Which of our actions make up our karma and produce results later, either in this life or in lives to come? The word karma means “action.” All of our actions are kar-mas except the ones we are in the process of performing. These are kriyas; completed actions are karmas. The seeds of karma lie in the kriya, because our present actions instantly turn into completed actions. When an action is completed, the action itself no longer exists in its gross form, but the result of that action manifests sooner or later. Both the action and its result are stored in their subtle forms in the unconscious mind and are known as karmas.
Any action we perform, whether mental, verbal, or physical, creates a subtle impression in the unconscious. When we continually repeat the same action these impressions are strengthened, until eventually they become so powerful that, unable to resist their strong currents, we are swept into performing actions that match these impressions. In other words, subtle impressions (samskaras) are born from our actions, and in turn, our actions are motivated by subtle impressions. This is a vicious cycle that, once in motion, is difficult to break. This cycle—actions creating impressions, which in turn drive our actions—is the law of karma.
Does the concept of karma have universal application or is it strictly an Eastern idea? All cultures share the belief that if we do good we will reap good results. The concept of good differs from place to place and from time to time, but the conviction that there is a causal relationship between good actions and good results and bad or wrong actions and bad results is fundamental to all societies. And regardless of what the highest goal of life is thought to be, spiritually uplifting actions are universally seen as the means of purifying the way of the soul, just as base actions are seen as contaminating. Karma can be positive or negative, uplifting or degrading. The law of karma is simply, “As you sow, so shall you reap.”
Yoga often speaks of the bondage of karma and the necessity of freeing ourselves from it. How did this bondage come about in the first place? We do not know when this process began, so we call it “beginningless.” According to the yogis, until we gain access to that realm of consciousness where the subtle impressions are formed and all our previous deeds are stored, it is fruitless to brood about how and why we performed our first action, created a corresponding subtle impression, and thus got caught in the cycle. What is useful is knowing how to free ourselves. From a practical standpoint, the first step is to discover how to burn or erase negative karmas and engender positive ones. To this end, it is helpful to understand a bit about the various types of karma.
The yogis categorize all karmas into three main divisions: sanchita (dormant), prarabdha (active), and kriyamana (potential) karmas.
The yogis categorize all karmas into three main divisions: sanchita (dormant), prarabdha (active), and kriyamana (potential) karmas. Our sanchita or dormant karmas become active only when conditions are ripe. Like seed corn stored in a silo, sanchita karmas will sprout and bear fruit if they are planted in a viable place in the proper season and receive the right amount of sustenance.
Our active—or prarabdha karmas—have already started producing fruit. These karmas are like seedcorn that has been removed from the silo, planted, and is now growing. The life of these plants is determined by the fertility of the soil, climatic conditions, and the prevalence of disease and insects. Corn plants growing in a field have no choice but to withstand whatever conditions they encounter and to strive to produce ears of corn. Once a plant has sprouted there is no way that it can return to its seed form to await more favorable growing conditions. Our active karmas are like these plants.
When conditions are favorable our dormant karmas become active, shaping our life and its circumstances. Like sprouting corn, once we begin our outward journey we are totally dependent on what life has to offer. Just as a farmer tends the plants, hoping for a good harvest (although he knows that much of the plant’s fate is not in his hands), we try to do what is best for ourselves and those we love. Our success depends on many variables, most of which are unpredictable.
Prarabdha karmas constitute our destiny. (Prarabdha literally means “already in the process of producing fruits.”) There is not much to be done once the cycle of karma has reached the stage of destiny, but the process of reaping the fruits of destiny can be managed wisely. When our active karmas have run their course, for example, their fruits can be stored or given up. If we are attached to the fruits of our actions we will store them, and if we do, there is a good chance they will sprout and the cycle will begin again.
The third type of karmas—potential karmas—are those that have not yet been created. The literal translation of kriyamana karma is “karma yet to be performed.” These karmas can be compared to the ears of corn that have not yet formed. If we let the plant grow, it will form ears and eventually yield fully mature kernels in the natural course of events. Similarly, under the so-called normal circumstances of life—conditions into which we are born and under which we live—we find ourselves performing actions, all of which bear fruit.
We may not be able to stop the course of events caused by our active karmas, but we are free either to accumulate the fruits of our karmas or to renounce them.
Here the analogy breaks down. Corn has no free will but depends totally on nature for its survival. We have more free will and are less dependent on nature. We may not be able to stop the course of events caused by our active karmas, but we are free either to accumulate the fruits of our karmas or to renounce them. Hoarding the fruits creates an environment of further involvement—potential karmas—but those who entertain destiny joyfully and wisely, who are free from both attachment and aversion to the experiences that destiny brings, renounce the fruit of their actions and thus do not form potential karmas.
Yoga texts use another metaphor, one drawn from archery, to explain the three types of karmas. (At the time these texts were compiled, archery was not a sport but an essential skill for a warrior.) Sanchita (dormant) karmas are like arrows stored in the quiver, ready to be fit into the bow. Prarabdha (active) karmas are like arrows already in flight. Kriyamana (potential) karmas are like arrows that have not yet been made, although all the components are present. Arrows, like any other weapon, are made for a reason. The same reason that impels us to make or purchase arrows impels us to use them. Once they have been shot, the warrior requires more arrows, so more will be made. They will be stored in the warrior’s quiver, shot in due course, and new arrows will be produced and placed in the quiver. The cycle of karmas—from dormant, to active, to potential, back to dormant, and so on—continues in the same fashion.
In other words, our prarabdha or destiny cannot be altered. Or can it? Is there anything we can do to change the course of our active karmas? Yes. Kriyamana (potential) karmas are in our hands, provided we exercise our faculty of discrimination properly. These karmas are the arrows that have not yet been made, although the factory, the skilled arrowmaker, the raw materials, and the customer are all present. The ego is the factory, the senses are the arrow-makers, anxiety is the raw material, and the desire-ridden mind is the consumer. It is up to our faculty of discrimination to make the final decision as to whether or not these arrows will be manufactured. If they are, they will be stored as dormant (sanchita) karmas, and sooner or later they are bound to be shot, resulting in destiny—prarabdha karma.
Although our present level of knowledge and ability are greatly influenced by our active karmas, as human beings we have a high degree of free will and the power of choice. We are blessed with the ability to think linearly, as well as with the power of discrimination. By using these gifts we cannot only avoid creating undesirable potential karmas, we can also create potential karmas that can soon neutralize the impact of our negative dormant karmas—and even of our destiny.