Karma is a curious word, one that has percolated into the modern parlance as effortlessly as water. It means many things to many people, so let’s attempt to unpack the word and glean some insights. The most popular perception of Karma is Big Brother, that eye in the sky that’s keeping a watch on all you do, and one that will punish or reward you based on your deeds. So much so that Karma has become everyone’s favourite revenge agent! But is that what Karma really is?
Karma, in its base form, means action. Each action we perform creates a mental impression. The more you do something, the more likely it is that you will keep doing it in the future, and that then shapes your mental make up and at a deeper level your vasanas, the bundle of desires we carry from birth to birth. One may argue that you could completely abstain from action, but this isn’t possible for us ordinary folk, as our actions also become an outlet to exhaust the bundle of vasanas we are born with.
We are extremely identified with our body in today’s world, with an incessant focus on consumerism and cosmetics. Pleasure is superficial, fleeting and momentary, yet the trap of the modern matrix is so compelling that our senses get trapped in this sticky web of deceit. When we act from this physical plane where we are deeply identified with the temporary self, i.e. the body-mind complex, the karmic impressions that our actions create run even deeper. And as we discussed, these actions, whether sattvic, rajasic or tamasic, add to our bundle of vasanas, our propensity to act in a similar way in the future, encroaching on the amount of free-will that is available to us to exercise later in life and future births.
But if action can become such a trap, why is work considered worship? This is the karmic paradox, action can be the cause of both deliverance and entrapment! The secret lies in the mode of action, i.e. the intent behind the action and the attachment to the fruit of the action. As Shri Krishna explains in Ch 5 of the Bhagavad Gita, when we perform our actions without attachment, and by surrendering the results to the Supreme Lord, we remain untouched by the result of the action, like the lotus leaf is untouched by the water. Living consciously allows us to transcend the trap of material existence, where free from the feverishness of action, we treat joys and sorrows equally, gradually achieving sthita-pragnya, the stage of eternal equanimity.