We look at the world around us and see pockets of incredible suffering, and wonder why. Some people are visited by disease, starvation, and violence while others go through life unscathed. We see people involved in all kinds of unhealthy, unethical, and harmful activities who appear to prosper, while others who are honest, hardworking, and well-intentioned encounter only failure. On the other hand, we hear accounts of those who were so spiritually evolved that they were capable of healing others and transforming their lives, yet who suffered from painful and fatal diseases themselves. Why?
According to yoga the answers to these questions lie in the knowledge of individual and collective karmas—knowledge that explains the mystery of birth and death and all that lies between. As a young man I was a philosophy student intent on understanding the root cause of fortune and misfortune. Yet for all my reading and pondering, I began to grasp the theory of karma as expounded in the scriptures only after I had encountered several yogis. During my time with them, these spiritual adepts began to unveil the subtle mysteries that lie beyond intellectual explanations.
When I was a student of Sanskrit at the University of Allahabad, for example, I was fortunate enough to meet a great saint, Swami Sadanand, who lived on the bank of the Ganges at the outskirts of Allahabad. This peaceful and gentle saint was well versed in the scriptures as well as the secular sciences, and in the years before I met my gurudeva, Sri Swami Rama, he was one of those from whom I sought knowledge of Sri Vidya, the most exalted of spiritual sciences. Swami Sadanand did not promise to teach me that science, but he guided me to the scriptures related to Sri Vidya practice, and told me that learning and practicing Sri Vidya requires good karmas as well as God’s grace. He told me both can be gathered by practicing the gayatri mantra, noting that this mantra can erase negative karmas, create new positive karmas, and open the channel for God’s grace.
Although neither these instructions nor the theories he expounded from the scriptures really made sense to me at the time, Swami Sadanand’s love, compassion, and kindness, as well as his knowledge of the scriptures, infused my heart with deep devotion and faith in him. On several occasions he explained the law of karma, but it remained abstract and incomprehensible to me in spite of his teaching.
Swami Sadanand was kind to everyone and gave medicines freely to the sick. But when I was sick he paid no attention to me. I could not understand this. Then one day I received the news that my mother, who lived in a distant village, had been having terrible headaches for more than a month and had now lost her eyesight. In a panic I went to the saint and begged him to give me medicine for her. His response was, “Medicines are too weak to change the course of karma. I will give you medicine for your mother if you want, but it is better that you do the recitation of aditya hridayam [a prayer to the sun revealed to the sage Agastya].”
So I remained in Allahabad, 60 miles from my mother’s village, and did 12 recitations of this prayer every day while I continued my routine at the university. Eventually I heard from my sister that my mother had suddenly gotten well. Deeply grateful—and curious about the relationship between this prayer and my mother’s recovery—I asked Swami Sadanand, “How can prayer or mantra practice help not only the practitioner but also someone at a distance?”
With a smile he said, “Intense tapas, samadhi [spiritual absorption], mantra sadhana, the grace of God, selfless service, and satsanga [the company of saints] create a powerful positive karma in a short period of time. And this can neutralize the effect of previous negative karmas.” He got up and pulled out the Yoga Sutra with the commentary of Vyasa and showed me the exact passage he was quoting.
When he put the law of karma in this context, I began to understand the Yoga Sutra and other scriptures more profoundly than before, but I was still not able to grasp the dynamics of karma and reincarnation very well.
Then, one Sunday morning I went to the ashram quite early and found Swami Sadanand in the company of a gentleman who suffered from epileptic fits so violent and frequent that he had to be constantly accompanied by someone who would make sure he did not hurt himself. The saint gave him something that looked like ash, with these instructions: “Take this medicine every morning, but only after you have fed grain to the wild birds. After your morning ablutions, get some barley, cracked wheat, and other grains, invite the birds to come to you, and feed them. Once they have eaten, take this medicine. Then you may take your meal, but only after the birds have eaten this grain.”
When the man left, I asked, “Sir, I understand the value of taking medicine, but why does he have to feed the birds?”
Swami Sadanand replied, “You should watch. When he is cured, I will explain.”
For almost three days the poor fellow starved because the birds would not eat the grains he scattered for them. Then, on the fourth day, they accepted his offering and he started taking the medicine. It became his routine to feed the birds before starting his day, and in a month his fits came less frequently. Within six months he was cured.
When I asked Swami Sadanand to explain, he said, “Birds are part of nature. Their relationship with humans is not contaminated by selfishness and expectations. They are happy when you serve them, but they do not mind if you don’t. They operate on instinct alone—they make no personal choices and have no agendas. Serving them is serving nature, the repository of all our karmas.
“Our individual chitta [the unconscious mind] and karmashaya [the vehicle of our karmas] always work in conformity with nature, prakriti, which not only encompasses plants, rivers, and the rest of the natural environment—it also encompasses the primordial energy field which is the source of and locus for this material world. By sacrificing your comforts and giving away that which you believe to be yours, you pay off your karmic debts in the subtle realm. And it is these karmic debts that are the cause of your present misery.”
Why is it that we can pay off our karmic debts only by feeding other creatures?
This explanation, brief as it was, gave me enough material for several years of study and contemplation. But the more I studied and pondered the mystery of karma, the more questions came into my mind: Why is it that we can pay off our karmic debts only by feeding other creatures? Aren’t humans a part of nature too? Can we pay off our karmic debts even though we don’t know what they are? Does the karma of one life continue to affect other lives too? If so, how?
My mother’s recovery and the cure of the man who fed the birds suggested that there is a way of getting around the law of karma, but questions remained: Do we attain freedom from the bondage of karma only after paying off all our karmic debts? Or can we get exemptions by practicing intense tapas, attaining samadhi, undertaking mantra sadhana, selfless service, being in the company of saints and sages, and obtaining the grace of God? Is obtaining God’s grace like declaring bankruptcy because the burden of our karmic debts is too great to be offset by other means?
Hoping to find answers to these questions, I switched my studies from Sanskrit literature and Ayurveda to a concentration on the scriptures and philosophical texts. In addition to spending time with Swami Sadanand, I began to visit dozens of swamis who came to the annual spiritual festival on the bank of the Ganges in Allahabad. Many of these learned teachers provided answers to my questions, but often I could not grasp the answers properly, either because they were too profound or because my understanding was too limited. And in any case the answers I got to my questions were usually less helpful than the understanding I gained by observing the spontaneous actions of these saints.
For example, one of these holy men was visited by a healthy young man who, for no apparent reason, had become obsessed with the thought that he would soon meet with a fatal accident. After listening to his problem, the saint instructed the young man to stay with him at his temporary ashram on the riverbank for a while.
After a few days the young man became impatient, and early one morning he decided to take the next train to his home in the town of Jhariya. The saint strongly advised him not to go, but the young man argued that he needed to get back to his job. Then the saint told the young man that he was ill, that he needed medicine from town, and the young man was the only person who could get it. He told the young man he could leave the next day or even by the evening train that day, but because his illness and advanced age made it uncertain that they would ever meet again, it was important that the young man do him this final service. The young man agreed. He went to town and got the medicine, in the process missing the morning train to Jhariya. The next day brought the news that the train had been wrecked, killing more than 100 passengers and injuring several hundred more. The young man, overwhelmed with gratitude, now wanted to stay longer and serve the saint, but the holy man insisted he go home.
After observing many such incidents, which I am convinced were not coincidental, I realized the truth of the statement in the scriptures telling us that one of the means of counteracting negative karmas is to be in the company and the service of saints. Yet I still could not understand why serving holy men in the here and now can erase the effect of karma created in the past. I was curious to know who maintains such a precise record of karmas, and further, why some have the wisdom to know the karmic records and others don’t. I also wondered why some of the yoga masters, who evidently understood the cause of other people’s problems and helped them skillfully, remained indifferent toward helping themselves. Questions continued to haunt my mind: Is it easier to know another’s problems than our own? Is it easier to help others than to help ourselves? Are these wise people bound by certain spiritual laws? Is that why, in spite of having the capacity to know and remove the cause of their problems, they do not do it?
As time passed I found some answers, but still my list of questions grew. Then one day I gained direct experience of a particular spiritual practice, and this changed the course of my own destiny.
It was the winter of 1982. My gurudeva, Sri Swami Rama, was staying in New Delhi and I was with him, preparing to depart for the United States that evening. Suddenly he asked me, “So when are you going?” I told him the time. A little later, he asked again, “So when are you going?” I gave the same answer. Later he asked yet again, adding, “Do you have to go?” I explained that I had classes to teach and should get back, but he didn’t seem to be listening. This dialogue was repeated again and again during the next several hours, and finally I realized that he didn’t want me to go, although I did not know why. I called the airline and cancelled my flight. A short time later, he asked again, “Are you going?”
When I said, “No,” he said, “Good. You should go to Rishikesh and do such-and-such practice while staying at the ashram. Every day visit the Virbhadra temple.”
So I went to Rishikesh and did the practice. On the last day, however, I began to feel extremely sluggish. Every time I picked up my mala beads and started to repeat the mantra I fell asleep instead. Several times I got up and washed my face with cold water, but I couldn’t keep myself awake. At some point, while sitting in my meditative pose, I nodded off, the mala dropped from my hand, and I began to dream a dream so vivid that I knew it was real.
In it I saw myself being driven along the familiar route from New York City to Swamiji’s headquarters in Pennsylvania, where I live. The driver, a woman I will call Laura, often drove me to New York, and she was driving along happily as usual. Suddenly a car entered the freeway from the exit ramp and headed toward us against traffic. Within seconds, it was coming directly at us. If Laura braked abruptly, the car behind us would crash into us. If we swerved onto the shoulder or into the other lane we would collide with the cars around us. There was no time and no option. A head-on collision was inevitable. Then, a fraction of a second before the crash, an extraordinarily tall man clad in white appeared between the two cars and prevented the collision. He picked us up—me in one hand and Laura in the other—and deposited us on the median strip.
I woke up to find my mala on the floor. My entire being was suffused with a powerful mixture of fear and joy—fear from the near collision and joy from the loving touch of the being who had plucked me out of harm’s way. There were goose bumps all over my body. But I still had lots of japa to do before the practice was finished so I put the experience out of my mind and concentrated on my task. Shortly afterwards, I returned to the United States and resumed my normal routine. As time passed I forgot about the dream.
That spring Laura drove me to New York City to teach a class. On our way home, she suddenly told me that her heart was pounding and she was afraid to drive any further. She said that for the past several days she had been seeing a head-on collision in her mind’s eye. She hadn’t wanted to refuse to drive me to New York, so she tried to dismiss her fears. But now she was too frightened to keep driving.
I remembered my dream, and I saw that we were approaching the spot where it had taken place. I also remembered Swamiji saying that whatever happens in the external world has already happened long before in the inner world, and suddenly I understood that this whole incident had already taken place, that the mysterious being in white had already saved us, so there was no need to fear. But I could not say such things to Laura.
The exit ramp that the car had come down in my dream was just ahead. I was trying to distract Laura by engaging her in conversation, but she was becoming more and more agitated. We were in the right lane, approaching the exit, when a car suddenly entered the freeway right in front of us and came toward us in our lane. Our car and the cars behind and beside us braked and swerved, but a collision seemed inevitable. In that instant the question flashed through my mind: Should I take off my seat belt so that the white-clad being could get me out of the car more easily? Almost simultaneously another thought came: What difference does it make? A physical being can’t help and for a subtle force a seat belt is nothing. So I closed my eyes and waited. Just as we were about to crash, I saw in my mind’s eye that white-clad being appear between the two cars, pluck Laura and me out of the car, and deposit us on the right shoulder of the road.
I opened my eyes and found myself standing next to Laura, my body infused with the same mixture of fear and delight I had experienced after the dream in Rishikesh. Again, I had goose bumps all over my body. Our car was standing almost nose-to-nose with the oncoming car, and our front doors were wide open. Some of the cars behind us had collided, although none seriously. Drivers were leaning out of their windows shouting. I asked Laura if she was all right. She smiled and said, “I’m fine.” So while the drivers around us were yelling and writing down each other’s license numbers, we got into our car and drove away.
For several weeks I thought constantly about the tall being clad in white. Who or what was it? According to the Christian faith, it would be an angel. From the Indian perspective, it would be an immortal sage or yogi. I had no idea what it was. I had no sense that I had known or experienced it before—except in the dream. So why did it (or he) protect me? Was it the personified form of the mantra Swamiji had given me to practice in Rishikesh? Was this the same sage who had protected Swamiji once when he was lost in the mountains and fell? I had no particular feelings of love for that white-clad being. But I did feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude toward Swamiji. Had he himself helped me by assuming that form? Or had that being appeared at his request?
My mind kept returning to the practice I had done in Rishkesh. But I doubted that this experience was due solely to that because I knew many people who had repeated the same mantra hundreds of times without any significant change in their circumstances. Had Swamiji used this practice to evoke a force of protection powerful enough to prevent me from reaping the fruit of my past karma?
What happened to Laura after this raised even more questions. For a couple of weeks she seemed to be in another, more blissful world. Her heart was brimming with joy and gratitude toward Swamiji and the spiritual tradition he represents. But within three weeks her mood changed. Although she had been a student of Swamiji’s for a long time, and was a close friend of my family, she kept her distance from us, and became indifferent and then hostile to Swamiji. In the fourth week, she left the Institute. She had many complaints, but the main one was that Swamiji was selfish. She said she was disappointed that Swamiji did not want others to live a happy life.
I found this inexplicable. I wanted Swamiji to explain, but I knew he would simply remain silent if I asked him what had happened. One day, however, while reading one of the Puranas, I came across a passage that answered my question. In the course of a lengthy story, this scripture made it clear that no one can interfere with the law of karma. All the forces, seen or unseen, that function in this mortal world are governed by the law of karma. Birth and death and all that happens between these two events are dependent on this law. But there is one way that karmic events can be amended. The law of divine providence, or divine will—which is the inherent power of God—is beyond the law of karma and it alone can amend karmic events (although it rarely does so). Nothing is impossible in the realm of divine providence. What is more, we can connect with that divine will through intense tapas, mantra sadhana, samadhi, devotion to God, the company of saints, and selfless service. When that happens, the reshaping of karmic events begins to take place by itself in a positive manner.
The scripture also revealed that receiving the grace of the divine will requires preparation. Even greater preparation is needed to retain and assimilate grace once it has been received. Faith in and surrender to God are what makes this possible, and this condition is created through meditation, prayer, japa, contemplation, self-study, and service to those whose minds and hearts are totally filled with God-consciousness.
When I put Laura’s behavior into the context of this message I got the answer to my question. It was possible that in my case the force of karma had not interfered with the divine will because that 11-day-long japa practice in Rishikesh may have given me the opportunity to assimilate the grace that flowed through the practice. But Laura had not had a similar opportunity, and that may have been why her initial joy was soon undermined by doubt and fear.
I have heard Swamiji expound on different aspects of yoga, meditation, and spirituality since 1976. One of his constant, underlying messages is that we humans are the makers of our own destiny; through thinking, we become what we want to be, even though generally the law of karma cannot be avoided. Even though the experience of the divine will is rare, Swamiji has said that if we cultivate sankalpa shakti (the power of will and determination), we can reshape some of those karmas which have not yet started to manifest in present events. He has also made it clear that the scriptures offer hundreds of prescriptions for working with our karmas to minimize their negative effects and bring greater joy and happiness to our lives. But nothing works unless we practice sincerely and faithfully. That is the key.