Wednesday, June 29, 2011

India 2011 Begins!

Sitting in Detroit Metro Airport, at Gate D6, 12:45pm

The first of three legs of my journey to Bangalore begins in Detroit. We left Grand Rapids around 9am and arrived at the Detroit Metro Airport (DTW) in around 2.5 hours. I entered into the North Terminal for my United flight to Dulles (IAD). Check-in at the counter went smoothly and very quickly. But I am pretty sure the United agent at the counter was not having the best of days. I handed over my confirmation and my US Passport and, after some examination, she asked me, “Do you have a green card?” I was a bit flustered by this question. A green card was not on my list of documents I was constantly being hounded over by my parents. After a moment of “WTH?!!!,” I responded, “Umm...I'm a citizen.” The agent responded with the most acute look of embarrassment on her face and proceeded to process my check-in.

Then going through security, came the necessary emptying of pockets, removal of belt and shoes, and placement of the Mac into the gray security bins. Everything went smoothly until my larger carry-on began to attract the attention of the x-ray examiners. The bag was pulled off the conveyor belt and brought to me for opening and inspection. I denied any sharp objects in the bag, but it turned out that what caught the inspectors' attention was a 3-pack, bulk Costco-size of Vaseline lotion. The inspector looked at me and exclaimed “This is definitely more than 3.4 ounces. You can't take this.” I laughed at myself – so typically desi to have a bulk package of lotion confiscated. The lotions were returned to my dad waiting in the terminal, I put my shoes on, and proceeded to down to Gate D6. It's a beautiful day in Detroit. I'm sitting next to a large window overlooking the tarmac and looking forward to what DC and Dubai will have in store over the next 24+ hours. :)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Karma and its Transformation: From the Veda to the Bhagavad Gītā

In the globalized twenty-first century, the term karma has pervaded into the daily parlance of many in the West. People employ the word to simply describe one bringing inevitable circumstances upon themselves – either good or bad – due to prior actions (“Karma”). However, the roots of karma develop from much deeper philosophical and cultural backgrounds. Throughout the history of the Indian Subcontinent, the traditions which nurtured the concept of karma changed through shifting priorities, shifting sources of authority, and shifting notions of the Self and the Absolute. Thus, the concept of karma itself has gone through similar transformations in parallel with greater ideologies. This transformation of karma is manifested in three key pieces of Hindu literature. The Veda, Upaniṣads, and the Bhagavad Gītā demonstrate the cornerstone importance of karma to the adherents of Hinduism at their respective stages of the tradition's development.

As the earliest scriptures in what is now termed the Hindu tradition, the Veda serves as an important and appropriate starting place to analyze the roots and development of karma in the Subcontinent. A large focus of the Veda rested on the action of ritual or yajña. As Gavin Flood notes in An Introduction to Hinduism, “In sacrifice the gods could be propitiated, material benefits such as sons or cattle received from them, and the social standing, power, or purity of the sacrificer...enhanced” (Flood 40). In essence, this form of appeasement of the Vedic gods provided to humans a mode of communication with which to assure their well-being in future lifetimes, as well as an incentive for fulfilling codes of dharma in their current life. Flood underscores this connection as he recognizes that “dharma is an obligation, declared by the Veda, to perform ritual action (karma)” (Flood 53). The Veda exemplifies this demonstration of ritual action in accordance with karma as “the liaison between gods and men” (Embree 7).

Practice of ritual as a means of propitiating the gods and seeking their Grace is exhibited in the hymns to various Vedic deities. The Rg Veda, as the earliest of Aryan texts, provides examples of such early Hindu traditions. In a hymn to Agni, worshippers call upon “the chief priest” to “be of easy access to us as a father to his son” and to “join us for our well-being” (Embree 9). Furthermore, the Rg Veda continues on to specify the nature of ritual sacrifice as karma. Sacrifice in the Veda differs from sacrifice in the Western tradition – with most sacrifice in the form of milk, ghee, soma, or grain as oblations to various deities (Flood 40). While this view of karma seems primitive from the modern viewpoint, ritual action satisfied the Aryan society's needs in both a spiritual and practical sense.

The view of karma found in the genre of literature known as the Upaniṣads reflects the internalization of philosophy and thought, as opposed to the materialistic manifestation chronicled in the Vedas. The Upaniṣads emerged as part of a global trend toward philosophical thought, and thus the Upaniṣads presented their teachings in the form of dialogues between two juxtaposing Brahmanical figures such as the teacher and the student – or the king and the renunciant (Flood 83). Moreover, the growing heterodox influence of Buddhism in South Asia also influenced the expansion of karma's role in the Hindu psyche (Flood 86). This shift indicates that “external performance” is no longer the ultimate intention of the worshipper, but rather “knowledge of its deeper meaning” takes precedence in the Upaniṣadic era (Flood 84). Therefore, the acts of ritual dictated by the Veda continued during this time period, however the role of internalization led to further emphasis on contemplation and meditation in order to increase an individual's sense of consciousness (Flood 83).

This trend toward embracing the symbolism and knowledge behind ritual action is prevalent in many of the Upaniṣads. The Chandogya Upaniṣad raises one of the most critical pieces of such knowledge in Hinduism – the relationship between the Self and the Absolute: “Tat Tvam Asi.” Translated as “That thou art,” these texts highlight “the idea that knowledge gives rise to power or energy” (Flood 83). In the specific dialogue, Śvetaketu learns this information from his father, Uddalaka, who repeatedly proclaims: “The finest essence here – that constitutes the self of this whole world; that is the truth; that is the self (Ātman). And that's how you are, Śvetaketu” (Olivelle 152). In addition to these revelations on release from the cycle of Saṃsāra, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad offers insight into early understandings of the modern concept of karma as a process of intangible, internal actions. Chapter Four of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad quite blatantly interprets karma in a manner recognizable in modern usage: “He whose works are good becomes good; he whose works are evil becomes evil. By holy works one becomes holy, by evil works, evil. As his desire, so is his resolve, as his resolve, so is his work, as his work, so is his reward” (Roer 235). In these ways, the representation of the karma in the Upaniṣads forms a second step in the transformation of karma from its ancient Vedic roots to its integral role in the narration of the Bhagavad Gītā.

The development of karma in the Hindu tradition reaches its pinnacle in the Bhagavad Gītā as the wartime dialogue between a weary warrior, Arjuna, and his divine charioteer, Kṛṣṇa, contemplates the choice between action and inaction. In a literary context, the Bhagavad Gītā considers itself a title in the genre of Upaniṣads – it too describes the student-teacher relationship between a human and God (“The Upa-nishads”). However, as action in the Veda demanded ritual sacrifice, or internalized knowledge in the early Upaniṣads, the Gītā took ownership of karma through an emphasis on renunciation and detachment. However, this understanding of renunciation (samnyasa) differed greatly from the definition of renunciation in the āśrama system. The Bhagavad Gītā , parallel to other heterodox traditions in the Subcontinent, permitted a new and relatively democratized, accessible variant of renunciation. This style of samnyasa urged the renunciant to remain active within his or her society, conforming to prescribed individual dharma – with the ultimate goal of mokṣa through attaining truth (sat) (“The Bhagavad Gita”). One can extract these shifts in defining the ideal notion of karma from Kṛṣṇa's counsel to Arjuna in the Gītā.

The Gītā's Third Teaching outlines a system of Discipline of Action or karma-yoga which manifests karma as the individual making appropriate moral and societally responsible choices, while retaining detachment from selfish incentives. In response to these selfish incentives, Kṛṣṇa advises “Be intent on action, / not on the fruits of action; / avoid attraction to the fruits / and attachment to inaction!” (Miller 38). Kṛṣṇa then proceeds to explain that detachment is the only way mankind can truly achieve mokṣa. He reveals: “Always perform with detachment / any action you must do; / performing action with detachment, / one achieves supreme good” (Miller 45). Furthermore, Kṛṣṇa foreshadows his divine identity as he urges Arjuna to “Foster the gods with this, / and may they foster you; / by enriching one another, / you will achieve a higher good.” Through these verses, Kṛṣṇa addresses the convergence of two very different forms of karma. Vedic ritual action and Upaniṣadic internalized knowledge and meditation merge to create a hybrid form of karma stressing social responsibility, loyalty to dharma, and detachment from selfishness.

The concept of karma has taken the role of Hinduism's ambassador to foreign cultures, especially to the West – where the term is commonplace in daily conversation. But to truly understand the roots and development of karma, one must study the teachings of fundamental Hindu texts such as the Veda, the Upaniṣads, and the Bhagavad Gītā. Thus, karma's journey from fulfillment of Vedic ritual, to internalized philosophy, to societally appropriate dharma manifests the eternal struggle over the nature of 'action' in the Hindu tradition. A thoughtful analysis of these texts reveals how the concept of karma has changed to adapt to people's transforming notions of the world through dharma, atman, and brahman. In these ways – through its cemented role throughout Hinduism's history – karma presents itself as a core principle to Hinduism's adherents.