on around you.

Karma shows that we have the freedom to decide what happens to us. It’s our intentional actions and thoughts that govern our lives.

If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism and eastern philosophy, we’ve put together a no-nonsense guide. It’s a 96-page eBook and focuses on specific actions you can take to improve all aspects of daily living, including your relationships, emotional resilience, and state of mind.

What does your future hold?

A friend of mine was going through a crisis.

And she passed me along a free video that she says changed everything for her. The video talks about biorhythms and how we can use them to predict our future and mold it to our advantage.

Check out the epic video here.

Don’t know what biorhythms are?

Well it’s a concept that’s generating a lot of buzz among an unlikely group, including scholars, scientists, shamans, and mystics.

Biorhythms can be used to predict important parts of a person’s life through mathematical cycles. Although it originated in the 19th century, it didn’t become popular until fairly recently.

The basic idea is that our daily lives are affected by rhythmic cycles, with peaks and storms. The best bit is that by understanding our own cycle we can predict our good and bad days and important life events. And most importantly, go on to achieve great things in life.

If you’re still confused, think numerology or astrology. But with a little more scientific cred…

Now, I’m a natural skeptic when it comes to a lot of this stuff. But the fact is cycles are everywhere, from day and night, to the 4 seasons, to the human body running on circadian and ultradian rhythms.

Anything which helps (even a little) you to look into the future, see roadblocks heading your way, and be able to easily sidestep them is worth at least checking out.

Here’s a link to the free video again.

Notable replies

  1. @Lachlan great article about what karma means. I think many people can get superstitious when thinking about karma, but it makes sense to think of karma more as the creative energy we create through our action.

    I also saw you’ve put together this eBook sharing some of what you’ve learned from Buddhism and eastern philosophy on living a fulfilling life. I’m looking forward to checking it out soon:

  2. Avatar for Marie Marie says:

    Great article and timely. I have started my discovery journey and it looks like a life will not suffice to uncover its richness and wisdom. Thanks for the e-book recommendation Justin.

  3. What an awesome revealation, I really had it upside down for sure. I thought karma is much more tied to fate and mistakes sort of coming for you sometime in the future, but to know that it’s about my own actions and reactions constituting my way of thinking, means I have a choice in what actions I can choose, intentionality is the basis of mindful living

  4. Another common distortion of Buddhist ideas occurs when people use the idea of karma to say: Well, if this 6 year old is suffering from meningitis, that’s fair and ok, because his suffering is due to misdeeds in a previous life.
    This sort of thing makes some people despise eastern religion as a complacent excuse for suffering.
    In truth, of course, the entire raison d’être of Buddhism is the relief of suffering. It does not say:
    That’s your karma, it’s all right,
    but
    Suffering is a drag, here’s how to get out of it

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Lachlan Brown

Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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