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.

Socioeconomics and Solidarity Economy


After writing an earlier and rather angry article about the way poverty is perceived in the West, I’d like to look at some of the actual remedies that are being used in India…this is more about concepts that about examples. Anyone who is interested in knowing more can have a look at Wolfgang Bergthalers (and formerly Stefan Meys) Website which deals with startups in India as well as a broad analysis of Indian versus Austrian mentalities and ways of making business.

Solidarity Economy is a concept that anyone on this world should have a look at. We can no longer work entirely growth-oriented and entirely profit-oriented. Sustainability is an overused and eroded word today, but I think its original meaning conveyed something like creating a system which is capable of taking care of itself. A system which is flexible and which can be adapted to situations because situations do neither conform to a system nor are they solved by trying to make them conform to a system.

Usually the distribution of a product begins like this: you have to create the need for it. Manufacture it. Out of thin air (and hot air). Now that in itself is a deeply perverse thing in a global society with so many needs. We simply create more needs, distracting needs, unnecessary and ultimately harmful needs instead of focusing on the basic necessities and attempting to fulfill them.

We have to create structures that do not create new markets, but allow those markets to adapt to circumstances. We have to understand people not in order to manipulate them more efficiently, but to actually fulfill their needs. For this you have to understand a few things:

You can run a business that has a primarily social objective.

You can run a business that balances social, economic and environmental responsibilities.

You can offer products for people who have barely any disposable income – those products, however, need to be tailor-made to fulfill those people’s needs.

Those are all generalities. Let’s take the story of SELCO, the Solar Electric Light Company of India. SELCO provides rural communities with easily affordable solar panels. Their main focus is not on a nicely designed, state of the art product that can be sold for the best possible price (the best possible price meaning the maximum possible profit for the vendor). It is on integrating their product with the part of society that it is made for. It is on listening to the needs and possibilities of people and to make their life easier.

Disposable income equals trash money, money spent on valueless, glossy products. We buy because we have a low self-esteem and we are encouraged to buy to increase our status and self-esteem or to escape from our self-imposed and limiting self-image.

There are similar trends in India, among the middle-class, and of course nobody is completely free from spending their money on impulses – alcohol, sweets, cigarettes, magazines etc. But India has another market – low income families, rural communities, people living very near the poverty line and in many cases below it. How much money is necessary to live a humane and satisfying life is a hard question to answer. Is it enough to have a roof above your head, three meals a day and a bed to sleep in? Or do we need to choose from seven different kinds of insulations, the cuisines of seven continents and seven silken pillows for our weary heads? Low income is an arbitrary and temporal value, but for our purposes it is enough to say that those are people without savings who live from their daily work.

This is important because many Indians have no concept of saving money. What is there needs to be spent, today if not tomorrow. It is easier to calculate with short-term budgets – a woman-shopkeeper investing in solar panels could not afford to repay 300 rupees a month but she decided she could manage with a repayment of 10 rupees a day. She calculates in daily expenses and was paying 15 rupees a day for gasoline cans. 300 rupees were never available in one big pile, but 15 rupees were. In this way she managed to afford something which was – or so reason would argue – way above her price class without disappearing in a black hole of debts.

Debts have become currency in our economy and are – literally – a form of ownership. People barter debts, speculate on debts, find ways to increase debts in order to increase their value to them. We experience the feeling of being owned by someone if we owe them something. The control, however, should not be exclusively with the person giving the money but should be shared with the person receiving the money. A bank or a money lender should also be aware of his own responsibility in not giving out credits he knows are impossible to repay. There is a social responsibility that comes before any responsibility to business and this social responsibility creates – ideally – a socially responsible economy.

Poverty and Pressure – a brief look at an Indian woe

When I talk about travels in India I am often being asked how I deal with the poverty in the country (and I do feel tempted to quote Sir Mark Tully and say quite bluntly “I don’t have do, but they do”, because to assume that poverty is the problem or nuisance of the onlooker is, frankly, ridiculous and callous) – this is an attempt to give an answer, unsatisfying as it may be. This focuses on a segment of society that is ignored in the debate about India’s newfound prosperity – which is, however, just as true and consequential as this.

One undeniable aspect of India is the abject poverty that is on display. People sleep in tiny, makeshift huts on the street, cab drivers often have no roof over their heads and sleep in their cars, scores of beggars, little girls with ragged hair and women whose bones seem to rattle underneath their bright saris, men whose limbs were broken and twisted at birth to force them to make their living from the pity of others, stretch out their hands, pluck at shirts, wail and demand. The challenge is not to deal with this poverty as if it were some obstacle that the individual has to overcome by hardening oneself and losing all sense of empathy, but to see it and to realize that a majority of people live in poverty and under an immense pressure, if not to get food for the day then to pay back loans or to fulfill their perceived role in society. Pressure, not poverty, is the defining aspect of Indian day-to-day society. One can face that fact in several ways, the most common of which is a brief feeling of guilt and a rationalization that someone is to blame (caste system, government, etc.). Another way is to reflect for a second and then come to the conclusion that we (the privileged Europeans) are well off after all and do our petty problems really mean as much as we believe they do? Both ways are grossly superficial and are little more than looking away. We are afraid of tarnishing ourselves by looking at misery for too long. We are used to have everything pass us by, nothing sticks and if it does no thorn is too deep not to be loosened by lengthy complaining.

The fact is there is no one to blame, no one to complain to. One can analyze the situation and come to the conclusion that corruption is to blame or that there really shouldn’t be any social differences, but as soon as one looks at individual situations everything becomes muddled and human. The beggar girl has lost her family and fell in with people who treat her as nothing but a way to make money, but she is resigned to it and believes that this is the way life works because it is a way for her to retain dignity; the man with the broken limbs was the seventh kid of a piss-poor family and they thought to break his limbs would mean a safer future for him than to work fields that bear too little for four people; the cab driver who overcharges you has a family to feed, debt on his car and no hope to ever escape from his creditors. Almost everyone around you is under enormous pressure.

Those are aspects of existence that are very hard to look at for longer, no doubt, but this is what one has to do if one wants to understand properly. A poor man and a poor woman are nothing to be scared of. Refusing to accept them or to look at them directly is a terrible thing. Neither my guilt nor my sympathy do them any good.

To accept that also means to look at yourself in a different way. Most of the things you think you can’t live without are luxuries. You can live without every single one of them. That is not meant to be a wisdom, it’s simply a fact. As money becomes increasingly unbalanced in this world one may want to reconsider values – the printed paper isn’t the only thing that makes a life worth living, especially not for those who have enough to feed themselves and keep the roof over their heads without holes.

Where Westerners react with guilt or fear, well-off Indians, especially people who know the comforts of the West, react with indignation and sarcasm. Emotions are not hedged, like we Westerners prefer to do. Rigid structures make social maneuvers more easily calculable. This is without doubt a world that makes you harder, harsher and less sentimental. After spending time in India and experiencing poverty and instances of social cruelty first hand, I cannot be sentimental about it. It often strikes me, like a blow or a dagger, because it is real and impossible to ignore. But I hope that instead of sentimental it has made me more human.

When I travel the country in search of images to photograph and stories to tell, I pick out those that are uplifting and insightful, but there are just as many stories that are cruel and hopeless. It’s a challenge to find a mental balance between those two sides of nature and humanity. But ultimately one must resign oneself to this. It does good, in the words of the Dhammapada, to strive to do good and to avoid evil. But no person can avoid suffering, and sometimes all we can do is to keep our own peace while we’re suffering or witnessing others in pain. For someone growing up in a social system protected by egoistic complaints, bureaucratic immovability and an underlying and slow socialist materialism the Buddhist words may seem either seductive or callous, but faced with daily physical and spiritual suffering, they become a way of life rather than ultimately empty words.

There are many things I could suggest to improve the situation of poverty, especially caused by starvation and the lack of resources, and there are many people who work hard to improve the situation. There is no question that – in theory – it is possible to feed and clothe every single human being on this planet (and it is not just possible, but deeply necessary)…the practice is another matter and as long as we remain short-sighted and self-centered in our goals nothing will change.