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Karma: Facing our Destiny with Free Will

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Karma means action and reaction. It refers to the entire cycle of action and its consequences. Actions can be divided into two broad groups: those with a selfless motive, which are rare, and those with selfish motivation, which are common. Selfish actions can result in joy or pain, or a mixture of the two. They always create more karma, complication, and bondage because worldly desires tend to keep us stuck in worldly, karmic existence. Authentic spiritual endeavours, on the other hand, carry us to a more liberated spiritual existence. Selfless actions ultimately lead to freedom from karma and worldly attachment.

The capacity to perform truly selfless actions—actions that benefit all beings—is called karma yoga. Karma yoga is selfless service, or service to others without expectation of any outcome. The practice of karma yoga is a path to freedom from karma and its effects.

Karma and consciousness

There is good and bad karma. A body-mind will always have some karma, some process of activity which keeps it acting and reacting. Consciousness, on the other hand, transcends Nature and is free from karma. Therefore, the more conscious and aware we become and the more we identify with our real Self or our higher consciousness, the more freedom and choice we experience. Awareness is the ultimate tool we use to liberate ourselves from the bondage of karma. Beings without karma are spiritual adepts who have identified with the higher Self, rather than the body. They are rare and may have worked on their spiritual evolution for lifetimes.

Yoga teaches us how to manage our karma. Through the practice of karma yoga, we develop greater awareness. We witness the quality of our actions, how they are filled with desires, expectations, hopes, and fears.

Until we can achieve the exalted goal of being without karma, we need to become aware of our thoughts and actions and understand how they impact our own lives and the lives of others.

Fate and free will

A palmist walking beside a river sees a fellow drowning. The man is going down for the last time and puts his hand in the air calling for help. The palmist peers at him and yells out, “Do not worry, you have a long life line!” and departs.

People in Eastern cultures tend to place their destiny in the hands of fate and to believe that all that happens is God’s will. The positive side of this attitude is that it develops acceptance of one’s lot in life. The negative side is that it can lead to excessive fatalism.

Western cultures, on the other hand, tend to place more emphasis on free will. Free will in this context implies that we feel we should get whatever we want out of life and, in extreme cases, that life owes us. The positive side of this attitude is that we are motivated to exert effort in to change the world we live in, so that it may grant us our desires.

Yoga brings balance to these two opposing beliefs. Yogis work with both fate and free will, accepting life as it is and exerting effort to live a more sattvic life that engenders health, happiness, and enlightenment.

Karmic theory

Karmic theory reveals how fate and free will operate together. Fate has two aspects. First is sanchit karma, the results of past actions that accumulate and await fruition. This is the karma that builds up over time, even over lifetimes. Second is prarabdha karma, actions manifesting in our lives in the present moment as a result of past actions. It is evident in the patterns in our body-mind that make us desire, think, feel, and behave.

Similarly, free will has two aspects. First is kriyamana karma, how we act and react in each moment in response to prarabdha karma. Second is agama karma, which is long-term planning, our ability to think and plan for our future.

A classic metaphor that explains the four types of karma is that of a handgun. When the gun is in the holster, it is potential, or sanchit karma. When it has been taken out of the holster and we still have a choice, that is kriyamana karma. Once the gun has been fired the bullet cannot be taken back, it is prarabdha karma. Depending on what happens with the bullet; agama karma is our plan to manage the situation.

Yogic tools to manage karma

There is no end to our karma. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “God created karma and retired.” However, we do have free will, or choice, in terms of how we react to our karmas. Think of karma as patterns or habits in our body-mind, in our nervous system, in our thinking and emotions, and in the actions we perform every day. Our thoughts, emotions, and desires have a way of repeating themselves, and these form karmic patterns.

We inherit some of these patterns at birth, and some we create over the course of our lives. A karmic pattern can be a strength or a weakness. We can find it difficult (perhaps impossible) or easy to change.

As yogis, we need to develop awareness of our patterns. We can do this through meditation and self-study (the niyama of Patanjali called swadhyaya.

Once we identify our patterns, we apply yogic techniques that allow us to act on our patterns—to respond to them, changing those that we can and accepting those we cannot. Acceptance of weakness is a great strength. It is an outcome of authentic meditation, arising from the cultivation of self-knowledge and self-love.

When we know our weakness, we can apply the next yogic tool: sankalpa, or resolve. Sankalpa is a short, positive, and sincere statement of intent that expresses what we want to achieve. It is best to work on just one or two things at a time until we achieve our goal. A sankalpa focuses our energy and prevents distraction and confusion.

Having made a sankalpa, we begin to use other yogic tools. For example, we may have a digestive problem, perhaps as a result of worry or anxiety. This health pattern undermines our energy, so we are motivated to work on it. We may apply asana to reduce the symptoms of pain and discomfort. This helps to manage the problem, though it may not remove the root cause.

We may then choose to address the cause of the problem. We may change our eating habits and other lifestyle factors, and we may engage in more powerful healing yoga methods such as Pranayama, or breathwork. Thus the old patterns may fade over time as we modify them with the new pattern we are consciously creating.

Karma and meditation

The root cause and nature of our karmic patterns can only be fully understood through meditation, which is the most important yogic tool for managing karma. By developing awareness, we can clearly see our karmic patterns in action and respond to them using whichever yogic techniques we have learned. Meditation also gives us a calmer, less emotionally reactive mind and nervous system, so that we can respond with more peace and wisdom and with less fear, anger, or attachment.

The key is to apply yoga and accept the old karmas that are running their course, as well as to actively work to create new and better karmas for ourselves. To do this, we need to identify what we want out of life, then build these new patterns with care and intelligence.

Planning a better future is not always easy. It requires a great deal of self-effort, trial and error, and learning from experience and introspection. Yoga and meditation, talking to wise people, being part of a yogic community that shares wisdom, and studying wisdom texts from many sources greatly assists our development.

Ultimately, we can aim to reduce the number of karmic patterns we are bound by and achieve greater freedom through practicing karma yoga and developing the capacity to give to others. This reduces our narcissistic obsession with our own problems and gives us a higher, more universal perspective on life.

Dr. Swami Shankardev is a yogacharya, medical doctor, psychotherapist, author and lecturer. He lived and studied with his guru, Swami Satyananda, for ten years in India (1974- 1985). He lectures all over the world. Jayne Stevenson is a writer and filmmaker with many years of experience in yoga-tantra. She is cofounder of Big Shakti, a Web site and on-line magazine with a tantric approach to yoga and meditation. Contact them at