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KARMA PDF Print E-mail
Gita - Gita Articles

The whole gist of life centers on karma. The virtual currency unit in the virtual bank of Samskara is karma. We have to develop the understanding of karma, nishkam karma, karma sanyas, and why one performs one or the other karma. A man is born with certain Samskaras; his past pushes him towards doing certain karmas and these karmas are then deposited in the virtual account. The process continues. What is the way out? How do you reach a zero balance? These are all the areas we will explore in this chapter.

The first thing that must be understood is that no one lives without doing a karma. Karma is not optional. Once born, you have to perfom karma. Krishna in Gita says

A child is born. The first thing he or she does is to cry, the cry expands the lungs and then on it breathes and does its karma. Krishna is saying that life is synonymous with karma. As long as you live, you continue working (do karma). There is no way to escape. Humanity has freedom, but not as far as whether he or she can do karma or not. One can choose what karma to do but one can not choose not to do karma. Arjun has the choice to fight or not to fight but by not fighting he can not escape from karma.

As mentioned earlier one can choose what he wants to do. However, that is not totally true. Most of the vital work (karma) is not left to the individual. The body breathes. This breathing is not left to the choice. If it were left to human choice, the person might forget to breath, or may just not want to breathe. Several such vital actions are not optional. The beating of the heart is not your choice. If you do yoga you may be able to control your breathing or heart but in doing so you have developed the integrity and the wisdom not to interfere in the nature’s process. Your Karma that is left unto you is really not that important for the universe. It may be very important for you but for the existence it is totally immaterial.

So the question arises. If you have to do karma and every time you perform a karma it is deposited in the Samskara virtual account, how can you ever achieve the zero balance that we talked about in our first chapter? Normally what we understand by karma or work is a response, a pratikarma. Pratikarma is a actually a pratikriya to a karma, response or a reaction to another action. You go home and your son is angry at your. You are the father and you reply to that action of anger by your reaction of anger. Both you and your son make a deposit in the virtual account of samskara. These two karmas had their origin from a reason, it was a response to some reason and there was an expected result. The son must have been angry because of something and he is showing anger to get a response. Most of our lives we live doing pratikarma.

A karma in strict sense is a different phenomenon. Karma is spontaneous. It is not a reaction or a response to another action (karma). When the son shows anger and no response arises inside you, then what comes out is karma. You irritate your baby son and he pushes your hand away. Instead of an anger, tremendous love arises inside you. You smile and hug that child and the child gives you a giggle. This is spontaneous. A young baby’s anger is authentic and so is its smile and the giggle. The identity of I has not developed. And the karma here has a different quality.

A man goes up to Gautam the Budha and spits at him. Budha wipes the spit with his shawl and asks the man if he had to say anything more. The man gets disturbed. This is not the response he was looking for. He had answers for why did he spit, he had answers if Budha’s disciples tried to restrain him. But, the man was puzzled. Budha clarified that he realized that the man was angry and did not have words to express and therefore he spit on Buddha. Buddha acknowledged that this problem of expression happened to him many times when he had difficulty expressing with words. The man further asked why Buddha did not get angry in response. Buddha was very clear. He said, “you are not my master.” Why should I react to what you do. I am not your slave. The next day the man came back again and this time he was crying and putting his head on Budha’s feet. Buddha again asked him if he had to say anything more. The man said I am asking for an apology and you are not saying anything. Budha said that again you have problem expressing with words and you are using tears to express. I acknowledge that and want to know if you have to express anything more. As far as apology is concerned anger did not arise in me yesterday and therefore there is no question of pardoning you. Karma in itself is spontaneous and comes out of a man who has akarma inside, he is silent inside. You throw a stone and no ripples arise. This karma of such a person does not get deposited in the account of the samskara similar to the no deposit of a baby’s giggle. Once you stop depositing karma all you have to wait for is the return of your deposited karma and the zero balance gets closer. This karma can be performed by Karma Sanyas and Nishkam karma yoga. We will come back to it a little later.

We should also understand a little about vikarma, a karma that should not be done. This is where it gets tricky and Krishna says that the gati of karma is mysterious. Let us examine why Krishna says that the gati or movements of karma is mysterious.

There was a war going on in Kargil between India and Pakistan. And the saying goes, “Everything is fair in war and love.” Pakistan had been refusing to take back the bodies of their soldiers because they were stuck with the statement that the Pakistan army was not fighting in the war. The lines between vikarma and karma start getting blurry in this situation. One has to be aware of not only what you see but also of what you do not see. There is this famous puzzle that clarifies the point a little further. A Brahmin is walking by. He sees a cow running. He keeps walking when he meets a butcher carrying his big knife. The butcher asks the Brahmin if he has seen a cow going by. That was his cow and she had run out of his butchery. She (the cow) is due to be killed, and he is going to kill the moment he finds her. The Brahmin is in trouble now. Lying is a vikarma and so is killing (specially of a cow). The Brahmin is in a bind. The butcher is telling the Brahmin that all he has to answer was yes or no. Did he or did he not see the cow. The Brahmin wants time to think. The question for him is not the cow but which vikarma to choose. The emphasis in the east is not so much on the karma or vikarma but more on the status of the subject behind the karma, the doer.

Talking about the doer, this is now time to address Karma Sanyas and Nishkam Karma. Again Bhagwadgita is the main source of all understanding of karma and hence I will quote here from Gita. But before the quote let us analyze why Gita became the source of understanding of karma yoga. Krishna has a situation, a unique situation. The Mahabharata is on. The forces are ready to fight and the warrior Arjuna does not want to fight. He suddenly is caught up with his intelligence and futility of war. What all is bad about war suddenly confronts him in the battlefield. Krishna is not teaching in the plains of Himalaya or in an Ashram to sadhus and sanyasis. The situation is intense and outcome to be is crucial. He had to explain all about karma yoga to get Arjuna to decide what was right for him to choose. Many a times Arjuna has asked Krishna to tell him what is right. He wanted Krishna to decide for him. Krishna never obliged him for that. He instead chose to clear all the doubts and questions that Arjuna had. Ultimately Arjuna decided on his own. Coming back to the quote from Gita:

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Sanyasah Karmayogasch Nihshreyyaskarawobhau
Tayostu karmasanyasat karmyogo vishishyate. (5..2)

Karm sanyas and Nishkam karma yoga both are both good for liberation. But, of the two karmayoga is easier to follow and thus better.

It should be understood here that Krishna is talking to Arjun. He is a soldier. For Arjuna, who is a warrior, karma yoga is easier to follow than karma sanyas (some people call it renunciation-it does not reflect accurate meaning). The same may not be true for a painter or a poet. In fact, Arjuna actually is talking the language of Karma Sanyas. He says, “what is the use of the war, why should I kill all these people that I know?” But, Krishna actually could see through Arjuna. His personality was not that of a Karma Sanyasi, He had always been a Kshatriya. Arjuna was trained rigorously to become the best of all the warriors. He was a master archer. He had won Draupadi in a competition. A man of competition all his life is suddenly talking the language of karma sanyas.

Let us first take up the issue of karma sanyas. The truth of karma sanyas is based on the realization of the fact that the usual mundane karma ultimately leads to no where. The person can see that by building a house, getting married, having children and gathering belongings has taken him nowhere towards the realization of his self (Atma) and the parmatma. You keep coming back and getting entangled in the same rut and at the end, you carry the garbage of bodily experience, the samskara, only to return back to start all over again. This realization drives you towards the Sanyas from these routine mundane Karma. It is a result of certain kind of awakening. The awakening is similar to drawing a line in water. No mark is left in the water. The line is obliterated the moment the hand that draws the line moves forward. In reality whatever we do is nothing more than drawing line in the water as far as existence is concerned. All our actions in the past, in this life and previous lives, have not taken us anywhere. It is the awareness that actions do not take you anywhere that leads to the sanyas from karma. It appears that the person has renunciated, it appears that the person has stopped working. But in fact the actions have dropped from such a person. Even this person eats, drinks and walks. The difference is in the quality and the status of the subject behind. He is the awakened one. He does not engage in the same kind of karma. We do karma for ourselves where as the awakened one engages in any karma for others out of compassion. Mahavir lives on, not because he has any clinging to life, but because the universe wants him to live. He in fact used to put conditions to his living and the whole existence used to meet those requirements. He worked even on the animals to get them further in the search of truth. There are sayings that animals used to come to him in his teachings. This is a result of compassion, the karma flowing out of his being for the benefit of the existence.

I recently went to a museum where several people came to visit. Amongst them were many children, children of the age of 4 and 5 years old. Adults were all listening to the guide and reading the writings on the plates. They appeared to be trying to appreciate the art and beauty of the paintings. They all looked interested. Watching the young ones was fun for me. They were running around. Sometimes just picking up pebbles and putting them back. At times they will go over the benches and other time under the benches. Energy was flowing out of them. There were no plans, no blue prints. They did not question whether there was value for money or whether or not the trip was enjoyable. They did not bother about the weather forecast or how they will be going back. If you analyze their karma, there is nothing to analyze. They are children. But there is much to learn. We are children for the existence. We stand on a piece of land and claim it is ours. We are willing to die for it. The existence looks at us and laughs. If it could talk in our language, it would say to us, “Many others have made the same claim many times before.” This realization by an individual is what makes the possibility of karma sanyas, the individual decides not to engage in the same karmas again.

Now, if every one realized that it is not worth staking claim on a piece of land and followed the path of sanyas (renunciation) then how would the world run. The balance will be maintained as long as there is no counterclaims. But it is easy to disturb the balance. A situation like in the past when Mahabharata happened or now when the India Pakistan disagree on Kashmir is more of a practical question in real life. Renunciation is not the answer. Krishna knew that it is not worth staking claims on a piece of land but he also had to balance the counterclaim of the Kauravas. Arjun actually was trying to do the renunciation. He did not have the realization but was choosing to leave the battlefield. This is where Krishna interjects the notion and details of Nishkam Karma Yoga.

Nishkam karma does not focus on Karma, it focuses on the aspect of the anticipated result. Karma Sanyas wants you to understand the futility of doing any karma. It wants you to be aware of the dream like status of any karma. It is often useful when you face a situation that looks critical to you. It is quite upsetting and you do not know how to handle it. You can look back and find a similar situation in your life in the past. Those are just like dreams and all that is left is memory.

Nishkam karma requires you to forget about the result. The expectation of results and desires are inter twined. You develop a desire, you go for an appropriate action and you get a result. Nishkam karma says that you stay in the middle, no desire, no results. Just the karma.

Krishna in Gita goes on to make the point about the results of a karma. He says:

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Karmanyewadhikaraste ma faleshu kadachana
Ma karmaphalheturbhurma te sangostwakarmani (2..47)

You have a right to perform the karma but not to the fruits of action. You have no control over the fruits of action. You should not be desirous of the result and you should not be interested in not doing your karma.

This sutra is the key to nishkam karma. You have the right to do the karma but not to the result. This does not mean that there is no result. And this also does not mean that there is no path to get results. Karma is the only way to get any result.

I do the work, the karma. Work flows from me. The result comes from the whole, the samasti. There may be divine hands in the production of the result. You may have heard quite often that a certain person is lucky. He made less effort in the work but got results much more than expected. The luck factor actually is that unseen hand that either compounds the results to make you lucky or reduces the results to make you unlucky.

The importance in Nishakam Karma is on the trust. The trust on the existence or to the Parmatma. When the trust is total all the results are provided by the unknown. This has to be understood. When the shradha is total, the trust is absolute it is the Parmatma’s responsibility now to give the results, the results happen. This is sometimes referred to as you do karma in samarpan to the Parmatma. You become the flute through which the Parmatma is playing the tune.

Even if you do not believe in Parmatma, if you do not have your focus on the result all you have is your karma and the total energy goes to the karma. The result has to happen better and total as well. It is interesting that people who have too many desires are the ones who do the least karma. And then it is not a surprise to know that these are the people, the people full of desire that end up getting the fewest results. And these are the people you will find complaining against God. They are never happy

Most desire and result oriented karma are done to achieve happiness, but in the end the happiness seems to be eluded all the time. Happiness in desire/result oriented karma is always in the future. The present is unhappy. The happiness is in the future. The truth is that you will always be in the present and future will always be in the mind. Once you start being happy in the present the future has to bring more happiness. You do not depend on something else to come and give you happiness. How many times you have been on vacation. The dream was to go to the perfect vacation. Hawaii was the dream. Now you are in Hawaii. You go to check in and find that the hotel does not have the room that you wanted. Suddenly you are miserable. You raise hell. You make your point, make phone calls and before you know it is not only you who is unhappy but your family, the travel agent and the hotel employees; every one involved is unhappy. No, it is not the room or the meals or the manners that is the cause of unhappiness in this instance. It is as if you are looking for the unhappiness and the room is an excuse waiting to be the cause. The dream vacation has come but you have the habit and momentum of remaining unhappy. Nishkam karma is based on this realization, that the expectation of results of a karma is the cause of unhappiness. Does it mean that there should be no planning. Planning and expectation of results are two different things. Planning, budgeting or forecasting is different than the painful desire and expectations that drive your being and literally inhibit you from giving your full energy to the work.

Another interesting thing follows as a shadow of Nishkam karma. Once there is no interest for a result there is no frustration. When there is no interest in the result no work is small and no result is too small. Not an indifference, but a steady state of happiness in whatever the result is. A deep acceptance arises inside. The acceptance of whatever may happen in result is so fulfilling that the individual gets to the steady state of happiness; some call it anand and others call it bliss. Have you wondered about the fact that all misery arises from not accepting the isness. The wife is trying to change the husband and the husband is trying to change the wife. They both have done research about each other before marriage, every thing has been figured out. Happiness is bound to happen. Then the marriage takes place. The next thing you know is that change has to happen. You can experiment it any day or every day. Decide that today you will accept everything as it comes. This does not mean that you do not take appropriate action. Let us take the worst case scenario. Your house is on fire. If you do not accept it to the extent that you go mad you cannot take any action. Take a deep breath and then accept the fact that the house is on fire. In medical terms it is said that you may fall into denial phase specially if you hear a bad news typically “you have cancer.” However, once you accept the fact that the house is on fire, after you have taken a deep breath, you can try to get the support services available to deal with the fire. It is quite obvious in this instance that the appropriate action is to accept and then respond. But, in smaller situations at home, the ones with your son , the ones with your daughter, you fail to realize that taking a deep breath is the trick for happiness.

Nishkam karma yoga is the preferable one not only for Arjuna but also for most of the people of today. The reason in both is the same. Arjun was an extrovert and today’s world is mostly extrovert. Sanyas of karma is not natural to an extrovert personality. An extrovert is interested in the karma, he does not see the futility of karma easily. It may be easier for him to see that the results can be more than he can ask for and that his productivity may increase if he does not waste his energy in influencing or manipulating the results. If you go back to the Upanishadic times, the equations were different. A king in those times will go to a poor Brahmin and touch his feet for his blessings. The introvert was on the top and the extrovert respected the quality of his interiority. Situation is totally different today. Even the Swami today is known by his association with a politician. The extrovert is at the top now. The sadhus are valued because of the ministers company they keep but not vice versa.

Another reason why this Nishkam karma yoga is of more value in today’s world is that this gives an alternate theory to the age of competition and productivity, frustratrations and burn outs. James Moore has written a book entitled The Death of Competition.. In this truly epochal work of business strategy, Moore boldly demonstrates that for many vibrant companies the future is now; that today’s great enterprises no longer compete for product superiority or even industry dominance. He thinks that what matters now, and from now on is total system leadership. Beyond the death of competition lies the advent of something new and better. But what is it? Moore envisions a future characterized by organized chaos. Now, time is not very far when the writers will soon be seeing the benefits of Nishkam karm yoga. Organized chaos is very close to unpredictable results. Focus on the karma not on the result. The question of competition does not arise.

Competition has its good points and its limitations. It seems that there has to be several tiers of systems and understanding suited for different level of existence. Arjun was the one who could be a candidate for Nishkam karma yoga. His excellence would flourish under these circumstances. Bhim may be a different story. For him a challenge by Duryodhana may produce a better result. Remember, Krishna, Buddha or Ram cannot be produced by the method of training or competition. They are unique flowers. Patanjali and Einstein also are in similar boat. Competition can produce average, the superior is out of the reach of competition. People like Tiger Woods (the champion golfer) have noted this point too. He feels and teaches others to think to produce their own best rather than compete with others. Why be limited by the limitations of others. Excel with yourself. This in many terms is similar to doing karma according to your swadharma.

Let us next examine the root question. Why one is bound to do karma. And, what pushes you or me to engage into one karma or the other? This is dealt with by Krishna in Gita in the following sutra:

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Satwam Rajastam Eeti gunah prakritisambhavah
Nibandhanti mahabaho dehe dehinamavyayam (14..5)

Satvaguna, rajoguna and tamoguna which are part of prakriti bind the body to the soul.

And all karma are a result of these three modes. This is very subtle to understand. That is perhaps one reason why this comes up in detail towards the end of Gita. What is visible is karma and its results. You can comprehend Rama fighting with Ravan but what gunas are working behind the scenes is not that obvious. For understanding purposes you can look at anger. You know a man whether he is angry by looking at him. His posture is different, he is screaming, his eyes are raging, he is screaming. But, it is difficult to see anger itself. If you could look inside the person, anger can be seen surrounding the preson. It is an energy that has its own roots. Awareness and witnessing is the art of getting to know this energy. Once one becomes aware of the gunas (modes) of prakriti (nature) behind the karma, then it becomes possible to transcend the modes and go to what is termed gunateet (beyond the modes). Then whatever karma flows out of you (in this state of gunateet) is similar to Nishkam karma and there is no question of deposit in the virtual account.

Prakriti pushes a person to do different karmas by a combination of the three gunas. Satva guna is purer than the other gunas and it frees from all sinful actions. Those situated in this mode develop knowledge and become conditioned by the sense of happiness. The mode of rajogun is born of unlimited desires and longings. Because of this, one is bound to material, fruitive action (sakam karma). The tamoguna relates to the inertia. The results of this mode are madness, indolence and sleep. The mode of satvaguna conditions one to happiness, rajoguna to fruits of action, and tamoguna to madness.

All the gunas are important. A guna is neutral meaning that in itself neither they are bad or good. For example a stone is lying on the surface. It is not moving; it is in a state of Tamoguna. You pick up the stone and throw it. A movement is created by the energy imparted to the stone by you. This is the property of rajoguna. While the stone is traveling in the influence of the imparted energy, tamoguna is working to bring it down to the state of inaction. Rajoguna is movement. The thing that drives us to go to meetings, do a yatra and write books are all the properties of Rajoguna. The tamoguna is essential as well because this is what brings us to rest. What is paramount is the balance. The balance is in part the property of the Satwaguna. Satwaguna alone sometimes is not so effective. Budha’s teachings for example were from the properties of Satwaguna. For these teachings to become propogated the energy of Rajoguna is needed. And, that happened when a king like Ashoka got influenced. He used the methods of a king (Rajoguna) to propagate Budhism as is known today. All in all none of the three gunas are in itself good or bad; they have their own utility and their own importance.

All these three gunas are represented in different proportions in different individuals. We have just made a preliminary introduction to the topic of gunas here mainly to impress on the fact that there is prakriti behind any karma that a person does. One who becomes aware of this property of prakriti also understands the basics of the Nishkam Karma.

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