Tag Archives: karma

Karma, Self-determination and Free Will

Karma: this frequently heard word has entered most Western languages including English. The word karma comes from the Sanskrit root kri meaning “to do.” Karma translated is action, plain and simple, whether involuntary or voluntary, although as a religious term, karma often refers to intentional (usually moral) actions that affect our condition (or level of existence) in this life and the next.

We also hear of good karma and bad karma, which simply refers to actions that lead to positive or negative results. In Sanskrit, the word for result is “phala,” which means “fruit.” So the fruit of an action can be positive, negative or mixed. Hinduism adds an extra dimension to this understanding of karma, meaning the results of any given karma may not only bear “fruit” in this life, but may also bear fruit in a future lifetime. Similarly, actions performed in a former lifetime may be bearing results in this lifetime.

The concept of Karma (or kamma in Pali) is common to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, but each interprets karma in different ways. According to Hinduism the concept of karma or “law of karma” covers the broad principle that all of life is governed by a system of cause and effect, of action and reaction, in which one’s deeds have corresponding effects on the future. Thus, karma is often used as a way of explaining evil and misfortune in the world, even for those who do not appear to deserve it; their misfortune must be due to wrong or “bad” actions in a previous life.

In Hindu texts, the word karma first appears in the ancient Rig Veda, but there it simply meant religious action and in both the Rig and the Yajur Vedas that sometimes involved animal sacrifice. There is some hint of the later meaning of karma in the Brahmanas, but it is not until the Upanishads that karma was expressed as a basic principle of cause and effect resulting from actions. One example is in Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5. where it is said: “According as one acts, so does he become. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action.”

So, Karma is commonly regarded today as a fundamental law of nature that is automatic and mechanical. It is not some personal vendetta that is imposed by God (or a god) as a system of reward and/or punishment, nor something that the gods can even interfere with.

In general usage today the word karma refers primarily to “bad karma”; that which is accumulated as a result of wrong actions (papa, or actions that split us from within and takes us away from integration). Bad karma binds a person’s soul (atman) to the cycle of rebirth (samsara) and leads to misfortune in this life and poor (or even miserable) conditions in the next incarnation. The moral energy of a particular act has a continuum which bears fruit (automatically) in the next life, and this may be manifested in one’s class, disposition, health, and character.

To offset “bad karma” Hindu texts prescribe a number of activities (e.g.; pilgrimages to holy places, acts of devotion, study of scriptures, etc.), that can wipe out the effects of bad karma. These positive actions (punya, or actions that bear positive results and elevate a person) may be referred to as “good karma,” and many believe the theory of karma embraces morally good acts as having positive consequences (not simply neutralizing wrong actions).

According to both Vedanta and Yoga teachings, there are three basic types of karma:

1.    Prarabdha karma: Karma experienced during the present lifetime.

2.    Sancita karma: The store of karma that has not yet reached fruition.

3.    Agamin (or Sanciyama) karma and Kriyamana karma: Karma sown or accrued in the present life. Although in the same category, these two have subtle but significant differences.

·        Kriyamana karma: Results of our current actions (instant karma).

·        Agamin karma: Intended, or contemplated actions; precursors to future karmas.

There is also the process by which karma is understood to work which involves various rebirths is as follows:

·        Good or bad actions create impressions (samskaras) or tendencies (vasanas) in the mind, which in time will come to fruition in further action (more karma).

·       The seeds of karma are carried in the subtle body (linga), in which the soul transmigrates.

·       The physical body (sthula sarira) is the field in which the fruit of karma is experienced and more karma is created.

The purpose of life according Hindu scriptures is to minimize bad karma in order to enjoy better fortune in this life and insure a better (or higher) rebirth in the next. The ultimate spiritual goal is to achieve release (moksha) from the cycle of samsara (the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth) altogether. Some believe this may take hundreds or even thousands of rebirths to rid oneself of all their accumulated karma and achieve moksha, while others believe it can be realized here, in this very life. But only until then can one be said to have found the true meaning of life. The person who has become liberated (attained moksha) creates no more new karma during the present lifetime and is not reborn after death.

Various methods to attain moksha are taught by different schools, but most include avoiding attachment to impermanent things, carrying out one’s duties without regard to results, and finally realizing the ultimate unity (yoga) between one’s soul or self (atman) and ultimate reality (Brahman).

Everyone’s karma is uniquely their own and is, in part, a result of previous incarnations, but we also share (collective) karmas, with our country of origin, our community, and our family and friends.

Karma entails the understanding that we are all ultimately responsible for our own lives. The self-determination and accountability of each individual soul rests on its capacity for free choice. This can only be exercised only in the human form. Lower species are devoid of the capacity to make moral decisions and are instead bound by instinct. Therefore, although all species of life are subject to the results of past activities, any such karma can only be generated while in the human form.

*Rae Indigo is ERYT500.

The Main Traditional Indian Yogas

Yoga is viewed in the Vedanta tradition as the path which seeks to unite one’s own soul with Atman (the “True Self,” which is equated with the essential, ultimate, eternal, unchanging, nature of the universe).

Most of the Yogas other than Hatha are mostly meditative and more directly aimed at Yoga as end-goal and “union.”

An Overview:

Jnana Yoga: Union acquired through knowledge. Jnana Yoga is the path of spiritual wisdom and knowledge, in which the intellect penetrates the veils of ignorance that prevent man from seeing his True Self (Atman). The disciplines of this path are those of study and meditation.  Jnana Yoga may be considered the practical application of Advaita Vedanta.

Bhakti Yoga: Union acquired through love and devotion. The most popular Yoga of Indian masses is Bhakti. This is the Yoga of strongly-focused love, devotion and worship, at its finest in love of the One. Its disciplines are those of rites and the singing of songs of praise (called Bhajan or Kirtan).

Karma Yoga: Union acquired through action and service. Karma Yoga is the path dedicated work, selfless action and service, without any concern for the “fruits” of action.

Mantra Yoga: Union acquired through voice and sound. The practice of Mantra Yoga influences consciousness through repeating (or chanting) certain syllables, words or phrases. A form of Mantra Yoga is the Transcendental Meditation, which is widely practiced in the West. Rhytmic repetition of mantras is called japa. The most common, highly-regarded mantras are ‘OM’ and ‘OM MANE PADME HUM’.

Yantra Yoga: Union acquired through vision and form. Yantra Yoga employs sight and form. The visualization may be with the inner eye. A yantra is a design with power to influence consciousness; it is generally a two- or three-dimensional geometric composition, but it can be an objective picture, an inner visualization, or even the design of a temple.

The Main Traditional Indian Yogas Laya and Kundalini Yoga: Union acquired through arousal of latent psychic nerve-force. These combine many of the techniques of Hatha Yoga, especially prolonged breath suspension and a stable posture, with intense meditative concentration, so as to awaken the psychic nerve-force latent in the body, symbolized as serpent power (Kundalini), which is coiled below the base of the spine. The force is taken up the spine, passing through several power centers (chakras), until it reaches a chakra in the crown of the head, when intuitive enlightenment (Samadhi) is triggered. The disciplines are severe, best practiced under the guidance of a master teacher or guru.

Tantric Yoga: Union acquired through the harnessing of sexual energy. Tantric techniques are applied to distinguish psycho/physiological systems. The control of the sexual energies has a prominent part and the union of male and female plays a ritualistic role. Tantric Yoga closely guards its teachings and techniques, being the most secret of all the yogas.

Hatha Yoga: Union acquired through bodily mastery (particularly the breath); central to all Hatha Yoga disciplines is the regulation of breath, the harmonizing of its positive (sun) and negative (moon) or male and female currents. Hatha Yoga is the most widely practiced yoga in the West, and its best-known feature is asana (poses). Hatha yoga has practical benefits to the health of the nervous system, glands, and vital organs. It’s often a predecessor to (and purifying preparation for) Raja Yoga, which is work upon consciousness itself. Hatha Yoga is the most practical of yogas, working upon the physical body, purifying it, and through the body upon the mind. It’s the Yoga of physical health and well-being.

Raja Yoga: Union acquired through mastery over the mind. Its principal text is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Raja Yoga is considered royal because the Yogi who practices this yoga regularly becomes ruler over his mind. Raja Yoga works upon the mind, refining and perfecting it, and then through the mind upon the body. It’s the Yoga of consciousness, considered by most, the highest form of Yoga.

The Main Traditional Indian Yogas

Using Yoga to Deal With Those Persistent Samskaras

Using Yoga to Deal With Those Persistent Samskaras

The term “Samskara” is a Sanskrit word that literally means “impression” and this essentially refers to an individual’s habitual way of thinking, believing and acting. All actions, enjoyments, sorrows and experiences in general leave their mark in the subconscious and unconscious mind in the form of subtle impressions or residual potencies.

The ways we tend to act in our relationships and in the world are largely determined by impressions and our past is preserved, to the minutest detail, in the chitta (mind stuff), not the slightest bit is ever lost. The revival of samskaras induces smriti (memory). Memory cannot exist without samskaras.

In most cases our samskaras are based on our personal experiences and/or cultural backgrounds. These impressions (thoughts and beliefs) can also be influenced by the health of our brain chemistry. For example, when we suffer from depression or anxiety, our beliefs about what is possible or impossible for us will be clouded, a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness may predominate as a result of low levels of serotonin and dopamine.

The internal freedom for self-realization that regular yoga practice offers is founded on the ability to reveal and bring to conscious attention our thought patterns, beliefs and the actions that arise from those samskaras. Yogic breathing techniques and asana (postures) are very effective tools for easing anxiety, depression and balancing neurotransmitter signals in the brain. With a bit of patience and a committed yoga practice, a yoga student will be able to quickly identify the samskaras and resulting actions that continue to undermine their ability to be physically, mentally and emotionally healthy.

Whenever a yoga practitioner identifies (or recognizes) their obscure and/or inhibiting samskaras, they will then be free to choose more life enhancing alternatives. All too often, we limit our own potential by assuming that we are not capable or skilled enough to create the life we dream of. Although some of these self-limiting thoughts may have some degree of truth to them, our ability to achieve the goals we’ve set is often far greater than we may ever imagined. When we start to gently direct our thinking along more positive lines, we will begin to truly realize that more is possible in our lives, and this will prompt us to act accordingly.

Understanding the concept of samskaras will be of great value when it comes to practicing “witnessing” of the various thoughts and emotions that inevitably arise during asana practice. According to traditional yogic philosophy, the most direct way to internal freedom is to witness these samskaras from a place of deep self-compassion and without unnecessarily identifying with them.

When unpleasant or painful emotions and restricting thoughts arise during a yoga session, strive to be more consciously aware, so that the credibility of you samskaras can be evaluated objectively. If there are negative thoughts or beliefs that are valid, some personal changes may be called for. For example; suppose you are a law student and you’ve failed the bar exam twice due to being unprepared, then studying harder for the exam would be in order. 

However, on the other hand, subscribing to the belief that you’re is inherently too unintelligent to pass the bar, even after getting your degree from law school is clearly unrealistic. As in most cases, this sort of limiting samskara is best invalidated in the light of your self-compassion, and then substituted with a more encouraging and accurate assessment of your own intelligence.