While going through difficult phases of life many people think: ‘Why is this happening to me? Why is God doing this to me? I did so much good for others but still, why are such bad things happening? There are lots of people doing so many bad things, so why is God not punishing them?
These are basic questions that rise in the minds of many people at different periods of their lives. Down the ages, the various philosophies and religions of the world have tried to provide answers to the complexities of human life and also to those in search of mental peace. The most common answers people receive to these questions are, ‘it is God’s wish’ or ‘God wanted this for you to remember him’. These answers lead to further questions, like: ‘Why me and not others? Is God guilty of injustice? Is God unfair?’ These are not really answers or questions but a different way of saying ‘I don’t know’. Yet, if these issues are not properly answered, people start doubting their religious beliefs and turn into nonbelievers. So, is there a definitive answer?
Hinduism, as well as other religions and philosophies that originated in India, believes in the doctrine of karma. According to this doctrine, the results of a person’s actions comes back to him or her. What we get in life is earned by us; part of it is from this life and the remaining part from earlier lives. We are born to spend the karma accumulated in earlier lives, and while spending accumulated karma we end up creating new ones, which lead us in turn to take additional births. Thus this cycle of birth and death, known as samsara, continues for a long time. The problems we have in our lives are created by us, there is nobody else to blame. If we want to exhaust our karma, there is nobody but ourselves who need to act responsibly. In a sense God is being very fair in this whole exercise by giving us what we earned.
If a person has accumulated a lot of good karma, he or she would have a life according to that karma, probably a happy and comfortable life. In contrast, if a person has accumulated a lot of bad karma, his or her life will be tough and painful. Most people generally have a mixture of good and bad accumulated karma, which leads to a life replete with good and bad experiences. In fact, the human body is a result of both good and bad karma. And this mixture of karma synchronizes with the world, which also is a mixture of good and bad.
As conscious beings we need to think, speak, and act. According to Hinduism, the law of karma unerringly operates and binds us in these areas. is bondage, seen from a different perspective, is the cause of our development. All human and social development is due to the law of karma. Every thought, word, and deed, takes us forwards because of the law of cause and effect. If we can do karma rightly, we keep evolving faster, but if we do it wrongly, we arrest our own evolution.
When we try and understand karma by breaking it down to its component parts, we see only a small aspect from our standpoint; we miss out seeing the large picture in doing so. The law of karma is vast, complex, and has innumerable ramifications. It holds each and every being in its grip. No one lives in a bubble; we are all inter-connected. Our karma affects others and others’ karma also affects us. This web of interconnectedness is mindboggling and it connects us with all life. So, just as there is individual karma, there is also collective karma a ecting us.
Can we completely stop doing work to avoid generating good or bad effects? The answer is: we cannot stop doing work even for a second, nor it is advisable. Trying to stop working is not the solution, as we need to work to sustain our bodies and minds. The solution lies in continuing to work, for it is karma that breaks other karmas— a higher karma breaks a lower karma. The law of karma is not the law of fatalism but of freedom. The sage Patanjali teaches: ‘Good and bad deeds are not the direct causes in the transformations of nature, but they act as breakers of obstacles to the evolution of nature, as a farmer breaks the obstacles to the course of water, which then runs down by its own nature.’
We need to realize that karma is not the final answer for everything, otherwise there would be perpetual bondage; we would not be able to come out of the loop of lives and deaths and attain moksha, Self-realization, which, according to Hinduism, is the goal of life. There is another power in us called purushakara, conscious self effort. This power makes us work as free agents. The stronger the conscious efforts, the quicker we progress and move aside the bonds of karma.
There are yet other philosophical details that let us correctly understand the doctrine of karma. Prarabdha karma is the results of past actions that have formed the present body of a person and has begun bearing fruits. This prarabdha is extracted from the sanchita or anarabdha karma; it is the result of all the karma accumulated from earlier lives, which is generally huge and destined to fructify in future lives. Agami or agamini karma, is the result of actions done in the present life, which is due to accrue in the future. The result of karma lies as samskaras, impressions, in the chitta, mindstuff.
There are three types of karma and its results: black or bad, white or good, and a mixture of the two. Swami Vivekananda explains: ‘Only those desires will come out for which the environment is fitted; the rest will remain stored up. In this life we have many godly desires, many human desires, many animal desires. If I take a god body, only the good desires will come up, because for them the environments are suitable. And if I take an animal body, only the animal desires will come up, and the good desires will wait. … Only that Karma which is suited to and fitted for the environments will come out.
If we want to come out of the cycle of lives and deaths, we need to use our purushakara to rise higher. Desire and selfishness are the motor that drive the law of karma. If we want to become karma yogis, we must be able to work without desire and attachment to the fruits of work; as Swamiji says ‘work for work’s sake’. Those who believe in a personal God can dedicate all works and all results to him. Those who undertake prayers and sadhana can and do slowly attenuate the past karma. Clearing the sanchita karma accumulated across various births is only possible when one realizes God, or the Atman. This is the state of mukti, liberation. The agami karma then becomes functionless, as there are no more desires, and the sanchita karmas are burnt by the realization. This state is called the dagdha-bija, burnt seed, in which karma samskaras can no longer sprout and bear fruit. The prarabdha karma that gave rise to the body continues till its exhaustion, but one is no more aected by it because one’s identification is with God and not with one’s body and mind.
The Knowledge of the Gunas
How we react in each situation is determined by the three gunas—sattva, rajas, and tamas— which our mind and body are constituted of. ese gunas are the constituents of Prakriti, from which the whole universe with its diverse names and forms, has emerged. The predominance of one of these gunas is determined by our prarabdha karma. The three gunas have innumerable permutations and combinations, and this is the reason why every person is different and reacts to different situations differently. Sattva guna is characterized by happiness, knowledge, and light and makes us kind, considerate, and helpful to others; rajas is passion, attachment, and restlessness, which makes us egotistic, selfcentred, worldly, and pleasureseeking ; tamas is darkness, ignorance, and delusive, making us wicked, lazy, and confused. Depending upon which guna pre dominates at each stage or at every minute of life, we act and are judged by others accordingly.
When rajas and tamas predominate, we find it difficult to work towards Selfrealization. Most of the time we are so engrossed in our own lives that we do not even make an effort to under stand how the gunas shape our personality; not to speak of working towards improving our situation. We accept to live a puppet’s life in the hands of these gunas and die only to be born again to suffer the same situation.
Thee first step towards Selfrealization is to understand the gunas and then work towards cultivating sattva guna. And what could be an easier way to cultivate sattva guna than doing good to others? Doing good attenuates selfishness and makes us more selfless. We need to make an effort to start doing good to others, without the least hankering for any results, until it becomes part of our nature. If one believes in God, one can also perform sincere spiritual practices like praying for others. Offering the fruits of all our work to God slowly releases us from the chains of cause and effect. As it is said in the Bhagavad gita, ‘O Arjuna, as a blazing fire reduces pieces of wood to ashes, similarly the fire of knowledge reduces all actions to ashes. Once a person has conviction in karma yoga, the supreme Being or one’s expanded consciousness becomes the guide. Then, with time, one finds oneself surrounded by conditions that are conducive towards the development of sattva guna, and the performance of the basic principles stated earlier becomes easier. There are moments when we think we are not able to make it, but we just need to keep trying through abhyasa yoga, the yoga of practice, and help and success will surely come.
Once we are on the path, there may arise other obstacles like vanity, desire for money, seeking people’s attention, and for some even the development of occult powers. We have to check these obstacles and prevent them from coming in the way of our progress. These hurdles can be taken as tests to gauge our conviction, to see if we are following the path of karma yoga to achieve anything other than the final goal. We need to be very careful not to fall into these temptations and continue the journey. the path is not easy, but it is not impossible either.
In the Gita, Arjuna asks Sri Krishna what happens to people who die before they reach the final destination or miss their way. Sri Krishna replies: ‘O Partha, there is certainly no ruin for him here or hereafter. For, no one engaged in good meets with a deplorable end, my son’ (6.40). We start from where we left off after an intermission.
Basic Principles of Karma Yoga
Sri Ramakrishna says: ‘Suppose a man has a thorn in the sole of his foot. He gets another thorn and takes out the first one.’ One has to use karma to remove karma; this path of Selfrealization is called karma yoga. The principles of karma yoga are taught in the Gita, in various Upanishads, and also in discourses of numerous great souls.
Below are given two of the important principles of karma yoga.
(i) Perform Your Duty: · According to this principle, one must perform one’s prescribed work—or duty as we call it—cheerfully and wholeheartedly, without any laziness or inefficiency. What is the prescribed work for each per son? To answer this let us take some help from Swami Vivekananda’s Karma Yoga. As suggested by him, there is no one duty prescribed for all the people in the world; the prescribed work is in accordance to place, time, and situation. Therefore, there is no common and single definition to give here. There are, however, some guiding principles we can derive from various scriptures. First of all, we have a duty as human beings with regard to other living beings. Then there is a duty towards this Earth, one’s country, the place one lives, including respect for the law of the local land, and so forth. There is also the duty towards one’s spouse, children, parents, friends, relatives, and society, which is moulded according to local traditions and customs. One needs to derive one’s duty from guidelines like these and then perform them cheerfully and wholeheartedly.
Many a time people are worried more about others’ duties than their own, as they always have an excuse for not doing it. But this first principle of karma yoga requires us to perform our own duty without worrying about others’ duties. Part of the problem lies in people categorizing duties as superior and inferior; they want to perform only those activities that they or others consider better or superior. For example, cleaning toilets is considered by many as an inferior duty, while practising philosophy, law, or medicine are considered superior duties. This is not true, as all activities are of equal importance. What really matters is ‘how’ one performs an activity, what ever it may be. If a cleaner does his or her work wholeheartedly and cheerfully while a doctor does not, karma yoga considers the cleaner more advanced in the path of karma yoga than the doctor. Karma yoga considers that according to place, time, and circumstances all duties are equally important, and therefore we need not choose between them on the basis of what other people think of them.
One of the ways to understand this con cept of duty is through the story of the vyadha, hunter, in the Mahabharata. A learned young ascetic practised hard austerities in a forest for a number of years. He developed some psychic powers, which made him proud. Once, while on his begging rounds, he was ungraciously put in his place by a lady who had become illumined by doing her duties. She then told the young ascetic that if he wished to learn more, he should meet a vyadha. The ascetic went in search of the vyadha and was disgusted to find him cutting and selling meat. The butcher had attained supreme Knowledge through karma yoga. After receiving the vyadha’s teachings the young ascetic asked him:
‘Why are you in that body? With such know ledge as yours why are you in a Vyadha’s body, and doing such filthy, ugly work?’ ‘My son,’ replied the Vyadha, ‘no duty is ugly, no duty is impure. My birth placed me in these circumstances and environments, and I try to do my duty well. … I neither know your Yoga, nor have I become a Sannyasin, nor did I go out of the world into a forest; nevertheless, all that you have heard and seen has come to me through the unattached doing of the duty which belongs to my position.’
The butcher’s work was not an obstacle for attaining the highest knowledge, as that work was the natural one that came to him. The essence of the story is that it is the manner and method in which we perform our duty that is important.
(ii) Performing Duty without Motive: · When we start performing our duties to the best of our abilities, we have taken the first step to wards Selfrealization. But if we perform these duties for our own benefit, we will be generating agami karma. In order to avoid this, we need to perform these duties without a selfish motive. This may sound frightening, as most people are motivated to work because of the results or the pleasure they derive from working. And this, in fact, is the most difficult aspect of karma yoga. The whole secret is in constantly checking the attitude and motive with which one works. Am I doing this selfishly? Am I doing this for a higher cause? is is the way to check the attitude to wards one’s work.
Most of us fail to do this as we find it almost impossible to work without a motive. However, if we believe in God, the path becomes easier. When one believes in a supreme Being, one can simply understand that the whole universe belongs to him and we only offer, through devotion, the work and its results to that Being. But for those who do not believe in God, they need to constantly train their minds to work towards performing all their duties for duty’s sake. They need to consciously remove the sense of ‘me and mine’ from their minds. There is no reason for people who do not believe in God not to attain moksha, provided they have determination and perform their activities by following these principles.
Besides karma yoga, there are other paths in Hinduism, like bhakti yoga, raja yoga, or jnana yoga. A path or a combination of paths is to be chosen according to our individual constitution—physical, mental, and spiritual. There is no path superior to another, as one can achieve the goal through all the paths. Bhakti yoga demands from us to have an un-conditional devotion to the supreme Being, in such a way that our minds are always thinking of our Ishta Devata, Chosen Ideal, even while performing our daily activities. In raja yoga we need to shut all the external doors of our body, our senses, and concentrate on the internal Being in order to be in constant communion with it. Jnana yoga needs a person to have clear discernment based on high spiritual knowledge, to thus understand that Brahman alone is real and the world is like an illusion. Whatever path we chose, if we follow it sincerely, we can be ‘fairly’ certain that God will be with us.
Original Article and “Prabuddha Bharata” Issue of November’2013 is available at: