Today is Jyeṣṭha Amāvasyā, New Moon beginning the month of Jyeṣṭha. It’s also Śani Jayanti, the day we honor the planet Saturn, and its correlated power. And Śani-deva is the lord of karma.
Karma is arguably on the top five (maybe even top three?) list of vastly misunderstood but totally fundamental operating principles within the tradition. Part of this is due to a lack of nuanced teaching, and part of it is because karma as a mechanism operates far beyond the scope of our normal rational mind.
In other words, it’s not something you can ever fully “get”, but it’s still worth attempting to learn. If you find your mind confused or spinning a bit, that’s ok!
The widespread popular notion is that karma is some sort of currency of “good” or “bad” behavior that you do, that gets tallied up and recorded somewhere, and then comes back to you like a boomerang. You pick on someone, someone picks on you. You are kind to someone, others will be kind to you. However, this is simplistic.
Karma isn’t an object per se that is “good” or “bad” and that you can neatly categorize and stack up – it’s an operating mechanism of the universe. In Sanskrit, the word karma is actually karman, and means “action”. The plural is karmāṇi, actions. In modern Indian languages, and even English, we imply the plural term, and call it karma, which refers to not only our actions but also the accumulated inner residue and subconscious patterning of our actions.
What constitutes action? Action is anything we do – any kind of movement at all, really. And since the entire universe is made up of a web of constant, interdependent, interconnected movement, we basically live inside of a never-ending dancing interplay of karma, both generated by us and by those around us.
Here are some of the things that are all karma, and they deeply influence each other:
1) Physical actions, including speech. This is the most obvious form of karma, because it is literally a tangible action that we take. Most of our physical actions are driven by our thoughts, feelings, and subconscious instincts. Based on what we’ve externally experienced (including trauma), we create our internal beliefs and instincts, in an endless feedback loop.
2) Emotional conditioning. All of our feelings – and the associated mental and physical symptoms – are karma. Our emotions also push us to take physical action, and reinforce existing thoughts and beliefs. Whether we experience contentment or misery in life is driven by our karma. For example, two people in the same situation can have a totally different emotional experience based on their karmic conditioning.
3) Thoughts and concepts. All of our internal mental activity is also a form of action. Our attention drives our choices – if something is not within our conscious attention, we generally don’t take action towards it. (Advertisers know this – if they control our attention, they will have sway over our actions, too.)
4) Intentions. The resolutions and various energetic commitments we create in our lives are also karma. Intention sets into motion certain waves of energy that then ripple out and organize the rest of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
5) Saṃskāras. This is the energetic imprint or residue left in our beings as a result of our actions. In Sanskrit, this is called a saṃskāra. In the same way that a seed contains the whole life cycle of a tree, a saṃskāra contains the full wheel of karmic behavior – belief, thought, feeling, and physical action.
6) Prārabdha-karma. These are the saṃskāras which we accumulate in our subtle body from past lives, and get imported into this one. (The physical body dies and returns to the earth; the karmic body remains the same across lifetimes). This internal build-up from previous experiences is a major factor behind the things (both pleasant or unpleasant) that happen to us without any explicit cause. This includes for example where we are born and our early childhood experiences. Prārabdha-karma may also hang out for years under the surface of our “normal” life, waiting to emerge later on.
7) Ancestral karma. This includes saṃskāras, thoughts, feelings, habits, and behavior which we inherit and share with our family of origin. For example, abuse and addiction are two types of painful karma that are often shared by members of a family. Again, this is why it’s helpful to think of karma as a force rather than a “thing” that you have or don’t have. For example, even if you are not yourself an addict, the addiction or suffering of a close family member will still impact and influence your energy body.
8) Other group karma. If you are part of a group – for example, a spiritual community, ethnic group, or a country – you might also share karma and habitual beliefs and ways of behaving.
9) Existential karma. There are a number of technical terms for this, but these are the inherent existential patterns of thought and behavior that come with the human condition, and drive our behavior at the most basic level. (For example, a fundamental sense of separation from Source, or a feeling of deep inadequacy and limitation).
This is not a full list, but hopefully you get the idea. Karma is every form of action as well as the latent forces that cause us to act. To be embodied is to have karma. In fact, this is why the earthly plane is called karma-bhūmi, the land of karma.
Thankfully, we have thousands of years of investigation and observation into how all these different types of actions influence each other to create our experience of reality. While there’s many nuanced theories, they agree on one thing:
As long as we identify as the “doer” of our karma, and are bound by cycles of conditioned thought and behavior, we will suffer and fail to realize the fullness of our true Self, which is the self of all.
Through practice, we can slowly transform the hold that our saṃskāras have on us, making space for new choices. Like surfers, even when we are confronted with a huge wave of karma, we can learn how to stay present and ride it in a way that is beneficial rather than destructive. If we utilize our full wisdom, we can even come out ahead.
Practice: Engage Your Karma
Today, on Śani Jayanti, we can honor the power and role of karma in our life. And we can renew our commitment to uplifting our karma. As one of our Core Teachers Hema Patankar describes it – “One action at a time, we can get off the wheel”.
How do you get off a wheel that won’t stop turning? In The Bhagavad Gītā, the essential text on yoga and dharma, Śrī Kṛṣṇa – an embodiment of divine presence – teaches that when we recognize that all of our actions come from and return to source, and don’t belong to us individually, we can fulfill our purpose without creating new residue and in our subconscious being. Acting from a space of unity and surrender is how to get off the karmic wheel, and is at the heart of a dharmic and awakened life.
-Perform Śani-pūjā, ritual worship for Lord Saturn or repeat his mantra. You can also revisit this article, contemplating Śani-deva’s yantra, mythology, or form.
-Reflect or journal on the major karmic patterns in your life, in your ancestry, or community. Become present to the interconnectedness of subconscious belief, thought, feeling, and action: your own, and those around you. Notice when you feel driven to behave a certain way, even perhaps in opposition to your conscious will, and use those moments as opportunities to become present and slow down.
Karma is like an ocean – deep, vast, dynamic, and infinitely powerful – so we can learn to understand and navigate its current with respect, humility, and care. If you start to feel overpowered or blinded by your karma, pray for protection and ask that whatever choices you take be offered for the highest good of all.
-Whatever you do, take a moment and internally offer it back to Source. Recognize that everything that happens is part of the flow of one unbroken expanse of energy we call reality. Whatever individual movement we take is part of the flow of the whole, and happens according to its vision and will.