The many ways we deceive ourselves

We humans like to look at ourselves as the smartest species on planet earth. We are also the only species that has the unique distinction of being able to deceive itself completely. Why do we deceive ourselves you may wonder? To me this appears because of our need for a sense of justice, a need for a warm, fuzzy feeling and also possibly due to a little bit of narcissism.

Here are some common deceptions

The Myth of Karma & Sin: Karma & sin is a myth that has been propagated since time immemorial. Hindus believe, good begets good and evil begets evil and also that these consequences are the result of the working of karma. The theory of karma assumes that one’s good actions result in good providence and the evil that one does returns to destroy the doer. Similarly other faiths have the concept of sin and virtue. In these faiths sin results in punishment and virtue results in a safe voyage to heaven. There is no real evidence to support that punishment or reward for evil or good acts actually exists. There are many in this world of ours who go about their wanton ways yet live a full and carefree life. Then, there are others who go through a tough righteous path and live a life of hardships. Regardless, many of us have a value system because transgressions from the virtuous path can result in an unsettled and troubled conscience.

Though the laws of karma and sin are creations of the mind, they are really necessary to maintain the law and order of world. Without karma and the fear of retribution there would be anarchy and chaos in the world.

The fact that karma and sin are possible deceptions of the mind does not in any way justify evil or heinous acts. We must follow a virtuous path simply because it is the right thing to do. We should be governed by the maxim “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

The Myth of the Afterlife: Almost all the major religions believe in life after death. Why do we do this? There are 2 main reasons. Death is an inevitable part of human life. Since we do not like to lose a dear one, we like to think that our loved ones continue to exist in another dimension. This allows us to bear the loss of a dear one.

The other reason is that we don’t like the finality of death. Different religions treat afterlife differently. Some religions believe in re-incarnation where we shed our body, after death, and transmigrate into another body. Other religions believe in a hell where the dead person is tortured for their evil deeds and a heaven where they are rewarded. The punishment or reward follows from the mortal deeds in an earthly life. As mentioned before, without the reward and retribution theory there would be chaos on earth. But there is again no real proof of such an afterlife.

Some people claim to be able to recall incidents from their past life, Also there are others who have had ‘near-death’ experiences who claim to have seen a ‘white, brilliant’  light. However this does not substantiate the existence of re-incarnation, heaven-hell or an afterlife.

In my opinion, there is nothing beyond death. We come to this world; we live and then cease to exist. There is nothing after death.  Man has been on earth for a few million years. With a few 100 thousand generations before us heaven and hell would be pretty crowded by now.

Though there is nothing beyond this mortal life there is nothing wrong in trying to leave a legacy behind for future generations. This is not for any narcissistic reason but to prolong the ‘doing unto others as we would like to have done to us’ even after death.

These theories and beliefs were acceptable millennia ago when our understanding was primitive. But with the advances of science and our knowledge of the universe we need to relook at our beliefs. We may need to modify our beliefs with the changing times. We need to shed some of our old beliefs.

However, this does not in any way preclude us leading a virtuous and a value filled life.

The reward & punishment myth of karma & sin

The theory of karma and the belief in sin and punishment are mere myths. There is really no compelling evidence in support of them. We simply believe that evil actions result in retribution and good acts result in good providence. These are just theories of convenience. There is really no valid proof of these theories.

For e.g. when we witness another person perform something bad we mentally assume that nemesis will catch up with that person. We believe that justice will eventually prevail. Similarly when we do something good, perform some altruistic act we internally assume that we gain karmic merit. Others may believe that kindness and benevolence will ultimately result in a great time in heaven or some such thing.

In reality none of this is really true. Your life is ultimately the result of choices that you make. One could be evil and still make intelligent choices and navigate through life fairly successfully. On the other hand, there are altruists who suffer because they lack basic common sense.

Simply believing that “every action results in equal and opposite reaction” is naïve.

Having said that karma & sin are mere theories and have no substance does not mean that I am advocating an immoral or evil life. Ultimately every action that we do must be based on a simple maxim “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

It is likely that the theory of karma & sin/punishment play an important role in the maintenance of law in the lives of mankind.

Ultimately it is ability to maintain the highest quality of life for mankind as a whole that should be basis for any thing that we do or don’t do.

Are we deceiving ourselves?

Are we deceiving ourselves? This was the question which I have been asking myself for the past couple of days. If for a moment we put away our ideas of soul, atman, karma and sin then what are we left with. We would just live each and every day in own merit.

So does karma or sin really make sense? A human being is nothing more than a slightly glorified version of an animal. We probably have a much more evolved sense of ourselves, have developed a language to communicate and would like to think that we have choice. As human beings we really pride ourselves with having the ability to be self-aware besides also having the freedom of choice.

This choice that we pride ourselves in is nothing more than a slightly evolved animal ability. I have seen a dog smell a piece of bread on occasions and quietly turn away. Is it not exercising choice then?

Then we delude ourselves into thinking that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is really only true to human beings who are conscious of their acts. There are many people in the world who simply rationalize their acts and sleep with an easy conscience for the rest of their lives.

When a lion slaughters a deer and eats it does it acquire bad karma? No. However if subsequently a hunter comes and shoots it down would the animal world deceive itself that it was the lion’s karma to get killed?

This brings us to the Greek ethical question that plagued the Greek philosophers’ many thousand years ago. “Is it better to be strong or is it better to be good?” They concluded it is better to be strong.

That is reality. In many ways we live in a world of “matsya nyaya” or might is right. However there are sensible people in the world who do good to others simply because they believe “in doing unto others what they would like have done unto them”.

What are your thoughts on this?

The dance of karma and dharma

Often the Hindu philosophy is wrongly referred to as being fatalistic. We are supposed to be caught in the web of our own past actions or karma from which there is no escape. This in other words is our fate and we are supposed to live with it. In Tamil they say if it is one’s “vidhi” then one should just accept it.

But what people often forget that while we are bound by our karma we are free to choose our response to our past karma or choose our response in the present. We need not just lie down and face all the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. There is nothing stopping us from “taking arms against our sea of troubles and oppose and end them” as Shakespeare would put it. Now the crucial point is what should be our response. It is in this context that we have to look at the dharma of our response. There is always the right action according to Buddhist philosophy. So when we exercise our choice we have to fully understand the context in which are acting and make the correct decision. This is dharma. So if we are faced with evil then we
stand up and fight it. If we encounter failure then we take action to avoid it in future. As Stephen Covey’s states in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” that a fundamental principle about the nature of man is that he/she is free to choose in the space between a stimulus and its response. So according to the Gita the stimulus that we encounter in the present may be the result of our past karma, but our response to it is governed by our free will. The Gita requires that we perform right action and make the right choice. So while we are free to make a choice among a set of alternatives we do not have any control to the consequence of choices we make. While it is known that good action always begets good results and bad acts will always reap evil. Or in others we are bound by the karma of the choice we make. So we have to make the correct choice within the purview of the situation. Like Arjuna who was confronted on the battle field against his kin the Kauravas wanted to shirk away but the dharma of the situation as clarified by Lord Krishna was to fight against the Kauravas. It is a fact that good actions will result in good providence and evil acts will beget evil.

One’s present tense depends on whether one’s past was perfect. The future of course depends on the choices we make in the present with good actions usually resulting in good fruits. To summarize while our present is bound by our past karma, we are free to choose, based on dharma. However the choice we make good or bad will result in either good karma or otherwise.

Tinniam V Ganesh

Uncovering morality in the Mahabharata – Part 2

Arjuna’s despondency
When the Pandavas return after their exile from the forest after 13 years and try to reclaim what is rightly theirs they are only met with stout denial by Duryodhana. Lord Krishna tries to negotiate a settlement where the Kuaravas would only need to part with 5 villages to Pandavas. But even this meager request results in a refusal by Duryodhana. Finally after much deliberation Yudhisthra as the eldest amongst the Pandavas declares war.

On the day of the war with both armies standing impressively facing each other Arjuna whose chariot is driven by none other Lord Krishna himself suddenly is overcome with mental anguish. Arjuna the great and courageous warrior goes through intense emotional turmoil. He is not able to come to terms with the violence of war where he would have to kill the Kauravas who are his own cousins. Besides the Kaurava army also has in its ranks the venerable Bhishma and Drona who have taught him all the necessary lessons of life along with the skills of warfare. This is an important juncture in the Mahabharata where the epic balances human emotions of compassion against the needs of justice. It is as this point Lord Krishna sings the inimitable and ineffable song of the Gita. Lord Krishna reiterates that man must perform his duty without attachment to the results of his work. He should look at joy and suffering with equanimity. The Gita also expounds that behind the material body is the indestructible soul or the Atman which is eternal in nature.

Arjuna is finally convinced when he witnesses Lord Krishna’s divine form and starts to fight for dharma or justice. The war results in victory for the Pandavas. However, the Pandavas are able to overcome Bhishma, Drona and Karna only through devious means. The Mahabharata brings into its narrative a human element of frailty. It clearly shows that even the virtuous Pandavas are not superhuman. Besides it brings into question again the issues of ends versus means. What is dharma? Does it represent something that should be beyond individual interests? Should one subordinate individual interests to the larger interest of the people?
The war ends with victory for the Pandavas. However, even the Pandavas army is destroyed by the wrath of Aswatthama leaving only the five Pandavas with widows and an empty kingdom.

Yudhisthra rather than rejoicing in his victory is tormented by the Pyrrhic victory which resulted in a lot of bloodshed. Again the Mahabharata does not glorify the victors nor belittles the vanquished. The Mahabharata does make one to reflect deeply on what is right and what is wrong. Given the virtues of truthfulness, compassion, ahimsa, charity what should be the most appropriate course for an individual be?

Karma,sin – Myth or Real?

The law of karma is central to Hindu philosophy. According to the law of karma a man’s situation in any point in his life is the consequence of his past acts. In other words karma can be summed up as “Good actions beget good results and evil actions beget evil results. Similarly, in Christian thought is the concept of sin or evil. According to Christian thought, a person will receive his punishment for his evil deeds on the “day of judgment”. Every major religion in the world has similar ideas where one’s evil ways will always return to the perpetrator himself and ones good deeds will always result in good providence.

Is the law of karma or the theory of sin and punishment real or is just a myth? When one looks at karma or sin superficially one is led to believe that these theories are brilliant ploys of our bright ancestors for keeping mankind on the right path. The law of karma definitely does explain unexpected troubles that come our way. We can conveniently say that we must have done something bad in this life or in our past lives and hence we are bound to undergo the suffering. Similarly we expect evil people to be punished for their evil acts. But we do see instances of evil people in our midst who are happy and successful and there are good people who undergo undue hardships.

However a deeper analysis into either karma or sin will show that there is an underlying principle of truth behind it. Karma and sin can be explained as below.
We human beings come into this world with pre-programmed behaviors. This in-built program of ours is the result of the generations of evolution of mankind from time immemorial. In these programmed behaviors of ours are the wisdom, common sense and values of our ancestors. We can either look at them as our genetic programming or the repository of conscious, sub conscious and unconscious behavior transferred to us through the ages. These learning’s and wisdom of our ancestors and forefathers are handed down to us as our programmed behavior. For e.g. in these programs will be rules like kindness -> joy, compassion –> joy, anger ->pain, hatred -> pain, violence -> pain and so on. These rules are reinforced as we grow from a child to an adult. A person’s individual values are not just the result of environment and parents alone and we do not learn all the intricacies of human behavior in one lifetime, from a child to an adult. There is a lot which comes to us in our pre-programmed unconscious self as the wisdom from our ancestors.

When we violate the law of karma or commit a sin we are actually changing some of these in-built rules. When we try to change one of the rules from violence -> pain to violence-joy then we run against the grain of human understanding and human wisdom. Not only do we mutate our own rules when we commit such a violation but such a change will also result in a jarring effect on others. People around us will subconsciously or unconsciously recognize that a violation of one of basic rules has happened. Hence when we go against the time-tested wisdom or the in-built wisdom of our ancestors the result will be incorrect and we will reap the evil that we caused. In fact our voice of conscience is nothing but these inner programs telling us that we are violating a basic rule of human wisdom.

Hence karma or the principle of sin are not just idle inventions of our ancestors but are real and true. They are eternal truths discovered by our forefathers which have with stood the tests of logic, reason and time.

Karma or plain convenience

Last night while I was returning home at around 10 pm I had a stop at a traffic signal. In the maze of the stopped vehicles I saw two little girls stopping at cars to beg. They were dirty and ragged. They must have been around 5 years old. Their cute, innocent faces looked tired. One of the girls walked to my car and tapped persistently on my vehicle.  The other girl decided to take a breather and sat on the median between the roads. I am sure that their day probably starts around 6 am and end around 11 pm.

When I looked at the little girls faces I started to wonder what they had done to deserve this. Their life had hardly started and they were forced to work for their living at such a tender age, so late in the night. When other children of their age must be listening to bedtime stories or having cute baby dreams these two little ones were out on the street, in a dangerous road, working their way between speeding vehicles, begging for alms.

My mind immediately turned to the old faithful theory of karma. I thought to myself that it was the karma of these two little girls that they had to suffer this fate. But I realized that these two little ones were too little to have done anything bad in life to have to undergo this tribulation. So then I started to think that in their past birth they must have done things and are suffering in this birth.

Somehow I found no satisfaction in either of these trains of thought. I just realized that life is unfair. It can be cruel. There is no real rhyme or reason behind the inequities of life in the world. It is just a throw of the dice of fate and depending on how the dice turns up we see either good times or bad times.

It is definitely true that karma provides an easy excuse for most of life’s problems. When we experience problems in life for which there is no easy explanation we conveniently rationalize that it is all our karma. We think that in the distant past we must have done thing bad and we are seeing the repercussions of this now. If that does not satisfy us we argue with ourselves that we must have done something downright bad in one of our previous births which is having its effect in this birth and in the current time.

However looking at these two little girls I somehow came away feeling unsatisfied with the theory of karma, This time I felt karma is just a convenient theory to answer life’s inequities. To me there was no plausible reason for these two little girls to undergo such an ordeal so early in their life.

I just came away with the realization that life can be unfair. Some people just suffer while others get away. We need to accept this reality and move on life. There are no other explanations. Do you have any thoughts?