Most of us have heard of The Law of Karma, but few understand its depths. This one divine law governs every aspect of the Cosmic Drama, and so it is very helpful to have a full understanding of it.
Karma simply means "action", the expression of the energy of your consciousness through the body. The Law of Karma states that you get what you give. It is not a law in the sense of being a rule that must be followed - rather it is an unavoidable reality, an inherent aspect of the functioning of the Cosmos. It was recognised in the Bible as "as you sow, so shall you reap", and The Golden Rule: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". It is described in Isaac Newton's law of motion, where for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It is remembered in the saying "what goes around, comes around".
It is a fundamental aspect of the cosmos that everything always seeks a state of balance. Thus, any action which disturbs this balance will create an imbalance - a potential force which seeks to re-establish that state of being in balance. Let us call this potential force "karmic balance".
Simplistically, we can use the physical analogy of financial balances in bank accounts: most of the time we are either giving out or taking in energy from someone or something. This giving and taking can be seen as akin to taking a loan, or making a deposit in a bank. You accumulate either a debt or savings. And so we have "karmic accounts" in our relationships and interactions with each other and with the cosmos. Each one of us accumulates an overall karmic balance from these "accounts". If you deposit pain and sorrow with someone, you accumulate a karmic debt that must eventually be repaid. When you perform a positive action, by doing something selfless, you create a positive effect on your karmic balance - a "karmic credit": that is, the cosmos is in debt to you, and will repay you positively in due course, to re-establish balance. And when you perform a negative action, by doing something selfish, you create a negative effect on your karmic balance, known as a "karmic debt": that is, you own something to the cosmos, and it will enforce repayment in due course.
Of course real life is not so black and white as "positive" and "negative". Real life actions will contain an ever-varying mix of beneficial and destructive aspects - for example, you may help someone partly out of benevolence, but partly out of fear of being seen to break some unwritten rule of society; or you may think you are helping someone, but from their perspective you are hindering or annoying them. So, a more general and precise understanding of the "law of karma" is simply that whatever we give out to the cosmos is returned to us by the cosmos, such that balance is always sought and returned to.
The Law of Karma is a natural law - no lawyers are required to interpret it, no police to enforce it. It is the natural and inevitable result of the self- balancing of the cosmos - every aspect of divine creation constantly seeks balance, and when any imbalance is created, an opposing force will arise to regain this balance. Through this natural balancing, the Law of Karma ensures natural justice for every being, in every circumstance.
The Law of Karma operates in every situation, every relationship, every time there is a thought or an action. If you give happiness to someone it will come back to you. If you give pain or sorrow then that too will come back - maybe not today or tomorrow, and maybe not in a form you recognise, but definitely at some time, and in some form or other, the balance will be reinstated.
Karmic balances arise not just from physical actions, but also from thoughts (mental actions). Moreover, the importance of an action in karmic terms is determined by the motivation behind that action, rather than by the simple result of the action. If you hurt somebody by accident, with no evil intention, then no karmic imbalance is created. And if you wish someone ill, but don't actually act on that wish, then you still create a karmic imbalance, though to a lesser extent than if you had also carried out actions to harm that person.
What matters is not your actual action, or the response of others to your action, but your attitude - your motivation behind that action. This is what determines the effect your action will have on your karmic balance. And so, two people may perform identical hurtful actions, but create very different effects on their karmic balances - as one may be acting out of innocent good intentions, whilst the other is acting deliberately to hurt. It is the intention that determines the reward.
The Law of Karma means that whatever happens to you is a result of your own previous intent and actions, albeit sometimes in a previous life. Thus you are personally responsible for everything that happens to you. And so, your destiny is firmly in your own hands.
Karmic imbalances from selfish or destructive actions bind us to the lower planes of existence. We cannot ascend fully without first clearing and finishing all of these karmic bonds - the karmic imbalances that we have accumulated from our past selfish and egotistical behaviours. Accordingly we should be very careful not to create such imbalances. We wish to free ourselves from such bondage, and not to accumulate more! Beneficial karmic balances on the other hand - those that arise from virtuous actions - are not a problem, as these will serve us well. So, we should seek to accumulate only the fruits of virtue - the fruits of pure thoughts, words, and actions.
Everything that we experience is a direct result of our prior actions (i.e. karma). Our every intention comes back to us - whether to haunt us, or to uplift us, or whatever, depends on the nature of that intention. We simply get what we give. When, where, and how, is a different issue - and karmic return can take place on other planes of existence than the physical plane - but that is irrelevant to the basic concept, that whatever we create, we will experience the consequences of, and that whatever we experience, we have already created. Accordingly we, as divine beings, are personally responsible for every experience we have. This is an expression of the oneness of all - the recognition that we are all one means that whatever we do to others we are also doing to ourselves.
No matter how complex the mix of aspects in any action, a karmic balance will be created for the actor that exactly mirrors their intention. The Law of Karma is divine and immaculate. Over time, it is always entirely fair in its results. So, cosmic justice is always absolutely perfect. Every one of us will always experience an exactly just reward for every one of our actions.
We may perceive something to be unfair, because we focus on the superficial events, and not on the intentions behind them or the subtle effects they produce. The form of the return may differ from what produced it, and the timings of the settlement of balances will vary, according to the requirements of the Cosmic Drama. But the Drama will keep coming up with very entertaining scenes for us, to enable us to clear our karmic "debts". Recognise these opportunities, and take advantage of them. These are our tests, and we will pass them only by being humble and virtuous - by being in divine consciousness - and by listening to the subtle quiet voice of intuition, rather than the gross loud voice of ego.
Whenever something is happening to you that seems unfair, always remember that it is the fruit of your past actions, seen or unseen, remembered or forgotten. Whatever seems unfair or challenging will always hold a key for you - a key to self-liberation.
Now that you are aware, the karmic result of your behaviour is magnified, compared to when you were in a state of ignorance and unaware of the consequences of your behaviour. Each selfish or destructive action now will come back to haunt you in a magnified form. But each loving and benevolent action now will also bring a magnified reward. The Law of Karma is based on intention, rather than result. And so, the more aware you are, the more sensitive the operation of the Law of Karma becomes.
As already stated, "karma" simply means "action". However its meaning has become distorted by misuse, so that when people talk about "karma", they often mean "karmic balance". When they say that someone has "good karma", they mean that their karmic balance from the results of their past actions is such that beneficial things will tend to happen to them.
Most people don't understand the deep aspects of karmic balance, and indeed a great many do not even understand it or accept it at a shallow level. Accordingly their behaviour remains often selfish and brutal, and they take little or no responsibility for what they do, instead blaming their suffering on "bad luck" or on others.
But with a deep understanding of karma, we realise that we are - each of us, as souls - directly and personally responsible for every single thing that happens to us in life, good or bad or indifferent. We get what we give. Without at least some understanding of this, we cannot even begin to improve ourselves, or to make sense of our lives.
When we understand that we are divine, and we accept and understand the divine mechanisms of the Law of Karma and the Cosmic Drama, we are then able to take full responsibility for our own actions. We become able to accept that whatever happens to us is accurate and fair, always, regardless of superficial appearances.
Indeed, we then understand that whatever happens to us - no matter how bad it may seem - is an opportunity for learning at the spiritual level: it is a cleansing of the soul, whereby our divine balance is being restored.
This understanding frees us from making the mistake of blaming others for our own suffering, and we can then learn to make all of our actions and reactions beneficial, so that our suffering is replaced by sublime and lasting joy.
note: some of the following has now been incorporated in the original article, to address deficiencies identified by Chris.
Conventional depictions of "karma" have been twisted over the centuries and millennia to suit particular religious dogmas. To make the situation even worse, modern widespread western use of terms such as "yoga" and "karma" havemore...