Consider a teenager stealing a bit of alcohol from a bottle at home (some of us can relate to this). He or she might worry that the parents will notice a change in level and top it up with water – only to worry later that it now tastes different, and the theft is still detectable.
All actions – even attempts to reverse previous actions – leave traces, and traces result in consequences. This is Karma. Karma Yoga teaches that even our thoughts leave traces – referred to as samskara – that fundamentally affect our entire lives. This is from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:
“You are what your deep, driving desires are. Your desires shape your will. Your will directs your deeds. Your deeds determine your destiny.”
Karma is more than just cause and effect, more than divine retribution (or reward) for our various works. It speaks of the internal effect on us and on the function of our minds as our thought patterns become ingrained samskara, resulting in repetitious behaviour.
Some of these patterns help us, and some don’t of course. Yoga teaches that these can persist between lifetimes – in fact that the very point of another life is that it’s a chance to do something about them. The successive cycle of birth, death and rebirth is a process referred to as samsara (not to be confused with samskara!). Should this process ever end then we’ve established nirvana, and no more lives are necessary.
Life is about action – we have to participate. So karma is inevitable – how could samsara ever end? Yoga philosophy texts claim that action without desire generates no karma. We start to dissolve historic samskara when we stop creating new karma.
Action without desire – what does that even mean? It starts with a realisation of interdependence. Often we feel like we live separate, independent lives but of course that’s only possible because of the food, electricity, fuel, clothes, buildings etc that so many other people (in far-flung countries) produce for us. Our food comes from an extensive food chain, involving all other species on the planet. Human economics are possible only because of the natural resources already present. There is no “separate life”; in the most karmic way possible, everything we do affects everything else. There are no rich countries – there are simply subgroups who pretend that they are not supported by, and responsible for, the people that struggle to survive.
All our actions are different from this perspective. We have to act to keep our lives moving, but individual gain starts to seem meaningless. We all have needs that must be met or we’ll perish, but what is there to desire? Anything taken unnecessarily is an unnecessary loss for another, and a senseless drain on the earth resources supporting our own lives.