Sadhguru On Karma And Redefining Happiness
In 2020, during the pandemic, 63-year-old modern mystic Sadhguru rode his motorcycle across America, covering over 20 states and over 10,000 miles to explore the country’s deep and complicated spiritual legacy.
Travelling over sacred lands, including the Navajo and Hopi lands in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, he spent time with Native American leaders, elders and medicine men to learn about their spiritual practices and connection with the land.
Sadhguru had developed a particular interest in Indigenous cultures nearly twenty years ago, when he travelled through the US on a mission to find a new home for his non-profit spiritual organisation, Isha Foundation, which he founded in 1992 in Coimbatore, India. Along the way, he visited Center Hill Lake, Tennessee, where he says he encountered a “frozen Native American spirit”.
“I had never seen that kind of pain in anybody,” he recalls. “I started inquiring about the Native American people and what happened to them. Then I learnt that region is known as the Trail of Tears, where terrible events took place and thousands of Native American people were killed between 1830 and 1850.”
Moved by the site, in 2006 he opened the Isha Institute of Inner Sciences on a mountaintop in the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee, at the head of the Trail of Tears. Sadhguru says he was “drawn by the pain, not the beauty” of the place.
Since then, the Tennessee location has become a place of pilgrimage, attracting more than 50,000 visitors a year to take part in its programmes, which range from yoga and meditation retreats to guided nature walks, to a programme in which guests spend 21 days forming mindful habits in their daily lives through disciplined guided rituals. The foundation now operates in more than 300 cities and countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and the UK. And outside of those, he has inspired millions with his writings, including his latest book, Karma, which appeared on The New York Times bestseller list after its release earlier this year.
Sadhguru’s popularity has notably grown exponentially over the years in mainland China, where yogis are becoming increasingly interested in the traditional yogic philosophy taught by his foundation. “For China, the time for yoga has come,” Sadhguru, whose real name is Jagadish “Jaggi” Vasudev, wrote in an article on the Isha website in 2019. “Not the twisting, turning yoga that is becoming popular there, but the real Yoga!”
By that, Sadhguru means not only a fitness regime but a broader philosophy—something he examines in Karma. Noting that the word had “become part of the English lexicon” but “deeply misunderstood”, Sadhguru decided to set the record straight with his aptly titled book.
“Karma is not a negative or a positive thing. It is within us, like an unconscious software that we have written for ourselves based on our memories and life experiences,” Sadhguru explains. “This book is a step-by-step process for people to see how they are the makers of their own life and their destiny. Karma is the most dynamic way to live. To say ‘My life is my karma’ simply means ‘My life is my making’. Essentially karma means moving the controls of your life from heaven to within.”
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It’s more or less the synopsis of his teachings: fix and find peace within yourself so you can make a meaningful impact on fixing and finding peace within the world. This is a problem that is particularly potent in western societies, he says, where individualism has been “overly cultivated”.
“Individualism means you have created a strict boundary around who you are, a wall of self-preservation,” Sadhguru says. “When you build a wall of self-preservation today, tomorrow it will become a wall of self-imprisonment and loneliness.” While loneliness may be at an all-time high as a result of the pandemic, Sadhguru’s teachings suggest—seemingly paradoxically—that it’s time we retreat inwards to feel more connected with the outside world.
“One aspect that I would say is most important for today’s world and coming generations is what we can learn from Indigenous people, for whom the environment is in their hearts,” he says. “If our lives were not in pursuit of happiness, but rather an expression of joy, you would see there would be no problems in the world. Even the ecological problems we’re facing right now in the world are a consequence of the human pursuit of happiness.”
And with that said, Sadhguru suggests it’s time we redefine happiness. “Happiness and wellbeing come from within. What comes your way is not always in your control; what you make out of it is always your choice,” he says, adding that most people don’t exercise that choice. “That’s where the problem is: they are in a state of compulsive reaction; they need to become a conscious response.”
He then challenged me to reflect on how much of my day had been spent consciously: had I thought about where my food came from? Did I notice my surroundings while walking? How aware or discerning had I been with the information I was receiving via social media? That disconnect, Sadhguru says, is leading humanity down a dangerous path.
The word ‘yoga’ means union. Union means you consciously obliterate the boundaries of your individuality. That is when you experience life in its full force.— Sadhguru
“Once your individual nature has become overly important to you, you have misunderstood your individuality as separate from the rest,” he says. “This is what yoga means; the word ‘yoga’ means union. What union means is you consciously obliterate the boundaries of your individuality. That is when you experience life in its full force, and the full depth and dimension of what it is. Otherwise, you are just a physiological and psychological drama. It will be a great moment for humankind when we finally move from conquest to coexistence.”
Until then, most people are living in a constant state of conflict: with our environment, with others, with ourselves and with forces that many have been taught exist to punish or reward us according to our behaviour—otherwise known as karma.
“This leaves many existing in a constant cycle of guilt and fear,” says Sadhguru, adding that by leaving our fate in the hands of the unknown, we willingly subscribe to living in anxiety and self-doubt. The solution? He says it’s time people stop passing the buck and start accepting control of our life and happiness. “The word ‘karma’ means action. Whose action? My action. Whose responsibility? My responsibility.”
Karma is Sadhguru’s second New York Times bestseller, following 2016’s Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy. At the same time, he launched the Inner Engineering online programme, which is designed to enable the inner awakening of one’s true nature and potential.
Claire Hsu, founder of the Hong Kong-based Asia Art Archive, is one of many who have benefited from the course. “The programme appealed to me because I can’t think of anything more important—teachings that enable you to live your life more fully, to be free of the noise of the ego and the pain patterns we perpetuate,” she says. “[Sadhguru] dispels the idea that the spiritual journey is for a select few, that one needs to live in a cave or belong to an organised belief or religious system. Like anything in life, the teachings one puts into place will shape the way you see
This pragmatic and accessible approach to spirituality has gained Sadhguru millions of followers around the world; while they include celebrities such as Matthew McConaughey and Will Smith, his perspective has made him a far more relatable spiritual figure than the gilded gurus before him—think Osho with his customised yellow-gold Rolex and fleet of 93 Rolls-Royces, or Bikram Choudhury’s extravagant collection of 40-odd luxury vehicles.
And he wants as many people as possible to benefit from his teachings. “We offer the Inner Engineering at 75 per cent off to all Indigenous persons,” Sadhguru says. “We also conduct yoga programmes in prisons all over Tamil Nadu for both prisoners and police alike.”
It seems the man simply, genuinely, wants to make the world a happier place.
“We have always tried to produce good people, but we need joyful and sensible people on the planet,” says Sadhguru. Forty years ago, on September 23, now known to Sadhguru and his Isha Foundation circle as Enlightenment Day, the 25-year old Jagadish had a spiritual revelation atop the Chamundi Hills in Mysore, India. “I said to myself: I will make the entire world blissful and ecstatic.”
But Sadhguru has enough self-awareness to realise that healing the world is a tall order. “I have set myself up for failure,” he says, laughing. You can’t blame a man for trying.