The Path of Karma
by Bhaskar Menon on 26 Aug 2018 12 Comments

The story goes that Shiva and Parvati were watching from Kailas one day as a poor old man trudged along a desert road hungry, thirsty and miserable.

“Why don’t you help him?” Parvati asked.

“I can’t”, said Shiva. “It is his karma.”

“You are all-mighty God,” said Parvati. “You can change his karma.”

“I can’t”, said Shiva. “The Law of Karma is unbreakable and unbendable.”

“Surely, you can change little things”, Parvati argued. “What’s to stop you from giving that wretch some food and drink and making him rich?”

“Watch this,” said Shiva. He waved his hand and on the road in front of the man there appeared a table laden with a rich feast and a pot of gold.

Just at that moment the old man thought to himself, “All my life I’ve walked around with my eyes open. Now here’s a straight road with nothing to see. Let me walk with my eyes closed for a change.” So he closed his eyes and walked past the table.


The story has two lessons. One is that our individual karma determines how the world affects us. The second is that to appreciate God’s gifts we must keep the eyes open, and not just to see but to understand.


Individual Karma


Once, when the Buddha was preaching, he noticed that a leper on the side of the audience had quietly, instantly, understood his whole aim and purpose. The Enlightened One pointed out to the audience what had happened and explained that it was the man’s meritorious karma that allowed such comprehension. We normally never think of our karma in such a direct way, but if we do, it is clear that for good and ill, the past is a profound presence in every moment of every life.


If we imagine that our eyes do not see in space but in time, it is possible to envision that reality: each person would appear as the end of a very convoluted flagellum stretching back to Creation/Big Bang. That scene is easier to picture as a single enormous body containing all life – the Purusha of our Creation Myth. Far from being fanciful imagination, that is the exact scientific truth: each of us is a long and complex causal chain with mind-boggling millions of tangles in the backward stretch.


The karmic energy that drives each individual life is thus not entirely a distinctive factor; it is closely connected to everything around it and operates in synchrony. So how do we “understand” our individual karma? Jesus summed it up beautifully in “Consider the lilies of the field. They toil not. Neither do they spin. Yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.” To “understand” it is necessary to drop all shows and affectations and be your-self.


That takes the utmost seriousness of spirit without being heavy. It requires quiet time in which to shed your various roles and stresses and breathe free. People often call this meditation, and there is a lot of mumbo jumbo about watching candle flames, breathing incense and so on, but essentially all it involves is relaxing and gently sidelining any stressful thoughts that well up in your mind. The mind achieves first a state of calm and then of joy. That joyful feeling indicates you are in touch with your karmic self – a term that is a synonym for God here, for the one is the face of the other.


In such a state you can ask any question, express whatever aim you have in life, and there will be a creative response. To quote Jesus again, “Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find.” What you get will be direction. Gandhi in moments of crisis would consult his “still small voice” and be guided fully by it.


Experience at a humbler level, my own, allows me to say that once you find the inner voice you have to hang on no matter how difficult the guidance. If it takes you over rough terrain, consider it necessary. In my case, it involved quitting a career contract at the top level of the United Nations professional cadre and striking out as the editor/publisher of an independent newsletter on the UN, an occupation comparable in status and security to the itinerant vending of vegetables. What made it especially difficult in my case was that the formidable American national security Establishment found the venture suspicious and ensured that it would not be a commercial success.


I stuck it out by doing a number of odd jobs, including stringing for The Times of India (under Dileep Padgaonkar), and undertaking a wide variety of freelance assignments. As the difficult years went by, I developed an altogether new perceptual and critical quality in my writing, had an altogether more nuanced appreciation of the United Nations, and began to see shape and structure in the chaotic progression of international affairs. I doubt that if I had remained with the Secretariat any of that would have happened. Things have not gotten any easier now that I am back in India, for the fuzz here have taken up where the Americans left off, and there is nothing a writer can do in self defence; but I have no doubt about my path even though it could dip me into new miseries at any moment.


That brief personal aside is to underline that what I write about is not all theory. It is also to highlight the significance of the message the ancients telegraphed by putting the hymn to Agni at the opening of the Rig Veda and making the sacred fire Witness to every Hindu ceremonial of sacrifice, marriage, death and remembrance. Agni leaps the cusp of matter and energy. It symbolizes our material and spiritual being. It is God with us and within us, the life force, the karmic energy.


Agni signals also the magical nature of the universe, its unfathomable size, brilliance and energy, every aspect miraculous in our mundane sight. The fortunate among us learn early that the sense of the magical is the basis of all faith, that it leads the truly blessed to Bhakti, a prayerful devotion that is at one extreme the last resource of the powerless, and at the other, the common secret of the successful, of grace under pressure, of champions in every field. The mute unexplained strength of Bhakti is karmic energy, and it is the primary driver not only of individual lives but of all human affairs. We can trace its flow from the beginning in India.


The Saptarishis who put the Vedas in order, the anonymous authors of the Upanishads, Valmiki the lowborn brigand who became a poet to celebrate Ramrajya, and Vyasa the grandsire of the Bharata clan, all mustered an awesome karmic force. So did the Buddha in replacing Hinduism when it grew decrepit, and Adi Sankara in reviving the old faith when Buddhism flagged.


From South India, the modern Bhakti movement passed across India in several generations of saint poets during the first third of the last millennium to help sustain Hinduism against invasion in the north. At a time when Babur was still a youth in Ferghana, Kabir and Guru Nanak initiated what became, after the interruption of two empires, the current Indian Renaissance. Raja Rammohun Roy gave it firmer structure in opposing the British in Bengal, and after him, it became countrywide. With Gandhi, first in South Africa and then in India, the struggles for human rights and national liberation spilled into the rest of the world and led to the great transformations of the 20th century.


What is remarkable about this entire sequence is that soldiers, bureaucrats and kings had nothing to do with primary initiatives; they came wholly from individuals who saw what had to be done and did it. All this should jar readers, especially the young inured to the post-colonial expectation that government is the solution to all our problems.


Government played little part in the life of traditional India; it rose in importance because of its colonial role as Chief Thief and Exploiter. Since independence, there is an expectation that government should solve all problems and provide compensation for misfortunes. That attitude, promoted by a pandering, sensationalist Press, is deeply unhealthy. Government intervenes in the life of society at the cost of liberty. The monetary compensation it provides is not care and comfort; it is a cold bureaucratic gesture and index of control.


The result of expecting the government to be a nanny is a learned helplessness in society. Young people today should consider that the quality of daring is the clearest difference between Indians today and those held out as exemplars of nobility and achievement in our sacred literature. The two outstanding examples Hindu children learn of are Prahlada and Eklavya, one a prince, the other a teenager from the low Nishada caste.


Prahlada is a bhakt who resists tyranny so steadfastly that his karmic energy calls up Narasimha, the half-man half-lion incarnation of Vishnu; the Universe itself bends to the power of his faith.


Eklavya’s story is among the most painful and disturbing in the Mahabharata, and it is to the great credit of the epic's numerous editors down the centuries that the story remains in all its unvarnished brutality, an unmistakable indictment. He comes to Drona, teacher of war to the Pandavas, asking to study archery; but the high-caste warrior will not consider it. Undeterred, Eklavya goes off into the forest, builds a clay figure of Drona and practices before it until he is better than Arjuna. Drona, who has promised to make Arjuna the best in the world, deals with the situation by demanding that Eklavya give him the thumb of his right hand as the gift due to a guru. The boy cuts it off without a plea.


The lesson to draw from the story of India as a whole, and those of Prahlada and Eklavya in particular, is that in a world of many inequities the aroused karmic force cannot rest. If Maya does not hide from our eyes what needs to be done, it is imperative to do it. If something is incomprehensible, it is necessary to struggle until it is clear. Every victory contributes to the next one. Failure does not matter, only the effort does: it makes your karma more powerful.


How humanity will fare in the 21st century now hangs in the balance. We are now at a critical period in the evolution of world order, when the momentum of the European industrial era has weakened almost to a standstill. What will come in its place is going to depend very largely on what we in India do.



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