Instant Karma (well, not completely instant)

I suspect that all serious yoga students have a handful of questions which keep them up at night. The idea of karma is a big one for me.

Obviously, yoga’s origins are Indian. The word “yoga” itself is Sanskrit, the language of the traditional scriptures. Yoga was heavily influenced by both Buddhism (which also originated in the sub-continent) and Vedic texts. In fact, sections of the Yoga Sutras (eg, the yamas) are practically lifted directly from Buddhist philosophy.

In our last monthly dharma discussion at Jai Ma, we talked about the idea of karma, the simplest translation of which is “action,” but which is often also understood to mean the fruits of one’s actions. My co-teacher, A, had just returned from several weeks of studying in India, and she talked about the idea that our karma is set when we’re born, and there is nothing we can do to change it. We just need to live it out. Obviously, this idea presents a problem for Americans, trained as we are to see ourselves as rugged individualists with free will. But do our (okay, my) issues with the idea of immutable karma mean I’m rejecting yogic philosophy? Put another way, is this idea of fixed karma central to yoga, or does it reflect some other aspect of Indian/Hindu culture? Am I supposed to believe this or not? And if I start picking and choosing what I’m going to believe and what I’m not going to believe, am I still practicing yoga? At that point, am I still actually practicing anything apart from ego gratification?

I like it best when complex questions can be resolved with relatively simple answers, but I don’t think there are simple answers here. There isn’t a very well defined dividing line between philosophy and culture, generally, or between yoga and Indian history/society, specifically. Each has had a role in producing the other. This means that yogic philosophy has influenced broader Indian ideas about karma, and Indian society and history have influenced yogic ideas about karma.

Warning: the following paragraph is largely speculative. I could find sources to cite to support my claims, but I am lazy and therefore will not. (But if you see problems in my argument, please do let me know.)

Class structures are probably as old as agrarian culture itself. Settled societies require different people to have different roles, and movement between roles can be difficult, if possible at all. If every other week, half of your farmers decided they’d rather be doctors, and half of your doctors decided they’d rather be priests, there’d be chaos. Fields wouldn’t be tilled, crops wouldn’t be harvested, the ill wouldn’t be healed. So some stability in class structure is necessary for settled societies. Cultures have sometimes codified this stability; European feudalism is the first example that comes to my mind. Another, of course, is the caste system in India. It requires very little imagination to see that the idea of immutable karma plays directly into the stability of the Indian caste system, and therefore Indian culture. And that brings us back to the tricky question of where yogic ideas about karma end and where Indian cultural ideas about karma begin. Is this idea of immutable karma really yogic, or is it borrowed from the rest of Indian culture? Or is it a codification of a necessary condition for any settled society? Does the idea of immutable karma really have anything to do with yoga at all?

It’s meaningless to talk about karma with respect to yoga without discussing the Bhagavad Gita. One of the Gita’s central themes is that one is entitled to one’s actions, but not to the fruits of those actions. In other words, we do have karmic obligations; and these obligations are inherent; they are not related to whatever outcomes our actions will bring us or others. Sounds quite a bit like immutable karma, doesn’t it? We are all born with our karma, and cannot change it. BUT – the Gita is a conversation between Arjuna and the Lord; which is to say, it is a conversation between the self and the Self. There is no external authority telling Arjuna what to do or what his karma is. So his karma may be beyond his control, but only he can know what it is. THAT, I believe, is the yogic perspective on karma.

I think this is a little more palatable for Western minds. We’d sure prefer to harbour the delusion that we’re in complete control of our lives, but if we’re not, then at least no one else can tell us what our obligations are. We need to work them out on our own.



3 Responses

  1. This is a great discussion. As I’m not a yogi, I’d probably detract from the conversation by a deeper response. However, it strikes me that discussions of Karma very often involve notions involved in Determinism vs. Free Will debates (at least for westerners). I tend to land on the Determinism side, which is where I think Karma also resides. Sam Harris has written some great articles on the subject that might be interesting. I too, am lazy, but googling Sam Harris Free Will should find them.

  2. I definitely don’t believe all of any religion, and actually one of the things I liked about Buddhism when I first started learning about it was that you shouldn’t accept it blindly, you should be critical and questioning of it. I really think it’s ok to accept whatever ideas you find to be truthful for your life. I find your question of it being just ego gratification both humorous and unsettling, though!

    I obviously don’t have any answers here, but I’ve been thinking a lot about karma recently, and would love to talk more about it… or check out any resources you recommend!

  3. I think you are right that as Americans this can be a very difficult question. I want all or nothing! I want to believe that either everything is predestined, or that I have control over my destiny. Even though I don’t practice yoga, i can relate to “one is entitled to one’s actions, but not to the fruits of those actions”. That is a tough nut to swallow! Very humbling!

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