Everyone talks about karma as though it is some malevolent force of retribution, and usually as it relates to the behavior of others. While everyone else gets what’s coming to them, you are just a victim. It’s okay, we all do it.
Let’s just get one thing straight: karma is not a sadistic Santa Claus that sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake. It does not care if you are nice and never naughty; it is not ruled by personal vendettas.
Everyone is somewhat familiar with the concept, except when it comes down to the details. That’s where most folks get a little confused.
Let’s take a closer look at the Indian perspective of this philosophy, and break it down:
Sanchita-Karma: the sum total of our unexpired karma
Prarabdha-Karma: a portion of Sanchita Karma that is carried into our present life
Kriyamana-Karma/Agami-Karma: karmas accrued in your current life; they are considered to be the same, although the differences, while subtle, are significant
Kriyamana-Karma: the results of our current actions
Agami-Karma: intention, contemplation; the precursor of our future Kriyamana-Karma Your karma is uniquely your own and is, in part, a result of previous incarnations. We also share karmas with our nation, our community, and our family.
Like a snake swallowing it’s tail, each type of karma is a smaller and a more specific piece of the larger, with sanchita-karma being the head, prarabda-karma is the body (an extension of the head), and kriyamana/agami karma the tail (looping back to feed into the whole). Jyotish astrology (also referred to as Hindu Astrology or Vedic astrology) can actually be used as a tool to map our karmas.
dridha: fixed, unavoidable
dridha/adridha: fixed/unfixed, unavoidable, but with the right work can be made avoidable
adridha: unfixed, avoidable
Examples of fixed (dridha) would be the karmas you inherit from your ancestors (think DNA) and your country (think politics and history that shape where you are born and raised). In familial Karma we can see how genetic inheritance shapes our appearance. But we now know that it also can cause many illnesses, from mental illness to diabetes and even certain forms of cancer.
The Karmas that are transferred from countries can be more difficult to see. Let us examine the United States of America. Think of the genocide committed against the Native Americans, who considered tobacco and corn to be sacred plants. Those plants are now responsible for the leading causes of death modern Americans face.
Both forms of these karmas fall under sanchita-karma, as they stem from the total sum of our karmas, and are carried into our present through prarabdha-karma.
Avoidable karmas (adridha) can be classified as kriyamana and agami-karma. We have enough free will to try to change our situations. Adridha is a powerful force that allows us to choose not only our actions, but how we perceive the results. The fixed/unfixed (dridha/adridha) karmas would normally be unavoidable, but can be avoided through the use of mantras or ‘astro-divine remedies’ (gem stones, charitable acts, or scriptural study). This subject is as vast as the study of Karma itself. (Consult with a jyotish astrologer in order to find what remedies work for you.)
Yes, we share the karmas of our nation, community, and family; but, ultimately, our karma is our own. While personal karma is unique, it can be transferred under specific circumstances.
Marriage is one example. In marriage, spouses actually exchange karmas as they do vows. This becomes obvious when we see marriage as the creation of a whole new family. Let us use a house as a metaphor; the house is a symbol of your personal prarabda-karma, and the furnishings are the karmas of your spouse. Should divorce occur, the spouses pack up their karma (just like the furnishings) and move out. The carpets will still have stains and marks from the furniture, the walls may be faded and bear discolorations from pictures and paintings. Carpets can be cleaned and walls repainted, but if children are born from a union, the sharing of karma cannot be undone, as the shared karma is carried forward into the next generation.
Another example is the Guru/Disciple relationship. According to Swami Kailashananda, the role of a guru is to take on and expire karmas on your behalf. (Remember! To be a guru one must first be enlightened, and enlightenment means that all personal karmas are expired.) He further stated that the bond between Guru and disciple is carried through lifetime after lifetime. The Guru cannot merge back into the source unless the disciple becomes enlightened as well. We can see in this explanation that the responsibility of the Guru is one of the heaviest burdens to bear.
In this philosophy, the world we inhabit is one wherein we must repay our karmic debts. Many of my own teachers have said that this world is nothing but an experience of pain. Yes- Pain. The entire purpose of our existence on this world at this time is to pay back debts.
Fortunately, we can also accrue credits that can help us get out of here. And the whole point of Yoga is more than just enlightenment, it is an end to all suffering, not just your own. I heard Yogi Gupta say “Yoga is doing anything to make the world better.” The practice of Yoga can be that simple.
Paying off our debts would be far easier if we were also not continually racking up more of them. As Krishna told Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra : “Those who are attached to personal reward will reap the consequences of their actions: some pleasant, some unpleasant, some mixed. But those who renounce every desire for personal reward go beyond the reach of karma.”
Stated simply, do what you do because it must be done and without any expectation. No ‘thank you,’ or ‘job well done’. It is our expectations that create these new karmas, regardless whether our desires are met or thwarted.
In instances of criticism, attack, and violence perpetrated against us, we must respond with this in mind. If we return anger with anger, the karma is reborn. If we respond in the morally correct way, without any desire for revenge or repudiation, the karma is expired. In that instant, we become free from perpetuating the source of the karma.
The Yoga Sutras further outlines the obstacles to our practice. These kleshas (obstacles) are what keep us mired in samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth), and are synonymous with dukha: suffering. “Attachment stems from happiness. Aversion stems from pain.” Happiness and pain are inevitable in our human existence, and imperative to our development and growth.
What Patanjali and the ancient sages saw was that suffering was both inevitable and sprouting from the mind, affecting all levels of our human existence. The pain we experience feels real, and it is. But the source of this suffering does not come from outside of you – it comes from within. The reassuring thing here is that this means that when we find the strength, discipline, and conviction in our practice, we can do something about it.
And while every experience of pain is temporary, it is also a lesson. Like a child touching a burning stove, we learn something we did not know before. If we stay mired in pain and hide from the lesson, we miss the opportunity to learn and transform. When we can accept the lesson and bear the pain, we allow ourselves to grow.
Every experience of pleasure and pain is temporary and if you want to be a yogi, you must understand that. Vairagya, or dispassion, is a critical concept in Yoga. While some confuse dispassion with ‘not giving a shit’, it does not mean we should stop caring about everything. Rather, this concept helps us understand the impermanence of this world.
Many Buddhist texts vehemently claim that in order to pursue a spiritual practice all attachment to our worldly lives must be abandoned.
“Whilst lacking pure renunciation there is no way to pacify
The continual thirst for pleasure in the ocean of samsara,
And since all living beings are bound by their craving for existence,
You must begin by finding the determination to be free.
The freedoms and advantages are rare, and there’s no time to waste—
Reflect on this again and yet again, and dispel attachment to this life.”
~ Tsongkhapa, Three Principal Aspects of the Path
This can seem harsh and extreme; an unreasonable expectation in the lives of most Westerners. We have responsibilities to our families and communities. Leaving our lives to pursue spiritual study and practice is not seen as a blessing, it is seen as madness. How do we not share in the joys and sorrows of our loved ones? How do we remain emotionless in the face of danger and fear?
Cultivating dispassion should be no different than cultivating joy. Joy in the face of hardship, pain, and suffering. Joy in the challenges of our daily lives. And this joy can stem from our practice.
I suffered many humiliations and abuses at the hands of those I trusted. Later in life I found myself homeless. Were these experiences the result of good or bad karma? The pain I experienced propelled me away from those people, and farther along my spiritual practice. In the time I was homeless I found many gurus and studied with them on a one-on-one basis, deepened my practice, and had some of the most intense spiritual experiences of my life.
When we practice dispassion with joy, we can assign whatever spin we like to our suffering. While our experiences shape us, they do not define us.
Let us consider the dodo: a small flightless bird that had no natural predators and therefore developed no defenses. When new species were introduced to the environment, they were eradicated. Every challenge we encounter is to prepare us for what lies ahead, to allow us to evolve the defenses and discernment needed to navigate a spiritual life.
It is through agami-karma the karma of intention and contemplation, in which we can change not only our future karma, but also our past. We can change our entire life by changing how we perceive it. We can choose to see every experience of suffering as the fuel that feeds the flames of transformation. It is nourishment, not only for our selves, but for others as well.
The suffering we experience can be exquisite if only we learn to not take the lesson personally, but apply it to the shared suffering of others. Whatever experience we have is not unique. Every other soul has lived all the same traumas and humiliations, all the deprivations of joy and freedom. We need to see our pain as not only our own, but as an opportunity to learn compassion for the suffering of others.
I believe this world is capable of so much joy, without the inevitability of the pain that comes when that joy ends. The perfect example of this is our practice. Our spiritual practice can never be taken from us. It cannot be broken or harmed. It is carried with us from body to body. And as we grow and age, as we decay in our physical form, if we are responsible, it only grows.
Live your life; go to work, pay your taxes, care for your children and parents. Fulfill your worldly responsibilities with joy. Know that in a blink of an eye it will soon be over, and in the time you have here, practice. Practice to end your suffering, and to end the suffering of all others. And practice with joy in your heart.