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!

44 comments

  1. There is a Sabab in Gurbaanee in the context of Karma worth pondering as
    ਸੂਹੀ ਮਹਲਾ ੪ ॥ ਕੀਤਾ ਕਰਣਾ ਸਰਬ ਰਜਾਈ ਕਿਛੁ ਕੀਚੈ ਜੇ ਕਰਿ ਸਕੀਐ ॥ ਆਪਣਾ ਕੀਤਾ ਕਿਛੂ ਨ ਹੋਵੈ ਜਿਉ ਹਰਿ ਭਾਵੈ ਤਿਉ ਰਖੀਐ ॥੧॥ ਮੇਰੇ ਹਰਿ ਜੀਉ ਸਭੁ ਕੋ ਤੇਰੈ ਵਸਿ ॥ ਅਸਾ ਜੋਰੁ ਨਾਹੀ ਜੇ ਕਿਛੁ ਕਰਿ ਹਮ ਸਾਕਹ ਜਿਉ ਭਾਵੈ ਤਿਵੈ ਬਖਸਿ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥ ਸਭੁ ਜੀਉ ਪਿੰਡੁ ਦੀਆ ਤੁਧੁ ਆਪੇ ਤੁਧੁ ਆਪੇ ਕਾਰੈ ਲਾਇਆ ॥ ਜੇਹਾ ਤੂੰ ਹੁਕਮੁ ਕਰਹਿ ਤੇਹੇ ਕੋ ਕਰਮ ਕਮਾਵੈ ਜੇਹਾ ਤੁਧੁ ਧੁਰਿ ਲਿਖਿ ਪਾਇਆ ॥੨॥ ਪੰਚ ਤਤੁ ਕਰਿ ਤੁਧੁ ਸ੍ਰਿਸਟਿ ਸਭ ਸਾਜੀ ਕੋਈ ਛੇਵਾ ਕਰਿਉ ਜੇ ਕਿਛੁ ਕੀਤਾ ਹੋਵੈ ॥ ਇਕਨਾ ਸਤਿਗੁਰੁ ਮੇਲਿ ਤੂੰ ਬੁਝਾਵਹਿ ਇਕਿ ਮਨਮੁਖਿ ਕਰਹਿ ਸਿ ਰੋਵੈ ॥੩॥ ਹਰਿ ਕੀ ਵਡਿਆਈ ਹਉ ਆਖਿ ਨ ਸਾਕਾ ਹਉ ਮੂਰਖੁ ਮੁਗਧੁ ਨੀਚਾਣੁ ॥ ਜਨ ਨਾਨਕ ਕਉ ਹਰਿ ਬਖਸਿ ਲੈ ਮੇਰੇ ਸੁਆਮੀ ਸਰਣਾਗਤਿ ਪਇਆ ਅਜਾਣੁ ॥੪॥੪॥੧੫॥੨੪॥ {ਪੰਨਾ 736}

    Although every word of this Sabad conveys a deep meaning but a line as ਸਭੁ ਜੀਉ ਪਿੰਡੁ ਦੀਆ ਤੁਧੁ ਆਪੇ ਤੁਧੁ ਆਪੇ ਕਾਰੈ ਲਾਇਆ ॥ ਜੇਹਾ ਤੂੰ ਹੁਕਮੁ ਕਰਹਿ ਤੇਹੇ ਕੋ ਕਰਮ ਕਮਾਵੈ ਜੇਹਾ ਤੁਧੁ ਧੁਰਿ ਲਿਖਿ ਪਾਇਆ makes very clear how any Sikh should understand the cause n effect of Karmas.

  2. Thank you Bhai Sahib Gulshan Singh Ji for taking the time to respond to this post! Welcome to the Gurbani Blog!

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

    So, Bhagat Kabeer Sahib reminds us that “Whatever is done, is done by the mind” (“ਜੋ ਕਿਛੁ ਕੀਆ ਸੋ ਮਨ ਕੀਆ”). For the entire universe is within the mind! Thus, when the mind knowingly commits mistakes, then it reaps the fruit of its own Karma! In other words: Whatever is in the Mind Comes Forth.
    • ਕਬੀਰ ਮਨੁ ਜਾਨੈ ਸਭ ਬਾਤ ਜਾਨਤ ਹੀ ਅਉਗਨੁ ਕਰੈ ॥ ਕਾਹੇ ਕੀ ਕੁਸਲਾਤ ਹਾਥਿ ਦੀਪੁ ਕੂਏ ਪਰੈ ॥੨੧੬॥: O Kabir! The mind knows everything and knowingly it commits demerits. What use is it to have a Lamp (i.e., the Light of Aatam Giaan, Divine Knowledge, Spiritual Wisdom…) in his hand, if the man still falls into a well (ignorance, Maya, Bikaar, ਅਉਗਨ / ਬਿਕਾਰਾਂ ਦੇ ਖੂਹ ਵਿਚ…)? (sggs 1376).

    So, the Gurbani tells us that the man himself is responsible for this calamity – he cannot blame anybody else for it. We harvest exactly what we sow in the field (“Khet“) of life or body. Simply put: Man tears up his own roots.
    • ਜੋ ਮੈ ਕੀਆ ਸੋ ਮੈ ਪਾਇਆ ਦੋਸੁ ਨ ਦੀਜੈ ਅਵਰ ਜਨਾ ॥: Whatever I did, for that I have suffered; I don’t blame anyone else (sggs 433).
    • ਪਾਇ ਕੁਹਾੜਾ ਮਾਰਿਆ ਗਾਫਲਿ ਅਪੁਨੈ ਹਾਥਿ ॥੧੩॥: ||13|| An imprudent (senseless, inattentive, stupid, ਲਾ-ਪਰਵਾਹ…) strikes his own foot with the axe by his own hand ((ਭਾਵ, ਆਪਣਾ ਨੁਕਸਾਨ ਆਪ ਹੀ ਕਰ ਲਿਆ). ||13|| (sggs 1365).
    • ਜੇਹੀ ਸੁਰਤਿ ਤੇਹਾ ਤਿਨ ਰਾਹੁ ॥: As is (beings’) awareness, so is (their) way (sggs 25).
    • ਆਪਿ ਬੀਜਿ ਆਪੇ ਹੀ ਖਾਇ ॥: As we plant, so we harvest and eat (sggs 25).

    Hence, the Gurbani teaches us personal responsibility (ਜਿੰਮੇਵਾਰ)., it does NOT make us irresponsible!!!!!
    • ਆਪਣ ਹਥੀ ਆਪਣਾ ਆਪੇ ਹੀ ਕਾਜੁ ਸਵਾਰੀਐ ॥੨੦॥: (So long there is breath – Praan) With own hands (with self-efforts, ਉੱਦਮ ਕਰ ਕੇ: Shabad-Vichaar …), resolve your own affair yourself. ||20|| (sggs 474).

    Understandably, the Gurbani tells us the mind must get established in Giaan – spiritual Wisdom or spiritual Knowledge. Because, according to the Gurbani, it’s only the Giaan that can arrest or secure the mind.
    • ਮਨ ਸਮਝਾਵਨ ਕਾਰਨੇ ਕਛੂਅਕ ਪੜੀਐ ਗਿਆਨ ॥੫॥: To instruct the mind (ਉੱਚੇ ਜੀਵਨ ਦੀ ਸੂਝ ਦੇਣ ਵਾਸਤੇ-to raise the Consciousness to the High Plane, one) ought to study Divine Knowledge (ਉੱਚੀ ਵਿਚਾਰ ਵਾਲੀ ਬਾਣੀ…) to some extent. ||5|| (sggs 340).
    • ਗਿਆਨ ਕਾ ਬਧਾ ਮਨੁ ਰਹੈ ਗੁਰ ਬਿਨੁ ਗਿਆਨੁ ਨ ਹੋਇ ॥੫॥: Giaan ka badhaa manu rahai… (sggs 469).

  3. Sat Sri Akal T.Singh Ji
    Sir , I am having a great doubt in my small mind/soch regarding our Karma/Actions. Sir everyone says perform good deeds (actions) to achieve joy/fruits in life, my question is ‘Is performing good deeds/actions or karma in our hands solely or it too get affected by some external power (God), reason behind the doubt is that our actions in daily life are mostly influenced by our life situations (halaat) like family circumstances where we born either rich or poor, our father, mother attitudes towards life, our brother, sister, spouse, what kind of work (dhandhaa) we do and so many such factors which are completely out of our control as we have not got our mother, father, family rich or poor by choice, we got it from God’s wish and that has a direct impact on our present life actions, then how can we are sole responsible to perform Good or Bad Karma/Actions?
    Sir hope you are understanding my doubt. Please guide.

    Thanks
    Gulshan Singh

  4. Thank you Veer Ji for taking the time to respond.

    • ਮਮਾ ਮਨ ਸਿਉ ਕਾਜੁ ਹੈ ਮਨ ਸਾਧੇ ਸਿਧਿ ਹੋਇ ॥: MAMMA: (The mortal’s real purpose or business of life) is with his own mind; (and that purpose or business) is to discipline or control his mind; by doing so, Spiritual Understanding (Soojh or Samajh of the Formless or Niraakaar…) is obtained (and thus life’s real purpose is realzed). (sggs 342).

  5. The best KARMA as per Gurbani is given in a quote as
    ਹਰਿ ਕੀਰਤਿ ਸਾਧਸੰਗਤਿ ਹੈ ਸਿਰਿ ਕਰਮਨ ਕੈ ਕਰਮਾ ॥
    Hari Keerati Saadhhasangati Hai Sir Karaman Kai Karamaa ||
    ਕਹੁ ਨਾਨਕ ਤਿਸੁ ਭਇਓ ਪਰਾਪਤਿ ਜਿਸੁ ਪੁਰਬ ਲਿਖੇ ਕਾ ਲਹਨਾ ॥੮॥
    Kahu Naanak Tisu Bhaeiou Paraapati Jisu Purab Likhae Kaa Lehanaa ||8||
    SGGS ji pp642

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  6. Thank you PRINCE jit Singh Ji for taking the time to respond!

    The SGGS (Sri Guru Granth Sahib) says that “We are human beings of one breath”. That is, our “ਮੁਹਲਤਿ” (ਮਿਆਦ or duration) is just one breath. In other words, the length of a human’s life can best be measured by the breath.
    • ਹਮ ਆਦਮੀ ਹਾਂ ਇਕ ਦਮੀ ਮੁਹਲਤਿ ਮੁਹਤੁ ਨ ਜਾਣਾ ॥: We are human beings of one breath and we do not know the duration (term, limit, etc., of our life) and the moment of our departure (i.e., death). (sggs 660).

    So without breadth human life ends:
    • ਸਾਸਿ ਗਇਐ ਕਾਇਆ ਢਲਿ ਪਾਇ ॥: When the breath is taken away, the body crumbles into dust (sggs 1256).

  7. Veerje, To put it otherwise, when the mind is conscious of the truth (Sach-ਸਚ), it’s established in Wisdom (Aatam-Giaan, Dharma…). 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 or impure…………is this direction of mind has any thing to do with, the vital breath (prana) ?

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