The symbology of Karma

The Mahabharata is full of characters and sub-stories. While some characters have a major role, some are smaller in nature. But the name of each character their deeds can give us a deep insight into what we call karma. Although the subject matter of karma abounds with complex theories, elaborate commentaries, and volumes of written word, we will try to look at it in a very basic and simplistic manner.

When we talk about karma, we assume that there is a seed and through our thoughts and actions, we sow this seed in the field of what Patanjali calls the citta (pronounced chitta) or put more loosely, in the mind. In botany, we say, a seed needs air, water and a suitable temperature to sprout. Similarly, for the seed of karma to bear fruit, there must be three factors. These are called (1) the instrumental cause (2) the material cause and (3) unawareness (or confusion) about the two.

Suppose we are walking along the road and someone pushes us and we get angry upon him and call him all kinds of names. Here the person hitting us is just the instrumental cause which comes in the form of an event in life. Anger that was already lying in the subconscious mind is the material cause; the material which in this case is the anger must first be there for such an event to occur. This anger wanted to manifest and so it looks for a suitable event which then becomes the instrumental cause. Someone shoving us while walking thus became the instrumental cause. We justify ourselves by saying that we ‘got’ angry because someone pushed us – this is the third condition of unawareness or confusion. We only see the instrumental cause (the fact) but not the deeper cause (the nearer truth) that basic material of anger needs to be present in a potent form within our subconscious for us to get angry.

Having seen the three basic conditions, now let us try and understand how the process works. We now know that the material cause was the anger lying in the subconscious. Now let us suppose that there are 1000 seeds of anger within us. Someone hits us on the road; out of the 1000 seeds, one seed appears in the conscious mind and we get angry; this seed of anger manifests (as a tree), provides fruit that in turn gives us an extra seed. Now, effectively two seeds go back to the subconscious thereby increasing the treasure of anger from 1000 to 1001. This is the basic law of karma – sow one, reap one and then reap one more.

We take the same event, but this time when that one seed of anger comes from the subconscious to the conscious, we remain aware that we are the material cause and not the person who hit us – we resolve that we will not allow the seed of anger to grow. Then that seed dies and our haul of anger in our subconscious has reduced from 1000 to 999. We have now become a little free from the law of karma.

This process where a seed is sown and grows into a tree, in turn giving a new seed is guised in many characters of the Mahabharata:

1. Kripacharya:
He is the ‘rajguru’ of Hastinapura. ‘Kripa’ means sympathy or sorrow for someone. Whenever we feel sorry for a situation or a person, we are hypnotised by the situation and cannot see the truth. We want to feed a hungry person but we may not be doing the right thing, we may just be making him a slave of charity. So Kripa is the basic delusion or our unawareness.

2. Once we are unaware, we sow the seed. These seeds can be of four kinds –

Bhishma (or self love): he loved his pratigya above everything else.

Karna (or attraction to pleasure): Duryodhana made Karna a king and Karna became his slave for life.

Vikarna (or displeasure): He was the only son of Dhritarashtra who showed displeasure at Draupadi’s disrobing.

Jayadratha (or lust for continuity): He always lusted for Draupadi. As soon as we have created a new seed, the desire to manifest and repeat already lies hidden within the seed.

3. At any given moment, we sow one or a combination of these seeds in the fertile soil of our minds – we used the example anger to keep things simple. Once the seed is sown, it follows a path of repetition giving rise to a fruit with a new seed which wants to repeat further and thus makes us greater slaves of anger. Bhurishravas is the son of Somadutta, a warrior on the side of the Kauravas. ‘Bhuri’ means repeated and ‘shravas’ means to flow – the law of karma repeatedly keeps flowing. This is the law of cause and effect and we are bound by this repetition. Today we relive the same self-love, the same vanity, the same displeasure and the same complaining we did yesterday – the flow continues. Even though events and people are new, we are always the same – we are always just repeating yesterday.

4. Ashwathama:
Comes from the word ‘sthaman’, meaning that which remains. All the seeds we keep on creating remain in a storehouse where they are ready to spring up in the fertile field of the mind at any time. These seeds never die and so in the Mahabharata, Ashwathama never dies. Krishna takes away the jewel off his head, signifying that Krishna takes away his power. Similarly all the seeds are given fuel by desire and this desire in us never dies, but as our level of awakening and awareness rises, it becomes powerless enough not to enslave us anymore.

Patanjali calls the four seeds we sow as ‘klesha’, signified by Karna, Vikarna, Bhishma and Jayadratha in the Mahabharata. He refers to the field or basic condition of unawareness as ‘avidya’, represented in the Mahabharata by Kripacharya. The process in which the seeds grow as ‘jati, ayur, and bhoga’, characterised by Bhurishravas; meaning type - anger becomes anger, then we have to experience it and we have to give a part of our life time to it and hence, it eats our time. Patanjali says new and old seeds lie in a storehouse called as ‘ashaya’, represented by Ashwathama. Patanjali adds that as long as this storehouse of seeds lies within us, we will always be a slave to the law of repetition.