I am very grateful that my spiritual teacher Swami Shantananda, affectionately known as Mataji, has written a guest post for us about Karma. Here’s what she has to say:
How often do you hear someone say, “His karma will catch up with him”, or, “It is bad karma to do that…”? We humans seem to want an avenging spirit to punish wrong-doers, so if we can’t rely any more on a vengeful God with his bundle of rules and divine damnation, payback through karma will fit the bill. “Wrong” is, of course, those things that we say are wrong. The avenging spirit must always be on our side of any controversy.
Yogis seem to have an entrenched view that karma plays out in rebirth. It is quite entertaining and coy to declare that a person we don’t like will get rebirth as a cockroach – as though we have some inside information in the matter. Or, if a person already living has as unpleasant life circumstance – a crooked nose, poverty, an unfortunate personality, well, that must mean that he or she is paying off some karmic debt from a previous life – their current circumstances being proof enough of the horrifying deeds they must have done in an earlier life.
But karma is not vengeful. Karma is simply cause and effect. It is we humans who are vengeful, who wish bad fortune on those we don’t like.
Are you a yogi? Well, you can do better than that! Consider these:
The Pairs of Opposites
Yoga has long declared that you must learn to avoid “the pairs of opposites”. An example is Patañjali in the Yoga Sutra (S2:48), but then his whole thesis is that we have to notice and discontinue the habits of mind that interfere with our experience of reality. The ordinary and mistaken view of karma as divine punishment, or divinely putting injustice to rights, is just one.
Judging while pretending to be nobly withholding judgment
This is pretty common, isn’t it? Someone quite piously says, “Well, we mustn’t judge – just let his karma take care of it…” You know without a doubt that the judgment has been made!!! And speaker, who has no power to do anything about it, holds on to a sense of being virtuous while at the same time damning the other.
Everyone feels right
No one in history has done what he or she thought was wrong. When have you ever got up and said, “What wrong thing can I do today?” You never have. Neither did Hitler, Osama bin Laden, George Bush, nor any criminal, embezzler, murderer, not anyone that you might declare to be a “wrong-doer”… not anyone at all supposes he or she is wrong in their decisions or actions. They might have an awareness that other people will be angry with them, because they understand that others will have a different view. But they do what feels right to them. Their thoughts and attitudes and beliefs feel right to them – just as yours do to you. Isn’t that hard to take in? Yet it is the constant – a feeling of being correct. Any adjustment to that mental position is retrospective and only serves to maintain the equilibrium of feeling correct in oneself. Judging is the act of one individual’s self-righteousness denying righteousness to another self. Of course, each position relies for its sense of correctness on an ego that positions itself as the judge of all there is.
True Meaning of Karma – Origins
The best route to understanding the development of a word’s meaning is to look at its etymology. For example, in English, the etymology of the word “innocent” is the Latin word nox – harm. So innocent originally had the sense of being non-harmful…. And that evolved into the notion of being not guilty. You might wonder how guilt came to be attached to it. “Harmful” and “non-harmful” would seem sufficient labels, don’t you suppose? But something else that did not belong was added to it, somewhere along its journey.
The etymology of the word karma is, of course Sanskrit. And the etymology of the Sanskrit word is its root – normally written with the root sign: √कृ Using our more familiar letters, is it kṛ – action or doing.
Karma – Doing, Acting
The origin of “karma” then is the very simple notion of doing, or action. So you might wonder how it evolved into the use it normally has now – a sense of payback for past misdeeds, a punitive and judgmental use of a word that was all about action and not about guilt. Something that didn’t belong to it was added, somewhere in its journey. It got nasty.
Cause and Effect
The way the simple notion of doing and acting became loaded was probably the other simple fact that for every action, there is an outcome. Cause and effect. In fact, most often, karma is defined as the law of cause and effect. That is simple and neutral, neither vengeful nor punitive. It is indifferent to our feelings about whatever the consequent effect is. Not so for us humans, though – we add emotional flavours to all we perceive, and we add pleasure and pain to the consequences of actions, with the pleasant being “reward” and the unpleasant being “punishment”. This moralistic loading comes from our desire for vindication of our own feeling of always being right, pure and noble – never looking at how we project our desires onto natural outcomes.
What You Can Do About It
- Get off the swings of the mind. Whenever you say, “That’s good”, change it to, “I really like it” – and the same with “bad” – change it to “I really don’t like that”.
- When you feel like saying “His karma will catch up with him”, change to “I feel vindictive and I want someone to punish him.”
That seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Just words?
But it is not “just words”. Words reflect a state of mind. When you change what you say, you will also change patterns in your brain. And, in the first place, the shocking feel of it points out to you what is propping up your ordinary habits.