Seek and ye shall find
Vanitha Vaidialingam finds that by diving deep into the scriptures, it is possible for us to patiently and gradually lay bare the wisdom contained therein
It all began when I was introduced to Sanskrit more than three decades ago. My Sanskrit text consigned my very solid world to the realm of the illusory (maya). I could not understand or appreciate why anyone would categorise this world that I can touch, feel, see, and hear as insubstantial. It seemed very solid to me. I protested very loudly and vociferously, and got sent out of class for misbehaviour.
The long and short of it is that my teacher failed to explain to me the concept of maya or illusion, that is the core of Hindu belief. He either had no clue about the meaning or thought I was not ready for the meanings encapsulated in the words. Decades later, here I am, still grappling with the concepts referenced in my Sanskrit classes and still struggling to make some sense of them for myself. Over the years, I discovered that there are many more terms that are never clearly and unambiguously explained to the Hindus as a part of their religious upbringing. Why is that?
Hinduism is not really a religion in the sense that Christianity or Islam is. It is a democratic, fluid setup that looks upon the atheist, the agnostic, and the believer with unfazed indifference. Belief is a very personal thing, and no one has the right to dictate the terms of belief. Those who seek will find the meanings and the path. So, the seekers have learnt the meanings and travelled the path to realisation. Non-seekers have heard the echoes and have remained forever uncaring or enthusiastically unbelieving.
Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Ask a ‘Hindu’ and you will get the reply: “There is nothing good or bad. It is their karma. They will seek if they are destined to.”
Karma and free will
If that is so, what is karma? Karma is the universal law of cause and effect. What you sow, you will reap. Interestingly, the belief is that the effect of the action in one lifetime may be spread over multiple lifetimes. If you were a strong non-believer in one lifetime, you may continue to carry that trait with you over multiple lifetimes. Stories of Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha, Kansa, and Shishupala are put forth as examples of people who carried the same trait of enmity to God over multiple lifetimes. They had to live and die with that trait till they learnt to overcome it and merge with the Divine. Hmm . . . I can hear you asking me: Did they finally merge with the Divine? Their merging with the Divine was either not an interesting story or they were probably born as one of the saints we hear so much about.
Citing examples from our own life, karma is defined as the result of our own actions. If, for instance, you intentionally deprived someone of their eyesight in some lifetime, you may have to spend one or more lifetimes as a blind person. You need to realise that blindness is a painful state and no one should be subject to that experience. Your suffering should make you learn the lesson—intentionally blinding someone is not good karma. It may make you passionate about researching or curing blindness, and that may be your ticket out of this specific karmic vortex!
Karma and free will
But, how do you know the blindness in the current lifetime is the result of your action in some past lifetime? The reality is, you cannot know unless you are a trikaldarshi (a person who knows the past, present, and future). If you are not, you must have enough faith to accept it and try to learn your lesson. Once you have learnt your lesson, the cycle will be broken, and the effect will fade into insignificance. You may enjoy other lifetimes sans the crippling blindness.
You may be thinking that while there is a positivity to the concept, there is very little stress on agency (free will). Free will is paramount in the concept of karma. You can change your fate by deliberately and efficiently setting out to negate the effects of karma. Your suffering and the cause of it are visible realities in your life. As a first step, you have to accept the effect of past karma as a reality in your life. Next, you must find ways and means of negating the impact of that karma in this lifetime or future lifetimes. Your free will can determine how you live out this life and what you will be born with in the next lifetime.
Here again, Hinduism is not prescriptive. You can reduce physical suffering and earn brownie points in the karmic cycle by using your body for the service of others (paropakarartham idam shareeram (my body is for the service of others). Alternately, you can erase the cycle of karma itself by realising that this world is an illusion and you are that Brahman—the Creator who has become the created.
The Creator and the created
Anything that is created exists in dualism. This is because, the process of creation itself creates a duality. “That which is not” (Sathya –true reality)—the unmanifest reality-- becomes “that which is” visible to the senses (Mithya-Maya—illusion)—the manifest form and therefore by contrast can be juxtaposed; compared. Since “that which is not” exists alongside or rather pervades “that which is”, it is possible to tear the veil of the manifested illusion using a number of tools discussed in the Upanishads and merge in the true reality.
Upanishadic texts and the Bhagavad Gita inform us that we need to understand that the body is an object in this duality. It is not our real Self. The real self is Brahman—a witness to the antics of the body, untouched by causes or effects, unchanged by time, and immutable. To distinguish between the real and the unreal, the true and the untrue, the uncreated and the created, you need to first understand the nature of the body and the Self.
How can we experience the body as an object of duality and distinguish it from the real Self? The body is a creation; it is created by past karma. (For those who are tempted to ask, What is the karma that created the first body? I would point out that it is clearly stated in the spiritual literature of the world—the will of God. Subsequent bodies were created by the karma (actions) of the individual manifestation).
My understanding is that karma, or action, creates a vortex of directional energy. Multiple karmic vortexes (sanchita karma, or collected karma) may be generated sequentially (note—I do not say simultaneously here because simultaneous generation of lifetimes or multiverses is a little too much for me to grasp at the moment) to create a lifetime. One or more of these vortexes (prarabdha karma) may powerfully shape and place a body in an appropriate environment. The body so created will carry with it the vasanas, or dominant impulses, that initiated the karmic vortex. The purpose of that karmic body is to understand the specific vasana and reduce or erase its power. Those who succeed will be able to erase, reduce, or negate that specific karmic energy. Those who fail will add energy to the karmic vortex (agami karma) and will have to repeat the lesson. All karmic vortexes can be negated over multiple lifetimes, and the cycle of birth and death can be broken.
Breaking the vortices of Karma
However, this is a hard and long path but not the only one. You have the choice to break all karmic vortexes in this lifetime itself. Texts like Aparokshanubhuti, Vivekachudamani, Panchadasi, and so on, tell you how you can distinguish between the body and the Self. These texts gently lead you from a definition of the characteristics of the gross body to delineations of the subtle body and repeat themselves seemingly endlessly till you can truly grasp their meaning and work towards making the distinctions. Once this distinction is made, the body and the world will be seen to be the illusion (maya) it is stated to be.
The journey from hearing to understanding has been long and hard. I can still see the path stretching interminably before me, fading into the grey distance into a pinpoint. The echoes continue to harass. But now I know that the answers exist, and I have to seek to find them. I have become a seeker!
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