By Annan Boodram
The concept of karma has been equated to the scientific law of action and reaction. It has also been approximated to the golden rule, ‘as you sow so shall you reap’ and to the adage ‘what goes around comes around’. It is reflected in the view often propagated that ‘it had to happen like that’, or in the Guyanese vernacular ‘wa de fuh happen ga fuh happen,’ as well as in late Hollywood actress Doris Day’s immortal lines, ‘Que sera sera’. Also many around the world refer to it as destiny.
While all of these may be encompassed within, intrinsically Karma is much more than all of these. Simply put the past is karma and karma brings the past into one’s present and future. However, from the Hindu philosophical standpoint, the past does not only relate to the current birth but all previous births. Thus karma is tied into both reincarnation and transmigration of the soul – that the soul becomes manifest, or takes form again and again, thereby migrating from one body to another.
Karma determines who and what we are/become in any single birth. However Karma is not predestination (rigidly fixed before one’s birth and cannot be changed at all) but rather a continuum of choices based on previous birth actions so that always free will is involved and at every step of the way choices are made. In effect choices are not random and they do not happen in a vacuum but rather are premised on past actions. Also, when one factors in free will and choice it becomes clear that karma is not a balanced mathematical equation but a concept whereby each action gives rise to a range of consequences. And it is that range that enables man to exercise free will and choice. However, while it is true that choices are shaped by both nature (environment) and nurture (socialization) it must be recognized that both nature and nurture are also karmic consequences. In reality then, it is karma that determines the environment in which we find ourselves at any point in time as well as the forces that shape our socialization.
As a natural law karma operates without God’s intervention except if that intervention is sought through yoga or pathways to God, which is always one of the choices on the continuum. Essentially there are four pathways are: Jnana Yoga or the path of knowledge, wisdom, introspection and contemplation; Bhakti Yoga or the path of devotion, emotion, love, compassion, and service to God and others; Karma Yoga or the path of action, service to others, mindfulness, and remembering the levels of our being while fulfilling our actions or karma in the world and Raja Yoga or a comprehensive method that emphasizes meditation, while encompassing the whole of Yoga and that directly deals with the encountering and transcending thoughts of the mind. Thus God’s intervention is not simply given but has to be earned.
Essentially then, leaving the past behind is not possible because the past is intertwined with the present and the future. But one does have the freedom to choose what one takes from the past to help shape one’s present and lay the foundation for the future, so regrets can become meaningful experiences and mistakes can become informative lessons.
One question that is often asked is this: Do the travelers choose their path or does the path choose its travelers? The reality is that man is always the chooser because he’s offered a range of choices based on prior actions. And God will only play a part in these choices if God is invited to do so – again a function of action based on choice.
So how does one reconcile karma with the concept that we are born divine? Well karma has to do with the body’s experiences while our divinity manifests through soul or atma. So the biblical concept that we are all born sinners references the karmic realm while the concept that we are made in the image of God references the atmic realm.
Karma then explains so many other phenomena. For example genius: the soul carries knowledge of previous births, which may or may not be revealed in the current manifestation, but which impacts karma. And when such knowledge is tapped into in any current birth, geniuses and prodigies result. Karma also makes it clear that, as the philosophy propounds, ‘we are in this material world but not of it’. How so? The world is not transient but the body is. Thus when the soul leaves the body, the world still is and the soul once again manifests in another body, again and again until all karma is played out.
Karma also makes it clear that God does not punish nor does God judge; punishment and judging are karmic consequences. Furthermore since all men are subjected to karma no mortal man can either transcend material existence nor can any mortal man claim to have special God given rights, privileges or any special bridge to God. However, all men and women have the capacity to understand because we all have the same inherent gifts. And there are no masters of knowledge who suddenly become ‘enlightened’ in abstraction, just people who advance via yoga – following one or more pathways to God. However, regardless of what enlightenment man achieves, man should never worship, deify or prostrate to man, because all men are subjected to karma. Those gestures are reserved for God, who is above karma and consequently all perfect, the embodiment of all that is good, compassionate, loving, merciful—the entire range of dharmic qualities. God is the bar towards which all men aspire.