Karma and Destiny

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Lecture at Sorbonne University, Paris, France, 14 October 1994

The subject of karma and destiny is a very difficult one to talk about and understand, because to experience karma and destiny is a lifelong process beyond human comprehension. Many attempts have been made in the past to describe the process of karma and destiny which governs human life, nature and personality. However, rather than taking a philosophical approach, we should try to see how our personality integrates with karma and destiny, to see its relevance in normal human life.

The thinkers of the past have defined human interactions as taking place in five different dimensions simultaneously, whether consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously. These five dimensions represent the progression of life from the manifest to the subtle to the transcendental plane, and each level of interaction is a state of higher awareness. We do not live only on the material plane, but at a deeper level also interact with the subtle levels of life, and have the inbuilt capacity to realize the transcendental nature of life. To understand and appreciate the theory of karma and destiny, we need to be able to see these three aspects together.

Dimension of matter

The first level of human interaction is the material dimension, or the dimension of matter, in which our body and senses become the tool to interact in the world of name, form and idea. Only in the manifest dimension do we have the ability to recognize a form, to give it a name, and to interact with other objects in our environment. These objects are different forms of matter, and can be animate or inanimate.

Dimension of mind

The dimension of mind is the next subtle level after matter. What is mind? Many different ideas have been conveyed, both in the East and West, to describe the process and condition of the mind, but they are all incomplete. The subject of the mind is not only confined to the experience or realization of the conscious, subconscious and unconscious faculties. It incorporates the aspects, manifestations and interactions of ego; the understanding and experience of intellect and emotions, aspects of rationality and also irrationality. It is a force which can interact with the manifest world as well as the unmanifest dimension. It can recognize symbols, and can also feel the non-existent conditions of life. It creates thoughts, desires and ambitions.

The different mental creations act differently when combined with our life and, even more so, with our lifestyle. The mode of mental expression is through mental conditioning. The mind is conditioned to act according to the education it receives from society, the family and the culture, and functions within specific parameters defined by this conditioning. So, in the ancient traditions a lot of thought has been given to the functioning and the nature of the mind. In broad terms, four aspects have been identified: (i) ego, (ii) intellect and rationality, (iii) emotions and feelings, and (iv) cognition. The behaviour of these four aspects of mind changes in different circumstances, and this change within the mental frame is known in normal language as moods of mind.

In brief, this is the mental dimension in which we interact regularly. An imbalance or overload in the mental structure can affect the entire personality. At the time of overload there is mental breakdown which is experienced in the form of tension, stress, anxiety and an unclear mind. These limiting conditions of mind also restrict our creativity. But at the same time the mind has an immense potential to evolve and is in a process of continuous evolution.

Dimension of subtle energy

The third dimension of human personality is the dimension of energy. This aspect needs more recognition because we interact more at the energy level than at the rational or conscious levels. The energy experiences are translated by the second dimension of the mind in the form of sensations, subtle feelings of attainment, happiness and contentment. Any disturbance in the energy structure can also be felt by an individual. If somebody feels frightened or is aggressive, that fear or aggression can be felt. If someone is at peace, that peaceful feeling can be felt. This happens at a non-rational, non-intellectual level where we communicate with the subtle aspect and nature of energy. There is a continuous interaction with the dimension of energy, but we are not conscious of this process.

Dimensions of wisdom and joy

The fourth dimension of interaction is the dimension of wisdom. This is an even more subtle level than body, mind or energy. Wisdom is not to be linked with knowledge. Knowledge can be a conditioned factor. It can also provide the mind with a definite vision. We very rarely utilize our knowledge; more often we utilize instinctive interaction, and the aspect of knowledge simply remains an intellectual process. Therefore, this dimension, where knowledge is applied in life and becomes a living experience, is known as wisdom. Here the faculty of discrimination is most active and there is total harmony in the human nature. In this dimension one lives the knowledge every moment and for this one needs to train oneself.

The fifth dimension of human personality is the dimension of fulfilment, contentment, joy and happiness. At this level a totally positive and creative expression of human nature takes place. One experiences inner freedom beyond the conditioning of mind and life, total creativity, perfection and fulfilment.

Meaning of karma

We interact in these five dimensions simultaneously. The process of interaction happens through the aspect of karma. What is karma? The literal meaning of karma is action, and it has been used in many different ways to define the levels of human interaction, to define the nature which is manifesting in one's life.

Today karma has become a word which describes human inability to face the circumstances of life. When we face a difficult situation, we say, “It's my karma.” When we do not have the strength to face a certain situation, we say, “I can't help it, it's my karma.” This definition or concept of karma is absolutely wrong.

Karma means action and every action will have a result. Clapping the hands is an action, but the sound is the effect of that action. So, if we consider the theory of cause and effect to be the correct definition of karma, then we are one step closer to understanding the nature of karma, because an effect is the result of an interaction, of a cause which is action. An effect cannot exist without action or without cause. There is a continuous cycle of cause and effect of karma which is happening in the world, and in the cosmos.

If we consider karma to be action and interaction, then it is being performed by us at all levels of human personality. The Bhagavad Gita states that in normal life a human being performs karmas by speech, mind and intellect. Speech here does not mean verbal speech – I am speaking and you are listening – but the process of interaction between two people. Speech means the transmission of behaviour, thought and attitude. This transmission which happens between two people creates karmas. It happens by rationality too. Our intellect, which is conditioned to act and behave in a certain way, is the cause of our physical actions, our efforts to gain something, to obtain pleasures for self-satisfaction.

Effects of karma

We are looking for self-satisfaction. The main drive in life is the search for fulfilment, happiness and joy. It is a self-oriented search, and also a form of karma. When this karma interacts with the unmanifest areas of human nature, certain impressions are created in the deeper mind, which create another conditioning. After all, actions are static. The action which I perform today, here and now, will remain today, here and now. I cannot repeat today's actions tomorrow. But the result of that action can be felt even ten years in the future.

For example, karma is a static force, like a rose in the garden. The effect of that karma is the continuing force, like the smell of the rose. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, you can smell the rose quite far away. You do not have to stick your nose in the rose, you can just get a whiff from the wind. Smell is the quality of a rose. In the same way karma is a static event and the effect of the karma is a moving experience which can leave its impressions on the human mind for a long time.

A common example is when we have a fight with somebody and carry the animosity in our mind and heart for years. Why does that happen? The fight may have happened five years ago, but the impression of that fight has affected our basic instincts, has affected our ego and self-oriented awareness, has disrupted the harmony of our personality, and is carried with us until the end of our days.

Cleaning the mental blackboard

In order to remove this impression it becomes necessary to wipe clean the mental blackboard. But who has the ability to do this? In my opinion a true human being must have that ability to clear out the impressions of the karmas so that they do not affect our nature in a negative way. This quality can turn a human being into a superhuman being.

If you want to be aware of something in relation to karma, then observe the effect of an action in normal life and try to manage it. If you can handle the effects of karma in normal life, then it will be much easier to make life happier and more harmonious. But one has to understand that the depth of that karma can be felt at the conscious, subconscious and unconscious levels. When it is felt at the conscious level, it changes the behaviour pattern. If I like somebody, I like that person. If I don't like somebody, I totally dislike that person. At the conscious level there is an immediate reaction to the karma which manifests in the form of attraction and repulsion. At the subconscious level the effect of karma changes the attributes of life, which are mental clarity, proper utilization of our strengths and proper understanding of life's situations. In my opinion these are the three main attributes of human life, provided we use them for self-development.

The effect of a karma at the unconscious level affects the ego dimension. When the ego is touched by a karma, then it becomes very difficult to handle that karma. That is the detrimental side of the karmic effect, the law of cause and effect. That state is similar to the roots of a tree being eaten by parasites, making the tree totally weak. We must avoid this at all costs. It is possible to avoid the negative effects of the karmas through the process of meditation, in which we first observe ourselves, our reactions, tendencies or strengths and weaknesses, and manage them properly.

Strengths and weaknesses

There is a concept of human strength, weakness, ambition and need. We all have certain strengths. Whatever form they take externally does not matter. The strength can be willpower, clear thinking, love and compassion, anything that can be applied positively and constructively in life to support our own growth and the growth of others.

These strengths are sometimes overshadowed by our weaknesses which can take many different forms, such as lack of willpower, lack of mental clarity, inferiority complex, loss of self-image, nervousness, tension and an inability to manage stress levels. These weaknesses overshadow our strengths or positive qualities. Most of the time we are influenced by these weaknesses, struggle against them and try to hide them. We do not want to be weak, but at the same time we do not have an awareness of our strengths, and if we do then it is philosophical or intellectual only. Very rarely do we actually apply them constructively to overcome our weaknesses. If we try to apply them without proper knowledge, then it takes the form of aggression and stubbornness.

Now, when we perform karmas, depending on their nature, they influence either our strengths or our weaknesses. If a weakness is affected then it is very difficult to remove that impression from the mind. It touches the deepest core of our personality. But if a strength is touched by the karmas, then we move through them with a very positive attitude.

Ambitions and needs

The third aspect is ambition. We all have aspirations and ambitions in life for status, external security, etc. Ambitions can be of any kind. They can also be unrealistic. Ambitions are the driving force of our actions. If we separate ambitions from karma, then karma will always have a positive influence. But if the ambitions are linked with karmas, then there is going to be a negative reaction also, because in ambition there is very little understanding of a proper interaction between two people. I do not have to define negative ambitions. Definitely we can make an effort to change them into positive ones, and in that way learn to manage our karmas in a better way.

The fourth aspect is human need. The body has certain needs such as food. The family has certain needs. There are certain social needs, certain mental, personal and emotional needs which we try to fulfil to the best of our ability. Actions which we perform daily through the senses, mind and emotions move in these four different areas of strength, weakness, ambition and need. Depending on which area of personality or human nature they come into contact with, they create an impression in our psyche. I have used the word psyche, not mind. Psyche is the deeper aspect of human mind which interacts at a non-rational level.

Understanding destiny

Karma is sometimes confused with destiny. I do not know what destiny is. I have come across statements which say, on the one hand, that a person can make his own destiny and, on the other hand, that there is no control over human destiny. Why is there this contradiction? I cannot understand it because I come from a tradition that believes one can create one's own destiny. Of course, one has to work very hard to do that. It is a process of educating the self. You cannot get a degree or diploma just by thinking about it. You have to study, work hard, pass and then you get the degree or diploma. In the same way, one cannot change destiny just by thinking about it. One has to work very, very hard and pass the exam. We have to understand destiny in this context.

Destiny has two forms: one which is controlled by a human being, and another which is controlled by a superior, non-human force. In life we control our own destiny. It is the destiny of our life with which we are concerned, but there is also a process beyond life. One cannot control one's birth or death. There is no concept of when one is going to die; it can happen at any time, in one year or in one hundred years.

However, the destiny of the visible aspect of life which we live every day can be controlled. Take the example of a goat tied to a ten meter rope which is tied to a post in the ground. That goat can move ten meters, five meters or one meter from the centre of the post and tie itself up more and more. But if it tries to go beyond the ten meters, then it is also going to kill itself because the rope will not allow more space than has been assigned. Here we see the two aspects of destiny. The pole is the superior force of life. Some people may call it God, others may call it the cosmic force. I like to call it Ishwara, which means the undecaying, unchanging, real principle that is the transcendental nature of life.

In the world of matter we encounter the changing, decaying principle. Beyond the world of matter we encounter the unchanging principle. The bridge between the changing and the unchanging principle is destiny. Destiny is the law that governs every aspect of creation. The growth of the body from birth till death is destiny. The maturity of the mind is destiny. The expression of human nature is destiny. Destiny here means a process over which there is no conscious or human control, but which goes on nevertheless. Can you stop your body from growing? Can you stop a fire from burning? Can you stop the wind from blowing? Destiny should not be taken as something beyond human comprehension. Rather it should be understood as the essence of the normal process of human evolution.

Changing destiny through karma

There is a statement in the Upanishads which says that through karma one can change one's destiny, meaning that through proper performance of action in life, through the harmonious expression of action in life, it is possible to change the quality of nature. Once the quality of nature changes, the expression of that nature is different. Was it the destiny of a river to be converted into a dam where hydroelectric power is generated? No. The nature or the destiny of the river is to flow from the highest to the lowest point. In between there may be some barriers, some dams, some man-made lakes, but the river continues on its course.

When through action, through karma, we are trying to channel the forces of our life, then destiny is definitely transformed. There can be no question about it. And this transformation of destiny leads to attainment of perfection in life. There is another beautiful statement in the Ishavasya Upanishad which says that in the beginning there was fullness, there was fullness always, and if you remove the full from the full, the full alone remains. The person who does not understand this is a real fool. If you convert it to a mathematical calculation, then whether you add, subtract, multiply or divide two zeros the answer will always be zero. This is the concept of attainment, perfection and fulfilment in life.

Experiencing the evolutionary process

We are always complete and have the potential to express that complete nature, but due to our conditioning we are never able to express our complete nature. We consider this limitation to be our destiny, when in reality our destiny is to experience the completeness, the fullness of life. It is the realization of that plenitude which is the aim of life and the aim of destiny. So, if the word destiny means that a human being has no control over situations, then the definition must change. The proper meaning of destiny is to experience the essence of life as an evolutionary process, and this should be the aim of karma. Karma leads to the experience and understanding of destiny provided one is able to awaken that kind of awareness and consciousness. One has to awaken human consciousness, and when it develops, the forces that are within will also awaken. It is the awakening of human consciousness and human potential which is the aim of human life, and also the aim of yoga.