Karma is the new swastika


Published on 15th October, 2014, in www.dailyo.in

Say the word swastika in a global workplace, and you are likely to be branded Nazi. Few, if any, will equate it to su-asti, let good things happen, a very common Sanskrit phrase used in Hindu rituals. In fact, in Bali, Indonesia, the standard greeting of local Hindus is Om Suwasti-astu. The West always decides what words should mean in the global arena. So swastika is what Hitler decided it was. So Avatar is what James Cameroon decided it was. And karma is what Western journalists will decide what it should be, after their outrage over Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s comment on trusting karma in the matter of parity of women’s pay.

Words like karma discomfort the West. It equates karma with destiny and accuses Indians of being fatalistic and complacent because of faith in karma. Such views are based not on a wrong understanding but on an incomplete understanding of karma. A deeper understanding of karma will reveal, it is also the force that makes us extremely proactive and responsible.

The word karma occurs in the Rig Samhita, the earliest collection of Vedic verses. But there it means activity, specifically ritual activity. It is not related to consequence of the action. In other words, it means action, but not reaction. Karma means sowing the seed, in the Vedas. In the later texts, the Upanishads, it also means the production of the subsequent fruit. This later meaning is perhaps embedded in the early use of the word also because the karma that is being spoken of is the ritual act of conducting yagna. Yagna involves svaha (input) that results in tathastu (output).

This shift of meaning in karma, from mere action, to action that causes reaction, is attributed to shramanas (thinkers) who refused to be mere brahmanas (ritual doers). They lived around 500 BCE, known as the Axis Age, the age that also saw the rise of Socratic thought in Greece, Confucian thought in China and Zoroastrian thought in Persia. The thinkers of India included Yagnavalkya who was married to two women, and Sakyamuni Buddha and Vardhamana Mahavira, both of whom gave up marriage and family to become monks. Yagnavalkya, despite his radical thoughts, did not break free from the brahmanical ritual fold hence was deemed astika, who believes in the value of the yagna. Buddha started the Buddhist monastic order while Mahavira was seen as a leader of the much older austere Jain order. Both of them were called nastikas, those who do not believe in the value of the yagna.

Traders (vaishyas) felt slighted by brahmanas who preferred to see kshatriyas (kings) as their primary patrons. So many in the mercantile community turned to shramanas who seemed more egalitarian. They perhaps contributed to the understanding of karma for much of karma theory resonates trading practices such as being in debt and receiving returns on investment. Every action came to be seen eventually an investment, with its outcome being seen as return on investment. Good investments meant good returns, bad investments meant bad returns.

But who knows what action is good and what action is bad? Yes, karma may be about reaping the fruit of the seed we sow but you may think you are sowing the seed of a sweet mango but it is quite possible that the fruit will turn out to be a sour tamarind or a fiery chilly. A king was once given a fruit that if consumed by his wife would enable her to bear him a child. the king had two wives and so he gave each one half the fruit. As a result, both queens gave birth to half a child. Thus the action (dividing the fruit to be fair to both wives) was good but the reaction (half a child per wife) was bad. Likewise a thief who climbed to the high branches of a tree to escape the police was blessed by a deity because flowers from the tree accidentally fell on the image of the deity located below on the ground under the tree. This made karma unpredictable, much like market investments.

People have long tried to classify actions as good karma and bad karma, but the fact is paap (bad actions) are usually called so in hindsight when the outcome is negative. Likewise punya (good actions) become so in hindsight when the outcome is positive. At the point of action, we do not know whether the results will favour us or not. We thus have only control on our actions, not on the reactions, or how the future will judge our actions. This point is amplified by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita in response to Arjuna’s query on karma.

Karma presupposes rebirth. Our current situation in life is a reaction to actions in the past life. That is why some people are born poor, ugly and to horrible parents. The West points to this belief as the cause of India’s complacency, but by attributing current circumstances to fate, rather than to social injustice, there is no motivation to strive or fight. What is overlooked is that the word ‘fate’ comes from Fates, three Greek goddesses who spun the yarn of mortal life and who, on advise of Zeus, king of Olympian gods, determined how long the thread should be, and when it should be cut.

Those who genuinely believe in karma know that just as the past determines the present, the present determines the future. Thus to secure the future, one works really hard in the present. In other words, genuine belief in karma should make a person more proactive and responsible. If a person chooses to be lazy instead, it has nothing to do with the karma philosophy but it has everything to do with laziness.

In fact, the idea of karma yoga rose to counter monastic practices that were seen as promoting inaction. Philosophies were elaborated to cope with fear of karmic consequence and continue to perform duties as householders. These philosophies declared that inaction was also an action, an act of omission that would have consequences. He who fought could kill the killer. He who did not fight enabled the killer to strike another victim. Thus no monk could escape from karma. To liberate oneself from the web of karma, one had to develop the mental equilibrium to worldly circumstances, aware but unperturbed by good or bad circumstances and outcomes.

West rejects the idea of rebirth. Both the religious and rational West believes that a child is born with a clean karmic balance sheet. That when a person dies the balance sheet ceases to exist. There is no carry forward. Not so in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, where there is outstanding balance at the time of birth and an outstanding balance at the time of death. The former comes from the previous life and the latter leads to the next life. Thus karma determines the current circumstances of our life. How we choose to react to past karma is our choice. We may choose to accept it or change it. Our choices may be deemed good by some and bad by others, right by some, wrong by others, but these ethical and moral qualifications that have no impact on the consequences of our action, and the impact on our future circumstances. Whatever has to happen, will happen, our desires notwithstanding.

The West with its obsession with clarity, certainty and predictability finds such Indian explanations of karma concept exasperating. Thus it rejects all Indian definitions, and prefers simplistic Western ones. We have to learn to allow it.