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Karuna – Compassion

by Lalita Arya (Ammaji)

Karuna – Compassion: What It Means in Today’s World 

Buddha in Oil Painting

Buddham sharanam gachhami…
I come seeking your protection, O Buddha.

Karuna: The feeling that we have to experience the pain or distress of another as if it is our own. The English equivalent, compassion, is derived from the Latin com meaning with, and passio meaning suffering. Karuna is not just sympathy (anukampa) or feeling sorry for another, but rather empathy (annudayana), actually feeling the sorrow of another.

According to Buddhist and Jain philosophies, karuna is one of the main emotions of humans that must be felt in a practical way.  In Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra, the volume on Performing Arts, one of the best texts that lists human emotions, compassion (karuna) is marked as one of nine rasas (literally meaning flavor) interpreting emotions. The others are devotion (bhakti) pleasure (rati), sorrow (shoke), anger (krodha), courage (utsaha), fear (bhaya), disgust (jugutpsa), and awe or surprise(vishmaya).

According to the Buddha, to experience the selfless compassion of karuna is to feel a quiver in the heart to such an extent that when suffering is seen in another it should become one’s own. One must not only feel it but be compelled to act.

How does karuna come into play in today’s world, and how can we truly practice it? Emotions that register and operate through the mind arise both from internal samskaras and external inputs.  Emotions are like the waves of the oceans - they rise and fall. While the movement of the waves depends on tides, the burst of emotions depends on how the mind observes internally and externally and then reacts.

Swami Rama (Babaji) in his book Lectures on Yoga wrote, “The mind is a collection of thoughts and habits. It is a huge heap of desires gathered from contact with different forces of the world.  It is the habit of the mind to collect feelings aroused by worldly disturbances.”  What Babaji says here applies to how we are reacting to what is happening in today’s world. In times like these, one sees that humanity has formed habit patterns in terms of how we react to situations. This ‘worldly disturbance’ plays on our fears of disease and death.

There are 2 questions that come to mind with regards to the mind during this pandemic:
Why is the mind affected by worldly disturbances? What can we do to mitigate the negative effects of worldly disturbances on the mind?
Let’s look at the mind to see why it’s affected by worldly disturbances. The mind is the instrument that works through the senses to observe, absorb, be passive, act, or react. So, the answer to the first question is that the mind is affected by worldly disturbances because it reacts to the input from our senses (this is, of course, a simplified answer for the purpose of discussing karuna.) There are many other factors such as the performance of our dharma, karma, meditative practices, and Grace.

Now that we know why the mind is affected, how do we mitigate the negative effects? We must train our minds to be the best instrument for our use. One of the easiest ways to train the mind is to follow the teachings of the ancient sages whose personal experiences led them to formulate systems of philosophy that we today may follow to understand ourselves, how we think, speak, and act. Meditative practices guide us to accomplish this by helping us to understand how the mind works by observing it. What is it absorbing from the outside? How does that affect what is already inside? And then, what do we do with what the mind has absorbed?

In the Himalayan Tradition, when we have reached the stage when we become aware, we begin to empathize with what’s going on around us, compassion develops and comes to us naturally. It is simply part of the progression of a meditative practice. For it is no longer ‘me’ and ‘them’, but rather, ‘all’.  Then we awake in that karuna that the Buddha speaks of, and we become one with All.

In the cave of my heart
There is a Light
I can feel
I can see
A brilliant flame burning constantly
Its glow suffuses me then
Expanding slowly
It fills my being with its Self
I spread with It
Radiating, a lava like flow of waves
This self i’ve known for some time is no more
That little ‘i’ has become
All – All – All  and
Finally, ‘aham brahmaasmi’
And Karuna is the new name.


Lalita Arya
Boston, Massachusetts
April 12, 2020

Buddha in oil paints
Lalita Arya
Princeton, New Jersey

Editor’s Note:

Founder of KHEL charities, Ammaji is a mantra initiator and a member of AHYMSIN’s Adhyatma Samiti (Spiritual Committee). She has also authored the book Eyeful of Sky: Poems.




The Himalayan Tradition of Yoga Meditation

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Breath Awareness     Qualified Preceptor
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