THE DOCTINE OF KARMA
THE YOGA TALKS AT YASODHARA
KARMA YOGA TALK # 4

The law of the conservation [of energy] tells us that matter is never completely destroyed, but simply changes its function, static energy becoming kinetic energy, and so on and so forth. Matter is never able to get lost, but merely changes in form to something subtler. The same law of conservation can be applied to the spiraling which suddenly and mysteriously takes place in consciousness. As soon as the spiraling takes place, there appears to be a dramatic thinning out of matter around the spiral. Actually, the same amount of matter around the spiral exists, but that field of matter is now more subtle. That surrounding field of subtlety is regarded as a “personality.” This personality begins to pulse, and each impulse that it has leaves its own trace. Normally, it is not possible for the impulse not to leave some kind of impression behind.

At this point, you might find it interesting to note that, in common parlance, the word “vasana” is taken to mean “scent.” If you have ever handled incense, you will know that it is natural to retain some scent of the incense on your person for quite a long time after you’ve touched it. If you wash your hands with soap that’s scented, your hands retain its scent. You can’t see the scent, yet it is there. The vasana also leaves a subtle scent, or impression behind. However, there is one major difference: the scent of the incense or soap acts upon on your hand, and so it remains, in itself, insentient to that scent. Whereas the scent of the vasana leaves an impression upon consciousness (upon sentience itself), and so a craving for its repetition becomes at once instantly operative.

Consciousness, being sentient, has power to act. In India, for example, some female devotees have been known to make to love to statues of Krishna and other deities. They may kiss or hug a statue, and thereby obtain feelings of delight. When they finish, and go off, the statue is left behind. What does the statue do? Obviously, nothing! The statue does not run after them in search of more love. However, should a girl depart after kissing a real boy, it's possible, and even likely that the boy might run after her looking for a repetition of that kiss. Why the boy wants a repetition and not the statue is simple to understand. The boy is a sentient being, and he responds to the kissing, and craves a repetition. Likewise, when an impression is produced in consciousness (energy) that impression itself can act. It’s one of those dangerous things to play with, because, you can try to attempt to “work through” a particular craving, but the working through is also leaving something behind, which, in turn, makes that impression (which you are trying to work through) stronger and stronger instead of weaker. With every repetition it only gains more strength. It’s not worked out. It’s worked in! That’s what so dangerous about playing with vasana.

Every action experienced by the senses, or expressed by the me sends out an impulse. Where is that impulse sent out to? From the purely material point of view (the material viewpoint which expresses that the ‘I’ is different from ‘you’), the impulse is regarded as going out into the external world. The impulse gets sent out, but leaves an impression behind. Both the impulse and the impression make up the sanchitta karma, the storehouse. Furthermore, whatever comes out of ‘you’ returns like a boomerang. It may not happen in a time frame that is easy to spot. Look at what happens in nature. Land may erode from one area, and fill in the land that has eroded from another. Eventually, nature will refill that also. It may take two hundred thousand years, but no matter. It’s a basic law of material existence. As long as we share material existence with the rest of the universe, we are bound by this law.

The East has called this "the law of karma." Some have also called this inescapable law "the law of retribution," because they wanted to create an expression for it that would evoke fear in you. They couldn’t help behaving like school masters who wanted to put a little bit of fear into the minds of their students. However, it’s better to strip away all such excess verbiage and see the inescapable not as punishment but as a pure and simple case of the law of compensation or balance. Nature is so nicely organized that it balances itself. Everything balances immediately. If a rock falls into the lake, a trough is built up all around where the rock falls in. Immediately water flows into the trough to fill it up. It must do so; it cannot do otherwise. And even though we may try, we cannot prevent nature from restoring the balance. It does it all the time, from moment to moment.

When you stand on the edge of a chair, your body automatically begins its balancing act. Should you begin to fear the outcome, should you begin to fight with the body’s balancing act, the same motion that would have balanced you, will cause you to fall. But even that falling is part of nature’s balance. In your eyes, you simply fall. In nature’s eyes, so much agitation is imbalance. It is not possible for nature to tolerate imbalance. In which case, in "falling," balance is restored. In much the same way, the law of karma returns everything to a natural state of balance.

The Eastern religious orthodoxy warns that if you get vicious (hit someone), you will become paralyzed, or lose an arm. They warn that all pursuit of pleasure returns as pain. They warn that by selfishly accumulating for yourself, you are only digging your own a hole of adversity and poverty. They say the reason for this is “God’s retribution.” However, they need not have said so. There is no need to raise the notion of retribution when nature’s balancing act explains the mechanism of karma. Therefore, why adopt the notion of retribution at all? Better by far to drop it, and take note that the law of karma is a pure act of balancing that the divine intelligence in nature is performing at all times. See that what you give forth, comes back. If you go on accumulating (exploiting and accumulating), you are bound to upset the balance, which nature has no choice but to restore.

Personally, I have never been able to reconcile myself to this notion of retribution, and wouldn’t have even mentioned it, were it not that this orthodox idea of retribution is widely accepted. However, doesn’t it seem silly that God should have to “punish?” In the first place, do you really think that you are so very important? And secondly, do you really think that the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, whatever it is, should have to stand in front of you, and roll up its divine shirt sleeves in order to dish out a particularly suitable punishment? That ancient idea is ridiculous, if not blasphemous. And why such a vengeful divine father? Why not a helpful divine mother? Why not a devoted and fond mother who gives a bitter medicine to her child, not out of spite, but in order to cleanse the body of the poison the child has accidentally swallowed? It seems unfortunate, however, that people need to cling to such images to explain the law of karma, when the simple explanation of nature’s balancing act will do nicely.

Let’s look why the pursuit of pleasure leads to pain. If you look at your the pursuit of pleasure, you will see that you are always wanting more and more pleasure. At the very end of the experience of pleasure, you say

I want more.

And so, at the point where the pleasure ends, a feeling of being unsatisfied begins, and that, in effect, leaves a pain behind. Thus, pursuit of more pleasure becomes, at the very same time, a running away from pain. The ascetics tried to reverse this process. Their idea was to cause pain in pursuit of pleasure. In performing acts of self-mortification, a person would go on hurting and hurting the body such that in stopping, the person would be filled with great relief. In turn, the relief was associated with pleasure. But, of course, it wasn’t pleasure. It was merely relief. In truth, that’s really all that’s involved in self- mortification. You may have thought it was a serious business, but it’s actually a rather silly affair.

Being serious students of karma yoga, let’s ask: What makes the operation of karma possible? Karma is only made possible by that very strange thing called the me and the mes very strange notion called “mine.” Somehow this cell (soul) of consciousness, this jiva, this cosmic particle is made to feel, that the physical body is “mine”, is “me.” Like a string attached to a ball, the me is the mysterious link which makes the law of cause and effect operative. Perhaps you remember when you were young, and you played with a ball on the end of an elastic string? In India, as in the West, city children are often given such ball with which to play. In the West, there is even a paddle to which the string is attached. To play, the ball is thrown (or paddled) and the fun is that no matter in what direction it is sent, the ball always comes back. The harder the ball is sent away, the faster it comes back. This is always the case as long as the string remains attached to the ball. Should the string snap in the process, the ball naturally keeps on going, and the game is finished. In the same way, the me links consciousness with all the eight elements of materiality. As along there is a link, there will be a reaction following every action. And, because action is simply projected by the me, the impulse to perform that action doesn’t actually leave you; it’s circulating, because it has become a part of the living computer you call "the personality."

Various names have been given to the phenomenon of projection. For instance, the concept of the “etheric double” can be traced to projection of action by the me. So can another concept called Chitra-Gupta, which may seem particularly Eastern at first glance, but is really quite universal. The East Indian religions depict the Chitra-Gupta as a little God that sits on one’s right shoulder. And, interestingly enough, that little god is supposed to take note of everything you do, observing all your actions, be they actions in thought, word, or deed. As the story goes, the Chitra-Gupta sits there observing everything, until you die, whereupon, Chitra-Gupta takes you to the High Court of Yama (the deity presiding over death), so that you may be judged. You can imagine the picture they paint of this: the great Yama is seated on his royal throne, with you are in the docket, shivering in your shoes. (Never mind that after death you don’t even have a body, let alone shoes; you are there, shivering!) And Yama looks down, and asks to hear about all you’ve done. At which point, the Chitta- Gupta starts rattling off everything that you’ve done, good and bad alike, not sparing a single detail.

Although it’s interesting to examine the meaning of Chitra- Gupta, as a proper name, equally interesting is the simple word meaning of the two Sanskrit terms: chitra and gupta. The word “chitra” translates as “picture,” while the word “gupta” translates as “hidden.” Thus, the “Chitra-gupta,” or the “hidden picture” is another term for what the psychologists have called “the unconscious.” In the Psalms you find (perhaps this isn’t the precise wording, but it is something to this effect):

God keeps all the actions of all of us with hidden pictures.

The Sanskrit word “Yama” is also significant. “Yama” means “regulator,” or “restrainer.” Thus, to regulate, to restrain, to limit, to terminate, all of that is implied by this word given as the name for the deity of death, Yama; the idea being that there is something built into the system which, at a certain point in the course of… things, says: “That’s enough. That will do for the present.” What is it that decides how and when things are to be regulated? Can it be explained? It’s possible that there may be no explanation. Yet, the human mind, the human intellect itself demands an explanation. And so, explanations have been conjured up to explain it.

In India, there are various explanations given to explain how and when death takes place, as well as explanations regarding the stages that follow death. The orthodox explanations conjure up images of divine courts and divine judges on thrones, a Lord Yama, and all that kind of thing. However, perhaps it is merely that the personality, with all the impressions of past actions stored in the chitta keeps whirling and whirling after the body is discarded, can attract, as it goes on whirling, all that is appropriate for it to experience, including all the elements necessary for a new body. Such a thing may be the Chitra-gupta, Yama, etc., all rolled up in one. Since no one knows for certain about any of this, it should be said, in all fairness to the orthodoxy, that the images which the ancients have conjured up may in some way “depict” what actually happens.

For those who have pondered this mysterious life and death regulating mechanism, one question looms in everyone’s mind: How is the chitta, once it has disconnected itself from the body, able to get into the next one? It’s a big question, and there seem to be almost as many theories as there are thinkers. Even in the Upanishads themselves, you find a number of different theories, a fact which in itself is fascinating. Many theories presented by the Upanishads are graphically represented, and not to be taken literally. If you can manage to interpret them metaphorically, you will find them stimulating to contemplate.

Perhaps you’ll be intrigued by one of theories in the Upanishads, which says that the personality only takes birth three times! Or, perhaps you will be taken with perhaps an even more interesting doctrine that says that with each birth, the entire history of evolution is reenacted! As that theory goes, when the body is ready to die, the personality drops it, and hangs “in the clouds” without shape, size, form, etc., and after some time (please remember this is only a metaphor), falls back down to earth, and there gets mixed with minerals in the ground. In other words, water remains water, but the spirit that was in the water drop enters into the earth. Of course, it may not be pleasant to think you were a mineral not so very long ago. But never mind, because as the theory goes, you soon entered into the root of a plant, and became plant. You grew as plant, as a fruit, or as lettuce. And the fruit or vegetable eaten by man became seed, whereupon entering the woman, found itself swimming in a vast ocean. In that ocean, you became fish. And so, much like the scientific theory which say that we were all aquatic creatures once upon a time, this theory also has us as aquatic creatures, only not so many million years ago!

Various rules, we call them “the rules of the game,” must be applied to all such theories. One such unchangeable rule is that life, the life that we are given, is very short. In view of this, it’s clear that it would be impossible for all the faculties and potentialities, which have been gathered into this personality, to be experienced in such a short lifetime. This may be one possible explanation why people die without ever even coming close to using the number of brain cells with which they are born. Perhaps the unused brain cells represent possibility of fulfilling the billions of potentialities, which lie completely hidden, unused, undiscovered. Perhaps, having been born with so very many of them, and having lived without fulfilling them, the potentialities are carried over by the personality at the time of death, in hopes that rebirth will afford the opportunity for these potentialities to become manifest.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, as the case may be, the clock is running all the time. Scientist’s have recently verified the existence of this clock. They have appropriately named it the “biological time clock.” This clock is radically different from the clocks which man has invented. Science has finally noticed that on the biological level, each individual cell has got its own calendar with its own lifetime written on it. They have discovered that there are various inherited tendencies, which are genetically hidden in the body at birth, and which manifest in their own time, and in their own way. Aside from how you are living now, this genetic information is a major factor in physiological disposition.

It also has become obvious that physiological predisposition need not come from a previous birth, because such characteristics are obviously inherited from your parents. However, lest you think that the ancient theorists who pondered reincarnation would now have difficulty reconciling these modern day discoveries, you should know that it was the ancient’s understanding that the departed personality chose the parents from which it was to be born. Therefore, it wouldn’t be out of place for them to argue that if the law of balance made it appropriate for the personality to experience rheumatism, then parents could be acquired who could contribute the genetic predisposition for that rheumatism.

All such determining factors have to do with actual physical laws. That the body was born of Mr. & Mrs. So and So, who had various congenital problems, or possibilities, and had transmitted these to you, all that is explainable on the physical level. So what has any of this to do with this thing called the me? It is very important to remember that just because we can link various aspects of disease and deterioration to physical laws, we must not preclude the me from our inquiry. There is a certain part of the karma, which is allotted, so to speak, to this embodiment, and which is determined only at the time that the me determines ... (this is very tricky to express) ... “the identification process”.

And so the question arises: “When does the baby acquire an identity for itself?” Does it happen at the time of conception? Does it happen to the fetus before birth? Does happen at birth? Does it happen sometime after the birth? When does the jiva identify itself with a particular embodiment? It seems that the camps are divided. You can, of course, divide the camps into two groups: those who insist they know the answer, and those who admit they don’t. It’s silly to evolve a dogma, because nobody knows for sure when this identity is acquired. And since nobody knows for certain, one might just as well say, “These are all the possible theories” and leave it at that.

However, one thing is certain: once identification is made, karma has begun. That is the prarabha karma (remember “prarabda” literally means “that which has commenced”). Since it is inevitable that all prarabdha karmas have an effect upon the material plane of existence, they all must have a reaction on the material plane as well. This is, of course, the major difference between the prarabdha karma and the karmas that reside as impressions in the storehouse we call the sanchita. The sanchita karma, which lies dormant within you, need not commence, but has the potential of doing so.

Yogis are regarded as capable of escaping the fate of sanchita karmas. Perhaps you have heard it said that the yogi is “capable of working out all the sanchita karmas.” There is a simple explanation for this “ability.” The storehouse of impressions, after all, cannot, in themselves create impulses, because the same factor that creates the impression is also the factor that creates the impulse, namely the me. Since the yogi has realized the truth concerning this me, there is no way for the impulse to get started, and thus, it cannot generate anymore new karmas out of the existing storehouse.

One who understands all this (not intellectually, of course, but on the level of realization) is able to live an enlightened and wise life. Such wisdom has two immediate practical benefits. First of all, even though prarabdha karmas may subject the yogi to pain and adversity, misfortune, disrespect, etc., the yogi is now capable of looking on it all with utter equanimity, assuming or knowing (preferably knowing) that all that is happening is that the balance is being restored. Thus, the yogi avoids becoming morose, feelings of dejection, self-pity and feelings of remorse. Secondly, the yogi doesn’t look put the blame of the misfortune on some external cause. And therefore, the yogi does not blame others for misfortune or pain. When one ceases to blame others, one ceases to judge them also, and so there is an end to hate.

Everyone knows the famous statement of Jesus on the cross:

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

One can only speculate what the actual meaning was, but it is possible that we have interpreted it completely backwards. His statement most often interpreted to mean, “Forgive them, because they didn’t know they were killing your only son.” However, in understanding the wellsprings of action, Jesus could have meant quite the opposite:

Father, I know this is my karma. These foolish people .do not understand what is happening. They think they are killing me. They do not know what actions they do, and what actions are my own. They are missing the point. But we must not blame them for wrongly blaming themselves. We must forgive them.

For a real yogi, there is a third benefit to understanding the law of karma. For, not only does the yogi who understands the law of karma retain balance in the advent of pain or suffering, not only does that yogi cease blaming others, but, in addition, that yogi has nothing but good will for you, whoever you are! Even if person comes to the yogi wanting only to hurt or kill him, that yogi has no feelings of blame; the yogi only wants to help rectify the unbalanced feelings in the would-be murderer, to help him towards an understanding of karma, to help him see the truth.

The reaction is the part of karma that restores the balance. People often refer to it as “God’s will”. There is nothing wrong with this except that it leaves an opening for people to say:

This suffering I am undergoing is God’s Will. But, you know, even though it is God’s will, I really don’t deserve it.

That’s the only problem with calling this law of karma by the name of “God’s Will”. Perhaps it would be better to make a substitution for that word “will” and call this law of karma “God’s grace.” That is closer to the truth.

THE YASODHARA YOGA TALKS

H-OM-E

Copyright 1997