Karma is a fundamental concept which has no direct translation into English. It has multiple levels of applicability and can approximately be defined as the natural order of action and each action has an associated result (often called fruit of the karma).
As you sow, so you reap is the gist of the theory. Each action has a fruit and it depends on many factors:
- sincerity in action,
- the purpose of action,
- the means chosen, and
- righteousness of action (Dharma).
One reaps the fruit if one's actions. Apart from the direct result of action or its effect on the surroundings, each action creates an impression on its doer. These impressions accumulate and constitute the karma of the individual. Any action done in the present is aided and affected by the impressions of previous actions. Thus Dharma forms basis for Karma, and many principles are consequent of the Karma theory, like
- Don't hurt anyone
- Do unto others only what you want to be done unto yourself
- Do those actions that bring happiness to oneself and does good to others
- Do not speak harshly
- Wish only good for others
- Do not hesitate to take up cudgels to protect dharma
When men are thus good and cooperative to each other, social well-being is caused. If for some reason it is disturbed, it would be restored sooner or later, either because men realize the order going bad or because nature intervenes to restore the order.
There is rebirth (punarjanma) according to Sanatana dharma. The being or atman, assumes three bodies - gross (sthula), subtle (sukshma) and causal (karana). With these three one experiences gross, subtle and causal objects as explained in the Mandukya Upanishad. Only the gross body is left during death and subtle body is with atman throughout and assumes new gross body in the next life. The sukshma sareera carries the impressions of the experiences of previous lives and acts as an accumulator in the evolution. The accumulated backlog of impressions from previous lives is called prarabdha.
In the cycle of its evolution, the jiva has two movements - pravritti and nivritti. During pravritti impressions/samskaras are accumulated. One is recommended to do noble actions so as to reap their sweet fruits. During nivritti, one tries to get rid of prarabdha and exhaust karma by experiencing its fruits (karma phala) so as to break the cycle of life and death. One is recommended to perform actions without attachment, so that its fruit or impression does not add to the baggage of one's own karma. When one performs detached actions, he only performs action as long as his previous karma phala is not nullified. One performs the highest kind of action at this stage, and such action always results in the benefit of surroundings (loka kalyana).
Moksha is through total karma nivritti and transcending the action-fruit cycle. This is possible if one realizes and discriminates between atman and non-atman (body, mind etc). One can get beyond the ambit of karma by experiencing the One beyond qualities (beyond trigunas - satwa, rajas, tamas).
Akarma is a state where an action is not bound by karma/phala. This is the kind of action performed by a liberated person. Akarma is not inaction, but sterilized action.
Fate and freewill both are significant in one's actions. While many factors like daivabala (destiny or God-will), prarabdha (one's own previous actions) affect the fruit of action, it is human effort (purushakara) that predominates action. Man is said to be the master of his actions (destiny), though not wholly the owner of the fruits of the actions.
God is said to be the witness of all action (karma sakshi). One way, it is true that God is the one who inspires and drives all action, and bears its fruit. But He does it through the instruments. Man is that instrument. In the microcosm, daiva is said to follow purusha prayatna, and in the macrocosm it is the other way round.
When a group of individuals do actions that affect each other, it results in group karma. This could be a collectivity or persons closely attached to each other. In the latter case the group is called a group soul (yaksha). In the former, the persons do not get combined as a group soul but reap the fruit of collective action. This kind of karma drives the lifecycle of a society.
The Veda Samhita does not directly indicate or explain the karma concept. In fact, karma is simply equated to yajna in the Veda. This is because in the Vedic sense all life and all action is Yajna, and thus karma = yajna. The Veda refers to karma in this sense, throughout.
Example: The Mother Godess Durga is praised as the controller and giver of the fruits of action, "karmaphaleshu justam" (Durga Suktam, Taittiriya Aranyaka).