Humans, Karma, and Dharma

03/17/2016

According to Vedanta, the human life form is one of the most prestigious to attain; because it is empowered with both mana (mind) and buddhi (intellect) and has free will (sankalpa, which means determination or intention), it is considered by the scriptures to be the “stairway to heaven or hell.”  In the Ramcharitmanasa, the human form is likened to a jewel, which should not be wasted for animalistic purposes.  That is, because we have been granted the human form, we should take advantage of the tools that empower us, rather than living like an animal could, depending primarily on sensual pleasures.

How does one ascend to the human form?  To understand this, one must understand that there are many dimensions of reincarnation.  The cycle of reincarnation is often called samsara (which is not an exclusively Buddhist term), represented by a wheel–but the idea of a cycle signifies repetitive nature, not the idea the same life occurs again and again.  With this logic, samsara could be considered not a wheel, but instead a line of lives, a line that extends with each additional life we experience.  But the vast majority of the time, these lives aren’t lined up horizontally straight.  Lives are “higher” or”lower” than others, depending on the capacities of the form.  (Note that this does not mean that life forms are unequal to each other: all life is based on the same atman and ideologically equal.  However, this does not mean that a plant, ant, lion, and human, which all have different sthitis, or conditions, should be treated in the exact same way.)

What determines whether our next life form will be?  We “ascend” to a higher life form or “descend” to a lower life form based on our karma, or our action, in this life.  Karma means action–not only physical action, but also speech and thought.  Most non-Hindus are familiar with the concept of the law of karma: it states that our actions cause proportional bondage according to their quality.  Or in other words, all of our actions come back to us as results.  When we perform “good” action, “good” things happen to us, and when we perform “bad” action, “bad” things happen to us.  In terms of bondage, people who accumulate good karma are “rewarded” by ascent to a higher life form, and people who accumulate bad karma are “punished” by descent to a lower life form.  This raises a lot of questions:  What determines whether action is good or bad?  What is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing?  And perhaps most importantly, why do good things happen to people who do bad things, and why do bad things happen to people who do good things?

We will answer all of questions.  Whether action binds upwards or downwards is dependent on another tenet of Hinduism: dharma.  Dharma is the righteous course of nature, like Tao in Taoism.  Although it is often translated as “duty,” it is not limited to this: it is the dharma of sugar to be sweet, and the dharma of cow to give milk.  These are not “duties,” but instead what naturally occurs when the world is in order.  Humans each have a unique prescribed dharma–this dharma is not rigid throughout life, nor is it determined by one’s family of birth.  What causes humans to contravene this dharma are the gunas (modes of nature) rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance), associated with the six enemies of the self (Arishadvargas), which are based in ego (ahamkara) and desire (kama).  Without attachment in the way, a human will perform dharmic (“good”) action or punya, and with attachment, a human will perform adharmic (“bad”) action or papa.

What kind of results arise from performing punya or papa?  These results are not necessarily “reward” or “punishment”; they are just inevitable parts of nature.  Just like pushing a wall guarantees the wall will push back on you, similarly, performing punya guarantees positive bondage.  But why do seemingly bad things, or negative results, still happen to people who perform punya?  For one, whatever happens in the current life could be a result of karma performed in previous lives, of which we are unaware.  But also, it is hard to define what is good or bad for us, because we really don’t know the consequences something will have in the long run.  A medical condition that restricts your motion may bring opportunities you never would have imagined, or a gift you receive now may end up causing difficult tensions in your family.  But with the law of karma, we can rest assured that we will always get what we deserve, and that no good deed will go unaddressed.

We know that an individual who performs more punya, or dharmic action, is more likely to ascend to the human form.  Does this mean that the increase in human population is due to an increase in dharma in society?  What we can be sure about is that the growth in human population is a result of advances in sanitation and medicine, which have caused the death rate to decrease and the life expectancy to increase.  But Vedanta says that we are in Kali Yuga, in which adharma is on the rise and dharma is declining.  The reality is that there are probably many spiritual factors in the increase of human population that we do not understand.  For example, we don’t know if other life forms with capabilities comparable to those of humans exist on other planets, or if human adharma is causing negative consequences in other forms, such as the destruction of the planet or the increase in incidence of many diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, which come at later ages.  Or even more radically, we don’t know if the Vedic time cycle is perhaps symbolic of the evolution of the self, and dharma is in fact increasing.  There are many ways to look at this question, but we don’t have one, authoritative answer.

Ann Perkins and Reincarnation

03/14/2016

Some associate reincarnation with fear.  Isn’t reincarnation scary, full of uncertainty as to whether we will lose everything we have now?  In the words of Ann Perkins, “I think the danger in believing in reincarnation is that you spend so much time trying to figure out what you’re going to be in the next lifetime that you forget to enjoy the one you’re in now.”  In my opinion, no on many levels.  First of all, the discussion attributed reincarnation to Buddhism, not Hinduism, and though reincarnation is a Buddhist tenet, why can’t we give Hinduism credit for what is originally Hindu?  Buddha was, after all, a Hindu reformer.

Second of all, the context around this quote assumed that Buddhists consider objects like pretzels, inanimate skeletons, and socket wrenches to be possible life forms, and none of these are empowered by the atman.  Third of all, I am a very devout Hindu and have spent probably less than 30 seconds throughout my life so far wondering what my next life form will be.

Fourth of all, there is no danger, no worry, with reincarnation.  Reincarnation entails infinite second chances, and besides, it’s a system of justice.  It should be reassuring, not frightening, to know that the next life form we assume will be one we deserve, because we have control over what we deserve, seeing that we have the power to manipulate our actions and character to a significant degree.  In my opinion, much more frightening than reincarnation is the idea of YOLO, which places a time limit on attaining spiritual perfection with the threat of eternal hell.

Finally, the quote assumes that the goal of life is pure enjoyment, which I find rather limiting, since it doesn’t even factor in how that enjoyment is derived.  Of course, many aspects of jagat, the world, are meant for enjoyment, like love, laughter, social relations, beauty, and diversity.  However, I believe that more often than not, humans don’t know what will be most enjoyable to them in the long run.  Chapter 18, Sloka 37 of the Bhagavad Gita tells us, “The happiness which seems like poison at first but tastes like nectar in the end, generated by the pure intellect situated in self-knowledge, is said to be sattvic (of the mode of goodness).”  This does not mean that every form of pain always resolves to pleasure–that would justify the argument that the path to the most long-term pleasure is the same as the path to the most immediate pain.  No; rather, it means that the path to real life satisfaction may not appear to be so pleasant short run, but it’s the path we should take.  You may lose a few minutes of pleasure if you don’t smoke that cigarette, but if you exercise enough excruciating restraint to overcome the habit of smoking altogether, you will live longer and be happier with your body and relationships.  You might think you will enjoy your life less if you dump your body with processed oils, salt, and sugar less often, but even though it can be hard to sympathize with your future self, you know you would rather not suffer Type 2 or heart disease in your later years for the sake of tiny doses of extra pleasure now.

Ann Perkins was a nurse and probably already understood the idea that restraint could be rewarding, yet she couldn’t articulate the values she probably already had.  But apparently, she thought believing in reincarnation was “dangerous” because of the (unfounded) prospect of losing immediate pleasure–does it not seem ludicrous and make yet-more ludicrous assumptions?  But this is the only place all Eastern culture (that label is itself objectifying) gets in a popular context.  My goal is not to be a myopic, extra-touchy liberal who would rather attack an innocuous line than address real problems.  Nor is my goal to blame comedy writers for the cultural standing of Hinduism, even if they should be more culturally aware.  I know Ann Perkins is a fictional character, and I know this line negatively affected no one.  But I don’t think it would be radical to at least learn from it.

Donald Trump and American Politics

02/29/2016

Forgive me if I’m straying out of my territory.  If you’ve found this blog, you probably weren’t looking for politics.  This post might be pretty limited but, at the same time, will hopefully provide some perspective.

Donald Trump has woken up American politics.  Super Tuesday is tomorrow, and many are starting to accept that he will probably win the Republican nomination.  To most liberals, Donald Trump comes as a shock.  As polarizing as American politics is, much of half the country labels him a sexist, racist, and xenophobe, while the other half embraces him as the only politician who “tells the truth.”

What warrants the rise of Donald Trump?

To understand this, you have to understand that this election season, everyone in America is pissed off.  Minority oppression is rampant and we’re weary that it’s still a problem.  Every state in the US has its own Flint, although people are just now hearing about this system of discrimination.  As of 2010, black men are over half as likely to be imprisoned as they are to be in college–and on average, the cost of incarceration is almost $50,000 per inmate per year.  More reasons Americans are pissed off are severe income inequality, low wages, lifelong student debt, and lack of maternity leave and other rights for women.  In addition, American voices aren’t heard in politics.  A Princeton University study found that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”  Whether or not you identify as a Bernie-supporter, you cannot deny that today, his claims that billionaires buy our politicians and our policies are very much founded.  Our political and economic system has been built to protect billionaires–for example, the government currently subsidizes private jets–and anyone who opposes this is deemed a “socialist.”

What does this have to do with Donald Trump?  Like we said, everyone is angry.  It’s all about whom we blame for our problems: Democrats blame the billionaire class and an obstructionist Republican Congress (which fashions an 11% approval rating), and Republicans blame Obama.  But both sides want change.  This warrants the rise of Bernie Sanders on the left, and Donald Trump on the right.  Americans on both sides look to each one as a panacea for all of our problems.  Both candidates are, in essence, calling for a revolution: Donald tells us he will “restore our previous greatness,” and Bernie tells us he will make the American voice heard again.

Let’s talk about Donald Trump “telling the truth.”  In this revolution, because of the passion pouring from both sides, facts no longer have any relevance.  It doesn’t matter that in 2008, before Obama entered office, we were losing almost one million jobs per month, and are now gaining almost a quarter million per month.  Nor does it matter that many economists believe Trump is a lot less successful of a businessman than he could have been had he invested more wisely.  Nope, Republicans still want to go back to the old ways, and they say Trump is the man to take us there.  It also doesn’t matter that Republicans in Congress have persistently blocked Obama’s initiatives to protect veterans, and that Donald Trump kicks poor veterans off his property.  Nope, Trump will magically improve conditions for our veterans.  The problem isn’t lack of education; many educated Republicans support Trump even though most of what he says has no basis.

Democrats aren’t immune to willful ignorance, either.  It doesn’t matter that in his last 25 years in Congress, Bernie Sanders has been the main sponsor of only three bills that became law.  It doesn’t matter that Obama was barely able to make so much social and economic progress in the last seven years because Republicans in Congress blocked him every step of the way, and that Bernie Sanders has a vision of repealing Obama’s improvements without hesitation, thinking he could easily replace them with something yet more radical.  Realism doesn’t matter anymore: Bernie, through his moving dedication alone, can fix all of our problems.  Apparently, activism is enough to translate to policy.  All in all, in this presidential race, the main asset of both Bernie and Trump is that they have articulated the frustrations that plague their followers.

Back to Donald Trump, liberals hurl attacks at him like there’s no tomorrow.  He’s an anti-immigrant, sexist, vacuous Islamophobe with no real policy plans, they proclaim.  At one of his rallies in September, he allowed a man to call Obama a non-American Muslim.  (Contrast this against John McCain, who in the 2008 elections held that Obama was a respectable man who just had differing views from him for the future of the country.)  He hurls insults at journalists and even seemed to mock a disabled one in November.  His speeches have been used by ISIS to antagonize the US and gain recruits.  Studies show that his language patterns mirror those of many demagogues in history.  He dismissed a denunciation from the Pope (although so has pretty much every Republican in Congress).  Most recently, he wavered in denouncing the Ku Klux Klan.

What do I make of this?  First of all, I’m no Trump supporter, but I appreciate that he has made politics extremely fun to follow–my parents watched the final GOP debate before Super Tuesday as if it were an Indian soap.  His main debate strategy seems to be to diss the other candidates off the stage.  Without listening to any campaign advisors, he’s managed to maintain his standing as the Republican front-runner for over three months.

But in my opinion, there’s some context, a bigger picture, to understand with Trump.  For one, he has no wealthy donors telling him what to say, whereas bungling candidate Jeb Bush was only on the stage because of the nearly $100 million spent (I mean, wasted) on his campaign.  Along these lines, I believe a President Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Ben Carson would be even more frightening than a President Donald Trump, because they make statements that are similar to those of Donald Trump, even if less blatantly, and are more serious about carrying them out.  Furthermore, because he doesn’t face the threat of losing donors, with him, what you see is what you get, whereas the other candidates, Republican or Democrat, could be much worse in office than they make themselves out to be now.  As bad as Donald Trump may seem, Cruz or Rubio as president would make every effort to reverse social progress and serve the interests of billionaires, pandering to the public to win the office.  Even though Trump has made open efforts to appeal to the Evangelical crowd, some even predict he will even change his stance on the LGBTQ community if he wins the primaries.

Donald Trump is also a businessman who has without doubt had to deal with many women, immigrants, and Muslims, and many people who met him long ago say he is decent and tactful in person and have no idea from where his attacks are coming.  Even if Trump seems like an airhead to anyone who actually listens to what he says, I think any sensible businessman should know that deporting 11 million people for $400-600 billion is not a sustainable plan.  I also highly doubt that he is a racist; I just think he is a brilliant politician.  He has already disavowed David Duke before, so why was he so hesitant to do so just a few days ago?  Maybe because over 20% of his supporters in states like South Carolina don’t even support the Emancipation Proclamation?

The Republican mainstream, as in the many moderate conservatives in this country, are equally flustered as liberals with this candidate whose poll numbers refuse to drop.  But at the same time, they’ve brought it on themselves.  Why would the common Republican be so anti-establishment this year?  Maybe because for years the establishment has employed rhetoric to make them hate our government, telling them that Democrats are taking their country away from them.  For example, they are so convinced that Democrats want to confiscate guns that they refuse to even consider measures to make them safer, and daily unnecessary guns deaths continue.  Even though Obama has fought the issues that anger the majority of Americans, he has been demonized by the Republican establishment.  For another example, Obamacare has been called by Ben Carson the worst thing in American history “since slavery,” but if you refer to it as the Affordable Care Act, all of a sudden the common Republican loves it.  As a result of all this animosity, Republicans who facilitated the rise of Trump have left the mainstream with no moderate options except John Kasich.  Many in this key group, the moderates, say that if Trump wins the nomination, they will not vote this year.  Trump is a monster that Republicans created, and it seems they will pay for it this year.

I don’t know if I did a very good job hiding it, but I identify as a liberal.  If I may be completely honest, I like Donald Trump.  That is, I like what he means for the future of America.  I believe that if he wins the Republican candidacy, we will end up with a Democratic president.  The most stirring part of this election cycle is the big question: is Donald Trump bringing about the destruction of the Republican Party?

I am still 16 and am not eligible to vote this year.  But if I may, I advise you to vote wisely.