Richard G. Petty, MD


The Sanskrit word karma has been part of our vocabulary since the late 1960s. Over thirty years ago I was speaking to one of George Harrison’s lawyers in London, who had followed in the footsteps of the Beatles and flirted with Transcendental Meditation. He told me that karma just meant “fate,” which was not at all what I’d been taught.

I’ve just seen a number of articles that have used the term very loosely. What is even more perplexing is that often the same writer will talk about karma as a causal law, and then immediately start talking about quantum mechanics, in which many actions are not causal at all. Some even start dabbling in synchronicity, forgetting, perhaps, that the subtitle of the original paper by Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli was “An Acausal Connecting Principle.”

It’s important to get it right: if we misunderstand a law or principle of life, it’s difficult to stay on track. And we have to realize that although there are plenty of opinions about karma, synchronicity, quantum mechanics and the rest, there are also some real objective facts to guide us.

Let me give you an example of one of these articles: “Karma deals with the law of cause and effect. Everything that happens to us (effect) has had a previous cause. The evolution of karmic law means that we can be master of our own destiny. Your karmic lessons in life reflect the qualities that you either lack, or are weak in, and are those hindering your success…” This is so contradictory. There is no place for chance, yet you can master your destiny, despite the fact that your behavior must have a previous cause. This isn’t just circular reasoning; it’s more like pretzel logic!

So is karma complicated? Is there a simple way to understand it and work with it?

Karma means “action,” and it refers to the intentional acts of conscious beings. These acts may be physical, or they may be thoughts or feelings. Intentions results in acts that cause effects in the mind, the body, the subtle systems, our relationships and our spirituality. This way of looking at karma links inextricably with the evidence being generated by the Global Consciousness Project.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his book The Universe in a Single Atom makes a clear distinction between the operation of the natural law of causality, in which some action will have a certain set of effects, and the law of karma, in which an intentional act will reap certain results. He uses a good example: if a campfire gets out of control in a forest, the resulting fire, smoke and charcoal are simple, natural and expected results. By contrast if you light a fire and forget to put it out, which then causes the chain of events: that’s karmic causation.

I this view, the large-scale universe evolves according to causal laws. When it has evolved to the stage of supporting sentient life, now the fate of the universe becomes entangled with the karma of the sentient beings that now inhabit it. But there’s something more to it.

Matter in its most subtle form is Qi or Prana, a vital field energy that is inseparable from consciousness. The Qi or Prana provides dynamic movement and cohesion, while consciousness provides awareness, cognition and self-reflection. This indivisible pair produces our bodies and the universe as a whole. Every particle in the universe possesses conscious awareness, but it is not until sentience arises that the law of karma comes into play.

In Kriya Yoga there has been the development of many complex ideas about karma, subdividing it into multiple types, and with advice on how to attract good karma and dispel the bad. For students who would like to go into these distinctions in more detail, there a very nice short book entitled The Laws of Karma.

Because karma implies that the universe is lawful and moral, it has often been misinterpreted as fatalism. But that s not correct: every decision is a product of free will. To be sure, it is a free will that is tempered by the causal forces of our genetic makeup and environment. One of the major goals of self-development is to free yourself from the restrictions imposed upon you by your genes and your environment, so that you can make decisions that will generate the greatest good for the largest number of people.

What we must not do is to use karma as an excuse. If you are playing a game of cards, you play the hand that you are given. There’s no point in complaining about your bad luck: your learn how to make the best play wit the cards that you have in your hand.

“Knowing that his past actions may try to overwhelm him, the devotee must be prepared to combat them. God will give him the strength: His Name will be an impenetrable armor. It will save him from all the consequences.”
–Swami Brahmananda (Indian Religious Figure, 1854-1922)

“It is horrible to see everything that one detested in the past coming back wearing the colors of the future.”
–Jean Rostand (French Biologist and Historian, 1894-1977)

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