From the teachings of Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Karma is a Sanskrit term that signifies action. Any physical or mental action is karma. Karma is the sum total of our acts, both in the present and in preceding births. Karma means not only action, but also the result of an action. The consequence of an action is a part of the action. The law of karma means the law of causation. Wherever there is a cause, an effect must be produced. The cause is found in the effect and the effect is found in the cause. This is the universal chain of cause and effect which has no end. No link in the chain is unnecessary. The world runs on this mighty law which operates everywhere in the physical and mental planes. All other laws of nature are subordinate to this fundamental law.

The grand law of causation includes the law of action and reaction, the law of compensation and the law of retribution. All these laws come under one general, all-embracing heading, the doctrine of karma.

The law of action and reaction

If there is an action, there must be a reaction of equal force and of similar nature. Every thought, desire, imagination and sentiment causes a reaction. Virtue brings its own reward, vice brings its own punishment. This is the working of the law of reaction. God neither punishes the wicked nor rewards the virtuous. It is their own karmas that bring reward and punishment. It is the law of action and reaction that brings the fruits. No one is to be blamed. This law operates everywhere with unceasing precision and scientific accuracy, both on the physical and mental planes.

The law of compensation

The law of compensation operates everywhere in nature’s phenomena. If there is day in India, there is night in America. Peace follows a war and vice versa. This law also operates on the mental plane. It keeps up the balance and establishes peace, harmony and justice in nature. If you take an individual life as an isolated event that begins with the birth of the physical body and terminates with its death, you cannot find any correct explanation for the intricate and complicated affairs of life. Your present life is nothing when compared with the whole soul-life. It is momentary, a mere fragment. To find out the cause of anything, you will have to go deep into the affairs of the eternal soul-life. Only then will there be perfect balance of cause and effect. Life does not end with the disintegration of this physical body alone. There is reincarnation. There had been countless previous lives also.

The law of retribution

Every wrong action brings its own punishment in accordance with the law of retribution. The laws of causation, action and reaction, compensation and retribution all operate together. One who hurts another hurts himself first. One who cheats another cheats himself first. Remember that God is neither partial nor unjust. God is not responsible for the wealth of one person or the poverty of another. You suffer on account of your own actions. Things do not happen in this universe by accident or chance. They happen in an orderly manner. There is a certain definite connection between what is being done now by you and what will happen in the future. Always sow the seeds which will bring pleasant fruits and which will make you happy herein and hereafter.

How karma is fashioned

Man is threefold in nature. He consists of iccha, desire or feeling, jnana, knowing, and kriya, willing. These three fashion his karma. Desire, thought and action always go together. They are the three threads twisted into the cord of karma. Desire produces karma. You work to acquire the objects of your desire. Karma produces its fruits as pain or pleasure. You will have to take birth after birth to reap the fruits of your karmas. This is the law of karma.

Sanchita, prarabdha and kriyamana

Karma is of three kinds: sanchita or accumulated works, prarabdha or fructifying works and kriyamana or current works. Sanchita is all the accumulated karmas of the past. Part of it is seen in a person’s character, in his tendencies and aptitudes, inclinations and desires. Prarabdha is that portion of the past karma which is responsible for the present body. It cannot be avoided or changed. It is only exhausted by being experienced. You pay your past debts. Kriyamana is karma now being done for the future.

In Vedantic literature, there is a beautiful analogy. The archer has already sent an arrow. He cannot bring it back. He is about to shoot another arrow. The bundle of arrows in the quiver on his back is the sanchita. The arrow he has shot is prarabdha. And the arrow which he is about to shoot from his bow is kriyamana. Of these, he has perfect control over the sanchita and kriyamana, but he must surely work out his prarabdha. The past which has begun to take effect he has to experience.

Destiny and self-effort

Even if the law of karma is inexorable, there is scope for divine grace. Grace comes through penitence, austerity and devotion. Penitence does not alter the law of karma. It is an act that has its fruit like any other act. What one has to reap cannot be altered by the individual, but its recurrence can certainly be checked by self-effort. Self-effort is purushartha. Destiny is prarabdha. Prarabdha is purushartha done in previous births. The self-effort of today becomes the destiny of tomorrow. Yoga practice is self-effort to naturalise evil prarabdha which obstruct self-realization. If prarabdha is powerful, yoga is more powerful.

You have created your destiny through thoughts and actions. You can undo the same by right thinking and right action. Even if there is a dark antagonistic force attacking you, you can diminish its force by resolutely turning your mind away from it. Thus you can disarm destiny. Do not say: “Karma, karma. My karma has brought me this.” Exert. Do purushartha. Do tapas. Concentrate. Purify. Meditate. Do not become a fatalist. Do not yield to inertia. Do not bleat like a lamb. Roar Om, Om, Om like a lion of Vedanta. Remember that you are master of your destiny.

How destiny is built up

Thinking is real karma. Thought moulds your character. Thought materialises and becomes an action. You can deliberately shape your character by cultivating sublime thoughts. You sow an action and reap a habit. You sow a habit and reap a character. You sow a character and reap your destiny. Hence, destiny is your own making. You can undo it by entertaining noble thoughts and doing virtuous actions and changing your mode of thinking.

The impressions of small and big acts coalesce and form tendencies. The tendencies develop into a character. Character produces will. If a person has a strong character, he has a strong will. Karma produces character, and character in turn produces will. People of gigantic will have developed their will through karma done in countless births. No action goes in vain. Patient, indefatigable effort is needed. Watch your every thought, word and action.

You are master of your destiny

You are not a creature of environment or circumstance. You are responsible for your present state. Every action bears a fruit sooner or later. Tendencies of your past life become your capacities in the present life. Virtuous deeds of your past life give you good environments in the present life. Experiences of your past life make your conscience in this present life. Selfless actions of your past life give you discrimination, dispassion, aspiration in this present life.

Only the doctrine of karma can explain the mysterious problem of good and evil in this world and bring peace and strength to the afflicted and the desperate. It pushes one to right thinking, right speech and right action. If everyone were to understand this law correctly and discharge their daily duties carefully, they could bear the burden of samsara with patience, endurance and strength of mind. We would have a glorious Satya Yuga now with peace and plenty everywhere.