Q&A with Swami Swaroopananda
Swami Swaroopananda is the Acharya (spiritual director) of Sivananda Yoga Centers and Ashrams on the West Coast of the United States, in the Middle East, and in the Bahamas, and is one of the foremost disciples of Swami Vishnudevananda. He is renowned for his spontaneous yet clear, concise, and complete answers to every question. This Q&A is from a Satsang at the Los Angeles Center in June 2011.
QUESTION: Can the practice of yoga eliminate bad karma?
Answer: First of all we need to understand what the word karma means. Karma means action. Action is of three types: there is mental action like thought; there is verbal action like speech; there is physical action like things that we do with our physical body. So we may think something, we may say something or we may do something.
Behind any action there is an intention. If the intention is carried out through speech or through physical action and we are satisfied that we carried this intention out successfully, we have created a complete karma which means this is a complete action that produces an impression in the subconscious mind, the subtle mind. In Sanskrit that impression is called a samskara. If the impression is deep it is called a vasana. This impression in the subconscious mind or subtle mind is called a karmic seed. This karmic seed will ripen when the conditions are right and will produce a result and that result is going to be experienced by us. We created that karma.
The result usually is experienced in another life. Most of the results of our karmas — karmas meaning actions we have done that will produce results sometime in the future — will be experienced in a future life. In extraordinary circumstances, however, the results of karmas, the results of actions, may be immediate. For karmas to be immediate, for the results of karmas to be experienced in the same life, the karmas need to be extremely powerful. An action as karma must be very powerful, either positively or negatively powerful.
According to yogic teachings, a karma, an action, can produce three types of fruit, or results. In fact, every karma will produce these three types of fruit. The first type of fruit is called birth; in other words, the type of body we are born into. The second type of fruit is the lifespan; how long we are going to live. The third type of fruit creates our life’s experiences; it determines what type of life experiences we are going to have. We can have either painful life experiences or pleasurable life experiences or neutral life experiences.
We can understand painful life experiences; we know what pain is. We can understand pleasurable life experiences; we know what pleasure is. It is the neutral life experiences that we don’t understand so well. What are neutral life experiences? They are like going to the bathroom without having either constipation or diarrhea; they are neither painful nor pleasant. Or we could say they are like sitting and waiting for the bus to come, the weather is fine, it is not too long a wait, it is neither painful nor pleasant. There are many instances, such as walking from one place to another, coming from your house to the yoga center. It is neither pleasant nor painful. These are neutral types of life experiences. The teaching is this: Negative types of karma produce pain, positive types of karma produce pleasure, neutral types of karmas produce neutral experiences. I am talking now about karmas and their results. The result of a negative type of karma will be a painful result, an experience of pain. The result of a positive type of karma will be a pleasurable result, an experience of pleasure. The result of a neutral type of karma will be a neutral result. Again taking going to the bathroom as an example of an action, this is a neutral action, neither good nor bad. It is a neutral type of karma. On the other hand, whether karma is positive or negative is determined primarily by the intention behind the action. The intention behind the action exists on the mental level. The question then becomes how does a thought determine the nature of karma, whether a karma is positive or negative? The answer is simple. Before I speak, before I say something, there must be a thought. A thought precedes speech. Before I do something there must be a thought, before any intentional physical action, or an intention of physical action, there must be a thought. Therefore, if a thought precedes a verbal action and a thought also precedes a physical action, we can say that thought as karma is more important than the actions that come subsequent to the thought. When we consider mental karma, speech karma, and physical karma, then mental karma is the most important because it precedes and motivates the other two.
To give an example, a murderer may stab a person with a knife with the intention to kill him; a surgeon may do the same action, may cut the abdomen of a person but with the intention to save the person’s life. Now in the process of surgery the patient may die, but the karma of the doctor is not necessarily a negative karma. Why? His intention was to save a life. The action was done with the purpose of saving a life. He sincerely did everything in his capacity to save a life. There was no neglect. Nevertheless, the patient died. And so, in one case you have the person who stabs another person with the intention to take a life; in the other instance you have a person who cuts the abdomen of another person with the intention to save a life. Although in both cases people die, in one case, in the case of the murderer, the karma produced is negative, and in the other case the karma may even be positive because here the intention was to save a life, the action was for this purpose. Therefore, although a person lost his life or her life, the karma may be positive. The intention behind an action determines the nature of the karma and whether that karma is positive or negative.
Therefore we say that it is very important to scrutinize the intention behind our actions. For example, if I give to charity, what is the intention behind my action? Is the intention name and fame? Some people give to charity with an ulterior motive. Or is the intention pure because I wish to alleviate the suffering of another person? Therefore, Swami Sivananda would say: Scrutinize your practice, check what your motives are before doing an action. This is very important. Generally speaking not many people know this as a fact. We know it in general, but not as a fact of how karma works. If you understand this law of karma, if you understand that negative actions can produce only pain and suffering; if you know that positive actions can produce only joy, happiness, and pleasure then you will clearly, if you are a logical person, try to refrain from negative activities and you will promote positive activities.
Another thing about karma is that when you do one action you create one karmic seed, but one karmic seed will give more than one result. It produces multiple results. As an example, one seed produces one apple tree, doesn’t it? But one apple tree will produce how many seeds? Multiple seeds. And so you start with one seed and you get a forest. Therefore do not think that you do one negative action and what you get in return is one painful experience. According to the power of the karma that you have produced, you will get multiple painful experiences. It is like one seed ultimately producing a forest. Karmic results have a tendency to multiply, you see? Let’s say that you have done a negative action. As a result of your negative action there will be multiple harmful effects that will come back to you as different kinds of experiences of pain. And so it is with the happy experiences, one good action can produce a forest of positive results.
Therefore, the advice of the yogis is to first of all understand the law of karma. Understand it well. Let’s say you want to be rich, that you have a desire to have wealth. Then you need to understand where wealth comes from. Karmically, wealth comes from charity, from giving. Karmically, receiving comes from giving. It is simple. If you want to be healthy then you need to understand where health comes from. Health does not come from the doctors. Health does not come from vitamins. Health comes from healing others. This is where health comes from. If you want to be healthy, heal others. There are many ways to do it. Do not say, “I am not a healer.” Of course you are a healer. Everyone is a healer. A mother is a healer. A yogi is a healer. The more you heal others the healthier you will become.
You want to be strong? Strength does not come from the genes. Help others to become strong, you will become strong. You want to meditate? What is the opposite of meditation? It is mental or emotional disturbance, isn’t it? Mental and emotional disturbances disturb our meditation. If you want to be able to meditate, first of all do not disturb the minds and the emotions of other people. Do the opposite. Do the very opposite. Help other people to pacify their minds and their emotions. Help them in this direction. Your meditation will become better. This is where it comes from. This is how it works.
I am giving you simple examples. There are much more complicated examples, but I am giving you very simple examples. Now, the question is related to how yoga helps us to overcome bad karma. The question is, “Can the practice of yoga eliminate bad karma?”
The principle is this. A powerful positive karma neutralizes an equally strong negative karma. There is something in nature which makes a positive karma more powerful than a negative karma of a similar strength. This is a karmic law. If you put one pound of positive karma on one side of a scale, and one pound of negative karma on the other side, the side of the positive karma will be slightly heavier. Therefore, the karmic balance of a powerful positive karma or action, versus a powerful negative karma of a similar strength will be that the positive karma will always supersede or overcome the negative and you will even leave some karmic credit after it neutralizes the negative karma. This is how it works. It is a little like in book-keeping, where you have credits and debits. Positive karma is a karmic credit and negative karma is a karmic debit, but one karmic credit has more value than one karmic debit. This is how it works. It is not equal. So the teachers or the masters of yoga say that a block of positive karma will usually neutralize a block of negative karma.
Until karmic seeds ripen you have a chance to neutralize them. Once they ripen you have to experience them, but before they ripen you have a chance to destroy them, you have a chance to neutralize them. Because they are in a seed form, they can be sterilized or neutralized. How can you neutralize negative karma? You can neutralize negative karma by producing vast positive karma.
Now, I have already told you the principle of how moderately strong karma will usually mature in a future life. It usually does not have enough strength to mature immediately. For karma to mature immediately, it must be very strong, very powerful. It should be either a very powerful positive karma or a very powerful negative karma. If it is a very powerful positive karma, the result of it will be experienced in this very life, almost immediately. Similarly, the result of a very powerful negative karma will be experienced in this very life, almost immediately. It is like this.
The yogic scriptures give examples of very powerful positive karma, such as yogic practices. Japa, asana and pranayama are karmically very powerful. However, remember the intention with which you do these actions. Always remember the intention. It is not enough to do yogic practices. You have to be clear about the intention and the purpose behind these practices. The more powerful the intention, the stronger the karma. The practices are strong anyway. If you add to them a proper intention they are more powerful. Similarly, they can become negative with a wrong intention.
Very negative karmas that produce a lot of pain and suffering do a lot of harm to others including yourself. In order to neutralize a very negative karma, you have to produce a very powerful positive karma like yogic practice. Yogic practice is a very powerful positive karma. It will neutralize many negative karmas even if they are powerful.
I will give you one famous example, about the greatest yogi of Tibet, Milarepa. The first part of his life was terrible. He did terrible things. In fact his story is a tragic story. He became an orphan at an early age. He lost his father. He and his mother were treated very badly by their relatives, who took advantage of them. Milarepa’s life was very painful, very tragic and he decided to take revenge on his evil relatives. He studied black magic under a very powerful lama. He learned, for example, how to create a hail storm. One day there was a party in a tent attended by all the family members he hated so much because of the suffering they had brought upon him and his mother. As an accomplished black magician, Milarepa produced a powerful hail storm, the tent collapsed and most of the members of his hated family were killed. He became a mass murderer. Now to murder one person is bad. To be a mass murderer is a very powerful negative karma. However, somehow, by some previous good karma, Milarepa realized what he had done. He realized that the result of what he had done would be horrendous, would be terrible. He had created such a powerful negative karma and he understood what the result would be.
He searched for someone who could teach him how to neutralize this negative karma. He went through a very difficult test and after a long period found his teacher, Marpa, who gave him a terrible time. In fact, his teacher gave him such a difficult time that one day Milarepa decided to commit suicide. He could not take the things that the teacher did to him anymore. He suffered tremendously under the teacher. In the beginning the teacher would just reject him, but even after the teacher accepted him, he suffered tremendously. After a long period, after he had tried to commit suicide, the teacher started to behave toward him in a better way and after many tests, after terrible suffering, the teacher told him what he had to do.
Milarepa did long sadhana and attained enlightenment in that very life. Not only did he not suffer the result of being a mass murderer, but the amount of positive karma and the power of the positive karma that he produced by yogic practices and by his great devotion to his guru, or teacher, was so powerful that he neutralized all the negative karma and attained enlightenment, or self-realization, in that very birth. And Milarepa is Tibet’s greatest yogi. He is such an example.
Recognize it. A person who started very badly from the karmic point of view, with a huge karmic debt, not only paid back all of his karmic debts but attained an unbounded, unlimited spiritual or divine wealth through yogic practices and through devotion to his teacher. He had so much faith. He had so much devotion. You have to read his life story just to understand this point. It is a very good example of how a person who starts with a disadvantage can overcome the disadvantage and come through on the other side as a spiritual conqueror. Yes, yogic sadhana, yogic practice, has great power and can neutralize negative karma in this same life.
Source: Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat September 2011 News Letter