Hindus and Choice
The Continuum of Choice in Sanatana Dharma
By Swami Abhipadananda and Swami Jyotir Vakyananda
The ultimate goal of Hinduism is liberation. Liberation is achieved by the repeated exercise of conscious choice and the cultivation of memory regarding those choices. Memory of choice and consequence is crucial because wise choice can only occur in the light of self-knowledge (1) (sva-dhyaya) and knowledge of the laws of nature (karma and causality) (2). Every human life is characterized by at least four simultaneously existing cycles: 1) the cycle of rebirth and re-death is the major cycle binding us to the earth; 2) the cycle of rasas, or desire, individuates us as distinct personalities(3); 3) the cycle of the gunas(4), or qualities of mind, determines the conditions under which we make a decision; 4) the purusharthas(5), legitimate aims of existence, determine the rightness of a choice at a given time in the unending flow of existence.
These four cycles converge in a unique way in each individual human life. This is how unlimited consciousness becomes particularized and limited. It is by understanding the convergence of these four cycles that we establish whether an action is conducive to growth. By the very nature of our limited perspective we know that our choices will be flawed; however, it is the experience of life and the memory that we cultivate that will lead us slowly but inevitably towards liberation.
Understanding Our Place in the Cyclic Order of Life and the Continuum of Infinite Choice
Sanatana Dharma(6), the original name for Hinduism, means the unending cyclic order of Life. Hinduism holds that life is without beginning or end. Consequently life does not begin at conception or end with the death of the body. In the oldest texts of Hindu philosophy, the Vedas, this cycle is called re-death (punar mrityuh)(7), emphasizing the idea that human beings acquire experiences through living and then die in order to manifest a new body more suited to the fulfillment of their new dreams and desires.
The existence of this cycle is central to the matter of reproductive choice. The moment of reproductive choice is just one of countless moments in a continuous stream of existence. Human life is marked by two critical moments: the final breath breathed at the moment of death, and the initial one breathed in a new body. It is the breath that links a soul to a body(8). With the life of the body, there is a slavery to the breath cycle, the heart cycle, the digestive cycle and more spiritually important, to grander cycles that impel us towards the fulfillment of our desires.
The doctrine of karma and rebirth or re-death
Karma, whose root word means to act or to create, is the name for the cycle of cause and effect that propels us into existence and towards the pursuit of our desires. In the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma, the beginning of a new life cycle is found in the end of the preceding one. The Upanishads say that when a man outgrows his body the mind disconnects from the senses, but subtle impressions remain on the mind as it leaves the body and continues on its journey. At the moment of death, the senses turn inward and disconnect in a progressive manner. As vitality wavers and the senses lose their grip, sense perceptions are superceded by deeply habituated thoughts and memories. These thoughts, revealed prior to the last breath, indicate the shape of the life to come. With the final breath, these thoughts are locked into the soul as it leaves the body. The connection between the soul and the body is broken.(9)
What follows is the state of dreaming and becoming(10). The unlimited soul is confronted with endless possibilities of being. The entire play of time exists in a panoramic view. Whether these experiences are joyful or fearful depends upon the habitual thoughts of the soul. Personality, habit, and memory cause the soul to look for things that are familiar and comfortable. The soul begins to focus exclusively on preferred activities becoming blinded to other possibilities, beginning the cycle of limitation. Limitation creates the body. In other words, the soul conceives—prior to its conception by parents—a (mental) body to fulfill its desires. This body enters the womb of the mother at the moment of conception, responding to a beacon of spiraling light generated by two people having sex who resonate to that soul’s dreams and desires.(11)
The desire nature leading to and perpetuating cyclic existence
Desire is the pull of the consciousness downward and outward towards the senses resulting in individuation. This desire principle is the cause of incarnation. The unlimited soul is attracted to life—and by implication to death—by unfulfilled desire. This process is continual until the soul cultivates the desireless state called moksha or liberation.(12)
To incarnate, the soul abdicates a tremendous amount of free will and creative choice. Most importantly it is now subject to the desires of other beings with whom it synergistically exists, primarily the parents. If the embodied soul survives gestation, it will breathe its first free breath, detached from the umbilical cord and with that breath, the desires and habitual thoughts of the previous lives will impress themselves on the brain and nervous system. What the soul has done by choosing limitation is to concentrate its desires through the lens of time in order to form a body, just as the sun concentrated through a magnifying glass forms a fire. These concentrated desires will inform the circumstances of birth into a new life.
Despite the tremendous forces of the material universe which operate on the human mind and body at this point, free will does exist.(13) Free will (agami or kriyamana karma)(14) is the conscious movement away from the force of habit and desire, towards liberation. It is characterized by the ability to act with detachment and to operate in a balanced, non-emotional state of mind. Any choice made in desperation and emotionality is not a choice but a karmic compulsion that will lead to further constriction. Most of the seeming choices a soul makes are in fact the working of the desire nature.
According to Hindu philosophy, there are 12 categories of desire called rasas.(15) These categories are: 1) raudra, the desire to cause or experience anger; 2) adbhuta, the desire to cause or experience wonder; 3) shrngara, the desire to experience conjugal love; 4) hasya, the desire to cause or experience laughter; 5) vira, the desire to experience bravery or heroism; 6) daya, the desire to give or experience mercy; 7) dasya, the desire to experience servitorship; 8) sakhya, the desire to experience fraternity; 9) bhayanaka, the desire to cause or experience horror; 10) vibhatsa, the desire to cause or experience shock; 11) santa, the desire to cause or experience neutrality; 12) vatsalya, the desire to cause or experience parenthood. From the synergistic understanding of all these rasas, the soul arrives at a thirteenth rasa called karuna, or enlightened compassion. In order to grow and move towards liberation a soul must come to this final place of compassion by way of experience. The rasas can be experienced individually or in different combinations. These combinations are the basis of human individuality. Our desires make us unique.
The connection of the desire principle to a body is called nama-rupa. Nama means name, rupa means form and together they form the personality and create a sense of individuality. The oldest school of Hinduism, called samkhya-yoga, privileges the concept of nama-rupa(16) because although all humans live in the same world, their journey to enlightenment and liberation is ultimately an individual one. There is no moment of rapture, no en masse enlightenment in this paradigm, and no moral redemption or judgment which comes from some external force. Rather, it is the experiences an individual acquires by way of nama-rupa that create a basis for liberation of the consciousness.
The three gunas: qualities of consciousness in the material universe
There is a cyclic flow in nature which influences our ability to make expansive choices and describes different qualities of mind under which decisions are made. This cyclic flow is described in terms of gunas or qualities. Hinduism holds that mind and matter have a three-fold nature: tamas, dark heavy inertia, ignorance and inactivity; rajas, passionate activity; and sattva, luminous, compassionate activity. All things on earth—including bodies, minds and other objects—are in various stages of tamas, rajas or sattva at any given time in the cycle of manifestation.(17)
Gunas are subject to the material law that like attracts like. This attraction includes the attraction of a soul to the souls of two potential parents. The manner of conception, and the degree of consciousness involved in conception are things that must be taken into consideration. Generally the guna which describes the conception, and thus the state of mind of the parents, will also describe the predominating guna of the incoming soul carried over from the moment of death.(18) A conception springing from sattva is one that involves a socially sanctioned marriage or committed long-term monogamous relationship where both people conceiving the child share an equal desire to conceive in the context of societal and familial support. A conception based on rajas involves two people who have sex out of a heavy desire, sometimes wanting a child, sometimes not. Finally, a conception which is based in tamas is one where someone who is physically, mentally or spiritually poverty stricken in a non-socially accepted, non-monogamous relationship in the improper time or improper place conceives a child. These conceptions are very dark and because they have no social structure to support them, they are fraught with difficulty.
When a human exercises choice or acts in any way, the predomination of a particular guna becomes evident. A mind predominated by sattva will not find itself in a position of experiencing an unwanted pregnancy. Where sattva predominates, choice is exercised in more malleable stages of the cycle—such as abstinence and/or deeply conscious choice of a sexual partner or proper use of birth control. However, by the very nature of enslavement to physical existence, all choices made under the predomination of the gunas are flawed. Further, most minds are not predominated by sattva-guna most of the time. Most humans are, to a greater degree, identified with their bodies and minds and therefore in a state of rajas or tamas where the consciousness is pulled downward to earth and outward towards the objects perceived by the senses. Because of this incorrect identification with the body and mind, most humans very often find themselves in situations that they are unconscious of having attracted. In these situations, a great deal of reflection is required in order to exercise right choice. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna, “Krishna, what is it that makes a man do evil even against his own will under compulsion as it were?” Krishna answers, “The rajo-guna has two faces, rage and lust; the ravenous, the deadly. Recognize these, they are your enemies.”
The need for Spirit to complete itself: the four legitimate aims of life
Choice (kriyamana karma) does exist in the Hindu cosmo-conception and there is a very pragmatic approach to establishing whether a choice is right or wrong. If a choice is constrictive to the soul’s evolution, it is wrong. If it is conducive to growth it is right. It is a matter of context. The context of a choice consists of the cycle of karma and causation, the interplay of the rasas that form the nama-rupa (individual personality), the gunas which characterize the mind at the time of a choice and finally, the aim of an individual’s life at that particular time.
In order to grow, souls must experience all 12 rasas, ultimately coming to the synergistic thirteenth—karuna, enlightened compassion. Likewise, in order to achieve a state predominated by sattva-guna, a soul must cycle continually through all the gunas. Life is an experiment in learning where it is crucial to cultivate memory so that we can progress beyond our mistakes rather than continually repeating them. Knowledge and memory gained from human experiences are the gift that leads to the expansion of consciousness and liberation.(20)
The reason we incarnate is for the soul to come to know itself by experiencing the whole panoply of possibilities. This is what ultimately allows the soul to depart from cyclic existence. Paradoxically, we are freed from the need to experience by way of experience itself.
On this journey towards self-completion there are four legitimate aims in human life: 1) artha, the acquisition of material wealth, wealth of power or wealth of memory; 2) kama, pleasure and the enjoyment of human wealth of all kinds; 3) dharma, the fulfillment of the good or the ritual that reinforces life; and 4) moksha, the pursuit of liberation which is the highest aim.(21)
The rightness or wrongness of a choice is ultimately relative to the aim of a soul in its particular stage of evolution. To the soul seeking the highest dharma or moksha, the unconscious use of sex or the use of violence to limit life in any form is simply constrictive. However, to a soul who has not achieved the expansiveness of consciousness to act with great deliberation, the exercise of choice is a spiritual practice by which it cultivates experience, learns and grows. The key component for spiritual growth in this case is the manner in which decisions are made. A decision made from a balanced, non-emotional state will be less productive of difficult karma than one made in despair and desperation. The circumstances of the decision will imprint a deep memory on the soul of the mother and the soul seeking incarnation.
The words of Krishna to his student Arjuna at the conclusion of the Bhagavad-Gita are: “Your own nature will drive you to act. For you yourself have created the karma that binds you. You are helpless in its power. And you will do that very thing which your ignorance seeks to avoid…Now I have taught you that wisdom which is the secret of secrets. Ponder it carefully. Then act as you think best.” (22) We are the creators of the karma that binds us, therefore we can also un-create that karma. This is the basis of choice in Hinduism.
There is no choice where there is no knowledge or instruction. Right choice is an exercise in knowing the self, sva-dhyaya or self-study. The terms of choosing are elucidated by consideration of the desires that individuate us, the quality of the mind at the time of choice, and the goal we are seeking to fulfill in our life. Ultimately, as humans we must act, in fact, our very nature will compel us to act. Our choices will lead us into the basest of human dilemmas and to the realization of our highest nobility. Our choices will be flawed and from those flaws we will move slowly but inevitably towards liberation. As members of a spiritual—and more importantly, a human—community, our role in the dharma is to aid souls in the exercise of choice by providing information and insight into the nature of consciousness and life. Only the individual soul can free itself. Only the individual soul can choose for itself.
Swami Abhipadananda, a Swami of the Temple of Kriya Yoga in Chicago, has a Master’s Degree from Gallaudet University. She studied mysticism of all kinds from a young age and began the formal pursuit of yoga and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin fifteen years ago. Her writings and teachings are concerned with living happily and healthfully under all conditions such as chronic illness, disability, and modern-day stress. She views Kriya Yoga as a scientific practice that allows you to still the mind in the midst of a “regular” life. She avidly practices pranayama, mantra and astrology.
Swami Jyotir Vakyananda was initiated into the Kriya Yoga tradition as a teenager by Palmer Bhotts, affectionately known as Baba Atman, a teacher who lived and taught in the Hillcrest Community of Washington, DC. In the 25 years since that initiation, he studied closely with yogis and Swamis including Hariharananda, Purnatmananda of the Bharat Seva Ashram Sangha of Kolkata, India and Goswami Kriyananda of The Temple of Kriya Yoga in Chicago. Prior to being ordained a Swami of the Temple of Kriya Yoga he taught and studied martial arts for 20 years; since he’s devoted his teaching energies to Kriya Yoga, Meditation, Yantra and Sanskrit Mantra.
1. Feuerstein, The Yoga-Sutras of Patañjali, 58.
2. Crim, Bullard and Shinn, eds., The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, s.v. “karma”, 401.
3. Prabhupada, Srimad-Bhagavatam, 56-57.
4. Crim, Bullard and Shinn, eds., s.v. “gunas”, 286.
5. Doniger, Gold, Haberman and Shulman, eds, Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism, 48.
6. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism, 31.
7. Radhakrishnan, trans., The Principal Upanishads, 593.
8. Easwaran, trans., “Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad” in Upanishads, 44.
9. Ibid., 46.
10. Easwaran, trans., “Aitareya Upanishad” in Upanishads, 128-129.
11. Douglas and Slinger, Sexual Secrets: The Alchemy of Ecstasy, 285.
12. Easwaran, “Katha Upanishad” in Upanishads, 96-97.
13. Tigunait, From Death to Birth: Understanding Karma and Reincarnation, 20.
14. Shankacharya, Tattva-Bodha, 71-74.
15. Prabhupada, Srimad-Bhagavatam, 56-57.
16. Tigunait, Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy, 131-132.
17. Prabhavananda and Isherwood, The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, 106-110.
18. Ibid., 114-116.
19. Ibid., 48-49.
20. See note 3.
21. Klostermaier, 95.
22. Prabhavananda and Isherwood, 129.
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Prabhavananda, Swami and Christopher Isherwood, trans. The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita. Hollywood, CA: Vedanta Society of Southern California, 1944. Repr. New York: Signet, 1972. Citations are to the 1972 edition.
Prabhavananda, Swami and Frederick Manchester, trans. The Upanishads, Breath of the Eternal. Hollywood, CA, 1948. Vedanta Society of Southern California. Repr. New York: Mentor Books, 1975. Citations are to the 1975 edition.
Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, trans. Srimad-Bhagavatam. New York: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1972.
Radhakrishnan, S., trans. ed. The Principal Upanishads. London,: Allen & Unwin, 1953. Repr. New Delhi: Harper & Collins, 1994. Citations are to the 1994 edition.
Shankacharya. Tattva-Bodha. Trans. Svarupa Chaitanya. Mumbai: Chinmaya Mission Trust, 1990.
Tigunait, Rajmani. Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy. Honesdale, PA: Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy of the U.S.A., 1983.
______________. From Death to Birth: Understanding Karma and Reincarnation. Honesdale, PA: Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy of the U.S.A, 1997.