When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power riding a very popular wave, was it karma at work? When we ponder on this question, we understand karma. This article is about karma, not Modi.
So what is karma?
There are two understandings: One based on certainty and the other based on uncertainty. The former is understandably popular and can be called tit-for-tat karma. The latter is less popular can be called tit-for-what karma.
When yoga teachers in Europe and America speak of good karma and bad karma, they are referring to tit-for-tat karma, which is actually based on a Biblical phrase: “… whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians, 6:7, King James Version).
Here, suffering on earth is an outcome of sin, which is commonly translated as paap or bad karma. While Hindu and Buddhist and Jain traditions also speak of tit-for-tat karma, there is a slight difference. The word sin is translated as paap. There is no opposite of sin. The opposite of sin is living in accordance with the will of God. Indic mythologies speak of punya, good karma that yields fortunes.
But a deeper reading of karma challenges this popular understanding of karma and replaces certainty with uncertainty. We discover this in the Gita phrase: “You have control only over actions, not its fruits” (Bhagavad Gita, 2:47). Here, there is less control, less certainty, no way to guarantee outcome.
Karma and complacency
There is a tendency to mock tit-for-what karma as fatalism or determinism. Many scholars say this is the reason for Indian complacency. They don’t get it. The concept of determinism comes from Greek mythology where oracles would foretell what the Moirai, or Fates, had in store for the hero.
In Hindu practice, when an astrologer predicts what is supposed to happen, what is determined and revealed by the stars, he is expected to offer an upaay, a way, to change the certain outcome. This is anything but complacent, though it is not quite the Protestant work ethic.
What makes Indians complacent is the cultural acceptance that we have no control over the fruits of our actions, which demotivates people from planting seeds, any seeds. We market this indifference as Indian tolerance. If tit-for-tat karma motivates action because we crave the fruit, then tit-for-what karma motivates action only by appealing to our sense of duty and responsibility.
Karma as described in Vedic texts is determined not by a god, but by our own actions, from way past, that we have no knowledge of, maybe even a past life. We are thus responsible for every event we experience, every circumstance we encounter, every fortune or misfortune we attract. This means that we cannot blame anyone for it. No room for activism or advocacy then. No talk of revolution. Just action without expectation, nishkama karma of the Bhagavad Gita.
So when we say that Modi became the Prime Minister of India because of karma, what do we really mean? Does it mean Modi performed actions (the seed) that resulted in his electoral victory (the fruit)? Or does it mean that his victory is the outcome of his own actions (the seed) as well as the reactions of millions of people (soil, water, sunlight), over which Modi has no direct control? Were these millions of people embracing the Modi charisma, or the Modi promise, or were they simply rejecting the Congress legacy?
Can we say that Modi is the fruit of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise to power, which in turn is the fruit of disillusionment with the Congress policy of minority indulgence? So what determined the outcome? How does anyone ensure the same outcome in the next elections? Can we control the fruit with clever strategists like the Prashant Kishores of the world? Can we be muqaddar ka sikandar, or the master of our own destiny?
We can argue endlessly for the truth. What we will end up with is our own subjective truths that are rooted in our own insecurities and our sense of self. If we believe that humans can change their own destiny, we will align with the popular tit-for-tat understanding of karma. If we believe that humans cannot control their destiny but can only react to it, we will align with the less popular tit-for-what karma, and turn to a guru or a god, for solace.
Karma vs dharma
So what should motivate our action? The possible fruit of our labours? Or our faith in the seed? When Modi goes around giving speeches in various state elections, what drives him: Victory at the polls, or an obligation to his party? Does the welfare of Indians come into this picture? What is the correct thing to do? What is dharma?
People often assume that dharma is the same as good karma that is pursuing punya. That is not correct. Krishna works hard to establish dharma at Kurukshetra; he ends up being cursed by Gandhari. Arjuna who does what Krishna asks him to do, ends up losing all his sons.
The laws of karma deal with nature’s rhythms, ritu, that is indifferent to individual actions and perceptions. Dharma has more to do with individual choices, and social demands. Dharma is not “good seed that results in good fruit”. Dharma is actions that are most aligned to our human nature and to our human context; the fruits stay uncertain, and can be negative.
Karma often places us in positions where we experience ethical and moral dilemmas: the dharma-sankat. Arjuna does not know if he should be a warrior, and so a killer of relatives, or a hermit who runs away from the battlefield of life. What is better? Krishna tells him to do his job, submit to the domino effect of past choices, and not judge himself based on possible future outcomes.
Deva vs asura
Yet Modi needs to think of future outcomes – BJP victory, absolute control over the legislature, submission of the bureaucracy and judiciary and even the media, to ensure he satisfies the aspirations of everyone from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to the Non-Resident Indian, to everyone who looks forward to his musings on Mann ki Baat, to his own desire to create a legacy that overshadows that of Jawaharlal Nehru. Can he function without considering the fruit? Is he allowed by the ecosystem around him? Is he willing to do what needs to be done, even if a curse follows, and the victory is pyrrhic?
Indic mythologies (Buddhist, Jain, Hindu) do not have the concept of Judgment day (qayamat, in Arabic). God is no judge. Impersonal nature is supreme. There is no paigambar, or messiah, who gives the message of god. There is only digambar, the naked ascetic, who dispassionately watches karma unfold as waves that are fruits of the past and seeds of the future. Only the asura, says Krishna, thinks he created the wave. He assumes he controls nature. He assumes the world exists for him, or should exist for him.
A deva submits to a world where there are forces at work that are beyond his control. He gracefully accepts the fruit that comes to him. That being said, a deva still has a choice when it comes to sowing seeds. If his sowing is determined by the desire to actualise his own self (jiva-atma), he will be trapped in anxiety, and fearing death all the time, for his eye will invariably turn to the fruit that will grant him validation. If, however, his sowing is based on the welfare of the other (para-atma), he liberates himself from all anxiety, and discovers peace, for he realises he cannot control the other, or the fruit.