“Actions that are performed in terms of one’s prescribed duties, as mentioned in the revealed scriptures, are called karma. Actions that free one from the cycle of birth and death are called akarma. And actions that are performed through the misuse of one’s freedom and that direct one to the lower life forms are called vikarma. Of these three types of action, that which frees one from the bondage to karma is preferred by intelligent men.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shri Ishopanishad, 2 Purport)
“Karma. Isn’t that something Hindus believe in? Buddhists, too, I think. You behave bad in this life and you’re punished in the future. You get reborn as an ant or something. It sounds similar to the concept of going to hell for not believing in the savior. Do you get to move back up in the future? What exactly is karma?”
A word of Sanskrit origin, karma can mean different things based on the context. When discussing the path to follow in life for the human being, there are the accompanying terms of yoga and jnana. In the basic definition karma is work. Jnana is knowledge, and yoga is mysticism. Bhakti is also there. You can achieve enlightenment through study, through working with detachment, through physical exercise in mysticism, or even through devotion itself.
With respect to karma as a kind of work, there are technically three kinds. The wise aim for one version only, knowing it to be superior.
This is bad work. Think murder, theft, lies, cheating and the like. You don’t need to be a scholar to understand that stealing is bad. Children in school already have this understanding. There is the saying that a guilty conscience needs no accuser. The mature adult understands there is something wrong with taking something that doesn’t belong to you. What if the reverse occurred? Would the thief like it if someone stole what they took from someone else?
In terms of the future, vikarma is tied to regression. The Vedas describe the human birth to be the most auspicious. There is the aphorism, athato brahma-jijnasa. “Now is the time for enquiring into Brahman, the spiritual energy.” Implied is that in previous births the time was not right. The dog cannot make the inquiry. Neither can the tree. The first birth into the human body brings the potential, with the second birth, represented by initiation through a spiritual master, bringing the individual one step closer to completion of the goal.
By doing bad things you get bad results. That is vikarma. The opportunity to end the cycle of birth and death, which is real and not just some fantasy, is missed. The spirit soul is different from the body. Spirit is amazing. It cannot be killed. It never took birth. Matter is the opposite. It is dull and lifeless. It can do nothing on its own. Life comes from life. The individual soul is meant to have a spiritual body, which is possible through enlightenment.
The word by itself equates to prescribed duty. The idea is that if you follow the karma for your body type and situation, you will advance. Even within the human species there are variations. One person is stuck laboring all day in the fields. They don’t have much intelligence, but they work honestly and steadily. Another person studies shastra, or scripture. They know about the occupational duties of every kind of person. They are qualified to give advice to the entire society. If compared to the human body, the laborer class would be like the legs and the priestly class like the brain.
It is possible to advance from the laborer to the priest, but not in one lifetime. This is with respect to the qualities of the body inherited at the time of birth. It is not that a person born to a priest must automatically become one. As Shri Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita, the division of varna and ashrama, occupation and spiritual institution, is determined by guna and karma, which are material quality and work, respectively.
“According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. And, although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.13)
The “a” prefix is a negation in Sanskrit. Akarma thus becomes “not work.” This is a little tricky to understand, however. Akarma doesn’t necessarily mean inaction. As Krishna also explains in the Gita, a wise person knows how there can be action in inaction and inaction in action.
“One who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is intelligent among men, and he is in the transcendental position, although engaged in all sorts of activities.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.18)
Akarma is what the wise prefer. Those who are engaged in bhakti-yoga, in the more mature stages, are working, but without future consequences. Their action is karma-free. Even their eating is in this category, as they partake only of remnants of sacrifice. Sacrifice is yajna, and it is a word synonymous with God the person.
“The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.13)
The question is how does a person work without having future consequences? The idea is to not be attached to the results. Vikarma is bad work, karma is prescribed work, and akarma is dedicating every action for the pleasure of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
The classic example is Arjuna. On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he was contemplating the akarma of giving up his weapons and retreating to the forest. Karma was to engage in the fight and win the heavenly planets and a higher position in the next life, regardless of outcome. Akarma was to listen to the instructions of Krishna, move ahead and fight with detachment, and always keep the Supreme Lord’s pleasure in mind. That was the route Arjuna chose, and it is the example for every person to follow, if they can.
Karma, the word having seen,
But what exactly to mean?
About rebirth as an ant,
Move higher then can’t?
Following duties the word plain,
Higher planets in afterlife to gain.
To lower species by vikarma work done,
Akarma for God, with consequences none.
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