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Halloo! When I found out I could go to med school with a Humanities degree with an Ethnomusicology emphasis, I almost peed myself. Here's to me holding it in.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hinduism Paper

Beau Hilton
Dr. Keller
            A childhood in the suburbs, with every want and need taken care of and no visible signs of intense human suffering anywhere, hardly predisposes one to ask hard questions. When people are crippled they are helped and fed and valued in society. Poor people live in the ghettoes and the ghettoes are avoided completely. When death occurs, timely or not, it is behind closed hospital doors, and rotting flesh is never smelled at an American funeral. Suffering and the great inequities need no explanation, for protection from them is the norm. At times sadness must be dealt with but the more pressing issue is how to deal with happiness, how to spend all of this free time. As the Buddha’s Four Sights changed him forever, so does the first realization that maybe, somewhere, people do not have it this good. Maybe, sometime, I will not have it this good. And I will need an explanation. Karma powerfully explains the inequities in life and provides appropriate responses to them as it addresses the problems of suffering and pain, unequal social strata, and death.
            A startling fact of physics, when one first learns it, is why running into a wall hurts: a wall will not hit us unless we hit it first, that is, every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction. The wall hits back, on a molecular and electric level, just as hard as we hit it. Starting from this rather intuitive but still surprising fact, we can begin to understand why painful things happen at all. Seeing that actions have their equal and opposite reactions, it is only logical that this extends to issues regarding moral conduct. When pain afflicts any being it is likely to be in response to some kind of pain or wrongdoing perpetrated by the being that is now afflicted. (As a disclaimer, it is an accepted idea among many Hindus that karma is not the only explanation for suffering, but one among many causative and reactive forces. In other words, sometimes things happen for reasons beyond our ken. Metaphorically, occasionally the wall will hit us first, and for no reason we can see, and not in reaction to any misdeed of our own.[1]) It is only fair and expected that the cosmos has record of my mistakes and will rectify them through my atoning suffering at some future point, wherein I am brought back to neutrality in my cosmic account. I have built for myself quite a large karmic candle, and it is the universe’s job to help me burn it down. If I am blind, or lame, or mocked and hated, it is in response to my own past deeds. When we see a child born without legs, or the reversal of a family’s fortune, or an early and unfortunate death, we can see in the situation justice and the burning off of karma. Taken out of the greater religious context this may seem justification for callousness and a judgmental attitude, but in keeping with the moral way of the Hindu, judgment is left to karma, callousness is forbidden, and love and empathy are enjoined. The Golden Rule applies, and Jesus’ words “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again”[2] find perhaps a more intense application: even as I recognize in viewing suffering the sin of the sufferer, it would be sin for me to neglect them on this token, and in some future time I will similarly be bereft of help when my own karma comes to fruition. And when my own karma fruits let me courageously press forward and suffer it with dignity, for only in this way will I be truly rid of it. It is also important to note that suffering can be commuted by meritorious acts, and one “fated to have a sword injury owing to… karmic forces… will have a pin-prick instead” if merit is sufficiently accrued.[3] This view of karma would tend towards righteous action as a guiding force and also humility in the face of adversity. Thus is suffering explained, and thus is the moral path paved.
            In every society, except perhaps among the few nomadic peoples left, there is such thing as social strata. In India there is caste, in America there are circles of wealth and power, and all over the world nobility of one sort or another determines the opportunities of those born into it. Karma, with its attendant doctrines of reincarnation and transmigration, gives reasons for and purpose to these striations, as well as the reasons for personal propensities of every type. The reason people are born into wealth or poverty, as well as into degrees of spiritual inclination, is simply karma or merit (or both) being recompensed. If one examines the four Indian varna with an open and critical eye, one will find much truth to the classifications. There are those in this world who are as the Brahmin and are drawn more to the spiritual, those who may be called Kshatriya who are inclined towards protecting and guiding the community, Vaisya who grease the social wheel with entrepreneurial know-how, and Sudra who feel most at home serving. Gandhi, while eventually rejecting caste based on lineage, accepted these divisions as a good general description of the race.[4],[5] Why is one born with these certain tendencies? Karmic principle explains that, in the evolution of one’s soul, the current state has been arrived at in reference to previous states. Perhaps I was a Brahmin in a past life, but I squandered my opportunity, and now I am to learn the value of spiritual things as a Sudra while filling my dharma to serve. Perhaps I have lived the requisite 8,400,000 lives as lower beings, and being a Sudra is in fact a step up, endowed as I am with human agency.[6] In order to burn off karma and gain merit the best should be made of life, whatever form it takes, with a realization that failure to do so will simply result in a less-than-fortunate outcome in this life and the next. It should also be realized that the current state is the state that was chosen by the actions of a previous life. Truly, people are placed where they deserve to be, and it remains a matter of free will and agency whether or not they continue to deserve their circumstance.
            “… The dread of something after death/The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns, puzzles the will.”[7] Yet, according to great thinkers predating Shakespeare by thousands of years, there is not much of a puzzle at all. It is a matter of simple induction that karma, being a natural and eternal principle, must result in multiple lives. Justice will not be robbed; a being must have the chance to rid itself of all accumulated karma. Since one life rarely culminates in perfection, there must be a multiplicity of lives available for a soul to work out its own salvation. “One who is born is sure to die and one who is dead is certain to be born,” says Sri Krishna, and by following any of the paths of bhakti, jñana, or karma, one may rid one’s self of karma and be freed from the wheel of rebirths.[8] In this way, the traveler is simply taking another step in their journey onward and upward, and the space between the end of one life and the beginning of another is only the time between exhalation of death and the inhalation of birth. Due to this understanding, “the wise do not mourn the living or the dead,”[9] but look forward to new opportunities. There is no dissolution at death, and the best scenario is for one to achieve moksha upon death and escape the illusion of life altogether. Where is a loved one who has died? Either living out a new life somewhere, near or far, or rejoining the ultimate reality (from which they were never really separated in the first place). For those living their dharma, there is no real fear of death, neither is there lasting sadness in loss. Living, then, is not a scramble of finishing things before death, but time to be used to calmly move forward, confident that one’s trajectory will be rewarded with a favorable rebirth and time to finish the task. Death, then, in providing a replacement for an old and broken body, is no longer an undiscovered country with no return route, but an old and dear friend.
            As karma explains and provides solutions to the ancient problems of death, social strata inequity, and suffering, it creates an entire system around which a theology and a way of life may be constructed. Karma has provided comfort and impetus to billions of earth’s inhabitants over the last several thousand years, and it continues to do so today in the lives not Hindus alone, but also Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, and, in a somewhat different application, amongst the People of the Book. The grand idea of cause and effect, of reward and punishment, of the law of the harvest, is a universal human idea that has found perhaps its most eloquent and complete expression in the Vedic religion.

In closing,


[1] See p. 574, Arvind Sharma, “Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil: An Interjection in the
Debate between Whitley Kaufman and Monima Chadha and Nick
Trakakis,” in Philosophy East and West for scriptural support and exegesis.
[2] Matthew 7:2, KJV
[3] p. 86, Swami Bhaskarananda, The Essentials of Hinduism. The merit described here is due to devotion to a deity, but one could easily imagine merit accrued by other means to have similar effect.
[4] Ibid. p. 27
[5]  ref. Mark Lindley, “Changes in Mahatma Gandhi’s Views on Caste and Intermarriage,” in Hacettepe University Social Sciences Journal. Essentially, Gandhi feels that varna comes from “worth, not birth.”
[6] Ref. Chadha and Trakakis, “Karma and the Problem of Evil: A Response to Kaufman,” in Philosophy East and West. Footnote 20, quoting Swami Vishnu Tirtha.
[7] Shakespeare’s Hamlet, lines 85-87
[8] Transcreation of the Bhagavad Gita,2:27, trans. Ashok K. Malhotra.
[9] Ibid. 2:11

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