Five Pillars Yoga

The Upanishads: Karma

Action and Reaction in the Wheel of Cosmic Consciousness

There are a handful of ancient texts that modern day yogis turn to for foundational wisdom. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are one of them; the Upanishads are another.

A collection of philosophical texts, the Upanishads were written in India sometime between 800 and 500 BC. They emerged from a time of shifting spiritual sensibilities, when traditionally Vedic Indians were moving away from external religious practices to more internally-focused spiritual pursuits—put very simply, fewer sacrifices and more meditating.

The books of the Upanishad are made up of the teachings of that day’s spiritual leaders and guides. Although we refer to them collectively, each book (there are about 200 total) stands on its own. The name Upanishad reflects its content: upa (near) and shad (to sit) form to mean something close to “sitting down near,” that is, sitting at the feet of a sage to embark on a session of spiritual study.

Of all the concepts unpacked in the Upanishads there are four that we’ll look at in a little more depth over a series of posts: samsara, karma, dharma and moksha.


We’ve all heard of karma.

It’s Newton’s Third Law: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” and a pop-culture concept with a wide reach. Do something bad and something bad will happen to you.

Our modern-day conception of karma is not very far off from the Upanishad version. In Sanskrit the word karma [कर्म] means action, work, or deed and, according to the sages, our actions and deeds—as well as our thoughts and desires—have consequences. While the concept of karma today carries an in-this-lifetime immediacy to it, the Upanishad version conceives of karma as actions that ripple out from one lifetime to the next; in other words, the ancient belief in karma presupposes a belief in past and future lives.

From the Svetasvatara Upanishad:

This vast universe is a wheel. Upon it are all creatures that are subject to birth, death and rebirth. Round and round it turns, and never stops. It is the wheel of Brahman. As long as the individual self thinks it is separate from Brahman, it revolves upon the wheel in bondage to the laws of birth, death and rebirth. But when through the grace of Brahman it realizes its identity with him, it revolves upon the wheel no longer. It achieves immortality.

Brahman is the Great Unknown; it is the divinely infinite and formless cause of all change that is itself changeless. All beings, the Upanishads posit, will be reborn again and again until they are able to transcend their material worlds and physical realms and see themselves as part of the infinite, encompassing All.

Karma’s deal in all of this is that it is our worldly actions that determine our fates. Evil thoughts and deeds = rebirth in bad conditions; good thoughts and deeds = rebirth in uplifting conditions.

It’s important to note that actions on their own are not enough to change fates. It’s actions plus intentions—the attitude with which we perform our deeds—that seal our karmic fate. The ancient scholars warned against doing nothing at all in the hopes of outsmarting karma, but inaction is not the same as good action.

From a chapter in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

Accordingly as one behaves so does he become. The doer of good becomes good, the doer of evil becomes evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous actions. Others become bad by bad actions.

Inaction, then, gets you nowhere on the wheel of Brahman; or, worst-case scenario, it’s a potential “good karma” loss if the intention behind your inaction was to shirk your responsibilities and cheat the system.

Whether or not you believe in past lives or the boomerang effect of karmic comeuppance, the idea that we shape our fates through our actions is a compelling one. Taking responsibility for our thoughts and conduct is a wise step in any worldview, and the practice of mindfulness, yoga and meditation makes it easier to get clear on what the thoughts that drive our behavior are.

But maybe Justin Timberlake says it best:

I heard you found out
That he’s doing to you what you did to me
Ain’t that the way it goes

You cheated, girl
My heart bleeded, girl
So it goes without saying that you left me feeling hurt
Just a classic case scenario
Tale as old as time girl, you got what you deserved

Images: Boomerang; ripple effect; Wheel of Fortune