By David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri)
Karma, meaning action, is a term in yogic spirituality for explaining the soul’s evolution from life to life. Karma is generally portrayed as the effect of our individual actions, extending from past lives to present and future lives. It is often regarded as a force of determination, like fate or destiny. We speak of a person’s karma catching up with them, ‘what goes around comes around’ or ‘as you sow so shall you reap’, indicating this inescapable result of what we have done.
Yet if we look deeper, we see that karma reflects the fact that we create our own reality. We fashion both ourselves and our environment according to all that we do in life. Karma, therefore, means that we are universal creators, not simply the helpless products of external forces. Karma is the underlying process of the ‘self-creating universe’. It indicates that the universe creates itself according to its own inner intentionality. Through the power of karma, we are self-creating beings in a self-creating existence. Even the forces of nature, like time or gravity, which appear beyond our control, are manifestations of an intelligent reality in which we are active participants.
The Evolution of Consciousness
Modern science recognizes an evolution of form, noting how the bodies of different animals adapt over time, becoming more complex and sophisticated through succeeding generations. It has outlined a physical or bodily evolution from plants and animals to human beings. Since the time of Darwin, science has gone into great detail trying to explain this movement of bodily evolution in terms of the outer factors of natural selection, survival of the fittest and adaptation to changing environments, as if it were a process that occurred of itself by some sort of natural necessity.
Today’s science emphasizes genetics as the main mechanism behind this evolutionary process. It has discovered an underlying ‘genetic code’ behind the great diversity of life, linking all creatures together in the greater evolutionary process. This marvelous genetic code is simpler, more concise and yet more powerful in its results than any code or data base that the human mind can invent. So one must also ask: Can such a physical information code exist without any enduring intelligence behind it?
This scientific account of evolution leaves any life-force or consciousness out of the picture except as a by-product of bodily processes. It is as though we are following the tracks of an animal and proposing an evolution of the tracks themselves without positing any creature making the tracks, as if one track somehow manages to evolve into the next!
We can contrast this with the view of Yoga, the great spiritual science of the East, which recognizes an evolution of consciousness as well as one of form. Yoga neither denies evolution in order to justify a religious view of creation, nor reduces evolution to a blind play of material forces. Yoga teaches that form cannot evolve without consciousness. It is an inner consciousness that brings about evolutionary change of form, not the form itself, which is no more than a shell. The creatures that we observe in life are the result of such an inner consciousness evolving in its own self-expression through the great movement of time.
Karma and rebirth are the means of this evolution of consciousness, its underlying modus operandi. Only an intelligence that is reborn can truly evolve in awareness. Otherwise intelligence would die with the body, letting the form disintegrate with nothing left to continue.
Vedic Astrology and our Karmic Code
The soul can be defined as our ‘karmic being’ as opposed to our merely human personality that is its mask. The soul carries our karmic propensities called samskaras from one body to another.
Our karma, we could say, is the DNA of our soul. Just as the body has its particular genetic code, the soul has its particular ‘karmic code’. The soul’s karmic code is based upon the life patterns it has created-the habits, tendencies, influences and desires it has set in motion over its many births. These karmic tendencies or samskaras like seeds ripen in the soil of our lives, taking root and sprouting according to circumstances. Our soul’s energy is filtered through our karmic potentials, which create the very pattern of our lives down to a subconscious and instinctual level.
For the evolution of our species and for our own spiritual growth, we must consider both the genetic and karmic codes. We cannot understand ourselves through genetics alone, which is only the code of the body; we must also consider the karmic code, the code of the mind and heart. Note how two children in the same family can share the same genetic pattern, education and environment and yet can have very different lives, characters and spiritual interests. This is because of their differing karmic codes.
Fortunately, there is a way that we can see our karmic code as clearly as our genetic code. Vedic astrology, which is called Jyotish or the science of light (Jyoti), helps us understand the laws of both time and karma. The Vedic astrological birthchart is probably the best indicator of the karmic code of the soul. The pattern of the birthchart is like the ‘DNA of the soul’ behind the current physical incarnation. The positions of the planets in the birthchart -not only relative to the twelve signs of the zodiac but more importantly in regard to the Nakshatras or twenty-seven mansions of the Moon – provides a wealth of knowledge through which we can read our karmic code in great detail.
In this regard, the Vedic astrological chart is probably the most important document that we have in life and more important than our genetic code. Yet like our DNA it is a code written in the language of nature and needs to be deciphered by a trained researcher in order to make sense of its indications. Through the Vedic astrological chart we can understand the greater purpose of our lives and their potentials, our vulnerabilities and our hidden strengths that can help us fulfill our true destiny.
In addition to showing our karmic code from birth, Vedic astrology can plot its unfoldment through the changing course of our lives using its system of planetary periods, annual charts and transits. That is why Vedic astrologers can be so amazingly accurate both in their delineations of character and in determining the events of our lives. On top of this, through the use of planetary gems, mantras, yantras and meditation on planetary deities, Vedic astrology also provides us many methods that can optimize our karma and take us beyond the limitations of our karmic code.
It is imperative that each one of us is aware of our karmic code and learns the tools to work with it and bring out it optimal potential. Vedic astrology is probably the best tool in this regard. This doesn’t mean that the birthchart will answer all our questions. We still have to act, but it will show us how to act in the best and wisest possible manner. In this regard, the birthchart is our karmic guide to life.
To change ourselves it is not enough to alter the genetic code. We must learn how to alter our karmic code as well. However, to change our karmic code is not much easier than to alter our genetics! The required efforts must be done within ourselves rather than in an external laboratory. It requires that we change the very way we live, breathe, see and think, such as the methodology of Yoga and other Vedic sciences instructs.
To transform our karma requires that we expand our connections with the conscious universe-that we live the life of the soul that is one with all life. As the soul holds the karmic code, only the soul can change it. Once we awaken at the level of the soul, conscious of ourselves as children of immortality, we can modify our karma in a spiritual direction for the higher evolution of all life.
Our Karmic Fire Body
The karmic code requires a vehicle to contain it and to carry it from birth to birth. For this we also have a ‘subtle’ or ‘soul’ body, an inner flame that serves as a receptacle for our karmas. We could call this our ‘inner fire body’ as opposed to our ‘outer material body’, or we could simply call it our ‘karmic fire body’. This subtle body, serving as the vessel for the soul, enters the physical body like a flame, taking up its station in the heart and warming the entire organism. Like a flame, it leaves the material shell of the body at death taking its karmic capacities along with it.
Advanced yogis can perceive this inner flame and observe its movements. They know how to enter into it and work directly with it, using it to travel to various planes or lokas, higher realms beyond this material universe. At death they merge into it and consciously leave this world, having no fear of death. Their inner flame is no metaphor but more real to them than their own flesh.
The Soul as Nature’s Evolutionary Intelligence
The soul, therefore, is nature’s evolutionary intelligence. Its code or record is karma, which is the inner DNA of the evolutionary process. On a general level, the soul carries the karmic code of nature, like the abilities to breathe or to perceive that we share with related creatures. On a more specific level, the soul carries the karmic code of the individual and his or her particular tendencies, urges and desires. The individual soul is the primary vehicle that nature has developed for purpose of conscious evolution. The individual provides a focus that allows consciousness to grow through various bodies and gradually manifest itself in ever more intelligent living forms.
The basis of all consciousness is the sense of self, the core feeling of ‘I am’. You can observe this for yourself by watching your thinking process.
Ø Meditate for a few minutes and watch the endless parade of your thoughts, concerns and imaginations that arise habitually in your mind. Try to find the root from which your thoughts arise.
Ø You will discover that all your thoughts go back directly or indirectly to the I-thought that is the source of your identity and vitality, just as the moving of a wheel turns around an axis. You cannot think about anything without first thinking about yourself.
This sense of self is the source of all our motivation and action. Consciousness automatically projects a self or sense of am-ness. This self-sense underlies all the five senses as our most immediate feeling of being alive. It is more intimate and powerful than our senses of sight, hearing or even touch. It is our very sense of being that makes all the other senses possible. Even when the other senses are not functioning it remains.
Our soul is our underlying sense of self, which is the flame of awareness behind all our states of body and mind. The soul is the pure ‘I am’, the natural or spiritual self behind the ego or socially-conditioned self, which is like an artificial accretion built upon it. Within that ‘I am’ is the evolutionary power of all nature and the very vision of God. This Self-God is the supreme deity behind all religious and spiritual striving. It is the basis of true immortality. Underlying the self-creating universe is this self-creating consciousness of the higher Self, the supreme Atman.
Our soul is the fire seed not only of our own bodies and life-experience but of all life on earth and, ultimately, of the entire universe. It is the sun seed or seed of the cosmic light and infinite consciousness. It contains within itself the developmental code of the entire universe. This code of existence or the God seed is present in the soul, pushing its karma forward towards Self-realization.
The Fire of Self-Realization
What is the goal of evolution? Is it simply the proliferation of life-forms and the development of species complexity? Or, as a mechanical process, can evolution have any goal at all, which after all requires some sort of conscious intention? Clearly, evolution presents a progressive unfolding of life, intelligence and consciousness, just as leaves, flowers and fruit evolve from a seed.
Self-realization is the real goal of all life. All creatures are striving to unfold their particular potentials, which are not simply outer capacities of movement but inner feelings and perceptions. Behind all evolutionary striving is an effort to further the manifestation of consciousness.
The universal principle is not survival of the fittest but survival of those who are most aware. Awareness at an inner level creates the capacity for adaptation at an outer level. Survival of the fittest is a rule only for carnivores. Yet even on that level, small creatures who know how to hide themselves can outlast large creatures who cannot adapt.
Self-realization, however, is not simply the realization of our isolated creature-based potentials. It is the self-aware, self-creating universe discovering itself within its own creatures. It is the universe becoming aware of itself, the individual recognizing his or her unity with the All. The individual carries the sacred fire, which is the seed of universal consciousness. This is the seed of the Self, the God-seed hidden in the heart in the form of the sacred fire.
Karma as an Evolutionary Force
Karma, therefore, is an evolutionary force. Our own human karma is part of the evolution of consciousness on the planet, not simply part of our own personal growth and development. Karma prods us to a greater sense of unity by making us responsible for all that we do both to ourselves and to others.
As karma is an evolutionary force, there is nothing fatalistic about it. It is a natural power designed to ensure the full development of consciousness in creatures. Karma, we could say, is the self-rectifying power of the self-creating universe. The individual remains the vehicle for its workings, but karma is not simply working for the sake of the individual.
Behind the unfoldment of karma is not a mere deterministic judgment of good or bad actions, but a conscious force for the growth of intelligence. Karma compels us to develop our awareness, not simply internally but in the field of action where it really counts. It makes us cognizant of our dynamic interrelationship with all of life. We cannot eat, breathe or think apart from other beings or the universe. In everything we do we partake of the universe and the universe partakes of us as well. Each one of us is a sacred offering to all life, just as life is continually offering itself to us in various forms from food to breath to relationship. The question is whether the fragrance of our offering is sweet and uplifting or whether it is bitter and obstructing to the upward flow of life.
When we act with unity, not dividing ourselves off from others but seeing our Self in all beings, then there is no binding karma. What binds us to karma is our personal limitation of the universal creative force. If we let our actions follow the universal force, then our action is no longer restricting but becomes liberating. Action with the awareness of unity creates the ‘fire of karma’, which burns up all negative karmas.
Today we must redefine the spiritual quest in an environmental way, as the urge of all nature to grow in consciousness. The spiritual urge is not just a human urge but the evolutionary imperative inherent in all life. We can only develop spiritually if we recognize our greater unity with all. We can only liberate ourselves if we become one with the entire universe.
Yet if karma is an evolutionary force, then there is a positive goal to its development. It is not merely sharing a common suffering but developing a common joy, in which we help others become free, independent and happy in their own natures. Evolution is an expression of the very joy of life from which creation naturally arises, what Yoga calls ‘Ananda’ or Divine Bliss. We must follow this deeper bliss if we want to discover true happiness and understanding in life. That true delight is not a personal achievement but the joy of unity, the power of love. If we look to the wisdom of karma, it will take us to that greater oneness in which all our sorrows disappear, in which the very possibility of sorrow will cease to exist.
Karma as an Ecological Teaching
The law of karma contains an important ecological teaching. It shows that our individual action is linked to the fate of the entire world. As we act, so our world becomes. As we act, so the world reacts and shapes us in turn. Karma represents the self-harmonizing power of cosmic intelligence that keeps the evolutionary movement aligned with its greatest good. As the planet is a single organism, our individual actions affect the entire web of life, which works to return us to harmony when our actions become harmful. While we might experience this harmonizing action as pain, it is only meant to awaken us to our deeper connection to life and the need to act for the greater happiness of all beings.
A spiritual or ‘yogic ecology’, an ecology of the soul, must base itself upon an understanding of the law of karma. It requires that we cultivate a consciousness of the sacred as the basis for all our interactions. We must recognize consciousness as the unitary force behind life and all its different ecosystems. We must recognize the evolution of our own individual consciousness as part of a greater evolution of the universe. This is not to deny our own individual development but to facilitate it. Our true Self is what unites us with all. Its body is the entire universe and its action is the very movement of life.
Our spiritual practices must be recast in an ecological light as a human expression of cosmic intelligence for the greater evolutionary process. If we forget the ecological basis of spirituality, then we easily lose contact with the very forces of the universe through which alone we can grow. We lose our necessary foundation in the Earth that provides the support for our ascension into the light.
Our Collective Karmic Crisis
Our present planetary crisis, our crisis in consciousness, is also a ‘collective karmic crisis’. We are setting in motion long-term negative karmic consequences by our civilization out of harmony with life. Such powerful collective karmas can bring about deep disturbances in the world of nature, including alterations at geological and climatic levels that can go far beyond what our species can control. The coming century looks like an era of karmic rectification for the devastation already wrought by our current spiritually immature civilization. We need the wisdom to take us through this coming fire of collective experience and help minimize its potential destruction as nature once more demands that the soul within us comes to the front.
The problem is that our culture does not believe in karma. We don’t teach the law of karma in our schools and or even many of our religions are ignorant of it. Many who speak about the law of karma act in violation of it as well. We think that if we make money or become famous that we have achieved the goal of life, regardless of the karmas we have set in motion for ourselves or for our world.
Our soul is a karmic center of consciousness that we must face sooner or later. When we die, the only thing that goes with our soul is its karma. The bodily self does not continue but the soul – the sensitive core of awareness within us that allows us to feel happiness or sorrow – goes on to wherever its karma may lead, which we must eventually experience. If you have harmed your world in one life, you may have to return in the next in order to rectify the wrong that you have done, which pains the soul, even if the outer mind can ignore it.
If you really want to avoid pain and suffering, not only in this life but in the continued existence of your soul, you should strive at every moment to act with an awareness of the law of karma and its consequences. This is a sobering consideration unlike the promises of easy happiness, quick salvation or instant enlightenment. While these fantasies appeal to our desires, they do not address the actualities of how the universe works, and leave us cheated and deceived in the end when the inevitable effects of our karma must manifest.
Presently our species has not yet seen the worst of what its collective karma has created. We blindly imagine that our consumerist civilization can continue, with affluence and pleasure for everyone, or at least for our own country. Yet if we look deeply at all, we can easily see that our growing social and environmental problems must continue until we remove their cause in our wrong relationship to life. To evolve as a species, we must face and transform this collective karma.
The Action of Enlightenment
The truly enlightened or Self-realized individual brings higher forces to the Earth from the power of his or her liberated consciousness. That is how individual enlightenment can uplift the entire world, even without any overt external actions. Such individual enlightenment, however, is not the enlightenment of the separate self-which is a contradiction in terms – but that of the soul, our universal being which is inherently one with all. It does not occur through denying or ignoring karma but through reaching a level of action that is no longer external or bound by time. An enlightened individual becomes a secret Sun, pouring the radiance of awareness out to all beings. His sacred fire is that of the sacred heart of all beings.
One cannot be free of karma without becoming everyone and everything. That is why we hear of great saints and yogis in the wilderness befriended by wild animals. They did so by honoring the sacred presence in all beings, not by regarding themselves as more enlightened or better than other creatures.
One is reminded the story of Ramana Maharshi, the great sage of South India, who liberated his own cow when the animal died. When his disciples asked him how the cow called Lakshmi had fared, he replied that she had achieved Self-realization. Not believing that a cow could attain such an exalted spiritual state, they asked if she gained complete Self-realization or just a higher, presumably human birth. Ramana replied that it was the same Self-realization that any human being could achieve, and which few even dedicated disciples ever reach. At his ashram today, there are not only shrines to Ramana and his great disciples but also to Ramana’s favorite animals – a cow, a dog, and a crow. Such sages are aware of the soul in animals and can communicate with them just as easily they can with other human beings.
While few of us can reach the state of supreme enlightenment, we can all bring aspects of enlightenment into our daily lives. We can bring a unitary consciousness into our greater environment, establishing our relationship with all aspects of the conscious universe from greeting the Sun in the morning to remembering the stars at night. We must respond to the evolutionary message of our karma, which is to take responsibility for our world and look upon all creatures as our own Self. All nature will support us in this endeavor if we recognize its movement as the expression of our own soul.