Karma and the law of karma are two related but different concepts. Let us see both of them.
Karma is a Sanskrit word meaning “action”, or “act”. All human beings perform actions. No one can escape acting. In other words we are always doing something. For example: I am sitting, writing, thinking, breathing, etc.
Each action has a cause and an effect.
Independently from the cause, the way an action is performed can also vary: I could write this text in a more or less careful way, trying to reach (or not) our Western culture, trying to correct (or not) my misspelling errors, etc.
I can actually control the way I act! I can do my best, or be completely careless, among numerous other possibilities.
But, I CANNOT control the results! No one can! The website may have a problem that will not allow me to publish the text; if I publish it, you can react in several ways…I can’t control that.
I am sure you can think of situations when all the details were well planned and for some reason suddenly everything changed.
This is the reason why it is said that “we are the masters of our actions but not of their results”. So, the best thing to do is: do things the best we can and try to detach from the results. Everybody knows this is difficult, especially when it gets to detaching, but it is the way to go, at least in terms of yoga.
So far we saw that actions have causes and produce effects. We did not say much about these effects. So let’s have a look at them now.
The first thing to be considered is that if, let’s say, I am nice to someone, it is very likely that the person will be nice to me, as well. But if I am rude to someone, usually that person will not be pleasant to me.
I may see this immediately, or it may take some time. And it can take so much time to see the result, that I may not be able to connect it to the action that caused it.
Now is the moment to realize something important: the effects of our actions can affect the others … and do affect ourselves.
Taking the previous examples: if I am nice to someone and the person is nice to me, I will have part of the fruit - a pleasant one, because the person was nice to me. In the other case, if I yell at someone, that person may do something very unpleasant to me and I will feel it.
However, most of the time things are not so evident. Among the difficult things to understand is the fact that we are not going to receive exactly the same act we produced: if I yell at someone, it doesn't mean I am going to be yelled at. But I will go through some situation that will have the same kind of energy. Using the same example, it also does not mean that the person I hurt will hurt me. I can receive the effect via anyone.
Things are simpler if you think of a human being as a system. We were taught the law of conservation of energy: in an isolated system the total energy does not change. Think of our motivation to produce an action as something like energy - some energy that we modulate in a certain way (with tenderness, fear, happiness, envy, etc.) When we act, we will “throw” that kind of energy out of our system, creating a sort of vacuum in it. This vacuum will attract the same modulated energy. It does not matter from whom, or when. It will come back.
This is the reason why people say that whatever you do, you will receive back. This is known as the “karma law”. For me, it seems like a natural law. It is not for sure a punishment, or a reward. It is just the return of what we did. Knowing this should make us feel responsible for whatever happens to us, instead of blaming “fate”, “luck” or even God. And it should also allow us to find patience to go through the consequences of our “not so illuminated” actions.
What must not happen is to use this concept to perform an act against other people, using “their” karma as an excuse! In other words, you cannot go and steal a chicken from your neighbor with the excuse he stole another from you in the past, so it is his karma! If you do this, you will be attracting the same energy back to you in a never ending painful and hostile chain!
Let’s go back to the other example: I yelled at someone. Let’s suppose that person responds in a way that hurts me. Maybe I will understand that it is not a good idea to yell at people. This very simple example illustrates another thing: anything happening to us should teach us something. If we are humble enough we will recognize what “life” teaches us and we can avoid doing actions in the future that will have painful results. Patanjali says that “the suffering yet to come CAN and MUST be avoided”!
Now, think of all the actions everybody does, all along their lives, and all the results… It is very complex! You may think: ”How can this be true? I have seen so many people doing wrong things and having no trouble at all as a consequence…” Yes, sometimes it seems so. But each person has his/her own process and we are only aware of ours.