Karma and Happiness: Life’s Only Real Answer

Michelangelo, Creation of the Sun and Moon
Michelangelo, Creation of the Sun and Moon

The Old Testament is pretty grim and depressing. There are beautiful passages in it, particularly Psalms and Proverbs, but in general the Old Testament spends a great deal of time talking about drab and dreary religious history. “We smote them, they smote us back, and the Lord helped us smite them one more time.”

The God of the Old Testament is a vengeful Lord. He isn’t a very happy fellow. And in the Christian churches we’re presented with a God who isn’t terribly joyful. The brand of Christianity that most churches preach today is about sacrifice, suffering, and cringing before a fiercely disapproving God, rather than the longing of the human heart for divine joy.

In part, it’s because the Bible was compiled by the church fathers three centuries after Christ died. And it’s an absolute certainty that they left out some of the happier parts of the story, in accordance with the rather gloomy outlook of that time.

The church fathers were eager to consolidate Christianity under a single “catholic” (“all-embracing”) church, so that Christians could present a united front against their persecutors. Starting at that time, they began to ruthlessly suppress any small charismatic groups who dared to seek inner communion with God’s joy and love, apart from the church. They preached that blind obedience to a central authority was the only option for those who wanted to avoid persecution in this world and in the life hereafter.

Nevertheless, the life of a great avatar such as Jesus is joyful and victorious, but it is never without struggle. Jesus came to break through the priestly corruption and general ignorance into which that the Jewish faith had fallen. The New Testament: tells the story of his struggle to turn the Jewish faith around, and the story is not always happy. But we can be absolutely sure that Jesus’ followers knew him as a being who radiated divine joy. Otherwise, as Swami Kriyananda often pointed out, if he had been a prophet of doom and gloom who went around weeping for their sins, nobody would have followed him.

He urged people to give themselves completely to the Divine. And they wouldn’t have been inspired to do so, if they hadn’t experienced a life-changing radiation of divine bliss in his presence.

It’s very regrettable that the New Testament only really hints at that joy. We sense the divine truth off Jesus’ words, and the great mystical revelation behind them. But we don’t have a very well-rounded picture of Jesus. We only really get a taste of that joy through the lives and testimony of the saints who came later.

The New Testament calls us to renounce egoic attachments and be baptized in the joy of the Holy Spirit. But it presents the teachings with images of war and destruction, to impress on us that the spiritual life is a struggle. And yet, if we want to consider ourselves true Christians, one of the first things we need to learn is to find joy in the struggle.

Paramhansa Yogananda was sent by God to show us how to find that joy. As the Festival of Light says, “Whereas in the past suffering and sorrow were the coin of man’s redemption, for us now, the payment has been exchanged for calm acceptance and joy.”

Yogananda came to restore the original message of Christ, wth its promise of great joy. He brought a fresh revelation of the eternal teachings that speaks to intelligent people who are searching for faith in this age. In Yogananda’s writings we feel a spirit of freedom and joy, and in Swami Kriyananda’s expression of the teachings we also find a wonderful spirit of happiness and great joy.

Christianity, as defined by the Church, has focused on Christ’s suffering on the cross. The evangelicals have tried to liven it up a bit, but then they’ve lost much of the mystical depth; whereas Catholicism, at least in its narrow margins, offers us accounts of the transcendent joy of the saints.

But joy has generally not been the central teaching of the greater Christian world. A new teaching was needed, to clear the decks and re-awaken people’s enthusiasm for religion, and give them a practical way to experience God’s love and joy and wisdom for themselves.

Unlike the age of materialism, with its heavy emphasis on religious authority, the spirit of the ascending energy-aware age that the world recently entered is more positive and life-affirming.

I don’t mean to dispense with the religions of the past. In Judaism, for example, we find a great deal of positive feeling. The Jews are a strong people who always seem to rise above their circumstances and find a way to be happy. But because of their long history of suffering, a certain fatalism has crept into the culture, and a feeling that we’re just hoping not to be destroyed, and let’s be cheerful until they come and get us.

Intermission — Jewish Chutzpah, New Wave:



As practiced today, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism are revelations more suited to a past when mankind’s awareness was confined to a materialistic view of the world that expressed itself in religion as an emphasis on rigid institutions, dogmas, and ritualistic forms of worship. Those religions haven’t proved able to give us a fresh revelation that can stand up to the challenge of science, and accommodate the new, energy-based vision of reality that science has revealed.

Those traditions are in sore need of an overhaul, lest they become lost in wistful contemplation of the past. Faced with the scientific demand for testing and proof, religious teachings today seem utterly confused and impractical in their emphasis.

To return to my theme, because I was born into a Jewish family, I can attest that the God of the Jews is a a rather dour and vengeful fellow. What’s needed today is a practical revelation that will give us a way to work with the energy of our bodies and minds and hearts to find the joy within our own souls. And this is the revelation that Paramhansa Yogananda gave us.

Every year in our Living Wisdom School, we put on a theatrical production about the life of a great spiritual figure. We’ve had plays on Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, the Dalai Lama, and others. And, more or less from a sense of obligation, we decided that we should have a play about Judaism, so we performed the life of Moses. When we were finished, we were all saying, “I’m glad it’s over!” Because it wasn’t a lot of fun. The kids had fun parting the Red Sea and playing the part of the drowning Egyptians – there was plenty of action, but there wasn’t a lot of inspiration and joy.

Reading the accounts of Jesus and Moses that the church has allowed us to have, it seems they didn’t have a whole lot of fun. And it’s not because they weren’t radiant with joy, but because the church fathers only permitted us to read the parts of the story which suggest that religion must be dark and scary, in order to keep the followers in line.

It presents a false picture of these great teachers, because in the presence of such a being we feel a tremendous joy that we recognize as our very own. We feel with every cell of our being that the joy that they are radiating is what we’ve longed for since the moment we were first created. And it’s a joy that we would go to any obtain to get for ourselves.

It’s why, when I see people rejecting religion, I very often find that they’re just exercising their common sense. Most of what the churches are offering today makes no sense, with its asinine insistence that we believe blindly and unquestioningly.

When people tell me that they aren’t religious, or that they’re atheists, I generally say, “That’s good.” Because it’s a good start, and for the most part the picture that religion tries to hand us isn’t anything that a reasonably intelligent person would want to follow.

It doesn’t give us satisfactory answers, and for the most part it isn’t much fun. This is why the churches are losing members, because the primal instinct of all beings is a longing for joy, and for a meaningful, intelligent, positive view of life.

Many people today have an inner feeling of spirituality, and a longing to know more about spiritual truth, but the churches aren’t giving them a sensible, scientific way to carry their search forward, and the tools by which they can test the scriptural claims for themselves.

It occurred to me recently that I’ve never thought of myself as a spiritual person. Yet when I look back over my life, I realize that I was always on the path of Self-realization. I wanted to know how to be happy all the time, and there was nothing in religion that told me that my quest was spiritual. None of the mainstream religions seemed to offer me any help in my search, and it was only when I found this path that I became absolutely enthralled, because it gave me a clear understanding of who I was, and how I could find the happiness I longed for.

As a young person, I felt a conflict between the kind of mundane, “grab for myself” happiness that I saw most people striving for, and the idea of attuning myself to the Divine will, which promised a much greater happiness, but was far more demanding.

Few churches today really mean it, when and if they talk about attuning our entire way of thinking, feeling, and being to God’s will. Most just tell their members that they’ll be pleasing God if they sign a membership pledge, pay lip service to God in their prayers, and show up to hear a sermon on Sunday morning.

But when you come on the spiritual path, you find God confronting you with a tremendous challenge to roll up your sleeves and raise your energy, your awareness, and your detachment from the desires of the little ego.

True spiritual growth demands that you make a great effort to understand every aspect of your life in a spiritual way. If you want to follow a path that will give you the actual experience of your inner freedom in God, you must accept the need to change. Because it’s no longer a question of just going to church on Sunday, and then forgetting about it from Monday to Saturday.

The revelations that God offers us are always expansive, because finding the joy that we’re seeking requires that we expand our awareness. This is the most basic truth of religion – that inner expansion equals joy. And because we each have our deeply engrained subconscious habits and beliefs, self-expansion a lot harder and more threatening than just stumbling along in our usual low-energy way.

If we want to be truly happy, we must expand our awareness over and over. This is one of the great insights that Paramhansa Yogananda gave us – that our happiness grows as we expand our awareness to include an ever-broader reality. And the inner expansion of our awareness requires a profound and fundamental change in our way of being.

Paramhansa Yogananda, an Anandavatar — an avatar who has attained the ultimate happiness. Click to enlarge.
Paramhansa Yogananda, an Anandavatar — an avatar who has attained the ultimate happiness. Click to enlarge.

Our karma creates our physical body, and the environment we’re born into, and our religious orientation. These patterns began to be shaped the moment our soul manifested from the Infinite. The world immediately began to suck us into its ways, and it set up a tension between our longing to return, and the fear of returning.

This is the divine drama of our existence. What keeps us separate from God is our great fear of the unfamiliar and unknown. It’s a fear that the challenge may prove too great. And we only really begin to be less fearful after we’ve overcome a few challenges, and we begin to see that all is well.

When your karma sends you a terrible challenge, the next challenge doesn’t seem quite as daunting. Maybe you have a nervous premonition that things will get worse, but you’re less afraid, because your experiences have shown you that God is always with you. And, as the fear lessens, you become less committed to it, and more eager to give yourself to God.

The wonderful Indian epic known as the Ramayana tells the story of Rama, the king’s son and heir to the throne. Rama’s father adores him, and the people love him. But in the distant past, one of the king’s wives saved his life on the battlefield, and he promised her that he would grant her every wish.

Rama’s stepmother fell under the influence of an evil person who persuaded her that if Rama were to become king, she would become a nobody in the kingdom. It was demonic counsel, intended to rouse her envy. So she decided to call in the boon that her husband had promised her. The night before Rama was to be crowned, she told her husband, “I want my own son to become king.” The king was devastated, but he had to abide by his promise, and the story unfolds from there.

When Rama’s stepmother tells him that he isn’t going to be crowned king, Rama, being a great enlightened being, replies with complete detachment: “So be it.”

Rama’s father begs him to stay one more day, but Rama replies with the impersonal wisdom of a true brahmin, “Inevitable disappointment is not made less by postponement.”

There’s a point in our spiritual development where we recognize that if our karma has to be faced, we might as well face it immediately. Why raise all manner of objections based on our petty fears? Those thwarting cross-currents of fear, born of our ego-attachment, will only create more confusion. Much better to say, “If it’s mine, let me face it and learn the lesson right away.”

This is why, when some ill fate looms on the horizon, our prayers to be saved don’t generally have much heart in them. If we’re spiritually sensitive, we intuitively know that our fate will come to us sooner or later, and why not meet it now?

If we can face our karma with calm acceptance, it opens a door to know that God’s joy is present with us even in our most difficult challenges. And this is an extremely useful realization.

In my life, whenever I’m facing some difficult test, I remember Rama’s words to his stepmother, “So be it.” And it helps me accept that the situation isn’t going to get any better for waiting.

We carry the strange hope that somehow the future won’t come, or that we’ll feel different when it comes. But if something is coming at us, and we can find a way to accept it with calm impartiality, it can become a great spiritual victory, and a major step forward on our path to freedom.

I had conversation with someone who confessed to having a great desire for something that wasn’t rightfully theirs. They raised all kinds of reasons why God should give it to them. But I said, “Think of it objectively and ask yourself – is it right?” But they were unable to face the answer, and they deflected it. “But I want it!”

When we have a strong desire, it binds us with a tremendous longing in our hearts. But if you can empty your heart of desire and fill it with calm acceptance, saying “Whatever comes of itself, let it come,“ you are free.

“If it isn’t right for me, why waste any effort on wanting it?”

We can take consolation from knowing that it takes a very long time to achieve that level of understanding. You only really begin to develop that complete faith after you’ve had many experiences over a very long time. In fact, faith is the conviction, born of long experience, that God will never hurt you.

You develop the ability to replace the longings of the little ego with a feeling of calm impartiality and acceptance, knowing that even if God gives you pain, or even great suffering, He will never do anything that will harm you, and He will do only that which will benefit you and set you free.

Physical ailments are just one way our karma comes to us, but they’re nowhere near as painful as our emotional fears and humiliations. Yet, whether our tests are physical or emotional, we have to stop resisting.

This is the consciousness of the liberated brahmin who is complete detached from the inevitable ups and downs of this life. And until we attain that level of complete faith and acceptance, we must pass through the stage of the kshatriya, the spiritual warrior who strives to master life’s pain and suffering by mastering himself.

In the warrior stage of our soul’s progress, there may still be a wish that things were different, but the spiritual warrior strives to adapt himself to reality by a calm acceptance, born of fiery self-control.

The brahmin, on the other hand, never reacts from personal emotion, having realized that whatever happens is simply the working of the God with whom he has merged himself completely. As a great woman saint of India said, “He is not a true worshipper of God who does not forget his pain in the contemplation of the Beloved.”

If I am perfectly aware that all pain is part of God’s blissful reality, what motive would I have for flinching? Why would I want to leave the state of perfect bliss to experience a pain born of the likes and dislikes of the little ego?

Whenever I’m feeling stressed, I’ll often think, “There must be something in me that’s resisting the reality of my circumstances. If I weren’t resisting, I wouldn’t feel stressed. I would be free.”

We create a resistance in our hearts, born of the wistful longing that our situation be different. “This shouldn’t be happening to me!” But if you take “me” out of the equation, as the brahmin has learned to do, you’ll feel no need to oppose the reality of the moment, because you’ll know that it is simply an expression of God’s all-compassionate blissful Being.

We have to be realistic, because certain kinds of stress are necessary and wholesome. For example, there’s always a certain stress involved in doing creative work, where you’re struggling to create a new reality. And there’s a stress in trying to break through your own inertia and expand your abilities and awareness. But these are very different than the stress of the karma that comes to us uninvited.

As Swamiji often said, the highest kind of positive thinking is where you’re able to meet reality with a new and dynamic reality of your own. That level of creativity takes extraordinary energy and will power; and even then, there will nearly always be a sense of energy being pulled in two directions – our creative efforts pulling in one direction, and the inertia of the status quo pulling in the other.

Swamiji said that there are three kinds of courage: passive courage, blind courage, and dynamic courage. Dynamic courage is where you meet reality with a reality of your own. Blind courage is reckless and doesn’t count the cost, until it finds itself confronted, horrified, with the reckoning. And passive courage is the courage to endure.

He spoke of a fourth kind of courage – the courage of the brahmin who is fearless because he is one with God. His actions are God’s actions, and he knows that all creation, including his little ego-self, is made of God.

People who believe that life is a Darwinian struggle for the survival of the fittest tend to believe that the struggle is meaningless, and that it isn’t really taking us anywhere. It’s simply a battle for survival, with no higher purpose or goal.

Swami Kriyananda’s response is that of course it’s taking us somewhere, because the evolution of our consciousness is a separate process from the evolution of our physical forms. All creation is trying to raise its consciousness, dynamically and instinctively, toward greater happiness and freedom from suffering.

“My most important book,” Swami Kriyananda called Out of the Labyrinth: For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t. For details, click the image.
“My most important book,” Swami Kriyananda called Out of the Labyrinth: For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t. This book refutes the modern claim that life is meaningless. For details, click the image.

When we take a snapshot of our progress at any given point along the way, we see that whenever we break the laws of right living, we are bound suffer the consequences. Maybe we won’t suffer right away, because our good karma may neutralize some of our bad actions. For example, a person can seem to get away with eating a poor diet for a long time, owing to past habits of right living. But we can’t avoid the consequences in the long run. And if you look at the broad spectrum of life, you find countless people suffering because of their unwise choices.

Now, whether your karma is gently nudging you, or if it’s pushing you hard and challenging you to raise your consciousness to a higher level of understanding, there’s always a purpose.

The way we usually think of karma is that the oppressor becomes the oppressed. You see people suffering, and maybe your first instinct is to say, “Well, they deserve it,” because it’s the result of their own mistakes. But if you think of it as the impersonal workings of the higher life within us all, you’re able to feel compassion for them. Even if they’re behaving despicably, you realize that it’s just part of the very long process of God helping them attain their final perfection.

I don’t like to dwell on the fact that when we suffer it’s because we’ve done despicable acts in the past. The higher truth is that there is a wonderful pattern to the lessons of our karma. We may not be able to see where other people’s karma is coming from, much less our own. But no matter how frightening it looks, it is never unfair.

It may even seem that people are able to break the karmic law, but it’s only because we’re seeing a short-term snapshot of their lives. We may not believe there’s an underlying reason and purpose to it all. But there comes a time in our spiritual journey where we realize, without the slightest possibility of doubt, that right spiritual action, dharma, always brings victory, while any deviation from dharma leads to failure and defeat. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we’re absolutely sure of it, because we’ve seen it proved countless times in many lives.

In the short term, people can make all sorts of things happen that may seem to suggest they’re escaping the karmic law, but in the long term no one can defy the cosmic law. As the Old Testament says, “God is not mocked.” You cannot ignore the divine laws that are embedded in the very fabric of creation.

When we were in Vienna, we went to hear the Vienna Boys Choir, and we happened to sit near an Australian couple who were being very cheeky. We were there for the music, but also for the spiritual upliftment. And this couple had no apparent spiritual context for what they were seeing. They were sucking on Life Savers and making fun of the holy communion. It was so spiritually disharmonious that I had a clear feeling that it was truly evil – I felt that I was witnessing blasphemy.

Sometimes, people can do outrageous things, and it all feels very innocent and humorous, but there was a strong feeling that it was blasphemous, and I felt sorry for them, because I sensed that they would have to bear the consequences. It was completely dissonant with the divine law, and it was clear that they were setting a pattern of karma in motion that would bring them pain, to help them be more open to the truth of the spiritual life.

When SRF sued us, and the second part of the lawsuit went against us, in a seeming victory for the other side, I felt so sorry for the people who were opposing us. As they read the verdict, I sat in the courtroom and thought, “Poor things, they’ve won.” It was a strange reaction. I would have expected to be outraged, but I wasn’t. I just felt so bad for them, because they had opposed a spiritual thing and lied while doing it, and they had gotten the mistaken impression that they were doing the right thing. They would receive money for it, and it would make them feel vindicated, but I could see that they were setting themselves up to suffer.

If they had lost, it would have given them pause to reflect on the underlying workings of truth. But they got to sail on, and I was pleased with myself, and really, it was purely by the grace of God that I was able to feel compassion for them. And it’s how we should always feel when we see people making serious mistakes, instead of judging them: “Oh, how awful these people are.”

This is the lesson we can take from the story of Corrie and Betsy Ten Boom, sisters in the Netherlands who were put in prison by the Nazis for helping the Jews. After the war, Corrie would write a book and give talks about their experiences.

Corrie Ten Boom
Corrie Ten Boom

Betsy died in prison, and Corrie describes how saintly her sister was. At one point while they were in prison, Betsy said to Corrie, “After the war ends we will have to help these people.“ And Corrie readily agreed, but then she realized that Betsy was talking about the Nazis. Betsy said, “We’ve got to help these poor people, because when the war is over they’ll be so lost.”

It’s what Corrie ended up doing after the war. The prison guards were poor souls who had gotten swept up in a great evil, and even though they repented, they were pariahs in their own country, and were terribly confused and didn’t know what to do. And even as Betsy was suffering, she could only think of how much the guards would suffer because of their ignorance.

Isn’t that wonderful? Every once in a while, your heart opens to a little ray of God’s light. Someone treats you badly, and your only thought is, “Poor soul!” That’s how the saints react, because they know that all judgment belongs to God, and that you don’t have to take it onto yourself. “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” It’s for God to settle, not us. We don’t have to do anything; we just have to stand in righteousness and leave the rest to Him.

Betsie and Corrie Ten Boom as young women.
Betsie and Corrie Ten Boom as young women.

This is an important thought to keep in mind, otherwise we risk becoming bitter, afraid, sad, negative, and judgmental. It’s so easy to fall into those feelings, because it’s a lousy world. Sometimes even the masters get fed up with this world. It’s a great sacrifice for them to come here, where everything is so petty and impossible. There were times when Master said that he could hardly stand it, and he just didn’t want to have anything to do with it anymore. At one point he spent an extended period in Mexico, because he felt that the American people weren’t ready for his message.

You either reconcile yourself to the world or you abandon it. You may reach a point where you can’t stand it, and then you have a choice.

I remember how I felt when I was very young – how I couldn’t bear to feel like a stranger in a strange land. I prayed and prayed, and as soon as I saw an opening, when I discovered this path, I left that other world behind.

But when you find yourself trapped by karmic circumstances, you can only do the best you can, and pray not to be caught again. Or you can affirm, “This is appropriate for me – let me learn my needed lesson.”

Maybe you need to learn to be more independent, or to be more self-contained. Maybe it’s teaching you to be compassionate, or to build bridges of understanding. We tend to be in the circumstances where we’re supposed to be, and we will only ever transcend our karma by dealing with it.

Now, how we deal with it will vary, because there are many options. You can be serviceful. But then, what if it fosters your ego and makes you proud of your abilities, or what if it gives you a false sense of spiritual advancement?

You can compare yourself to short people and take pride in feeling tall, but in the end it will all just wear you down. Or you can pray to be released. It all depends on what you think will help you in the moment, and each of us will have a different response, according to our understanding.

I don’t like to dwell on thoughts of “us versus them,” because you have to be very careful that you aren’t just bolstering your ego. “They feel like this but I feel like that – they are behaving despicably, and I am full of virtue.” And maybe it’s true, but you have to be very careful that those thoughts don’t slip into judgment, because it won’t help you expand your compassion and find happiness.

We always have a choice. God didn’t make you to be a passive clam in the cosmic sea. You may forced to make difficult choices, but you’ll always be free to act according to your own best lights, or to do nothing. No one can make you do anything.

This life is not easy, particularly in these complicated times. Babaji gave us the spiritual tools to win our salvation, and he absolutely knows how complicated our lives are. This earthly life seems to be deliberately set up to disappoint us. But that’s nothing new, because it has always been this way.

The older I get, the more I understand what a tremendous commitment it takes to be happy. It requires a powerful, dynamic, ongoing commitment of all our energy and attention to be truly happy. Because that’s what it takes to keep always expanding our awareness, which is where our happiness comes from. And our circumstances really don’t matter – whether we’re married or single, successful or struggling. What counts is what we’re doing with our inner consciousness.

Most people become less and less happy. As they grow older, they simply wind down. It’s why Swamiji and Master said that there’s only one field of human endeavor that universally rewards people with happiness, and that’s the spiritual. In every other field, no matter how hard people work at it, and how good they get at it, no one can ever wholeheartedly say that it made them happy.

Only the saints can make that claim. The movie stars, athletes, politicians, and bankers can’t say it. Individuals here and there may say it if they’ve expanded their consciousness to a degree. But it will always be limited to the happiness that their worldly activity allows.

Most people are passively waiting to get old. I see so many old people who look completely worn-out, and young people who look much older than their years.

Swamiji quoted a remarkable study that asked middle-aged people to name the happiest moment of their lives. A stunningly large proportion said, “My high school prom.” It’s horrendously pitiful, but it’s a fact of those people’s lives.

Standing in line at the grocery store, you see the worn-out mother with her teenage daughter, and you can imagine how the mother looked when she was her daughter’s age. And maybe you can understand that she was happier at her high school prom, but that she just didn’t have the tools to keep her spirit alive.

The pressures people face, and the unhealthy diet and bad habits and bad choices slowly eat at them until it all just gets to be too much.

We have wonderful support systems for people in crisis, for unwed mothers and recovering addicts, but there’s no support system for the spiritually wounded.

And then, thank God, death comes as a blessed relief. Because many people, by the time they die, have had it; it’s time to get off this planet and go away for a rest until they’re ready to start over. And then they rush out again, full of enthusiasm.

This morning, I visited the kindergarten class at our Living Wisdom School. It was the first day of school, and one of the adorable little girls came up to me and said, “I didn’t even cry when my mommy said goodbye this morning!”

She was so proud, and there they were, dealing with coming to school on the first day, because they’ve begun another passage in their long journey to find out how to be happy. And the great blessing of our school is that it’s the primary lesson we try to teach them every single day.

(From Asha’s answers to questions during a “Heart to Heart” workshop at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on September 5, 2001.)

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