What Is Karma and How Does It Affect Your Life?

Karma is a topic that many people talk about, but few understand. Professor V. K. Choudhry, founder of the Systems Approach to Vedic Astrology, states that at the heart of Astrology is Karma Theory. Given this, I thought that it would be a good idea for us to gain an understanding of what karma actually is.

In its purest sense, karma is the accumulated total actions taken by a person in this and in previous states of existence that contribute to how they will live future existences. Karma is a concept that originated thousands of years ago in the East through Hindu Vedic traditions and then later was adopted in other Indian religions, such as Buddhism and Jainism.

With this basic definition in hand, let’s now explore what those words mean.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, one of the oldest Hindu Scriptures, karma is referred to as a mighty secret, which only the initiated may know.

Deep indeed is this causal law, and deep it appears to be. It is by not knowing, by not understanding, by not penetrating this doctrine that the world of men has become entangled like a ball of twine…unable to pass beyond the Way of Woe, and the ceaseless round of Rebirth.

Buddha — Sutta Nipata

The Western View of karma

In the West, karma is conceptualized as a universal law of justice. For example, if someone robs a store, which is considered an evil act, but the police don’t catch him and he gets away with it, then people tend to think that karma will get him in the end.

By that, we mean that at some point later in his life he will suffer. We believe that the laws of justice will balance things out naturally — that he deserves whatever bad things happen to him in the future, because that’s his punishment. Maybe a few years later, someone steals his computer or something else bad happens to him.

We remark, “Hah! Karma got him because he did something evil in his past.”

In fact, any mishap that occurs, especially those for which there is no clear explanation, we tend to ascribe to karma.

The problem is that this is not how karma actually works. The Western concept is more like a cartoon caricature enactment of karma akin to Santa Claus, who is maintaining a list and checking it twice in order to find out who’s naughty or nice. The Santa Claus figure in reality is a proxy for a sky God, who also is keeping track of everything that we do in life and will settle our account after we die.

I want to provide you with a more accurate and nuanced explanation of karma. An explanation that focuses on how karma functions in your life. After all, you don’t want information that only applies to thieves and other criminals. You want an explanation that applies to everything that is occurring in your life right now. You want to understand why you may be suffering and are not achieving the results that you want in your life. You want karma to have relevance for you.

Karma in Eastern philosophy

You harm yourself, as dust thrown against the wind comes back to the thrower.


As the quote above teaches us, every action that you take in life, be it big or small, has a certain consequence associated with it. And negative actions tend to have natural negative consequences. These negative consequences don’t have to come from external sources. In fact, the worst ones come internally.

Karma is a Sanskrit word from the root kri that translates roughly to action or doing. Karma equals action.

Man becomes what he does. Can this doctrine be refuted? If it be true, it is the most important and the most neglected truth in the world. [1]

William Loftus Hare

You might be asking yourself at this point.


What does this have to do with justice and equality that many have interpreted karma to signify?

Let’s unravel that.

A basic principle of the universe is that life is One. All its forms are interrelated in a vastly complicated but indivisible whole. Thus, every action by any form of life, from the highest to the lowest, must also react on every other form.

The profoundest error in all human belief is called Attavada in Buddhism. It is the belief in the separateness of the mind, soul, or spirit from the Onethe infinite SELF – of which all manifestation is part. The Buddha called Attavada heresy. This fundamental oneness principle, the very basis for solidarity in the universe, must be thoroughly grasped and acknowledged before karma theory can be in any way understood.

No man can rise superior to his individual failings without lifting, be it ever so little, the whole body of which he is an integral part. In the same way no one can sin, nor suffer the effects of sin, alone. In reality, there is no such thing as “separateness;” and the nearest approach to that selfish state which the laws of life permit is in the intent or motive. [2]

Helena. P. Blavatsky

Actions and Consequences

Your actions, along with the actions of others, including those of neighborhood groups, governments at national and local levels, corporations, and other organizations, the actions of animals, and the natural actions of the universe — all of them have consequences.

In the physical world, it is the law of cause and effect. It is Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal opposite reaction. Every effect has a cause. Life itself is a giant interplay of actions. From a spiritual point of view, Karma is the law of moral retribution, in which not only does every cause have an effect, but the one who puts the cause in action suffers the effect.

But karma theory is only understandable from the spiritual point of view. To regard it as a mechanical law of debit and credit for good and evil actions is to rob the doctrine of its living power. [3]

Christmas Humphreys

Let’s consider the life of Renaissance artist and scientist Leonardo da Vincci. We can take the exact moments of his birth and death, stretch out the years in between, and we would be able to observe a series of actions and consequences. The closer we examine his life, the more actions and consequences we would see. Moreover, we would notice that the series of actions and consequences of da Vincci’s life build on each other, such that consequences resulting from earlier actions had a tendency to influence his future actions.

Recognizing this and applying it to our lives, we would conclude that good actions will result in good consequences and bad actions will result in bad consequences. It seems straightforward. Right?

It depends?

Western culture tends to view good and bad from a material perspective — things that you have done, things that occur (randomly or intentionally), and things perceived through our senses.

On the other hand, Eastern philosophy tends to view good and bad from a spiritual perspective, especially in terms of intent.

A common misconception that people have about karma is that it is a supernatural law of the universe. This is an inaccurate representation. A sky God, with a long white beard up in the heavens conducting surveillance on everybody, keeping an account of how many good or bad things you have done, and then somehow balancing things out in the end, does not exist.

This is not how karma actually works. Karma is a natural law. It is a psychological law, in that karma profoundly explains human behavior. It also is a spiritual law. And the spiritual aspect of it really begins to be understood when you grasp what the ancient Hindu sages meant by good and bad (evil). And it’s not at all how the West tends to conceptualize these terms.

Good and Bad Actions Defined

In Eastern philosophy, good means selfless. These constitute actions that do not come from your ego, but from your spiritual nature.

Bad means selfish. You could say that these acts are evil. But you shouldn’t try to view evil objectively, as if there is a devil monstrosity sitting beneath the Earth that is going to tempt you to do something evil or to turn you into an evil person. Evil actually is more mundane. This is how it applies to your life.

Evil constitutes actions you take that emanate from your ego, doing things from your identity or your self.

What is meant by selfish acts? This is an interesting concept to unravel. Here are two examples.

  • Working as a team with coworkers on a project that you subsequently take full credit for doing yourself. 
  • Gorging yourself on ice cream that had been set aside for a child’s birthday party, thereby ruining it.

What are the bad consequences? We tend to think that the worst consequences are ones that come from the outside. For example, if you are caught robbing a store, you go to jail.

Extending one of the above examples, if you eat all of the ice cream designated for a child’s birthday party, the child probably will cry. People attending the party might think less of you or be angry. Someone might actually start a fight with you that could lead to injury, perhaps even hospitalization. The police might become involved and one or both of you could be taken to jail. All because you were selfish and ate the ice cream.

These are all external consequences. But karma actually is not focused on those. It is more concerned about what is going on in your mind. This is the most damaging part. You might think that being sent to jail for robbing a store is the worst consequence, but it’s not.

As the Buddha said, the dust blows back in your face. The instant that you do the bad selfish act, you immediately suffer the consequences of it, even if no one sees you do it and you are not discovered or caught. It already damages you on the inside.

It is important not to underestimate just how catastrophic this damage can be on the inside. You might be thinking that an insignificant lie told here and there, or a one-time selfish act of gluttony, or claiming credit that you don’t deserve, are no big deal. In the grand scheme of things it won’t matter that much as long as you can avoid the external consequences. Right?

But you would be wrong. The ancient Hindu sages teach us that the damage is cumulative, that there is a cycle of selfishness that spans throughout our lives, and the consequence is suffering.

What Are Selfish Actions?

Any actions that defend, promote, or aggrandize you, the self, your identity – not just some part of you, but all of you – are selfish acts. This is a very difficult concept for people to accept, particularly those from Western cultures where individualism and materialism are valued.

The problem is largely of our own making. For centuries, Western culture has been promoting the utterly false notion of a separate ‘I’. It’s hard for us to grasp a view of existence in which a separative self is viewed as an illusion and the source of our suffering.

When the ramifications of the cycles of selfishness are considered, we reach the inescapable conclusion that our lives are characterized by self-centeredness and self-absorption. This is not only a foundation of Vedic philosophy, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche arrived at a similar conclusion.

Knowing your own darkness is the best method of dealing with the darkness of other people.

Carl Jung

Whenever I climb, I am followed by a dog named ‘Ego’.

Friedrich Nietzsche

We can cite plenty of black and white examples of selfishness. Viewing your life from this perspective, you might decide that you have not lived a selfish life. After all, you probably have not robbed a store, destroyed someone else’s property, or hospitalized another person because you caused them physical harm. However, there are more subtle ways in which selfishness can creep into our lives and cause its damage.

Subtle Selfish Actions

According to Vedic sages, the sequence of action is ignorance, desire, will, thought and act. First comes Avidya, or ignorance, because all manifestation, and all that proceeds within it, is unenlightened. In his ignorance man desires things for himself, believing that he has a self that has interests of its own.

Man is altogether formed of desire; according as his desire is, so is his will; according as his will is, so are his deeds; according as are his deeds, so does it befall him.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Between the will to act and the act itself is thought, the conception within the mind of which the act is the visible expression. Therefore, control of thought, including emotion, is a necessary prelude to control of action.

As a man thinks in his heart, so he becomes.

Proverbs 23:7, Holy Bible

Let’s consider YOU. That is what’s at the center of all of this: YOU. The truth is that you commit evil selfish actions all of the time. For example, you might be jealous. Your jealousy doesn’t even have to be verbalized. The thought itself can be an evil action. You don’t have to actually do something that expresses your jealousy.

No act is performed without a thought at its root, either at the time of performance or as leading to it. [4]

William Q. Judge

Below are some examples of more subtle selfish actions.

  • At work you are jealous of someone because they perform assigned tasks better than you. When it comes time for promotion, that individual likely will receive it and not you.
  • You discover that one of your coworkers is paid a better salary than you are. This causes jealousy and anger.
  • Upon arriving at the grocery store, you are upset because someone maneuvers into a parking space that you had wanted for yourself.
  • You criticize loved ones and friends regularly. Again, you don’t have to vocalize your criticism. You might see someone doing something that you don’t like and you criticize or judge them.
  • You manipulate others in subtle ways. Maybe you manipulate interactions with your friends so that you always emerge as better than them.

Why do you do these things?

You do them because, at your core, you are afraid and need to protect yourself. I’m referring to YOU, the ego. From the time of your birth, you have been living in a self-survival mode, where it’s always about self-protection and self-aggrandizement of your ego.

  • How do I make more money so that I can feel a little more secure?
  • How do I find a romantic partner that will help me to feel more secure and better about myself?
  • How do I get that house or car that’s going to make me feel more secure or even superior to others?
  • How do I improve my appearance so that I will feel more secure?

The list could be endless. The advertising industry targets this need for protecting the ego and feeling secure. It manipulates us into buying things, many of which we don’t actually need. It is an industry built on evil actions.

The point is that whenever something threatens the security of your ego, you become protective. This manifests in fear, anger, being critical or judgmental, and being manipulative.  All of these negative actions cause you to suffer as a consequence.

You suffer because you are unconscious. I don’t mean in the physical sense, like if you fainted. Rather you are spiritually unconscious. You are unaware of the fact that you are committing selfish actions and the damage that they are causing you.

At the very core of karma theory is that there is this identity – the YOU – that thinks that it needs to be protected. But this identity fundamentally is false. It is an illusion created out of thoughts and concepts. It’s not part of physical reality. Because of this, your life consists of an elaborate drama trying to protect an illusion, which always feels insecure because at the center it’s hollow. There’s nothing solid there. As a consequence, you have this perpetual cycle of suffering in life.

You might counter by saying that life is replete with challenges. Life is difficult. Life is riddled with negative emotions. Life is rife with drama. Life is full of pain. That’s just how life is. Get used to it.

However, this does not have to be true.

Life is that way for an overwhelming percentage of people in the world because they are behaving selfishly most of the time and the internally destructive consequences of their actions are causing them to suffer. 

Man is punished by his sins, not for them. Karma neither rewards or punishes; it only restores lost harmony. [5]

Christmas Humphreys

For example, when you become jealous of that coworker of yours, what’s the internal consequence of that action? Your coworker may not even be aware of your jealousy. But the internal consequence is that your mood is soured.

Perhaps you begin behaving in a passive-aggressive manner towards that person. You become hypersensitive to what others around you are saying, their mannerisms, and their tone of voice. You question their motives and start to think that everyone is against you. Maybe you perform worse at work because you are so focused on this colleague that has a better position than you, that earns more money than you, and you are jealous of it.

These selfish actions undermine you. Instead of protecting yourself – your ego – from a perceived threat, you are making it feel less secure, which in turn keeps you in protection mode. It becomes an endless cycle of focusing on yourself.

You might say. “But what’s wrong with focusing on myself? Isn’t this how I survive? Life is competitive. Don’t the strongest and smartest always win?”

The truth is that you do not have to put so much attention on your survival. When you do this, you become blinded or unconscious of the way that this survival cycle is damaging your life. It makes you unable to have a calm, peaceful, and fulfilling life.

You are not able to be happy because you are always looking back over your shoulder. You’re constantly afraid of what’s going to happen next. You fear that this hollow illusion that you are defending is going to be discovered by others. Therefore you attempt to plaster successive layers of protection over this illusion so that it feels more real to you. But it is a lost effort. You cannot succeed this way.

Hell On Earth

The real consequence of this is hell. I am not referring to the Christian notion of hell promoted in the West, in which hell is some place of eternal damnation in another life. That concept is not what hell literally means.

Where did that idea of hell actually come from?

It came from the endless cycles of suffering, which are here for you, right now, in this life. Hell on earth. That’s what most people’s life is, including yours. It’s a life in which you are unable to have true happiness and peace of mind. You lack peace of mind because you’re always stressed and anxious. You’re always secretly angry at someone, bitter towards others, and always trying to manipulate situations to your perceived advantage. Your whole life is that.

This concept is very deep and subtle. You do not like hearing this. It’s uncomfortable and you don’t like admitting it to yourself. Most want to reject it. But rejecting it will not end the suffering

So what’s the answer?

The answer is to stop allowing your ego – the illusion of self – to run your life. You can accomplish this through various consciousness-raising activities that bring you closer to enlightenment, the most prominent of which are the various forms of meditation. It is through this work that you will begin to learn how you manipulate everything around you in order to protect your ego. I will write more about this in a future article.

What Is a Selfless Action?

Simply stated, a selfless action is one taken without thought.

Without thought?

Yes, because thought is a problem. Thought creates and nourishes the notion of YOU. It constructs a false identity that must be protected at all costs. So thoughts must be silenced and this is accomplished through meditation.

I am not saying that you have to silence practical thoughts, such as the need to prepare a meal or to go to work. Those are necessary for your physical survival. Instead, I am referring to silencing selfish thoughts – those that promote, defend, and aggrandize the ego – self-absorbed thoughts that permeate and predominate your existence.

You cannot be truly happy as long as your life is being hijacked by ego and you spend your energy in worthless attempts to protect it. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of this – that they are living in their own private hell.

Heaven On Earth

The other consequence is that because you are living in hell, you are not able to experience paradise. Again, this is not some separate place up in the clouds that you go to after you die. Heaven can be here for you right now.

What is heaven?

Heaven is the state of being spiritual. It is the state of having no selfish thoughts. It is the state of being selfless.

When you discard the sense of self that you have, when you unravel the many layers designed to defend and protect it – which is what enlightenment seeks to do – then you discover that you can attain genuine happiness right here and now, regardless of external circumstances. You can live in paradise. You can release yourself from the bondage of selfish actions that accumulate negative karma and begin to accrue positive karma through selfless actions. You can have true peace of mind. You can have heaven on earth.


The lectures of Leo Gura assisted in the organization and formulation of concepts for this article.


  1. Hare, William Loftus (2004). Mysticism of East and West. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, LLC.
  2. Blavatsky, Helena P. (1972). The Key to Theosophy. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books.
  3. Humphreys, Christmas (1994). Karma and Rebirth. London: Curzon Press, pp.14.
  4. Judge, William Q. (2002). The Ocean of Theosophy. Pasadena, California: Theosophical University Press.
  5. Humphreys, Christmas (1994). Karma and Rebirth. London: Curzon Press, pp.35.

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