Questioner (Q): Sir, I have read that karma means action, what one thinks consciously and subconsciously, what one does. Our future action depends on the karma of the past and the present. But there is a thing in circulation these days that says that karma is actually a boomerang: if you do something, it will come back at you in some form in the future. How is it possible that everything comes back to us like that? If that is true, what is the force that is actually taking care of that particular karma?
Acharya Prashant (AP): See, the moment you say that karma is something that comes around to you, as is the popular saying, then you are postponing, relegating the fruit of your actions to the future, aren’t you? Now, first of all, then we allow ourselves this uncertainty, that what we have done, its result may or may not come to us; second, even if it is certain that the result is indeed going to be received by us, it would happen in the future, at an uncertain date in the future, and no one knows how long in the future it might take. So, the entire power, the kick, is quite lost.
The real meaning and the real implication of karma is quite different. Vedanta and all wisdom focus not so much on the action, which is karma, but on the actor. The actor is the primary entity. If the actor is conscious, awake, he understands, then one need not bother too much about the actions, one need not scrutinize the action so much. The action would naturally be alright.
But if the actor himself or herself is in a hazy state, badly influenced, heavily conditioned, then one need not wait for the results of the action. I like to say that the results of the action come even before the action, because the actor comes before the action. A bad state of the actor is in itself a lot of suffering. So, you don’t have to wait for the results.
Let’s say you go for some pathetic deed. Now, how could you have committed that action without firstly being pathetic inwards? And if you are bad and rotten inside, then what bigger punishment can you receive? The punishment has already been received. Future becomes immaterial. One need not look at the future to ascertain whether or not the fellow was rewarded or punished for what he did, because the punishment or the reward comes before the action.
However, we fail to see that because we have a very unfortunate power to be heavily acclimatized; we become kind of used to suffering. When you become used to suffering, you don’t see that you are suffering. And it is a funny situation: then that the suffering one says, “I did such and such things, now I want to test whether I would receive suffering as a result of my acts.” Why do you need to receive suffering in the future? What you did arose out of your pre-existing suffering.
So, that’s the way it is. And also, this makes various catchphrases like ‘karmic account’ and ‘karmic balance’ all quite meaningless, because they are all born out of a very shallow understanding of karma.
See, you and I address each other as ‘you’ and ‘I’. So, this ‘I’ is our primary identity, right? This ‘I’ is the actor, thinker, doer, understander—everything. So, the purpose of wisdom is to deal with this ‘I’. All that this ‘I’ does etc. comes way later; far more exampled than the deed is the doer, because the doer is the ‘I’. And why are we talking so much about this ‘I’? Because that is our primary identity. You say, “I am happy, I am sad.” You don’t say anything that doesn’t directly or indirectly contain ‘I’.
You stand at the center of your own personal universe, right? And it is for your own betterment that you turn to wisdom, or to management studies, or to anything else in life. Therefore, it is commonsensical that talking about actions, and then the rewards of actions, and then the subsequent future and such things, doesn’t make much sense; rather, we need to come to the primary entity that concerns us, and that primary entity is the ‘I’.
So, we have to talk of the doer, the actor—this one that we are, the one we associate ourselves with, the one we live our lives as.
Q: How can one be content without being complacent? How does one achieve that?
AP: See, complacency can be there only when you have just not bothered to enquire into the facts of your life. Otherwise, it is impossible to be smug and ultra-confident about your state. None of us, factually, are in a great state internally. It is an unfortunate fact, but a fact is a fact.
So, there is sickness, dissatisfaction, incompleteness, psychosis, anxiety, fear. And when the placement season comes, then we are jittery, and if the next fellow gets a higher pay package, then we become jealous. We know all these things are there, and knowing all these things, if we still certify ourselves to be internally healthy, then there is something very wrong with our compass of honesty. Either that, or we are so afraid that we just don’t even want to enquire within.
“Am I okay? Why did I just start trembling? I am standing in front of that interview room—let’s say it is a day-zero company—and I suddenly find myself weak in the knees and shaking in my trousers. Why is that happening?” And it is a very real happening; it is actually physical. You can’t even say that it was inside, so you didn’t see; it is there in the body, you can’t deny its presence. But having seen all that, if we still want to insist that we are happy, then there is a great problem.
Now, coming to contentment. Contentment is the very last thing. At your stage in life, as a young person, you should have a lot of dissatisfaction—a lot of dissatisfaction—because if you settle at the point you already are inwardly, outwardly, within, without, then you would be settling at a very suboptimal point. Your potential is far higher. So, there is no point talking of contentment at this age because being what we are, at this age and stage, we don’t even know what contentment is; we are bound to misinterpret it.
So, leave contentment for a later stage. At this point, rebel and rise. See what confines you and don’t accept it; fight it out, and don’t bother too much for the result. If you have given a good fight, then the word ‘contentment’ can probably kick in, in the sense that “I did the utmost I could. Beyond this, it was not possible for me to do anything. Honestly, I say that there is nothing that I held back; I gave the fight more than what I had.” Now you can probably be contented—contented not in the sense that the fight is over, but contented in the sense that now you are ready for the next and bigger fight.
Final contentment is final deliverance; it is liberation, actually. So, do not talk of that. When I talk to young people, it is much more advisable that they look at things and challenge them, question them. Believe me, and you need not actually believe me because you see this thing with your own eyes: much in the world today needs to be challenged and demolished. Just do not be easily satisfied.
Q: But we are living in a very goal-oriented, outcome-driven world. How does one achieve that detachment of giving one’s best while not being focused on the result?
AP: No, it is not detachment really; I would say you have to be in love with your war, your action. If you are challenging something, if you have taken up an enormous project, be in love with it. I am not talking of detachment; I am talking of love here. Be in love with your work and give it just everything that you have. For that you would, first of all, require the work to be that enormous and that loveable.
In anything that you enter, in anything that you take up, the quality of the relationship must be so high that you are encouraged, that you are left choiceless in attending to it. You cannot hold yourself back. You will not say, “Now it is 6 p.m., so I must get up from my seat and leave” or that, “In this task, I was supposed to contribute only so much and no more.” Give it all that you have. And once you have given it all that you have, you will find that you will be left with very little time, space, or energy to bother about the result.
See, bothering about the result is an energy-intensive affair, is it not? You may take three hours just preparing for an exam, and then you may keep worrying about the result for thirty days. Worrying, brooding, and thinking about the result—all this consumes a lot of our lives. Now, if you are worrying about the outcome, I would say, why do you have spare time at all? Why has this time, firstly, not been utilized in the action itself? And if you say, “Well, the deed is done, now I have spare time,” I will say, what about the next and the higher deed? Why are you squandering away even one moment of this precious but limited life? How come you have the time?
So, when one is madly in love, when one is intensely in action, then the outcome becomes immaterial. Not because one is indifferent or detached; no, it is not a case of detachment; it is a case of intense love. “I gave everything that I had; now it is difficult to differentiate between defeat and victory.” You could say the one who could differentiate between these two, the one who could be affected by the outcome is left with nothing to be affected with; he held back nothing. He gave everything that he/she had.
Think of a six-hour Wimbledon final, or a seven-hour match—we have had matches like that. The loser, believe me, does not really regret that match. I have read of Grand Slam champions who, when asked about their most unforgettable match, would not talk about one of their Grand Slam finals or semifinals; they would talk about one match that they fought and lost. Now, that is one match that they cannot forget. That is one match that brought life to them as never before, because that was the match that drained everything out of them. And finally, when the winning shot was played, neither side could differentiate between victory and defeat.
As a spectator, you would mind who held the trophy, and only one of the two parties is now carrying the trophy, so you would say, “Oh well, Nadal won and Federer lost.” But ask them, who have just played a five-setter that has extended up to six hours or seven hours; they will say, “Well, this is my most unforgettable match. I do not remember who won or who lost—that is something I won’t remember. But the match I can’t forget.”
That’s the way to live life. Live so intensely that in the end you are left with no energy to be concerned with the result. And that does not mean that you will necessarily meet defeat; sometimes there is victory, sometimes there is defeat, but that is not the point. The point is how you have played the game.
Play it with all your might; it raises you like anything. It raises you to enter a bigger game, a higher game—and that’s the game.