This secular usage of the word “Karma” began in the late 1800s when westerners were first exposed to Hinduism through the efforts of the English occultist Annie Besant. Since that time, Karma is used as a sort of shorthand for the Judeo-Christian saying, “As Ye sow, So shall Ye Reap”. some people equate Karma to the “Golden Rule”.
In its original Hindu context, Karma serves as a deterent. It also explains why people suffer. The use of the concept of Karma is part of the mastery of fate and predestination. In many instances, it is used to explain the gross inequalities found in society. That view is at the heart of the Caste system.
The theory of Karma was prevalent in Brahminism, long before the advent of the Buddha. It was used to explain such existential questions as: Why should some people be mental prodigies and others idiots? Why are some people brought up in the lap of luxury while many others are mired in poverty? Why are some people blessed and other people cursed?
It is assumed that nothing happens without a cause, so people ultimately get what they deserve. This is where the belief in reincarnation intersects with Karma. The mysterious, invisible causal agent of Karma is not confined to the present life, it can be traced back to actions performed during a previous lifetime. The original definition of the term “Karma” means action or doing.
Religious Buddhism expands upon this idea. Early teachings say that inequality is not only caused by heredity or past Karma, it is also caused by actions in our present lives. We become the architects of our own fate. It is explained by the Buddhist concept, “Karma Niyama”.
“As surely as water seeks its own level so does Karma, given opportunity, produce its inevitable result, not in the form of a reward or punishment but as an innate sequence. This sequence of deed and effect is as natural and necessary as the way of the sun and the moon.”
What is often forgotten in modern discourse is the concept of “Vipaka”. It must be remembered that Karma and Vipaka are closely related. Karma is action, Vipaka is the result or fruit of that action. What people popularly call good or bad Karma is actually Vipaka.
The ancient teachers said, “Just as every object is accompanied by a shadow, every volitional activity is inevitably accompanied by its due effect.” When Karma (action) is performed, Vipaka (effect) manifests. So Karma always coexists with Vipaka. Tradition holds that Karma and Vipaka pertain strictly to our minds. Vipaka is harvested as unhappiness, misery or bliss and happiness, according to the earlier planted seed of Karma.
We don’t need to believe in reincarnation to understand that what we have done in the past–Karma, is reaped as the result–Vipaka.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders the Buddhist teaching known as the “Samyutta Nikaya”.
“According to the seed that’s sown,
So is the fruit you reap there from,
Doer of good will gather good,
Doer of evil, evil reaps,
Down is the seed and thou shalt taste
The fruit thereof.”