Shivakumar Viswanathan, Thursday, July 30, 2015 11:47 am

Musings on Karma – 3: Man’s nature & karma Yoga

Man’s nature and karma yoga:

We come across some lectures and teachings in which we are taught that action ‘happens’ and personal volition is stripped away. Whatever happens happens due to man’s nature. Or it happens in Consciousness! Whichever way one looks at it, everything is as it should be. The best thing to do is just be. This is probably a new-age Vedanta teaching. We come across lectures & teachings where there is no explicit adherence to any scriptural work like the Gita or an Upanishadic verse. In such teachings there is a tendency to avoid touching upon the ‘binding’ actions, especially the ones that even patently are detrimental to one’s spiritual progress. “What happens if I shoot someone? I didn’t, after all, shoot him. It happened through me. I was programmed to shoot!” Ouch!

I am sure the Policeman is equally programmed to apprehend you and put in jail.

Many years ago, having watched a DVD of a sat sanga session of someone who I would now call a new-age advaitin, I had written some notes and submitted to my teacher. In his compassion he explained man’s nature, karma yoga and the scope for man’s personal exertion or puruSha prayatna. I give some portions below of that lesson from many years ago as faithfully as I can. All things that meets with scriptural approval are his and all the mistakes are due to my ignorance alone.

In such teachings and lectures, first of all, even a division of the shAstra-vihita (ordained) and the shAstra-pratishiddha (prohibited) actions are not touched upon. Mostly only the patently harmless actions like the taking off of one’s shoes, for example, are considered. It is true, that it is nature that impels a person’s actions. But if a person were to appropriate that truth and apply it wrongly even to the prohibited actions that also, in truth, are impelled by one’s nature, it will be disastrous.

Therefore Karma yoga will necessarily consist of

  1. essentially KNOWING what is the position of the scriptures regarding the permitted / ordained duties and the prohibited actions and

  2. deliberately perform the ordained ones with the correct attitude AND avoid the prohibited ones.

The revered Bhagavatpada takes up the question of the influence of man’s nature on his conduct while commenting on the 33rd and the 34th verses of the Chapter III of the Gita. My teacher went on to quote portions from the translation of the Bhashyam:

Begin Quote:

..Thus all living beings follow their nature. What shall coercion in the shape of prohibition avail? That is to say, to Me or to anybody else, nature is irresistible.

Scope for man’s personal exertion:


If every being acts according to its own nature only – and there is none that has no nature of its own – then, there being possibly no scope for personal exertion (purushakara), the Teaching (sastra) would be quite purposeless.

Answer: The Lord replies as follows:

As regards all sense-objects, such as sounds, there necessarily arises in each a sense of love for an agreeable object, and aversion for a disagreeable object. Now I shall tell you where lies the scope for personal exertion and for the Teaching (shastra). He who would follow the Teaching should at the very commencement rise above the sway of affection and aversion. For, what we speak of as the nature (prakriti) of a person draws him to its course only through love and aversion…When, on the other hand, a person restrains these feelings by means of the enemy (viveka jna~na or discriminative faculty), then he will become mindful of the Teaching only, no longer subject to his own nature.

End quote.

While it is true that IN THE LARGER PICTURE, it is nature, Maya, that does everything, that does not bring solace to the person who is still in the grip of nature. He won’t be able to improve a bit if he holds on to that truth doing nothing to control his thoughts. And for whom is the entire lot of teaching on the need for deliberate effort being insisted upon in the direction of vAsana kShaya (the obliteration of latent impressions)? This shows that it is indeed possible to and that one ought to regulate one’s harmful vasanas with appropriate efforts. For vasanas are the result of past exercise of freewill – that is actions performed with the bhAvana, the feeling, that ‘I am the doer.’ It will lie in wait for the appropriate moment to arise and at that juncture come up inducing another thought or an action.

{For example, while going to a sumptuous wedding lunch if one recollects the taste of a sweet dish consumed some time ago there is a sudden urge to taste it again! And the hope that the very same dish would be served here again!}

The conditions conducive for the vAsanas‘ coming up have been created, although unseen by even that very person, and it came up. There too, he had before him a choice of not voicing the thought. If he had been a mumukShu or one concerned with his own health, (the causes could be any number), he could have restrained that thought and diverted his mind-energy to something more valuable.

There is no harm in indulging in purposive thinking like, ‘The ticket to Sringeri has to the purchased today‘ or ‘So and so has to be informed about the trip‘ etc. What is not desirable is unjustified wandering of the mind in useless thinking.

This shows that although thoughts come apparently uninvited, in actuality it is not so, and every effort has to be made to quell it if it is not going to be useful or if it is perceived to be certainly harmful. puruShaprayatna, of course, is founded on the proper grasp of the teaching of the shAstra and the Guru.

Another dimension to the topic on hand is this – Doership always has behind it the sense of enjoyership. Only when a person (erroneously) thinks that he is the enjoyer, even potentially, that he dons the role of the doer in order to work for the realisation of that enjoyment. Any serious attempt at renouncing the doership has to be preceded by a conscious effort at renouncing the underlying enjoyership. Which means inculcating desirelessness for objects here and hereafter. The question of renouncing doership would be incomplete if this aspect is not recognised simultaneously. That is why the shAstraic teaching is so comprehensive.

A person has to question his hitherto-unquestioned notion of doership. ‘If it is nature, in other words thoughts, or vasanas, that cause actions, why am I thinking myself as the doer?‘ The reasoning is indeed powerful. But it has to be understood under the light of the scriptures so that one is not derailed off the path.

In closing my teacher went on to quote the famous verse:

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shlokArdhena pravakShyAmi yaduktam granthakoTibhiH |

brahma satyaM jaganmithyA jIvo brahmaiva nAparaH ||

Bhagavatpadal says: I condense herein what is contained in millions of granthas (slokas): Brahman is the only Truth and the world is mithyaa; jiva is none other than Brahman.

The prupose of his recalling this verse was: If one has to successfully realise the truth condensed by Bhagavatpada in half-a-sloka, one has to have done pretty much of an exercise with the ‘millions’ of slokas!! In the same way, in order to realise fully that one is not the doer, a whole lot of sadhana is inevitable.

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