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


Chapter 61: How the Law of Karma Operates

Dhyānaheyāḥ tadvṛttayaḥ (II.11): Everything is possible through meditation. All the impediments are set aside by the power that is projected in meditation. The force of concentration has miraculous results following it. Though in the beginning it looks as if we are threshing old straw and no essence seems to be coming out of it, a marvel will be beheld later on as a result of continued practice.

The harassing vrittis, the tormenting obstacles of raga, dvesha and all their concomitants, will disperse like scudding clouds, and there will be a luminous light of hope presenting itself before us – after a long, long time, of course. Even a hope that something is going to come is enough – if it is a confirmed hope, not a nebulous one. But, in the earlier stages, on account of the thickness of the cloud of unknowing, or ignorance, even this hope is absent. There is diffidence and discomfiture even in one's approach, and sluggishly, reluctantly, with suspicion in the mind, one undertakes the practice. But this continuous hammering of the mind into a given point – continuous, unremitting, prolonged for an indefinite period – has its own consequences which are very advantageous. It breaks through the thick wall that is obstructing the vision of Truth. These obstructions are nothing but the vrittis of the mind.

The vrittis of the mind are the powerful tendencies of the mind to move outward in the direction of objects. The senses drag the Self with a power which is unthinkable and tie this Self to the peg of objects, so that it looks as though the objects are the masters and the Self is the slave. Such a strange event has taken place. The master has become the servant and the servant has become the master. This is the work of the senses. They are the driving impetuous forces which violently blow like a tempest and shift the attention of consciousness in the direction of objects.

This urge of the mind is called a vritti, a modification, a shape that the mind takes in respect of a given object outside. It has some motives behind it, and these motives are the objects of sense. The intention of the activity of the senses is the identification of consciousness with the object so that the consciousness may go and impinge upon the object, identify itself spatially and temporally with the object, cling to the object and imagine that its comfort, joy and delight are in the object. This is what the senses are intending to do, and they have no other activity. This tempestuous activity of the senses is the essence of the vrittis. These vrittis are multifarious, multifaceted, diverse, and very powerful. They are powerful because they are charged with the force of consciousness itself, the power of the mind itself. We ourselves have sold ourselves to these evil vrittis – the tendencies towards objects – and these tendencies are so powerful that as long as they are active, there is no chance of the mind thinking in another direction.

But by the intelligent analysis that we have been provided with in the system of yoga, and the continued practice with persistence and ardour of feeling, a day will come, the scripture tells us, when these vrittis will get attenuated. They will become weakened in their power. There is no remedy for these vrittis except meditation itself. Yogena yogo jñatavyo yogo yogat pravā rtate (Y.B.III.6):Yoga is to be attained through yoga, and yoga comes from yoga, says the Yoga Bhasya. Thus, in this sutra, dhyānaheyāḥ tadvṛttayaḥ (II.11), Patanjali tells us that we need not be afraid of these vrittis of the mind. They can be overcome, root and branch, by meditation itself. As diamond is cut by diamond, mind is overcome by mind only; but as long as these vrittis are present even in a very minute form, even subtly, they will become the cause of rebirth. Sati mūle tadvipākaḥ jāti āyuḥ bhogāḥ (II.13). If the root is present – well, the sprout also must be present. And if the root of suffering, the root of rebirth, the root of transmigration is not completely dug out, then naturally it will manifest itself as the tree of samsara.

The fruition of these vrittis which exist in a latent form is manifested as the kind of life that we are living here, the circumstances under which we are born into this world, the length of life for which we live, and any experience that we pass through. Jati means the category, or the species, or the genus into which we are born. We may be human beings, we may be men, we may be women, we may be this, we may be that; this is called jati. Why is it that one is born as a man and another as a woman, and one here and one there – one of this category, one of that category? This is determined by the latent vrittis of the mind. The length of life – how many years we are going to live in this world – is also determined by the nature of the fruition of these vrittis. And, what are the experiences that we have to pass through in this life? That, also, is determined. So, jati, ayuh and bhoga – the category into which we are born into this world, the length of life, as well as the experiences in life – are all external shapes taken by the internal roots of these vrittis. Because of the non-fructification of some of these vrittis in a particular physical incarnation, they remain potential in the lower layers of the mind and become the causes of further births.

This is the great law of karma, very beautifully put in a single sutra by Patanjali: sati mūle tadvipākaḥ jāti āyuḥ bhogāḥ (II.13). Every action that we perform is a confirmation of a desire, and it is the fulfilment of a particular urge of the individual in respect of its atmosphere. And, inasmuch as the release of a particular urge in the direction of its fulfilment brings satisfaction in the form of that fulfilment, and because it is satisfaction that is the aim of temporal life, every satisfaction gained through the contact of senses with objects becomes an added confirmation of the fact that pleasure is in the objects. Hence, there is a repeated effort on the part of the mind and the senses to come in contact with the objects, and this chain of action continues.

Every experience of pleasure or satisfaction in respect of contact with an object of sense creates an impression in the mind. There is a memory of past pleasure. “I came in contact with that object yesterday, and I had great satisfaction from it. I was very happy at that time. There was pleasure in that contact, so I would like to repeat that contact.” This desire to repeat the contact arises on account of a memory of the pleasure of yesterday. This memory is a groove that has been formed in the mind by the experience of pleasure that was undergone earlier. So, what happens? This groove that has been formed in the mind by the pleasurable experience urges the mind to further action in that very direction, and there is again a grasping of the object in a manner similar to that which was employed earlier. There is again a pleasure which confirms, “Yes, I am perfectly right. There is great pleasure in this contact.” There is an ecstasy, a rapture and a thrill of contact with objects, and there is ennui and surfeit. We retire with a memory that the repetition of the contact has brought about an added pleasure. So, why not repeat it three times, four times, five times, a hundred times, a thousand times, as many times as possible? Why should not we convert the entire life into a repeated activity of coming in contact with objects which give us such satisfaction?

Every such contact which brings about a pleasure creates an impression, so there are impressions and impressions endlessly created in the mind. There are millions of grooves in the mind which can urge the mind towards any object of sense at any time, according to the favourable conditions. There is nothing which cannot attract us, if only the necessary conditions are provided. There is nothing which we cannot pounce upon at some time or the other as a means to the satisfaction of the senses. The reason is that there is present in the mind a groove for every type of experience on account of the various births through which we have passed in our earlier incarnations.

This impression that is created in the mind at the time of a pleasurable experience is a karma that is added to the stock already there. Karma is not merely an action. It is also the effect that is produced by an action, a force that is generated – an apurva, as it is called in some schools of thought. An invisible potency is generated in the mind by an experience of any kind. This invisible force is the urging factor for further experience of a similar character. So this apurva, or the potency that is present in the mind for further experiences, is present there, and one groove is sufficient to create a desire for further experiences of a similar nature – which again produce further grooves, and so on, endlessly.

The whole of the mind is made up of these grooves. It is a bundle of these vasanas, impressions – samskaras, as we call them. All these are the preparations that we make for rebirth because, inasmuch as a groove, or impression, formed in this manner in the mind will not go without satisfying itself, it is imperative that birth be taken for the purpose of this fulfilment. Every fulfilment of a desire requires an instrument of action, and that instrument is the body and the organs thereof. So there is a necessity to manufacture a body for the purpose of the fulfilment of the desire that is there already buried in the form of impressions, samskaras, etc. That is the reason for rebirth.

The kind of life which we live here – the length of life, the type of experiences through which we pass, etc. – is conditioned by a group of these potencies in the mind called this prarabdha karma. This is a Sanskrit word with which we are all very familiar. ‘Prarabdha' is only a peculiar technical term which means the allocation of a particular group of these subtle potencies, or tendencies, or impressions, for the purpose of direct experience. We are born into this world with a single purpose, and the purpose is the fulfilment of those urges which have been left unfulfilled in the previous life, inasmuch as the previous body was unsuited for the fulfilment of those desires. Then, what happens? These allocated groups of karmas concretise themselves, become very powerful, and seek manifestation in space and in time. They attract atoms of matter from space and create a body around themselves, just as the nucleus in an atom can draw electrons around it and form an atom.

In some such manner, the nucleus of this mind, which is like a proton, we may say, draws the electrons of particles of matter in space and forms an atomic structure which is this body. It has been done for a particular purpose, as it is very clear. Then the instrument is born. This is called birth. This instrument is born for a particular purpose: to repeat these experiences of previous lives. Then, what happens? The mind jumps on the objects immediately because the instrument is ready, and it gets confirmed in its feeling that there is pleasure in the objects of sense. Thus, in this birth also we repeat the same experience that we had in the previous life. What happens is that we go on having more and more confirmation of this feeling that pleasure is only in objects because we can see them, we can feel them, we can touch them, we can taste them, we can smell them, and so on. What can be a greater proof than this experience of pleasure? The reality of pleasure is confirmed.

This second series of impacts of the senses on the objects produces more impressions again, and so we find ourselves in hell, veritably. The earlier samskaras are already there, not entirely fulfilled; and before they are completely fulfilled, we add to the stock by further experience. So the prarabdha, which we are here to run through by experience, does not exhaust itself merely by the process of experience, but becomes a generating force for further actions. These new actions that we perform or commit through the force of this prarabdha is called agami karmakriyamana karma, as they call it. Those unfulfilled impressions which have not been fully manifest in the form of prarabdha or sanchita, the stock that is already present, will be ready to reveal themselves in the required shape, one day or the other.

These are all a misery from beginning to end. We have lost control over these vrittis totally; we are under their control entirely, and they drive us in any direction whatsoever. That is why we have whims and fancies, moods and desires of various types, changing almost every day. The winds of desire may blow in any direction according to the strength of the desire concerned. The stronger desires are supposed to manifest themselves earlier, and the weaker ones a little later. If our actions are very powerful – whether good or bad – they may bear fruit in this life itself; but if they are not so powerful, if they are milder, they will take action in the next birth. It depends upon the intensity of the force generated by the action concerned.

It is very difficult to understand how karma works, because the whole of nature is the determining factor behind the operation of the law of karma. A particular action, though it is singled out from all others at any particular time, may produce an effect which has some relevance to other factors which are unknown to the individual, and it may be conditioned by those unknown factors. That is why it is said, gahanā karmaṇo gatiḥ (B.G. IV.17): The way in which karma works is inscrutable; even the gods cannot understand it. The reason is simple: every karma has some connection with every force in nature. And, the way in which the karma can be fulfilled or made to manifest is determined by the law of the entire nature, of which an individual can have no knowledge because of the limitation of the knowledge in the individual to a particular frame of the physical body. Thus, there is a complete subjection of oneself to the forces of karma, given rise to by desires of this kind in respect of objects of sense.

Therefore, rebirth cannot be avoided as long as unfulfilled desires are present. These desires which cause rebirth are not necessarily conscious longings of the mind in respect of any intelligible object. Just now, when you are here listening to me, it may appear that you have no desires at all. “What desire have I got, except to hear what you say?” This is what you will be thinking in your mind. It may be. You may be very honest in feeling so, but that is not the truth, because at the present moment the conscious activity of your mind is directed or channelised voluntarily by you in a given fashion. But, this voluntary activity of the mind will cease as soon as the cause of this action ceases – namely, my speaking before you. When the cause subsides, the effect will also subside. Then the other impressions among the unfulfilled ones will show their heads, and whichever is stronger will speak to you first – just as in a revolution, the leader will take action first and will be the person to confront people. The leader of the revolution will come up and speak in a language of his own, and one has to listen to this language because of the power of that leader. Then an action is taken in the direction of the fulfilment of the wish of that leading principle.

The desires, therefore, are not necessarily intelligent manoeuvres of the mind, consciously directed. They are not always deliberate. Psychologists tell us that there are various layers of the mind, which is another way of saying there are various layers of the manifestation of desire, because what is mind but desires? This purusha is supposed to be made up of desires only. These different layers of mind which are studied by psychology are the different densities of the manifestation of desire. The dense ones are visible first and the lesser in density remain at the background, just as there can be layers of clouds darkening the sun completely, and though we will see only the thickest, lowermost layer which is proximate to us, the inner layers are always there, invisible.

The grossest form of desire projects itself out in space and time as the conscious urges of the mind. What we call conscious activity, deliberate free will, or freedom of choice, about which we speak – all these are nothing but the spatio-temporal expressions of buried desires. When they become spatialised and temporalised, they become conscious, and then it is that we say that we have freedom of will, and so on. But, it is not true that we have real freedom of will. We are forced to act by the potency of these impulses inside; and because these impulses, when they act, get identified with our intellect, we mistake these actions for deliberate actions.

The moment an urge identifies itself with the intellect and ego, it passes for freedom of will, just as a hypnotised patient may think that he is acting voluntarily though he is acting under the power of the will of the physician who has hypnotised him, not knowing that he has been hypnotised. If we ask a patient who has been hypnotised why he is acting in that particular manner, he will say, “Well, I want to do that.” He will never say, “I have been hypnotised.” He will not even know it. Likewise, these impulses pass for freedom of action due to their identification with the ego and the intellect of the individual, but there still remains behind this conscious activity a layer of subconscious and unconscious impulses which, little by little, will come up to the surface one day or the other for the purpose of fulfilment, so that we can never know ourselves fully at any time.

We are always in the dark about our own selves, let alone about others; otherwise, why is there a change of mood and behaviour every day? If we know ourselves fully, why not maintain a continuous mood which is regarded by us as worthwhile and desirable? Suddenly we say, “Well, something happened to me. I am thinking something else today,” because of the fact that we are controlled by other rulers – alien forces which are the latent impressions created by past experiences in many lives. This is the history of the law of karma, which, in its various formations, goes by the names of sanchita, prarabdha and agami.

As I mentioned, sanchita karma is the total store of the forces of previous actions accumulated in the deepest layer of our mind – in the unconscious layer we may say, in the anandamaya kosha, which always remains like a dark abyss into which we cannot enter. It is completely dark, opaque and impervious, and shakes up its entire structure and bodily constitution occasionally for the purpose of the ejection of a particular group of stored actions from its own constitution. That becomes the subconscious level.

The subconscious is nothing but the tendency of the unconscious to reshuffle itself into a particular mode for the purpose of coming to the surface of consciousness. That intermediate condition where the structure of the constitution of the unconscious level is shaken up for the purpose of ejecting a particular group of actions is the subconscious level. When it is completely projected into the arena of space and time, it becomes conscious action, conscious desire. Thus, what we are thinking just now in our mind – or rather, what we are thinking throughout our life in this particular incarnation – is nothing but what we call the conscious manifestation of what is already there unconsciously, subconsciously.

The whole of our personality cannot be revealed in the conscious level, because there is no point in it coming to the conscious level. What is the good of it coming to the conscious level when it cannot get anything? Only those particular aspects of the karma which can be fulfilled through the instrumentality of this physical body will come to the conscious level for action, and the other aspects will keep quiet because they know they cannot get anything. They will wait for the opportunity, and they will wait for ages, so that we do not know how many years a particular karma will take to manifest itself. It may take ages. It may take many incarnations. It may sometimes wait even a hundred births to attack us one day or the other. And at other times, of course, it can come earlier due to a mysterious allocation, as I mentioned, which is determined by the entire nature itself. God alone knows how it works.

Why a particular judgement is passed by the judiciary in the court in spite of it having heard various evidence and having sifted through all the evidence, though it may be so much, and pinpointing the evidence into a particular judgement, is given to the discretion of the judiciary based on the constitution of the government. Likewise, the individual cannot know how a particular action is taken up for fulfilment, under what law and regulation, just as a defendant cannot know why a particular judgement has been passed by the judge against him. “Why I have been defeated in the court?” he will complain. Well, it is based on some peculiar law, of which the judge is supposed to be well informed.

There is a judiciary in the government of the universe which passes judgement on all individuals, and how this judgement is passed is beyond the grasp of the intelligence of any individual. But, broadly speaking, this is the manner in which the law of karma operates, and in this sutra, sati mūle tadvipākaḥ jāti āyuḥ bhogāḥ (II.13), Patanjali tells us that rebirth cannot be avoided as long as we allow the root of these vrittis to be present.