Volume 7 - Issue 09
September 2009
Other Articles
 
spiritual questions and answers
PART 10

By Prof. G. Venkataraman
 
 
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Spiritual Questions and Answers
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Since Heart2Heart started in 2003, readers have very often written to us seeking answers to many spiritual questions. We have answered them at times through appropriate articles in H2H. However, there are still many that have to be explained carefully and in detail. And in the recent past, a lot more queries have arrived on varied topics concerning spirituality and personal growth.

We have now meticulously compiled and categorised these questions, and Prof. G. Venkataraman has offered to answer all these queries in a structured and systematic way as a series on Radio Sai as well as in H2H. In this way, these answers now remain always on our website as a ready reckoner on spiritual doubts.

This is a suitably adapted transcript of our radio series bearing the same name. To listen or download the talk from our website, please visit www.radiosai.org/qa

ALL ABOUT KARMA – Part-1

Loving Sai Ram and greetings from Prashanti Nilayam. This is, I believe, the tenth talk in the Q and A series. Thus far, I have been dealing with questions that largely centred on the purpose of life, that is, why has God given life to humans, and what does God expect humans to do with this most precious gift? I do hope you have gained something out of the talks on that theme. Even if you have not understood all that you heard, do not worry.

In Spirituality, clarity often comes slowly when we constantly reflect on the same matter. So, let us now continue, to the next instalment of questions, all of which deal with the question of doer-ship, Karma and so on. What these mean would become clear right away, when the two questions would be presented. The first two questions that came out of our question bag were as follows: 

QUESTION 1: Do we have free will or are we under the illusion that we have one? Is life simply mapped out in front of us, or do we create our own destiny by our choices?

QUESTION 2: If God is the only doer and not even a blade of grass moves without His will, then how does the Law of Karma operate in terms of responsibility for actions and their consequences? 

Both questions are very important and deal with the same topic; and they are also frequently asked. So maybe we should concentrate a bit and try to understand what this so-called freewill is all about.

 

Let me begin with the remark that this word freewill is often heard amongst intellectuals, especially in the Western world. Vedantists, on the other hand, swear by the idea that man is never the doer and that God alone is. This immediately starts a debate between the freewill camp and the Vedantists' camp, and the questions you heard essentially reflect the spirit of this debate.

Reduced to simple terms, the questions become: “Are we in charge or are we not? If we are not and everything is pre-determined by God, then why on earth are we held accountable for things we do, which anyway God has determined we shall do? This is like passing the buck and is not fair!” Maybe I have made the contrast between the two points of view rather sharp but that roughly is what bothers many seekers. Clearly, the question is a complex one, and needs to be analysed slowly and carefully, step by step; and that precisely is what we shall now try to do.

Let me start with the first question, which, to remind you once more, is: 

Do we have free will or are we under the illusion that we have free will? Is life simply mapped out in front of us, or do we create our own destiny by our choices?

I hope that in the light of the comments I made earlier, at least the question is clear. There are three concepts embedded in this question and let me take the first one, namely freewill. Before I deal with this and the second question in detail, I must mention that perception – which is what these questions really reduce to – depends largely on one’s point of view. The issue of perception is very important, and maybe I should spend a few minutes to give a major example from Physics, by way of setting the stage.

Theory of Relativity in Spirituality

 
 
Albert Einstein

In the year 1905, Einstein, who was then an obscure clerk in the Swiss Patent Office in Zurich, pondered deeeply about how a particular event would appear to two observers, as he called them. Observer A, said Einstein, was stationary, that is, he was not moving at all, while Observe B was moving with a constant velocity. Both A and B are looking at the same event; the question is, how do A and B see or perceive this event?

You and I would perhaps say, “What a question! Both are looking at the same event and therefore both would see the same thing!” Mr. Einstein says, “Not so fast, my dear sir, it all depends on how fast Observer B is moving. If he is moving close to or at the speed of light, then he would see the same event very differently!” Einstein did not merely throw a curve ball as they say, but actually wrote down several equations to substantiate his statement and from this was born the famous Special Theory of Relativity.

OK, all that is fine, and we congratulate Einstein for his epoch-making discovery, which, by the way, has been confirmed experimentally beyond any shadow of doubt. However, what has all that got to do with the question we are now considering? Well, I brought that up so that we appreciate that the answer we get depends upon the point of view we take before we enter into the debate. I should, to complete the short narrative about Einstein, add that Einstein, while analysing the perceptions of the two Observers A and B, also gave a set of equations that enable one to transit from one viewpoint to the other – these are the celebrated Lorentz transformations. This business of the stationary and the moving observers having different perceptions is not a made up thing. In fact, you might have actually experienced this; I have and let me describe what I mean. 

Imagine sitting in a train that is stationary and standing at the platform of a station. By the side of your train is standing on the adjacent track another train that is headed somewhere else. This other track is barely a meter or two away, and the two trains are quite close. Looking out of the window, you are able to see the other train and some of the passengers riding that, even as they would be able to see your train, etc.

   
 
       

Now suddenly, you see the other train slowly moving, and you think, “When will our train take off and how long do we have to hang around this station?” But in reality, it might be your train that is moving and not the other one, and that becomes clear to you only later when your train begins to pick up speed by accelerating!

I do not want to go into all that in detail, but the point I am making is that perception depends very much on the point of view. I hope you keep that point in mind all the time, while reading the rest of what follows. 

Free Will – 'Freedom of Choice' or 'Freedom from Consequence'?

Now that I have provided some sort of a preamble and background, let me turn to the question proper. The first point is whether we really have an entitlement called freewill, or is that belief a mere illusion? In dealing with this question, I would like to make a clear distinction between what I would call freewill and what might be referred to as freedom of choice, as opposed to True Freewill. Just to assure you, let me affirm that the remarks I am making are all based on what Swami has said earlier – that goes without saying. To get back to what I was saying, let me start with some mundane examples and remarks.

Take a thing like spitting on the road. In many countries, for example Singapore, this is not only illegal but if there is a violation, the violator is punished by the law enforcement agencies. On the other hand, in many countries [India is an example] there is no explicit law against spitting in public places; in such cases, a person might spit on the road or he might not; he can do as he pleases without any legal consequences. I hope you get the point. The issue can be narrowed down to the question: Is there or is there not a consequence to one’s action, that is, is there a price to pay if one does something?

 
gandhi
 
Mahatma Gandhi

Keeping all that in mind, let us now focus on actions that do not attract any legal consequences. While a particular act might not be in violation of the law of the land, the question still remains whether it is in violation of Moral Law. The Spiritual question I started with is really connected with this kind of issue. Gandhi once said, “There is a Moral Law governing the Universe”. Very true but many do not accept that, atheists in particular. They go ahead and do what they want, all in the name of freewill. The question is whether in the end, there is any price to pay? We can get some clarity in the matter by considering an example.

Consider heavy smoking, chain-smoking in particular. As far as I know, no country has a law totally banning smoking, although these days, there are lots of restrictions concerning smoking in public spaces, etc. Suppose a person does not violate city or state laws; yet, he smokes a lot, especially at home. He is not violating any man-made law, but is he getting away without paying any price? Hardly; there is a very good chance this person who believes he is exercising his freewill would end up with a serious heart problem or lung cancer; no dispute about that.

I shall come back a bit later to whether any violation of Moral Law is involved in heavy smoking but meanwhile please note that the message we are getting is: “One might claim one is acting according to one’s freewill, but in the end there IS a price that one has to pay.”

The Invisible Fabric of Moral Law

Let me now focus a bit more on moral violations. A person may indulge in actions that violate a fundamental moral code, arguing that there is no prohibition in law. But there still is a basic point here which is that while the law of the land might not bother the person concerned, the violation of the Moral Law which, being intrinsic to Creation, would subject the person to a Karmic debt.

In other words, the person concerned has to face the consequences of his Karma, consequences, which would get imposed on him by Destiny. You may or may not believe in it, but that is what Swami also says, and so we have to accept facts and not waste time disputing them.   

What it all boils down to is that bound as we all are by Eternal Moral Laws, we can never claim to have any freewill; to believe that we do have it is pure self-delusion.

Getting back to the question of smoking, one might argue: “Show me one statement in the Bible or the Vedas or the Quran that forbids smoking. There is none. So how can you call it a violation of the Moral Law?” My answer is simple. Historically, tobacco smoking came into existence only after the British discovered tobacco in North America – that was somewhere in the sixteenth century I believe. In other words, smoking came into existence long after the Vedas, the Bible and the Quran were written down. That is why there is no explicit prohibition against smoking in the scriptures. But look at smoking in the spirit of say the Vedas and the Gita.

Ancient wisdom tells us not to go after sensual pleasures; and what is smoking but a form of sensual pleasure? Thus, there is an implicit moral objection to smoking even in the scriptures [if that is what one wants], though not written down in black and white. And when this unwritten moral code is violated, we get the bill some day or the other! What it all boils down to is that bound as we all are by Eternal Moral Laws, we can never claim to have any freewill; to believe that we do so is pure self-delusion.

Karmic Influence – The Long and Short of it

Let me now move on to the second part of the question, which is whether everything is completely pre-determined right down to the micro or even the nano-level, or do we have some control over Destiny? I would say it all depends on how far down the road one is looking.

Certainly, the current momentum of one’s life would be determined by one’s past track record; in other words, if one is looking at short-term and maybe the entire span of the current life, it might be influenced by Karmic debt associated with one’s past lives.

But if one looks at the long-term, that is to say over many future lives, then one can say that would certainly be influenced by present actions.

In other words, we can certainly shape our Destiny over the long-term, by the choices we now make. The questioner wants to know something about the choices we should make, and I hope that what I have just said clarifies matters.
Let me now move on to the second question, which, to remind you, is:

 
   

If God is the only doer and not even a blade of grass moves without His will, then how does the Law of Karma operate in terms of responsibility for actions and their consequences?

This question is a very interesting one, and is frequently asked. People want to know clearly: “Are we in charge or is God in charge? Everyone says God is in charge -in which case, why is a buck called Karma passed on to us? This is unfair!” This precisely is where the question of the point of view, etc., enters the picture.

Remember all that I said earlier about Observer A, Observer B, Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity and all that? I now have to lean on that analogy. 

The Tug Between ‘My will’ and ‘Thy will’

The two points of view associated with this question are basically related to what the individual feels about the issue of doer-ship. Those whose personality is dominated by ego invariably feel that they are the doer and the achiever – that is of course when they succeed, especially when it is a big success. Come failure, everyone looks for a scapegoat! Strange as it might sound, there are also people who are not dominated entirely by ego or body-consciousness. With due humility, such people attribute everything, both successes and failures to Destiny. They humbly say, “I am not the decider or the doer; it is His will, which is always done.”

Seen this way, the issue of whether or not God is the real doer really boils down to whom you are talking to. If you ask a person who takes great pride in his or her achievement – and the world is full of such people – then clearly these people cannot claim credit for all the success that comes to them and then, when the going becomes rough, pass the buck to God and blame Him for all the problems! Obviously, one cannot have it both ways, have the cake and eat it too! I hope that is clear.

The whole thing is like a two-seater car with two people riding it. Clearly, one person alone can drive the car; in the case of life, the two parties are God and the individual concerned. If the individual is ego-dominated, then he gets into the driving seat and hence, as far as he is concerned, God just sits in the adjacent seat and comes along for the ride!

OK, what about the people who have sublimated their ego and surrendered to God? In their case, who is the doer? If one has totally surrendered to God, and I mean totally – not an easy thing I might add – if one has done that, then God takes over. The whole thing is like a two-seater car with two people riding it. Clearly, one person alone can drive the car; in the case of life, the two parties are God and the individual concerned. If the individual is ego-dominated, then he gets into the driving seat and hence, as far as he is concerned, God just sits in the adjacent seat and comes along for the ride!

In Vedanta this is described by saying that God acts as the Witness. If, on the other hand, the person surrenders to God leaving everything to Him, then it is like handing over the steering wheel to God and taking the co-passenger seat, leaving the driving to Him. I remember that back in the old days, the Greyhound bus service in America used to have a slogan that went like: “Go Greyhound and leave the driving to us.” In the Gita, Krishna says pretty much the same thing, twice, once in Chapter 9, in Sloka 22 and once again in Chapter 18, in Slokas 65 and 66. 

In summary, if we have the feeling of doer-ship – this shows up when people congratulate us for success, etc., – then we become accountable for our actions under the Law of Karma. In this case, God acts purely as a Witness. However, if we surrender totally, and this by the way is not at all easy, then God becomes the driver, and we can escape Karma! Thus, ego-dominated people a priori rule out the doer-ship of God because they claim the doer-ship for many things; for them, God is a mere Witness.

But for those who have surrendered and merged their personality into God, who always say with most humility no matter what they experience in life, both what we say is good and what we describe as unpleasant, happens according to His will – for such people, God sure is the doer, always. In short, God operates both ways, as a DOER and also a WITNESS. For some He is the former, while for the others He is the latter.

In modern logic, we often adopt a yes or no, this or that, black or white, approach. In Vedanta, however, it is often the case of black and white, this and that, yes and no! That tends to confuse most people who are used to straight and linear logic. Thus, this is not a simple matter and needs some serious thinking through. I trust I have given you enough food for thought; with that hope, let me bring this deliberation to a close.

Of Divinity and Destiny, and Our Role

For the benefit of those who are familiar with Science, I might add the following remarks. If one peers into a beaker of water and is able to watch the individual molecules, one would find that they move randomly; there is plenty of experimental evidence for this, and a botanist named Robert Brown, nearly two centuries ago first discovered this random motion. In those days, one did not have microscopes powerful enough to see individual atoms, but Brown saw that a pollen grain suspended in the beaker was doing a random walk.

There is a Divinely-ordained Operating System called the Law of Karma that runs the system; it is rather like a computer running on an OS. And just as there is a designer for the Operator System used in the computer, so also the OS of life, namely the Law of Karma,
has a Creator who of course is God.  

Brown did not know why this happened and for many decades there were all kinds of theories, until Einstein in 1905, explained the random motion of the pollen grain in terms of random impacts made by atoms that collided with the pollen grain. Shortly after this, Perrin in France completely verified all the predictions made by Einstein, and in fact Perrin’s work gave the first proof that atoms actually existed; till then, not all physicists accepted the existence of atoms, although chemists had no problems with atoms being around. By the way, Perrin was honoured with the Nobel Prize.

Following the confirmation that Perrin provided, it is now a well-accepted fact that individual atoms, especially in liquids and gases, move randomly all the time, of course colliding with each other, if they come in each other’s way.

Now why am I mentioning all this? For a simple reason. Consider say a stream of water flowing fast down a slope. Clearly, at the macro level, water is flowing in one direction, down the slope. However, at the level of atoms, individual atoms perform random walks. So we have here a fascinating situation; at the macro level, the motion is directed – no question about that. Yet, at the level of the atoms, there is no question that the motion is random. If we put the two together, we get the result that superimposed on the random motion of the atom, there is a directed motion which is the result of flow due to the effect of gravity.

To me, life appears to be like that. Yes, God, via Destiny, does ordain the macro direction of our lives. At the same time, by giving our Mind the power of freedom of choice, at the micro level, He allows us to control our Destiny to some extent. I should clarify that when I say that God via Destiny ordains the macro direction of our lives, what I mean is God has ordained the Law of Karma, which takes over and does the job.

Thus, in practice, God does not sit at a keyboard and press keys to direct our lives from second to second, keeping accounts of our good deeds and bad deeds. There is a Divinely-ordained Operating System called the Law of Karma that runs the system; it is rather like a computer running on an OS. And just as there is a designer for the Operator System used in the computer, so also the OS of life, namely the Law of Karma, has a Creator who of course is God.     

I am sure you would be bursting with comments to offer, and supplementary questions to ask. Send them all [email protected], and we shall do our best to deal with them. Meanwhile, all the best. God bless. Jai Sai Ram.

(To be Continued...)

Dear Reader, how do you like this series? Does it help you in any way? Do you have any spiritual questions which need clarification? Please feel free to write to us at [email protected] mentioning your name and country. Thank you for your time.

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