Whether you’ve heard it in movies or while consoling a friend, phrases like, “That’s karma for you,” and, “What goes around comes around,” have been used to describe the belief system that performing good deeds and being kind will result in positive outcomes — or “good” karma — while bad actions result in negative — or “bad” karma.
According to a 2019 survey conducted by Statista, a staggering 84 percent of U.S. adults believe in karma, or karmic retribution; 10 percent said they do not believe in the concept; and 6 percent said they don’t know.
But what exactly is karma? And what kind of role does it play in our everyday lives?
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Rooted in history
Derived from the Sanskrit word “karman” — which means action — the concept of karma is rooted in ancient religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism to describe a moral justice system that serves to dictate every person’s life, and determine the outcome of their next life.
In Hinduism, it is largely believed that the soul — or purusha in Hindi — does not perish and is reborn into a new body via the process of reincarnation or samsara. However, the soul will inherit the karma that the previous person incurred in their past life.
The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines karma as the “sum of someone’s good and bad actions in one of their lives — believed to decide what will happen to them in the next life.”
Based on the amount of good or bad karma, the soul will reincarnate into either an affluent family (if the previous life accrued good karma), or be born into poverty and struggle if the soul had incurred bad or negative karma by committing bad deeds in the past life.
Though Buddhist views differ somewhat from teachings in Hinduism, the baseline remains the same. Buddhism teaches that the five pillars or skandhas experienced by sentient beings: sensation, perception, thought, and consciousness, serve to guide an individual’s thought and actions in their everyday lives.
Based on individual and collective efforts in society, each person is thereby given the opportunity to cultivate righteous virtues, and elevate their moral standing by assimilating themselves to the characteristics of the Universe.
If karma is determined by one’s actions — whether good or bad — does this mean our lives are already set in stone before we are even born, or are we given any leeway to change certain outcomes? According to Confucius’ teachings, it is both.
Confucianism, also known as Ruism or Ru classicism, is based on the belief system that upholding personal ethics and morality is key to longevity, health, and success.
Founded by Kongzi, a scholar, philosopher and politician who lived in ancient China, the pillars of Confucianism are: benevolence, righteousness, filial piety, wisdom, and integrity. These virtues — if upheld by every individual— will result in a harmonious, peaceful, and abundant society, according to Kongzi.
Confucianism also placed emphasis on the term “jun zi,” which translates to “true gentleman” in Chinese. A “jun zi” refers to someone who abides by the highest ethical standards and conducts himself in accordance with the virtues of self-respect, generosity, sincerity, persistence, and benevolence.
“If the people are led by laws, and punishments seek uniformity among them, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame,” Confucius’ teachings say. “If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord.”
Within ancient moral philosophy in Hinduism, karma also serves as a motivational yardstick to entice people to live a righteous and kind life — and serves as the primary explanation for the existence of goodness and evil in society.
Balanced moral frameworks
While it’s easy to view karma as an immediate retribution system, this can result in the inadvertently fueling of negativity — thereby preventing you from living a full and happy life. If you’re thinking “I cut someone off in traffic two years ago, and that must be why this bad thing is happening to me,” it will stop you being able to enjoy your life.
It’s also important to remember that thoughts are powerful and negative outcomes can be channeled by thought. If you walk around constantly thinking, or saying things like, “I’m doomed,” or “My life will never get better,” you could be condemning yourself to inadvertently seek out negative outcomes — wreaking havoc on your ability to make decisions, and be present.
In Buddhist principles, thoughts are viewed as being powerful and tangible forms of existence in other dimensions, and wallowing in pity or self-loathing thoughts can thereby fuel a cycle of negativity — affecting your life in negative ways.
So while cliche, the saying: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind,” is tried and true, and may just help you reap positive outcomes all around.