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Saturday, March 4, 2017


The notion of rising above one's destiny has appealed to me since I first heard of it as a college sophomore. It was then that I watched a documentary on the holy man Sathya Sai Baba. During the sixty-minute film, which featured stories of the guru's life along with scenes of him appearing in front of crowds, and some of his most notable sayings, the narrator discusses karma, the Sanskrit term which in the west has become synonymous with "cause and effect" but in the belief systems of the east also denotes "the sum of a person's actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences," as the dictionary puts it. 

The narrator went on to say something that struck me deeply. "It is possible to transcend the law of karma in this life; this is true freedom." Now many nineteen-year-olds could probably not care less about karma, except how today's flirtation might translate into tomorrow's fling. But I was not your average teen. From my earliest days I had been weaned on the teachings of Vedanta. My father used to visit the temple in Hollywood when I was still a twinkle in his eye. The temple still exists. You should visit when you're in town. What is Vedanta? I had mistakenly equated Vedanta with Hinduism. After all Sai Baba in his discourses would often reference Hindu dieties such as Krishna and Rama. 

But Vedanta is more universal than other religions, which are often built around the personality of their respective founders. Christianity is centered on the personality of Jesus, Buddhism around Buddha, Islam around the prophet Muhammad and Judaism around Moses or Abraham. Vedanta is more universal even than Hinduism, with its many gods and goddesses. For Vedanta had no founder, having existed "from time immemorial," as one scholar puts it. And the student of Vedanta is neither Buddhist nor Catholic nor Jew, but he is one with all. He does not belong to any particular sect, and yet he believes in all the saviors of the world, in all the teachings that have been expounded by the prophets throughout history. For he recognizes the truth, which is that all religions are like rivers leading to the same ocean of Divinity. Because we are one with our neighbor in spirit, we should love one another as our very own self. Sounds a lot like Christianity to me. See, it's all interconnected!

Karma is interconnected, too. That is, what we do and say and think today influences our thoughts and words and deeds on the morrow. And if we saw the world through God's eyes - and Vedanta admits the existence of a personal God, "who is known as the cosmic ego, or the all-pervading deity, or the First-born Lord of the universe," to quote the same scholar (Swami Abhedananda), from whom we emanate as a spark emanates from a blazing inferno, "one with God on the highest plane, and divine, perfect, immortal and everlasting" as He who "responds to our sincere prayers, love and devotion" - if we saw life through God's eyes, we could predict everything that happens tomorrow based on the events of today, and those of today on yesterday, etc. So how to rise above your karma, how to transcend cause and effect if it is all known and willed before-hand? 

There is a way. It lies in being present in the ever-present now. Too often we become like automatons, negotiating the events of the day in stereotypical ways. We react to another motorist's careless maneuver with the same angry honk and muttered obscenity every time. Day in and day out we tell the same jokes, we watch the same TV shows. We eat the same breakfast as the day before and drive the same route to work. Too often today is a carbon-copy of what came before, and the prototype for what lies ahead. We have surrendered to what Marlon Brando playing a psychiatrist once called the momentum of mediocrity. And so on, ad infinitum, or as I prefer to phrase it, ad nauseum. 

The great German prose stylist Thomas Mann, in his long novel The Magic Mountain, had an explanation for why, despite our living 25,000 days, many complain that life is too short, that the hours speed too swiftly by. It is because, said Mann, most of our days are so strikingly similar, in their routines and joys and cares, that rather than live a thousand unique experiences we live one a thousand times; therefore three years can pass us by in the blink of an eye, that is to say as quickly as one twenty-four hour period, because every day is basically the same.

But if you are present in the moment, aware of the thoughts in your mind, the feelings they engender, and the way your thoughts translate into action, you can as it were rise above these generic, cookie-cutter ways. You drive a wedge between thought and deed, action and reaction. And in that moment of introspection and insight, in that timeless pause, what results is something new. And the joke you tell is a novel one, the route to work becomes the road less traveled. You begin to live, rather than just perpetually repeating yesterday's tragedy.

That's what it means to transcend karma, rise above your destiny. It all lies in awareness. 

Of course, your reading these words, your deciding once and for all to live consciously, has been known and willed from the beginning of time, and so rising above your destiny is also your destiny. Here is where we recall the teachings of Vedanta, and that each individual soul is a part and parcel of God "who is the one stupendous whole," God who existed before time and space, who is transcendent and imminent in each heart. And your spirit, which is divine, is always timeless and spaceless, since these are products of the mind and the Divine existed before such concepts. You are without boundary or constraint. Always perfect and free. Even while you are stuck in traffic listening to Howard Stern and drinking coffee like you did yesterday and will do each day until you die. 

Because who you are never dies. If you believe the teachings of Vedanta, as do I.

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