Karma refers to action performed for the sake of the body and its senses. The work we do to earn a living is karma. The work we put into having a good time is karma too. When we eat, that’s karma. When we sleep, that’s karma. When we watch TV, listen to Beethoven, or Ravi Shankar, or Madonna, when we have kids, or drive our car—when we do just about anything—that’s karma.
Karma can be “extended” too. It’s not only what we do directly for ourselves but also what we do for others, in relation to the body and senses. When we help out a friend, give food to the poor, serve in the Army, or show our uncle how to cheat on his tax returns—again, it’s all karma.
Karma may be “good” or “bad” (or, for that matter, mixed). So karma may bring good or bad results (or, again, mixed). These results are also sometimes called karma. (More precisely, they are karmic reactions.)
Sometimes the results of karma are quick and obvious: work hard and get a good grade, overeat and get indigestion. But sometimes the results may take years—or, according to Vedic literature, lifetimes. I may do something this life and get the results in the next—or ten lifetimes from now, or thousands. So karma and its results form an intricate web.
If someone’s born ugly or poor or sick, that’s a sign of bad karma. Or if someone gets in trouble with the police, or gets in legal trouble—bad karma again. And good looks, good money, good health—good karma.
We’re getting reactions now for what we’ve done in the past, and creating future reactions by what we’re doing now. Gets complicated, doesn’t it
The scriptures of the world—the Vedas included—try to warn us away from bad karma and guide us towards good.
But we don’t always go along. And even when we do, the best that we get are good karmic results. And good or bad, we’re still caught in the net, still entangled. Good karma or bad, we’re still tied to the wheel of repeated birth and death.
What is karma and how does it work?
The Supreme Personality of Godhead, in His feature of eternal time, is present in the material world and is neutral towards everyone. No one is His ally, and no one is His enemy. Within the jurisdiction of the time element, everyone enjoys or suffers the result of his own karma, or fruitive activities. As, when the wind blows, small particles of dust fly in the air, so, according to one’s particular karma, one suffers or enjoys material life. –Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.11.20
Karma is the cosmic law of action and reaction. Under its control we souls in the material world reap good or bad results according to each act we perform.
Karmic reactions include not only things that happen to us, but such things as our health, wealth, intelligence, physical appearance, and social status, as well as our personalities and inclinations. While we have some freedom to choose our current acts, our choices are influenced by our natures, or personalities, which have developed from our previous actions. For example, good choices tend to make us good persons who make further good choices.
The law of karma begins to act upon us when we desire to enjoy separately from Krishna, and it locks us into an endless cycle. Each action begets a reaction that begets another action, and so on. Whether the reactions are good or bad, we must repeatedly accept new bodies in order for the reactions to play out. And each lifetime in a material body means unavoidable miseries, such as disease, old age, and death.
While the Vedas give directions for assuring good reactions, they tell us that the only truly beneficial course of action is to perform spiritual acts that can gain us freedom from the bonds of karma. Spiritual acts are acts for the service of Krishna and are the essence of Bhakti yoga. They awaken our innate love for Krishna, destroying our desire to enjoy separately from Him, which is the root of our karmic bondage.