Karma, Definition

The Webster dictionary’s definition of the word karma
(1) In Buddhism and Hinduism, the totality of a person’s actions in one of the successive
states of his existence, thought of as determining his fate in the next.
(2) Loosely, fate; destiny (Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition).

To understand the first definition one has to delve into Indian thought on action and its results. Thus one has to bring in the theory of reincarnation (punarjanma), the seemingly endless cycle of births and deaths (saṁsāra), and the exercise of self-effort or free-will (puruṣārtha) to fashion our lives while living, despite being subjected to the force of karma.

The concept of liberation or freedom is called mokṣa in Hinduism, nirvāṇa in Buddhism and satori in Zen-buddhism. In many bhakti, that is, devotional traditions (in both Indian and Western religions) this freedom is considered to be eternal life in Heaven after death. Attaining liberation is the primary goal of spiritual and religious practices such as yoga in India, as well as in the three principal ancient religions of India – Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. These practices that are actions (physical or mental) are also called karma – the etymological meaning of the word karma is action. The dictionary citation here has a philosophical overlay on this word, and this overlay is the focus of this blog.

Subtle Result of Karma, Action, also called Karma

Creation in Indian thought and mythologies is cyclical. The usual term used for creation is anādi (beginningless). In this beginningless creation, birth is a soul gaining a physical body on this Earth at any one time. The soul comes with a collection of karma, but it is just a fraction of the karma accumulated over countless births through choosing good and bad actions. In this context, this word karma does not mean action but the subtle results of actions, more precisely called karmaphala in Sanskrit. Unfortunately, it is common practice to use the same word karma to mean both action and result of action. As the English dictionary definition above refers to the subtle result of one’s actions in countless births, we will also use the word karma to mean only karmaphala, the subtle results of one’s actions in this blog post.

Note the important words ‘subtle results’ and ‘by exercising one’s choice (exercise of free will)’ in defining karma. The subtle results that occur are technically called adṛṣṭaphala (adṛṣṭa-unseen, phala-result of an action). This is a religious concept: if a person steals from another, the action can be punished in the perpetrator’s lifetime if he is found by law enforcement. This may be called dṛṣṭaphala, a seen result in this world while the person is alive. In addition, the result of this harmful action still accrues to his soul, and this subtle or unseen result is also called karma. The same is true for an act of kindness, compassion, helping the needy etc… The word ‘sin’ (pāpa) refers to the result of harmful actions, and ‘virtue’ (puṇya) to the effect of beneficial actions. Note that there is no cancellation of sin and virtue, it is not a zero sum game! This fact that there is no escape from the result of one’s harmful or beneficial actions, simply because one is not caught by man-made laws in this lifetime is a concept common to both Eastern and Western religious traditions. The result of good karma is to drive a person toward pleasant experience while that of bad karma is toward painful experience. Karma can be exhausted only by experiencing the effect (as a positive or negative experience).

Three types of Karma: Sañcita ‘total-collected’ ,
Āgāmi ‘to come in future’ and Prārabdha, ‘well-begun’

Karma is grouped under three classes – sañcitakarma, āgāmikarma and prārabdha- karma. The first one, sañcitakarma literally means wellearned results of actions. This represents the accumulated results of a soul’s actions while embodied in a life form capable of choice, that is, by exercise of free-will over eons of birth/death cycles. This, according to tradition can be only possible by humans in this world. Since creation is cyclical, that is beginningless, any soul has a big total karmic load.

The second one, āgāmikarma means results of future actions of the soul when embodied as a human being. In our lives we do many good and bad acts by exercising our free-will. The results of these acts will result in future karmic load. This potential karmic burden is  āgāmikarma.

Now to the question of a birth of a living being, and this is where the third type of karma comes in. The birth can be that of a plant, an animal, bird or human. According to the doctrine of karma, a small fraction of the total karmic load of sañcitakarma, called prārabdhakarma (karma that has begun fructification) gives rise to entry of the soul in a body and thence to the birth of a living being. Thus birth really means a soul acquiring a physical body to use up this prārabdha-karma, and death is dropping off the mortal coil when this quantum of total karma is used up. This specific karma load that results in a birth is always a mixture of good and bad karma. Thus every living being is subject to ups and downs of experiences in life.

This karma concept explains countless births and deaths – the different physical bodies the soul inhabits for some time. This also explains how two living beings born at the same time and place, and even identical twins, can have entirely different sets of life-experiences. Being brought up in this tradition in India, when I see a person here carrying a little poodle dressed in velvet, I think “The soul in that dog’s body is born with good karma, while many dogs in my country of birth are being pelted by little stones by street urchins!”

To the question “why not keep taking births and deaths, for at each birth a bit of the karma is used up, and eventually this sañcitakarma will be gone, and the soul will be free?” The answer is that samsāra, the cycle of births and deaths is endless as long as the soul, born as a human being can and will add to the karmic load. So, there is no end to transmigration and thus no freedom for the soul.

The Concept of Karma and Respect for Every Life Form

First let us answer the question ‘how does karma apply to other living beings’? It is clear from the theory of karma that all living beings are equal in the sense that souls have no inherent distinction among them except for their their karmic load.  This idea, in a practical sense manifests as treating all life forms as sacred, since one soul inhabiting a body is not superior or inferior to any other soul. The difference is just the body which the soul inhabits limits the capacity of the soul to manifest. Thus the ‘higher forms of life’ only have better equipment through which the soul can manifest.

This underlies vegetarianism and the idea of ahimsā, to not willfully do violence to other life forms by thought, word or deed. But one may argue that vegetables also are life forms, not superior or inferior to the human. It is also known that life lives upon life, so the tradition recommends doing the least harm consistent with keeping the human life going. Thus vegetarianism centers on not killing a life form that is manifest in bodies that are capable of moving away from you when you try to kill them. Doubtless it is arbitrary, but the line is drawn at as low a point in the food chain as is feasible.

A small digression here to highlight this aspect of being a vegetarian: In the 1980s when I was working for a high-tech company, one of my colleagues, a microbiologist, questioned me on being a vegetarian. “Ram, how do you justify being a vegetarian since yanking a carrot to eat also is killing a living being according your religion?” I had to explain to him this principle of doing least harm and eat as low in the food chain as possible adding “If one of these days, an eggplant starts running away from me, I will stop picking and eating egg plants!” He persisted “How about eggs? They cannot run away from you. Why don’t you eat eggs?” I have to be honest here (though I do not eat omelettes or other dishes where the egg looks at me which is just an emotional rather than rational reaction) I do eat ice cream and cakes! My reply to him was “True, but I still look upon the eggs as potential chickens! I do eat cakes here since in this country it is illegal to sell fertilized eggs, and so there is no potential for life to manifest in them. I also take milk products since they are not obtained by killing cows.” That seemed to satisfy his curiosity about vegetarianism. The idea of veganism is based on the premise of not treating as commodities sentient animals – vegans do not use any animal product including milk, honey, wool or  leather. Even stricter are many Jain monks who wear a mask to avoid inhaling some life form, and use a broom to clean the area where they step to eliminate the possibility of accidentally killing insects.

All living beings other than humans are born just to use up the small quantum of karmic load that gave birth to a specific body for the soul to inhabit. They live that life subject to ups and downs which are the effects of karma, with no ability to do good or bad actions, being entirely driven by instinct. The tradition thus calls such a body a bhoga-śarīra, a body for enjoying/enduring the karma the soul came with. Humans are given a special place since only the human being can exercise free will, however limited it may be, by choosing to do a good action or desist from doing a bad action.

Human Being and Karma – Is Karma fate?

The second definition in the dictionary is
Loosely, fate; destiny” (Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition) .

Indian religious and or philosophical systems stress that the human birth is unique and special since only the human can either increase the karmic load by choosing bad or good actions, or strive towards liberation, by exercising his/her free will. Thus one can choose to overcome impulse-driven action by using viveka, the discriminative ability of the human intellect. This exercise of choice is the basis of human advancement. Thus it was possible to ‘liberate’ us to some extent from the ravages brought about by Nature. I use ‘liberate’ here in the sense of using appropriate measures to minimise Nature’s impact on man.

A minority of people in India believe that Karma is fate or destiny, the second meaning in Webster’s Dictionary cited earlier. This idea of total determinism or preordination by some Superior Power is reflected in almost none of the cultural, religious and philosophical pursuits common in India for millennia. For example, the primary emphasis of vedic astrology is interventional and not just predictive of potential life events. Also, there are many temples in India which are centuries old, with idols made before sculpting of granite or marble was known. Thus we know temple worship has been there for a very long time. Worship is an act of choice, and even today there are billions all over the world who believe in the effect of prayer and find it provides both mental and actual relief from problems.

The concept of liberation of the human being from this cycle of lives is the basis of Yoga, Vedānta, Buddhism, Jainism and several other theological or purely philosophical systems. All these point to the human being choosing to act. This choice is by execise of free will. These actions are able to mediate the effect of past karma.

In actual life, karma must be looked upon as predispositions, certain urges to act in a particular way, resulting in pleasant or unpleasant experiences in life. But the uniqueness of human beings is that one is endowed with a certain amount of free will / choice, which one can and must exercise to mediate this rather powerful karmic predisposition, though apparently going against karma’s mandate. Based on my science background, I look upon karma like genes with which one comes into life. Genes show a predisposition to certain diseases but do not predetermine their incidence. An informed human being can and will take actions to minimise or forestall the effect of the genetic predisposition. It is also seen that despite the best actions taken by exercising choice one can still succumb to the disease due to genetic predisposition and environmental factors. Similarly, one’s actions to mediate the ill effect of karma can be looked upon as an attempt at a karmic override by human effort.

I look upon the interaction between the effect of one’s karmic repository and actions by choice / free will to go against it, to be similar to  a tug of war. I would like to end this section with a favorite story of the late Swami Chinmayananda, one of my two Vedānta teachers. “Imagine a cow tied to a post with a very long rope. It is free to graze as far as the rope will allow. Beyond that, however much the cow tries, it cannot go farther. Your karma is like that long rope. Just as the cow does not know the length of the rope, you too do not know what is the force of karma to pull you back, but you have to push as far as you can go (like the cow in this story) using your limited free will.” This is what the tradition calls exercising one’s puruṣārtha (the Sanskrit word equivalent to free will or choice).

In conclusion, the connotation of karma, meaning results of actions of previous lives, does not mean it is totally deterministic. Fate or destiny, as commonly understood is not the correct way to look at one’s karma. The other meaning, the primary etymological meaning of the same word karma is action. Exercise of free will, that is, choice is karma, meaning action. This also is a very important and relevant topic that needs exploration, and I will take it up in my next blog post.

In my last blog post Mind and I, the focus was how to become the master of one’s mind. In the well known yogasūtras of Patañjali, he says īśvarapraṇidhānād vā. This sūtra means ‘Or, one can gain this complete mastery mind by total dedication to Īśvara [God]’.  He follows this with a few more aphorisms on the definition of God and the name of God, the syllable Om. No other name, form, function or relationship to creation is given. In our yogasūtra group we continue to discuss the few aphorisms on this topic of God over several sessions (www.sutratalk.com).

This question of God almost always comes up during my conversations with many of my friends and relatives. It takes many forms – “I do not believe in idols, many Gods and worship”; “I do not believe in droning on mantras without knowing what they mean”; “I believe in a Higher Being and praying is not my thing”; “I do not pray but I meditate” and similar sentiments. Long ago, in an interfaith seminar, I heard a buddhist declaring ‘we do not believe in God’. This blog post focuses on the topic of God and the worship of idols in our homes and temples, the milieu in which I was born and raised.

At the outset I have to say that I do not think it is possible to logically establish the existence or non-existence of God. His/Her/Its existence is asserted by resorting to scriptures, a kind of logic called śruti-sammata-yukti in Sanskrit. Also I do not think that anyone can be commanded to have faith or belief in God, scriptures or to take up a religion. One has to discover in oneself a faith or belief in God, develop a personal relationship not through externally imposed religion, culture and society. With this caveat I delve into this topic.

The Webster dictionary’s definition of the word God:

(1) A being conceived of as possessing supernatural power and to be propitiated by sacrifice, worship, etc.; a divinity; a deity; an object of worship; an idoland, (2) ‘The Supreme Being; the eternal and infinite Spirit, the Creator, and the Sovereign of the universe’ (Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition).

In my tradition several names are used to refer to God. As far as I  know, there is no semantically equivalent word in Indian languages to the Anglo-Saxon word God. A few popular names in Tamil and Sanskrit follow.

Tamil words: there are two commonly used words in Tamil – Iraivan (இறைவன்) and Kadavul (கடவுள்). One of the meanings of the first word is ‘The Lord’, though the word can also mean all pervasive. The second word can have two meanings – ‘One who is inside’ and ‘One who transcends everything’.

Sanskrit words:  A few words are common – Īśvara ( ईश्वरः), The Lord; puruṣa (पुरुषः), indweller, all pervasive; and paramātman (परमात्मा), the limitless self. Limitless means not limited by time and space. Note the word ātman is also resolvable to one who dwells in the body and one who is all pervasive.

Note that a majority of these traditional words indicate nature of God to be both indweller in all living beings and all pervasive. This is not just the words I cite here but what is stated in many of the Upaniṣads, the last portion of the Vedas, also known as Vedānta. The vision of Vedānta is that one Limitless manifests as both the creation and the consciousness in all creation. The word limitlessness naturally includes no limitation of either time or space. This Limitlessness (called Brahman in the Upaniṣads), from the standpoint of the created world is called by the word God (Īśvara  or puruṣa or paramātman). In reality nothing exists apart from this God including me, the devotee.

The question then for the believer is ‘How can I focus my mind on such a Being that includes me, the entire phenomenal world and beyond?’ This is where one uses a form or name as a focus for the mind on this Limitless Being called God. My Vedānta teacher used to cite the flag and the national anthem of a country as examples of symbols representing the country. It is not that the song is the country, nor is it that piece of cloth. We superimpose on that piece of cloth and the sound of the anthem the lofty vision of the vast nation we live in to pay our respect. This conscious superimposition is called upāsanam in Sanskrit.

So too, in a temple, the idol symbolizes that which defies all definition and description. This unfortunately is not widely understood, nor is it stressed or taught when one becomes an adult. Thus the whole temple worship is reduced to the idea that God is other than, and separate from, the human being, and our role is to worship Him/Her. By His/Her Grace one gains freedom, either here in terms relief from pain and sorrow or, after death of the physical body, in Heaven. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding of the idea of God (as revealed in Upaniṣads) results in establishing, if not perpetuating the I-God duality, master-servant mentality with inescapable logical inconsistencies about creation and the creator. It is left to the ‘mystical’ side of most religions to explore the existing essential non-duality between me and God. This idea itself is considered sacrilegious in many religions. In the Indian tradition however, this teaching of nature of God is relevant even today. The appreciation of the existing non-duality between the created me and the Creator can be nurtured during our lifetime. This knowledge is considered to be the highest knowledge, parāvidyā.

The representation of God as an idol is a symbol one uses for the purpose of worship. There can be two types of symbols, pratīkā, sound symbol and pratimā form symbol. The sound symbol Om referred to by Patañjali in his Yogasūtras is considered to the most sacred symbol. Māndūkyopaniṣad is dedicated to elaborating the symbolism of this sound. This and a number of other sound symbols in the tradition are not God, but indicators or pointers representing God.

With this in mind, idols and idol worship in temples can be seen as symbols pointing to the divine, and form an integral part of almost all religions, though in different modalities. This idea of God, concretized as a pratimā, form symbol is the idol in a temple. This separation of God from me, the devotee, not appreciating the true nature of God, nor understanding the symbolism behind the symbol is what is called ‘idol worship’. This type of blind idol-worship is ridiculed in a millennia old Tamil verse.

Natta kallai daivam enru nālu pūvum sāttiye
Suttivandu munumunukkum mūda mandiram edadā
Nattakallum pesumo nādanullirukkaiyil
Sutta satti sattuvam kariccuvai aryumo.

Offer a few flowers on a stone that is planted (in a temple),
Circumambulate (that stone) mumbling some dumb chants,
Will that stone talk while the Lord is within?
Can the ladle that stirs a curry know the taste?

Even so, the tradition of temple going, offering flowers and circumambulating the sanctum sanctorum mumbling some chants whose meaning is not known, is still alive and vibrant in modern India, including in the software capitals of Hyderabad and Bangalore! More new temples are being built and old ones renovated across the subcontinent. Despite the possibility that many of such temple-going worshippers have no idea nor interest in understanding the philosophical underpinnings of God, Creation and the devotee, they do gain peace of mind and relative quietude.

This tradition, like many other religious traditions believes in divine Grace and that it helps the devotee. Also it is said that this act of what appears to be an empty ritual in itself, but performed in a dedicated manner can make one see God everywhere. There was a Tamil saint who lived a few centuries ago who was an ardent devotee of Lord Śiva, who used to fetch flowers from his garden daily to offer at the altar in his home. One day while in the garden he realized that the flowers he picked are but the same Śiva, the picker, the altar, the garden, and everything is but one Limitless Śiva. This is the culmination of true devotion to God. This kind of devotion is described in Nāradabhaktisūtra as one that ‘does not admit of otherness’.

 

My mind and I . . . !

A common thread among many questions I receive from my friends, relatives, and Vedānta students is the mind. Here are some typical questions: How do I deal with grief? How can I stop my wandering mind? How come I am unable to meditate? Why do I get bothered so much despite my dedicated years of study of Vedanta? Though the questions appear to be varied and many, the underlying issue is simple: “How can I get a handle on my mind?”

I remember one Vedānta teacher’s comment about body and mind: “Problems with the body? Never mind! Problems with the mind? Doesn’t matter!” By this play of words he drove home one of the underpinnings of both Yoga and Vedānta philosophies:  Both mind and body are matter. The mind is subtle matter; and the body, including the brain, is gross matter. I, the indweller of the body, am the wielder of the mind. Ironically, most of us feel that we ARE our minds. My emotions become me. Thus I say, “I am angry, I am sad, I am agitated, I am happy, I am peaceful,” and so on. The wielder of the mind is mistaken to be the mind. It is like the tail wagging the dog. Instead of wielding the mind, I get dragged by my mind wherever it goes.

Accepting this common and natural identification of ‘I’ with ‘my mind,’ let us explore what we can do to deal with the mind. But note that this, too, has to be done only with the mind!

In the Bhagavadgīta, a small section in the epic Mahābhārata written by Vyāsa, it is said “Mind indeed is the cause for bondage and freedom” (Bhagavadgīta 6-5). In this epic, Arjuna, the great warrior and the commander of an army, is stricken with grief at the prospect of having to lead his army in a fratricidal war. To help him deal with his mind in this state of confusion and despair, he asks his charioteer Kṛṣṇa for guidance, entreating him to be his teacher. Kṛṣṇa talks about freedom and the cause of the grief and sense of limitation Arjuna feels.

In this blog post I will not get into the central topic of Kṛṣṇa’s teaching, which is that the appreciation of the truth of one’s being is real freedom. Instead I will focus on what the bulk of Bhagavadgīta covers: the techniques we can use to accomplish a semblance of mastery of the mind. Patañjali’s Yogasūtra is also dedicated to this subject, defining yoga as mastery of the mind (Yogasūtra 1-2). Yogasūtra is the most extensive work on mastering the mind, a how-to manual for accomplishing this goal. A pure and steady mind is necessary to discover that we are not bound or limited, but always free and limitless.

Mind is difficult to control

During the course of the dialog in the Gītā, Kṛṣṇa describes the mind of a yogin to be as steady as a flame in a draft-free place (Bhagavadgīta 6-19)! Our inability to master the mind is eloquently stated by Arjuna: “Kṛṣṇa, mind indeed is agitation. I  think mind is very difficult to control like (controlling) the wind  (Bhagavadgīta 6-34).” Kṛṣṇa’s response to Arjuna’s plight is equally applicable to all of us today. He replies, “Undoubtedly mind is difficult to master, but it can be controlled by abhyāsa (practice) and vairāgya (dispassion) (Bhagavadgīta 6-35).” Haṭhayoga practitioners who delve into Patañjali’s Yogasūtras can relate to this prescription of practice and dispassion as the means to gain mastery of the mind (Yogasūtra 1-12). Following the footsteps of these two masters, Patañjali and Vyāsa, I will touch upon these twin handles of practice and dispassion to tame the mind. First let us review different practices.

Taming the mind – Part I. Abhyāsa (Practice)

The practice needed to tame the mind is meditation, a word that conjures up all kinds of images and misconceptions. Simply put, meditation is setting the mind at ease. This has nothing to do with religion, Eastern or Western, esoteric or exoteric. A mind at ease is a mind ready to learn. Only with a mind at ease can I be efficient and effective, a prerequisite for success in any type of endeavor. Meditation is a technique to consciously disengage ‘me’ from ‘my mind’, using the mind. This sounds paradoxical, but the reality is that we have only the mind we are blessed with, so we better start with what we have!

Attaching any belief system to meditation can give it a religious connotation that may not appeal to those who don’t subscribe to that religion. People familiar with Eastern religions are aware of many meditative practices associated with those religions, but such practices are present in almost all religions. Many of these techniques, stripped of their religious connotation, can be used to set the mind at ease.

Before I begin to describe some of the many meditative techniques, let me answer the most common question about meditation: How long must I practice? Real mastery in any field involves time and consistent effort. It is true in dealing with the mind as well. A spasmodic or sporadic foray into meditation will not be effective, irrespective of what kind of meditation you engage in. Consistently spending a few minutes a day will yield the results you are looking for.

I. Meditative techniques using the body

Mind being subtle, we can use a grosser, that is, more tangible thing like the body to gain mastery over it. Pūjā, daily worship of the Lord at an altar in the house, helps by focusing the mind on something that is far higher and holier than my body and mind. Taking a shower, picking flowers, doing the worship, and eating only after this daily activity is done have a two-fold benefit: gaining disciplined control over inherent tendencies, impulses, or moods that come in the way of this sacred task; and focusing the mind during this time of worship. Overcoming impulses makes the mind less capable of taking you for a ride with every little fancy.

A little digression here. When I was in fifth grade in a small town public school in India, there was an annual inspection by a District Educational Officer. He would go to classes, observe teaching, visit the administrative office, inspect documents, and write a report.  It was big deal for the headmaster of the school. I knew that the officer who visited our school was a Muslim, because he was wearing a muslim cap. In one class, right in the middle of the visit, the officer spread a small carpet on the floor, kneeled in the direction of Mecca, and started his namāz, prayer! This to me is an example of constant devotion to a Higher Being, even in the midst of  whatever else the person is called upon to do. The goal of any such religious observance centered on the body is to help one master the mind.

If you do not have an altar of worship at home, going to a temple daily is another activity that achieves the same result. In other religions, the common practice of routinely visiting a church, synagogue, or mosque has the same effect on the mind. Regular observance of fasts–fasting on ekādaśī (the eleventh lunar day after a full or new moon) for Hindus, Lent for Christians, Ramadān for Muslims, Yom Kippur for Jews–are also instances of use of the body as a means for mastering impulses while focussing the mind on something higher..

If you do not have a belief system to fall back on, yogāsana practice accomplishes the same objective. Anyone who is a long time yogāsana practitioner can attest to the efficacy of this secular activity. By a focus on postures, the mind becomes steady and free of distraction; and being regular in the practice helps master the mind’s impulses.

II. Meditative techniques using music and sound

A subtler physical activity to help gain control of the mind is to use chant, song, dance, listening to devotional songs, repetition of a thousand names of the Lord, and so on. Devout Muslims repeat the names of Allah, Catholics say the rosary, Buddhists chant to prepare for meditation. Chanting the Vedas or even listening to others chant produces an effect on the mind, even when the listener doesn’t know the meaning of the words. When I came to the United States in 1970, I heard for the first time Gregorian Chant in New York City. My mind was drawn to it, and I felt as though I were listening to Vedic chanting.

III. Meditative techniques using breathing

Use of breathing is another way to tame the mind. By this I do not mean different kinds of prāṇāyāma, but simply being aware of your breathing, being a witness to the autonomic process of breathing. This technique of observing the breath is one of the well-known meditative practices in Buddhism. It appears simple in that it does not need a correct posture or a teacher to train you in different types of prānāyāma, and it can be done even when you have a few free minutes. In reality, however, the practice is quite subtle; and before you realize it, the mind has wandered away, taking you with it!

IV. Meditative techniques using mantras

Mantra is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘that which protects one by just thinking of it.’ Thus, this is purely a mental process with no movement of the body, a silent, mental repetition of a meaningful sentence or just a few syllables that have no given meaning. Transcendental meditation (TM) uses mantras consisting of just syllables, called bījamantras. Bīja means seed. Just as by looking at a seed one cannot easily visualize the tree or the plant it will become, so too through learning the meaning of these mantras we will not know the deities to which they are dedicated or be able to assess their subtle effects on the mind. The most well-known single syllable mantra is Om. It is traditional belief that chanting Om leads one towards renunciation of worldly pursuits. Yogasūtra states that the name of the Lord is Om. Māndūkyopanisad elaborates on this syllable. This is usually the first syllable of most of the mantras centered on different names of the Lord.

It is generally believed that a mantra is not effective unless the person using it has been initiated into its use by a qualified teacher. However, if a person is interested in gaining a degree of mastery of the mind and has no means or desire to search for a person to provide this initiation, s/he can simply pick a mantra and repeat it mentally.

Here are some well known mantras and the name of the Lord to whom each is is dedicated: Om gam gaṇapataye namaḥ (Gaṇeśa, remover of obstacles), Om namaśśivāya (Śiva, destroyer of ignorance), Om namo nārāyaṇāya (Viṣṇu, the protector), Om namo bhagavate vāsudevāya (Kṛṣṇa, an incarnation of Viṣṇu).

A question that naturally comes up is “What if I am not a Hindu, or I am atheist? Can I  benefit from a mantra, whether it is composed of just syllables or has the Lord’s name associated with it?” The short answer is “Yes, you can and you will.” The reason is simple. You are not asking for any special benefit from this or that deity you do not care for or believe in. Nor do you care for the esoteric benefits of the mantra. You just use it as a tool to slowly gain control of your mind. You just want to be in charge of your mind.

V. Meditative technique of observing the mind

This method is the essence of vipassana, the mindfulness meditation practice well known in Buddhism. Vipassana is a Pali word; the Sanskrit equivalent is vipaścanam, meaning seeing clearly. The method is delightfully simple to describe, but in practice it is not that easy! You become the observer of your mind, its meandering thoughts, memories, conclusions, judgments and emotions, including boredom and frustration. You just remain a silent observer of whatever comes up in the mind without reaction. This very process results in developing a separation between you and the mind, the instrument you wield.

Taming the mind – Part II. Vairāgya (Dispassion)

Will any of these practices make me a better human being? The simple answer is probably not! These practices only make you adept in using the mind, a mind that is more focussed. Technically you have antahkarananaiscalyam, steadiness of mind; but you do not become automatically a more ethical, forgiving, loving and compassionate person, a better human being. These meditative practices only give you a superior tool, your mind; but you are the one who wields the tool. How you use the tool is dependent on your impulses and your unique set of likes and dislikes. And these can overpower you, causing you to lose control of your mind.

This is illustrated in many Indian epics and mythologies. In the epic Rāmāyaṇa, Rāvaṇa is described as a great devotee of Lord Śiva. He had superior steadiness of mind, but still his behavior was terrible. He abducted Rāma’s wife, refused to listen to the wholesome advice of his brothers and his wife, fought a war with Rāma, and was killed. In the process he lost one of his brothers, his son, and a part his capital was in flames. There are many mythological stories of great devotees of God and sages with great powers coming to grief due to unchanged behavior. The only way for one to become a better human being is to discover a value for positive qualities and work on changing habituated negative thought and action patterns. The tool for this task is the mind, and a steady mind can be more easily directed to changing oneself to be a better human being. The attitude that works synergistically with steadiness of mind and is equally necessary is vairāgya, dispassion.

Dispassion does not mean turning away from life, suppressing or denying our desires. Dispassion is the ability to  reduce our clinging and passionate attachment to certain concepts, things and beings. Typically the triggers for these attachments are external: they can be objects or people. The actions we take because of these attachments can be due to insecurity, fear, a need for control or recognition, and so on. Dispassion is based on a mature understanding of the triggers of these impulse-driven actions and the emotional attachments behind them. During moments of calmness and quietude, we can examine the reactions of the mind and see, just observe. This process of non-judgmental introspection is a sure way to gain control over the sort of  impulsive, desire-driven actions that invariably cause us grief and mental anguish.

The world around us is not going to change to accommodate you and me and satisfy all our quirks! The best method to achieve peace despite what happens around us is through this dual process of meditative practice and developing dispassion.  Following it, you can develop a mind that is both pure and steady, a mind that is managed by you, instead of the other way around.

 

The Icon and Invocation

 

The Icon

The name of the icon in the header of this website is Dakṣiṇāmūrti. This icon and the invocation verses that appear next to it both reflect the site name, avagamanam, meaning knowledge or discernment. Dakṣiṇāmūrti is a representation of Śiva, a teacher who imparts knowledge that dispels ignorance. This ignorance is not just ignorance of things, but the fundamental ignorance of taking myself to be this body and mind and seeing duality in the world, God, and myself. This ignorance of my true nature is what one may call original ignorance. Lord Śiva as Dakṣiṇāmūrti, the teacher, destroys this ignorance of myself, thus imparting spiritual knowledge. One sees this icon in all Śiva temples, facing south; and one can see people in front of this idol, sitting in meditation or standing and uttering a prayer to the deity.

 The Name

The name Dakṣiṇāmūrti. is a Sanskrit compound word. It can be understood in different ways. The most common and popular meaning is “a south-facing form.” Why is this icon  facing south? There are two possible explanations based on the Purāṇas (mythology). Lord Śiva faces south, the direction of death, because He dealt with Yama, the Lord of Death, to guarantee immortality to a devotee who was supposed to die at sixteen. From the spiritual perspective, real immortality is freedom from any limitation; and the means of gaining this freedom from limitation is what is taught by Dakṣiṇāmūrti. A second explanation of the name is that the abode of Lord Śiva is in Kailāsa in the Himālayas, at the northern extreme of India. Thus He faces the south where His seekers live, as He imparts this knowledge of freedom from limitation.

Another meaning provides a deeper insight into the name.The same compound can be resolved as “formless competent one.” The word ‘competent’ here implies the power of the Lord as the creator, sustainer and absorber of this universe. The word ‘formless’ tells us that there is no form associated with these competencies.

A third way one can interpret the word comes from the mechanism of word formation. Based on etymology, the meaning is “the limitless that is formless.” This meaning conveys the fact that the teacher of limitlessness must be limitlessness, and thus one cannot ascribe to that teacher a limited form, confined in space and time.

The first meaning is at the gross level of dualistic worship, asking for higher knowledge from the Lord as the teacher. The second meaning is at the phenomenological and theological level of the Lord as the creator, but removing the concept of an associated form. The third meaning is at the subtlest level, representing the core of the teaching.

The teaching imparted by Dakṣiṇāmūrti is that you, the seeker, are indeed limitlessness, referred to as Brahman in the Upaniṣads. This teaching is enshrined in statements like “That from which these beings are born, by which these are sustained and unto which they resolve, may you know that. That is Brahman.(Tattirīyopaniṣad, 3-1).

 Why Invocation?

It is traditional in almost all religions to offer a prayer when starting a venture, sacred or secular. The successful outcome of any task depends on three factors: adequate effort, time, and a third factor that is beyond our control. An example often cited to explain these three factors is planting a coconut palm. Though one may put in adequate effort to plant and care for the tree, one must also allow time for the tree to grow and become fruitful. Even if the effort and time are sufficient, a storm may fell the tree before any harvest is possible. This third and last factor, which is beyond our control, may be called fate, chance, probability or luck. Hindu tradition calls it Īśvara or daivam, meaning God.

 A religious person, therefore, invokes the grace of the Lord to achieve his/her goal, even if the goal is just a material gain. This is based on the understanding that everything is the Lord’s creation, and I seek grace for all my endeavors in this world.

 As I launch this website for the benefit of all spiritual seekers, I offer two verses of invocation dedicated to the teacher, Dakṣiṇāmūrti.

 Invocation Verses

Om namaḥ praṇavārthāya śuddhajñānaikarūpiṇe.
Nirmalāya praśāntāya Dakṣiṇāmūrtaye namaḥ. (1)

Om! I bow to Dakṣiṇāmūrti, who is the content of praṇava (the syllable Om),
who is free from any blemish, who is peace, and whose form is pure consciousness.

 

Īśvaro gururātmeti mūrtibhedavibhāgine
Vyomavadvyāptadehāya dakṣiṇāmūrtaye namaḥ. (2)

I bow to Dakṣiṇāmūrti, who appears as though divided into three forms of the Lord,
(my) teacher, and myself, (but) whose body is omnipresent like space.

Avagamanam is a Sanskrit word meaning
knowledge or discernment.

The word knowledge naturally raises the question, ‘knowledge of what’? According to Muṇḍakopaniṣad (1-4) one must gain two kinds of knowledge, higher and lower. Lower knowledge includes not only all branches of secular knowledge, but also the Vedic rituals and meditations that comprise the major portion of the Vedas and that are still practiced by followers of Hinduism. Higher knowledge is that by which “ . . .  the Imperishable is understood.” This teaching of the Imperishable, the true nature of oneself, is enshrined in all Upaniṣads and in the Bhagavadgītā. This teaching is also called Vedānta, meaning the end portion of the Vedas, or Brahmavidyā,  knowledge of Brahman.

This website is dedicated to an understanding of both types of knowledge, that is, the higher knowledge taught in the Upaniṣads as well as the knowledge of spiritual practices such as Vedic rituals, sacraments, yoga, pilgrimages, worship at home, and meditation.

I plan to write occasional blogs centered on these two types of knowledge. The source material will be questions and requests I receive from family members and friends. Though I respond individually to such requests, I believe that these questions also occur to others who may not know where to go for answers. This site is the result.

This is my first blog. I do not include either the Devanagari script for Sanskrit
nor detailed exploration of the Sanskrit words in my quotes.

Thank you for visiting this site!

Om! Peace, Peace, Peace.