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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Of chance, fate and karma

Of late, many things have compelled me to ponder deeply over two things – this thing we call fate or kismet or naseeb or bhagya or karma, and about gratitude and the lack of it.

Watching a brilliant little 2008 Hindi movie called Amir, which is about a young urban professional trying just to live a simple and honest but decent life like millions of others, and believing that he is the maker of his own destiny, who suddenly gets caught up in a very nasty spider’s web of a terrorist conspiracy which manipulates him in the direction of self-destruction totally against his will and utterly beyond his capacity to do anything about it, brought back the question of whether or not it is character or opportunity (luck/fate/kismet) that makes for success in life. This was incidentally the topic for an essay in the ICSE examination some years ago, and for years I have been helping pupils to write sensibly on it (in the way I described in the post titled ‘Moral Science’). I like to speak positively, encouragingly to young people, so I never tell them it’s all written beforehand, or decided by the stars or stuff like that: it would not only be saying something that I can never be sure about, nor fair, because it might depress them and sap them of the will to fight life’s battles boldly, which is so very important. But I cannot help telling them also that character does not decide everything: the most talented and determined and hard-working man can do little more than live an obscure and hard life and die bravely if opportunities do not present themselves for him to exploit. What would Sachin Tendulkar have done if he had been born in China, what would a man with innate high-level software-writing skills have done if he had been born in the middle ages, what handicaps doesn’t a talented man suffer if he is born poor in a backward country? (Ramanujan and R.K. Narayan would never have been heard of beyond their little personal circles if they had not found powerful western patrons…)

I also tell them it is a pernicious doctrine that today’s parents and teachers drill into them night and day, claiming that success is ‘guaranteed’ if only they work long and hard. That’s not only a shameless lie (all those people are old enough to know better) but it only ensures that the inevitable disappointments and frustrations later in life will make those youngsters suffer far more than they need have, because they have not been conditioned from childhood to expect frustration despite deserving many good things by virtue of their talents and labour – the Gita says do your best but don’t count on the results being the way you want them to be, and no modern parent and teacher should claim to know better.

The truth is, no matter how clever and wise we are, no matter how ‘scientific’ our predictive models might have become, there are countless things that happen in everybody’s life, both good and bad, that simply cannot be foreseen and accounted for. No ordinary man who goes out to work knows whether he’s going to be run over by a car today, no mother knows whether her daughter is going to have a happy marriage, no general knows for sure that he is going to win the battle, no film director can say with certainty that his latest oeuvre will sweep the box office, no inventor knows whether his brainchild will make him rich and famous. We can indeed only do our best, and accept what life doles out to us thereafter: this is just as true for examination candidates as for householders and leaders of nations. Of course it is important to do your best, if only so that you do not have to die with a guilty conscience, and of course it is true that far too many people who lament their bad luck will be forced, when the chips are down, to admit that they stopped short of doing their best most of the time – never studied hard enough, never looked for jobs hard enough, never saved when they had enough money, never walked while their paunches were growing, never disciplined their children when there was still time – and so they do not really have any moral right to whine or expect pity and help from their fellow men when they get into trouble (though I have noticed with chagrin that such good-for-nothings usually get far more pity and help than those I have always considered the truly deserving, the fighters, the planners, the folks who have never shirked responsibility … life is not fair at all!)

Even if we do not believe in predestination (and mind you, there’s no definite proof that it is nonsensical), we might be eventually be forced to believe either that everything is blind chance (such a fundamentally ‘unscientific’ idea that Einstein famously retorted that God does not play at dice…, and furthermore, if you believe that, then you are likely to lose all hope that you can make a difference with your own efforts, and therefore elect to give up in despair and withdraw into a shell: I leave it to the reader to imagine what would happen to civilisation if the majority started subscribing to that doctrine!) or in what the Hindus and Buddhists call karma: that you are simply suffering/enjoying the cumulative consequences of your own past deeds, and simultaneously deciding (though not necessarily consciously and deliberately) through your present actions what is going to happen to you in future. But this doctrine poses its own problems: you can see for yourself that a great many nice and even gifted and diligent people are not getting what they deserve in this life, while a lot of utterly undeserving folks (lazy, stupid, ignorant, uncouth, greedy, deceitful, malicious, you name it) are living it up. Ah, the traditional pundits will tell you, that is easily explained, provided you allow that one lives many successive lives, and the accounts are not squared in each lifetime but carried over from one to the next. So a lot of seemingly undeserving people are enjoying this life by spending the good karma accumulated over previous lifetimes, and, if they are living badly, they are darkening their own future life-prospects (which probably ‘explains’ horrors like children without arms and legs being born to poor parents, and little girls being raped, nasty as the explanation is). Now from the utilitarian point of view this is a good theory – or at least better than believing that all is blind chance – in the sense that it gives some consolation to those who suffer (to my mind no pain is greater than not knowing why I am having to suffer), and some encouragement to living a good (in the sense of ethical-) life in the hope that one is improving one’s own prospects with every passing day. It helps me a great deal in both ways, at least, and I have counselled a lot of people to look at life this way and see if it makes them feel somewhat better about living. I am nothing if not a pragmatist: I know what I want out of life, and I shall try anything provided I have reasonable assurance that it works, whether it be a machine, a computer program or a philosophy. But there is one thorny problem left: the Hindus at least believe in a soul which can migrate from one body to another through death and rebirth, but the Buddhists don’t even believe in a soul, and I have not been able to figure out yet how they square that with the theory of karma. Temporary body and no soul, so whose karma is it anyway?

Long post, that, and most readers have very short attention spans. So, about ingratitude, perhaps in the next one. Cheerio!

6 comments:

Chanchal said...

Sir
I have always tried to think deep into this issue, but have never been able to reach a reasonable conclusion. I find a balance between the two drawn out in your post.
But at the end of the day, I feel that I should proceed with all my strength to face my future, not letting the mind to wander over such strange things, I should have sufficient time left to pour all my wit and thinking into this at a later stage, provided I have ensured that "good life" to myself, as it is I am far from developing philosophies on this, at least.

I find a lot of people around me who speak without thought. At the moment, I can recall one of my English teachers, who while scolding my friend had said that he was a "duffer" and it was for sure that he was going to fail in all the forth coming English examinations, she had added to it that this wasn't something new, what she said was as old as the mountains, from the Gitas. This is what makes me feel pathetic. Someone wants to speak rubbish? Fine. But why shift the responsibility of your stupid crime on something as noble as the Gitas? This is wrong and vague.

I wish people like these are compelled to read and get what you write to bring some improvement in their own fate. Even fingerprints are being changed these days...

Manoshij Banerjee

aquietchild said...

I would like to view this Karma as that of the society's, a collection of individual's..and like an economist say that while private welfare perishes with the body, social welfare stays on in an intergenerational manner..I think Buddhism has a way to reconcile this thought into its philosophy, especially if you read a little of what people like Leonard Cohen and Herman Hess sing and write in 'Democracy' or 'Demian'.
- chirantan.

Shilpi said...

Dear Suvro da,
Once again a very deeply interesting, bemusing, and a somewhat discomfiting essay. But at least this one gets me to comment (unlike the one on “Values and
Prices”, which set me into a terrible argument with myself and ended with blank stares and glares). Been thinking about karma as well recently and quite often and with a stone face.

You're right....character alone does not and cannot decide on everything nor can working day in and day out guarantee success or the great life or even a good life with some baseline level peace, good-will and nice times.
And it's better being frustrated over different things not turning out the way one expects them to when one is growing up (unless one is so fortunate that one always gets what one sets out to get for as long as one is alive) - I seriously think that if nothing else, it builds character. And I'm not being facetious. One doesn't then go around in one's late teens and early twenties whining about “things never working out right” when the matter that is not working out is so inconsequential that one can but snort.

Given that – there are some times in my life that I have earnestly, strongly, and quite quizzically wondered and wondered how or why some people make it and some others don't, and why some people go through life with very few breaks or none while others get breaks at every turn, and also what makes some people so brave and kind even in the midst of terrible losses while others break down.

Since I can't travel down all the possible paths, I'll just give a couple of examples. One way of “making it” is very observable. The year that all my college classmates were applying to different universities abroad, I remember a very dear and close friend, who got a full fellowship to Harvard – and I remember thinking and feeling that this is a well-deserved thing that has happened to a very good person . So sometimes fortune indeed does favour the serious, planned, disciplined, balanced, and good person. Yet there are so many people that fortune does not favour. Leave alone favour – it does not seem to care much. Sure a person can be mentally strong and brave, take measured risks, be brilliant and outstanding at what he does, be disciplined, diligent, steady, and balanced, be kind and compassionate, be reasonable and sometimes whimsical about non-serious matters, be witty and stable through the ups and downs and turn-arounds of life...yet surely there must be some measure of goodness that comes back to him...and one wonders if not here, then where? And if not all the goodness, but if not even some part of the goodness that he gives out returns to him, then where is the justice of it all?

It irritates me at some level to see people who have done no good in this lifetime to get riches and what-not beyond all imagination, which they have too little imagination to use in any wise and sensible manner. And of course there are plenty of people in the world who will crib no matter where they are or what they are doing. And there are others who will be quite content doing nothing and wasting whatever talents or gifts they have been given. Of course it's impossible to go through a list of different sorts of people but then really Suvro da, none of it makes any sense to me at times – unless one sees it as some huge colossal joke...but then how can one see pain or evil as being some sort of a joke? One will have to be decidedly mad to see things in such a way, and even then I don't know whether these things would appear to be funny in any manner....

The only way it would make sense is if one could remember all the lifetimes. Then there would be some continuity or some sense. One would at least be able to find the reasons for things being the way the are, for people being the way they are, and most importantly – why one is the way one is...

And it's as you say Suvro da, the worst pain is when one doesn't know why one is in pain...and if one can expect for nothing good, is it too much to expect that at least nothing bad will happen – and then I go back to the question of karma again.

The only way I can make some sense of a bit of it is through the notion of the bodhisattva. I don't know whether I can completely make peace with the idea, but at least it makes some sense: that some people maybe are born to show the way to countless others, touch lives that probably would have wasted away into nothingness, take on the burdens of others,take on more than their share of pain, and then quietly depart....maybe who knows – maybe some of life (or is that a contradiction) is predestined. The only way even the bodhisattva idea makes sense is if the bodhisattvas made a deal even before they were born. And then what do I think: that there's a hall and a queue and all those “applying” to be bodhisattvas must be ticking off the things that they are willing to put up with, and once done some also add that they don't mind whether they ever receive any gratitude for their efforts or are nailed to the cross metaphorically or literally?...!

I'll just end off my completely rambling comment by expressing the same shock as I did in the morning. How on earth is it possible to believe in reincarnation but no-soul at the same time. And I smugly thought I knew something about Buddhism(thank heavens I never got into an argument with anyone over this). But there has to be something that shifts from lifetime to lifetime – maybe it's something other than an unchanging soul. And each time “that-something” is changing through different lifetimes (and within the course of a single lifetime? But really, I wonder about that!) – so there's nothing permanent in the sense of a permanent soul – until it just becomes one with the Ultimate Consciousness. There has to be something that is carrying on in different lifetimes, otherwise how in heaven's name would The Buddha have seen all his lifetimes....what was He seeing then?
In any case - your liner pretty much sums it up: temporary body and no soul - so whose karma is it anyway!
Anyway, I'll yell about this and some other things some other day.

This comment of mine rambles too much and I have hardly been able to put some of my thoughts in...but it will do for now.

This essay of yours reminds me in bits and pieces of “Expect the Unexpected” from TMD......
Thank you for putting up this post.
Take care. Love and regards,
Shilpi

Rajdeep said...

Your question about what Sachin Tendulkar would have done had he been born in China has intriugued me for a very long time. Here are my answers which are almost as rhetorical as your question. Again I do not know if this is relevant so please publish only if it is. I would like to hear what you have to say in more detail.
My questions: What would Arakawa Shizuka have done had she been born in India and not Japan? What would Maradona have done if he played for the Indian soccer team? He was caught kicking an empty can with frustration and hunger on the street at about 13 years of age when someone thought he could be a genius with the soccer ball. Not much difference in the financial situation some of our players face right? What would Mani Bhaumik have achieved had he stayed on in India? What would Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Larry Page have done if they were born in India?

Here are a second set of questions.
There are people who have achieved by being in India and working there. Vidyasagar, Satyendranath Bose, the Indian field hockey team that won so many gold medals in the past, the great soccer players who played a quaterfinal match barefeet without boots on. What have we done to these people? Who cares or wants to read about them? A handful may be? Who believes that their strategies could lead to success? I am not talking about you or those who read your blog.
Back to Sachin. When he made five zeros in five one day internationals by opening the batting, people shouted he could not play the new ball. He scored most of his runs as an opener in ODI's. So many people have hated Sourav Ganguly. Few know that he completed 10,000 runs in ODI's faster than even the great Sachin Tendulkar.
We have a Chess grandmaster who is a genius and believes that he has brought back the crown to the land where chess was born. Do we have anyone worthy to replace him?

Take care.

Regards.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Quite right, Rajdeep.

I'd like to point out that India treated even the likes of Vidyasagar and Satyen Bose very shabbily (did you know that Bose had to beg Nehru for a minimal pension in his old age?) In comparison, Vishwanathan Anand has been lucky!

Subha said...

Exactly Sir, people in our country have treated great men with great contempt when they were alive. Michael Madhusudan Dutta was ousted from our society because he had converted himself into a Christian. We have heard these things and read them in history books. Some of this has also been shown in the film "Shoptopodi" where Krishnendu was dispossessed by this society and even his own father because he had converted himself into a Christian.

Our society has never cared to look into the motives behind the actions of a man or a woman. Anything or anyone that has gone against this society has met severe threats. This society never cares for good or bad : so long as everything is in alignment with the society, everything is fine. But just let an exception happen once, and what does one not get to see? It becomes an experience of a lifetime for that person. That is the kind of luck with which those people were born and still are born. What is Taslima Nasrin not facing for writing the truth? This society itself is a false society. People have lived lives so "good", that they land in trouble once the truth about them comes into the limelight. That was Taslima Nasrin's fate, that she had written about Bangladesh and not about England or America, where there are many people in the society who are very open to criticism and want to rectify themselves.

Outside our country also, in history we find some examples of great men who had not had good fates during their lifetimes. But after their deaths their works have received some real recognition--I am speaking about Galileo.

Then there was Einstein, who received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the Photoelectric Effect, but during his lifetime no one had understood anything of the Theory of Relativity, something for which he should have actually received the Nobel Prize. Such was his fate.

A discussion about these things will never end if we start discussing them too seriously. Rather it is better to accept whatever is happening to us and to the rest of the world. If we cannot do that, we will unnecesary suffer from a lot of frustration.

I have learnt from my parents : live a life of an honest man, live the life of a good man, be content with whatever you have, and try to excel...The rest is up to Him.