Allow me to digress from my recent travel blogging to write about one of the most overused, borrowed Sanskrit word in the English language: karma. Its use in English is somewhat more arbitrary compared to the original word, but in essence is accurate.
In the western world, karma means to face retribution for your actions some time in the future. For example, someone would say something like, ‘karma will get you for that’ when they think you have done something bad and should suffer the consequences one day.
In the eastern world, given that the word karma has its roots in Hinduism, it is linked with the cycle of rebirth and transcends all time and space continuum. It does not necessarily have negative connotations the way it is used in the west. The belief is that one can accumulate both good and bad karma: good karma will benefit you with good health, family, finances; basically the capacity to attain both material and spiritual wealth in your life. Bad karma will provide you with obstacles or problems that will aim to teach you a lesson you failed to learn in your past life.
There is something about karma that is so intriguing and mystifying…many people who believe in reincarnation attempt to unravel the mysteries of their past by going to priests and fortune-tellers who profess the ability to delve into their past lives. My extended family is no exception to this! Many of them have returned from India with stories of their past; some sound plausible while others possibly contrived by bogus priests to milk their egos, then fleece them. No doubt that all of them seek their past in earnest, to find out how they can right the wrongs of the past, but stories of a royal past are likely to inflate the most humble of egos. Wouldn’t we all like to hear that we were once a beautiful princess or a mighty warrior?
Whether these stories are true or not, one story I heard is chillingly thought-provoking. One of my cousins has been plagued by a chronic illness from the time he was a child. Being an illness that is not medically curable, my uncle and aunt turned towards Eastern medicine and all things esoteric in the hope that something would miraculously cure their son. One day, they solicited the advise of a fortune-teller to unearth his past life. After all, by the law of karma, he must have done something bad in his past life to suffer such a fate at a young age in this life.
They were told their son was previously born in India, to a very rich merchant. Upon the death of this father, he cheated his many brothers and sisters out of their family fortune. The bickering sons and daughters had called for a panchayat (village meeting) to equitably divide their wealth, however, their son, being an influential man in the village had coerced the village Head to decree that all wealth should go to him. Seething with wrath, his brothers and sisters had cursed him to a lifetime of suffering, and it was this curse that he was experiencing in this life. In downcast resignation, my uncle then told the fortune-teller, fair enough that his son was suffering the burden of his past karma, but why was he suffering everyday, watching his son being ill?
The fortune-teller then told him, ‘you were the village Head.’