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Swami Krishnananda in Conversation
by Swami Krishnananda
Compiled by S. Bhagyalakshmi

16. Karma

Visitor: I am of retiring age—tired, but not retired!

Swamiji: You will all retire one day and enjoy life. I never enjoy life, just work, work, work. From a young age I have been doing work. I don't know what a holiday is—except when I was very ill and lying in the hospital. That was a holiday for me; but even then it was not a holiday. They used to communicate with me on official matters and would bring the papers, even when in the hospital, so I really do not have a holiday! I give you the reason why I feel happy in spite of all the impositions. The reason is given by Sankaracharya. There are three kinds of connection: the connection of the intellect with the body, connection of the intellect with the ego, the connection of the ego with the Atman. These connections are called adhyasa. Adhyasa is superimposition. You are transferring property of one thing over to another thing. In Sanskrit these adhyasas are called: karmadhyasa, sahadhyasa and brahmadhyasa. These are technical words. Karmaja means that which is born out of karma, a superimposition which arises on account of the action of previous births, impressions of previous actions, and this is called karmadhyasa. Sahadhya is a superimposition which is consequent upon a natural juxtaposition of factors. When ghee is brought near a fire, naturally it will melt. It is a natural reaction or result. There is a third kind of superimposition born of illusion, brahmadhya, mere confusion due to the illusion is the cause of this kind of superimposition. Brahma is confusion, adhyasa is superimposition. Now the identity of the intellect with the body is a kind of superimposition. Intellect is not the body, body is not the intellect, but somehow the intellect thinks in terms of the body. It identifies itself with the body, and the intellect is the principle of personality. Your personality is nothing but an expression of your way of thinking. Now, Sankaracharya says this identity, or superimposition of identity upon the body, is due to the previous action, karma. A particular set of actions has to be manifested, materialised and experienced through this body.

The body is the instrument for the fulfilment of certain desires which have been accumulated in the past, and only that kind of body will be manifest as will be suitable to the type of desire that is to be experienced. There are infinite types of desires accumulated in the past through various lives, and a certain set is allocated to be experienced in a particular life. No one knows how it happens. That is why they say: The mystery of action, God only knows. Somehow the vast number of impulses inside get allocated to groups according to the intensity of their nature. The most intense are supposed to come first, the weaker ones later on, that is the general policy adopted by the allocation of karmas, but it is not a rule that is always followed. Sometimes there is a limited action also which is decided by some power which is not human, who allocates the experiences for a particular life. It is not you, but somebody else—who is it?

That mystery nobody knows. So a group of actions gets isolated for experience through a particular body, and the intellect, which is nothing but the vehicle of action, gets automatically identified with the body due to the karma of the whole. This is karmadhyasa. You feel always, “I am the body. I am Mr. So-and-so.” In the thing called sahadhyasa, the intellect is identified with the ego, the ego is identified with the intellect. They cannot be separated. Where there is intellect operating, immediately there is ego, and wherever there is ego, the intellect operates. Sankaracharya says this is a natural corollary following from the juxtaposition of two principles, ego and intellect. And the third adhyasa is where you identify the whole personality with the Atman which is yourself. You begin to say, “I exist.” Existence is a character of the Atman. But yet you say “I exist” by saying “the body exists”. You superimpose, in a confusion of understanding, the character of existence, which belongs to the Atman i.e. the Absolute, to this personality the “I”.

Now, in the case of great people such as Siridi Sai Baba, Jesus Christ, Swami Sivananda or Ramana Maharshi, some kind of blessings are received by us through their existence on earth. They cannot get out of this karma which has brought about the identity of the intellect with the body. Karmadhyasa persists even in saints and sages. They know that they exist as persons, and they feel that this body which moves about feels hungry, cold, hot; they sleep, they do everything. But the third thing, called brahmadhyasa, is not there with them. The Atman is not identified with the personality. So, this is a peculiarity. They have no personal desires on account of the snapping of the connection between Atman and body. They do work like automatons. They don't have any choice, no likes and dislikes, because the root of existence is severed from personality. They do not feel that their body or their personality is ultimately real. That means they have realised that the body personality, the “I” is an appearance. That the real is something else is clear to them.

This conviction gives the satisfaction that nothing in the world can affect them—let the wind blow, let something come, let something go. Everything is phenomenal, including this body and its relationships. So for a particular reason which is trans-empirical, a person is happy… a man may have only one loincloth, another may lock himself in a cave for 25-30 years and not speak. “How can they be happy?” we say. People are only happy when they run about, see things, talk to people, have position, power, authority and so on and so forth. Then what makes the men in the loincloth or locked in a cave happy? It is a conviction that makes them happy, a kind of understanding, of experience, of realisation. This happiness born of inner understanding creates mischief also, unnecessarily. I get nothing by speaking, working—you get the same food that I eat. You enjoy rest, but I don't enjoy any. I don't get salary, pension, leave, no Sunday… work, work, work… what for? You are wondering why these Swamijis in this ashram are working like this, like dogs, like fools. We work because we don't feel that anything matters in this world, everything has lost significance. So in a world which has lost significance, it matters little whether you do this or you do that. I may work as an official or a sweeper, it will make no difference to me. Both are nonsensical. There is no difference. Suppose you are a king in a dream and beggar in another dream, both are dream objects. The substance of both is the same. Just because you are king in a dream does not mean you are superior to the beggar. It looks as though they are different, but substantially both are nothing. Both are dream objects. Likewise in this world. You may be President of India or a beggar on the road, it makes no difference, because both are dream objects. This we learnt from Swami Sivananda.

Q: Is it inevitable that tendencies make me act in a given manner? Or can I use my will and say “I don't want to do this”?

Swamiji: According to scriptures you cannot destroy the effects of karma, but you will not feed the operation of karma because of the power of your will.

Q: Supposing the tendency to be a murderer is in me, but I use my will power and say, “No”.

Swamiji: When you have got the understanding that murder is a very bad action and you have the choice to refrain from certain actions, it means that some higher karma is working in you. Otherwise, this idea itself will not work. It will not come to you. This idea that you are using your will is the working of a higher mind. The very fact that the higher mind is working shows that you will not act according to the lower instinct. A person without the influence of the higher mind will be so immersed in his action that he will not think in any other way.

Q: Suppose my higher mind is not with me, does it mean that I am condemned to this type of action?

Swamiji: Whatever your mind accepts as real, that it does. Now you are saying that a criminal action is not a good thing and therefore it is an unreal action, and it being so, you will not do it. When a man does a criminal action, he thinks that it is a necessity and a proper thing for him under the circumstances. He does not think it is wrong. The higher mind has stopped working. It all depends upon which is the stronger, the lower instinct or the higher understanding.

Q: But suppose the karma is so strong…?

Swamiji: If the karma is strong you will not even have the opportunity to even think any other way.

Q: And therefore I commit the murder…?

Swamiji: You see, you have no will to choose whether to be born a human being or not. Some karma has forced you to come. The higher mind did not work there.

Q: How far am I responsible for that action before God and before man?

Swamiji: There is a general principle. A thing that happens without the intervention of your personality is to be regarded as a karma that is getting exhausted, but the thing that you do deliberately is a fresh action added to your old stock. Suppose you are walking along a road and a branch falls on your head, this is the effect of an action, but it is not a fresh action from you, done by you. It is the exhaustion of a previous thing because you have not interfered with it and caused it to fall on your head. But if you think deliberately, “I'll do this tomorrow,” then that is a fresh action. So it is decided by your personality. If you are not doing something deliberately or with premeditation, or something automatically happens without your knowledge, something is thrust upon you, then it is not your action. When you invite it, then it is your action. If someone pushes you into water it is not a fresh action, not your responsibility, but if you deliberately jump in and commit suicide, it is a fresh action and is your responsibility, and you add to the stock of your karma.

When the Atman is identified with the body it is brahmadhyasa. When the ego is identified with intellect it is sahadhyasa, and when the intellect is identified with body it is karmadhyasa. With brahmadhyasa we always feel that we are solid realities. You do not feel like foam on the ocean of the Absolute. But if you have a conviction that on the ocean of the Absolute you are foam, then the original bond is cut, and any action you do will not bind you afterwards. You are not connected to the unreality. It is like an electric wire minus electricity. You appear to be there but are really not there—like a burnt cloth which appears to be there but when you touch it turns to ashes. Such is the personality of a jivanmukta, it appears to be there but it really is not there.

Q: Can one keep one's mind steadily for a long time on something for which one has no real feeling or of which one has no knowledge?

Swamiji: You can do it if it is done for a purpose. Then it assumes a meaning. Take a cashier, he has no interest in the money but he counts it very correctly. He knows that if he does not, something else will happen.

Q: We speak about meditating on God, but many of us have no realistic feeling about it.

Swamiji: The extent of the realistic feeling about God will determine the extent of the intensity of concentration. The less the feeling, the less the concentration. You must ask yourself, “Why is it that I am having a lukewarm feeling towards God?” Some answer must come from within you.

Q: If a man does not have a real feeling for God…

Swamiji: Then for what else? A man cannot be empty. He must have some other desire in his mind which is exterior to God so that is a very important psychological direction. A person has some other desire, may be family, may be some empirical desire which is not fulfilled and so the concentration on God is reduced, like a river that flows in many directions cannot have great force. A sadhaka must be a very good psychologist, he must understand his mind correctly: “What is it that prevents me from concentrating on God?” There are other desires? Okay, you fulfil them and finish with them. Once fulfilled, the desire cannot arise again in that direction. There are two kinds of desires, those which should be fulfilled and those which are dangerous—and meaningless sometimes.

There was a man from Sri Lanka who wanted to be the president of Sri Lanka. Now, this was not reasonable. But suppose you have a desire to eat two bananas, eat them! Every day eat bananas until you get fed up with them, then the banana desire goes. Even so, you want to see Badrinath—I had such a desire when I was a boy. Swami Sivananda said, “What a stupid desire!” but that desire was so strong that I said, “I will take another birth.” “OK, OK, go!” he said. (Laughter.) Now I have seen Badrinath and I have no further desire to see temples. I saw that every mountain is like every other mountain—no use in seeing mountains—otherwise you will go on thinking there is something glorious there. So it is better to fulfil simple desires and they should not be suppressed.

Q: How can you really desire so strongly…?

Swamiji: I cannot understand why there should be desires at all. Desire for God implies desire for everything that is existing, which includes even the little things that you are asking for. And how can the mind go to something that is little when you are getting the entirety? It is an illogical and unjustifiable attitude of mind. When you are given the whole thing you are not satisfied, you want only a part of it. Desire is nothing but a desire for a part, rejecting the whole, not knowing that the part is included in the whole. So you must educate the mind. Why you go after little things? You can have everything at one stroke.

Q: But you do not have the connection with the whole?

Swamiji: You must go on again and again listening to discourses, seek the company of mahatmas, contemplate their presence again and again. You must meditate on what you have heard. Get saturated with that thought.

Q: So that's the thing!

Swamiji: Ah! The only thing! That is called meditation.

Q: Meanwhile it is difficult to meditate on that point.

Swamiji: You meditate to the extent it is possible: every day—one minute, next two minutes, and so on; and read. Every day read the same scripture, the same part, discuss the same thing. If it is the Yoga Vasishta for example drown in that, then you will catch fire. It takes time, but you will certainly succeed. Practice makes perfect. Go on doing it again and again and you will see that by force of habit it will come. You must persist tenaciously and never leave it. That is the great quality of a sadhaka—like Buddha—”I will not leave it; if not today, I will get it tomorrow. I will not get up till I get it.” If there is tenacity, some mystery, some miracle works and you succeed.

Q: Is it right to say that one should be able to meditate anywhere, say, in the marketplace?

Swamiji: That is in an advanced state. In the beginning you are affected by atmosphere and should be in a special place, but afterwards it makes no difference.

Q: Sometimes, in this ashram there is so much noise…

Swamiji: Keeping quiet has a deep meaning. The whole of your personality should subside in devotion. When Jesus told the waves of the ocean “Be still”, they subsided immediately. So, keeping quiet means you are entering into the Absolute—but that is difficult because you have to go back to your home and not enter into the Absolute!

Q: A book I was reading said maya does not mean illusion... Maya means cosmic matter.

Swamiji: Neither of these definitions is correct. There was a schoolteacher whom the students asked how to pronounce 'either'. He replied. “You can pronounce it in ai-ther way.” (Laughter.) Maya is not illusion, it is not matter. There are as many definitions of maya as there are philosophers. “Ma” means not and “ya” means which. So, “which is not”, “that which is not” is maya. It is not there but it appears to be there.

Q: But can you say the material universe does not exist?

Swamiji: It appears to exist. Take the example of the snake in the rope. The snake exists because of the fact that rope exists. If the rope was not there, the snake would not be there. Now, can you say snake exists or not? Existence does not belong to the. snake. It belongs to the rope.

Q: When I see the rope and think it is a snake, I am misinterpreting it?

Swamiji: So, the misinterpretation is maya.

Q: So, the material universe does exist?

Swamiji: You should not call it material. By material you mean unconscious, that which is inorganic, but reality is not inorganic so the word is inappropriate. You must define what you mean by material.

Q: That which is made of matter?

Swamiji: Matter means inorganic substance, lifeless. Inorganic means that which does not respond to stimuli, that which is tamasic, not sattvic. By matter we should not mean what the scientist means by matter. It is in a sense philosophical matter, not scientific matter for experimentation. Scientific matter is that which is not organic. You do not call yourself matter. You call yourself a human being. In the language of Spinosa it is 'substance'. Ultimate reality is substance. By substance he means that which really is, not necessarily that which you touch with your fingers. So the substance of the universe is the material of the universe, but it is not material in the sense of brick and stone. Maya is the inexplicability of the relation between appearance and reality. You do not know how the appearance comes; like in the example of the snake in the rope, nobody knows what the connection is. It is some mystery, and that mystery is maya, and maya is ultimately a mystery. That is the proper definition. It is impossible to describe it. No one knows what created it. You cannot say that God created the world because it is not there. You cannot say that you created the world because you have not done it. Who created it? That is a mystery for you.

Q: What is the reason for it?

Swamiji: There is no reason for it. It is a mystery, which means it is beyond understanding. That mystery is called maya. To say 'illusion' is stupid, but if you say 'mystery' people understand. G. K. Chesterton, a great critic, said of George Bernard Shaw: “People either say that they agree with G. B. S. or they can't understand him. I am the only man who can understand him but cannot agree with him.” (Laughter.) You cannot say how the world is related to God. That mystery is maya. You assume something which is not really there and therefore these questions arise.

A little boy saw a lizard on the wall while eating his lunch. A little later when he realised that it had vanished, he thought he had eaten it and vomited and kept on vomiting because the lizard did not come out. Doctors were called, but there was no curing the boy until he saw the lizard come out and once again crawl on the wall. A shrewd man, realising this, asked the boy to vomit with his eyes closed. A lizard was thrown into the vomit—the boy opened his eyes to see it, and was satisfied. This is how you assume the world exists, and therefore you want to find an explanation for it. When you are determined that it exists, naturally you are determined to find a cause for it and the relation between the two. So you have created a mess from beginning to the end by assuming something without any foundation.

What makes you think that the world exists? That you must prove first. That you cannot prove. You cannot say the world exists because you see it. Does that mean that everything that you see exists? There are things that you see which do not exist and there are things that you cannot see which do exist, e.g. x-rays, etc. Thus the fact that you see the world does not prove that it exists. What other ground have you got? Now you say something unnecessarily and build a huge philosophy on it—a false philosophy.

Q: How can you be sure of the existence of anything, Swamiji?

Swamiji: The same argument holds here.

Q: Are we sure that we exist, or God exists?

Swamiji: Same argument for everything. The world is a mystery, and that which makes you feel that it is a mystery is a mystery.

Q: So, the more we know, the more we realise that we don't know anything.

Swamiji: Yes.

Q: So why try to know?

Swamiji: To feel that you don't know anything. There are four kinds of not knowing… the one who does not know and does not know that he does not know—the fool. The one who does not know and knows that he does not know, he is worthy. The one who knows but who does not know that he knows, he is sleeping; wake him up! The one who knows and knows that he knows, he is the man to follow. We cannot belong to that last category. That is very clear. There is a saying: He who knows that he does not know, really knows. A fool who knows that he is a fool is not a fool. There is something that tells him what he is, and that is transcendental. That which tells you that all this is a mystery is something beyond mystery. That is the real 'You'. The real so-called 'you' is that which tells you that all this is a mystery. That is what you have to search for. “Know Thyself.”