An emerald green SUV shot past us on the long highway leading back from Washington DC to Takoma Park. I read the bumper sticker displayed prominently on its back and grinned: it read, as you might have guessed: Your Karma Ate My Dogma.
What I enjoy most about Americans on the eastern spiritual path—along with their heart-warming generosity and willingness to embrace the universe in all its crazy splendor—is their irreverent sense of humor. And yet, while the “k” word is bandied around in new age circles almost as much as the “f” word in Manhattan, few westerners seem to discern just how wide-ranging are the implications of karmic theory—by which I mean its potential for transforming human life.
For that matter, nor does most of our teeming Hindu population, for their ancestors were deprived of any form of learning by rigid and punishing caste laws set in motion ages ago. For this evil, I blame Manu, who slouched through Planet Earth roughly two thousand years ago, sowing hate and discord between higher and lower castes. This so-called “sage” actually prescribed the pouring of molten copper (or was it lead?) into the ears of members of the lowest caste who happened to overhear a recitation of the sacred scriptures. By Shiva’s gorgeous blue throat! How can anyone fault the Indian masses for shying away from our most sacred wisdom?
Before you attack me for deriding Manu—who, mind you, is still revered by millions—please note that the brilliant and indomitable Dr. Ambedkar—who fashioned the Indian Constitution after a bitter lifetime struggle as a denigrated member of the lowest caste—publicly burned the Manusmriti (Code of Manu) for poisoning the core of our ancient nation.
True, Plato spoke of caste too, but his was a system predicated on innate skills and predilections, and not on birth. If, for instance, the daughter of a king showed a talent for weaving, then, by Gracious Athena, permit her to weave her little heart out. If the son of a warrior wished to write poetry, the young fellow must be given quill pens, and inks in all the colors of the rainbow, and set free to create his verbal magic.
It’s only when caste is locked into birth that everything starts to slide rapidly downhill. Brahmin is as Brahmin does. A true Brahmin is one who has fused with the Divine, who intuits that all of creation manifests from one source, to which source all must inevitably return. It is our character that determines who we are in the relative world, not our origins, though where we come from does undeniably shape us.
As for me, it was a fortuitous collision with eastern philosophy in my mid-teens that began to settle my disturbed mind. Before I struck this gold mine, apart from wanting to live a life of hedonistic pleasure, I honestly could not figure out a good reason to live. Nothing about my environment made sense to my critical mind: patriarchal, double-standard Indian society, shameful inequities in wealth, status and gender, emotional and physical violence against women, the bullying of children into claustrophobic molds, governmental corruption that had mushroomed in the wake of luminaries like Mahatma Gandhi.
What kept me going through my adolescence was a ravening passion for books, strumming my guitar as I belted out rock and roll I learnt from records my eldest brother carried home from his travels abroad, and colluding with a band of similarly disaffected teenage rebels in a range of illegal adventures—from stealing blind octogenarian Mrs. Oliver’s Alphonso mangoes right off her tree even as she stood on her porch, bewildered and bow-legged, muttering about our furtive giggling, to mastering the art of blowing perfect smoke-rings using the fat stinky cigar my friend’s father left smoldering in an ashtray, to stealing hubcaps off parked cars in a frenzy of teenage angst, and one memorable stint of ghost-hunting on the Khan’s roof at midnight.
Nor did the blatantly self-serving teachings of Judeo-Christianity—which black-robed nuns drummed into us at our posh Roman Catholic school—even begin to soothe my growing angst. Heaven, Hell and Purgatory were cited as destinations for us all, depending on our behavior, but I was unable to comprehend the logic behind our arbitrary consignment to these invisible zones—especially since they were based on a single lifetime, and minus any form of legible roadmap. Who defined good and bad anyway? Parents, priests, nuns and teachers—none of whom, I am sorry to say, impressed me too greatly with either their noble behavior or their consummate wisdom.
As time marched inexorably on, I slipped, on and off, into a slimy slough of despond….until one summer afternoon, when I chanced upon a slim paperback resting quietly on my dad’s revolving rosewood library. On the cover, a yogi sat motionless beneath a leafy tree sporting an expression of the most sublime peace on his dark shining face. Hey, I told myself in growing excitement as I studied its contents, if this half-naked fellow could find happiness within his own being, then, dammit, so could I! And so my quest for personal truth took a major turn eastwards….
Read more in Part 2…