Maya and Karma – Two Endless Sisters

The Indian mind, if someone can make such a blanket statement, is certainly a fascinating thing. While Indians do not possess the other-worldliness that one likes to ascribe to them, they do possess an immense strength of spirit and an incredible flexibility when it comes to dealing with personal problems. Amusingly described as a fail-safe mechanism, Hinduism has one aspect that it shares with Buddhism and that proves immensely practical.

The concept of maya, which is the fundamental unreality and illusion of the world.

This concept does not come to bear in the way one would expect it – Indians do not consider the world in front of them, filled with all the dirt and filth and the nose-tingling and stomach churning mixture of stenches and the shocking poverty to be fundamentally unreal. They simply do not notice it because their focus is internal and completely self-absorbed. It has a completely different application in Zen and Buddhist-influenced thought, but this is material for another time.

I think we all know the state of running around completely preoccupied with something, a state of absolute exclusion of the outside world – it’s a state that some mistake with meditation or transcendence, but it is instead single-mindedness. Whatever happens outside, it is discarded because we hold a burning image in our mind. In conversations with Indians one will often find that it is almost completely impossible to interest them for anything that is outside of their immediate sphere of necessity. They are completely oblivious to anything that does not immediately concern them – distraction could mean missing an opportunity and could mean a threat to survival. To be fair, to have a chance in the churning day to day reality of India, absolute focus is a necessity. Simply to cross the road without dying requires a certain amount of focus and daring. Apparently that feeling is still deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche, even if it sometimes comes across as utter callousness in those whose survival is already secured enough to open themselves up a little bit.

So, the prevailing sense of India is not absence of the self, but complete focus on the self.

How can these two things be mistaken for each other?

Or do the selfless doctrines of Mahavira and Buddha just stand out so much more in that context to be considered all-pervasive? This is where the concept of maya comes in.

Maya is eminently useful in situations of failure. Something that would seem a soul-crushing defeat in other spiritual circumstances is simply shrugged off and the fundamental unreality of the world is evoked as suffrage. This creates an immense reservoir of strength and spirit and makes it possible for people to live in difficult or even dreadful circumstances without giving in to despair. It is the universal panacea of Buddhism and is equally valid in Hinduism.

The other concepts of Hindu faith that are applied in day-to-day life are karma and the accountability of the gods and the possibility of their personal intervention. Just like maya, karma has the potential for healing. No matter how badly one fails in one’s endeavours, the wheel of karma is unpredictable and fortune might come, unpremeditated, at any moment. If not in this life, then in the next or the one after that.

Maya comes to bear in moments of utter despair – your whole life might be in shambles and all your plans may have failed or were broken up. Don’t worry. It’s all unreal, a painted veil drawn and spun by the senses as they dance. Pick yourself up, move on. There’s still life in you.

That helps to explain the psychological resilience of people who have little to no possessions and little to no chance of succeeding in the material world and occasionally manage to succeed against those monumental odds.

Religion, in its original sense, is there to take people’s fear of death and the unknown.

For us, Westerners, this is hard to understand because Christianity works with heavy assumptions of power and guilt and is often little more than empty pomp. Hinduism and Buddhism both offer flexible and useful answers that allow a person to accept them without signing their souls away, so to speak. There is no personal contract or covenant with god as it exists in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There is no way to displease the crores upon crores of gods and if they mete out punishment it is because they follow a cosmic law not because they want to avenge personal displeasure. Guilt is not woven into the fabric of life.

Hinduism, however, offers a different concept of communality and social help. For a staunch Hindu one’s immediate and ultimate goal is always to save oneself. Another’s fate is not their concern. Various religious movements stress the ultimate acceptance of everyone, others have a strict concept of dharma or social duty, some are militant and fundamentalist, bristling with fury against everything that is not Bharat, not Hindu, not India.

It may come as no surprise that in a country where almost half the population lives in poverty many charitable organizations have sprung up. Some operate out of greed for influence or power (not unlike messianic institutions in Europe or America), but in almost all the cases the services provided far outweigh the hidden or overt intentions. If a party like the BJP, the largest right wing party, organizes meals out of political calculations, they will still have fed people for a day. This is an ill-suited point for any ideological lever.

Charity is certainly not a completely unknown concept in India, but as in any society the people who would willingly give up material rewards in order to help are few. And often, if they do, they expect spiritual rewards in turn. Christian missionaries who help with a sense of intellectual and social condescension or Buddhists who assume that the repetition of a ritual will raise their spiritual account balance. But this is another blanket statement – the history of Christian missionaries is, no doubt, as colorful and diverse as any history where, sadly, a few rotten ones stand out and for people who have no way of increasing their money, increasing spiritual currency gives them at least a sense of self-worth.

Those concepts, maya and karma aren’t considered to be particularly spiritual. They would be comparable to what we call conscience – it’s a religious concept that has found hold in day to day life in Christian areas of the world and is so much part of our lives that most would probably object to calling it a religious concept. Perhaps we are just as pragmatic when it comes to ordering day-to-day society, only we usually call the decisive factor our reason and common sense, which are results of an intellectual revolution almost religious in scope.

It’s common to assume that Asia or Africa are backward because they have never had an Age of Reason, no great revolution of thought that overthrew old structures and paved the way for industrialism and free economy. But perhaps their age of reason has come and gone long ago. Perhaps their age of reason never came because we enlightened Europeans stomped on it and cut it down with swords and shot it with Enfield rifles, so we could keep calling ourselves enlightened or industrious or advanced.

I do not believe that either East or West holds an advantage as far as the sheer volume of philosophy is concerned or that, viewed over a span of several centuries, the armies of one side have proven to be indisputably stronger. Different geological circumstances have created different social structures. Different social structures have created different psychological necessities. It is ridiculous to debate about something that boils down to the question if living near a river or near a mountain is better. Eastern thought is more flexible while Western thought has found strength in rigidity and linear progression. Those are well known commonplaces.

The challenge is – as always – to be open enough to begin to understand. Maya – illusion – and karma – consequence. The two sisters are a good enough place to begin this attempt to understand.

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