Self-transformation is arduous work, especially at first; but each tiny change brings with it the joyful awareness that your life is gradually becoming a force for peaceful change.”

Karma is an expression used to rationalize everything from why one’s life is happy or miserable to why one’s car broke down. But, what does karma truly mean? Karma originated from the Sanskrit word ‘kri,’ to mean the effects of actions. Good actions lead to good outcomes – happiness and satisfaction – while bad actions lead to bad outcomes – pain and suffering. Should we then interpret karma to mean that the goal of life is to seek actions that give rise to happiness and avoid actions that cause pain and suffering?

The answer is no. The Hindu philosophy highlights that the goal of life is neither pursuing pleasure nor avoiding pain. Instead, it recognizes that thoughts and actions have consequences – not only to oneself but also to others. It is taking concerted efforts to guide our thoughts and actions in the right direction and seeking the knowledge that we need to shape our conduct and character.

What is the source for such knowledge? The source is our own minds. Although we mistakenly assume that the external events are the cause of our pleasure and pain, it is not so. External events, for example, the birth of a child or the death of a spouse, occur regardless of how one reacts to them. We would be overjoyed by the birth of a child or distressed by the death of a spouse. But, when we dispassionately inquire into our minds, we comprehend that both emotions – happiness and sadness – are eventually, short-lived.  Therefore, we should let neither emotions to overwhelm us. Instead, we must consider both emotions as ‘essential’ to train one’s conduct. In this sense, the external events are like the blows a blacksmith levies on a hot iron rod to make it malleable and to get it ready for productive use.

Training one’s mind, however, demands that we look deeper into our own minds. It requires that we analyze the mind and learn why the mind reacts the way it does and what we can do to take control of it.  Knowledge arises only when we engage in such efforts. For example, when Newton saw the apple falling to the earth – instead of going up towards the sky – he did not ignore it as a routine phenomenon. Instead, he contemplated it and discovered gravity as the cause behind the apple’s fall to earth. Gravity would have existed even if Newton had not discovered it. But, Newton’s investigation into the phenomenon and his discovery contributed, not only to the advancement of scientific knowledge but also to his own recognition as a great scientist. Similarly, when we take charge of our emotions and learn how to control our thoughts and actions, we not only become a better person but also begin to contribute to the welfare of others. That is the essence of karma.

In summary, karma is not a passive ‘inheritance’ from our past lives that we can use to justify our failings. Instead, karma is a beacon of light. It can help us reach the right destination. If we ignore it, we would lose our way.

Dr. Ram S. Sriram