Our reading from the Bhagavad Gita today, which I think is a marvelous one, speaks of three kinds of karma.
The first karma it describes as resembling a bit of smoke that we can easily puff away. The second karma it describes as being like rust on a mirror that can only be scrubbed off with effort over time. And the third karma resembles an embryo waiting in the womb to be born, which cannot be hurried by any act of will on our part.
This passage occurs near several other famous Gita verses, including one where the disciple Arjuna asks his guru, Krishna, “Why it is that even though we know better, we are compelled as if by an unseen force to act against our best interests?”
We know better, yet we act wrongly, as if we were impelled by a force outside our conscious awareness.
The mid-1970s were a time that I remember very fondly, for the many positive things that were happening at Ananda Village. I was thinking recently about a minor excursion that I took in my consciousness back then, in the midst of my life of devoted dedication to the spiritual path. And I cannot conjure the slightest sense of why I would have imagined that it was a good idea. But I went galavanting around for a while, and then I came back. I didn’t leave the path, and I never actually did anything wrong, but it was as if I decided to take a holiday from my life. And what’s odd about it is that I can only wonder, “Why on earth would I do that?” And I really can’t think of an answer, except that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
So when I hear Arjuna ask Krishna, “What is it that takes us over?” I can recall that time and understand.
Now, I can expound at great length on the law of karma, the chakras, and the astral body, and we can chart the metaphysics of these things in great detail with our minds. But then the much more interesting question becomes what we can actually do about our karma, and how we can minimize the damage and stay on the road to spiritual recovery.
It doesn’t matter how many times we fall, it only matters that we get up, time after time. In fact, we only need to get up one more time than we fall.
There’s a wonderful saying of Paramhansa Yogananda’s, “A saint is a sinner who never gave up.” I recently heard another marvelous saying: “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
It’s not as if we’re trying to diminish the saints by dwelling on their past mistakes; it’s that we need to understand that the road to success almost never leads us in a straight line.
Yogananda told a story of Sadhu Haridas, an Indian saint who lived in the early 1800s and was greatly revered. It seems that Sadhu Haridas was crossing the Ganges on a boat with some Christian missionaries. He was asking them what they thought was special about Jesus compared to the holy men of India. And one of the missionaries replied with a certain amount of indignation, “Well, for one thing, he could walk on water!” And Haridas said, “Oh, is that all?” And he proceeded to step off the boat and walk on the water, and wherever he walked the boat was compelled to follow regardless of the captain’s wishes. And then he stepped back aboard the boat.
So he was a man of deep spiritual realization, and yet there was a period in his life when he became infatuated with a woman, even though he was a monk, and he left his disciples and went off to be with the woman for a time. And when he realized that this wasn’t what he wanted, he returned to the disciples, and they welcomed him back.
Master said that Sadhu Haridas became fully liberated in that lifetime. And, now, just think of that. Here’s a man with tremendous spiritual power who falls in love with a woman and leaves his calling as a renunciate, and then he realizes his mistake and he comes back and overcomes it so completely as to be fully liberated.
The reason I find the story so inspiring is that whenever we lack faith in our prospects as disciples, it’s very often not because we’ve actually erred in any way that really matters, but because we have a very false idea of what spirituality looks like.
I believe that the many adventures that Swamiji went through in his life, and that I chronicled in Swami Kriyananda: Lightbearer, were meant to teach us an extraordinarily important lesson.
All of the struggles that Swami had to face – the disagreements with his gurubhais, the litigation that was lodged against him, the endless attempts at character assassination, and his complete openness about the ups and downs of his life – I believe the purpose of his showing us such a life was to demonstrate for us what the path really looks like. Because we can all too easily lose touch with the truth of it.
Master had his own discouraging moments. There was a time when things were going so badly at Mount Washington that he went off for three or four days and prayed to Divine Mother to kick them all out, and when he returned they had left.
There was another time – I believe it was after he he’d been betrayed and he’d lost a lawsuit, and all of the work he’d done for many years was erased by human antagonism. And a particular problem with the story is that SRF says that Master went on a vacation to Mexico, but that’s not what Master said about it at all. He said that he wiped the dust of America off his shoes and went to Mexico without knowing whether he would be coming back. And we are talking about the conditions of this earthly life that can touch even those who are deeply dedicated.
At any rate, Master went to Mexico, and while he was there he talked to Divine Mother, and then he came back. But I believe it’s important to know that he wasn’t at all sure if he would be returning.
Swami went to Hawaii once without knowing if he would come back, because the whole situation had just become too much – the debts, the litigation, and the antagonism and betrayals – and he needed a break.
Swami spent decades of his life coming to peace with the way had been treated by his gurubhais. He never stopped loving them, but their antagonism toward him affected his confidence in what he was doing. And so he was constantly having to go back and reaffirm his relationship to Master in the light of the condemnation of those he respected most in the world spiritually.
In the Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna to explain the force that compels us to act against our own best interests.
Yet tell me, Teacher! by what force doth man
Go to his ill, unwilling; as if one
Pushed him that evil path?
Kama it is!
Passion it is! born of the Darknesses,
Which pusheth him. Mighty of appetite,
Sinful, and strong is this! – man’s enemy!
As smoke blots the white fire, as clinging rust
Mars the bright mirror, as the womb surrounds
The babe unborn, so is the world of things
Foiled, soiled, enclosed in this desire of flesh.
The wise fall, caught in it; the unresting foe
It is of wisdom, wearing countless forms,
Fair but deceitful, subtle as a flame.
Sense, mind, and reason – these, O Kunti’s son!
Are booty for it; in its play with these
It maddens man, beguiling, blinding him.
Therefore, thou noblest child of Bharata!
Govern thy heart! Constrain th’ entangled sense!
Resist the false, soft sinfulness which saps
Knowledge and judgment! Yea, the world is strong,
But what discerns it stronger, and the mind
Strongest; and high o’er all the ruling Soul.
Wherefore, perceiving Him who reigns supreme,
Put forth full force of Soul in thy own soul!
Fight! vanquish foes and doubts, dear Hero! slay
What haunts thee in fond shapes, and would betray!
This is why the Gita has endured and will endure forever, because it holds such a blazing light of pure wisdom.
Desire it is, and the anger that attends frustrated desires. “I’m not completely contented within myself. I want something more. I want this person to approve of me. I want to be successful in these ways. I want to meditate better. I want to stop being impatient. I don’t want to be who I am!”
When our desires are frustrated, we become angry, and then our anger becomes a habit until all discrimination is lost. And when discrimination is lost, we imagine that we’re being even more true and honest than ever, and we can’t see how we’ve become utterly confused.
The Gita also says, very beautifully, that when we are manifested from the Divine and we find ourselves apparently separated from God, we begin to embrace our separateness, just as the little bird in the Festival of Light begins to enjoy its separate power.
But as soon as we become separate and identify ourselves with the little ego, a deep sense of fear and insecurity sets in, because we know in our souls that we don’t have the power to keep ourselves safe.
And then we’re compelled to use the activating energy in us, which the Gita calls rajo guna, to try to do whatever we think will make us safe, whether it’s improving our self-esteem, or our position in the eyes of the world, or acquiring more money and power, or more strength. And whatever it is, we keep trying to make ourselves feel all right, even though it’s never going to happen, because the only way that level of security will come to us is if we relinquish our sense of separateness and merge back into God.
And this is where our karma, which is stored as vortices of energy and consciousness in the astral spine, comes into play. We are holding the force of countless long-nurtured desires that we’ve come to believe in too deeply. And we may know in the dimmest theoretical sense that they aren’t true, but it’s only a theory and not a triumphant realization.
And so the Gita talks about the three kinds of delusions that we’re all living with. And some of them are very light – there’s just a little bit of a thought, “Hmm, that would be nice!” But then our higher Self chimes in and we’re able to dismiss those small desires with a puff of wisdom – just a little healing thought and it’s gone.
We’re living with these little ideas all the time. “Hmm, this might be a good idea. But no, not really – I’m really not going to do that. I’m not going to follow that impulse.” And it’s easy to push them aside.
But there are desires that belong to the middle group, where we will have to keep scrubbing at them for a long time to remove the rust, and it’s not simple or easy.
But the hidden message that the Gita is trying to tell us behind the words is that there is nothing wrong with us, and that we are not failing.
Just because we are able to puff away some of our impulses away doesn’t mean that it’s how we’re supposed to be able to deal with all of our karma.
And this is, oddly enough, something that we find very hard to accept. And if I’m saying this passionately, it’s because when I consider the little excursion I took when I was in my twenties, and the fact that it made so much sense to me at the time, and it makes no sense to me now, I’m powerfully reminded of what a large space there can be between what we’re able to intellectualize with our minds and what we can actually overcome.
Our success on the spiritual path, defined as our capacity to remain always even-minded, confident, and not panicky about our spiritual state, is limited by the three levels of delusion in us. Because every one of us is going to be compelled against our best intentions.
I’ve been reading a biography of Edgar Cayce, the “sleeping prophet” who passed away in 1945. Cayce would go into a trance and tell people about their present and past lives and their physical ailments, and so on. And maybe not everything he said would line up perfectly with what Master taught, but it’s essentially the same teaching, and he was tuned into the same reality.
He told hundreds of people where they had lived and what they had done, and what had happened to them, and why they were meeting those karmas again in this lifetime.
Cayce said that he had lived in Atlantis and in ancient Egypt, and that all of the people he was meeting had lived in Atlantis and Egypt, too, and that they had been in various relationships for thousands of years, loving each other and betraying each other, and occasionally murdering each other, and maybe living together nicely. And here they were together again. And so our karma may be very complex, because at some point along the way we’ve decided that it seemed like a good idea, and we thought that we’d feel better if we did it, and we’d be happier.
And when we get those fixed ideas in our minds, it isn’t easy to dislodge them, because Satan is very clever.
Master remarked that the reason we reincarnate is not because our lives are a complete disaster, but because this life “almost works.” And so for countless lives we don’t notice that it’s the system that’s wrong, and we think it’s just one more little part of it that we need to fix.
We desire this or that, and it makes us angry and frustrated that we can’t have it, so we keep coming back to try and make it right. And when we finally find ourselves with our feet firmly planted on the spiritual path, it’s because we’ve realized, “Aha! I see what’s really going on.”
I was in Los Angeles with friends, driving to an event with Swamiji, and they very unwisely gave me the map to read, which turned out to be not a good idea at all, because I took us on a meandering journey for an hour and a half to the right address, but in the wrong city.
We were trying to find the location of the lecture, and one of my friends was good-natured about it. He laughed and said, “Now I understand – you’ve been reading the map upside down!” He said, “You fooled me for a while, but I figured it out!”
And I think it’s what we say to Divine Mother, “You fooled me for a long time, but now I’ve figured it out.”
But even after we realize that there’s something wrong with the system, we still have various levels of commitment to our false ideas of what will make us happy. And Divine Mother doesn’t really care in the slightest, and the masters don’t care, because every saint has a past, and they’ve all been through it. So they understand that it’s all just part of the normal and natural process, where we’re trying to scrub the rust off the mirror, or maybe a particular karma is like an embryo in the womb, and we’ll just have to wait it out.
When we begin to find ourselves compelled and entrapped by those various levels of delusion, we aren’t really doing anything wrong at all. In fact, we’re doing a great deal right, because, “Look, I’ve noticed!” And this is such a huge step in our progress. “I’ve noticed that even though I still want this, I know it’s not going to make me happy.”
Swamiji gave us a wonderful insight, when he counseled us that even if we aren’t able to resist, we should never surrender the full consent of our will.
It’s an interesting way to think about our karma. When we find ourselves compelled against our will by desires and anger, just keep a part of ourselves separate, knowing, “We’re doing this now, but we aren’t going to be doing it forever.” And even if it’s a karma that wholly engulfs us, like the baby in the womb, it’s going to end eventually.
There was a man at Ananda, years ago, who found himself caught in the most unbelievable series of cascading karmic events. In the early years we would sometimes give our friends the “most dramatic karma of the year” award, with a footnote that said, “Although there is no actual prohibition against winning this award two years in a row, it is not recommended.”
People would find their karma coming to them in dramatic forms – they would be driving a truck down the steep highway into the canyon of the Yuba River and the brakes would fail, and they’d be saved by a tiny bush from plunging into the abyss.
The man said to Swamiji, “What else can go wrong? What can I do?” And Swami’s calm answer was very wise. He said, “Eventually all karma ends,” and it was all he would say, because it was the kind of karma that has to run its course, like the embryo in the womb.
Women have told me that the last few weeks before giving birth can be very long, because there’s so much going on in their bodies, and you think it will never end.
When you have a colicky infant, you think it will go on forever, and when we’re in bed with the flu it seems like you’ll never get well. And when a difficult karma comes it can feel like we’re being tormented by an unseen force that will never let us go.
But all karma ends. And if we can just hold ourselves a little bit apart from it, and if we can keep the tiniest part of ourselves saying, “God, I don’t have the capacity not to be like this,” we’ll find that God will help us get through it.
I’m not just talking about sailing off on major excursions and doing things against our own better judgment that maybe we really shouldn’t do. I mean little things as seemingly trivial as letting ourselves sink into a mood, or being caught yet one more time in a false expectation, or hoping that somebody will respond to you in a certain way. And, what do you know, for the millionth time they don’t, and then there we are again, feeling sad and heartbroken.
But let’s remember that it’s just the baby in the womb, and that as long as we always keep a part of our consciousness on the longer view, and if we just keep scrubbing the rust away as best we can, we can know that we are pleasing God.
I remember a difficult situation I faced, and how all of a sudden it seemed to go away. I said, “Swamiji, it went away!” And he said – and I love this – “Well, maybe the karma is finished.” Because it was a difficult karma with another person.
Swami let that statement rest just long enough for me to go “Yippee!” in my mind. And I didn’t actually say it, but there was a huge “Yippee!” rising up inside me. And before I could let it out, he said, “But I don’t think so.”
His answer has been enormously helpful to me over the years. Because he added, “You’ve taken it as far as you can go for now. You’ve done everything you can.”
So maybe the karma I’m facing is the equivalent of rust on the mirror, and maybe I just need to take it as far as I can, and maybe there’s a lot more to be done, but I’m finished with it for now, and maybe it’s because I don’t yet have the right spiritual tools. And maybe I need to go get more strength from somewhere else. So Swami said, “Maybe it’s finished, but I don’t think so. But you’ve taken it as far as you can. You have to grow in other ways before you’re going to be able to come back to it.”
Maybe I’ll come back to that person directly, and maybe they’ll come back to the situation and we’ll meet halfway.
Formerly, whenever I would hit the wall, I would let myself fall into sad thoughts. “Well, there’s just no hope.” But now I think, “Maybe the karma is over, but probably not. But I’ve done all I can for now, so let me go work on these other things for a while.”
Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future, and we need to tattoo that saying on our wrist and look at it very deliberately whenever we’re feeling discouraged.
We also need to know when a karma is ripe to be overcome. Because even though there are karmas that we’ll have to wait to tackle until we’ve grown wiser and stronger, there are karmas that are ripe to be dissolved.
And the wonderful thing is that those of us who’ve come to these teachings understand the direction where freedom lies. And it’s impossible to overstate the power of knowing the way forward.
And now that we’ve awakened to that reality, we must always keep fresh in our consciousness how important it is to know the right direction.
At the end of Swamiji’s life, no matter what he was scheduled to talk about, all he would talk about was meeting Master, and being initiated by Master, and what it meant to be Master’s disciple. In his final years, it was the bhav that Swami was in, because that magnificent lifetime of work was finished. Master had given him a great commission as a young monk, and he had obeyed his guru and fulfilled his task, and now he could scarcely remember any of it.
But it was an extraordinary teaching for all of us, that once everything else is done, with all of the struggles and sacrifices, I have found my polestar, and I know where my freedom lies. I’ve set my feet on the path, and it doesn’t matter how long it will take, because all karma ends. And it really doesn’t even matter how long it takes, because all time is short compared to infinity.
Now that my feet are planted, now that I’ve found the ray of grace that is going to take me home, everything else is of no importance. And let us joyfully celebrate that divine reality.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on August 23, 2020.)