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Freedom from the Bondage of Karma.

by Swami Rama.


Chapter 1



Written on the walls of the great temple of Delphi in ancient Athens were the words, "Know Thyself." This theme has pervaded all of human thought. In the West it is the legacy of Greek Philosophy, derived from the still more ancient traditions of Eastern wisdom. Everyone wants to know himself and to understand the meaning and purpose of life. It has been the goal of the Indian sages to teach humanity that the problem of life is to know how to live, not only within oneself but in the external world. To live in the world we have to understand the Law of Karma (action) and how to perform our duties.

The Sanskrit word for "actions" is karma, derived from the root kri which means "to do." A man does his action and gets remunerated for it, in turn transferring this remuneration to others for work done by them. Thus, fruit has arisen out of action and action out of the fruit. From time immemorial, life has been conducted in this manner. This is called the wheel of karma. To act with the motive of gaining fruits is to invite bondage. Relinquishing them frees us from all miseries. Let us consider how this happens.

If all men understood the value of dedicating everything that they had to the welfare of all beings, no one would be living only for himself. All beings would be linked by their mutual consideration for each other. Those who live for the welfare of all are maintained by the Self of All, the Lord of the Universe - God.

One who feels delight in giving up the fruits of his actions is a real Yogi. Without giving up this fruit, perfection cannot be achieved.

Selfish desire for the fruits of action is the root cause of all miseries. Whoever depends upon the fruits of action for self-satisfaction finds himself bound. In the modern world, everybody retains the fruits of his labor for himself. Such grasping possessiveness gives rise to a self-created world of evil and suffering. Only a fortunate few are devoted to the well-being of othes and carry out their duties selflessly. The majority of human beings are deeply plunged in grief because of their inability to grasp the illusory quality of the "enjoyment" which they believe will lead to everlasting happiness. It is exactly like a mirage. To extricate such ignorant people from the bondage of misery is indeed difficult, if not impossible.

Before man understands anything about his actions and duties he must be taught to have a proper and appropriate attitude. Attitude plays an important role in man's life. Everyone with a secular bent of mind thinks and speaks in terms of "me" and "mine." This is "my house," this is "my property," this is "my wealth," and so on. No one except the person and those close to him are entitled to enjoy this wealth. This is the attitude of modern man. Most of the rules and regulations which govern human society today are designed to preserve the fruits of action. All the governments of the world give protection to the selfish quality in people. Will there ever be a day when man learns to do his action skillfully, giving up the fruits of his action for others?

Very few, however, after understanding the point of view being presented here, will be prepared to forego their so-called rights to the fruit of their action. Alas, speculation about establishing heaven here and now remains a dream for many. If humanity really wants to uplift itself, it will be possible only when it realizes the importance of selfless action and freedom from the strong rope of karma. Humanity needs reorientation; its attitude needs be changed. The scriptures declare that there are two paths - the path of action and the path of renunciation. I say the path of right attitude will also help man in establishing a better society.

Karma-phala tyaga is the only principle that can help humanity as a whole to establish everlasting peace. This remarkable principle is to remember to carry out one's duty no matter what, and without desire for the results. There are three obstacles in the path of doing one's karma successfully. They are:

Due to these obstacles a man fails to progress. Properly understanding and applying three principles will help man in attaining wisdom and liberation from the bondage of miseries:

In the path of unfoldment and growth, man should learn to expand himself. Such expansion is possible through the enjoyment which is found in selfless action for the welfare of others. One who wishes to secure mastery over his action should learn to do his action so that:

Strength is central to this art. However, strength should not be based on the false values presently guiding the conduct of life but on the true nature of the Self within. When man becomes aware of the source of this strength within himself, he will be able to master the technique of enjoying the things around him, yet remain above and unattached to them. The highest pleasure is to find delight in serving others through actions and speech which are known as karma. A man who has learned that it is important for him to know the art of doing his action, naturally wonders what is the precise significance of this action or karma.

Patanjali, the codifier of Yoga science, says that having control over the senses, studying the prescribed literature, and turning one's attention to the highest Lord within are the actions to be performed to secure mastery in life. One should practice these disciplines with a view of gaining tranquility and lessening the afflictions of body and mind.

There are five afflictions:

Some of the afflictions remain dormant and it takes sincere effort for one to have freedom from their bonds. All the mental attitudes cause difficulty in mastering this discipline, but constant practice helps one in attaining the goal.

Karma is far greater than the mere sum of a person's actions, for it includes both the effects of those actions which are the causes, and the impressions or tendencies created in the subconscious mind by those actions. We speak of the cause and effect relationship between actions and their results as the Law of Karma. This law governs on the plane of human life and consciousness with the same exactness as do the laws of mechanics on the physical plane. Key factors in the working of karmic law are the samskaras or "impressions" deposited in the lake of the subconscious mind as a person's character, circumstances and activities. It is the goal of Yoga science to liberate men from the bond of karma and to help them attain unity with the Infinite and Eternal Self - God.

Karma may be thought of as a rope of many cords, twisted together to give it strength. The rope of karma is inextricably woven into the fabric of every life; it binds all who breathe. The harder we struggle to escape from the rope of karma, the stronger its grip becomes. To become free from it, we must gain knowledge - knowledge of ourselves, of the mind, and of the Truth within.

Most knowledge is obtained from the external world through sense perceptions, training by parents and schools, from neighbours and the traditions of society, and so on. All such knowledge is called in Sanskrit, apara vidya, knowledge of this shore. Vidya means "knowledge", para means "beyond", and the a is a prefix of negation. Thus, apara vidya means knowledge not from beyond but from here. Only para vidya or knowledge of the beyond will lead to enlightenment and liberation. Apara vidya is the kind of knowledge normally obtained through the process of reasoning and from the contact of the mind and senses with the material world. For para vidya the serious aspirant needs to unlearn all that has been learned in this way. In order to gain the knowledge which will free him from the rope of karma, he must first become free from all he has learned and has been in his life so far.

In this unlearning process, it is found that unconscious knowledge is much stronger than conscious knowledge. If a person is told not to meditate on a monkey, it is predictable that he will spend most of his time in meditation preoccupied with the monkey. This illustrates the unconscious component of all learning. The conscious mind is very crowded, and merely training the mind conscious mind proves of very little value in obtaining higher knowledge. We must get through the superficial levels of the conscious mind to the unconscious mind. The important question is to what extent this is possible.

Can we consciously train the unconscious mind? This question is a frustration to many who would be teachers, especially Yoga teachers, for it implies that the true knowledge of a yogi is largely unconscious learning and cannot be transmitted verbally or intellectually. Much of what passes for knowledge is mere imitation which does not help us at all in gaining higher knowledge and freedom from the rope of karma. A true yogi will teach his students more by example and subtle influences than by verbal communication.

Most of what we receive as knowledge from the external world has a disturbing effect on the mind, much like the disturbing effect of a pebble breaking through the mirror-like surface of a still pond. Thus, the first step in significant learning is not a great leap by whihc wisdom is instantly attained, but rather the act of becoming free from disturbances on the surface of the mind. The seeker must do this for himself; no one can give him ultimate wisdom or the state of enlightenment called samadhi. He or she must light their own lamp. To do this, it is first necessary to become free from what one has created both consciously and unconsciouusly. For the most part these creations are actual barriers around the Self. Consequently, most of such learning does not lead to enlightenment but rather serves as an obstacle to such an attainment.

It is the karma created by a person's own actions, not by any cause external to himself which is responsible for his present condition of life. It is of no avail to blame God, fate, or circumstances. The fact that an individual suffers from past acts is not a disparity in God's law but the failure to order his life by the law within his own being.

Nor does much praying or wishing help. Going around all day saying, "God, God, God" does not help to change a person's condition any more than a child can get what he wants by crying, "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy" all day long. Conviction is more important than belief - conviction that through seeking we may help ourselves. Belief is no consolation in a time of crisis. One's own beliefs often prove to be fragile and disappointing. Belief in God which is mechanical, and appeals to Him for "favours" cannot yield freedom and liberation. The aspirant must continuously prepare himself for receiving true knowledge, knowledge that will enlighten and liberate him. He must look for the deeper levels of knowledge beneath and behind the superficiality of fact and cognitive experience. This is illustrated by the three levels of teaching in the Bible. The first is what might be called ordinary teaching. It can be understood by most people regardless of their state of preparedness and is exemplified by much of what is contained in the Old and New Testaments as history, laws, and factual data.

The second kind of teaching is for disciples, that is, for those who have undertaken a disciplined program of preparation for enlightenment. An example of this is the Sermon on the Mount or Christ's statement, "You must be perfect like your Father." Most people are unprepared to hear these words, for they are unwilling to strive to overcome their imperfections. Buddha and Krishna, as well as Christ, tell us that we may be free from imperfections but belief in gods and religious faith are not enough to help us overcome the imperfections in ourselves. Rather, we must become students of life. We are helpless unless we study are own actions, and to do this properly it is essential to follow the second kind of teaching in which the meanings and implications of actions become clear. Such teaching is found in Christ's great sermons, Patanjali's codification of Yoga psychology - The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and also in the Bhagavad Gita.

The third kind of teaching in the Bible is the highest, and it is called "revelation". The Book of Revelation is in this catagory. This book seems to be based on the experiences of John. The Book of Revelation tells us that Christ revealed his great Truth to His beloved John. Revelation is knowledge which can be received only by one who has achieved a high state of purity and preparedness. This knowledge comes not through intellectual ability nor through the conscious mind, but by an act of grace, achieved through one-pointed mind, self-purification and meditation. Revelations are possible only for one who has known and experienced truth directly. Such a person is a guru.

In the Book of Revelation, we read that the Book of Life is sealed. Who is it that opens the seals? It is not a man, nor a god, but a lamb. This teaches the importance of humility and the need to purify the ego. The lamb symbolizes the elimination of imperfections and the attainment of perfection. It also suggests the process of preparation that is necessary to perceive the Truth. Normally, society teaches people to inflate and worship their egos. To receive revelation or truth it is necessary to reverse that trend by purification of ego-centered consciousness.

The Book of Revelation also teaches that direct experience is the true source of knowledge. A great master teaches only on the basis of his own experience. True knowledge does not come from without, but only from within. A disciple may complain and say, "My teacher is not showing me God." But the teacher will answer and say, "First tell me what kind of God you want to see, and then I will show Him to you." The choice belongs to each individual; each must decide what it is he wants to know. Each seeker must perfect himself. Do no expect the guru to do these things for you. The disciple must view himself as though standing on the bank of a river, asking, "Who am I?" as the river of life flows before him.

To often people brood over the past or fear the future instead of learning to live here and now. We should not dwell on what is irretrievably past or on what may never come. We must strive to eliminate the space between our thoughts. Once this space has been eliminated, time is alse eliminated, and without time there is no causality. Life should be like a stream, it should flow without a break. The water that has gone by and that which has yet to come should be of no concern. Only the present should occupy us, filling our every moment until we expand into the consciousness of the whole stream which remains stable and ever-present despite the flux of what appears to be change.

In studying the philosophy of life, we discover that man is in the bondage of karma. Whenever you perform an act, the fruits of which you desire or seek to acquire, you become bound by that act. All actions are binding as long as we are not free of their fruits. Evenn the fruit of good deeds binds us. You cannot attain freedom by doing good while you are still attached to the results of your good deeds. Incidentally, in the Eastern view, "badness" or evil is not seen as a separate force as it is in the West. Evil is imperfection, but not something that exists in and of itself. We should not regard ourselves as lost sinners. Feeling guilty only gets in the way of our growth towards perfection. Our task is to become free from attachment to the fruits of both good and bad deeds. The state of freedom from bondage is the state of perfection.

Yoga teaches us how to perform actions without becoming attached to their fruits. We seek the fruits of our actions only because we are unaware of our real needs. There is just one need which really matters - to attain freedom from the state of misery. That is what Christ meant when He said, "You must be perfect like your Father." This doctrine is also central in Hinduism and Buddhism. To begin the journey toward freedom we must analyze the nature and source of the cord of action and of the other fibres which lie beneath it. Anything that happens in the external world is preceded by something happening internally. Conscious or unconscious thinking precedes all acts. Therefore, we need to examine the nature of thought in order to thoroughly understand our actions.

How can we free ourselves from the heavy cord of action and the finer cord of thoughts? To see the relation between these two cords, we should note how easily the mind wanders and is distracted from our actions. It is common for us to do one thing while thinking of something else. Our actions do not determine our thoughts. Rather, they are governed by the thinking process either at the conscious or the unconscious levels.

The thinking process, in turn, is regulated by the even finer and stronger cord of desire which lies beneath it. Below that lies the subtlest and strongest cord of all, the cord of impressions, or in Sanskrit, samskaras. These are the primitive emotions, urges, and tendencies that motivate our entire lives. They are the impressions carried from our past lives our subconscious minds; they motivate our desires, and these in turn produce our thoughts and ultimately our actions. These cords are all intertwined in the rope of karma. It is from the bondage of this rope that we seek liberation.

Thus, liberation means freedom from our own personal ignorance. To accomplish this our self-study must unfold on all levels - actions, thoughts, desires, and impressions. These may be partially analyzed with the help of the rational faculty or scripture, but we remain limited on this plane by our limited experiences. We cannot transcend the field of our confined minds. It is only through a self-study based on performing our actions skillfully and selflessly, on meditation, and ultimately on the discovery of the immoratal and radiant Self within (God), that we can achieve new levels of experience and knowledge. These are the methods of Yoga science.

This kind of self-examination can help us. Self unfoldment is the only pursuit by which we may free ourselves from all miseries. Our incarnation in a body on the physical plane provides the opportunity to undergo this self-examination and attain liberation.

The physical brain acts as a source of energy. The nervous system channels this energy so that the body can function. A good mind needs a healthy body and nervous system in order to operate and govern the process of life and self-development. The purification methods of Yoga help us to achieve this necessary state of health. Purification of the nervous system allows us to penetrate deeper than is normally possible into the pool of the mind. As we proceed, we find that disturbances rise up from the bottom of the pool. Confrontation with our impressions, desires, and thoughts becomes unavoidable as they surface in our awareness from the deepes levels of the pool of mind. It is to these deep levels of the mind that we must plunge in order to root out all sources of disturbance and see out true nature. There we will also find Truth and achieve liberation.



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