Each culture has certain beliefs and value systems based on its traditions and religious tenets. People, in general, follow the value systems with utmost sincerity since they are backed by religion and tradition. One cannot change them with ease as ‘old habits die hard’. These are morals as against ethics. Morals change form time to time and place to place. We all know that there was a time when people believed that the earth was flat (biblical knowledge) and to dispel this belief it took many years before the discoverers were put behind the bars and were made to apologise to the society. There are certain values that operate above the plane of morals and they do not get changed in due course of time. They are deep rooted philosophical truths which can be experienced but cannot be explained.
What are the general belief systems in Bharatiya society? Since we have no single book that can be claimed as authority, it is difficult to cull out the value systems. None of the Vedas or the Bhagavad Gita mentions the word ‘Hinduism’. It is a way of life accommodating diverse value systems and beliefs. Hospitality to plurality of ideas is its essence. Though we have a plethora of gods, we believe in the essential unity of all gods and proudly proclaim that ‘Ekam sat, viprah bahuda vadanti’(There is one Truth but the scholars tell it in different ways). We believe in the atman, supreme brahman, ‘transmigration of soul’, concepts of heaven, hell etc. These are deep rooted philosophical truths. As the focus of this write up is not to discuss all our beliefs but only on the theory of ‘karma’, let us try to understand the general belief (rather misbelief) that ‘we are ordained by fate’ and ‘not even an ant bites you unless ordained by God’ etc. Any outsider, if he looks at these beliefs, tends to label us as fatalists and that there is no room for ‘free will’ in Bharatiya society. If everything goes according to cosmic scheme of things, there is absolutely no necessity to perform any action. “I am as I am and I will be as I will be”. If my next meal is ordained by fate, I am sure I would get it. Then why is there is any necessity to struggle and toil?
If we look in to the history of Bharat, we find at no point of time that our society is dormant showing signs of fatalism and weakness. We have been rich in our philosophical moorings, potency of language, architecture, grammar, art, music, medicine, engineering, science & technology and what not. During the regime of Muslim empires, Bharatiya contributed a lot in the fields of art, architecture and literature. In the current century ours is labeled as a software hub and most of the western countries are relying on our scientific talents. The White revolution and Green revolution are the major achievements of the Bharatiya scientists. We are the first in milk production. We are the second largest producers of wheat and rice. We are number one in remote sensing satellites. We are pioneers in low-cost computing device, Simputer. The ‘open source drug discovery’ idea was conceived by our Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) which is making waves across the world. The leading B schools across the world are led by Bharatiya deans and the current dean of Harvard Business School was born in Rajasthan, Bharat. This shows that ours is a vibrant society with lot of aspirations and desires. Still the philosophical outlook is interpreted by a few Bharatiya scholars and western scholars that the destiny designs our brought up and growth and man is destined to live as per the dissatisfied desires accumulated over many of the previous births. Do our scriptures really advocate fatalism or the interpretations are done with western lenses?
Romila Thapar, says that ‘Indian culture had been static, largely owing to the gloomy, fatalistic attitude to life. Even a superficial analysis of the changing social relationships within the caste structure, or the agrarian systems, or the vigorous mercantile activities of Indians throughout the centuries, points to anything but a static socio-economic pattern (Early India).
John Elliott says, ‘basically Hinduism teaches fatalistic acceptance of a person’s lot in life, performance of duty (rather than ambition to improve), and reincarnation (which holds out the prospect of a better life in the next life if you do nothing much wrong this time)’
n An individual does not have full control over the happenings in his life. Everything is destined by God. We are reminded of Umar Khayam’s Rubayat that says “the moving finger writes and having written moves on, nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line” (Edward FitzGerald, 1996)
n He has to do his duty without thinking about the results. The sloka commonly quoted and wrongly interpreted is:
“karmaṇyev evādhikāraste mā phaleṣhu kadācana,
mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te sańgo 'stva karmaṇi” (Gita 2.47) which means, ‘You only have authority over action, not ever to the result. Don’t be motivated by the result, and don’t get attached to inaction.’
A close look upon our shruti (that which has been heard) and smriti (that which has been remembered) literature reveals something different. The interpretation of karma yog is not as simple as leaving everything to fate and remaining in Umar Khayam’s blissful ignorant stage. Our scriptures believe in transmigration of soul from one body to another one. It is as if discarding old clothes and wearing new ones. We also believe that each action will have its result—good or bad. The results of all actions are to be experienced at any cost either in this birth or in the next birth. If the body falls off and the linga sharira (subtle body) is transmigrated to new body, the unexperienced results of previous births’ actions (karma phalani) are carried forward to this birth. These are called sanchita karmas. Our shastras (sacred scriptures) say that these are to be experienced. From this philosophical thought process, one may tend to feel that one is bound by the karmas of present birth and also that of the previous births.
But Vedanta (a school of thought in Hinduism) also says that these sanchita karmas can be dropped off. A jnani (self-realised person) who has realised the supreme Brahman (the ultimate Truth) by atma-anatma viveka (discriminatory faculty) can possibly become immune to all fruits of actions of present life and also of the baggage of previous lives. Realising supreme Brahman is a state of mental bliss wherein the sadhaka (the seeker of Higher Truth) perceives the all-pervading atman in all animate and inanimate objects and does karmas (actions) for ‘lokasangraha’ (general welfare). For him all actions are performed at the altar of supreme Lord (Iswara Arpana buddhi) and he receives all fruits of actions with ‘prasada buddhi’ (attitude of cheerful acceptance). He does karmas or performs actions for the good of the society (lokasangraha). With this back ground, if we analyse the Gita shloka (2.47), it gives out brilliant different interpretation. The idea behind ‘karmanyevadhikaraste’ is not as simple as that of doing one’s duty without thinking about the results. The spirit of karma yog is that each man has to perform duties with more energy and right attitude without craving for the fruit of action. Craving results in restlessness, anger, delusion and loss of discriminatory power. Since sanchita karma of previous births is responsible for the current birth, it is enjoined upon man to come out of karma bandha (bondage of actions) by doing nishkama karma (detachment in action). Thus karma (action) is the means to discard karma bandha and attain citta shuddhi (purety of mind) which leads to jnana (knowledge) and then to moksha (liberation). The essence of Karma Yog is:
a. ‘Yoga-staḥ kuru karmāṇi’—Do your actions while being in yog.
b. ‘Yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam’— doing karma with dexterity to avoid karma bandha
c. ‘Samatvaḿ yoga uchyate’—drop down happiness and unhappiness and be in the state of equanimity like the king Janaka.
d. Yajnarthath karmanah—which mean that we should do karma with Iswara Arpana buddhi (dedication to God); and with ‘mukta sanga’ (free from attachments)- with no desire on fruit of action.
The irony is that when scriptures advocate righteous actions with more vigor, a few people lean backward and try to find bliss in non-action (akarma). Gita is emphatic about the futility of not doing actions as well. Look at this sloka (verse):
‘na karmaṇām anārambhān naiṣkarmyaḿ puruṣo 'śnute
na ca sannyasanād eva siddhiḿ samadhigacchati’ (Gita 3.4)which means ‘not by merely abstaining from work can one achieve freedom from action, nor by renunciation alone can one attain perfection’.
The real problem:
Then where does the problem lie? Why Bharatiya are labeled as fatalists? The probable explanation may be found in the longer centuries of subjugation of Bharat by foreign rulers. Muslims, when they invaded Bharat, at least found it a permanent home and started encouraging talents by fusing them to Islamic traditions and cultures. An offshoot of this religious fusion resulted in the development of Bhakti cult (devotional trend that emerged in medieval Hinduism) and the language of Urdu. But the colonisation by the British with imperial motives from 17th to 19th centuries resulted not only in the draining of our wealth but the colonial policies made us illiterates overnight, thanks to the introduction of English as official language. We were sapped of our vitality physically and mentally. When western industrial revolution was fuelled by the riches from Bharat, Bharatiya were relegated to the stage of raw material suppliers. The deep wounds on the economy made indelible wounds on the psyche of Bharatiya and a sense of desperation and fatalism engulfed the Bharatiya firmament. Common people lost faith in their own scriptures and the migration of intelligentsia to towns and cities left the villages with intellectual bankruptcy. The independence relieved us from political and economic colonialism. But the mind of an average Bharatiya, and at times, the sophisticated Bharatiya has also not been relieved of mental colonialism. We still ape the west and are ready to import our ancient knowledge in western packages. We are the boys of ‘pizza effect’ (The pizza effect is a term used especially in religious studies and sociology for the phenomenon of elements of a nation or people's culture being transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re-imported back to their culture of origin-Wikipedia). Scriptures, per se, have nothing to do with fatalism. The scars on the economy, the resultant poverty, the intellectual bankruptcy at the grass roots and the tendency to ignore reading our scriptures, or to read with western perspective, tendency to visualise English as embodiment of knowledge more than a communicative tool etc might be the reasons to explain the beliefs that man is ordained by fate and nothing can be tuned for becoming good. It is now time to revisit our scriptures with authentic commentaries instead of understanding from the translated texts of the west. It is high time to discard wrong interpretation of value systems. Neither on physical plane nor on philosophical plane is our society fatalistic.
The former CEO of Infosys created flutter stating that no innovation from Bharat has become a global household name in the past sixty years. Though it is a sweeping comment made out of anguish to motivate the current generation, we cannot deny the fact that it is far from reality. The reasons, of course, cannot be attributed to our culture or philosophical outlook but lies somewhere else. An entrepreneurial eco system can be nurtured and nourished by way of promoting tolerance to failure, tolerance to ambiguity, free flow of cross functional ideas, dismantling hierarchical structures, commitment to research and development activities, commitment of government funding and resources and the like. If the eco system has a dent, there is no use blaming the philosophical outlook of the populace. It only leads to pessimism and creative people get frustrated and try to find finer pastures outside Bhrat. Jawaharlal Nehru says that ‘A country under foreign domination seeks escape from the pleasant dreams of a vanished age, and finds consolation in visions of past greatness. That is a foolish and … for us in Bharat is to imagine that we are still spiritually great though we have come down in the world in other respects. Spiritual or any other greatness cannot be founded on lack of freedom and opportunity, or on starvation and misery.
Many western writers have encouraged the notion that the Bharatiya are other-worldly. I suppose the poor and unfortunate in every country become to some extent other-worldly, unless they become revolutionaries, this world is evidently not meant for them’. If the poverty is on economic plane, Nehru could have been correct in his assessment. What we need to address is the intellectual poverty imposed by the colonial thought process. Ours is a society where philosophy got intertwined with physical and psychological planes just as a garland of flowers is intertwined with a fine thread.
Dr Karanam Nagaraja Rao & Dr Aswathi Nair (The writers are Faculty, School of Business, Alliance University, Bangaluru)