Karma and Destiny

Swami Satyananda Saraswati, from satsangs at Rikhia, 1994–1997

Is it possible to change one’s destiny? How is karma linked with destiny?

Today, in the evening of my life, I have come to one conclusion. Off and on I reflect very critically and systematically on everything that has happened in my life. I will not rule out personal will, but I think destiny is more powerful. Destiny is the deciding factor, rather than personal will and effort. When you sow a seed and look after it well, what is the deciding factor in the success of its growth – the seed, the soil or the care? If you say ‘my care’, give it without the seed. The deciding factor is destiny. The seed is the storehouse of destiny. When you look after a seed, putting it in the right soil and giving it proper water, that is called purushartha, personal effort. But personal effort will not produce a cauliflower. Only a cauliflower seed will produce a cauliflower.

Everyone is bound by his or her destiny, and you can see this everywhere. I am different from you and you are different from everyone else. Nobody is alike. That is destiny. Destiny is prarabdha, karma that has come from the past. If I have a cauliflower seed in my palm, I do not have to prove that this seed also existed in the past. Similarly, the very presence of karma and the fact that we exist proves that we have a past. I am not the beginning and I am not the end. I am a link in this long chain of events which is due to the law of cause and effect. The law of cause and effect has no beginning and no end. Destiny relates not merely to the body or to happiness and unhappiness. Everything in this universe has a destiny somewhere, but this concept is very difficult to explain and to understand.

For many years when I was studying Vedanta and Samkhya in the original texts, I would get confused. I would think about what the past of matter must have been and then I would try to link it up with scientific thought. For years I thought about what cause and effect and destiny were, but today I can tell you very definitely that destiny is the ultimate factor in man’s life, and to change destiny is difficult. To change the quality of your life is easy. If you attend satsang and do some yoga practices, you can change the quality of your life, speech, thinking and behaviour. But you cannot change the quality of your personality.

How to change the personality has been a subject of discussion for centuries. I can change you from a bad person to a good person, but there is a personality in you that has its own idiosyncrasies, its own ignorance and darkness. It is that jiva which you call light or life. You may call it by any name, but there is something other than the body, other than the mind and senses. There is something other than what you can see, understand and appreciate. That is called jivatma. It is that jivatma or individual soul which leaves the body at the time of death. It is full of desires, even if it is the soul of a sannyasin. Even Christ had desires; he wanted to make everybody happy. I have a desire; I want to help everybody. To harm somebody is a desire and to help somebody is also a desire. The soul has desires, passions, emotions, and the totality of this is called karma. The totality of what one carries from here is called karma, and that karma is in a very microscopic form.

Now how can that karma, that destiny be managed? For centuries it was said in the Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas that complete vairagya, or dispassion, is the one thing that can change man’s destiny. These texts did not say tyaga, renunciation. Renouncing one’s family is not vairagya. The definition of vairagya is given very clearly in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Vairagya is easy to understand. When you hear about it, you will be very optimistic, but when you try to practise it, you will say, “Oh my God, it is more difficult than I thought.” The original sutra is Drishtaanushravika vishayaavitrishnasya vasheekaara sanjna vairaagyam (1:15), which means, “When an individual becomes free from cravings for the sense objects he has experienced, as well as those of which he has heard, that state of consciousness is vairagya.”

Can you completely forget the sense experiences you have seen, heard or experienced in the past? You have had many experiences in the past which you are not able to disconnect from. There is no cut off point. Today is connected with yesterday. The present is connected with the past and the past with the future. So the past, present and future are confused. You should be able to isolate them, but you don’t understand them in isolation. You only understand them linked with each other. Raga or attraction is an attitude through which you are always aware of past experience. Many sannyasins are still linked with their past, even after sannyasa. They can’t exist in the present. They can’t look into the future. They have relationships with their past, whether they are thoughts, habits or family members. However, if there is perfect vairagya, destiny can be erased.

If every life has an aim and meaning, how can I find out my own aim and meaning in life?

There is an aim which you create for yourself and there is also a destiny which is common to everyone. There is a difference between aim and destiny. We make an aim for ourselves because of our limitations, desires or personality, but we do not make our destiny. My aim may be to have a rose garden so that I can grow beautiful flowers and sell them, or make a nice bouquet and present it to somebody, but that is my aim, not my destiny. That is not the destiny of the rose which blooms in my garden either.

Destiny means the ultimate process of nature concerning you and everyone. When we live in society as human beings, we have certain aims related to our social system, our accomplishments, knowledge, friendships, parents, husband or wife. There is also an inner relationship between you and the happenings of your life, which is called destiny. If you become a lawyer, it is not your destiny. It was your aim and you achieved that.

Can sankalpa overcome karma?

If one has a very strong sankalpa, one can overcome karma for some time, but not indefinitely. However, the person who makes the sankalpa will have to make certain concessions, certain promises, because when you overcome a karma, you have to replace it with something else. Something must be substituted to fill up that gap. It is possible to do this.

Suppose I want to be a great scholar, a rich man or a person who has a lot of fun in life. These are all aims. An aim has a limit. For example, it ends when the person who wants to be a lawyer becomes a lawyer. That was his aim. After achieving this aim, he wants to be a lawyer in the High Court, then in the Supreme Court, and then he wants to be a judge. In this way, aims keep on changing. To be a lawyer is not one’s destiny. Destiny is one’s intimate relationship with the events in life.

To change their destiny, to overcome karma, many people make a vow or a promise to God; they do not merely ask but also promise to give. When I made a sankalpa before God, I asked for something, but I also promised to give something in return. What I gave was what I wanted. I wanted a dynamic, powerful centre to teach yoga throughout the world, and what I promised to give was the teaching of yoga. Your sankalpa should also give up the same thing that you want to gain from it.

It is of utmost importance that when you ask God for the fulfilment of a wish, you also make a sankalpa, a resolve, a promise to God that you will return to Him as much as He gives you. This is necessary because, ultimately, karma cannot be replaced; it has to be undergone. This is the rule of karma – whatever karma you incur has to be worked out. If you want to avoid a karma, you can do so for some time, but eventually you will have to endure it.

Today I do not run Bihar School of Yoga, so I am in the same position as I was in 1956, before I set it up. Of course, I had more joy in life at that time. I thought then, but now I do not think; that is the difference. However, I had to undergo the karma, because man cannot change his karma. Whether it is good or bad, karma has to be lived and worked out. There is no way of avoiding it. Karmas are unalterable. Karmas are like seeds. When they fall from the tree, they sprout. But sankalpas have power and can be created.

Have you exhausted your karmas?

Karmas are of three types: nitya, naimittika and kamya. Nitya karmas are actions of bathing, eating, excreting. Naimittika karmas are actions performed by one who is nimitta, an instrument of God and guru. Kamya karmas are actions or work done with a selfish desire or motive. Nitya karma has to be performed by all, including a sannyasin, because he still lives in the body. However, until videha mukti, liberation from the body, the sannyasin is asked to renounce all other karmas. This is a rule laid down in the Vedas. But it is not a practical rule because sometimes the desire for or attitude of sannyasa arises at a young age for various reasons.

While still in college, a boy of twenty may attend a satsang and feel an internal urge to take sannyasa. He may take sannyasa, but his work in life is not yet over. His karmas have not yet been exhausted. He has not satisfied the three main drives in human life: putraishana, the drive for progeny, daraishana, the sexual drive, and vittaishana, the drive for money, house and assets. Some people also have a fourth, which is lokaishana, the drive to achieve name and fame.

If a young person becomes a sannyasin without fulfilling them, then he will have to perform seva or naimittika karmas for many years. While initiating me in 1947, Swami Sivananda told me, “I am explaining the sadhana to you, but you should do it only after forty or forty-five years, otherwise you will go mad.” When I asked him why, he replied, “Your share of homework remains undone.” I said, “Okay, I’ll go home and finish it.” He said, “By going home, you will not be able to exhaust your karma, rather you will only increase it. You must do it here.”

So I lived in the ashram and did all the work there which I would have done at home: management, accounting, building, construction, organisation. All this I did for my guru, not for myself. There was no desire to obtain any reward for the work. I worked for my guru for twelve years without desiring any fruits from the karma. I neither gained nor lost anything from that because I worked on a non-profit, non-loss basis. I did it for my guru and not for myself. Later he instructed me to do a bit of study for myself, according to my inclination and aptitude.

After that I established the ashram in Munger. However, I always realised that this work also could not be done for myself, so I did it for my guru. I decided in my mind that it was for him and not for myself. The thought became a strong force in my mind; that this karma is dedicated to my guru, it is not for me, not for my enjoyment, name, fame or glory. I thought that it would become immortal, that was all. Later I realised that just a little bit of dirt still remained in the utensil.

Whatever the karma and wherever it is done, the fruits are not permitted to a sannyasin. Whatever work one does, right and wrong are involved in it. Panchagni tapasya is expiation for this right and wrong. A sannyasin who leads an active life and does various karmas should perform panchagni; however, not all do. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita: “The yogi performs work with body, mind, senses and intellect. But all these actions he does for self-purification, abandoning attachment.”

We know that karma is in the form of a seed. Karmas are released into the consciousness. In the process of opening so many ashrams, visiting countries all over the globe, interacting, moving and living among so many people, it is not possible to remain completely stainless. However intelligent a person may be, if he goes into the coal pit he will have black marks on him. I cannot say that I have come out untainted. Therefore, I had to do panchagni to cleanse myself. Everyone has to do penance. I did it for five years. Now I will sit in bliss.

Can we change our karma?

You will become what you have to whether you do anything about it or not, but if you do not do your karma, you will go mad. You have to keep doing something and thinking about something. You have to be constantly engaged in some work. Whatever you get in this life is predestined. You get it because you had to get it, it was meant for you. What else can you do but what you are doing now? You have to do something to fill in the time. If you sit all day doing nothing, you will get depressed and die. That is the reason why God has given mankind karmas, worries, hassles, and also courage and patience. This maintains sanity in the human mind.

Can you tell us what ‘sat’ means in relation to sat vichara and sat karma?

Sat is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘positive’ or ‘real’. I always think of others positively because it helps me. If I think about anyone negatively, it is painful. It creates bad karma, which changes the chemical secretions in my physical body, and I do not want that. Good or positive thinking about others is called sat vichara and is helpful to you. By sat I also mean a karma that will help others or make somebody happy. Sat karma is good action which ultimately helps you. Any act done for others who are helpless, poor and in need is sat karma. Any act done for yourself or your family is not sat karma. It is just karma because it will produce another karma. Any act you do which harms others is asat karma, negative karma. So we have negative karma, neutral karma and positive karma. Positive karma will erase your other karma.

From childhood I have been obsessed with the plight of women in society. I feel that women must be allowed to live as freely as men and I have given women every possible opportunity, even in the institutional affairs of ashram life. Even today I always tell the villagers that women should be allowed to live as freely as men. This seems to be my karma. I’ve realised it, so what do I do? I’ve made it clear that all the girls in my neighbourhood must be helped through education and marriage. When you perform an act, you are creating another karma, but when you perform sat karma, you are erasing or reducing your karma. Your karma becomes more and more rarefied and purified.

The whole world is engaged in karma, which sets off the cycle of karma. You tell us to do service to others, to do good karma towards others. Will it not accumulate more karma? Can this karma be exhausted?

You do not create karma when you work for others; it does not affect you. If, instead of selfishness, there is only selfless affection, then there can be no emotional disturbance, and non-attachment flourishes. Whenever you serve others selflessly, whenever you do good to others without any ulterior motive, you do not get caught in the cycle of karma. This type of service will be the social philosophy of the twenty-first century. It will be an age in which each individual will have a thought for others.