Take it or leave it.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


"Don't let your karma run over my dogma."

Thus sayeth my older brother, Jason. Half-brother on my father's side. Father's son from a prior marriage. There are many ways of saying the same thing.

In my dad's second marriage (to my mother) he had given up atheism and adopted Hindu beliefs, among them vegetarianism, reverence for the Avatars of Vishnu, a close study of the sacred scriptures (Vedas, Gita). And he had raised his new family (my two younger brothers and myself) according to these teachings, even taking us to India several times to "be at the feet of the Lord." The Lord in question being Sai Baba.

But Jason hailed from an earlier time, the aforementioned atheist phase of my father's, and whenever my dad would mention some Hindu notion (like karma), Jason would have something wry to say, probably something he had heard from his mother (my father's ex-wife), whom I love and who has a way with words. Jason does too, but back when he was spouting these witticisms he was barely a teen. Perhaps he was precocious.

The witticism in question is a play on the ideas of karma and dogma, and the close similarity they bear to two much more common (and related) words of the English language, car and dog. A car can certainly run over a dog, but karma and dogma have little to do with each other. Well, that's not true. The belief in karma is itself a sort of dogma, dogma being a principle laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. The authority in question being Hinduism and its associated Avatars (divine incarnations) and scriptures.

But what is karma? Let's examine the idea. Really there is more than one meaning to the term, as I (and Hindus in general, though I don't consider myself a Hindu) understand it.

The first is that karma is another word for cause and effect. You do something today, and that action has a consequence you'll feel at some point in the future. You eat a meal, you eliminate its waste products in a few days hence. The moralists would sum up the notion by saying, "Do good, get good; do bad get bad." Thus the notion of "good karma" and "bad karma." Consequences play a central role. Of course good and bad are relative terms. There is really no absolute good or absolute bad. What I enjoy may not be appealing to you, etc. But nevertheless humans are advised to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, which is the closest you can get to doing good in an absolute sense, since why would you hurt yourself?

Another meaning for karma is the sense of doership that comes when you engage in an action believing you are the agent, with free will, who owns those actions. Many philosophers would say that this notion is erroneous because there is no free will, actions are determined from time immemorial from one's place of birth, parents, genetic makeup, upbringing, and other circumstances. Even the "nature/nurture" debate is really an argument for predestination, since the upbringing you are given by your parents (the so-called nurture arm of the argument) is itself a product of their own conditioning, which perpetuates itself in you. There's no way to escape it.

An analogy. A batter hits a baseball. As it flies through the air, its course is set by the impact with the bat, atmospheric conditions like humidity and wind, etc. To think you have free will is akin to the ball thinking it is directing the course of its flight! A truly ludicrous notion. Or like going into a movie thinking you can change the script. It's all been written. Sit back and enjoy.

But the concept of karma as cause an effect has often been extended over the course of lifetimes, which implies a specific entity (the soul, the individual, the personality) that can experience cause and effect in different bodies, maybe even in different dimensions. First off, if the purpose of karma (in the "universe as university" sense) is to teach lessons in real time, then how can you be held accountable in future lifetimes for actions in this one which you won't remember down the road? And what's the use of telling someone to do good today in order to procure a favorable birth in their next life if in said life they will not remember who it was that did the good deed, so the connection is severed and they are essentially a different person unrelated to past and present versions.

To clarify. Ask yourself the question, "Who am I?" How do you define yourself? You certainly are not name and form, since you were given a name and body at birth, and when you die the body's molecules will return to the Earth from which they derived. Even over the course of life your body changes so drastically that pointing to one particular "version" of yourself and saying "that's me" is pointless. Are you the baby in diapers, the brace-faced awkward teen, the young adult with the confidence of a lion, the hoary elder bent and broken from age and disease? It gets even harder to identify one's self in an age of multiple marriages and several careers. So who? When judging from the mundane realm of the senses, this entity that you appear to be is elusive and evanescent. The body recycles its cells every 7 years or so, creating a totally different physical being. Even the personality changes. You can't be defined by what you know, since each day you acquire more knowledge. Your likes and dislikes change. Consider my father, who was a steak-loving, drug-using atheist one year, then a mantra-chanting vegetarian Hindu the next. Who was he really? The answer is, neither.

What is the reality underlying all phases and changes? In a word, it is consciousness. The sense of "I am." Beingness. That alone is present at all times, as far back as you can remember, in dream, even to some degree in deep sleep (since you certainly exist even while unconscious, as you wake up and there you are, continuity proves it). And this conscious presence is your true identity. But it is not an identity, in that it does not separate you from others. Rather, it unifies. The consciousness you are is the consciousness I am, and she is, and your dog, and mine, stripped of personality, physical vehicle, likes and dislikes, knowledge, etc.

What can we infer from all this?

Either you cannot have more than one life because the person you would be in a future life (with different name, form, set of experiences) bears no relation to who you appear to be now. In a future life you will not even have a memory of the former one (as in this life prior lives should they have existed elude you). So there is no reincarnation.

Or there is infinite reincarnation. In other words, you are all beings, past, present and future. When defined as consciousness stripped of characteristics, the awareness animating matter, you become what all are. Pure being.

So like Einstein says, either there are no miracles or everything is a miracle (depending on your definition of a miracle), we can say that either there is no such thing as reincarnation (no continuity between lifetimes if the individual is regarded as a set of characteristics like name and form) or you are reincarnating at every moment everywhere, if we mean your true identity as pure consciousness that animates matter everywhere in the world and possibly beyond.

In two words, you are.

I think we just let a new dogma run over an old karma.

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