(Originally published for The Dragontree)

In my article, The Art of Life, on longstanding medical philosophies, I introduced India’s ancient system of health and healing: Ayurveda. In any discussion on Ayurveda with English speakers, the first thing to get out of the way is pronunciation. About half the people I meet pronounce the word Ayurveda as “are you veda,”so let’s work on that. The correct way to say it is “ah-yur-veda.” If that’s still too tricky, just pretend it’s the traditional medicine of Ireland and say “Ire-veda” – it sounds the same. As I explained last week, Ayurveda has been around for roughly 3000 years, and it means the “science of life” or the “art of living.” Much more than a means of treating disease, Ayurveda is foremost a system for staying healthy.

It would be absurd to even attempt to give you a nutshell explanation of all of Vedic science. Not that I’m qualified to do so anyway. But I have studied it off and on for the past 20 years, so I know enough to be dangerous … and to convey some of the more interesting and accessible facets of this profound system.

One facet that almost never comes up in the West is karma. It’s also something Westerners tend to be confused about. There’s no simple explanation for karma, partly because Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and others all have different ways of understanding it. But what follows is the most practical interpretation I can give you. (It’s colored significantly by the teachings of Vimalananda, as conveyed by American practitioner and author, Robert Svoboda.)

First, let’s talk about what it’s not. In the West, we tend to think of karma as a system of retribution and reward based on the good and bad things we do, all subject to the evaluation of some universal judge. We do something “bad” and the universe punishes us; we do something “good” and the universe smiles on us. This is natural, steeped as we are in Christian concepts such as sin and virtue, heaven and hell, and the generally vengeful nature of our legal system. More than once, I’ve witnessed something unfortunate, and heard a bystander say, “That’s karma coming to bite you in the ass.” Traditional texts on karma don’t actually mention ass biting, though. Another common misconception about karma is that it absolutely dictates the course of our lives – that all we’re doing is living out the consequences of karma from previous lives.

One way to understand karma is as an expression of debt (rna in Sanskrit) that results from our actions. The cycle of reincarnation is seen as being perpetuated by our having unresolved karmas, or debts, with the world. Our past actions create what are known as samskaras or “imprints” in our consciousness that color our perception, shape our tastes and desires, influence the circumstances we come in contact with, and lead to new actions and karmas. Thus, our past influences our future, but not as directly as some believe. For all the satisfaction we may get from pronouncing that someone just got bitten in the ass by karma, there are countless cases of bad behavior by people who live long, more or less happy lives, because karma just doesn’t work that way. In fact, the traditional understanding is that we are here to work out karma from previous lives, and that karma accumulated in this lifetime isn’t resolved until a later rebirth.

Classical sources emphasize that there is a key element that dictates whether an action will produce a debt – or we could say reaction – that we will eventually experience: the identification of oneself as the doer of the action. As Robert Svoboda writes, “The more strongly you identify with your karmas, the more closely your experience will conform to the reaction they promise.” Thus, the more we think that we’re steering the boat and that we’re making the river of life flow – rather than simply going along for the ride – the more likely we are to engage in actions that produce debt. Svoboda continues, “ The Law of Karma, the unimaginable complexity of which has cowed the greatest of scholars, loses some ability to dismay when viewed through the prism of surrender.”

Sometimes I think of karmic debt in chemistry terms. When atoms and molecules interact, bonding and separating, charges are created and neutralized. Charged particles “want” to be neutralized. A molecule with a positive charge and another with a negative charge will readily bond so that both are stabilized and form a neutral product. In a similar same way, we could see ourselves as coming into life with numerous charges – each of which represents an unsettled debt with a particular person. Sometimes we’re the “creditor” and sometimes we’re the “debtor.” The other parties have these charges related to us, too, and the charges draw us to one another.

Now, here are some (highly over-simplified) examples. If one soul has a debt to repay to another soul, the creditor might be born as the child of the debtor. Thus, the parent will give a tremendous amount in energy and money to the child, and in so doing, both souls will have the opportunity to rectify the debt. On the flip side, it may occur that a child is born to a parent to whom they owe a karmic debt. One way this might manifest could be that the child ends up being the parent’s caregiver or working to support the parent financially.

Or, let’s say you and another feel a strong mutual attraction. You date for a few months, buy them some meals, give them some orgasms, and at a certain point, the attraction is suddenly gone. One possible interpretation through the lens of karma could be that the initial attraction was fueled by the draw of a karmic debt. The ensuing exchange of energy may have rectified the debt. Finally, with no remaining debt, the “charge” disappeared.

Vimalananda, an Indian mystic, said, “I am very anxious to finish off my cycle of births and deaths so I allow every person who has any rnanubandhana [“debt bondage”] with me to take whatever they are entitled to. Whether they are destined to make my life miserable, or to make me poor, or whatever, I don’t mind. Let them do it; they cannot take from me any more than the value of the debt I owe them. The moment I object in any way, then karma has begun. Likewise, if I have to take from someone I take only what I know I am entitled to, no more and no less.” In Vimalananda’s case, he was said to have the advantage of being able to perceive the precise nature of his karmic debts with others, so he could resolve them as efficiently as possible. To those who are conscious of the philosophy of karma and intent on being liberated from debt, one of the primary purposes of life is to allow these debts to be repaid, and in the process to experience an increasingly light existence.

Whether you choose to interpret this discussion literally or more metaphorically, perhaps the key lessons are these: First, whatever happens to you, try to consider it an expression of the balancing forces of nature. Even if it seems unfortunate, notice what happens if you surrender to it and trust that knots are being untied in the process, and that you will be ever more free through your acceptance. Second, even if karma doesn’t deliver you immediate gifts as a reward for good deeds, why not strive to contribute to the world and help your species anyway? You just may be planting seeds of beautiful trees (and meanwhile, it will keep you out of trouble). Third, if you don’t have the gift of knowing the exact value of your credits and debts with others, you might as well just roll with life in the lightest way you are able to. Give without concern for the return and accept without concern for the debt.

Continue on to Before You Name Your Child Dosha.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten