Courtesy of Kashi Publishing

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati is the spiritual head of Kashi Ashram, an interfaith community she founded in Florida in 1976. Her spiritual teaching derive from universal principles underlying the world’s great religious traditions. Along with the typically Hindu emphasis on meditation, self-knowledge, and seeing beyond appearances into the heart of reality, there is the Buddhist emphasis on putting compassion into action, on doing something to relieve suffering wherever it is found. At the same time, owing to her own heritage, Ma’s outlook is also Jewish to the core with an ardent emphasis on social justice. Ma Jaya is more than a spiritual teacher or guru. She and her service organizations have been active for several decades in calling attention to the plight of various groups and addressing their needs – among them the homeless population, low-income seniors, Ugandan orphans, the LGBT community, and people living with HIV/AIDS.

The Sanskrit word karma means “action” or “deed,” so it is not surprising that it should be the subject of Ma Jaya’s book, The Eleven Karmic Spaces: Choosing Freedom From the Patterns That Bind You (Kashi Publishing, 2011).

Karma fits in both with the ideal of social justice and with inner development. The author approaches every aspect of her topic with deep insight and immense practicality. In the opening pages she tackles the question, What is karma? Is it a system of reward and punishment? Is it paying for what you’ve done? Does it give the satisfaction of seeing others pay for what they’ve done? Is it fate or destiny? She makes quick work of all those popular notions and then points out the futility of speculating over “why this?” or “why that?”

With that out of the way, she turns to the substance of the book, already given in the subtitle: “choosing freedom from the patterns that bind you.” What follows is a penetrating analysis of human nature, human behavior, and human interactions.

So what is karma? At any given moment every person is the sum total of all previous attitudes, actions, and interactions. If karma is some sort of fate or destiny, it is one that we ourselves have created. Undoubtedly we find ourselves living with the results of our previous actions, but at the same time, at every moment, we have the power to change our behavior and to forge a new destiny for the future. Why don’t we exercise that power?

The author explains with her own metaphor of the “eleven karmic spaces.” She likens these to the mail slots behind the desk in an old-fashioned hotel – narrow, enclosed, somehow inviting, maybe even comforting. We fail to recognize them as traps. Through our self-created attitudes and patterns of behavior, we box ourselves in. As with those mail slots (also called “cubbyholes”), the only way out is the way we got in. The book is filled with examples from real life, provided by the author and her students.

Each of the eleven karmic spaces has it own chapter, which explores the nature, workings, and consequences of jealousy, anger, pride, indifference, the ego of self-thought and self-indulgence, lack of awareness, intent, worldly desires, abuse of power, the desire to be right, and attachment. To understand them is to have power over them. Beyond these self-imposed limitations lies freedom.

On one level this is a book about how to set things right in your life, how to have happiness and fulfillment in this world. The guidance works, but why stop there? Beneath the apparent practicality, layer upon layer of deeper wisdom will reveal itself to the thoughtful reader. There may be a temptation to read quickly, and the simplicity of style certainly makes that possible. But this is a book to be read and reread, slowly and attentively, and then lived. The goal is not just a better life – that is only the first step – but true self-knowledge. Particularly through selfless service to others, the practitioner of karma yoga will learn to shed the small, ego-based self and recognize a higher, divine identity; call it Self, God, Brahman, Christ-Consciousness, Ein Sof, or Ultimate Reality. Whatever you call it, if that infinite Oneness is the ultimate simplicity, then the closer one gets, the simpler everything becomes. That is the sort of simplicity that the thoughtful reader will find in this book. In Ma’s own words, it is “an instruction manual to help you find your soul.” And what does that mean? Certainly not an escape from this world, but a complete integration of the inner and the outer life.

Devadatta Kali (David Nelson) joined the Vedanta Society of Southern California in 1967 and spent several years in their monastic community. He has lectured at several interfaith gatherings, including the Parliament of the World’s Religions. His books include The Veiling Brilliance: A Journey to the Goddess; In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning; and Svetasvataropanisad: The Knowledge That Liberates.

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