In the last article, we discussed the first of the Parikarma concepts, the meaning of Maitri and how it applies to life in the Yogic context as well as the word Sukha. Today, we will explore the second concept in this series, Karuna, along with another word, Dukkha, that is closely associated with it. If you have heard these words before and are familiar with them, take a minute to think about their meaning before you read further.
What is Karuna?
If you speak any Indian language, this is a word you are probably familiar with and have probably used it yourself in everyday speech. I speak a Dravidian language as well as a language associated with Aryan origins, and in both of these, the word Karuna is used as a noun and is often interpreted to mean pity or sympathy. There are variations of the word used as adjectives to describe such a state.
Common meanings of Karuna in different languages:
- Holy action (from the Védic tradition)
Before we discuss this concept further, I will introduce one more word, which is again a word familiar to anyone who knows any Indian languages. Dukkha is a word that Sage Patanjali mentions in connection with Karuna in chapter 1 of the Yoga Sūtra (you can read the Sūtra and listen to the chanting of the Sūtra on my Instagram post). The commonly understood meanings of this word in Sanskrit and other languages:
When we discuss the concept of Karuna, are these the meanings we are looking at or do we interpret it differently?
Karuna in Yoga
Before I go ahead with sharing my understanding of the concept, it is important to give you (and myself) a reminder that English meanings of Sanskrit words can often be very inadequate. For this reason, we often use multiple English words to describe a single Sanskrit term; it helps bring out the various layers of meanings hidden within each word.
When we look at Karuna in the Yogic context, we interpret it slightly differently. One of the meanings mentioned above can be used even in the Yogic context and that is compassion, which means a concern for others’ suffering. Often, though, what happens is compassion and sympathy often bring about the same feeling of suffering and pain within us, and this defeats the purpose in the Yogic context.
I, therefore, want to add one more word to the list of meanings and that word is empathy. Empathy is one of my favourite words to describe this feeling that Yoga speaks about in Karuna. If you have read or studied any Yogic text, you know that Yoga places a lot of emphasis on maintaining our psychological inner balance no mater what is going on outside of us. And that, I believe, the word empathy embodies so very beautifully.
Empathy means that we see, acknowledge, and try to understand the Dukkha or suffering of another so that we can find ways to help them. But we do so without ourselves feeling grief and drowning in our own emotions. We are able to look at the Dukkha objectively because that is the only way we can look for practical solutions and ways to help the being who is suffering. I say ‘being’ because this applies to all living beings and not just humans.
Dukkha here can be used as a noun or an adjective. As a noun, it refers to a being who is in pain or is miserable, the sufferer. As an adjective, it describes what a being is going through, the being who is miserable or in pain. It is a state where the being who is affected cannot help themselves very well and often feel helpless in the face of pain and misery.
Yoga says we should practice Karuna towards Dukkha, empathy and compassion towards those in pain and misery. They don’t need us to feel sorry for them; they need us to help them in some way to rise up from the suffering and move forward. Empathy also ensures we do not take way respect from them as we help them. It can often mean helping them find ways to get themselves out of the situation, which gives them a sense of control, power over their circumstances, and confidence that they can help themselves.
For us, being empathetic causes a rush of happy hormones in the body and create a sense of peace, calm, and contentment, or Santōsha in the mind. This feeling of Santōsha is extremely helpful in maintaining good psychological and emotional health as well as keeping that inner balance we spoke about earlier intact.
Isn’t it beautiful how a text that is thousands of years old can be so relevant to us today and can talk about core human emotions so beautifully? This is what draws me to the ancient texts, the wisdom and simplicity that they bring.
If you’d like to discuss these concepts or any concepts from Yoga in greater detail or would like to understand how to incorporate these into your practice and life, do reach out to me here on the website or on my Instagram.