Q&A: Are We Totally Bound by the Laws of Karma?

April 27, 2016    BY Pandit Rajmani Tigunait

The word karma is used loosely these days. What is its actual meaning?
Karma is the law of cause and effect, action and reaction: As you sow, so shall you reap.

How does karma come into being?
Subtle impressions of all our actions—mental, verbal, and physical—are stored in the mind in the form of memories. When we keep performing the same actions, we reinforce these memories. At some point, they become so strong that they turn into habits and start dictating our behavior.

As long as we remember the cause of these habits and the consequences of giving in to them, we can change them. If our power of will and determination is strong and we have a strong desire to overcome our habits, we can gradually erase the habit patterns until they again become simple memories.

Subtle impressions of all our actions—mental, verbal, and physical—are stored in the mind in the form of memories.

But through constant reinforcement some habits become so strong that they create deep grooves, not only in the conscious mind but also in the nervous and glandular systems, our musculature, and the senses, and reach all the way into the unconscious mind. These strong impressions of actions, having the unconscious mind as their domain, influence our entire personality. When powerful impressions are created by taking potent substances, such as psychoactive drugs, we use the term “addiction.” We call other strong impressions, which we have forgotten about with the passage of time and the extent to which they have become part of our personality, “unconscious material.”

In yogic literature, the name for this unconscious material is samskara. Samskaras are subtle impressions of our previous actions that normally are not known to our conscious mind, but that influence our present activities. Depending on the nature and characteristics of a particular samskara, or group of samskaras, we find ourselves inclined toward a particular lifestyle, environment, academic discipline, type of entertainment, and so forth. Here the rule “similar attracts similar” applies. For example, two children in a family have the same upbringing and exposure to the world, but one child seems to be more interested in art and music and the other is more interested in science. Although we cannot find a direct cause for these differences, yoga philosophy says that they are due to the children’s samskaras.

Samskaras seem to be more powerful than the forces of our conscious mind and intellect. From deep within, the samskaras influence our mind and intellect and, as a result, we often know what is right and yet do not find ourselves fully motivated to do it, just as we know what is wrong and yet, under the influence of an unknown and irresistible force, we do it anyway. Such situations reveal the conflict between our conscious understanding and our samskaras. We find ourselves being impelled by our samskaras in spite of our conscious awareness that we are failing to do something that ought to be done or doing something that ought not to be done.

The progression from action to memory, from memory to habit, from habit to compulsion, and from compulsion to samskara finally results in the formation of karma. At this stage, the samskaras (which have now become karma) are so subtle and imbedded so deeply in the recesses of the unconscious that they are completely outside of our awareness. Because we do not even know they are there, we have no means of bringing them into our conscious awareness. Still, they survived so long and have been nourished so thoroughly that they are the most powerful aspects of our personality. In fact, they are the makers of our interior being. Karmas keep influencing and manipulating our bodies, senses, mind, ego, and intellect as long as we are alive, even though we are blind to that influence.

When the bond between the body and the mind is severed by death, they become the sole motivating factors. The journey of life after death is carried on by our karmas.

How do our karmas affect our lives?
Our karmas influence not only our behavior but also our surroundings and the circumstances of our relationships. Karmas are the makers of our destiny. This is why the Scriptures say, “It is karma that brings us into the world.” It is karma that makes us feel that someone is our soul mate. Karmic factors stir the subtle realm of providence, resulting in such events as winning a lottery or becoming the victim of a natural disaster. The most satisfactory answer to the question of why one person seems to be prosperous, healthy, and lucky while another suffers from poverty, disease, and misfortune can be found in the law of karma.

According to this law, everyone is responsible for his or her actions. No one else can reap the fruits of another’s action nor escape the fruits of his or her own actions. When we do not know the exact cause of a particular event, we call it an accident, but nothing happens accidentally. We sowed the seed of that so-called accident in the form of our previous actions, whether in this life or in a previous one.

There is no reason to blame anyone for our current problems and circumstances. Whether we know it or not, we are bound by the ropes of our own karma. It is through our karmas that we reward or punish ourselves, bind or release ourselves. Our karmas are also our innate guides; they guide us in the form of our inner inclinations, tastes, and interests.

Are we totally at the mercy of our karmas?
The answer is both yes and no. By virtue of the fact that we are born as humans, we possess a more evolved body, brain, senses, and mind than do other creatures. Our innate abilities and intelligence enable us to build a comfortable shelter, move from one place to another, and explore the means to improve the quality of our lives. Plants and animals don’t have that privilege. Whether or not we use this privilege is totally up to us. Making the best use of the unique gifts that distinguish us from the other forms of life here on earth can free us from being the victim of our karmas, at least to some degree.

However, we must not forget that our knowledge, capacities, and resources are limited. Even the most knowledgeable, powerful, and resourceful person faces limitations. No one has the complete freedom to choose, change, and transform his or her circumstances that are the result of our karmas.

We have very little freedom when it comes to working with karmas. The greatest limitation is lack of sufficient knowledge of our own conscious minds and how to attain perfect control over them. We also lack the knowledge of how to withdraw our senses and mind from the external world and turn them inward to penetrate the subtle mystery of karamshaya, the particular realm of the mind-field where all karmas are deposited. Even our inclination to make the effort to gain knowledge about our own mind, withdraw the senses and mind from the external world, and turn them inward is influenced by our karmas. This is the chicken-and-egg dilemma.

Can we know what our karmas are?
No. Definitely not—unless you are an omniscient being. Even if by some miracle you know your karmas related to a dozen lifetimes, that knowledge is just a drop in the bucket.

There is no need of knowing what all your karmas are, nor is it possible. All you need to know is how to get around them. Yoga masters and texts advise us not to look back. Live in the present. Learn to perform actions that can nullify the effects of bad karmas and activate the good karmas so that they ripen fast, allowing you to have a productive present. This is the purpose of spiritual practices: the fire of knowledge that is produced by spiritual practices burns your karmas. The love and devotion that naturally unfolds as an aspirant persists in practicing a spiritual discipline protects him or her from the fangs of negative karmas. The spiritual practices that belong to the path of karma yoga help replace negative karmas with positive ones.

Learn to perform actions that can nullify the effects of bad karmas and activate the good karmas so that they ripen fast, allowing you to have a productive present.

No matter which type of spiritual practice is undertaken, it affects our karmic field, making our present brighter, freer, and more productive. Once this process begins, we will naturally overcome our bad karmas, whether we know what they are or not.

Undertaking spiritual practice is like turning on a flashlight to remove the darkness rather than counting how many objects lie concealed in the gloom and brooding about how long they have been lying there. Furthermore, achieving freedom from the bondage of karma does not require knowing what our karmas are, how many of them there are, and where they are stored. Rather, it involves coming to know who is truly responsible for performing actions, storing them in the form of karmas, and ultimately reaping the fruits. According to yoga, acquiring knowledge regarding the real doer and the one who mistakenly considers himself or herself to be the doer is the only way to attain freedom from karma once and for all.

In other words, the only thing that matters is that you are here as a result of your karma and it is through the karma that you create here and now that you rid yourself of your past. The degree and intensity of your determination is what decides how much of your karma can be worked out, how fast, when, and how. Yoga is learning the art of performing positive actions without the slightest distraction, lovingly and wholeheartedly. As the Yoga Sutra states, yogah karmasu kaushalam—performing one’s actions skillfully is called yoga.

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, Pandit Tigunait is the successor of Swami Rama of the Himalayas. Lecturing and teaching worldwide for more than a quarter of a century, he is the author of fourteen books, including his recently-released The Secret of the Yoga Sutra, and his autobiography Touched by Fire: The Ongoing Journey of a Spiritual Seeker. Pandit Tigunait holds two doctorates: one in Sanskrit from the University of Allahabad in India, and another in Oriental Studies from the... Read more>>