Working through Bhagavad Gita can be a time-consuming process. I’m still ploughing through Chapter 2, with the help of commentaries by Swami Dayananda and excellent online audio recordings of classes given by Swami Tadatmananda. Whilst I’ve been able to grasp some of the concepts introduced in a chapter that is often defined as being a summary of the entire Bhagavad Gita, there are many stumbling blocks that keep tripping me up.
Two key issues stand apart from the rest, and these involve notions of karma and reincarnation. A few months back I read Swami Muni Narayana Prasad’s excellent book on these subjects and found no major problem assimilating the information he presents. From a genetic standpoint, it seems acceptable that reincarnation can occur through transference of genes and DNA to offspring, and that energy particles change form when the body ceases to function as a suitable vehicle for housing awareness.
There’s no problem either with a chain of cause and effect that might be conveniently labelled as karma. It seems fair enough that actions have consequences, be they good or bad, and that good actions are statistically more likely to attract positive outcomes in the same way that bad actions are likely to attract negative consequences. A flick through papers or long-term observation of behavioural patterns seems to confirm this.
The above is, of course, a gross simplification, but the stumbling block it has been leading me to is this: What’s the point? If I can accept that the field of consciousness exists in all times and in all places, why do I need to take on board a belief system that doesn’t seem to be necessary? If I can accept that really there is no life or death, only a process of change, why do I need concern myself with reincarnation? Why do cause and effect, action and consequence need to be shrouded in the mysticism of karma? Aren’t these two aspects of spiritual discourse over-complicating a relatively straight-forward view of the intricate nature of life?
Such was my point of view until yesterday, when a glimmer of insight dawned through a writing assignment that serendipitously landed on my desk. I was asked to interview two men about homelessness and how they were trying to regain an element of stability from which to rebuild their lives.
The first man (let’s call him Bill) told a tragic tale of death and heartbreak that escalated into a downward spiral of depression and alcoholism. A cruel twist of fate cataclysmically disrupted a settled family life, ended a successful career, marriage, and deposited Bill in a destitute situation.
The second man (let’s call him Phil) spoke of a transitory existence roaming from city to city, situation to situation. He talked about a desire for freedom, from being told what to do, what to think, how to behave. Sadly, he came across as a rebel without a cause, a victim of his own creation, obsessed with conflict that was temporarily transcended by the bottle.
After these interviews, it occurred to me that terms like karma and reincarnation serve a purpose in as much as they provide a way of helping people make sense of this maelstrom of existence. The burden of loss associated with general concepts of death is made easier to bear by belief in a system that allows for rebirth. It is only terminology, after all, and if that terminology helps provide solace, comfort, or gives meaning to an otherwise seemingly meaningless loss of life that can cause people to spiral out of control, why oppose it?
The same goes for karma. If the idea of karma helps an individual to accept life’s flow of positives and negatives, so be it. We can’t reliably predict when or how the effect of an action is going to be felt, but we can take care of our emotional responses by learning to accept what we experience as part of life’s process, rather than continually finding conflict by fighting against it. If that involves a labelling system called karma with attendant terminology of punya and papa for good and bad, that’s fine as well.
Both of the people I interviewed were learning how to come to terms with life in their own ways. Bill had joined a local church group and, through conversation, it was apparent he had made significant progress in terms of identifying and defining a value system that would lead to a better future. Many of the conclusions he had drawn through his life experience were parallel with advaitin teachings.
Phil, on the other hand, was still battling his demons. When I spoke with him, he was carrying a copy of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. Like many, he’d figured out the conflict he was trying to avoid was taking place in his mind, and not necessarily in the situations he found himself in. Hopefully that knowledge will lead him on to bigger and better things.
The real insight, however, that dawned after interviewing Phil and Bill, was that the stumbling block I kept tripping over was me. If karma and reincarnation aren’t issues causing any personal concern why get frustrated with them? This made me recall the old metaphor about vedantic teachings in which it is suggested that practitioners use thorns (teachings) to remove thorns (issues), but discard both when no longer needed.
The underlying truth IS that the field of consciousness pervades all things, at all times, in all places. Understanding this truth is no doubt a step in the right direction. Yet it’s equally important to realise that as humans we converge upon such a nucleus by travelling on different trajectories, each of which has its own scenery, its own array of characters, its own diversions and unique blend of experiences.
The potency of scripture stems from its ability to take into account the heterogeneous nature of human understanding, and it recognises that understanding is dependent on subjective experience which differs in each and every one of us. At the level of mithya (unreality), no two lives are the same, as the cases of Bill and Phil demonstrate.
In the future there may be a need for me to return to the topics of karma and reincarnation, but, for the time being, I’m going to hurdle over these stumbling blocks. By the time I reach the end of Bhagavad Gita’s second chapter I’ll probably need to reappraise the situation, but in the meantime, there seems little to be gained from using a thorn to pick out a thorn that wasn't imbedded in the first place.