Astrology, Therapy… Karma and Vaiṣṇavas

Temple_GatewayAfter posting the article, Astrology is not for Vaiṣṇavas, I received a very deep and sophisticated question:

I remember hearing once (I can’t remember where) that while it is generally the planets duty to distribute to us our karma, when one starts associating with high class Vaisnavas and starts to turning towards Krsna (particularly at the time of initiation) then Krsna himself personally steps in and takes the administration of that persons karma  into his own hands and the planets no longer have control. On the other hand I have also heard that our karma is set in stone and predetermined. Those things are like an unchangeble variable “x” and the radical variable “y” is our freewill, how we react to those things. “x+y = ‘destiny’.”

The dichotomy between these two perspectives has always been something I’ve never understood about Krsna Consciousness.

Very near the beginning of Bhakti Rasāmṛta Sindhu, Śrī Rūpa defines six hallmarks of pure divine love (uttama-bhakti). The very first of these is kleśa-ghnī: extinguishing suffering / ending  karma.

The first hallmark of pure bhakti is that it ends karma. 

To explain howŚrī Rūpa analyses the various stages of karma. He says that karma has two broad types: manifest and unmanifest, stuff that has already taken a concrete shape in the world (“prārabdha-karma”) and stuff that hasn’t (“aprārabdha-karma”). He says that unmanifest karma exists as desires (bījam – the “seeds” of concrete actions), but these desires exist within the subtler context of psychological dispositions (kūṭam – the first bud of a desire), and the ultimate root of it all: a self-ignorant ego (avidyā).

Bhakti destroys every stage of karma, and it is uniquely able to destroy the root of karma avidyā (self-ignorance). Other processes can address the karmic-weed at various levels, but only bhakti pulls it out forever from the root. This is Śrī Rūpa’s message. Medicines and so on can address manifest karma, psychologists and so on can address unmanifest karma, spirituality can pause  avidyā but only bhakti can transform avidyā into something positive – vidyā. Bhakti supplies us with a pure ego that derives its unique identity in context of unity with the All-Attractive Supreme Personality of Godhead. The devotee’s identity changes (symbolized by the change of name at initiation). This eradicates self-ignorance and replaces it with self-realization. The ego – the root of karma – is alchemistically transmorphed from a separatist individual to an integrated, unified individual – absolutely united with the Divine Person, Śrī Krishna. By transforming  the ego, bhakti destroys avidyā and thus pulls out the root of karma.

Pure devotion finishes karma. That is the beautiful statement of Śrī Rūpa. A person who has the adhikar to find confidence and conviction in the principles of pure devotion has no need for any other remedial measure – astrological or otherwise. Those who lack this confidence continue to find other avenues desirable, profitable, and attractive – psychology, divination, and so on. The general masses fall into this category. Therefore the general masses can receive some relative benefit from psychologists, astrologers, and so on. The Vaiṣṇava, however, has no need for anything except divine love.

Here are the sacred texts (mostly from the Cantos of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam) that Śrī Rūpa quotes to substantiate his claim that bhakti destroys all karma:

In the Eleventh Canto… “As blazing fire turns wood to ashes, so does my bhakti consume karma.”

In the Third Canto…“Hearing or saying your name, offering you obeisance, or even once remembering you turns even a dog-eater into a priest.” [Śrī Rūpa explains that this references the social strata one is born into (a concrete manifestation of karma) – and is thus an illustration of how bhakti destroys prārabdha-karma]

And in Padma Purāṇa… “All stages of karma – manifest, unmanifest, seeds/desires, and internal inclinations – are destroyed in turn by Vishnu-Bhakti.”

In the Sixth Canto…“Karma can be counteracted by austerity, charity, vows, and other religious observances, but only bhakti purifies the heart – which is the birth place of karma.”

In the Fourth Canto…“By bhakti, saints untie the hard knot binding them to desire and action. But those without bhakti cannot stop the flow of the material desires, though they try and try. Therefore be devoted to Krishna.

In Padma Purāṇa… “Knowledge (vidyā) follows naturally from bhakti, and destroys ignorance (avidyā) like a forest fire destroys snakes.”

Anyone who has dabbled with the path of bhakti will naturally ask, “OK, but when?” Is it as soon as you chant “Hare Krishna” that all karma vanishes – or do you have to become an absolutely nitya-siddha premika bhakta first?

Śrī Rūpa answers this question in a subsequent text. Śrī Jīva also answers it in his comments on Bhakti Rasāmṛta Sindhu. Subsequently Śrī Viśvanātha has also shed much light on it in mādhurya-kādambinī. Here is a summary of their answers:

Bhakti has three broad stages of development, and the six hallmarks of bhakti are divided two to each stage. The first stage of bhakti is “practice” (sādhana). The first hallmark of bhakti (destroying karma) is a hallmark of this stage. So one does not need to become absolutely perfect before bhakti destroys karma, it happens during the first stage, sādhana.

Sādhana has two precursors and and five substages. The two precursors of sādhana are śraddha (the conviction that pure divine love is the most desirable objective) and sādhu-saṅga (the close company of those who are significantly more accomplished in the practice of sādhana). The five substages of sādhana are: (1) bhajan-kriyā (performing devotional practices), (2) anartha-nivṛtti (getting rid of impurities), (3) niṣṭhā (becoming deep and fixed in the practices), (4) ruci (gaining deep taste for the blissful nature of practicing pure devotion), and (5) āsakti (addiction for the blissful object of devotion, the All-Attractive Śrī Krishna).

From the beginning of bhajan (stage 1, bhajana-kriyā) the practitioner will easily notice the beginning of a profound change in their self-concept (i.e. a marked transformation of ego / avidyā), and will easily notice that their psychological dispositions and many of their desires very significantly change (i.e. their kūṭa and bīja begin to significantly change). This is a common experience for anyone and everyone who even somewhat casually takes up the practices of pure devotion. This experience becomes more and more profound as one continues to practice, thereby affecting purification (anartha-nivṛtti). When one becomes very serious and deep about one’s devotional practice (niṣṭhā), the practitioner will directly notice that they are almost entirely unaffected by karma. Even the manifest conditions of their bodies and external conditions of their lives will not appear particularly important or consequential. Thus by niṣṭhā – a relatively early stage on the path of bhakti-yoga – the devotee is liberated from karma.

The body animated by the devotee will continue to exhibit the momentum of karma it was created with – but the devotee herself is detached completely from the affairs of that karmic train, and thus is liberated from the effects of prarabdha karma even from as early as the stage of niṣṭhā.

Since the physical body itself continues to exist during the entire phase of sādhana,  the devotee is not altogether absolutely free from some connection to the manifest karma during sādhana. During bhāva, the second phase of devotional development, the devotee’s link with the physical body becomes so theoretical and thin that there is practically no experience even of prārabdha-karma. As bhāva concludes its development and prema, the third phase of devotion, dawns, the physical body is altogether lost and the devotee exhibits a transcendental form expressing the unique individual beauty of their pure divine love – which is completely untouched by any karmic mechanisms, existing wholly within the internal sphere of divine energy.

To put it succinctly, although one is not absolutely free of all indirect links to karma until one attains prema, still the practicing devotee is basically as free from karma as they are serious about practicing their sādhana.

For others…

Unmanifest karma is fluid, but manifest karma is concrete and unchangeable. Ordinary people and  newly practicing Vaiṣṇavas prior to the stage of niṣṭhā have to contend with manifest karma. The only thing ordinary people can do about karma is change how they react to it, thus changing the karma they will experience in their future. The new devotee also need adopt this outlook, but more importantly must increase his or her affection and admiration for the value of bhakti-sādhana – which will itself uproot all their karmic woes.

This is where the question of adhikar becomes very relevant. If an ordinary person shows a hint of qualification (adhikar) for pure divine love – it would be a crime to distract them with karmic astrology or other relativistic remedials like psychology, therapy, et al. Such remedials are for those hordes of people who continue to wander up and down the dimensions of the karmic universe. A person who shows an interest in entering the dancing universe of divine love should not be given a horoscope! They should be given the sādhu-saṅga of śuddha-bhaktas engaged in niṣṭha śuddha-nāma-kīrtan

If an astrologer can use astrological jargon and symbolism to increase such a person’s conviction in the value of pure divine love, śuddha-bhakti then more power too that great soul. Generally, however, this is beneficial only to those who have faith in astrological jargon and symbolism. But the wisdom of Gītā and the attractive details of Bhāgavatam and it’s expansion via the teachings of Mahāprabhu’s immediate followers – and especially, the transformative power of congregationally chanting the Hare Krishna mahā-mantra in sādhu-saṅga cannot compare to such indirect methods. They are infinitely more powerful. Only a pāṣaṇdī karma-kaṇḍī would assert otherwise.

Hare Krishna.

Vraja Kishor dās