Read more from the Being Truly Human February 2001 Newsletter
By Sankarankutti Menon Marath
Can we really accept the concept of personal karma, is it plausible, possible?
One of the major tenets of Buddhism is that morally good or bad action will in its wake bring, respectively, reward or retribution to the person who has intentionally done it. If the consequences of the action, which is commonly termed karma, are not wholly nullified or the reward has not been fully enjoyed in one lifetime, the karma will force that person to be born again and again until the karmic consequences are eradicated.
How is karma transmitted from one life to another? Buddhists believe that when the heart stops beating and the components which make up a human being cease working, death of that person results. No residue is left, no soul or any such entity, Buddhists believe. What is it then that inherits it?
The explanations offered do display considerable ingenuity. However they do not convince. Anattā (no soul) and rebirth appear to be incompatible. Buddhists also maintain that karma is a form of energy having the power to ensure the rebirth.
How do we identify action as being good or bad? Human beings have created over many millennia codes of conduct among themselves, initially for their own protection and security: that which is beneficial is good and the opposite is bad. Non-human creatures like primates and some other mammals have these too, but their thrust is merely survival.
Human beings did not stop there: they began to progress in course of time far far beyond the elementary need for security and protection of the group. We elevated these codes, whose function was merely to safeguard the health and survival of the group or species, to categories of moral and ethical values. Expediency was no longer sufficient. We began to evolve lofty ideals like duty, humanity, self-sacrifice, compassion, love as the highest goals for us to strive for. The worth of a nation is judged ultimately not by its GNP but by the extent to which it pursues these moral and ethical values.
Have these values of good and evil, and indeed the entire complex moral and ethical field evolved by us, any place or any meaning outside the human realm? The answer unhappily has to be in the negative. Morality or ethics have no place in the laws of nature. Further, nature does not appear to be a respecter of our values. Nature operates in accordance with laws of its own. These laws do not defer to our desires. Almost all activities of nature bear witness to this indifference. To cite one example: when nature explodes, as it does frequently, causing unimaginable destruction of human lives, their habitations and of other fauna (and flora), it does not reflect on what it is doing and, out of pity for the suffering it is about to inflict, stop in its tracks.
When we commit evil acts we are not contravening any laws of nature. We are only infringing those made by ourselves. Pain and suffering, as we human beings see them, is the order of things in nature. I cannot live unless I kill (inclusive of vegetables). Therefore I cannot live unless I cause suffering and pain. Nature creates, but only to destroy. All of nature’s activities appear to be pointless from our anthropocentred, man-is-the-measure-of-the-universe view.
What we interpret as suffering is simply the way of nature, how things are in the universe. A bacterium or virus wreaking havoc in our body is no different from what we do when we acquire a plot of land and build a house on it in order to bring up our family. Nature is not cruel, it seems to be so only because its laws do not operate within the framework of our ideals of morality. In the cosmic context suffering has no meaning.
Admirable though the moral and other achievements of the human species are, there is nothing in the behaviour of nature to encourage us to think that it has any urge to subject its laws to man’s moral values or indeed his moral preoccupations. Unless nature does so, the so-called law of karma will be no more than one more example of our unceasing efforts to see meaning in existence, to find some purpose in it and thus try to make it endurable.
Having developed a consciousness and a moral conscience, we attempt to endow nature with similar sensibility. We further proceed to posit a loving God or a just Originator, and then go on to look upon our moral values as derived from some cosmic law or righteousness, ṛta or dharma, karmic justice, as attributes of nature and so on.
Any human activity inevitably produces all sorts of consequences in human as well as non-human areas. They may be immediate and visible at once, or the effects may not show up for years or even centuries. This is the material of human history and the story of the evolution of human society. It is tempting to use the concept of karma to explain the process of history, but the inevitability and the quality of retribution which karma implies are seldom evident.
Hinduism posits a soul which reincarnates impelled by karma. However, the arguments given above apply equally to Hindu understanding of karma.
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