By Dr. Rita Khanna
The Meaning of Karma
Karma means action; it stems from the Sanskrit root, Kri – to act. The law of Karma says that when we perform any action, there will be consequences. The consequence of eating is to fill the stomach, then to digest the food, then to ingest the nutrients, then to excrete the waste, and then to experience hunger for more food. Karmas start with the body, which has to be fed, bathed, clothed, and exercised. As long as there is a body, these Karmas will never be exhausted. Our lives are full of actions that we cannot get out of doing, no matter how much we would like to escape.
The ancient texts advise us to accept our lot in life and to perform actions, without neglecting any part of life. This may be understood as completing our Karmas. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advised Arjuna to act, and because he was a warrior, to fight. He tells Arjuna that Karma Yoga is working, not for the fruits of the actions, but for the sake of the actions themselves. Karma Yoga is one of the main paths laid down in the Vedic tradition.
The Meaning of Yoga
Yoga has always been thought of as a series of practices – to be done away from the situations of normal social life – in a classroom environment, or in a retreat in the company of ‘spiritual beings.’ We have thought that if we practice this or that Yoga technique, we will achieve this or that result. What we have actually done is to make Yoga into a mechanical process leading to self-awareness. We have to move away from this idea and make Yoga a part of our natural expression. Only then, can Yoga become a process leading to self-realization.
If we practice Yoga as a technique to feel good, then we will definitely feel good for a little while. If we practice Yoga in order to relax, then we will definitely relax. If we practice Yoga training to connect with ourselves internally, then that will also become possible. However, whatever the attainment may be, it will be momentary, a transitory phase; and when one has to confront life’s realities, tensions and frustrations again, then the effect of Yoga will take a back seat. Therefore, it needs to be understood that the real experience of Yoga happens through Karma Yoga. Even if you practice Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga, Kundalini, or Kriya Yoga, you have to combine it with Karma Yoga, in order to have a rich experience of the process. You have to understand that the whole of life is Karma, and if you avoid Karma, then you do not exist.
In the third chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna states that the subject of Karma Yoga has never been understood by people in the world. He said this 5,000 years ago, and today, it holds true because Karma Yoga is a subject which involves understanding of human nature, which involves developing awareness of the total personality. It is a process of observing our movement in life – from gross to subtle to spiritual.
Components of Karma Yoga
There are five components of Karma Yoga.
1. The first component is awareness. Becoming aware begins with the body, when we practice Asana. The awareness becomes part of the practice of Asana, and the physical movement. If you have to move a finger, you are aware of the movement of the finger, and also the pull of the muscles, and the movement of the joints. The emerging awareness dissects the finger into bones, muscles, and nerves. The muscles and bones move differently, the nerves and ligaments pull differently, and the awareness continues to become more acute, more subtle. What you observed before is one experience; later, you see it in its various components and forms. The aim of Asana is to make you aware of your body and how it expresses itself in normal situations. Awareness in Asana will lead to comfort and stability.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines Asana – as a posture in which you are comfortable and stable. You have been sitting here for the last twenty minutes. Are you stable and comfortable? Some of you are, some are not, and those who are at present comfortable will become uncomfortable after ten minutes. At present, we are not connected with the body. We sit, but we are not aware of sitting. We walk, but we are not aware of walking. We move our body, but we are not aware of the body’s movement. The purpose of Asana is to lead you to a state of comfort and stability. Recognition of comfort and stability will only come when you become aware.
2. The second component of Karma Yoga is mental – observing your reactions and inner behavior. Someone says, “You are very beautiful and a great and wonderful person.” Someone else says, “You are hopeless.” These sentences affect your sensitivity and create a reaction. That reaction dominates your preconceptions, beliefs, and ideas. You either feel elated or depressed. The mood changes. A single sentence has the force to alter one’s mood. The first component of Karma Yoga training is being aware; the second is observing your reaction.
Patanjali states in the third Sutra, “The seer becomes established in his own nature.” Who is this seer, the observer? What is the role of that observer or seer? The first stage the seer has to experience is how the person is responding and reacting to people, situations, and circumstances. This is one of the aims of Meditation as well. Through Meditation, experience and observe the changes in the moods, consciousness, and mind. When we are aware of the manifesting mental expressions, then we are able to direct and guide our mental expressions. Even Meditation becomes a process of realizing the mental, psychological, subtle, emotional movement, or Karma.
3. The third component is developing immunity from the things that affect you. How do you develop immunity from situations or influences? By coming out of the self-centered perceptions, in which other people or objects don’t exist, and only you are the center and focus of your life. When you are able to move beyond the self-focused, self-centered awareness, then you begin to develop immunity to situations, events, and ideas.
4. The fourth component of Karma Yoga is releasing the emotional blockages. Emotions are very slippery things. Intellect is a straight path, a linear path. Through logic, you can go from point A to point B to point C to point D, a continuous route, right to the end. Logic or intellect is a straight horizontal path; but the emotions are an inclined path, at least 45 degrees. It is difficult to climb up, but it is easy to slide down. It is difficult to develop a positive and happy emotional identity, and it is very easy to fall or slide into the negative emotions. We have never been taught how to hate or how to be angry or jealous or aggressive. It has come naturally; but when we try to teach how to love, how to be compassionate and positive, it doesn’t come naturally. Therefore, emotions are a sloping path; we slide down most of the time, and moving up is a big struggle and a long journey.
Becoming aware of how you are able to manage your emotional expressions is the fourth component – can you maintain your serenity in success or failure? If you can do it, you will have a very balanced personality. However, you need to have trust, faith, and belief in yourself; and at the same time, you need to believe or have faith and trust in some higher cosmic nature, which guides your life.
The best example is the farmer. The farmer plants seeds and looks after the growth of the plants, in the hope that one day, what he has planted will give good results in the form of fruits and grains. However, there is only so much that the farmer can do. Beyond that, he has to wait for divine grace and the climate to be right. The rain must fall at the right time. The Sun must shine at the right time. There is a limit to human effort. Then, there is the emergence of divine grace. If the environment is not right, all the farmer’s efforts will be wasted; and if there is too much divine grace, in the form of rain, it can also flood the entire farm. So, up to a point – you need to have that belief, trust, and faith in yourself; and beyond that, you need to have belief, trust, and faith in the cosmic force. There has to be a proper balance between the trust that you put in yourself and the trust that you put in the Cosmic Force. This harmony of trust is known as Karma Yoga of the emotions.
5. The fifth component of Karma Yoga is letting go of the personal hang-ups; letting go of the obsessions we create within ourselves. This is known as surrender. Don’t think of surrender in terms of philosophical or religious definitions, but as overcoming and releasing the obsessions and becoming free. The moment you are able to let go of your obsessions, you become creative. Our obsessions do not allow the creative nature to come forth. Creativity does not only mean artistic expression. Creativity means mind and emotions in full bloom. This creativity is attained when we are able to release our obsessions and complexes. The next stage then becomes selfless action, which is spontaneous and natural. For something to become selfless, there is no desire, no attachment, and no association with what is happening. Otherwise, we all try to convert water into wine the first chance we get – not because it helps us in any way, but because it boosts our ego. The selfish nature is usually the predominant one. To become selfless is one of the hardest things in life.
Once, God decided to give a boon to a saint, who had done a lot of penance; but the saint desired nothing more in life once he had seen God and refused to accept anything. So, God gave the boon of peace, prosperity, and health to the saint’s shadow. The saint did not know about the boon, but wherever he went there were peace, prosperity, and health. That is a selfless act.