The word karma is derived from the Sanskrit kri, “to do.” All action is karma. Technically this word also means the effects of actions. In connection with metaphysics it sometimes means the effects of which our past actions were the causes. But in karma-yoga we have simply to do with the word karma as meaning work.
The goal of man is knowledge. That is the one great ideal placed before us by Eastern philosophy. Not pleasure, but knowledge, is the goal of man. Pleasure and happiness come to an end. It is a mistake to suppose that pleasure is the goal; the cause of all the miseries we have in the world is that men foolishly think pleasure to be the ideal to strive for. After a ‘time a man finds that it is not happiness, but knowledge, towards which he is going, and that both pleasure and pain are great teachers, and that he learns as much from ’pain as from pleasure. As pleasure and pain pass before his soul, they leave upon it different pictures, and the result of these combined impressions is what is called a man’s “character.” If you take the character of any man, it really is but the aggregate of tendencies, the sum total of the inclinations of his mind; you will find that misery and happiness are equal factors in the formation of that character. Happiness and misery have an equal share in molding character, and in some instances misery is a better teacher than happiness. Were one to study the great characters the world has produced, I dare say it would be found, in the vast majority of cases, that misery taught them more than happiness, poverty taught them more than wealth, blows brought out their inner fire more than praise.
Now knowledge, again, is inherent in man. No knowledge comes from out- side; it is all inside. What we say a man “knows” should, in strict psychological language, be what he discovers or unveils; what a man “learns” is really what he discovers by taking the cover off his own soul, which is a mine of infinite knowledge. We say that Newton discovered gravitation. Was it sitting anywhere in a corner waiting for him? It was in his own mind. The right time came and he found it out. All the knowledge that the world has ever received comes from the mind; the infinite library of the universe is in your own mind. The external world is simply the suggestion, the occasion, which sets you to studying your own mind; but the object of your study is always your own mind. The falling of an apple gave the suggestion to Newton, and he studied his own mind; he rearranged all the previous links of thought in his mind and discovered a new link among them, which we call the law of gravitation. It was not in the apple nor in anything in the center of the earth. All knowledge, therefore, Secular or spiritual, is in the human mind. In many cases it is not discovered1 hut remains covered. When the covering is being slowly taken off we say that
We are “learning,” and the advance of knowledge is made by the advance of this process of uncovering. The man from whom this veil is being lifted is the knowing man; the man upon whom it lies thick is ignorant; and the man from whom it has entirely gone is all-knowing, omniscient. There have been omniscient men, and, I believe, there will be yet; there will be many of them in years to come. Like fire in a piece of flint, knowledge exists in the mind. Suggestion is the friction which brings it out. So with all our feelings and actions. Our tears and our smiles, our joys and our griefs, our weeping and our laughter, on, curses and our blessings, our praises and our blaming – every one of these we shall find, if we calmly study our own selves, to have been brought out from within ourselves by so many blows. The result is what we are. All these blows taken together are called karma—work, action. Every mental and physical blow that is given to the soul, by which, as it were, tire is struck from it, and b, which its own power and knowledge are discovered, is karma, using the word in its widest sense. Thus we are all doing karma all the time. I am talking to you: that is karma. You are listening: that is karma. We breathe: that is karma. We, walk: that is karma. Everything we do, physical or mental, is karma) and it leaves its marks on us.
There are certain works which are, as it were, the aggregate, the sum total, of a large number of smaller works. If we stand near the seashore and hear the waves dashing against the shingle, we think it is a great noise. And yet we know that one wave is really composed of millions and millions of minute waves: Each one of these is making a noise, and yet we do not hear it; it is only when they become the big aggregate that we hear them. Similarly every pulsation of the heart is work. Certain kinds of work we feel and they become tangible to us; they are, at the same time, the aggregate of a number of small works. If you really want to judge the character of a man, do not look at his great performances. Every fool can act as a hero at one time or another. Watch a man do his most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man. Great occasions rouse even the lowest of human beings to some kind of greatness; but he alone is the really great man whose character is great always, the same wherever he may be.
Karma in its effect on character is the most tremendous power that man has to deal with. Man is, as it were, a center and is attracting all the powers of the universe towards himself, and in this center is fusing them all and again sending them off in a big current. Such a center is the real man, the almighty and the omniscient. He draws the whole universe towards him; good and bad, misery and happiness, all are running towards him and clinging round him. And out of them he fashions the mighty stream of tendency called character and throws it outwards. As he has the power of drawing in anything, so has he the power of throwing it out.
All the actions that we see in the world, all the movements in human society all the works that we have around us, are simply the display of thought, the manifestation of the will of man. Machines, instruments, cities, ships, men-of-war – all these are simply the manifestation of the will of man; and this will is caused by character, and character is manufactured from karma. As is the karma, so is the manifestation of the will. The men of mighty will the world has produced have all been tremendous workers – gigantic souls with wills powerful enough to overturn worlds, wills they got by persistent work through ages and ages. Such a gigantic will, as that of a Buddha or a Jesus could not be shunned in one life, for we know who their fathers were. It is not known that their fathers ever spoke a word for the good of mankind. Millions and millions of carpenters like Joseph had come and gone; millions are still living. Millions and millions of petty kings like Buddha’s father had been in the world. If it was only a case of hereditary transmission, how do you account for the fact that this petty prince, who was not, perhaps, obeyed by his own servants, produced a son whom half the world worships? How do you explain the gulf between the carpenter and his son, whom millions of human beings worship as God? It cannot be solved by the theory of heredity. The gigantic will which manifested Buddha and Jesus—whence did it come? Whence came this accumulation of power? It must have been there through ages and ages, continually growing bigger and bigger until it burst on society as Buddha or Jesus, and it is rolling down even to the present day.
Excerpts from: Vivekananda Yogas and Other Works, Karma Yoga