Our karmic residues and their attached samskaras determine our future incarnation and our character. It is also responsible for the kind of nature we are born with. Our nature or mental make-up plays a vital role in our life, since it determines how we relate to our surroundings.
A bunch of kids are playing in the sand pit. From behind a bush nearby, a litter of kittens joins them. The children are excited. So far, so good; how natural, how predictable. But the reactions of the individual children are varied and unpredictable. While some kids pet and play with them, others instinctively look for a pebble or object to hurl at them. Some run toward them, to scare and shoo them away, while others try to protect them.
It would be no exaggeration to say that, in that moment, in their reaction to the harmless, playful kittens, the kids reveal their characters.
This character, which we exhibit as children, usually carries forward well into our adult life. In our day to day reaction to situations, we too constantly reveal our character, through our petty or magnanimous behavior, brave or cowardly acts or volatile or calm gestures.
So, what is “character” and where do we draw it from? Children are perceived as pure egos and one would expect uniformity in their behavior until they are contaminated by their environment. But apparently such is not the case. According to the Indian school of thought, we are not born with a clean slate, as it were. We are born with a karmic heritage that we have inherited from our family and our past births.
Human beings are made of Matter (mind, body, intellect) and Spirit (soul). According to the theory of transmigration, the matter (prakriti), which is the encasement of the soul (purusha), is made up of gross body and subtle body. The gross body, which is made up of the five elements — earth, water, fire and ether (panchmahabhutas) perishes (dies) when the soul leaves the body; but the subtle body, which is made up of mind, ego and intellect, transmigrates along with the soul.
The subtle body carries the residue of all the actions that we perform. This karmic residue (karmashaya) either conforms to dharma (right conduct), or adharma (impiety) and has appropriate dispositional traces or samskaras. Our karmic residues and their attached samskaras determine our future incarnation and our character. It is also responsible for the kind of nature (svabhava) we are born with. Our nature or mental make-up (svabhava) plays a vital role in our life, since it determines how we relate to our surroundings.
Good samskaras give us a peaceful and trusting nature. They also give us a natural inclination to be just, kind and compassionate toward others. This ensures a life of peace, prosperity and contentment even in our future incarnations. Bad samskaras on the other hand, makes us instinctively prone to aggression and violence. They give us an aggressive, fearful, timid and restless nature. We are never at peace with the world, irrespective of our surroundings. Our future incarnations are just as disturbing and full of challenges, similar to the ones that we encounter in our present lifetime.
Hence, our mental heredity is just as important as our physical heredity, if not more, since it controls how we experience the world and also how we express ourselves in it. Our lineage of karmas and samskaras (personality traits) make us who we are. It’s a part of what evolutionary biologists call our genetic code, or DNA.
A popular Indian anecdote about a rishi (sage) and a scorpion drives the point home. The rishi was sitting by a pond performing tapasya (worship). When he opened his eyes, he saw a scorpion struggling to clamor out of the water. The rishi placed a leaf inside the pond and the scorpion managed to sail out. As soon as he emerged from the water, he bit the sage. The sage managed to save himself and sat down again to do his tapasya. When he opened his eyes, he again saw the scorpion struggling and again he helped him out by extending a leaf, and again the scorpion tried to bite him. This happened a few more times.
A villager, who was silently observing what was happening, went up to the sage and asked him what prompts him to save the scorpion despite its repeated attempt to bite him. The sage replied that just as the scorpion was at the mercy of its nature (svabhava), so was he. “The scorpion is naturally inclined to bite, and I’m naturally disposed to save him,” he said.
Such is the impact of our samskaras on us. They predispose us to act in a certain manner. For better or for worse, we can’t be otherwise!
Likewise, in the great epic Mahabharata, Yudhishtra, the eldest of the five Pandava brothers, shows an inner disposition towards dharma (right conduct). In his modest way he confesses, “I do not act for the sake of the fruits of dharma.
I act, because I must. Whether it bears fruits or not, I do my duty…. I obey dharma not for its rewards… but by its nature my mind is beholden to dharma”
However, for us — lesser mortals than Yudhishtra — we may not believe that following dharma is its own reward, but given that following dharma leads to rewards — the reward of a good life — we may want to make a start.
Hinduism always had self- development as its objective. The cultivation of an ethical self is an important aspect of Indian philosophy. The ancient Indians believed that character could be built, which is why the gurus (teachers) played such pivotal role in olden times. The gurus would subdue the bad samskaras and inculcate good samskaras in their students.
By repeatedly doing good deeds, even with the idea of a reward in mind, it is not possible to change our innate character, but it’s a start. Our virtuous actions, initially, may stem out of self-interest, to sow good deeds for a rewarding life, but eventually, they become a part of a person’s inclination. Till that happens, karma and dharma are still separate from each other.
However, over a period of time, by repeating virtuous actions, they solidify and one accumulates karma, which builds character. The character, which emerges out of positive karmic residue (karmashaya) is then naturally predisposed to act in an ethical manner. Karma and dharma intermingle.
According to Brihadaranyaka Upanisad, “Truly one becomes good by good actions and bad by bad actions.”
Character can be built, if we are willing.
In our blind pursuit of the material, we forget that the vehicle (the body) that pursues it is impermanent in nature. And in the evening of our life, all our hoardings mock us, with the knowledge that we traded our morals and our relationships in pursuit of that which we leave behind so unceremoniously.
Buddha says, “Work on what you can take with you.” And it is our thoughts, values, aspirations and our principles (our samskaras) that we carry with us. These samskaras shape our destiny and character after all is destiny.