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.

Image Selection IX – Monks

Palden is a young monk from Reckong Peo. He likes hip-hop music and bad American horror films and has one of the biggest hearts of any men.

I do not know his name, but I suppose he doesn’t like attention too much. Taken in MacLeod Ganj.

Their most serious business – rituals. A mixture of music, song and trance to open realms to the divine.

His name translates as Benevolent Lion. His eyes show why.

Please don’t use without authorization. The images are all copyrighted by Sebastian Buchner.

Still Shiva dances…

The first part is the German version of the article – please scroll down for an English translation.

Er beschmiert seinen Körper mit Asche, lässt seine Haare zu Knoten verfilzen und sein Ziel ist tapas, Hitze, geistige Kraft mit der er die Realität formen kann. Er meditiert vor Flammen, in eisigen Flüssen und auf Gräbern. Die Gesellschaft kann ihm gestohlen bleiben. Er findet seine Freunde in den Geistern und Göttern, die zahlreich über diese Erde ziehen.

Der Sadhu. Der Weise in der safranfarbenen Robe, der heilige Bettler. Einer der faszinierenden Archetypen Indiens.

Sadhus sind verehrt, gefürchtet. Sadhus können politische Macht haben, im Fernsehen gleich den amerikanischen Televangelisten auftreten, oder in kleinen Schrebergartenhütten in Rishikesh wohnen (angenommen ein Schrebergarten hätte als Dekorationen Chillums – Haschpfeifen – und   menschliche Schädel anstelle von Gartenzwergen). Sadhus können angsteinflößend sein, primitiv, schrullig. Sadhus können Betrüger sein – Kriminelle, die sich die Roben überwerfen, weil sie hoffen der Verfolgung so zu entgehen. Sadhus können Wildhüter sein, Seelsorger, Beamte, Wilde.

Viele Inder entscheiden sich, am Ende ihres Lebens die sozialen Zwänge hinter sich zu lassen und allem an Geld und Besitz zu entsagen um sich auf den Tod vorzubereiten; eine Art von Hardcore Pensionierung – auch diese Menschen sind Sadhus, heilige Pilger auf dem Weg ins Jenseits.

Manche entscheiden sich aus den unterschiedlichsten Gründen, schon sehr jung Sadhu zu werden. Vielleicht weil sie eine innere Stimme leitet, vielleicht weil sie von ihren eigenen Eltern verstoßen und in einer Sadhugemeinschaft aufgewachsen sind. Viele von ihnen stellen diesen Archetypen dar – der Mensch, der seine äußere Hülle vernachlässigt um das innere Feuer zu pflegen.

Diese klassischen Sadhus sind eine extreme Form von Shaiviten, Anhänger von Shiva, dem Vollender des vedischen Triumvirates. Ihr Äußeres ist ihrem Gott nachempfunden. Zu vielen Festen begegnet man blau angemalten Figuren, die mit Dreizack und intensivem Blick durch die Menge schreiten. Auch diese Männer spielen die Rolle von Shiva.

Shiva ist ein exzessiver, arroganter und emotionaler Gott. Seine Macht steigt ihm oft zu Kopfe und entlädt sich dann in einem furchtbaren Tanz aus Zorn – einem Vorboten des Nataraj, dem Tanz, der laut Legende die Welt zerstören wird. Wenn ein Inder, der die Göttergeschichten kennt und schätzt, von mächtigen Menschen hört, die Selbstkontrolle verlieren und sich in Destruktivität verlieren, weiß er dass da Shiva am Werk ist. Die Götter funktioneren als das, was wir in der westlichen, rationalen Mentalität als Psychologie verstehen.

So dürfen sich Shaiviten auch oft schamlos im Zorn ergehen. Natürlich ist es nicht gern gesehen, wenn man sich im Zorn entlädt und materielle und emotionale Zerstörung anrichtet, aber man ist sich bewusst, dass in der Zerstörung der Kern für den Neuaufbau und Neubeginn steckt. Also ist so etwas auch auf menschlicher Ebene gesehen kein Grund zur Verzweiflung – es ist einfach Shivas Tanz.

Shaivismus ist weit verbreitet in Indien und hat wie viele Religionen mystische und praktische Ausformungen. Zu den mystischen zählen die Verkörperung der Gottheit durch Gläubige und die Akzeptanz der Welt und Gottheit als etwas Ungreifbares. Die praktischen Ausformungen sind unter anderem Feuerrituale und der Shiva Lingam, der penisförmige Altar, der sicher jedem Indienbesucher schon unter die Augen gekommen ist. Er steht für Liebe und auch sexuelle Kraft als die unsichtbaren  Formen, die die Welt zusammenhalten.

Der shaivitische Sadhu stellt eine körpergewordene Erinnerung an das Göttliche dar. Sein Ziel ist in vielen Fällen die Wahrnehmung der Welt, ohne Grenzen. In manchen Fällen – die shaivitischen Schulen haben sich in den Jahrhunderten ihrer Existenz oft gespalten und umgeformt, besonders nach der Entstehung und Verbreitung des Buddhismus – hat er ein weltliches Ziel, in anderen ist sein Ziel rein göttlich. Manchmal ist er ein alter Mann, schwach vor seiner eigenen Sterblichkeit, manchmal ein Gott.

Aus einer westlichen Perspektive ist man vielleicht geneigt, das als Schwachsinn abzutun. Allerdings haben auch die Vernunft und der Intellekt ihre Grenzen und man sei geraten, solche Menschen als Erinnerungen anzusehen, dass das Leben über die Grenzen des menschlichen Sozialgefüges hinausgeht und dass die Verpflichtungen, denen wir Tag für Tag gegenüberstehen ultimativ doch nur ein winziger Teil des Ganzen sind.

His body smeared with ash, his hair knotted and dirty – his aim is tapas, divine heat and power of the mind, strong enough to shape reality. He is meditating between fires and in the icy currents of mountain streams. Society means nothing to him. His friends are the spirits and the gods that roam this earth in their vast numbers.

The Sadhu. The wise man in the saffron robe. The holy beggar. One of the most fascinating archetypes of India.

Sadhus are as venerated as they are feared. Sadhus can be politically powerful. They can appear – like American televangelists – on their own TV channels. They can live in small summer cottages in Rishikesh like content pensioners with a penchant for the occult. They can be fearsome, primitive, slightly loony. They can be fakes – criminals who don the robes to escape from custody.  Sadhus can be rangers, pastors, clerks or wild men.

Towards the end of their lives many Indians decide to shrug off the demands and duties of social life, to forsake all their wealth and their possessions in order to prepare for the end of their lives. A kind of hardcore retirement. These people, too, are sadhus; holy men on a pilgrimage to the beyond.

Some decide, for a variety of reasons, to begin this path when they are very young. Perhaps they are guided by an inner voice or perhaps their own parents threw them out and they found solace with a group of sadhus. Many of them invoke this archetype – the human who neglects his outward appearance in order to feed the inner fire.

Those classical sadhus, half-naked, dirty, are an extreme Form of what is called Shaivites. They are followers of Shiva, the divine terminator of the vedic triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Their outward appearance is an impersonation or transformation of their god. One can meet them at many festivals, striding through the crowd, their bodies painted blue, carrying a trident and a piercing gaze. Those men, too, impersonate Shiva.

Shiva is an excessive, arrogant and emotional god. Quite often he finds himself incapable of controlling his strength and unloads in a terrible dance of anger and wrath – a precursor of the Nataraj, the dance that, legend tells, will destroy the world.

Whenever an Indian who values the old stories hears tales of powerful people losing their temper and becoming destructive, he knows that Shiva had a hand in this. The tales serve as something that rational Western thought would call psychology.

Shaivites often are allowed to indulge in their wrath without shame. Of course it is not a pleasant thing to witness another explode in anger and wreak material and emotional havoc, but one is aware that each act of destruction sows a seed of rebuilding and means a new start. As such those acts are accepted, quite plainly, as the dance of Shiva.

Shaivism is widespread in today’s India and like many religious movements it has a mystical and a practical aspect to it. The mystical aspect incorporates the fact that a believer can become the god and the acceptance that both the world and the god are impersonal. Practical aspects include old fire rites and the shiva lingam, the penis-shaped altar. It symbolizes love and also sexual strength as the invisible forms that hold the world together.

The shaivite sadhu is a corporeal memory of the divine, the god momentarily made flesh. In many cases his goal is the perceive the limitlessness of existence. In some cases – shaivite schools have been subject to many changes and schisms, especially after the rise of Buddhism – he has a worldly aim, in other cases his aim in life is completely divine. Sometimes he is an old man, frail before his own mortality, in others he is a god.

From a western perspective one may be tempted to call it all nonsense. But like everything else reason and the intellect have their limits and it is advisable to consider such people as reminders that life goes far beyond the limits of the human social weave and that all the duties that we face on a day to day basis are only a tiny fragment of everything that life can be.