A- A+

The Study and Practice of Yoga
An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 101: The Wheel of Karma

In a few sutras that follow, we are given some interesting information regarding the law of what is known as karma. Though we know something about what it means, here Patanjali, in a particular context, touches upon certain details of the way in which karmas work. Though they are so inscrutable, we can have some sort of an idea about their method of working if we can gain an insight into the causes which bring about these circumstances called karmas. In one sutra Patanjali tells us that what is known as karma, whether as a cause or as an effect, is a complex set of phases and not any particular object or even an isolated event. It is something which is made up of many aspects of what appears as a single force. Karma is not a thing which can be visualised with the eyes; it is not a sense object. It is not anything that is material, and yet it is something that exists. It is the manner of the operation of certain existent forces. Therefore, we need not assume an independent existence for something called karma. It is only a way of working of certain things that is known as karma.

In one sutra, four aspects of the causation of karma are mentioned: hetu phala āśraya ālambanaiḥ (IV.11). These are the four terms Patanjali uses to describe these four aspects. There is a cause which is called hetu, there is a consequence which is called phala, there is a basis or substratum which is called asraya, and there is a supporting agent which is called alambana. These four come together and produce a situation that is what is called karma. The cause of this situation called karma is the ignorance of the ultimate nature of Reality, which is called avidya in Sanskrit. What ultimate truth is – that is not known. The absence of such a knowledge itself is the cause of the circumstances which create this so-called karma.

If we can recollect the philosophical background of the psychology of yoga, we have already been told that ignorance of the nature of truth does not mean merely an oblivion or a darkness that is present before the mind. It is a positive error which is committed, and is not merely an absence or a negation of light as is the case with deep sleep, for instance. When we are in a state of ignorance, we are not sleeping. We are positively committing a mistake; that is what is called avidya. Though the world is so construed that it appears to have a negative connotation – avidya, non-knowledge – it is really something positive. It has a distracting character and forces the commission of a positive error in the form of the perception of something which is really not there. The absence of the perception of what is really there is simultaneous, almost, with the perception of what is not there.

This is a very peculiar dual action of what is called avidya. It screens away truth and presents untruth before us. It does not merely screen untruth and keep quiet. It does something more mischievous, and that is the way in which the mind gets sidetracked into a course of action which is totally contrary to the true nature of things. This peculiar thing called avidya is the hetu, or the cause. If this had not been there, no other trouble would be there. The essential nature, or the ultimate nature of things, is somehow or other obscured from the vision of consciousness, and there is the presentation of a picture in the form of what we call the world or the universe, which is mistaken for the ultimate truth. It has to be taken for the ultimate truth because nothing else is seen. We cannot believe in something which we have never seen or conceived of. The only thing that is visible to the senses and conceivable to the mind is this world. And so there is immediately an action of the mind in respect of what is seen based on an urge towards this action.

Thus, there is a very interesting threefold error which simultaneously takes effect: the obliteration of the consciousness of the ultimate nature of things and the perception of an external atmosphere in the form of the space-time-cause relation, an urge to deal with this external atmosphere in a particular manner, and an action directed towards the fulfilment of this urge. This complex is called avidya-kama-karma. These three go together. Karma is the action that we perform, the effort that we make, the thing that we do to fulfil a particular urge from within us which has arisen on account of a particular notion that we have got in respect of things outside. The notion is the avidya, and it causes an urge in us to deal with that perceived object in a particular manner; and our actual execution of the deed is the karma. This is the cause. So we can imagine how complex is the cause itself. It is an intertwined knot of avidya-kama-karma which has the support of the ego-sense, or the asmita tattva, the principle of self-affirmation, and the support that is received by the senses from their respective objects.

The objects of sense play an important part in the generation of what is called karma. If the objects had not been what they are, the senses would have acted in a different manner. Fortunately or unfortunately for us, what we call the objects before us are the exact stimulants of the senses. If they had been dead things without any capacity to stir the senses into activity, that would have been a different thing altogether. But the objects are not such inert, faultless, innocuous things. They are themselves capable of stimulating the senses into action in a particular manner. Each object has a particular capacity of its own, so the senses will react in a corresponding manner to the respective objects outside. This activity is made worse by the peculiar notions that are already present in the mind in respect of the entire atmosphere in which the individual lives. The mind's action in respect of the objects, and the influence of the objects in respect of the mind, are correlated. We cannot say which is first and which is second. Whether the mind is influenced by the objects and thinks in terms of the objects, or whether the objects are first evaluated by the mind and then consequences follow – we cannot say how this happens. There is a reciprocal action between the mind and the objects which takes place through the medium of the senses.

This is a very interesting picture which the sutra presents before us – interesting in the sense that it is very complicated and we cannot actually know what to do with it. The very fact that we cannot actually understand the nature of this complex is the strength of this complex. Anything that we cannot understand has sway over us. The moment we try to understand it and know it very well, the strength it has upon us is weakened. But here, it is something which cannot be understood, because the person, or the individual, who tries to understand is himself a part in this complex. There is a reciprocal action of the subjective side as well as the objective side, which makes the whole thing very difficult to understand. Therefore, an indeterminable, unforeseen effect follows which is entirely out of control. We cannot determine the nature of the effect that is produced by an action because we cannot properly visualise the various aspects of this process that is called action. We have a very limited notion of the way in which the karma works. The various sides of this process are not visible to us. As a matter of fact, this peculiar action which is engendered in respect of the individual is many-sided.

Thus, causes are contributed bit by bit, as it were, from different quarters or corners of this wide atmosphere in which the individual is placed. Hetu phala āśraya ālambanaiḥ saṅgṛhītavāt (IV.11), says the sutra. The complex, or the samgrihita of this psychophysical organism, is an involvement in these factors called hetu, phala, asraya and alambana. We have to remember these words, once again, because they have a great significance: the objects on one side, the mind on the other side, the ego as the basis of the action of the mind which itself is based on avidya or ignorance – the nature of which we have discussed just now – and the mysterious result that follows. Karma is not merely the action that we do. It is also not merely a fruit that we reap in the form of experience. It is many things put together. It is not the dictionary meaning of karma that is signified by this definition. If we look into a dictionary we will find that karma means action. This definition is not complete. We have to explain what action is.

There are various meanings for this process which is called action. It is some event that is released into the atmosphere of space-time due to the operation of causes which are outside the purview of the individual consciousness. Therefore, it is impossible for any individual to understand all the factors that are contributory to the production of a particular result as the fruit of action. This phala, or the fruit of action that is mentioned here, is also threefold, which has been referred to in an earlier sutra: jāti āyuḥ bhogāḥ (II.13). These are the three consequences that follow from the action. What is this jati, ayuh, bhoga?

We have studied these terms in the context of an earlier sutra. The kind of birth that we take into this world is called jati – whether we are to be born as a human being or as something else. What is the kind of species into which we are to be incarnated? That which determines the nature of the birth that we have to take in this world is the jati. The basis for our very activity itself is laid down by the selection of the particular species into which we are to be born. And the duration of time which we have to live in that particular species, the lifespan of a particular individual, is called ayuh. How long are we to live in this world? It is already determined by that very factor which has brought us into birth in this species.

Why should we be born? There is a reason behind it, and that reason will tell us how long we have to live. We are compelled by circumstances, we may say, to take birth of a particular kind for the purpose of fulfilling, or exhibiting, or implementing, or undergoing the forces generated by previous action. The intensity, the quantity, etc. of these forces which have to be worked out in a particular life will determine the duration of that life, the length of that life, or the span of that life. That is called ayuh. Bhoga is the experiences we pass through. We have lived for so many years in this world. We must be aware as to what sort of experiences we have undergone in life. These experiences are nothing but the fructification of what we have done in the past. They are the efflorescence of the hidden potentialities in the form of previous deeds. Now, what is the meaning of ‘previous deeds'?

This has also been explained in this very context by the sutras of Patanjali. The previous life need not necessarily mean the one that is immediately precedent to the present one. It is not that we have taken only one birth. There has been an almost endless series of incarnations through which an individual has passed, and in each life there is provision made for undergoing experiences through the senses and the mind in respect of objects outside. Each experience produces an impression in the mind; that is called a samskara. This impression becomes the cause of a repetition of a particular experience which has been the cause of that samskara. It forms a groove in the mind. So when a person has passed through many lives, there have been, naturally, circumstances which have created endless impressions in the mind. We cannot count them.

Every perception produces an impression, and we cannot count how many perceptions are there in a particular day. How many things do we see with our eyes? Anything that we see will produce an impression in the mind. It will not leave us like that. These countless perceptions throughout a particular life create corresponding samskaras, or impressions, in the mind, which are going to be dangerous friends one day or the other. We should not think that our looking at an object is a very harmless action that we are performing. It is a danger to us, if we actually know what is happening inside.

The looking at an object with the mind attached to this perception is really the process of receiving impressions from that object, and we are going to be bound by that very act of perception because this impression that has been formed in the mind by this particular perception will be a cause for repeating that sort of experience at a future date. But, on account of unfavourable conditions, that repetition may not take place immediately. Yet the possibility is kept inside and our name is registered, as it were, to be taken up one day or the other. It may be after many lives – not necessarily the next life itself.

This kind of registering of a future possibility takes place with every kind of perception, so we can imagine how many times this registration is being done. And every registration is a permanent record which will not be wiped out in the akashic records. Then what happens? When the forces which have caused the birth of this particular body lose their momentum and become exhausted, they lose control over this vehicle called the body and separate from it. This is called death.

These forces, which are able to hold the limbs of the physical body together as an organism, lose their hold over it on account of the fact that they have nothing to do with that instrument afterwards – just as a carpenter when he finishes his work throws the tools down because his work is finished. Likewise, this carpenter inside has used this body as a tool for executing a particular purpose. When that purpose is fulfilled, the tool has no purpose to serve and it is cast away. That is what we call decease, or the death of the body. But, these forces which have brought about the birth of this body have many purposes to fulfil. Though a particular set of purposes has already been fulfilled through this particular instrument of this body, what about the other sets? They have also to be fulfilled.

There is a pressure exerted by these unfulfilled forces to materialise themselves into form once again. This formation of a material body freshly, once again, on account of the pressure exerted by these potencies inside, is rebirth. Therefore birth, death and rebirth are all caused by forces which are behind, or at the back of, this conscious level of our life which we mistakenly take to be the entire life. The controllers of our deeds and of our experiences here lie behind us, and we seem to be running about like puppets, like marionettes pulled by strings of forces which are invisible to the eyes and inconceivable to the mind. What sort of birth a person will take at a particular time, no individual can know, because every individual is only a showpiece that is projected by these forces at a particular time, keeping aside every other possibility of such formations out of the view of this particular individual.

These forces will not allow us to know what other things are being kept for us. We are completely kept in the dark about our future. Another reason why we are kept in the dark about the future is the power with which these forces manifest themselves in a particular body. Suppose some person is pushing us from behind with tremendous force; we will be moving forwards with such velocity that we will have no time to think this way or that way, because of the force that is behind us. Likewise, the force with which these latent potencies manifest themselves is such that we are allowed to work only with blinkers, and we cannot know what is either ahead of us or what is past. The logic behind this action of the forces of karma, which brings about various types of birth and compels an individual to pass through various experiences, is cosmical and not individual. This is made out by Patanjali in a very few expressions. Karma is a cosmic force; it is not an individual force. It is a necessity of nature as a whole which obliges each individual to act in a particular way, to conform to a particular principle, and to undergo certain sets of experiences.

Before we study the other sutras in connection with this subject, we may once again remember the four aspects acting as the causative factors of karma: hetu, phala, asraya and alambana. The cause of all this trouble is our ignorance of Truth. I am repeating what I said already. What is ultimate Truth, no one knows. We have been placed in a fool's paradise by this circumstance of oblivion, darkness, in respect of the ultimate nature of things. This ‘fool's paradise' is the world that we are seeing in front of us which we mistake for the only reality. This paradise in which we are living attracts us, compels us, obliges us to act in a particular way. This attraction that we feel is the kama, and the work that we do on the basis of it is karma. These objects attract us and also act on us; they produce impressions upon the mind with a reciprocal action that causes the mind to think of them more and more.

Then there is the unfortunate consequence that follows from all this – jāti āyuḥ bhogāḥ (II.13) – the birth into a particular species, life in that species for a length of time, and the undergoing of all sorts of pleasurable or painful experiences according to the nature of the karma in that particular span of life. This is a concise picture that is presented by Patanjali in connection with the explanation of this particular feature of what is known as karma – namely, hetu phala āśraya ālambanaiḥ (IV.11).