Sunday, July 28, 2013

Britain and Hinduism 5: The Path of Karma

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 got 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.

Part 6 of this essay will look at the emerging world scene and India's potential role.

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Idiocy at the UN

As UN idiocies go, this is a minor one, but it will leave you shaking your head.

The General Assembly decided a few years ago that the development impact of international migration needed global attention and adopted a resolution calling for a “high level dialogue” during its session in 2013.

It was a good call, for the world today has more than 215 million international migrants and over 700 million internal migrants. Many suffer miserable treatment and are often politically friendless in societies where they frequently perform the most menial and unpleasant jobs.

Yet, from their hard lives, migrants send back a huge flood of money to support the families left behind: the officially recorded portion of their remittances amounted in 2012 to $401 billion. The World Bank projects that it will grow despite the world's financial and economic woes to $515 billion by 2015.

That is more money than developing countries receive by way of “aid” and foreign investment combined. Some poor countries, drained of wealth by their own rapacious elites and multinational corporations, are heavily dependent on that money to pay for food and fuel imports.

The General Assembly intended the call for dialogue to focus on problems in putting migrant remittances to productive use.

At present, the money goes mostly for personal expenditures and a good bit is lost in transmission. Migrants face exorbitant bank charges, ranging up to 15 per cent, and illegals can pay even more just to get the money home.

How to cut those costs? How to channel remittances into productive investments? How to engage skilled migrants in developmental work?

There is also the issue of protecting the human rights of migrants. Many are women, subject to rape in the households where they work. Both men and women can suffer abuse and exploitation.

There is much to discuss, issues the world has ignored or actively denied.

The whole idea of calling for a high level dialogue is to raise awareness.

So what does the UN Secretariat do?

It organizes two days of discussions on October 3 and 4 – and announces that the proceedings will be "closed to the Press and general public.”

Monday, July 22, 2013

Britain and Hinduism 4: The Current Situation

Homer gives credit to an Eastern Prince for leading the Greeks into what became their homeland, and Alexander the Great grew up with the belief that he belonged to an ancient Indian royal line.

That belief, more than world conquest, fired his ambition, and in noting this in The History of Philosophy, Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) wrote that Alexander “destroyed the Persian kingdom and burnt Persepolis, the old enemy of Indian religion, in order to take revenge upon it for all the violence exercised through Darius on the Buddhists and their co-religionists.”

Hegel also observed that Alexander had “found on the lower Ister [the Danube] Indian priestly states where the immortality of the soul was taught,” an idea he was familiar with, “certainly not without the counsel of Aristotle, who, through Plato and Pythagoras, was initiated into Indian wisdom.”

Ironically, when Alexander confronted Darius at the fateful battle of Gaugemala a contingent of Indian cavalry was the most potent threat he faced: it broke through his lines, killed 60 of the elite “Companions” and could have wreaked further devastation had it not chosen at that point to loot the Greek camp.

 Four centuries after Alexander’s death “Arrian of Nicomedia” (86–160) wrote about the last days of Europe’s greatest military hero. In doing so, he devoted one short book (better described as a chapter), to a description of India, basing it on the reports of earlier writers, especially Nearchus, Alexander’s contemporary.

Arrian recounted at length what Nearchus had to say about Indian philosophers. Alexander chanced upon a number of them “in a meadow, where they used to meet to discuss philosophy.” When they saw him “these venerable men stamped with their feet and gave no other sign of interest;” he asked them through interpreters “what they meant by this odd behavior” and they replied: ‘King Alexander, every man can possess only so much of the earth' surface as this we are standing on. You are but human like the rest of us, save that you are always busy and up to no good, travelling so many miles from your home, a nuisance to yourself and to others. Ah well! You will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much of this earth as will suffice to bury you’.”

In Taxila, Alexander met with some “Wise Men whose practice it is to go naked, and he so much admired their powers of endurance that the fancy took him to have one of them in his personal train.” The leader of the group, Dandamus, responded: “If you, my lord, are the son of god, why, so am I. I want nothing from you, for what I have suffices. I perceive, moreover, that the men you lead get no good from their worldwide wandering over land and sea, and that of their many travels there will be no end. I desire nothing that you can give me; I fear no exclusion from any blessings which may perhaps be yours. India, with the fruits of her soil in due season, is enough for me while I live; and when I die, I shall be rid of my poor body, my unseemly housemate.”

Seeing that Dandamis was, “in a true sense, a free man” Alexander did not try to compel him. However, another of the group, Calanus, did accompany Alexander. Declaring that no account of Alexander’s withdrawal from India “would be complete without the story of Calanus,” Arrian then told of what happened to the Indian sage.

He fell seriously ill in Persia, and became an invalid, a condition in which he did not wish to remain. He decided to kill himself on a funeral pyre. Alexander tried to dissuade him but to no avail. So one of the elite Companions built the funeral pyre Calanus wanted. At the appropriate time, he was carried on a litter to the pyre “by a solemn procession – horses, men, soldiers in armor and people carrying all kinds of precious oils and spices to throw upon the flames.”

At the pyre he distributed all the gifts Alexander had given him, and then mounted the pyre and laid himself down. “All the troops were watching. Alexander could not but feel that there was a sort of indelicacy in witnessing such a spectacle – the man, after all, had been his friend; everyone else, however, felt nothing but astonishment to see Calanus give not the smallest sign of shrinking from the flames. We read in Nearchus’ account of this incident that at the moment the fire was kindled, there was, by Alexander's orders, an impressive salute: the bugles sounded, the troops with one accord roared out their battle-cry, and the elephants joined in with their shrill war-trumpeting. This story and others to a similar effect have been recorded by good authorities; they are not without value to anyone who cares for evidence of the unconquerable resolution of the human spirit in carrying a chosen course of action through to the end.”

 That high opinion of Indian philosophers, and indeed of Indian society in general is notable in all early Western writings.

A year after Alexander’s death, one of his Generals who had installed himself as ruler of Syria, sent an Ambassador to India, Megasthenes, whose book, Indica, is by far the most extensive account we have of our society at the time.

The country, he wrote, was “peopled by races both numerous and diverse, of which not even one was originally of foreign descent, but all were evidently indigenous. Moreover, India neither received a colony from abroad, nor sent out a colony to any other nation.” Of “several remarkable customs existing among the Indians,” the one that impressed Megasthenes most was that according to the prescription of “their ancient philosophers which one may regard as truly admirable,” no one “under any circumstances” was to be a slave. Thus, they had “learned neither to domineer over nor to cringe to others.”

Why We Are Different

 Why were Indians of that era so different from us?

 The answer lies in a simple, glaring fact: our ancestors had internalized the values their philosophers taught; the values that prevail today are those forged in centuries of defeat and humiliation.

It is not that the values of Sanatana Dharma have disappeared from our midst. They are evident in the massive endurance of our people, in the grace and tolerance of our society amidst heart-rending loss, in our survival as a nation and a democracy; but when it comes to individual Indian behavior it is quite a different matter. The tragedy is that even after independence there has been no one to remind Indians of the people they once were. That is because the intellectual scene has been dominated by “secular” amnesiacs and the voices raised in defence of traditional values have been regressive and reactionary.

 Remedying the matter has become urgent because the emerging battle lines for the 2014 elections could precipitate an ugly level of confrontation between “Secular” and “Hindutva” unless there is a new level of awareness of the past – which is to say, of ourselves.

The best way to that end might be to clarify what exactly we mean by “Hindu.”

The British have been trying for generations to make the case that there is no such thing. In their view, taken up by a number of paid Indian proxies, the concept arose as part of the Indian nationalist response to their rule, unifying under the “Hindu” umbrella a multiplicity of caste and tribal faiths.

The only reason that claim has not met with general ridicule is that most Indian intellectuals are too ignorant of history to assert a counter-claim.

 The story is essential knowledge for every Indian regardless of religion for it explains the nature of our society. 

The Emergence of Hinduism

Hinduism began as a peace project in a land of many tribes. The Saptarishis (Seven Sages) of ancient tradition probably initiated it by collecting all tribal religious lore into what became the Vedas (literally, “what is seen”). Successive generations of thinkers extracted from that collection the teachings of the Upanishads, a word that means to “talk sitting together;” today we would call them “conference reports.” The concepts that India’s best and brightest distilled from the Vedas became popular knowledge through two great epics that have inspired every generation of Indian storytellers to poetry, drama, dance and song. In that process, they united India culturally.

 The core of the Hindu belief system thus created and celebrated is the concept of the Universal Soul, known more fondly now as God. In Hindu cosmology God is not in Heaven or separate from the Universe but immanent. Everything is God, including ourselves. What separates the essence from the dross of the Universe is the delusion of Maya: to have a material body is to be part of its endless shadow play.

How does God control the Universe? Through Dharma (with a capital D): Universal Law. The subsection of it that applies to living beings is Karma (with a capital K); it is the Law governing Action. Lower case dharma and karma bring those concepts down to the level of individuals.

 It is important to understand how these concepts shaped Indian society and what effect their migration out of the country had on the rest of the world.

 Within India, the individual soul, being a part of the Universal Soul, is seen as eternal; it moves from one life form to another, the passage determined by the unbreakable matrix of dharma and karma. Parents and Teachers can help as guides but no more; how a young person’s fate evolves depends entirely on his/her past karma and present effort.

Where every soul is subject to karmic law, no priest can offer redemption from bad karma, no Inquisitor can pass judgment on another's faith. The basic concepts of Hinduism assured freedom of faith and worship in a broadly tolerant society.

Those safeguards were lost when Indian ideas migrated to the Mediterranean world, and through the teachings of Plato and Judaism, entered the mainstream of Western civilization. The Universal Spirit held firmly in place by Dharma and Karma in India, became the remote male “God in Heaven” of West Asia and Europe, His will interpreted on earth by the founders of religions and their interpreters. Power struggles invoking God were inevitable and, as so amply illustrated by past and current events, unending.

When rationality finally rebelled against religious madness in Europe, it took the form of Science, founded on the same basic beliefs as Hinduism: Universal Law (Dharma) made manifest in the law of causality (Karma). Those are the two cardinal elements of the Scientific Method.

In the last century, Western Science has validated other fundamental Hindu beliefs, including the existence of the individual soul and its reincarnation. That little noted development has been the result of two discoveries, one that matter and energy exist in an indestructible continuum, and the other that each individual has a unique genetic code. In combination, those two scientific discoveries mean that at death the genetic design of the individual survives as an energy pattern; it is only a matter of time before scientists discover how it is transmitted to a new body.

A Time of Peril

 All this is relevant to us today – and especially to the outcome of the 2014 elections – because it underlines a basic fact about Hindu society. At its most successful, and even in its millennium of defeat and loss, it has given pride of place to the intellectual. The Indian Renaissance, beginning with Guru Nanak’s bid to heal the Hindu-Muslim rift, to Raja Rammohun Roy’s counter to Christian evangelism, to Gandhi’s spiritual politics, has been guided by a towering acuity of intellect at its humane best.

It is the one critical quality missing in Indian national life today.

 The deficit lies not just with the “secular” and “Left” intellectuals. Their ignorance of the Indian past, insensitivity to fundamental Hindu values, their inability to chart an independent course for Indian development or even to deal with the manipulations of British proxies in their midst, are widely shared on the Hindutva Right.

So much so that Hindutvadis have welcomed into their ideological ranks a number of “White Hindus,” Europeans who have such violent, intemperate views as to be wholly alien to the Indian ethos. Going by what L.K. Advani has reportedly said, the destruction of the Babri Masjid was a direct result of activism inspired by one of them.

It is no wonder that foreigners have taken control of the Hindutva brigade for its homegrown ideologues seem incapable of recognizing basic realities. Writing about modern India at a time of historic resurgence, one of the most vocal of them titled a 2011 tract "Eclipse of the Hindu Nation" with the subtitle "Gandhi and his freedom struggle."

 We cannot afford such an obtuse level of discourse on matters of national importance. When the world order is caught in deep currents of epochal change the Indian political elite cannot continue in its current state of intellectual torpor without putting the country in very great danger.

Part 5 will focus on how we can address this situation.

Read Part1, Part 2, Part 3