By Swami Shraddhananda
Coming to the United States in 1957, Swami Shraddhananda was head of the Vedanta Society in Sacramento from 1970 until his death in 1996. He was the author of Seeing God Everywhere and Story of an Epoch as well as many articles published in both English and Bengali journals. “To Encounter Karma” is found in Seeing God Everywhere.
We begin encountering karma as soon as we are born.
Our whole life is ceaseless action—tiresome, but unavoidable. When we retire from the waking state, we go to the dream state where we encounter dream activities. There, too, we cannot escape karma. Even when we sleep there is karma.
The question arises: What propels karma—this ceaseless chain of action? The answer is desire. We read in the Chandogya Upanishad [6.2.] that creation began from God’s desire to become many. Of course there is a difference between God’s desire and our desire. God prompts karma into action—manifested in the threefold processes of creation, preservation, and dissolution—but He is above this play; He remains always unaffected. But we become enmeshed in desire.
The mind continuously creates desires. Why do we involve ourselves with seemingly endless desires? Why aren’t we satisfied even though we know that perhaps only one percent of our desires can be fulfilled? The metaphysical answer, according to Vedanta, is that our true nature is an all-comprehensive Reality. Our nature cannot remain satisfied with little. We want totality: the totality of knowledge, wealth, health, and happiness. We unconsciously crave that totality.
Vedanta says that when we consciously realize the true meaning of desire, we can then begin true spiritual life. Then we know that the satisfaction of desires cannot be effectively achieved by pursuing little desires in a piecemeal and fragmented way. We must ask and understand what the totality is. That totality is God, or our true Self.
Our desires prove that we seek God all the time, but do not know it. Actually, it is the desire for God that impels us to seek what is not God. This contradiction comes from maya.
The total fulfillment of desires is possible only when we reach God and understand our spiritual nature. When we realize our divine nature, we will not ask for little things, just as a multimillionaire does not ask for a few coins. But we cannot instantaneously understand that impulse of God in us.
Since we are born as human beings, we cannot be free from desires. We have to act, and that very process involves us in karma. Since we cannot escape karma, we have to encounter karma as best we can.
The question is: How can we encounter karma in such a way that we can become free from it? Let us not think that we face only the desires of this lifetime: the Indian spiritual tradition teaches us that we are travelers from life to life. In each life we create numerous desires, and the actions performed as a result of these desires leave a reaction, a fruit. Briefly speaking, it is said that good actions, dharma, leave good reactions which will bring happiness; bad actions, adharma, leave negative reactions which will cause suffering.
How can we escape from the heavy burden of our stored karma from the past and present? For most of us the pattern of life remains superficial: sometimes we suffer, sometimes we achieve success, sometimes we are frustrated, sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry. But for some of us, deeper questions come: What is the meaning of traveling from life to life? The great spiritual teachers tell us that in reality there is no meaning in traveling from life to life. But if we try to understand that there is something beyond transmigration, then we can stop our meaningless encounter with karma.
Spiritual knowledge is the discovery of God, the discovery of our own spiritual nature. It is the only meaningful objective in the endless round of traveling from life to life.
When we seek spiritual knowledge, we encounter karma in a different way. Karma is motivated by desire and directed toward an objective. The spiritual seeker’s karma springs from the desire to know God.
Encountering karma in a spiritual way does not mean running away from life, but rather running toward our own spiritual destiny. If we can experience God, we can find real peace. God is beyond this so-called life which is bound by the laws of time, space, and causation. Therefore, for a spiritual aspirant, encountering karma becomes the way to transcend karma.
There are three ways to encounter karma fruitfully. The first way, the Bhagavad Gita says, is to do everything in a spirit of detachment. We are born with desires, but we must learn to curtail them in order to attain freedom. Whatever we do must be done with great responsibility and care, and we must not be attached to the results of our actions.
If we look into ourselves, we shall see that whenever we do something, we spend more energy thinking about the results than in doing what has to be done. We create dreams: “I will do this, and it will bring this result.” Yet there is no certainty that these dreams will come true. The spiritual attitude is: A duty has come; I shall do it the way that it has to be done, but I shall not worry about it. When it is done, it is done; I shall take up another duty.
In this way, the mind undergoes great training, and we grow calm. The mind’s restlessness is not really due to our actions, but to pondering their results. If we can stop that, we shall become ready for spiritual insight.
If we can encounter karma in a spirit of detachment, the first benefit we shall obtain is a sense of calmness. We shall begin to feel that although we are doing many things, there is nevertheless a feeling of freedom and peace in the background of our minds. This is one approach, and this can be effective even for a person who does not believe in God.The second approach to encountering karma is to have faith in God. The Bhagavad Gita says that it is really God who moves all things. All the activities of the universe gain their power from God. If we can think that everything we do through the body, mind, and ego really comes from God, then karma becomes a spiritual practice. If you are a painter and have been able to produce a wonderful painting, as a devotee of God you will remember that it is by God’s power that this wonderful work has been done. Whatever a faithful devotee of God does, he or she knows that it was done by God’s grace and the result has also come by His grace. In this way devotees neutralize the bondage of karma.
Devotees are careful not to create unnecessary desires because they know that this world is not their permanent home. We are all traveling to God. If we can increasingly identify ourselves with our spiritual nature as sparks of the Divine—or as children of God—our identification with our little individualities will slowly vanish. Our journey will end by sharing the nature of God, and we will no longer be bound by karma.
The third way to encounter karma effectively is through knowledge. Those who follow this path are conscious of their own nature as the ever-free, pure Spirit. The Self is not really a fraction of the infinite Spirit, because Spirit cannot be fragmented. Our true Self is infinite and as such is eternally unattached.
Those who follow the path of knowledge try to feel that they are really the witness; in their contemplation, they separate their actions, senses, and the sense organs from their true nature. Their perspective is that they are unaffected by all the world’s activities because they know that they are the Self. To be sure, those on the path of knowledge move, eat, dance, and do many things, but at all times they feel that their actions are part of a play to which they are the eternal witness. In the path of knowledge there is no question of God or offering the fruits of action to God; one encounters karma by separating oneself from prakriti through knowledge and the process of inquiry. The way of knowledge neutralizes karma; those who follow it learn to separate themselves from karma by witnessing it.
Whatever method we follow to encounter karma spiritually, we must feel a love for our goal or there will not be much intensity in our spiritual practices. We are pilgrims on the way to God, and our journey ends only when we reach Him—just as a river emerges from some distant spring and ends its journey only when it meets the ocean.
If we keep our spiritual perspective focused, the pattern of our lives will become different. A natural detachment and inwardness will result. The manifestations of ignorance—our pride, jealousy, intolerance, untruthfulness, and pettiness—will disappear, ashamed, because our goal is God who is all peace and light, free and immortal.
For those who pursue the ultimate purpose of life, karma loosens its bonds and allows us to achieve what we have always sought—God.