Thursday, October 24, 2013

Babylon's burning

Karma is the drug of moral supremacy. It's a long and winding road that leads back - not just to Hinduism, Buddhism, the Upanishads, or the Vedas - but to non-Aryan peoples and before the Indus Valley civilisations ...

What we know today as "karma" originated in a radical cultural change during the period of the Upanishads. These texts reveal that what was in the Vedas - a simple notion of "action" linked to solar cultism and the positive spiritual outcomes of sacrifice and ceremonial rites - was later reinterpreted as holding lasting negative consequences, which had to be mitigated at all costs.

What happened? It was particularly the shramana who were responsible for this development: a non-Brahmanical, non-Vedic, non-Aryan, ancient religious movement. The shramana impacted on the Indus Valley civilisations of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa - and there is now definitive evidence to say that their tradition preceded and ran parallel to historical Vedic religion. Although generally associated with asceticism, sramana practices also included extreme materialism. The tradition embraced a wide range of beliefs spanning self-mortification to the unashamed pursuit of a luxurious life. Yoga originated with the shramana - and they also introduced the notions of moksha, samsara and transmigration into Vedantic society, which would later become major doctrinal features of both Buddhism and Hinduism.

Most of the shramana were not of the Indus Valley civilisation. For example, the oldest strand of the movement, the vratya (now known as the Jains), were the forerunners of Indo-European-speaking peoples who entered northern India from Iran. They were possibly even non-Indo-European in origin. The shramana lived alongside the rishi - the yatis, munis, vaikhanasas and mundaka - a pre-Hindu, earth-based Indus Valley peoples who practised self-cultivation. The rishi sang the nature hymns and directly received the divine wisdom of the universe, which was later written down in the Vedas. Meanwhile the Vedics were Indo-Aryan pastoralists. The ancient texts reveal that they held the ascetics of the Vedic age in considerable contempt. But the same texts also show that from the time of the composition of the Samhitas and Brahmanas onwards, the Vedics were deeply influenced by the non-Aryan and pre-Aryan cultures. After phases of henotheism and pantheism - because of the shramanic influence - the anthropomorphism of the Vedas became the monism of the Upanishads ...

During the time of the Upanishads, shramanic thought began to exert a much stronger influence on Vedic society. Protest against Brahmanical sacrifices, the inequalities of the Vedic caste system and a degenerated brahmin priesthood meant that it was more open to radical streams of opinion. Shramana culture was non-hierarchical and believed that each person was responsible for his own deeds. It had always objected to the Brahmanical emphasis on a world creator and omnipotent deities; the authority of the Vedas as revealed texts; and the complex ritualism of the Brahmanas. In stark contrast, traditional Vedic beliefs upheld the importance of ceremonies and sacrifices performed by a privileged elite to assure the good will of the gods. For them the ideal was an active and ritually punctuated life, without more meditative contemplation until the final stage of life. Man was obliged to study the Vedas, perform sacrifices, and produce male offspring. These ideas were now challenged and the Vedic brahmins abandoned their sacrifice of animals. Developing the notions of Brahman and Atman out of the Vedas and the Brahmanas, they formulated new doctrines from non-brahmanical sources. Between roughly 500 and 300 BCE, the brahmins incorporated shramanical concepts into their religious texts - such as karma, transmigration and samsara - and moksha through ahimsa, renunciation, austerities and solitary contemplation.

It was particularly the shramana we now know as the Jains, the Buddha and the Ajivikas who introduced the notion of karma into Vedantic society. There were three main definitions. The vratya (Jains) argued that karma is the fruit of one's action conceived as material particles which stick to us and occlude our natural omniscience. The historical Buddha said that karma was a chain of causality, leading to attachment to the material world and hence rebirth. (He was in fact forging a "middle way" between the extremes of opinion within the shramana). Meanwhile the ascetics who became the Ajivikas were fatalists, pronouncing karma as pre-ordained and inescapable.

What we now call "karma" then, is an evolutionary mixture of the Vedic notion of "action" linked to sacrifice and ceremony and the shramana concepts of "action" bearing notions of negative result. The Vedics had no need for theories of salvation. They were invested in "timelessness" (aja) and existence as the "unborn" at the hub of a world perpetually in time and motion. For them, "action" was linked to the idea of "non-dying" (amrtam), which originated in the cycles of the sun. The sun continually died and was reborn: this sequence needed constant renewal through the action of sacrifice. Applied to the human individual, man therefore needed to perform ceremonial rites which ensured his life continued. And just as in life, the human existence needed constant renewal through sacrifices and ceremonial rites, life after death also demanded the same type of action to avoid repeated dying.

With the impact of shramanism, this completely changed. Now the continuity of life and the afterlife was thought to happen necessarily and automatically as the cycle of samsara - without sacrificial action and the performance of ceremonial rites. And, it was an individual's religious duty to escape this cycle. This was a profound shift away from the Vedic conception of man operating as the 'stillpoint' of a turning world of time. No longer did man as the "timeless" and "unborn," experience "birth" and "death" in continual succession, throughout this life and the next. No more was his activity completely interwoven with nature, perpetuating its cycles and exerting a profound and unique influence upon them. Now man had become, solely, a creature of time. He was born and he died. According to the new way of thinking, man was a separate individual who needed to regain his status as something timeless and unborn.

It's important to understand that from a timelessness that was inseparable from the procession of time - and was in fact its expression - Indian society now moved to something that was the union of the timeless and time as two separate entities. Here the timeless as the dynamic of time itself was left behind in preference of a "one" that was a "two": a static, ultimate state devoid of the pulse of life. These two concepts were entirely different. While timelessness-as-time was an infinite endlessness with which man was entirely interwoven, the Upanishadic notion of Brahman was timelessness as the opposite of time: an ultimate superstate beyond's man's reach. As agro-pastoralists, the early Vedic peoples were seamless with nature and embodied its cycles. They enacted timelessness through moving with their animals across the seasons and performing their rituals in concert with the sun. This was completely different from the later reinvention of Brahman. Now man was lost in an odyssey of rediscovery, where he would only recover timelessness as another separate entity. In effect, man and his original relationship with timelessness - as experienced in nature - had been ruthlessly carved out of the equation.

The Upanishadic Brahman had two forms. The Maitriyanya Upanishad says that food is the source of the world; time is the source of food; and that the sun is the source of time. So the first form of Brahman began with the sun, was time itself and possessed "parts" (kala) - as opposed to the second form of Brahman - which was prior to the sun, timeless and without "parts" (akala). Thus we see the necessity for a redemptive theology. For liberation to occur, man had to transcend the dualism of time and timelessness and realise Brahman as a non-dual "one." This concept of moksha was therefore constructed by the brahmins and fixed in place using the shramanic notion of karma. Positive actions would see one's identification with Brahman. Negative actions would see one confined to the individual self and unable to attain liberation.

Clearly, the notion of karma is not Buddhist since Buddhism (like its antecedent Jainism) grew out of the shramana movement as a whole, spearheaded by the radical thinking of the historical Buddha. And, karma cannot possibly be Hindu either. Later forms of Brahmanism in conjunction with Buddhism provided the foundation for what was subsequently named "Hinduism" in the medieval period of Indian history. Nevertheless Hindus have done many things with the three notions of karma put forward by the Jains, the Buddha and the Ajivikas. Buddhism formulated karma as a cycle of cause and effect linked to the 12 stages of paticcasamuppada or dependent origination. Some Hindus support this and some do not. Theistic schools of Hinduism such as Vedanta suggest that the personal will of the Supreme God, Ishwara, is directly involved in the forces of karma. Or a devotee may hope that their satguru, acting on a god's behalf, will transmute or work out some of their karma for them. The meaning of karma also further differs depending on which of the Hindu texts you look at. For some Hindus, karma is the performing of yagya - uniting the atman with the paramatman - as described in the Upanishads or prescribed by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. For others, karma is a more general, dispassionate and intelligent action undertaken in the broader appreciation that what we do always influences the future.

The first thing to notice is that nowhere in Hinduism is karma attached to the notion of reward and punishment. The Hindu has free will over their actions. Karma is simply the extension or expression of what they choose to think, say and do: whether Ishwara presides over this process or not. Additionally, the effects of any one action can always be offset by other actions. There is no pre-ordained single experience in the future - which could be any punishment or reward - as the direct, one-to-one, corresponding outcome of a single act in the past. Nor is there any such notion of retribution in the Vedas. Latest translations of the Rig Veda show that the brahmins believed the individual went backwards and forwards between Earth and the realm of the ancestors. Here moral behaviour had no bearing on the afterlife. It is only the shramana religious movement that introduced the idea that morality influences the quality of one's actions.

The other thing is that with these varied understandings of karma, we move straight out of the realm of "truth" into that of simple "opinion." Karma is a concept - not an actuality - and once you pick one of its many definitions over another, you are operating according to subjectivity, preference and an individual's own belief. Karma is an interpretation of reality, not reality itself. All concepts are built up by someone: they are manufactured and they are only personal truths. The establishment of the belief in karma in early Indian society was therefore a political act: an attempt to establish a hegemony of knowledge where none existed. There is no single "truth" handed down through the aeons: only a constantly shifting alliance of ideas supported by political expediency and power!

A concept is just a concept: it is never an absolute fact. In Tiruvannamalai however, the "universal truth of karma" has become the calling card of religious fetishists and spiritual drag queens. (Why do you think we invented the character Sister Klaus as a satirical device with which to lampoon these people?) Clothing themselves in its conceptual embrace, certain people declare that Arunachala is a punishing moral arbitrator. According to them, the mountain rewards the chosen few, striking down all who morally transgress. In South India, these ideas intensified with the advent of the Christian missionaries under British colonialism. The Advaita on the streets of today's Tiru is a dualistic Hindu-Christian hybrid ... often laced with a strong dose of Indian nationalism ...

The insistence of a few local residents that Arunachala stands in judgement of those of us who dare not to believe in karma - has nothing to do with Hindus or Hinduism. It is the product of an extremist, fanatical mindset born of ignorance, discrimination and a lack of personal power. It's like trying to explain the early history of Christianity and gnosticism to a Born Again Christian. However cogent your argument, they will always claim that you have been hijacked by dark powers. For them, it is purely a matter of blind faith not open to any form of discussion, let alone a rational argument. We have even been described by some in Tiruvannamalai as "asuras" (demonic entities). It seems that apostates of every generation are denounced in a similar manner. Even the historical Buddha was described as such by the brahmins of his day.

What we find most fascinating is that those who make these claims are so often the victims of their own moral mindset. Many of those passing judgement are the ones engaging in 'immoral' activities themselves. Outward displays of piety hide adultery, same sex liaisons, occult tantric practices, alcoholism and drug abuse ... you name it, any of the so-called vices! In Tiru, the "religious" are furtively indulging up to their eyeballs behind closed doors. Morality always goes hand-in-hand with immorality: prescription breeds addiction. With the adoption of a set of rules, what has been excluded casts a long shadow. It's all talk, no action; saying, not doing ... Truly, this is the homeland of the hypocrite!

Karma ... it's a killer. It's up there with original sin as one of the premier search-and-destroy monsters that cripples our collective mindset. Guilt, fear and oppression are all by-products of our mindless consumption of its pernicious ideas. Mired and trapped in concepts such as karma, the underlying assumptions of religion are never examined and blindly parroted as a form of Über Truth. If you use the building blocks of a collective delusion - even if they are universally accepted - without deep self-reflection, that is where it all goes horribly wrong ...

This blog is satire and employs mockery, research, challenge and personal opinion to prompt that self-reflection. It is not for those who wish to uphold the status quo. Satire is a deadly serious business. It is how each generation calls to account the powers that be. If you don't like what we write, don't read it - as we've said numerous times before. Take responsibility for your own opinions and create something better! You can always start your own blog and say whatever you think. (Just don't blame us if nobody reads it!)

We don't mind other views. But don't expect us to agree with them or to not say what we think. Our view is that it is vitally important to examine each and every religious assumption to see if it squares with lived reality. We hold that there is no such thing as karma except in somebody's personal belief system. Anybody can see with just a little investigation, that the cause of an event is an ever-shifting paradigm. It is only an egoic tendency which distills a single reason out of an endless interconnection of events. If we follow our own experience, in connection with the body, we find that understanding is not necessary for events which just unfold. What actually happens is a mystery and we don't even need to know ... The "teachings of enlightenment" make us follow rules other than our own. They have been imposed upon us by history's winners, disconnecting us from our intuition and direct perception of reality. Karma is a fairy tale concept divorced from the very essence of timelessness. What we have enshrined in our collective belief systems is completely ungrounded. No more than a Dali-esque dream sequence, it's a bad fantasy made real. A collision of ancient worlds which took us away from our natural state!

Isn't it absurd, that in this day and age, a difference of opinion is considered a hanging offence? Stating your own opinion is not a threat to others, unless somebody somewhere is quietly sponsoring "truth." In the absence of the demand for only one set of beliefs, contradictory opinions can quite legitimately co-exist. But when the urge for conformity and suppression of dissident views takes over, we have an open bazaar of personal tyranny - which condemns its friends and neighbours - and then patronises them with pity and asinine compassion. "Truth" and being "right" turns people into little gods. Is the religious identity in Tiruvannamalai - so brittle and so needy - that it needs to eradicate all opposition in order to reign supreme?

Babylon is a metaphor for a harlot's nest of corrupt religious ideas, especially karma. It's an imagined realm of ivory towers and castles in the sky that masks a profound lack of embodiment. We say burn it down. Its day is done!