Karma and the hope of freedom


The traditional notion of Yoga as liberation can hardly be understood without its counterpart of karma. Karma is the mechanism that keeps an individual consciousness at the core of the human personality bound to the conditioned cycle of existence called samsāra. Samsāra is the provisional reality that we navigate in the course of daily life. Samsāra is what Yoga seeks to liberate us from.  It is the field of our attachments and cravings, it is the place where we discover pleasure, but also where we find pain.  And in this world, our actions are never free, despite common and persistent feelings to the contrary.  For a Yoga practitioner it is worth investigating how the mechanisms of karma work, its underlying implications, and the practical application of working with it.

The word karma is an Anglicized form of the Sanskrit word karman which literally translated means action. Karma as a concept can be traced back to the ancient Upanishads and was originally considered to be amoral. This is distinct from the way that karma is typically understood as a form of moral retribution. In its most basic form, karma is a natural law of causality. Simply stated, any cause will have an effect, and any action will have a consequence. Causality is intrinsic to our understanding of the world and it is woven into the fabric of our decision making process. Society as we know it would cease to function without an understanding of causal relationships. If we have a problem, we seek a cause to formulate a solution. If we get sick, we seek a cause so that we can decide on a cure. If we are happy we identify the cause so that we can try to repeat the pleasure that brought it to us. If I hear a song that makes me happy, I am likely to purchase it so I can repeat the enjoyment by playing it over and over again.

Causality is not the same as meaning, however, and so identifying causes doesn’t necessarily give moral justification to why a thing happened, which can often be frustrating and unsatisfying. Especially when what I perceived as a cause of my happiness is no longer bringing me the same pleasure, or when the cause of suffering doesn’t have a morally defensible justification. How do we explain why random harmful events happen to innocent people. It is often a search for this “why” that we assign a moral dimension to karma.

Karma is often taken personally which leads to the belief that one’s circumstances are the direct result of their own volitional actions, and moreover, that a particular effect can be traced back to a single cause. But, events can only seemingly be traced back to a single cause, like when the wind blows and it causes the branches of a tree to move. Upon inspection this only leads to the question of what caused the wind to blow and what conditions caused the blowing wind to be directed towards the branch. Following the causal chain to its root is considered to be foundational to the yogic enterprise. We make a move from the complexity of causes that influence and largely control the events of a human life to gradually more irreducible causes. In the process we come to terms with the ways in which our perceptions of and attachments to an event largely determine our actions and their future effects. There is often a distinction made between a provisional reality that is the result of the complexity of causes and their effects and an ultimate reality that is considered as irreducible.

One of the root causes of karma is egoism and the belief in oneself as an agent of action. In Yoga philosophy, once the ego is involved, then karma is deterministic and ones actions in this plane lack freedom.  If our current actions and experiences will lead to future consequences, then our past actions and experiences must have led to our current circumstances and have conditioned us to react to it in particular ways.  This may sound like a negative view of action, but it is quite hopeful.  Yoga is traditionally considered the path by which we free ourselves from the conditioning influence of karma. While the notion of ourselves as an agent feels true,  it may only be a story that we tell ourselves after the fact.  Recognizing this is key to overcoming the powerful influence our karma.

If we are truly to act freely, then we should identify with the source of the will, which is transcendent to the ego. We can learn to watch our thoughts, motivations, and reactions without giving them power.  If we act out an agenda based on personal gain, then we are unlikely to consider the implications of our actions beyond our own personal desire. However, by inhibiting our impulses and reactions and instead reflecting on our circumstances and influences, we can begin to see the mechanisms that turn the wheels of fate.  It is through non-attachment to personal gain that ego driven action is transcended.

Every action that we take, conscious and unconscious have a bearing on future outcomes. Our personal actions not only influence our own future circumstances, but also the general circumstances of the world in which we live. The idea that our actions only affect our individual circumstances denies the interdependence of the world.  Recognizing this interdepence would naturally lead to an altruistic consideration for all actions in the social sphere, though ultimately the desire for freedom might be the driving force behind it.

-Greg Nardi


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