Karmic Processes and Arjuna's Predicament

The heart of the prudent getteth knowledge; and the ear of the wise seeketh knowledge.

Proverbs, XVIII, 15

Out of the furnace of man's life and its black smoke, winged flames arise, flames purified, that soaring onward, 'neath the Karmic eye, weave in the end the fabric glorified of the three vestures of the Path.

The Voice of the Silence

Karma is one of several Sanskrit terms that are practically untranslatable in English. It means action in one aspect but is much more than action. It is movement seen as effect, but it is also the cause which produced that effect. So, wherever there is motion, there the work of Karma is seen—intelligent yet inscrutable, as extensive as time, as vast as space. Karma is in the gyration of atoms and in the throb of all life. It is in the so-called inert stone as it is in the interstellar spaces and the stars. It is in impalpable things like emotions and dreams. It is in thoughts and feelings and in the hearts of men. In the thrill of doubt is action. The calm contemplation of the tranquil mind is also action. Karma is seen working in all these because each can be seen as an effect and also as a cause that will in time produce its own effects. The tree is the effect that has the seed as its cause, the gardener being merely the helping agent. The new-born baby is the effect which has the Soul as its cause, the parents being merely the helping agents. Both these causes—the seed in the one case, the Soul in the other—are themselves effects from previous causes. Each mundane cause is, therefore, always an effect from a preceding cause. This chain of cause-effect-cause is endless and in kingdoms below the human moves according to fixed laws and schedules of time. In the human kingdom, it takes count of moral values and ethical perceptions and can be known in all its aspects only by him who rises above the planes on which Karma operates.

The effect side of Karma is always past recall. The child cannot rebecome the embryo nor can the tree become again the seed. Action that has thus produced its fruits represents destiny—something that has become fixed and on which, therefore, we may neither waste our tears nor expend our energies to effect a change. But these very effects, once they are manifest, become in turn causes, and it is in this causal aspect that they can be moulded and guided to produce desired results. "As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined" is a truism on all planes of being and action. The bending of any cause towards a predetermined effect is possible only through the power of the human will. Good and noble causes have found their culmination in sordid effects through the agency of the perverted human will, just as poor and even bad causes have been transmuted to good ends through the will of a wise and devoted person. Discipleship consists in the effort to take up any effect, however bad or irksome, and make it the basis for such action as would give it a turn towards spirituality. Were this not possible, the sinner would always remain a sinner and the profligate a profligate.

Do any books exist that teach us this divine art? Can the ordinary person have a guide by which he can raise the tone of his actions from the mundane to the sublime? All devotional books help: the Dhammapada as the Sermon on the Mount, The Voice of the Silence as the Sufi treatises. Yet, perhaps nowhere else has the knowledge been given in such a precise manner as in the Bhagavad-Gita. In this poem of eighteen chapters are enshrined the great instructions which are to serve humanity during the swift and turbulent cycle of the Kaliyuga. In it is depicted action in all its aspects. The action behind which the Supreme is hidden is there; so also is the action of the great Guru who from age to age strikes the keynote of the great Knowledge. Here is action shown in all its vast ramifications from that of the Supreme Brahma to that of the man Arjuna who from the depths of despondent action rises to heights of faith and devotion and knowledge. But ere we study the Gita, it were well to understand that it does not view Karma from the exclusive viewpoints of Sankhya or Bhakti or Gnyan, but blends them all so that any action on any plane is seen as a moment in the life of the ALL.

The first impact of Wisdom on the mundane life produces no peace, brings no solace. The light of the Great Knowledge is too searching to miss the cobwebs of life. The result is a malaise that is difficult to describe. It is a queer feeling of belonging nowhere. The earth-earthy is about to be fought, but the spiritual has yet to be gained. Placed in the middle of these opposing forces, the disciple feels lost and helpless. His greatest trial comes when Wisdom destroys all previous norms with an iconoclastic hand, brushes aside the results of correct but cold reasoning and shows that the pity that is misplaced is the pity that misguides. Human knowledge is shown to be no knowledge; human values, no values. In such a condition where the mind loses all evaluation of action, a great and stupefying despair envelops the person and makes him bereft of all action. This is the Vishad Yoga of the first chapter of the Gita; but it still is "Yoga." Why is it that even when Arjuna throws away his bow and arrows his despair is viewed and characterized thus? We, too, despair when our efforts are crowded out by the misdeeds of an inchoate world. We, too, abandon fights because cold reason casts the shadow of doubt over us and makes us wonder whether the results would be worth the pain and the anguish of a total war. But nobody has characterized our anguish as Vishad Yoga. Nobody, ourselves included, has seen more to it than a defeat or at best a retreat to saner positions.

To understand the situation better, let us recapitulate briefly Arjuna's reasoning and its validity, for quite a few valuable lessons are wrapped up in the arguments that press upon him to give up the fight. When Arjuna from his point of vantage surveys the armies, he finds (what he must surely have known before) that war means the slaughter of tutors, kindred and friends. He sees evil omens and wonders what joy would be left to him after the killing of his kinsmen. How could he be happy after having murdered his own race? He envisages that this sinful slaughter would make vice and impiety overwhelm his race. He sees that this war can only lead to a confusion of castes and a fall from virtue in both the family and the tribe. His reasoning ends in the anguished cry: "Woe is me! What a great crime are we prepared to commit!" There is no faulty logic in Arjuna's reasoning. After the great war, vice and impiety did penetrate deep into the family and the tribe, the castes did become confounded, and the Brahmin no longer remained the Brahmin of the Eighteenth Discourse nor the Kshatriya a Kshatriya. Where, then, lay the error which it required seventeen chapters to rectify?

The First Chapter shows by inference how reason under certain limitations hinders the perception and how with the taint of emotions on it this same reason actually justifies that which the intuitive and spiritual mind must ultimately reject. This Chapter further shows that nobility of sentiments, pity for the deluded, the fear of committing sin, the love for one's kith and kin, all become obstacles if they lead the disciple away from the spiritual path. To the worldly person, such a teaching might seem objectionable. To him, the human reasoning is the highest human power. To say that there are limits beyond which earthly reasoning dare not trespass is to utter sheer nonsense. To tell the ordinary God-fearing person that the emotions of pity and love which Arjuna showed in the First Chapter are misguided, is to commit blasphemy. Many an enthusiast has skimmed over this First Chapter, rejecting its great lesson yet fondly hoping that he would nevertheless get his knowledge from the Chapters that follow. Few there be who are willing to lay reasoning aside and to trust their intuition to accept the lessons of this great Vishad Yoga. Disregard of this Chapter keeps dormant the intuitive faculties without which the study of the Gita becomes barren of results.

Since Arjuna is the prototype of all disciples, his dilemma and his dejection require study. The psychology of the bewildered disciple is of the same pattern today as it was during the Mahabharata period. The previous chapters of the Epic show that Arjuna had acquired great prowess in war. Further, he was sufficiently advanced in spiritual knowledge as is seen from the fact that he chose Krishna in preference to a vast army. It was reason that made Arjuna decide that war was inevitable. Human reason had pondered that question. Human reason had answered that question. Now, when the flying of arrows has already commenced, Arjuna suddenly desires to take stock of his position, not as a Pandava fighting the Kauravas, but as a neutral.

In this process he finds that the reasons that had led him as a Pandava to declare war are not cogent enough and do not satisfy him as a man who tries to see the situation from a non-partisan angle. Earlier, Duryodhana had surveyed the two armies as a Kuru and a partisan. He had assessed the individual merits of the chief warriors and the strength of the opposing armies. Arjuna breaks away from this traditional approach because the genius of Krishna has been filtering through. He assesses not the fighting strength, nor the chances of success. He never feared defeat and does not consider it. He reviews both the opposing forces and respects them both. He concedes justice to be on his side, but he refuses to fight injustice and vice because of pity for the unjust and the vicious.

In such a state of mind, his past experience of previous wars can be of no avail. At no time had he taken up the position that he chose to take at Kurukshetra, which is also Dharmakshetra, the field of duty. The result is a confusion and a turbulence that shakes him up. To him it is no longer the Pandus against the Kurus. It is no longer the glorious fight for justice and the righting of long-remembered wrongs. It is now only Arjuna and his dread of wrong actions—a pitiful Arjuna, lone and forlorn, with all else forming a mere background of thought. It is this background that suddenly shifts and moves and swirls round him. It enters him. And the forces of love, pity, horror and self-righteousness, cunningly brought together, make him blind to all else but the unassailable earthly logic, the seemingly foolproof reasoning. All his previous steps seem wrong and the present appears as one vast evil omen. He loses the memory of all that made him noble; and, worse still, he loses faith in himself. He is doubtful whether any available help can resolve the great tangle. He casts away his bow and arrows and sinks down in the chariot, isolated within the almost impenetrable capsule of his sorrow.

All true scriptures are written in a cipher which is capable of seven interpretations, each yielding a distinct and separate instruction on as many planes of action. The Gita, therefore, is capable of interpretation in seven distinct manners. One such interpretation makes of Arjuna the aspiring Soul of man. Thus, each reader is invited to consider himself an Arjuna under the guidance of his Higher Self—Krishna. Similarly, Bhishma, Drona, Bhima, Duryodhana and the other generals represent one or another of the forces that now attract and now repel the individual as he shifts his consciousness to the earthy or the spiritual.

The despondency depicted in the First Chapter arises because we have vowed to fight the unjust Kaurava forces within us. This resolve is generally taken in the first enthusiastic moments that follow upon the desire to ally oneself with the forces existing in the Light side of Nature. However, even as we take up our stations for the fight, we find that we have assumed the duty of killing past reanimation that which we have for long nurtured and which now we have theoretically at least abjured as opposed to our way of life. This position sets up a tremendous tension within and around the individual. The body rebels at the new selection of foods; the dreams torture us by images of past enjoyments that still have left a strong taste in our sensual nature; the mind resents any curbs by way of discipline or penance and seeks to assert its own freedom; the reasoning nature marshals all its logic to show that intuition is but a mirage and a refuge of misguided scholars.

So much for the inner battle-front. On the outer field of Dharmakshetra (the field of duty) difficulties suddenly increase a thousandfold. The student becomes a target of ridicule for erstwhile friends. Relatives turn their backs upon him, characterizing him as an unhealthy influence for their children. Mockery and open hostility, ostracism and contempt, follow him with maddening pertinacity. The self-pity of Arjuna—trivial as it seems when read as words upon a page—assumes alarming proportions in actual life.

Even as we read the Gita in this fashion, which brings it closer to life, we see a little more clearly the action of Karma as it moves the disciple into despondency and also out of it as soon as the lesson of the initial shock is learnt. In fact, if we look a little deeply and ponder our own life, we shall find how Krishna, the Higher Self within us, has led our chariot in the midst of strange circumstances and stranger company. What Karma has brought us to those circumstances and that company? What good points are wrapped up in the package of troubles that Karma brings us? These are questions that each individual has to accustom himself to ask at every turn. Until they are answered at least in broad outline, we do not, or rather cannot, move to the instructions of the Second Chapter.

Century after century, year after year, all is changing; everything is progressing in this world; one thing only changeth not—human nature. Man accumulates knowledge, invents religions and philosophies, but himself remains still the same. In this ceaseless chase after wealth and honours and the will-o'-the-wisps of novelty, enjoyment and ambition, he is ever moved by one chief motor—vain selfishness....Whereon is spent the enormous wealthy accumulated through private enterprise by the more enlightened through the ruin of the less intelligent? Is it to relieve human suffering in every form, that riches are so greedily pursued? Not at all. For now, just as 1,900 year ago, while the beggar Lazarus is glad to feed on the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table, no means are neglected by Dives to hedge himself off from the poor. The minority that gives and takes care that its left hand remains ignorant of what its right hand bestows, is quite insignificant when compared with the enormous majority who are lavish in their charity—only because they are eager to see their names heralded by the press to the world.

—H. P. Blavatsky

to return to the table of contents