The Three Kinds of Karma

The Three Kinds of Karma—The Law of Cause and Effect

Karma means action, operating through the Law of Cause and Effect. It refers to the destiny that people make for themselves through their actions. According to the yoga tradition, there are three kinds of karma: prarabdha (that which is to be worked out in this lifetime), sanchita (that which existed at the beginning of this life and is held over), and agami or kriyamana (new karma which is accumulated in this life and added to the sanchita deposit). The law of karma combines the theories of predestination and cause and effect, as a person’s present actions cause or predestine their future state.

Prarabdha Karma

Prarabdha karma is the part of our karma that bears fruit in the present life. It is the cause of our current destiny, the allotted portion of sanchita karma to be worked out in a given type of environment during a lifetime. It is the karma that is inherited from past lives, but is meant to be dealt with in this lifetime and has begun to produce effects.

We can think of prarabdha karma as the “bank deposit” that we use in this life. Some of its aspects, especially those related to the physical body (for example, our genetic inheritance), cannot be altered. So, the wise attitude is to simply accept them as they are and to use them in the best way for spiritual transformation. At some levels, prarabdha karma cannot be avoided. Yogis can influence karmic transformation when it comes to longevity, although prolonging a particular physical manifestation is not one of the objectives of the great jnana yogis, for example. According to the yogic tradition, realized beings leave their physical bodies a short time after their prarabdha karma (and sanchita karma) is completely dissolved. This does not mean that realized beings still have limitations until the moment of death. In this case, prarabdha karma simply refers to the physical body.

Sanchita Karma

Sanchita karma is unresolved karma that has accumulated in former lives and has not yet taken effect. The cumulative effects of actions done in all of our past lives are “packed” into a concentrated residual of potentiality in our subtlest and innermost layer (the causal level). It is like we have a bank account with a big deposit that represents all our karmic possibilities. From the yogic perspective, not all karmic tendencies will manifest in this life. Of course, this concept is not present in Western psychology.

Referring to sanchita karma is like speaking about a general subconscious for all our potential future lives. Exactly as a state of anger is not manifested in this moment and will continue to be latent as long as specific circumstances will not make it active, there are some tendencies that might not be awakened by the circumstances that we have in this lifetime.

Sanchita karma cannot be exhausted just through ordinary actions in life. Consequently, the series of rebirths will not end until the jiva (individual soul) ceases adding new karma to the existing sanchita deposit.

Agami Karma

Agami or kriyamana karma is that form of karma which is created in the present life and over which we have complete control. After being born in an incarnation by the force of prarabdha karma, the jiva performs actions. These actions create agami karma, the results of which are added to the unspent portion of sanchita karma. Therefore, when we refer to the karmic heritage of this life, we are referring to prarabdha karma. When we refer to how we act or react in our daily lives, it is agami karma.

Read about Karma Yoga here.