Most young children are familiar with the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or, in simpler terms, treat other people as you would like to be treated. Another common saying, “You reap what you sow,” bears a related message, and both are handy lessons for parents and teachers to pass on to young people who are just learning about how the world works.
Both sayings contain lessons in compassion — the importance of kindness and empathy for others’ feelings; in cause and effect — the fact that how we behave influences how others view and behave toward us; and in moral philosophy — that other people have feelings, just as we do, so they are individuals who matter, just as we are. But at base, both of these sayings are simple forms of the Law of Karma.
Karma began as an Eastern concept — one of the basic tenets of Hinduism and Buddhism — but it has entered the modern Western vocabulary, albeit with a somewhat corrupted meaning. Many people use “karma” interchangeably with “destiny” or “fate,” yet karma is actually quite different from both of these. Destiny and fate refer to a predetermined course of events that is beyond one’s control, while karma is nearly the opposite. The word “karma” is the Sanskrit word for “action,” and places the responsibility for one’s actions squarely in one’s own hands. Like the Golden Rule, the saying that we reap what we sow, or Newton’s Third Law of physics, karma reminds us of the fact that every action has an effect — a reaction created and set off by the action itself.
In practical terms, this means that acts rooted in kindness tend to have positive effects, acts of ill will tend to have destructive effects, and so on. But the Law of Karma refers not just to physical actions, but also to our thoughts and the motivations that spur our behaviors. In Buddhism, if one commits an act out of desire, delusion or ill will (together known as the three “defilements”), that act carries the karma of its effect; to Buddhists, this is, in essence, the cause of suffering. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, it is thought that each individual must resolve his karma throughout life by seeking to free himself of those defilements — in short, to learn to think, feel and act in a more highly evolved manner. If the individual fails to do so, he begins samsara, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth of the soul that is the pursuit of nirvana — final freedom through enlightenment.
It is important to remember that, while many people talk about “good karma” and “bad karma,” the true, original meaning of karma carries no such connotation. Good and bad, as related to human actions, are determined by too many variables to count, including culture, era, and individual perspective. Karma exists outside of these variables; instead, it is based simply on the idea that everyone and everything is interconnected, and therefore, every choice, action or behavior leads to a reaction or effect. Thus, it is up to the individual to choose his actions with care and forethought regarding the effects that may result.
People who do not follow Hindu or Buddhist philosophy can still benefit from following the Law of Karma. First, and perhaps most importantly, this age-old concept is a lesson in compassion. If one subscribes to the idea that everything on earth is interconnected and that every action has an effect, then empathy grows for other people, for animals, and for the planet. To act with greater compassion is to avoid, whenever possible, causing harm to others or the environment.
This wisdom can be useful for anyone and everyone, regardless of individual religious or philosophical beliefs. At its simplest, the Law of Karma bids that we think before we act and take responsibility for our actions. This is the essence of maturity. As we grow from children into adults, we can strive to follow the Golden Rule — really, the Law of Karma — in order to have a positive effect on the world of which we are an integral part. We can incorporate the concept of karma into our moral philosophies as we determine how to live and act ethically. We can model our highest principles for our children, thereby teaching them the importance of empathy, responsibility and ethical actions. This will have a ripple effect that can, over time, transform entire societies for the better.