Definitions of Karma

From Life’s Riddle by Nils Amneus


There is an inherent tendency in Nature to restore balance and harmony wherever these have been disturbed.

If the branch of a tree is bent out of position it reacts with an equal and opposite force which will return the branch to its original position when released. If a stone is thrown up into the air it returns to earth with a velocity equal to that with which it was thrown. If a weight is suspended by a rope it produces a tension in the rope equal to the weight, but pulling in the opposite direction.

These are examples on the material plane of an automatic tendency in Nature, which in Mechanics is expressed by the formula: “to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” We see other examples of a tendency in Nature to restore balance in such common phenomena as water resuming its level after it has been disturbed; the air of the atmosphere moving from high pressure areas to those of a lower pressure or a swinging pendulum returning eventually to its position of rest.

The ancient teachings tell us that the same tendency operates throughout the Universe on all its planes, unseen as well as seen. We human beings are also governed by the same law, since we too are parts of Nature. In our innermost essence we are one with the Universal Life. Through this inner source we are united with one another as are the leaves of one tree or the cells and organs of the human body. The natural relationship between human beings is therefore one of harmony and cooperation for the common good. If this harmonious relationship is broken, Nature responds by setting up reactions of a similar kind. Thus if our motives, feelings, thoughts and actions are of a detrimental nature the same will return to us, and if they are of a beneficent nature the reaction will be beneficial. Thus life gives us back what we put into it.

The tendency in Nature to respond to external impulses by producing equivalent reactions is described by phrases such as “The Law of Cause and Effect,” “The Law of Consequences,” etc. In Hindu philosophy it is referred to by the Sanskrit term “Karma.” Since there is no adequate term in Occidental languages to convey this idea, and in order to avoid cumbersome expressions, the Sanskrit term has been adopted in Theosophical literature for this purpose.

Literally translated Karma means “action,” but to the Hindu this word has a more comprehensive meaning than it does to an Occidental. To the Hindu the effect is inherent in the cause. He considers that an initial act is only one half of an operation that is not complete until the reaction has taken place. The term Karma therefore includes both the cause and the effect. It is sometimes referred to as a “law,” but this should not be understood in its judicial sense as an edict pronounced by some outside authority, but in the scientific sense as a quality inherent in Nature.

Karma is the fundamental law that governs all actions. It is the preserver of equilibrium, the restorer of disturbed balance. It does not punish or reward, it merely adjusts.

From Occult Glossary, G de Purucker

(Karman, Sanskrit) This is a noun-form coming from the root kri meaning “to do,” “to make.” Literally karma means “doing,” “making,” action. But when used in a philosophical sense, it has a technical meaning, and this technical meaning can best be translated into English by the word consequence. The idea is this: When an entity acts, he acts from within; he acts through an expenditure in greater or less degree of his own native energy. This expenditure of energy, this outflowing of energy, as it impacts upon the surrounding milieu, the nature around us, brings forth from the latter perhaps an instantaneous or perhaps a delayed reaction or rebound. Nature, in other words, reacts against the impact; and the combination of these two — of energy acting upon nature and nature reacting against the impact of that energy — is what is called karma, being a combination of the two factors. Karma is, in other words, essentially a chain of causation, stretching back into the infinity of the past and therefore necessarily destined to stretch into the infinity of the future. It is unescapable, because it is in universal nature, which is infinite and therefore everywhere and timeless; and sooner or later the reaction will inevitably be felt by the entity which aroused it.

It is a very old doctrine, known to all religions and philosophies, and since the renascence of scientific study in the Occident has become one of the fundamental postulates of modern coordinated knowledge. If you toss a pebble into a pool, it causes ripples in the water, and these ripples spread and finally impact upon the bank surrounding the pool; and, so modern science tells us, the ripples are translated into vibrations, which are carried outward into infinity. But at every step of this natural process there is a corresponding reaction from every one and from all of the myriads of atomic particles affected by the spreading energy.

Karma is in no sense of the word fatalism on the one hand, nor what is popularly known as chance, on the other hand. It is essentially a doctrine of free will, for naturally the entity which initiates a movement or action — spiritual, mental, psychological, physical, or other — is responsible thereafter in the shape of consequences and effects that flow therefrom, and sooner or later recoil upon the actor or prime mover.

Since everything is interlocked and interlinked and interblended with everything else, and no thing and no being can live unto itself alone, other entities are of necessity, in smaller or larger degree, affected by the causes or motions initiated by any individual entity; but such effects or consequences on entities, other than the prime mover, are only indirectly a morally compelling power, in the true sense of the word moral.

An example of this is seen in what the theosophist means when he speaks of family karma as contrasted with one’s own individual karma; or national karma, the series of consequences pertaining to the nation of which he is an individual; or again, the racial karma pertaining to the race of which the individual is an integral member. Karma cannot be said either to punish or to reward in the ordinary meaning of these terms. Its action is unerringly just, for being a part of nature’s own operations, all karmic action ultimately can be traced back to the kosmic heart of harmony which is the same thing as saying pure consciousness-spirit. The doctrine is extremely comforting to human minds, inasmuch as man may carve his own destiny and indeed must do so. He can form it or deform it, shape it or misshape it, as he wills; and by acting with nature’s own great and underlying energies, he puts himself in unison or harmony therewith and therefore becomes a co-worker with nature as the gods are.

From Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary, G. de Purucker, Editor-in-Chief

Karma (Sanskrit) [from the verbal root kri to do, make, denoting action] Action, the causes and consequences of action; that which produces change. One of the primary postulates of every comprehensive system of philosophy, described as a universal law, unceasingly active throughout universal nature and rooted in cosmic harmony, in its operations existing from eternity, inevitable, inherent in the very nature of things. It is action, absolute harmony, the adjuster; it preserves equilibrium by compensating and adjusting all actions, excessive or defective. Hence it is called the law of retribution, implying neither reward nor punishment, based on nature’s own urge of harmonious equilibrium. As such it has been personalized as Nemesis and by many other names, a practice which lends itself to popular imagining of avenging deities, such as God or Gods, Furies, Fates, Destiny, etc. As there are no such things as inanimate beings in the universe, it is not surprising to hear of karmic agents and of scribes or lipika who record karma. Karma must necessarily be transmitted by living beings of one grade or another, because there is no other means possible, and universal nature is but a vast, virtually frontierless being whose entire structure, laws, and operations are the innumerable hierarchies of beings in all-various grades, which thus not only condition nature, but are in fact universal nature itself. By our acts we create living beings which act upon other people and ultimately react upon ourselves. These beings, then, are agents of karma on one plane; on higher planes other orders of beings are such agents.

“An Occultist or a philosopher will not speak of the goodness or cruelty of Providence; but, identifying it with Karma-Nemesis, he will teach that nevertheless it guards the good and watches over them in this, as in future lives; and that it punishes the evil-doer — aye, even to his seventh rebirth. So long, in short, as the effect of his having thrown into perturbation even the smallest atom in the Infinite World of harmony, has not been finally readjusted. For the only decree of Karma — an eternal and immutable decree — is absolute Harmony in the world of matter as it is in the world of Spirit. It is not, therefore, Karma that rewards or punishes, but it is we, who reward or punish ourselves according to whether we work with, through and along with nature, abiding by the laws on which that Harmony depends, or — break them.

“Nor would the ways of Karma be inscrutable were men to work in union and harmony, instead of disunion and strife. For our ignorance of those ways — which one portion of mankind calls the ways of Providence, dark and intricate; while another sees in them the action of blind Fatalism; and a third, simple chance, with neither gods nor devils to guide them — would surely disappear, if we would but attribute all these to their correct cause. With right knowledge, or at any rate with a confident conviction that our neighbours will no more work to hurt us than we would think of harming them, the two-thirds of the World’s evil would vanish into thin air. Were no man to hurt his brother, Karma-Nemesis would have neither cause to work for, nor weapons to act through. . . . We stand bewildered before the mystery of our own making, and the riddles of life that we will not solve, and then accuse the great Sphinx of devouring us. But verily there is not an accident in our lives, not a misshapen day, or a misfortune, that could not be traced back to our own doings in this or in another life” (The Secret Doctrine 1:643-4).

The effect of karma on human beings is merely the natural reaction from their actions, which may be described as only half-actions, for they are not completed until the reaction has ensued. Since the consequences of acts do not necessarily ensue immediately, it follows that at any stage of our career we may experience the results of actions performed a long time in the past.

Karma does not obviate free will or imply fatalism or mechanistic determinism. It is not merely a mechanical or mechanistic chain of linked cause and effect, by which every act is predetermined by some previous act and by no other cause. Man is a divine spark expressing itself through a series of vehicles, forming by means of these vehicles a series of egos, each conscious and operative on its own plane. Through his contract with higher planes, he has the power of bringing new forces into operation, so he is not inexorably bound in a mechanistic sense by his karma. On the other hand, to speak of an absolutely free will is meaningless; the will becomes more and more emancipated from conditions as we penetrate deeper into the recesses of our nature; but it must always be actuated by motive of some kind, and hence, being conditioned by motive, it comes under the operation of the universal law of karma.

There are many types of karma, such as human, racial, national, family, individual, etc. A chain of causation, stretched out in time, will be intersected by any given present moment; so that in speaking of a person, we may say he sums up in himself both his past and his future, he is his own karma. Since the whole universe and all the beings which compose it are linked and blended together, it follows that no person can have exclusive interests and that the karma of all beings is linked and, in a profound sense, identical. Karma in its moral aspect is cosmic justice. It should not interfere in any way with helping others, nor does it render futile the exercise of compassion, for we incur as much responsibility by refraining from action as by acting. “Sow kindly acts and thou shalt reap their fruition. Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin” (The Voice of the Silence 31).

From The Key To Theosophy, H. P. Blavatsky

Karma (Sans.) Physically, action; Metaphysically, the LAW of RETRIBUTION; the Law of Cause and Effect or Ethical Causation. It is Nemesis only in the sense of bad Karma. It is the eleventh Nidana in the concatenation of causes and effects in orthodox Buddhism; yet it is the power that controls all things, the resultant of moral action, the metaphysical Samskara, or the moral effect of an act committed for the attainment of something which gratifies a personal desire. There is the Karma of merit and the Karma of demerit. Karma neither punishes nor rewards; it is simply the one Universal LAW which guides unerringly and, so to say, blindly, all other laws productive of certain effects along the grooves of their respective causations. When Buddhism teaches that “Karma is that moral Kernel (of any being) which alone survives death and continues in transmigration” or reincarnation, it simply means that there remains nought after each personality, but the causes produced by it, causes which are undying, i. e., which cannot be eliminated from the Universe until replaced by their legitimate effects, and so to speak, wiped out by them. And such causes, unless compensated during the life of the person who produced them with adequate effects, will follow the reincarnated Ego and reach it in its subsequent incarnations until a full harmony between effects and causes is fully re-established. No “personality” — a mere bundle of material atoms and instinctual and mental characteristics — can, of course, continue as such in the world of pure spirit. Only that which is immortal in its very nature and divine in its essence, namely, the Ego, can exist for ever. And as it is that Ego which chooses the personality it will inform after each Devachan, and which receives through these personalities the effects of the Karmic causes produced, it is, therefore, the Ego, that Self, which is the “moral Kernel” referred to, and embodied Karma itself, that “which alone survives death.”