Karma: Eight Life Lessons from the Bhagavad-Gita

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In association with Acharya Das

Many of us speak of “good karma” and “bad karma” when talking about something good or bad that we are currently experiencing. But our current experiences are actually the “results” of previous actions that we have performed. The word “karma” means “action.” The result of our actions is referred to as karma-phalam in Sanskrit, or the fruit of one’s actions. ”Phalam” means fruit.

The subject of karma is important because it explains why certain things are now happening to us in this life; it determines what we will be experiencing in the future; and it indicates what is going to be the ultimate outcome of this particular life.

Generally, people are aspiring for a very happy life, hoping for some heavenly situation in this world. But that is not a possibility, not in the way that people usually conceive of it. While there may be some “high points” in life, material existence is generally classified by the great yoga masters as sorrowful.

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The yogi sees no difference between a materially fortunate person sitting in a Mercedes Benz, and a poor beggar knocking on the window of his car at a stop light, asking for some change. In the big picture, there is no actual difference between them. Both situations are temporary, and those two people could trade places in their next lifetime.

The great yogi, Patanjali, has stated:

To the discriminating yogi, all fruits of past actions (both pleasurably and painful) are considered sorrowful because they all result in further bondage and suffering.

Yoga-Sutra 2.15

Performing any action is compared to sowing seeds, and when we sow, we will reap what we have sown. After every action, we must experience the result or the fruit of those actions. It is inescapable. So, even if we are currently living in an elevated state of material existence, living in luxury, we cannot remain perpetually in this condition life after life. We are performing actions and the actions that we are performing will make it so that we must take birth again and, therefore, remain within the material world to experience the fruit of those actions, which may be good or bad.

The fruit of karma (action) exists in four states or conditions. There is the fruit which we are tasting now, considered as ripe or mature fruit, and which may be experienced as sweet or very bitter. There is the fruit which is almost ripened, that we will taste in the near future. Then, there is that karmic fruit which is not yet mature, and which we will experience at a much later time, or even in a future life. Lastly, there is the seed of desire which is planted in our hearts by our actions, and which will surface at any time as the desire to act.  The Yoga Sutra describes this as follows:

The accumulation of past materially-inspired actions (karmasaya), plants dormant seeds of further action, which may sprout and become active in this life or in a future life to come.

Yoga-sutra 2.12

The Bhagavad-Gita explains the immediate cause of action as being the contemplation of the object of the senses — things that we see, taste, smell, hear, or feel. By contemplating the objects of the senses, we develop attachment for them. From this attachment, desire for them grows stronger, and develops into lust (intense desire). By this lust, we then become compelled to act. Desire thus drives action and creates our current state of consciousness and our thoughts.

There is a verse in the Bhagavad-Gita that states:

Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, O son of Kunti, that state he will attain without fail.

Bhagavad-Gita 8.6

For most of us, this is a shocking revelation. The fact that our state of consciousness, and the nature of our desires at the time of death, will determine what type of body we will get in the future. For instance, if we have cultivated animal tendencies, then we can take on the body of an animal in our next life. If we desire to enjoy certain experiences and certain things in this lifetime, we will be given an appropriate body, to try and fulfill those desires in our next lifetime. If we are overly engrossed in intoxication, for example, we can take birth among the lower species, even plant life.

If we don’t recognize that material life by nature is unhappy, and we can’t see what it is that’s causing us to suffer, then we’re going to keep doing the same things again and again. We will always end up back in the same place. Life in this material world is meant to be an education for us. We are meant to be learning from this experience and going, “Well, something’s not right here. Is there something more important that I should be doing with my life? What should I actually be focused on?”

We may ask the question, “Is it possible to live a life where we become free from all the reactions of our past deeds?” The answer is, “Yes, by learning the art of living a spiritual life rather than a material life, and to exist in a state of spiritual consciousness.”

In the Bhagavad-Gita, Sri Krishna states,

The yogi whose mind is fixed on Me verily attains the highest perfection of transcendental happiness. He is beyond the mode of passion and he realizes his qualitative identity with the Supreme, and thus he is freed from all reactions to past deeds.

Bhagavad-Gita 6.27

The third chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita is a very important chapter.  It is entitled “Karma Yoga.”  By studying and contemplating the message of this chapter, we are able to map out a fully spiritual direction in our life. To learn how to be in the world but not of the world.

The example is given of a lotus. The lotus rises above the dirty swamp water, and when it opens it is so fragrant and dazzlingly beautiful. We are encouraged to become like lotuses where we may live in the material world but not be part of it — to rise above or transcend it through Karma Yoga.

Sri Krishna says;

On the other hand, if a sincere person tries to control the active senses by the mind and begins karma-yoga without attachment, he is by far superior.

Bhagavad-Gita 3.7

This word karma means “action” and yoga means “union” with the Supreme. Our karma, or materially motivated actions, bind us to the material world. If, however, our actions are focused in another direction, they can become something that liberates us from our material condition. They can bring us to the platform of real spiritual understanding and experience.

The reality is that while we are living within these material bodies, we will have responsibilities and duties associated with our life in this world. You cannot live a life of complete renunciation of activity and do nothing. According to our station in life, we will have responsibilities, and we must act in order to maintain our body and maybe even a family.

Perform your prescribed duty, for doing so is better than not working. One cannot even maintain one’s physical body without work.

Bhagavad-Gita 3. 8

Sri Krishna then speaks about how to escape the karmic result of acting only in our own interest.

Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu [the Supreme/God] has to be performed, otherwise work causes bondage in this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction and in that way,  you will always remain free from bondage.

Bhagavad-Gita 3.9

If we live a life that is focused not on us being the centre of it, but rather with a sense of duty and responsibility, and wanting to be pleasing to God, then the activities that we undertake in this life can become the source of our spiritual emancipation. If we attain a transcendental position, all the load of past karma, the fruit of all the past karma, can be terminated.

We have both a higher and a lower nature. The lower nature is tied to this body and mind, which is not us, and if we follow it, it can lead us to great depths of depravity. We can behave like an animal. We can be very cruel and cold-hearted towards other living beings. We can simply exploit and use others. By following this lower nature, that is tied to our material body and mind, we are capable of the most horrible things. But if we follow our higher nature which is what the process of yoga is about — the awakening of our eternal and true spiritual nature — then we can attain a platform of great happiness. There is great happiness to be experienced by living in harmony with our true spiritual nature.

In order to attain that state, Sri Krishna says:

Abandoning all attachment to the results of his activities, ever satisfied and independent, he performs no fruitive action, although engaged in all kinds of undertakings.

Bhagavad-Gita 4.20

So, this speaks to how we can live a truly spiritual life. In the next chapter Krishna says,

One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as a lotus leaf is untouched by water.

Bhagavad-Gita 5.10

If there was one verse that we should take to heart from the Bhagavad-Gita, and use to completely guide our life for the best possible outcome, then take this verse:

O son of Kunti, all that you do, all that you eat, all that you offer and give away as well as all austerities that you may perform, should be done as an offering unto Me.

Bhagavad-Gita 9.27

If we fully appreciate and take this instruction to heart, then our life will be utterly transformed. We will experience positive and unlimited spiritual happiness and our interaction with others and with this world will be similarly transformed. Then, the way in which we live in this world, and the way in which we interact with others, will be in line with an instruction given by the great Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was a wonderful, spiritual personality, a true spiritual giant, who appeared in this world more than 535 years ago. He is accepted by His followers as being an actual incarnation of God, and He spoke about how a person who has come to this platform should act and live. Even if we have not yet come to this position, by acting in this way, our life will become perfect. He describes that:

It is the duty of every living being to perform welfare activities for the benefit of others with his life, with his wealth, intelligence and words. By his work, thoughts and words, an intelligent man must perform actions which will be beneficial for all living entities in this life and the next.

Sri Caitanya-Caritamrta Adi-Lila 9.42-43

These directions are given so that we may come to experience true happiness. We don’t have to run off to the mountains or to a monastery. We do not have to become a renounced monk and live in a cave. We can live in this world — living what may appear to others to be an utterly ordinary life — and yet be living as a true yogi.  By acting according to these directions given by Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita, we will come to experience the reality of great happiness in our life. We will become free from all fear, all anxiety, and all distress and depression. We can become truly happy and completely peaceful by adopting these instructions to the best of our ability.

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