What Is the Real Meaning of Karma? Facts vs. Myths

What is the real meaning of karma? What are common misconceptions about karma, and how is the reality different?

The real meaning of karma is the way that your body and mind change based on your experiences of emotions, thoughts, and actions. Looking at what this means in practice and how it leads to karmic consequences can grow your personal development.

Continue reading to learn what karma actually is and how you can apply that understanding to your life.

What Is Karma?

Let’s address misconceptions about the concept of karma and explain what is the real meaning of karma in the way that the yogi master and author of Karma Sadhguru defines it.

In Sanskrit, karma directly translates to “action” or “deed.” However, Sadhguru explains there’s a common misunderstanding that karma is an account of all your actions, good and bad, tallied up by a higher power to determine appropriate rewards or punishments. For example, you cheated on your partner, and so the next day you get in a car accident—karma. But Sadhguru argues this is an overly simplified and inaccurate understanding of the idea.

(Shortform note: Popular use of the word karma in Western vernacular has contributed to a common misunderstanding of the term. For example, in a 2012 interview, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt tried to use the concept of karma to explain the conservative perspective on social policies: He suggested that conservatives’ opposition to welfare or bailouts stems from a desire to see the law of karma upheld. However, Haidt fundamentally misconstrued the concept, misusing the term karma to describe what might more aptly be called Social Darwinism.)

Sadhguru clarifies that karma isn’t an external assessment of your actions; instead, it’s your inner programming created through your past emotions, thoughts, and actions—your memories. Your karma is the sum total of your memories that shapes the way you perceive and respond to the world. As you accumulate memories, you build a mental database of experiences that influence your behavior and decisions. Over time, these behaviors solidify into personality traits and thought patterns—your inner programming—that influence all your daily reactions and decisions. 

For example, if someone you love has hurt you, you might be hesitant to trust others in the future. Or, if you’ve always been good at sports, you’ll likely feel more confident pursuing athletic goals because your memory of past achievements boosts your confidence. 

(Shortform note: Sadhguru’s definition of karma isn’t universal. Karma is a spiritual concept that exists in many Eastern religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and some forms of Sikhism. While there are similarities across these traditions, interpretations vary. For example, Jainism treats karma as if it has a physical form, visualizing it as tiny particles that enter the soul and affect its cleanliness and spiritual growth. On the other hand, Sikhism emphasizes the role of devotion or commitment to God in its understanding of karma.)

Exercise: Understand Karma Better

Sadhguru argues that many people have a misconception of karma that limits their ability to shape their future and spiritually grow.

  1. Before reading this article, how would you have defined karma?
  2. How does Sadhguru’s definition differ from or expand on your previous definition of karma?
  3. How could this new understanding affect how you view your current emotions, thoughts, and actions?
What Is the Real Meaning of Karma? Facts vs. Myths

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Sadhguru's "Karma" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Karma summary:

  • Yogi Sadhguru's guide to understanding and living by karma
  • The four types of karma and how they impact you
  • Strategies for those who wish to release themselves from the cycle of karma

Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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