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.’
You’re not a true Indian if you don’t have a handful of palmists, numerologists or astrologers in your extended family! I have the pleasure of having all three at varying levels of specialism both on the maternal and paternal side of the family. Mind you, none of them are professionals, but merely enthusiasts in these fields. Not a family gathering goes by without someone wanting to read your palm or theorising that your name has been spelt wrongly and therefore you are doomed for disaster in your life.
“If only my name had been spelt as ‘Mieraa’ instead of ‘Meera’, things might have been quite different in my life” my cousin would say, and by a furtive glance at her parents hint that they are to blame for her lukewarm life. (yes dear reader, now you know why there are some Indians with very strangely spelt names hanging around – blame the numerologists!) Meera is a self-confessed numerology geek and has even converted her family and other relatives into believing numerology writes your destiny. Many newborn nephews and nieces have been christened with names with complicated spellings, thanks to Meera, or should I say ‘Mieraa’, in case she’s reading this!
The family’s affiliation with all things esoteric does not end there. I have two uncles who are palmists. One uncle, Krishnan, picked up the skill after reading many palmistry books. The other uncle Nantha, oddly inherited the gift, along with a sixth sense after being involved in a near-death accident that kept him in a coma for weeks. This one I am quite wary of as he is capable of reading your mind and telling you your deepest secrets! Uncle Nantha can predict your future better than any trained astrologer I know. He doesn’t even need an astrology book or astrology software on the computer to refer to. Of course, not everything he says has come true, but there is a degree of accuracy that can be quite disturbing. He has accurately predicted births, marriages, separations and he even accurately predicted my brother would be stomped by an elephant. No, just kidding, though once upon a time I wished an elephant would smother my brother’s face with its arse as he was such a pain in the… arse!
I have two other uncles who don’t make major decisions or purchases without consulting the Indian Almanac. By now, you are probably thinking that I have lunatics for a family, but I assure you, the rest of them are alright! Why planetary positions would have an effect on the things you buy, I have no idea, but I think it has something to do with the vibrations at the time you purchase something. It’s based on the gravitational theory that all mass have a force on another mass, and just as one planet has a force on another planet, it also has a force on us as we are beings with mass. And this force can be either positive or negative.
I must say that I have more faith in astrology than in numerology or palmistry. Astrologers have in the past predicted events in my life with scary accuracy, but unfortunately it’s mostly the bad things that end up being true! Indian astrology can be so accurate that it even accurately predicts your age when you die. Both my parents passed away at exactly the age some astrologer predicted their death. (by the way, I don’t know when I’ll die and I intend to keep it that way!!)
Numerology on the other hand, I just don’t understand – especially when it comes to counting the numbers the letters in your name add up to – and determining your fate based on it. I think numerology that assesses your birth date and year of birth can be quite accurate when it comes to predicting your character and physical countenance, though I’m not sure what use it is to go around assessing someone’s character when you could do that anyway after spending some time with the person. Perhaps it serves a purpose for those who seek arranged marriages, although these days even those with perfect matches end up separating. But let me move on – it’s not the bone I want to pick. My displeasure is with the numerology related to names: how could an Indian’s name spelt with Latin-based letters carve your fate in stone? After all if you are an Indian, whether your name is spelt ‘Meera’ or ‘Mieraa’, it would be spelt the same way in Tamil, or Hindi, or in any other Indian script. So what does it matter how it is spelt in English? Besides, a lot of Indians name their children according to the sounds that are harmonious with their astrological birth charts. Meera’s parents, for example, gave her that name because her astrological birth chart was harmonious with the sounds ‘Ma’ or ‘Mi’ and they chose a name that started with ‘Mi’. And what about Westerners? Take eminent and successful westerners like Bill Gates or Tony Blair: did their parents consult numerologists before naming them? Or did their names coincidentally add up to their lucky number? It’s a weak case, isn’t it this numerology of names! Cue Indians stop giving your kids weirdly spelt names!
Now to palmistry. I know some palmists predict events in your life that can be quite accurate, but I find that palmistry refers to the ‘now’ and the ‘near future’ of your life and your aspirations at the time of reading. My uncle Krishnan looked at my palm when I was 11 and said I would grow up and become a doctor. I was so happy when he said that, as that was exactly what I had wanted to be. Unfortunately, his prediction did not become a reality.
Why are we Indians so obsessed with these three things? I think it is because a lot of Indians believe in karma and that our past lives shape our present, and that our lives are predestined. Or maybe it’s curiosity. Or maybe we are afraid of failure.
Whatever it is, funny enough, I think the answer to life does lie in palmistry: that your fate is in YOUR hands.