A few years ago, I was one of two speakers at a lecture in Perth, Australia. I spoke on enlightenment, stressing that it is a gradual process, a deepening of the ability to experience God, starting with seeing God as the light in the eyes of everyone you look at. The second speaker, a prominent Malaysian Hindu leader, made the point that a modern trend of Hindus is to consider the traditional wisdom given by swamis as old-fashioned and not lend it much weight. Instead, many Hindus are fascinated with the modern, secular self-improvement-seminar approach, which quite often takes its principles from Hindu thinking but gives them a modern packaging. So, today we are taking that modern approach to karma. You've heard of stress management workshops? Well, this a karma management program, designed for workshops, in which we will learn the ten principles for effective karma management, drawn from the teachings of Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (Gurudeva). This fulfills the third step of learning about karma, which is to apply our understanding of karma to our own life and thus refine the way we act in and react to life. Gurudeva taught: "It is easy to study the law of karma and to appreciate it philosophically, but to realize it, to apply it to everything that happens to you, to understand the workings of it as the day goes by, requires an ability to which you must awaken."
First Principle: Forego Retaliation
There is no need for you to be the instrument to return a karmic reaction to someone else. For example, an individual is really nasty to you, so you feel the impulse to retaliate and be nasty to him. If you follow that tack, you will create a new unseemly karma to face in the future. Better to let the law of karma take its own course without your intervention, which will generally happen through some other person with less self-control who does not understand this law of life.
Let us take another example: a classic cowboy movie plot. Someone shoots and kills the hero's brother during a robbery, and the rest of the film is devoted to his chasing down the outlaw and shooting him in revenge. What, then, happens in the next life, the sequel? There is definitely a karma to be faced for killing in revenge. Perhaps another robbery will take place and the hero will be killed. Wisdom tells us that it is better to let the sheriff apprehend the outlaw and bring him to justice. The sheriff has taken an oath and is authorized to uphold the lawand therefore creates no negative karma in capturing the outlaw, even if he has no choice but to kill him in the process.
Gurudeva said, "Retaliation is a terrible, negative force. When we retaliate against others, we build up a bank account of negative karma that will come back on us full force when we least expect it."
Tirukural:"Forget anger toward all who have offended you, for it gives rise to teeming troubles."
Second Principle: Accept Responsibility
Karma generally manifests through other people, and thus it is easy to see the other person as totally responsible for what happens to us. For example, you are attacked by a mugger who strikes you and steals your valuables. You are quite upset with the malicious thief. However, the mystical perspective is to see yourself as responsible for whatever happens to you. You are, through your actions in the past, the creator of all that you experience in the present. You caused your loss; the thief is just the instrument for returning your karma to you.
Of course, it is easy to apply this principle when the effect is an enjoyable one (we know intuitively when we get good things that we deserve them) and not so easy to apply it when it is not enjoyable, but in both cases we are equally responsible. In the end, you have no one to praise but yourself when your life is filled with successes and no one to blame but yourself when your life is filled with difficulties.
Gurudeva said, "As long as we externalize the source of our successes and failures, we perpetuate the cycles of karma, good or bad. There is no one out there making it all happen. Our actions, thoughts and attitudes make it all happen. We must accept and bear our karma cheerfully."
Tirukural:"Why should those who rejoice when destiny brings them good moan when that same destiny decrees misfortune?"
Third Principle: Forgive the Offender
Take as an example a teenage boy on the way home from school. One day a gang of boys teases him for being different in some way and beats him up. A common response is for the teenager to feel angry at the boys and harbor ill feelings toward them for years. This is problematic, however, as it keeps the lower emotions of anger constantly churning in his subconscious mind. Unless he forgives them, he perpetuates the event in his own mind, long after it is over.
Gurudeva often told the story of when a man attacked Swami Sivananda, hitting him forcefully in the head with an axe during evening satsang at his Rishikesh ashram. Swamiji's followers were outraged and angrily subdued the man. But Swami Sivananda responded with the opposite sentiment. He asked that the man not be punished or turned over to the police. The next day he met with his attacker and gave him a train ticket home, several spiritual books and money. Swami said, "Thank you so much for being the instrument to bring this karma back to me. Now I am free of it." He felt no anger toward the man whatsoever.
Tirukural:"If you return kindness for injuries received and forget both, those who harmed you will be punished by their own shame."
Fourth Principle: Consider the Consequences
Quite often our actions are based upon an emotional reaction to what someone has done or said to us. The consequences of such actions are often not clearly and carefully thought about. For example, someone insults you, so you insult them back. If you did reflect, you would see that the consequence of harming someone else with your words in the present is for you to be harmed again in the future by someone else's words. This behavior creates an endless cycle of being harmed and harming others, which is only stopped by considering the consequences before acting and not harming back. Mahatma Gandhi once said, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." So, too, instinctive retaliation ultimately makes the whole world angry. The principle of considering the karmic consequences pertains equally to positive actions. The wisest approach is to not simply react to things that happen to us, but to take time to consider the karmic repercussions of all actions before we take them.
The habit of considering the consequences before acting can be developed at an early age when parents and teachers utilize positive discipline methods to help children face the natural and logical consequences of their actions. An insightful letter from Lord Ganesha on consequences in Gurudeva's book Loving Ganesha reminds us: "Keep track of your paces, for your walk makes marks. Each mark is a reward or a stumbling block. Learn to look at the step you have made and the step you have not made yet. This brings you close to Me."
Gurudeva elucidates our fourth principle: "It is our reaction to karmas through lack of understanding that creates most karmas we shall experience at a future time."
Tirukural:"All suffering recoils on the wrongdoer himself. Thus, those desiring not to suffer refrain from causing others pain."
Fifth Principle: Create No Negative Karmas
Now that we have a good grasp of the karmic consequences of various kinds of actions, what is needed next to progress even further in the management of karma is a firm commitment to refrain from actions that create new negative karma. Perhaps we should all take a pledge, such as "I promise henceforth to refrain from all actions that create negative karmas."
This is actually not as difficult as it sounds. How do we know if a specific action will create negative karma or not? Scriptures such as theTirukural may make mention of it. We can ask a Hindu religious leader his or her opinion. We can ask our parents or elders. And once we get the knack of it, our own conscience will be able to provide the answer most of the time.
Gurudeva advises us: "Wise handling of karma begins with the decision to carry the karma we now have cheerfully, and not add to it. A firm decision to live in such a way as to create no new negative karmas is a sound basis for living a religious life, for following the precepts of dharma and avoiding that which is adharmic."
Tirukural:"What good is a man's knowledge unless it prompts him to prevent the pain of others as if it were his own pain?"
Sixth Principle: Seek Divine Guidance
We don't have to manage our karma totally on our own. Help is available, divine help, in fact. Such help comesfrom none other than Lord Ganesha, who has the duty of helping sincere devotees manage their karma in the best way possible.
Once, through sincere worship, an individual develops a personal relationship with Ganesha, he naturally drops off any remaining adharmic patterns of behavior and becomes fully established in a dharmic life. Not only does Lord Ganesha help you become established in dharma, but in the best personal dharmic pattern for this life, known as svadharma, your natural occupation and duties to family, friends, relatives, deceased relatives, community, guru and temple.
When we seek His permission and blessings before every undertaking, Ganesha, as the Lord of Obstacles, guides our karmas through creating and removing obstacles from our path, similar to a mother's watching over her young children at play. He also has an extraordinary knack for unweaving complicated situations and making them simple. He can unweave His devotees from their karma, clarifying and purifying their lives. How can we invoke this divine guidance when we encounter karmic difficulties? Simply by chanting His name or a simple mantra, or placing a flower at His feet, visiting His temples for puja, meditating on Him or just visualizing His holy form and inviting Him mentally to help in our time of need. He will respond.
Gurudeva comments on svadharma, "Such a life is the fulfillment of all previous efforts and thus erases the uncomplimentary deeds and adds beneficial ones, so a next birth can be most rewardingly great and useful to the whole of mankind."
Tirukural:"Draw near the Feet of Him who is free of desire and aversion, and live forever free of suffering."
Seventh Principle: Mitigate Past Karma
Once we have stopped acting in ways that create new negative karma, our life will be sublime enough to focus on ridding ourselves of karmas of the past, mitigating them, meaning to make less harsh, painful or severe.
To better understand mitigation, let's make another comparison to the judicial system. A man commitsarmed robbery and receives a ten- to twenty-year sentence. But due to good behavior in prison, he is paroled after only five years. He has mitigated his sentence, made it less severe, through his good behavior.
Let's now take an example of karma that is mitigated. You are destined to lose a leg in this life because you caused someone to lose his in a past life. If you are living a selfish, low-minded kind of life, the karma would come full force and you would lose your leg. However, if you are a kindly person who regularly helps others, the karma would be mitigated and you might read in the morning paper about someone losing a leg and take on the emotion of that experience as if it had happened to you. Later on when hiking you stumble and your leg is injured, but not severely. The full force of the karma was softened by your kind and helpful actions.
Following Dharma: Living virtuously, in itself, helps modulate the release of karmic seeds, evening out the ebb and flow of karma and minimizing "karmic explosions" that might otherwise occur. Thus negative karmas in one's individual pattern are naturally avoided or mollified and positive karmas accentuated and brought into fruition.
Karma Yoga: Helping othersÑkarma yoga, performing good deedsÑand thus acquiring merit which registers as a new and positive karma is one way of alleviating the heaviness of some of our past karma.
Bhakti Yoga: Worship, bhakti yoga, that is intense enough to cause us to receive the grace of the Gods can change the patterns of karma dating back many past lives, clearing and clarifying conditions that were created hundreds of years ago and are but seeds now, waiting to manifest in the future. The key concept here is intensity. Dropping by the temple for fifteen minutes on the way home from work is unlikely to accomplish such a transformation.
Pilgrimage: Pilgrimage is an excellent way to generate an intensity of worship. Over the years, Gurudeva's devotees have pilgrimaged to India, visiting major temples such as Chidambaram, Rameshvaram and Palani Hills. Many have come back transformed. They physically look a little different, behave differently and fit back into life in a more positive way than before. Their karma was changed by the grace of the Gods.
Vows: A vrata, or vow, can also generate an intensity of worship, such as fasting during the day and attending the temple on each of the six days of Skanda Shashthi or the 21 days of Vinayaga Viratam.
Penance: Penance, prayashchitta, is a forth way to mitigate karma. This is like punishing yourself now and getting it over with instead of waiting for your karma to manifest a punishment in the future. A typical form of penance is to perform walking prostrations, such as around a sacred lake or mountain, up a sacred path or around a temple.
Often it is advised to perform penance that is directly related to a misdeed. Let's take the example of a teacher who frequently used corporal punishment to discipline students but now strongly feels hitting children for any reason, even for discipline, is wrong. An appropriate penance would be to print and distribute to teachers literature on alternatives to corporal punishment. This type of penance should only be undertaken after a certain degree of remorse is shown and the urgency is felt by the devotee to rid his mind of the plaguing matter.
Gurudeva said, "When pre-dawn morning pujas, scriptural reading, devotionals to the guru and meditation are performed without fail, the deeper side of ourselves is cultivated, and that in itself softens our karmas and prolongs life."
Tirukural:"Be unremitting in the doing of good deeds; do them with all your might and by every possible means."
Eighth Principle: Accelerate Karma
Why wait twenty more births to achieve spiritual maturity when you could achieve it in two births? That is the idea behind accelerating karma. When we begin meditating and performing regular daily sadhana, preferably at the same time each day, our individual karma is intensified. In our first four or five years of striving on the path we face the karmic patterns that we would never have faced in this life had we not consciously intensified our spiritual practices. Those on the spiritual path resolve much more karma in a lifetime than others. They could be called professional karma managers.
Of course, family duties in the grihastha ashramadon't allow much time for sadhana. Thus, the principle of karma acceleration is best fulfilled in the stage called sannyasa, both by those following the path of the monk and by everyone after age seventy-two. Retirement can be more than playing golf. It is an opportunity to intensify our spiritual practices and thus accelerate our karma.
Gurudeva said, "By this conscious process of purification, of inner striving, of refining and maturing, the karmas come more swiftly, evolution speeds up and things can and usually do get more intense. Don't worry though. That is natural and necessary. That intensity is the way the mind experiences the added cosmic energies that begin to flow through the nervous system."
Tirukural:"Not allowing a day to pass without doing some good is a boulder that will block your passage on the path to rebirth."
Ninth Principle: Resolve Dream Karma
Though some of our dreams are only the result of thoughts occurring in our own mind, other dreams are astral experiences, of being conscious in our astral body and interacting with others in their astral body. These astral plane actions create karma, just as do our physical plane actions. This is the basis of the Hindu ideal that one would not steal or injure even in a dream. Why? Because such transgressions create negative karma that will come back to you. These are real karmas that may eventually manifest on the physical plane. However, this can be avoided if you happen to have further dream experiences in which appropriate actions are taken to dissolve the karma. More commonly, though, we can resolve dream or astral-plane karmas in the same way we would physical-world experiences, by performing penance for them in our waking state, while remembering the high standards of virtue and good conduct that should always be maintained, even during sleep. For instance, if in an emotional dream you injured someone intentionally, you could perform a simple penance the next day to atone, such as fasting one meal.
Gurudeva said, "These kinds of dreamsÑwhen a person is in his astral body and can feel what he touches, emote to his experiences, think and talkÑare not what is known as the dream state. This is an astral experience, similar to the death experience, but the astral body is still connected to the physical body."
Tirukural:"The highest principle is this: never knowingly harm anyone at any time in any way."
Tenth Principle: Incinerate Karma
In the practice of yoga, we can burn up negative seed karmas without ever having to live through them. What we have to do is find the seed and dissolve it in intense inner light. Let's take the analogy of growing alfalfa spouts. You place the seeds in a jar and keep them moist until they sprout. But if you heat the seeds in a frying pan before putting them into the jar, they will no longer sprout. Similarly, karmas exposed to intense inner light are destroyed.
A meditation adept, having pinpointed an unmanifested karmic seed, can either dissolve it in intense light or inwardly live through the reaction of his past action. If his meditation is successful, he will be able to throw out the vibrating experiences or desires which are consuming the mind. In doing this, in traveling past the world of desire, he breaks the wheel of karma which binds him to the specific reaction which must follow every action. That experience will never have to happen on the physical plane, for its vibrating power has already been absorbed in his nerve system. This incineration of karmic seeds can also happen during sleep.
Gurudeva explains it in this way, "It is the held-back force of sanchita karma that the yogi seeks to burn out with his kundalini flame, to disempower it within the karmic reservoir of anandamaya kosa, the soul body."
Tirukural:"As the intense fire of the furnace refines gold to brilliance, so does the burning suffering of austerity purify the soul to resplendence."
No matter how deep our understanding of karma may be, actually applying our understanding of karma to the events in our daily life can still be a challenge. Why is this? Our humanness gets in the way; our ego is challenged and we react to preserve our self image; our emotions are stirred and we respond impulsively, without intellectual reflection; our attitudes are prejudicial against certain religious or ethnic groups and we feel justified in striking out at them, because they are not "our people."
How can such human weaknesses be overcome? It is by perfecting our character, which Gurudeva defined as "the ability to act with care." This is done through mastering Hinduism's Code of Conduct, the ten yamas, restraints, and the ten niyamas, observances (see HT, October, 1997, pages 32 to 35 or www.hinduismtoday.com/1997/10/1997-10-03.shtml). With a strong character in place, the mastery of karma becomes natural to us. Gurudeva mystically summarizes this process as follows:
"Bhakti brings grace, and the sustaining grace melts and blends the karmas in the heart. In the heart chakra karmas are in a molten state. The throat chakra molds the karmas through sadhana, regular religious practices. The third eye chakra sees the karmas past, present and future as a singular oneness. And the crown chakra absorbs, burns clean, enough of the karmas to open the gate, the door of Brahman, revealing the straight path to merging with Siva."