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The Sea of Karmas and How We Should See It

ship on stormy seas of karmasSutras 12 through 15 of Book Two of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Sutra 2:12. The reservoir of karmas [karmashaya] which are rooted in the kleshas brings all kinds of experiences in the present and future lives.

A more literal and better translation would be: “Rooted in the kleshas, the karmashaya is experienced in the present and future lives.” Equally good would be: “Rooted in the kleshas, the karmashaya is experienced in the seen [drishta] and unseen [adrishta] lives.”

The karmashaya is the receptacle or mass of karmas, subtle programmings in the mind, that brings about our present and future lives. Being rooted in in the kleshas, when they are eliminated our karmas vanish right along with them, for the kleshas, too, inhere in the mind.

Though seen and unseen–drishta and adrishta–are nearly always translated interpretively as “present and future,” it certainly also means that a great deal of karma manifests in completely unseen areas, such as in the subconscious, and also in our unseen surroundings. For example, if in a previous life we plotted harm to someone but never carried it through and they never knew of it, the same can happen to us–for karma is as exacting as it is demanding. So a lot goes on around and within us that we do not perceive, even though we do see much of the complex, karmic fabric of our lives as it is woven and unrolled in every life. However, subliminally we will pick it all up and process it in the inner mind.

The practical idea being presented by Patanjali is that karma and rebirth are ended when the kleshas are ended.

Sutra 2:13. As long as the root is there it must ripen and result in lives of different class, length and experiences.

Jnaneshwara: “As long as those kleshas remain at the root, three consequences are produced: birth; span of life; and experiences in that life”–all in keeping with the character of the karmas involved. Most commenters point out that jati–birth–can also include the kind of species in which we will be born and what “class” within that species will be ours.

Sutra 2:14. They have joy or sorrow for their fruit according as their cause is virtue [punya] or vice [apunya].

Punya is merit, virtue, meritorious and virtuous acts, and apunya is the opposite. One brings happiness and the other brings unhappiness. We tend to pick out some object and go after it, thinking that it will bring happiness, but if we are knowledgous and realistic we will instead focus on producing positive karma, for that alone will result in happiness. The pursuit of happiness often ends in the gaining of unhappiness, disappointment, and frustration.

Sutra 2:15. To the people who have developed discrimination [viveka] all is misery [dukha] on account of the pains resulting from change [parinama], anxiety [tapa] and tendencies [samskara], as also on account of the conflicts [virodhat] between the functioning of the gunas and the vrittis (of the mind).

When Patanjali says that those who possess intelligent discrimination see that everything is painful (dukha) he does not mean that they go around all glum, cynical, and disgusted, hating everything. Just the opposite: knowing that all is unreal, that Brahman alone is real, he lives interiorly in joy. “Only that yogi whose joy is inward, inward his peace, and his vision inward shall come to Brahman and know Nirvana” (Bhagavad Gita 5:24). He suffers no pain because he withdraws from that which causes pain.

The perspective of such a one is given in Swami Prabhavananda’s interpretive translation of this sutra:

“But the man of spiritual discrimination regards all these experiences as painful. For even the enjoyment of present pleasure is painful, since we already fear its loss. Past pleasure is painful because renewed cravings arise from the impressions it has left upon the mind. And how can any happiness be lasting if it depends only upon our moods? For these moods are constantly changing, as one or another of the ever-warring gunas seizes control of the mind.”

Being changeless in our eternal nature, change (parinama) produces unease and stress in us. I had a highly intelligent friend who was afflicted with a really unfortunate mental trait. Whenever she would be enjoying something, suddenly she would think about how it would end eventually, and the thought would make her miserable for the rest of the time.

Tapa is any kind of unhappiness or distress, marring our peace of mind and causing us to fear the future. This is common to all humanity.

Equally common is virodhat: conflict between our mental state or desires and the way things are in our internal and external life. Many people are at intellectual and emotional war with their life unless they have lapsed into the apathetic hopelessness and “quiet desperation” that characterizes most people. Life is usually miserable or dreary, unless people have sunk even further into a kind of comatose-while-awake condition that is also very prevalent. Most people’s lives are not worth living simply because they are not able to live them as they want to. Some people compromise themselves into virtual non-existence.

Commenting on this sutra Shankara flatly states: “Pain is the result of any action.” So it really is all dukha.

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