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Law of Karma

by Swami Sivananda

Every man should have a comprehensive understanding of Nature's laws, and their operations. Then he can pull on in this world smoothly and happily. He can utilise the helping forces to serve his ends in the best possible manner. He can neutralise the hostile forces to serve his ends in the best possible manner. He can neutralise the hostile or antagonistic currents. Just as the fish swims against the current, so also he will be able to go against the hostile currents by adjusting himself properly and safeguarding himself through suitable precautionary methods. Otherwise he becomes a slave. He is tossed about hither and thither helplessly by various currents. Various hostile forces drag him in different corners. He drifts like a wooden plank in a river. He is always very miserable and unhappy although he is wealthy and possesses everything that the world can offer.

The captain of a steamer who has a mariner's compass, who has knowledge of the sea, the routes and the oceanic currents can sail smoothly. Otherwise his steamer will drift here and there helplessly and be wrecked by being dashed against some ice-bergs or rocks. Likewise, a wise sailor in the ocean of this life, who has a detailed knowledge of the laws of Karma and Nature can sail smoothly and reach the goal of life positively. Understanding the laws of Nature, you can mould or shape your character in any way you like. "As a man thinketh so he becometh" is one of the great laws of Nature. Think you are pure, pure you will become. Think you are noble, noble you will become. Think you are a man, man you will become. Think you are Brahman, Brahman you will become.

Become an embodiment of good nature. Do good actions always. Serve, love, give. Make others happy. Live to serve others. Then you will reap happiness. You will get favourable circumstances or opportunities and environments. If you hurt others, if you do scandal-mongering, mischief-mongering, backbiting, talebearing, if you exploit others, if you acquire the property of others by foul means, if you do any actions that can give pain to others, you will reap pain. You will get unfavourable circumstances, conditions and environments. This is the law of Nature. Just as you can build your good or bad character by sublime or base thinking, so also you can shape your favourable or unfavourable circumstances by doing good or bad actions. A man of discrimination is always careful, vigilant and circumspect. He always watches his thoughts carefully. He introspects. He knows exactly what is going on in his mental factory, what Vritti or Guna is prevailing at a particular time. He never allows any evil thought to the gates of his mental factory. He at once nips them in the bud.

When the mind raises its hood of Vritti, he takes the rod of Viveka and strikes at the hood. Just as the soldier kills his enemies one by one with his sword when they enter the fort, so also the man of discrimination kills the evil thought with his sword of Viveka when it tries to enter the fort of the mind. Thus he builds a noble character. He is careful in his speech. He speaks little. He speaks sweet loving words. He never utters any kind of harsh words that can affect the feelings of others. He practises Mauna (vow of silence). He develops patience, mercy and universal love. He speaks the truth. Thus he puts a check on the Vak Indriya and the impulses of speech. He uses measured words. He writes measured lines. This produces a deep and profound impression on the minds of the people. He practises Ahimsa and Brahmacharya in thought, word and deed. He practises Saucha and Arjava (straightforwardness). He tries to keep balance of mind and to be always happy and cheerful. He keeps up Suddha Bhava. He tries the three kinds of Tapas (physical, verbal and mental) and controls his actions. He cannot do any action that is evil.

He who spreads happiness will always get such favourable circumstances as can bring him happiness. He who spreads pain to others will, doubtless, get such unfavourable circumstances, according to the law of Nature as can bring him misery and pain. Therefore man creates his own character and circumstances. Bad character can be transmuted into good character by means of good thoughts, and unfavourable circumstances can be changed into favourable circumstances by doing good actions. O Ram! You must understand the laws of Nature and become wise and happy.

Your births and environments are determined according to the nature of your desires. Prarabdha places you in such suitable environments as are favourable for the gratification of your desires. The man is dragged to places where he can get his objects of desire. A man may be born in India as a poor Brahmin in one birth. If he desires to become a multi-millionaire, he may get his next birth in the United States of America. Suppose there is a poor intelligent boy in India. He has an intense desire to go to England for his I. C. S. examination. His desire to go in this birth cannot be fulfilled. Suppose also that there is a rich lady in England who has no son and has intense desire to get an intelligent one. The poor boy may get his next birth in London as the son of the rich lady according to the law of coincidence. He will thus have his old strong desire gratified now. God gives suitable surroundings according to the nature of the desire of the man for his growth and evolution.

Suppose a shepherd boy gave a tumbler of water to a rich man to drink when he was very thirsty and when he could not get any water in a thick jungle. This boy may get his next birth as the son of this rich man for this little good action that he had done. But he may be ignorant because he was a shepherd boy in his previous birth. According to the nature of desire the man gets environments. The desire drags him to such places where the desired objects can be obtained. This is the law of Nature. Entertain holy desires. You will be placed in holy surroundings as Uttarkashi, Himalayas and Benares, where you can perform Tapas, Sadhana and meditation amidst holy persons and can have Self-realisation. Entertain unholy desires-you will be placed in places like Paris and Hollywood where you can have cinemas, restaurants, ballrooms, etc. It is left to you to select the desires, either holy or unholy. If you want to move as a man-beast in the streets of Paris, select the unholy desire. If you want to shine in divine glory and move as a man-god, select the holy desire.

Dr. M. H. Syed, M.A., Ph.D., D.Litt. writes in the Hindu Mind: "There is nothing which has wrought so much havoc in the practical life of the Hindus as the misconception of the Law of Karma-the eternal law of cause and effect-that works with unerring precision in all the departments of human life. It is said that it is a gloomy doctrine and that it tends to paralyse human effort, and closes the spring of all right action. In popular language this doctrine means predestination, pure and simple. It is believed that a man is a creature of his past actions and that all his present life with its activities, joys, sorrows, pain and pleasure, success and failure, gain and loss, are predetermined by his past doings over which he has no control, and therefore he should be utterly resigned and waste no time in improving his or his neighbour's lot.

There is only an element of truth in this attitude. In other words, it is only half a truth that is understood and followed. Unless the whole truth is grasped with regard to this doctrine, it will always prove a source of confusion and cause a great deal of harm. If Indian people are to rise from their present state of degradation and shake off the fetters of their thraldom, it is time that they clearly tried to understand the true meaning and philosophy of actions and the reign of the Law of Karma, by which the whole human race has to evolve.

It is true that a man's present abilities are the direct outcome of his own thoughts and actions in the past: his cogitable endowments, his physical heredity, his moral and mental instincts and capacities are the results of his own thoughts and feelings of his previous births. A farmer reaps rich harvests only when he labours in his field for a long time. Unless he cares to till the ground, sow the seed, water and manure it, he would not be in a position to enjoy the fruit of his toil. What he sows today he will reap tomorrow. This is an immutable law and holds good in everything without exception. To say that one's capacity for fresh effort and new lines of action is paralysed or doomed by one’s past doings is as futile and groundless as to say that because one sowed yesterday, one cannot sow fresh seeds in new grounds today. The fact of the matter is that free-will is never choked and stifled by any past action. The only thing is that a man cannot achieve what he wants all at once, and without delay. The good law pays every person according to his need and in due time. The law runs its own course. The results of past actions, thoughts and feelings appear to us as effects of causes we set up from our own free choice. Similarly, we are equally free and unfettered to choose a line of action which is sure to bring its fruit in due time. A man is bound by the past debts he incurred or contracts he made. As soon as he pays up his liabilities he is once more free to choose whether he should incur fresh debt or not. Over the inevitable he has no control and if the law is to be justified, he should have no reason to complain against it. It is always open to him to mould the Karma which is in the course of making, in any way he likes. Under the security of the changeless law of cause and effect a man can serenely proceed to achieve anything he desires to accomplish. Sooner or later he is sure to succeed in his well-directed efforts. In Nature nothing is lost. Again, as Bacon said: 'Nature is conquered by obedience.' By Nature he meant natural laws.

If once we understand the law that guides our life and action, we shall be able to act in such a manner as to make this law our ally and helpmate rather than our adversary. So long as the conditions laid down by the law are meticulously fulfilled and observed, we have fullest certainty of our success in any direction.

The three aspects of the Law of Karma should be grasped clearly. The first is the Sanchita Karma, the sum total and storehouse of all our actions, good or bad, in the innumerable past lives that we have left behind or from the time we began to discriminate right from wrong and thus started acting on our own responsibility and with our own initiative. The whole of it is recorded and preserved: how could it be otherwise when we live under the reign of an immutable law? The second is Prarabdha-the inevitable Karma-that portion of our Karma which is assigned to us to be worked out in a single life in relation to men and things we met and experienced in previous lives. This is also called ripe Karma, because it is a debt which is overdue and it is time that it should be paid in the form of sorrow and suffering, gain and loss, to the uttermost farthing, whether we like it or not. The third form is that of Kriyamana, that Karma which is in the course of making. It is this which preserves our freewill with certain limitations and ensures our future success. Because man is made in God’s image and shares divine life, he is free to act in any way he likes. By virtue of the same principle, whatever he intensely desires he is sure to accomplish in the course of time.

'Perform thou right action, for action is superior to inaction and in inaction even the maintenance of thy body would be impossible.' So says the Blessed Lord Sri Krishna.

Whatever is true in the case of an individual is also true in the case of a nation, for individuals make a nation. 'As in small, so in great,' says ancient Hermes.

The collective Karma of a race or a nation is as much a fact in Nature as an individual one. The same principles underlying the Karmic laws apply, without much wide difference, to national and collective Karma. Nations rise and fall, empires flourish and are dismembered on the same ground. The wise heads in a nation should not neglect the dominating sway of this law.

In the midst of a national calamity it is well to remember that nothing can come to us which we have not deserved. We may not be able to see the immediate cause of the catastrophe, but it does not follow that it took place without sufficient cause.

During the last thousand years and more many heart-rending and humiliating events occurred on the soil of Mother India, devastating the whole land, robbing her sons of their precious jewels and even more precious lives.

The incidents of our own times are too fresh in our memories to need any repetition. Have these soul-scorching incidents and cataclysms taken place without any rhyme or reason? No: there is nothing that can happen to us beyond the scope of the good and utterly just laws. In our ignorance we may not be able to trace the immediate cause with certainty, definiteness and accuracy, but this much is certain beyond the least shadow of doubt, that nothing unmerited can happen to us or to our country.

Our own apathy, indifference, lack of patriotism, communal and caste dissensions, mutual hatred, suspicion and strife, have been the main cause of our present and past degradation.

"As our collective Karma brought on us the wrath of divine justice and fit retribution closely followed in the wake of our evil deeds, and we deservedly suffered and paid for them heavily, so we can again exert our collective will in the right direction and learn to be wise and circumspect in the light of our past bitter experience and humiliation. In the course of time, we shall again see the eclipse of downfall, servitude and thraldom, and we shall once more be free and great as our forefathers were."

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