What Is Karma?

In the Gurmat Giaan or Wisdom of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), the term Karma appears with the meaning ‘action’. In addition, at some places, it also appears to indicate religious or Dhaarmic Karamkaand (rituals), and grace or Nadar (Karam from Farsi language).

The mind is the only perception, and perception is movement in consciousness. The expression of this movement is action ( Karma ), followed by fruition (ਫਲ).

In other words, there is no division between the mind and action (Karma). Before it’s projected as action it arises in the mind. Hence, Karma is nothing but the movement of energy in consciousness and ultimately bears its own fruit (ਫਲ). Baabaa Nanak says:

  • ਨਾਨਕ ਮਨ ਕੇ ਕੰਮ ਫਿਟਿਆ ਗਣਤ ਨ ਆਵਹੀ ॥: O Nanak! Wicked are actions of the mind, (these actions of the mind) cannot be counted (sggs 789).
  • ਮਨੂਆ ਡੋਲੈ ਦੂਤ ਸੰਗਤਿ ਮਿਲਿ ਸੋ ਪਾਏ ਜੋ ਕਿਛੁ ਕੀਨਾ ਹੇ ॥੭॥: Keeping company with passions (lust, anger, greed, etc.), the mind wavers; and obtains (the fruit – ਫਲ) of its actions. ||7|| (sggs 1028).

Whatever the mind thinks of, the organs of action strive to materialize. Hence, again, the mind is Karma (action). — the two are like the flower and its scent. Before it is projected as action it arises in the mind. Hence, actions are the louder expressions of thoughts. When such actions come to an end, the mind also comes to an end (ceasing of desires, thoughts-stuff, imaginations, fancies, Phurne).

When the mind’s wanderings stop (wanderings of lust, anger, greed, attachment, pride, enviousness, falsehood, jealousy, stubbornness…), there is no action! Such mind is called ‘conquered, annihilated, killed…’, or ‘frozen‘ in the Gurbani. Conquering the mind or the world (Jagat or Sansaar) simply means to go beyond one’s own worldly consciousness or material nature (i.e., Manmukh-nature, Saakat-nature, Mayadhaaree-nature…).

In other words, when the mind sees itself as Jot-Saroop, the material world (Jagg or Jagat, Maya, Bhav Saagar) is said to have been conquered! This victory brings Bliss (Aanand),  Sukh (Sukh Saagar, Peace, Happiness, Joy), release from the reactionary actions…

  • ਮਨੁ ਜੀਤੇ ਜਗੁ ਜੀਤਿਆ ਜਾਂ ਤੇ ਬਿਖਿਆ ਤੇ ਹੋਇ ਉਦਾਸੁ ॥੨॥: Conquering the mind is (as if) the world is conquered, (because, only by conquering the mind, one can remain) detached from Maya. (sggs 1103).

But, what is mind? In deluded (agitated, restless) state, when the mind is veiled by doubt (Bharam), ignorance, two-ness, etc., the same consciousness views diversity and identifies as such, it’s known as the mind. In nutshell, the mind is just thoughts-stuff (Phurne-ਫੁਰਨੇ). In other words, Karma is the Louder expressions of thoughts.

When the mind is firmly established in the conviction of a certain perception it is known as intellect (Budhi).

  • ਮਨ ਕਾ ਕਹਿਆ ਮਨਸਾ ਕਰੈ ॥: Budhi follows the order of the mind (sggs 832).

The SGGS says the intellect must Awakened to Giaan (Knowledge). When the the mind ignorantly and foolishly identifies itself as separate from its Mool, it is known as egotism (Haumai). When it abandons unbroken spiritual inquiry (Shabad-Vichaar…), allows itself to play with countless thoughts (Phurne) coming and going, it is known as individualized consciousness.

Thus, when pure Awareness in a moment of self-forgetfulness viewed itself as the object of perception, countless concepts arise. Our lives are full of concepts. If we like particular concepts, we pass them on to others around us or ram them down their throat.

Activities arising from the false concepts are also false. If the cause (i.e., false ego or Haumai) is wrong, then the effect must be automatically wrong as well.

Baabaa Nanak says this mind is not only ‘Karma’ but also ‘Dharma‘!

  • ਇਹੁ ਮਨੁ ਕਰਮਾ ਇਹੁ ਮਨੁ ਧਰਮਾ ॥: This mind is ‘Karma’, and this mind is ‘Dharma’ (sggs 415).

Established in Aatam-Giaan (Wisdom, Virtues, Naam, Shabad, Hukam…), when the mind acts through the undivided consciousness (Jot Saroop, Mool, True Nature…), it’s ‘Dharma’. Such unconditioned mind is free of the ignorance-born tendencies.

To the contrary, when it acts in divided consciousness (Haumai or false ego-sense), such action is known as ‘Karma’. This vision of division is the product of ignorance. Although mind’s True Nature is Jot Saroop, but on account of its delusion the mind inebriated in Maya punishes itself by its own tendencies. As a result, the Gurbani (Gur Shabad) says it restlessly ‘wanders in ten directions’.

  • ਧਾਇਓ ਰੇ ਮਨ ਦਹ ਦਿਸ ਧਾਇਓ ॥: (Inebriated in Maya) this mind wanders in ten directions. (sggs 712).

To put it otherwise, when the mind is conscious of Truth (Sach-ਸਚ), it’s established in Wisdom (Aatam-Giaan, Dharma, Jot Saroop…). On the other hand, when it moves in the wrong direction towards greater forgetfulness (of its Mool) and deeper involvement in fancies, then becomes tainted ang behaves as deluded.

  • ਇਹੁ ਮਨੁ ਧੰਧੈ ਬਾਂਧਾ ਕਰਮ ਕਮਾਇ ॥: Entangled in worldly affairs (Maya), this mind creates Karma (sggs 1176).
  • ਮਨੁ ਭੂਲੋ ਬਹੁ ਚਿਤੈ ਵਿਕਾਰੁ ॥: Manu bhoolo bahu chitai vikaaru (sggs 222).

In other words, it’s the same mind that can take one to his Mool (Source, Jot Saroop…), and it’s the same mind that can take one away from his Mool too!

Clearly, the mind is responsible for our material bondage, as well as our Liberation from it. Trapped in bondage (Maya, Bikaar…), we do not let go Haumai (false ego-sense) and its devastating faults ( lust, greed, anger, etc).

  • ਜਿਉ ਕਪਿ ਕੇ ਕਰ ਮੁਸਟਿ ਚਨਨ ਕੀ ਲੁਬਧਿ ਨ ਤਿਆਗੁ ਦਇਓ ॥ ਜੋ ਜੋ ਕਰਮ ਕੀਏ ਲਾਲਚ ਸਿਉ ਤੇ ਫਿਰਿ ਗਰਹਿ ਪਰਿਓ ॥੧॥: Like the monkey with a handful of grains (in the narrow-necked pot – ਦਾਣਿਆਂ ਦੀ ਭਰੀ ਹੋਈ ਮੁੱਠ) will not let go (grains) because of greed (even he knows he is trapped!) – (just so), all the deeds committed in greed ultimately become a noose around neck (more trapped in Maya). (sggs 336).

In nutshell, wicked mind = wicked Soch (thinking) = wicked Karma.
And, pious mind = pious Soch (thinking) = pious Karma.

Four things are common in nonhuman animals and a sense-blind human having an unhealthy or empty mind: eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. Mind infatuated with Bikaar (lust, anger, greed, etc.) or Maya is not only restless, it also behaves and lives like animals while alive (ਪਸੂ ਵਿਰਤੀ-animal nature) — functions primarily on instinct, not much reasoning or discernment (Bibek Budh).

In nutshell, separation from Truth (Sach) = Animal-Joon-Life-nature

  • ਕਰਤੂਤਿ ਪਸੂ ਕੀ ਮਾਨਸ ਜਾਤਿ ॥ ਲੋਕ ਪਚਾਰਾ ਕਰੈ ਦਿਨੁ ਰਾਤਿ ॥ ਬਾਹਰਿ ਭੇਖ ਅੰਤਰਿ ਮਲੁ ਮਾਇਆ ॥ ਛਪਸਿ ਨਾਹਿ ਕਛੁ ਕਰੈ ਛਪਾਇਆ ॥: (Although one born from human category) belongs to the human specie, but his deeds are that of animals. (However, he) day and night humbugs or show off to people (that he is a human, ਬੰਦਾ…)! Outside (on his body) is the religious dress but in his mind is the filth of Maya. (However, the filth of the mind) cannot concealed by trying to conceal it with (outwardly wearing religious robes). (sggs 267).
  • ਪਸੂ ਮਿਲਹਿ ਚੰਗਿਆਈਆ ਖੜੁ ਖਾਵਹਿ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਦੇਹਿ ॥ ਨਾਮ ਵਿਹੂਣੇ ਆਦਮੀ ਧ੍ਰਿਗੁ ਜੀਵਣ ਕਰਮ ਕਰੇਹਿ ॥੩॥: (Even though humans are known to be superior to animals, birds, etc., but) beasts have merits, as they eat grass and give milk. Without the Naam (Truth, Wisdom, Virtues…), the mortal’s life is cursed, (because forgetting Naam) they perform (worthless) actions. ||3|| (sggs 489).
  • ਮਾਣਸ ਮੂਰਤਿ ਨਾਨਕੁ ਨਾਮੁ ॥ ਕਰਣੀ ਕੁਤਾ ਦਰਿ ਫੁਰਮਾਨੁ ॥: O Nanak! A human being is a human in shape and name only; (but) by conduct he is a dog (greedy, selfish, corrupt, etc.) – this is the Divine edict. (sggs 350).
  • ਬਿਨੁ ਸਿਮਰਨ ਕੂਕਰ ਹਰਕਾਇਆ ॥ ਸਾਕਤ ਲੋਭੀ ਬੰਧੁ ਨ ਪਾਇਆ ॥੬॥: Without remembrance (of Wisdom, Virtues..), one is like a mad dog. The greedy, Saakat (one separated from the Truth) falls into entanglements ||6|| (sggs 239).

So, Bhagat Kabeer Jee reminds us that ‘Whatever is done, is done by the mind’ (‘ਜੋ ਕਿਛੁ ਕੀਆ ਸੋ ਮਨ ਕੀਆ’).

Thus, when the mind knowingly commits mistakes, then it reaps the fruit of its own Karma! Babaa Nanak reminds us:

  • ਜੇਹਾ ਬੀਜੈ ਸੋ ਲੁਣੈ ਕਰਮਾ ਸੰਦੜਾ ਖੇਤੁ ॥: (Body is the) field (of man’s Karma); whatever (he) sows so does (he) reap (sggs 134).
  • ਕਬੀਰ ਮਨੁ ਜਾਨੈ ਸਭ ਬਾਤ ਜਾਨਤ ਹੀ ਅਉਗਨੁ ਕਰੈ ॥: O Kabeer! The mind knows everything and knowingly it commits demerits (sggs 1376).

Ocean with depth gets calmer and quiet. However, violent waves arise at its surface due to disturbances created by the wind. Stronger the wind, stronger the disturbance and higher the waves at the surface. If there is no wind, there will be no waves. Similarly, mind is nothing but waves on the surface of the Ocean of Pure Awareness (Mool).

Disturbance or waves created by Maya (illusion) subside when there is no confusion between Reality and appearance!


  1. Thanks Peter Jansen Ji for taking the time to respond!

    The SGGS also indicates that the One who ordains is also sitting within everyone!!
    So the Gurbani demands: Help yourself to realize the Ultimate Purpose of the human life.
    For example, if I am hungry, I have to eat food myself. I cannot ask someone else to eat food for me.
    Similarly, if I want to get married, I cannot substitute someone else to take the ” Phere” for me. I have to do it myself.
    Similarly, if one wants to realize his Mool (i.e., the purpose of life), one has to do it himself. Accordingly, the Gurbani Teaches us that one has to resolve his own affair of his own life himself, through his own efforts (Shabad-Vichaar to obtain the Amrit of the Divine Wisdom of the Gur-Shabad…). Thus the Gurbani’s Divine Wisdom (Brahm Giaan) not only makes man Hari-like but also avers that this great privilege has got its own severe responsibilities!
    • ਆਪਣ ਹਥੀ ਆਪਣਾ ਆਪੇ ਹੀ ਕਾਜੁ ਸਵਾਰੀਐ ॥੨੦॥ (sggs 474).
    • ਜੋ ਪ੍ਰਭੁ ਖੋਜਹਿ ਸੇਈ ਪਾਵਹਿ ਹੋਰਿ ਫੂਟਿ ਮੂਏ ਅਹੰਕਾਰੀ ॥੨੦॥ (sggs 911).
    • ਆਪੈ ਜਪਹੁ ਆਪਨਾ ਜਾਪ ॥੫॥: Aapai japahu aapanaa jaap (sggs 343).
    • ਜਿਨੀ ਨਾਮੁ ਧਿਆਇਆ ਗਏ ਮਸਕਤਿ ਘਾਲਿ ॥: Jinee Naamu dhiaaiaa … (sggs 8).

    To this end, the SGGS urges everyone to “search” and “search” (Spiritual Inquiry via Shabad-Vichaar) “ownself”.
    • ਆਪੁ ਖੋਜਿ ਖੋਜਿ ਮਿਲੇ ਕਬੀਰਾ ॥੪॥੭॥ (sggs 1155).

    In nutshell, the SGGS does not teach or encourage people turning to fatalistic behavior and beliefs.
    • ਏਕ ਨਦਰਿ ਕਰਿ ਵੇਖੈ ਸਭ ਊਪਰਿ ਜੇਹਾ ਭਾਉ ਤੇਹਾ ਫਲੁ ਪਾਈਐ ॥ (sggs 602).

    Renouncing fatalism is applying self-effort (Uddam, etc.) in Spiritual Unfoldment (Shabad-Vichaar…).
    • ਉਦਮੁ ਕੀਆ ਕਰਾਇਆ ਆਰੰਭੁ ਰਚਾਇਆ ॥: (sggs 399).

  2. Dear T. Singh,

    Thank you for your post.
    I have a question: in the SGGS I read “All mortals act according to their per-ordained destiny”. Is this a reference to Karma?

  3. Thanks FD Ji for taking the time to respond! Welcome to the Gurbani Blog!

    In this day, this is a most timely observation.

    The fact is that the Gurbani observed this truth centuries ago!! But unfortunately, the most of the people who run Gurdwaras, the priest-class, exponents, etc., are not interested in bringing out the truth of the Gurbani. For their main interest is making money (Golak)!

  4. Thanks Kirpal Singh Ji for taking the time to respond!

    • ਸਾਕਤੁ ਲੋਭੀ ਇਹੁ ਮਨੁ ਮੂੜਾ ॥ ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਜਪੈ ਮਨੁ ਰੂੜਾ ॥੩॥: The mind of a greedy Saakat (one who is separated from his Mool) is foolish. The mind of (that person who) has become the Gurmukh understands the Naam (Shabad, Hukam, Wisdom, Virtues…) and thereby is Beautiful (i.e., linked its Mool…). (sggs 415).

  5. ਕਰਮ ਕਰਤ ਹੋਵੈ ਨਿਹਕਰਮ ॥ ਤਿਸੁ ਬੈਸਨੋ ਕਾ ਨਿਰਮਲ ਧਰਮ ॥ ਕਾਹੂ ਫਲ ਕੀ ਇਛਾ ਨਹੀ ਬਾਛੈ ॥ ਕੇਵਲ ਭਗਤਿ ਕੀਰਤਨ ਸੰਗਿ ਰਾਚੈ ॥ (Raag Gauri M. 5, GGS. 274-7): Performing good deeds, he does not seek rewards. Spotlessly pure is the religion of such a Vaishnaav; He has no desire for the fruits of his labors. He is absorbed in devotional worship and the singing of Kirtan, the songs of the Lord’s Glory.

  6. Great Explanation…………….Our Thoughts Decide our Destiny or Karma………….Thanks Sir

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