Revised by the author from an article that originally appeared in The Vedanta Kesari in October 1990. Jayanti (Pamela Hoye) graduated from Fresno State University with a BA in Religious Studies in 1974. She is a longtime devotee and has written several articles on Vedanta.
We are all subject to the workings of Karma. Action is the nature of a universe bound by time and space. Within the context of creation Karma refers to the cause and effect mechanism operating within Prakriti (or Nature). It is the force which keeps the wheel of manifestation turning. Should this wheel stop, all action ceasing, the universe would cease also. Thus we humans are bound to action, and by this action we keep the wheel turning. To think “renunciation” means we are to simply “stop acting” is a mistaken notion, one that typically arises from an unwillingness to perform a certain action required of us.
We find Arjuna exhibiting this very human response when the Bhagavad Gita opens. Facing the inevitable devastation from a war fought against his own kinsmen, Arjuna declares that he will not fight. He seeks justification for this decision in the ideal of renunciation. We need not doubt Arjuna’s sincerity in this response to the situation in which he finds himself. We are often unaware of the reasons we react as we do. We tend to seize plausible reasons, not just to satisfy others but also in an attempt to let us feel better about ourselves. It is the job of a teacher, however, to pull back the veil of ignorance. Casing aside Arjuna’s protests, Krishna takes this opportunity to teach him the true meaning and of renunciation, which leads to ultimate freedom. He begins by telling his disciple that one cannot escape the bondage of action by deciding not to act.
Freedom from activity is never achieved by abstaining from action. Nobody can become perfect by merely ceasing to act. In fact, nobody can ever rest from his activity (mental as well as physical) even for a moment. All are helplessly forced to act, by the gunas.
A man who renounces certain physical actions but still lets his mind dwell on the objects of his sensual desire, is deceiving himself. He can only be called a hypocrite. (( Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3.4-6.))
Finding ourselves in a world bound and sustained by action, our impulse is to attribute some sense of order and value to our experience. Hence Karma as a “law of cause and effect” comes also to be known as the “law of justice” extending the cause and effect relationship to the moral and spiritual plane. Morality must have its beginning, and learning to discern good actions from bad ones is a fairly sound start. Indeed, we must learn to assign value and disvalue to our experiences if we are going to be effective in our encounters with the world. The promise of “reward” or “punishment” is perhaps enough reason to motivate the majority of us to strive to do good. It would seem that, for most of us, reaping the rewards of our good Karma is sufficiently satisfying. And surely the world is not much harmed by our good deeds.
Yet, from another perspective, all talk of Karma as being either good or had, and of our reaping either reward or punishment is both over-simplified and limiting. Our notions of “good” and “bad” arise within our relative experience. Moreover, a our moral sense matures, we become more aware of a complexity in assigning values. We see that an action deemed bad in one situation is both right and necessary in another. Also we discover that consideration of one’s intent to act, rather than the deed itself, provides us with a more accurate basis of making our evaluations. Hence, to think the “justice” implied in the workings of Karma is a simple and automatic system whereby one receives a particular external punishment or reward for this or that deed is to bind the scope of Karma as well as ourselves. Also absent from an understanding of Karma is the Judeo-Christian notion of a Supreme Judge who metes out reward or punishment, as drawn from Old Testament literature.
We Create Our Experience
By deeds… we are to understand not merely external action — this gift of food to the hungry, that theft of money from the till — but every thought, feeling, impulse, imagination. Again, the deeds referred to are not wholly the deeds done in this present life, but also the deeds done in all past lives; and yet even such a statement is far less complex than the facts — as these are envisaged by the ancient rishis.
For one’s moral worth is not determined by a simple casting up of the long account of actions done through a succession of lives: these action, from first to last, are interrelated as cause and effect — each action is a cause of other actions to follow, and these again, a cause of others. Notice “a cause,” not “the cause.” A new action is not merely the product of the action that precedes it; rather it is the product of a state of moral character, which is itself the cumulative product of all past deeds.
Yet one factor has been completely ignored — and that the most important of all, tragically important, for on it depends nothing less than man’s hope of salvation. Thus far each new action has been spoken of as if it were simply the product of the compound of character that came before it… (T)hat would mean that men are as helpless to mould their own destiny as the leaf in a stream or the feather in the wind. Indian philosophy is at no time, or in any sense, fatalistic. The will as conceived by the Upanishads has an element of complete freedom, a power sufficient for a man to act in direct opposition to the spontaneous tendency of his accumulated character — and therefore to control his destiny. (( Swami Prabhavananda, The Spiritual Heritage of India, Vedanta Press, Hollywood, 1969, pp. 69-70. ))
We feel we are bound. Yet the principal source of our freedom, declares Swami Vivekananda, is found in the workings of Karma:
That is the law of Karma. Each one of us is the maker of his own fate. The law knocks on the head at once all doctrines of predestination and fate and gives us the only means of reconciliation between God and man. We, we, and none else, are responsible for what we suffer. We are the effects, and we are the causes. We are free therefore. If I am unhappy, it has been of my own making, and that very thing shows that I can be happy if I will. If I am impure, that 1s also of my own making, and that very thing shows I can be pure if I will. The human will stands beyond all circumstances. (( The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1989, Vol. III, p. 125. ))
In ordinary practice we seldom consciously exercise our will or realize its power. Unaware of our potential, or perhaps unwilling to exert the effort, we see ourselves as helpless victims, mere recipients of whatever life hands us. Or perhaps we do strive for change. Assuming our evaluations of what is good or desirable to be “absolute,” as it were, we may endeavor to be and do good for good’s sake or in order to attain some measure of happiness. So long as we do not consciously seek evil, Karma tells us, we may expect some reward either in our present life or during our temporary sojourn in heaven. It is what we reap in our present life that counts, however. For how we make use of what is given now will, in turn, affect what we receive in the future.
The law of Karma tells us that life is not a term, but a series. Fresh opportunities will be open to us until we reach the end of the journey. The historical forms we assume depend on our work in the past… Freedom consists in making the best of what we have, our parentage, our physical nature, and mental gifts. Every kind of capacity, if rightly used, will lead to the centre. (( Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life, Macmillan Company, USA, Third Printing, 1969, pp. 89-90. ))
Thus taking from the lot available to us at each particular moment we set in motion consequences that will play out in the world — shaping our lives. The choices are ours to make and the consequences are our responsibility too.
On what basis do we make our choice? Our moral sense begins, we have said, with an awareness of good and evil. And we are most likely moved to strive after the good in hope of reward. Sooner or later, however, we come to the realization that anything we achieve thereby is temporary. Our satisfaction is ever-fleeting. Heaven may be the first to lose its appeal, for we effect no change in our lot while there, and our stay is brief. To place all our expectations in heaven, knowing that we shall return again and again to finish our appointed task on earth, cannot hold our attention. We desire something more. But in the earthly realm, too, we find limitation. No action, we discover, is completely good. Pleasure we find is followed by pain; misery the companion of happiness. We begin by striving after the good, only to discover goodness eludes us.
What then is worth having? Mukti, freedom. Even in the highest heaven, says our scripture, you are a slave; what matters if you are a king for twenty-thousand years? So long as you have a body, so long as you are a slave to what happens, so long as time works on you, so long as space works on you, you are a slave. The idea, therefore, is to be free of external and internal nature. Nature must fall at your feet, and you must trample on it and be free and glorious by going beyond. No more is there life; therefore no more is there death. No more enjoyment; therefore no more misery. It is bliss unspeakable, indestructible, beyond everything. What we call happiness and good here are but particles or that eternal Bliss. And this eternal Bliss is our goal. (( The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. III, p. 127-128. ))
We are first motivated to do good order to obtain our desires and make our life pleasant. We then discover that we can reshape our experiences. When life gives us lemons we really can, as the saying goes, make lemonade simply by changing the way we look at a situation. Eventually we discover the nothing we obtain is lasting or wholly satisfying. When we are no longer willing to either continue chasing after impermanence or to be content with anything less than full satisfaction, however, “good” becomes our pathway to a higher goal beyond both good and evil. As Swami Vivekananda continues:
There is still a higher state than having this good tendency, and that is the desire for liberation. You must remember that liberation of the soul is the goal… Libration means entire freedom — freedom from the bondage of good as well as from the bondage of evil. A golden chain is just as much a chain as an iron one. There is a thorn in my finger, and I use another to take the first one out; and when l have taken it out, l throw both of them aside: I have no necessity for keeping the second thorn, because both are thorns after all. So the bad tendencies are to be counteracted by the good ones, and the bad impressions on the mind should be removed by the fresh waves of good ones, until all that is evil almost disappears, or is subdued and held in control in a corner of the mind; but after that, the good tendencies have also to be conquered. (( Ibid., Vol I, pp. 55-56. ))
When we awaken to the goal of liberation our value system begins to change. What we once considered a reward takes on the color of bondage, for we find these so-called rewards tempt us to seek after more enjoyment and keeping us from the goal of freedom. The promise of happiness within the world and its enjoyment, however fleeting, beckons our attention and we discover ourselves too quick to respond to the call. Suffering thus becomes a blessing: an assertion of worldly impermanence and change, and a reminder that we must seek our fulfillment elsewhere. In the process we begin to see that we have always been exercising some of our power. For all along it has been our attitude which gives any circumstance or desired object its apparent value. The value we assign determines our response. Never the circumstance itself or thing we desire. We are, in essence, the creators of our experience. For it is not external rewards and punishment, but rather the spirit with which we meet such circumstances that is the creative nature of Karma. An understanding of what is involved may become clear when we consider that, more often than not, one’s actual suffering or happiness bears little relationship to external circumstance. To cite extreme yet prevalent examples, we often view with admiration those whose spirits soar in the midst of what seem to us as unbearable odds. Likewise, we observe with concern the increasing rate of suicide, addiction, and loneliness among those who are affluent.
Discovering the power of our attitude in creating and recreating what we experience is an extremely important step in our development. Rightly exercised, it awakens our compassion and acceptance of others for we now know that differences are not inherently good or bad. We may continue to withdraw from situations which evoke negative tendencies from within us, but finding ourselves in such situations need not exert the same intensity of influence over us. And, as already mentioned, exercising our power to shape experience gives us increased control over our reactions and enhances our stamina and forbearance in times of struggle.
Seizing Our Opportunity for Freedom
However, so long as we only use our power to reshape what we experience we are not free. We have made progress in doing consciously what had before been an unconscious process. Still, if our focus remains in giving some order and meaning to the world, we remain bound. Whether I choose to experience a circumstance as either good or bad, I am still allowing myself to interact with and be influenced by something l perceive as apart from myself. And I am attempting to influence it according to my preferences. I am, in a sense, deceiving or tricking myself. Hence, true freedom consists in placing our focus beyond attachments and values. Renunciation is the key. But, as we have noted, renunciation does not indicate a willful withdrawal from activity. Rather it means the withdrawal of ego-attachment to what we do. Renunciation signifies a surrendering of our claim to the fruits and consequences of action, whether good or bad. This is no that we may release ourselves from duty or responsibility, but in order that we may be free of personal desire, pride, frustration, envy — all of which bind us to our actions and interfere with our very effectiveness.
Work, but let not the action or thought produce a deep impression on your mind. Let the ripples come and go, let huge actions proceed from the muscles and brain, but let them not make any deep impression on the soul… Work as if you were a stranger in this land, a sojourner; work incessantly, but do not bind yourselves; bondage is terrible. This world is not our habitation, it is only one of the many stages through which we are passing. Remember the great saying of the Samkhya: “The whole of nature is for the soul, not the soul for nature.” The very reason of nature’s existence is for the education of the soul, it has no other meaning; it is there because the soul must have knowledge, and though knowledge free itself. 1f we remember this always, we shall never be attached to nature… (( Ibid., Vol I, pp. 56-57. ))
The binding link of “I and mine” is in the mind… A man may be on a throne and perfectly non-attached; another man may be in rags and still very much attached. First we have to attain this state or non-attachment and then to work incessantly. (( Ibid., Vol I, p. 101. ))
Though we have this power to assert our freedom, our ordinary experience tells us that we must interact with the world around us and the law of Karma affirms there is no escape such activity. Few of us have developed sufficient faith in our true nature to renounce our attachments through reason and will power alone. For most of us non-attachment will be achieved gradually by the practice of surrendering our sense of doer-ship to God. Thinking ourselves to be an instrument of the Lord. we offer the fruits of all action to Him. Again, Krishna gives guidance and assurance to those of us following this path:
One will reach perfection if he does his duty as an act of worship to the Lord, who is the source of the universe, prompting all action, everywhere present.
One’s own natural duty, even if it seems imperfectly done, is better than work not naturally his own, even if this is well performed. When one acts according to the law of his nature, he cannot be sinning. Therefore, no one should give up his natural work, even though he does it imperfectly. For all action is involved in imperfection, like fire in smoke.
When one has achieved non-attachment, self-mastery and freedom from desire through renunciation, he reaches union with Brahman, who is beyond all action.
To love is to know me,
My innermost nature,
The truth that I am:
Through this knowledge he enters
At once to my Being.
All that he does
Is offered before me
In utter surrender:
My grace is upon him,
He finds the eternal,
The place unchanging.
Mentally resign all your action to me. Regard me as your dearest loved one. Know me to be your only refuge. Be united always in heart and consciousness with me. (( Bhagavad Gita, Chapters 5:10 and 18:46, 55-57. ))
We begin as seemingly helpless beings subject to the workings of Karma: the wheel of manifestation ever turning. However, it is this very will by which we fashion our involvement within the cycle that is our means of freeing ourselves from our apparent bondage. It is ignorance of our divine nature that binds us, not our Karma. By learning to dissociate ourselves from our ordinary experience through the practices of surrendering our claims to doer-ship and possession, and adjusting our attitudes in ways that allow us to live in harmony and learn from the the mechanical process — in short, by seizing the opportunities afforded by our human birth–we reclaim our divine heritage of freedom.
Viewed from a relative standpoint, that world is a bleak place, and a such it often drives us to despair… (H)however, once we become conscious, even dimly, of the Atman, the Reality with us, the world shows itself in a very different aspect. It is no longer a court of justice but a kind of gymnasium Good and evil, pleasure and pain still exist, but they seem more like ropes and parallel bars which can be used to make our bodies strong. Maya is no longer an endlessly revolving wheel of (Karmic) pain and pleasure. but as a ladder which can be climbed to consciousness of the Reality. From this standpoint, fortune and misfortune are both mercies — that is to say, opportunities. Every experience offers the chance of making a constructive reaction to it — a reaction which helps us break some chain of our bondage to Maya and bring us nearer to spiritual freedom. (( Swami Prabhavananda, Op. cit., p.292. ))