The word Karma means deed, work or action. Broadly it encompasses the set of activities performed by a human being. Generally when an activity is performed it covers four dimensions namely, the purpose or desire behind the action, the means adopted to perform the action, the end result and the beneficiary who will gain on performing the action. The purpose and the means are under one’s control as humans have the freedom to desire and select the method or path to perform the action. The purpose could be either for good or bad and the means to be adopted could be varied. The beneficiary could be either oneself or the family or the world or anyone in society but the end result of the activity is not in the hands of the individual as it is guided by both known and unknown factors. According to the theory of Karma even if the purpose of the Karma is good and Dharmic means are adopted for fulfilment of the action one cannot hope to see good results immediately. It is this unknown factor which leads to the belief of a Supreme Universal All powerful Entity referred to as ‘God’.
Categorisations of Karma
Karma can be categorised into-
1. Nithya Karma (Everyday routine)
2. Naimittika Karma (obligatory duties)
3. Kamya Karma
4. Nishiddha Karma
5. Prayaschita Karma
6. Nishkama Karma
1. Nithya Karma
Nithya Karma comprises of regular and periodic duties or activities scheduled to be performed by Hindus. They imply those which are obligatory to be performed by the Hindus like Sandhyavandana, Japa, Devata Pooja etc. This concept comes from a sense of obligation as a human being is said to have three kinds of debts namely towards ones parents and ancestors, towards ones teachers and towards the Gods (who also manifest in the form of natural forces). An individual enjoys the privileges of birth, education, air, food, water, sunlight etc and hence performance of these Nithya Karmas helps to repay these debts. The aim of these Nithya karmas is to help humans overcome self-centredness and become humble. Receiving help from all sources the individual realises that his achievements have been possible only with the help of society and he views himself as part of the infinite whole in the scheme of life. He realises that he is a link in the whole chain of the universe interconnected with all creation. Performance of these daily rituals is important for self purification and provides a constant reminder of the effects of bad actions and merits of good actions. These rituals can be performed by oneself and does not require the services of a priest. Non performance of this Karma is said to bear demerits on the individual.
2. Naimittika Karma
Naimittika Karma are the occasional obligatory duties that an individual needs to perform or rites to be performed on special occasions. The 16 Samskaras or the Shodasha Samskaras like naming ceremony, thread ceremony etc are the rites of passage or sacraments which are included in this category.
Religious observations like fasting and celebrations performed in a religious way for festivals, birthdays, death anniversary etc also fall in this category like Shraadh ceremony, Grahana Tharpana and other Pitru karmas. The performance of rituals in this karma requires priests for proper conducting of Japas, Homas or for giving Daans(charity) as ordained in the scriptures. Non performance of this Karma is said to bear demerits on the individual.
3. Kamya Karma
Rituals done for fulfilment of desires are called Kamya Karmas. The desire (Kama) for some gain generally prompts the performance of this Karma. Non performance of this karma does not bear any demerits. Thus it is a means to a desired end and is optional and not obligatory. They have to be performed keeping up with the code of conduct laid by Dharma. Examples of this Karma are the Putrakameshti Yagna performed for obtaining a child or the yagna to propitiate Varuna for getting rains. These are good actions but are driven by personal desires. There is passion and attachment behind this Karma and the outcome of this Karma may be positive or negative resulting in strong reactions. Since it is completely self motivated it is said to be undesirable for monks or for those on the path of truth and knowledge.
4. Nishiddha Karma
They are Karmas which are forbidden and prohibited by the scriptures and should be totally avoided by an individual. They include killing, stealing, consumption of alcohol etc.
5. Prayaschita Karma
They are rituals for cleansing of sins or expiatory rites. They can be compared to confession and atonement in the Christian practice of religion. These can be by means of prayers or charity or self disciplinary action. It is only by these means that an individual can try to remove the sinful tendencies which are the root of all evil. Since the impressions left on the mind by the act craves for repetition, this will lead to perdition and ruin unless the effects of the sinful conduct is removed by sincere prayer and acts of atonement like fasting, pilgrimage etc though strict monitoring of the mind and senses are required. True atonement is achieved only if inner purity and harmony are restored. This expiatory process is optional and not compulsory as it depends on the individual’s proportion of guilt and regret suffered on the performance of the sinful act and his inner determination to render himself pure and holy. The Seers and sages of olden days realised that it was human to err and no man was perfect and therefore provided the expiatory rites.
6. Nishkama Karma
They are actions performed without any expectations for the results or fruits of the actions. Thus they are selfless and desireless and form the central core message of Karma Yoga to the path of liberation. Working without any motives or expectations can be possible only if nonattachment is practised. Attachment is the root cause of all sorrow hence all actions must be performed with a spirit of dedication to the Lord. Since man is a conglomeration of thoughts, each thought becomes an integral part of his life. Hence only fostering of pure thoughts promotes selfless service in society as one works for others without any personal reward or gain. The fruits of good actions will always be good and the reverse holds true for negative actions. Some results of Karma are immediate as if a finger is cut it bleeds, while some results take time to fructify as if a mango seed is planted the tree takes many years to bear fruit. Thus if the action is performed with concentration and a pure intention, it will definitely result in good. This method of desireless action offered at the feet of the Lord releases man from bondage and puts him on the path to liberation. Just as Draupadi is said to have torn a piece of her sari to tie the bleeding finger of Krishna, the Lord is said to have returned it a thousandfold by materialising a long sari to save her honour years later. Thus actions need to be performed only with selfless and pure intentions with total faith in the saying ‘As you sow, so shall you reap’ with no expectations of the result.
The central core of Hinduism is that Karmas or actions govern destiny and they are the fabric of human existence. As the soul of an individual transmigrates from one lifetime to another the consequences of one’s deeds also follow. Since it is the Karmas or actions that make us what we are, we can use them to become what we want to be. Thus the attitudes and beliefs behind our actions can be altered in order to ensure our harmony and well being which in turn ensures the well being of society and the nation. The inner intention behind all karmas performed by an individual should be to achieve Chitta Shuddhi or purity of consciousness. This was the lofty aim of the seers and sages of Ancient India.