Navigating the Uncharted Waters of Karma in Times of Uncertainty
by Igor Kufayev
So we have this topic which can be approached from so many angles, and the reason we thought to come up with this topic is because it simply seems that this whole overall theme of the collective destiny, and what we are up to currently, affects every single one of us in whatever way. It may not even affect everyone in the most direct way, but what is happening today in the world affects us on the mental, psychological level, as we are being exposed to the information field. So, this theme was born to address these considerations: What is the moving force behind it all? What is at play? Because our propensity to be in externalized mode is already given. In other words, the propensity to be externalized and take everything at its face value is already there as that part of the human condition, which makes us particularly vulnerable to everything that is being felt, as if experienced externally.
But we cannot just go into the topics such as Navigating the Uncharted Water of Karma in Times of Uncertainty, unless we have some kind of shared consensus on what karma represents. Although a lot has been spoken about karma, and is continuously being spoken about karma, I have personally observed a lack of shared understanding on what it actually represents. So I thought maybe it would be good to give ourselves this crash course, in a nutshell, of what karma potentially represents, and what it is. Because, as I said earlier, there are voices out there, in today’s modern world of spirituality, that dismiss the existence of karma on account of the fact that karma only belongs to an individual and can only be for the individual. In other words, there is an interconnection between the mind – individual mind – and what we call karma, and yet, from the absolute point of view, there is no karma. In other words, there is no karma for the Absolute. And those more radical teachings speak constantly from that perspective of “All there is, is Awareness” – “Awareness” as that English term that currently exemplifies that maybe old notion of God, again, from the monistic perspective. So from the point of view of Awareness, karma simply doesn’t exist. So therefore, some speakers and teachers out there take that stand that karma is almost a kind of an anachronism, in terms of the whole concept let alone the philosophy behind it – and let alone the attempts to give a more intricate picture. I would like us to touch on these today as well, without getting completely – I don’t want to say lost – but without getting too much into the metaphysical concept of it, because I’d like this to be really relevant to each and every one of you. And if there is a possibility to relate and to convey something, then this would be really a great thing to do and I’ll feel happy if this will happen.
So, what is karma? Karma simply translates from Sanskrit as “action”; it’s that term that simply means action – karma. But it would be good to look into this and see what this action is, where it comes from, and how it is relevant. And also, how is it relevant to that which we experience here, undeniably, in the form of a combination of circumstances, which undoubtedly play themselves out in the way they do? So for that, I’d like you to give yourself that slightly relaxed, diffused mode of perception simply to listen to these considerations. We will begin from the well known and very well established notion that the sum total of our reality is the unmanifest Absolute and this manifested creation. So in other words, there is this Being – Being that stands here for that unmanifest Absolute which is the sole source of everything – and there’s this manifested world of forms and phenomena, the universe, everything perceivable down to the senses. So there’s this One in two – two in One. This Being is all there is. This Being – inconceivable, incomprehensible, unimaginable and beyond any approach of understanding. And yet, this very Being is also what we experience here as this shared reality, as this manifested world, because this Being is not separate for a split second, not separate from the manifested reality. And I’m deliberately abandoning and relaxing any specific terms which otherwise are often used, supporting these discourses. I just want to give it solely to the English term, the English language, so that whatever metaphysical perspective we may adopt or speak from, this then is, in a way, a shared platform of understanding. Differences may be there: some perspectives may be more monistic, more nondual, while others may be more dualistic which allow this division of the unbridgeable worlds between this world of reality that we share and partake in and that which is the source of it all, and therefore, lies in opposition. But let’s take the approach from that monistic perspective. And from the monistic perspective, Being, though the source and the sole reason and behind it all – we could say the manifested world of forms and phenomena springs forth from Being – Being never loses itself in the act of that Self-reflection. It remains Being and nothing else. Nothing happens to Being. This Being does not undergo any change whatsoever. Being remains Being. Nothing can be said about that. And within that Being, something must happen that prompts this Being to express itself in that which we call becoming, where out of nothing, something or everything is being made into existence.
So this metaphysical perspective requires an understanding of the force that moves or propels Being into its manifested way of expressing itself as this living universe, as this world. So, the Vedic teaching – and as a result, of course, Tantric teaching, yoga – holds the view that Being is manifest by virtue of the agency of prana. We allow ourselves to introduce this Sanskrit term here because we cannot find an adequate equivalent in English that will give us a more accurate picture. So this prana is, in a way, a movement, a throb, a quiver – some form of vibration in Being that prompts Being to spill out of its own plentitude into the plentitude of what then is being perceived by every single one of us, as the world we speak about now here, which stands immediately in opposition and relation to that unified field we call Being. So that prana, we could say, is the cause of it all. So that relationship between Being and prana is the relationship, we could say, between static and kinetic energy – but these are almost not very helpful terms because Being, of course, is beyond energy. Energy can be spoken of in application to maybe the term prana, but when we speak of Being, it is forever beyond any description. Anything that we can begin to attribute or describe will inevitably be doing a disservice to that which is beyond any possible conceptualization. And yet, we have this perspective that it is by virtue of prana that Being comes out of its plentitude – comes out of that complete state of stillness – without losing anything in turn, and without losing above all else that stillness. Out of silence everything comes, and yet silence remains silence.
Now, when prana, which is Being in its form of movement – in its form of vibration, as it were – begins to spill out and vibrate, it has to have something that acts as an agitating force. Some kind of force needs to be there, a force that will propel prana to carry on in breaking constantly into specific waves upon waves upon waves, which will generate what we then call this whole matrix of creation. And that force, the force that causes that agitation, is karma. So in other words, karma here is something which is self-born and is inseparable from prana itself, and that, in turn, gives birth to what we speak of as universal or cosmic mind. The problem here is that it is very difficult, metaphysically speaking, to determine whether it is karma that gives rise to the cosmic mind, or if it is the cosmic mind – that force of prana – which gives birth to karma. It’s like the story of the seed and the tree or the chicken and egg. Which came first? This is an irreconcilable story, because there is always something that is prior. We could say that there was a tree before the seed, because that’s a logical conclusion.
But it’s also equally true to say that there is a seed before the tree, and this cannot be reduced ad infinitum because there is no way to determine the propelling force which gives birth to this specific, what we now understand as, the connection between prana, karma, and mind that sets everything in motion. In other words, as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi beautifully put it in his classic book, The Science of Being and the Art of Living – giving this analogy that Being is this vastness of the ocean – it’s the unfathomable vastness and stillness of the ocean. And that which prompts that ocean to rise in waves is that breeze – or that wind of karma – that begins to ripple that surface of the ocean, which moves in waves; and these waves are that which give rise to the manifested world of form and phenomena.
So this helps us to locate the origin of prana and its connection to this cosmological perspective of how everything sits in relation to Being. And we can see now that everything that rises out of Being leaves Being intact and untouched by it all, and that is what gives the answer to the relationship status between Being and karma. Being remains forever unaffected by karma. In other words, there’s no karma for Being because this will be inconsistent with the very nature of Being. And yet everything else that rises out of the ocean of Being, rises out of Being by virtue of that connection between prana as Being in the form of movement – that vibration, the primordial, original vibration, within Being itself – and that breeze of karma. Where that comes from, is not known. It is not known and cannot be known, because this belongs to that area beyond, yet prior to the formation of the Cosmic Mind which is at the origin of all our individual capacity to think – in other words, that which is at the origin of all our individualized minds. And every individualized mind is individualized by virtue of that individuation that prana undergoes in the course of its expansion of Being in the form of frequency. So we can see here that interdependent connection that leaves Being completely untouched and uninvolved from the field of any activity, and at the same time, also obviously unaffected by karma – everything else is inevitably subject to karma. So karma here, spoken from that metaphysical, esoteric perspective, is in a way at the origin of it all.
So how can we speak about this now in relation to our individual experiences? And how can we also reconcile this in relation to the propositions that one can forgo karma or that one can go beyond karma, can rise beyond one’s individual karma, and so forth? It is important to give an overview in order to have insight into what is actually happening in terms of that which we now speak of as the individualized field, and how our individual karmas are forever now linked – because all of our individual minds are contained within the ocean of the greater mind, and therefore, forever interlinked with the karma of that cosmic mind. So there’s no individual karma that can be viewed and perceived as separate from the rest of creation. This is another important understanding in relation to what karma represents. Another definition for karma is that whenever it is spoken of in terms of universal law, then karma is spoken of in terms of the law of cause and effect. So other than just being an action, in this esoteric perspective we just painted out, it’s that unfathomable primordial action which, though it rises from the ocean of Being – or is rising in response to that vibration that prompts prana to carry itself throughout – that is what the origin of karma is. And in that chicken and egg or tree and seed story, karma is at the origin of it all, and in itself, is subjected to that origination. So you cannot separate these because it is interlinked to the very story of creation, if you will.
So let’s take this opportunity to give ourselves an example, before we continue, to see how this relates to the possibilities of how any individual can escape the grip of karma. How can one avoid karma? Because from the point of view of what we have spoken so far, everyone and everything is forever subjected to karma – no one is exempt. So if someone out there says that “well, so-and-so is no longer subjected to karma,” this is only true to a degree. So therefore, I want to give us an example here of that interconnectedness of karma and how it is spoken of within the Vedic tradition.
Most of you probably have heard about the concept of Mahavatars, the classically spoken of ten avatars. There are many, but there is this classical perspective of ten great incarnations of the Divine Principle responsible for preservation, which is the principle known as Vishnu in Hinduism – and that all comes from Vedic thought of course. So this concept of Mahavatars has this evolutionary taste and feel to it. It begins from that animal-like amphibious creature, until it reaches the incarnation into a human form, human as divine, and so forth. So there are ten classically spoken of: Mahavatar as a fish; Mahavatar as a turtle; Mahavatar as half human, half lion, body of a human, head of a lion; Mahavatar as this great warrior, slayer of kshatriyas; finally, we come closer to us, and the Mahavatar as Ram or Rama. After Rama, we have Krishna, and the latest being Buddha – all within that same traditional lineage of Mahavatars. And the tenth, the final as they saw, as the prophecy goes, is Kalki, which is supposed to arrive anytime. But what I want to draw your attention to is the interconnectedness of how, although each of these avatars that take form – whatever form is required for the preservation of evolution that Vishnu is the guardian of – in order to have that possibility for Vishnu to incarnate, it requires some form of karma. Therefore, each preceding avatar will leave or sow the seed for the avatar to come. And that’s how, for example, in the story of the relationship between Rama and Parashurama, who was prior to him, and they actually have to meet at some point – it is set in such a way that it creates a certain karmic tension, a possibility for Vishnu to incarnate. This is an example that shows how even the highest or divine principles that Vishnu here represents is still subjected to karma. Because karma here is intrinsically linked to the possibility of taking a form.
This somehow should echo the very primordial myth we just spoke of earlier on, in terms of the origin of karma. Because if we reflect on this, we might arrive with some kind of realization that the very existence of the world of forms and phenomena, in the first place, is impossible unless there is some principle of action in motion – unless there is this principle of karma at play, which will then very intricately play itself out. I would like to read a short excerpt from one of Sri Aurobindo’s works. It’s just a small brochure format, a small book, The Problem of Rebirth by Sri Aurobindo. And there is a fitting paragraph I thought to read here which I think elaborates this in a beautiful and profound way:
Fundamentally, the meaning of Karma is that all existence is the working of a universal Energy, a process and an action and a building of things by that action – an unbuilding too, but as a step to farther building – that all is a continuous chain in which every one link is bound indissolubly to the past infinity of numberless links, and the whole governed by fixed relations, by a fixed association of cause and effect, present action the result of past action as future action will be the result of present action, all cause a working of energy and all effect to the working of energy. The moral significance is that all our existence is a putting out of an energy which is in us and by which we are made and as is the nature of the energy which is put forth as cause, so shall be that of the energy which returns as effect, that this is the universal law and nothing in the world can, being of and in our world, escape from its governing incidence. That is the philosophical reality of the theory of Karma, and that too is the way of seeing which has been developed by physical science.
Sri Aurobindo goes on to elaborate the limitation of how physical science, even back in his days, limits the understanding of what we mean by the law of cause and effect in relation to what karma represents here.
So, now back to what we have touched upon here. What is it then, and how does this translate in terms of our deeply personal state of affairs? Is there a way out of karma? Or how does it all work? What is actually subjected to karma here? How are we subjected? Because all too often we come across, in my view, a two dimensional if not superficial understanding of karma. For example, if someone thinks that karma is an exact return of an action performed, then this might be a somewhat distorted perspective. If I sat on this rock, does that mean that that rock will sit on me in a future life? Or what if I happen to hit a tree whilst driving? Does that mean that I’m karmically interlinked with this tree, that somehow I would have to reincarnate as a car or as a tree to be hit? These are not very helpful understandings, let alone thinking of karma in terms of destiny or, as some people interpret it, that karma is a kind of reaping the fruits of one’s actions as a way of punishment – because this is far from it. In other words, it works in a much more complex and more refined way in terms of how karma affects and impacts us all. This will become clearer when we speak of the three principal types of karmas, as I call them, or streams of karma – but for now back to the individual.
So what gets affected here by karma? And we speak of karma here now in relation to spiritual processes, and in relation to freedom as the freedom from binding influences of our actions. It’s worthy to remind ourselves that the connection between karma and mind is such that, because it is indeterminable, as we have suggested, which one comes first – and yet both are utterly and entirely interlinked – equally true will be the conclusion that when there is no mind there is no karma. So this is a very important realization. Since our mind operates mostly at the gross, superficial level, driven by the senses and subjected to patterns of thinking processes, it seldom and rarely reflects what mind is in its essence. So this is where that esoteric dimension of that primordial or creational perspective – you could call it a myth if you want – is being reflected here in any specific particular setting or situation, and that is what makes transcendence so important. That’s what makes meditation so important, because the only way to escape the grip of karma is to reestablish the mind in the field of Being. For up until the mind is taken outside of the field of Being – and mind being a reflection of Being – the mind will be constantly immersed and engrossed in the field of most superficial experiences which are always subjected to karma. So this is the link; this is the connection. Therefore, meditation, from that point of view, is spoken of as a superior way of going beyond karma. Because it is in meditation where the possibility is introduced to experience the cessation of activity to such a degree where mind begins to reflect, as it were – settled mind – nothing other than the field of Being, which is the very nature of the mind. As you know, mind is sattvic in its essence, so it reflects Awareness as Awareness when it is in a completely settled state – in a state of zero metabolic activity – and uninvolved with any fluctuations that come from sensory input and mental agitation.
So therefore, that yogic perspective – yogas chitta vritti nirodha – is now being reevaluated by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which defines the state of union and the state of yoga. It is also true in relation to how an individual can escape or go beyond the influence of karma. Why is it that one does not experience this directly, and why does one have to go through that process of bringing everything to a settled state, so as to regain that capacity? This can be viewed from the perspective of what is spoken in terms of that agitation. That primordial agitation is the cause of the creation. But it’s also here locked in that catch-22 cycle where cause and effect are inevitably linked – locked we could say – and therefore, all activity of a human being, from the point of view of spiritual realization, is nothing other than going around in circles unless one cuts oneself free from what can be spoken of in terms of that wheel of samsara.
And the wheel of samsara – another helpful term, helpful concept – is nothing other than what defines karma in the sense of the psychological imposition that it causes. Why is that? Because the karma and mind are interlinked, and it is the subtle impression that we end up with, and that which impresses the mind at the subtlest level, is what produces karma.
I’d like to pause here because this is significant if you want to understand what really causes karma. And I don’t want to go into overly controversial topics because this may raise a few eyebrows, but just to say, it’s not the action per se. It’s not what we do with our bodies that produces karma, but that subtle impression that is left after on the mind which is what contributes to that which locks it all into that catch-22 I spoke of a moment ago. Or we can speak about it as a merry-go-round or something which has that element of being in the groove, and hard to get out – a subtle impression that is left on the mind. And that also, in turn, explains why one can, even in this human – so-called individual – form, forgo the influence of karma in terms of the bigger picture. It’s not that one will no longer be subjected to karma – because there is karma that is yet to come. But one can forgo the fruits of the actions whose seeds have been stored, accumulated from time immemorial as the mental field – as that which is in turn the very reason for our incarnation, just as it happened with the Mahavatars. Just as there is an interconnection between each incarnated aspect of Vishnu, there is the same karmic dependency for each and every one of us to come here on account of what and how our mental field has been influenced in the previous life, which casts the destiny now. I’m using this term for the life to be enjoyed in the next body.
And yet, yoga here speaks in terms of the possibility of forgoing that merry-go-round, providing our mind is repeatedly experiencing – well, let’s just put it in plain language – getting in touch directly with the field of Being. The beingness of Being is what the mind needs to return to, to such a degree that it fails to be colored by anything that happens to the mind in its gross activities that inevitably take over when we are out of the more transcendent states, let alone deep samadhis. You see the interconnection and the interdependence here? So if the mind knows directly by virtue of simply becoming, being returned to that state, where mind simply ceases to be – it ceases to be that which everything else then comes with as a package. And that repeated exposure, when the mind comes back out into the field of activity, it fails to be impressed by phenomenal experiences because it’s already being impressed now in turn by that much subtler field – incomprehensibly, inconceivably much finer frequencies of what mind experiences in these states of transcendence. This is what makes spiritual practice so important. None of the talks of the so-called direct paths that you expose yourself to, where someone says to you “There’s no karma because there’s no you. Don’t worry about it. There’s no karma. All this is just nonsense. You are not who you think you are.” If you think that that is enough to make the mind bulletproof, as it were, to the comings and goings of what otherwise the mind is constantly subjected to, then one is in gross misunderstanding of how everything works here. Not that it’s not healthy and helpful to be exposed to teachings, discourses, darshans, satsangs, where one is being given this or that reminder, this or that perspective – but what we are pointing out here is the sheer limitation to the actuality of the situation.
So I thought to bring this as a reminder, even in a nutshell, in terms of how karma can be transcended through the transcendence of the mind. When the mind is transcended, then that which impresses, that which otherwise influences that subtle field, that after taste – any action, any experience that we are subjected to and we undergo – fails to imprint because the mind is already beyond that field where any action can do to the mind: that mind is free of karma. This is a subtler dimension of Karma Yoga, not to speak about it in terms of karma yoga as it is understood today as selfless action – which also has its place and role – but the inner dynamics, or the mechanics rather, of how it works, of what takes the mind outside the field of the influence of karma.
With this being said, natural legitimate questions arise: “So what about being influenced and subjected to karma? After all, we read an excerpt from Sri Aurobindo that everything, whatever that is in the world, is inadvertently subjected to the law of karma. How does that work? Is there any human being who is karma free?” Well the answer to that actually cannot be given. You can come up with your own understanding. [However] to complete this picture, it will be good to speak about three types of karma so as to have a greater understanding of why so-and-so, even though clearly having done their spiritual work and being spoken of and referred to as having gone beyond this identification with mind/body, why do they still get subjected to karma? So hear this: classically speaking, there are prarabdha, sanchita, and agami types of karma. I speak of them as streams, with sanchita being the sum total of all karmas accumulated, like the whole totality of that which is being accumulated – you could call it a bank account – something which is there. It’s yours, it belongs to you, unique. Parabdha, on the other hand, is that portion of karma which is manifested in this life, in this incarnation, and it’s unchangeable. Parabdha karma is the DNA of our setup: who and how we came into this world, who were our parents, what was our setup in terms of upbringing, and everything all belongs to that prarabdha karma. In other words, the karma that already brought its fruits, manifested. And agama or agami is that portion of karma which is constantly in the making. In other words, it’s what we are making at each and every instance. Sanchita is not known to us; it’s the sum total. It still belongs to what is yet to come. Prarabdha is already known: I know I was born in this or that country, approximately or exactly at that time, into this gender, to these parents. Whatever further set up, how it was developed – that’s all prarabdha. Sanchita is what comes unexpectedly, unasked for, because it is what is there, and it manifests itself whenever the situation is ripe. And agami is that portion or that type which is open, in this case, to our input – the so-called free will – because it’s what we do at every given moment. At every given moment, we contribute to the formation of some kind of karma, which is that type – that type that is being made right now.
Right now. Any decision – from small, trivial to important, impactful – is all subject to that agami karma. So this is also given very often tremendous attention and significance in terms of spiritual work, because sanchita is unknown and prarabdha we cannot do anything about – it’s there. But it is here [with the agami] where we can exercise that power of co-authorship, if you will. This is where we are opened to collaboration, to co-creation. The others can only be accepted. Nothing can be done about it. One can lament about it. One can be happy, unhappy, one can be pleased, unpleased – it makes no difference whatsoever. But with agami there is a possibility of becoming the co-author of your own life.
So these are the three types of karma and this also should explain if one has the question of “Can one reach Self-realization, illumination, enlightenment, and then be free from karma?” Yes and no. No, because that sanchita karma will continue to play itself out. What is yet to come, which is not known to us, will be equally true to the ignorant, equally true to the man or woman of knowledge, and everyone in between. No one is exempt. This also explains why people set these expectations and then it becomes even tougher than before – because there is also something worth mentioning which we talked a lot about in relation to Kundalini processes: that with the awakening, if the awakening is true, authentic, and powerful enough, it is always accompanied by the acceleration of that karma which needs to exercise itself, which needs to play itself out. This is very well known to those in the know. And it’s even explained in terms of the spiritual anatomy of how that is. Karma is stored in sushumna anyway. So when the force of Kundalini goes into sushumna, it squeezes these dormant karmas out of our system, with a speed which is often accelerated compared to if we were to remain adrift, asleep, aloof, and in a state of homeostasis. In other words, what could have taken 10 years will happen to us in the span of one year – just as an example, not to make any conclusions out of that. But just saying that it is observable and has been noted how this is true in the cases of authentic spiritual unfoldment where this is accompanied by the acceleration of the expulsion of these latent samskaras, which are inseparable from expulsion of the karma. Because certain things need to be experienced – they need to be experienced because of the very law, the very nature, of how karma works.
Can we say anything now to bridge the very theme Navigating the Uncharted Waters of Karma in Times of Uncertainty? What can be said here? Now going into the more superficial level of conversation: so who is doing all this? Who is doing all this COVID? Who is doing all these vaccines? Who is doing the pandemic? What’s the shadow state? Who is rich and who is poor here? What’s going on? Who is in charge? How do I relate to all this? You see how the propensity to get externalized is already given? We are constantly at the mercy of externalization. Our mind here is already subjected to that. It’s out of its seat; it’s out of the seat of Being. This is what I was pointing out. All these meanderings, all these conversations, taking sides and polemics, it’s further taking away the mind from clearly seeing what is happening. It never happens at this level. Karma cannot be accessed at the level of superficial understanding, let alone actions performed at the level of actions. So therefore, navigating the uncharted waters of karma is already a hidden dimension of what is the theme of this webinar – Navigating the Uncharted Waters of Karma in Times of Uncertainty. Yes, of course we can speak about trying to apply esoteric knowledge and understanding into the so-called today’s predicament and situation. How does all this work itself out? Is there a way out of this? What are we going to do?
If you have listened attentively enough, you will see that all these are really impotent attempts at trying to get oneself oriented to what is going on right now, which by virtue of what karma represents, is what links unites and connects us all in ways that are incomprehensible for us. Therefore, it’s not by anyone’s making. No one is trying to get in charge of the situation. [Yes] all this, at the superficial level, is true. At the gross level of conversation, we can begin to express and to take sides of a certain sentiment. But if we want to truly touch the very essence of the driving force behind it all, it is inevitably taking us to that interconnection of mind and karma in the first place – relevant to the individual, relevant to the collective consciousness. Just as it is applicable to the individual consciousness, it is applicable to the collective consciousness.
So these times of uncertainty are precisely times of uncertainty because if we already know something, by virtue of the fact that we know that, then that which we know cannot bring anything qualitatively different other than what we know.
So, the uncertainty here has a completely different element. Instead of having negative connotations, it is actually taking the colors of positive connotations. The uncertainty here is the principle of getting in touch with the field of pure potentialities where everything can come into being, in a manifested way, by virtue of the way Being expresses itself. And that which we undergo currently, right now, is no different than any other phase in the history, let’s say, of the human species. There’s nothing more peculiar or more specific. It feels to us acutely so because we are alive, and it is relevant right now to the situation of how we live. But if our experience is driven by the avalanche of all the information that is out there, then there’s very little room and space left for any insights, introspection, or reflection, let alone transcendence and going beyond, where the possibility of seeing clearer can arise.
— Igor Kufayev, excerpt from the Online Darshan “Navigating the Uncharted Waters of Karma in Times of Uncertainty”, Mallorca, December 2021.
Watch the excerpt “Why Meditation is Important for your Karma” from this Online Darshan with Igor on our YouTube channel.
Images: courtesy of Flowing Wakefulness.