India's Favorite Spiritual Excuse
Jun 25, 2005
As we step into a home, our host -- friend of a previous host in another city -- immediately says, "You know, I don't understand this 'leaving everything' business. It's nonsensical, if you ask me."
Why, nice to meet you too. My first response is to strike back with my ego and put the guy back in his cage. But then you realize that you rely on the kindness of strangers for your survival, and very directly the man in front of me is hosting and feeding me tonight. Mustering up all my humility and compassion, I respond, "Yeah, such pilgrimages don't always make sense; but sometimes doing things out of your comfort zone gives you a new perspective on life. Do you have a spiritual path you follow?"
"Absolutely. I am Karma-Yogi. I believe in living in the world, and taking care of my duties and not running away from them," he says as if launching another scud missile. :)
Ah, the infamous "I-am-a-karma-yogi" line. India's favorite spiritual excuse. It used to be that you have to renounce the world to be spiritual, to realize "God", to be "enlightened". And then, thank God for Karma Yoga; now, I can be spiritual while staying in the world. I can indulge in mindless entertainment, I can hoard money, I can show off my power, I can fashionably drug myself up with intoxicants, but if I'm somehow providing for my family and reading the Bhagvad Geeta two times a week, then I'm a Karma-Yogi doing my duty in the world.
Um, not quite.
As the conversation progresses, I ask our host, "Are you happy doing your duties?" He says, "No, but that's the challenge of Karma Yoga. You get what you deserve and you have to accept it. You can't run away."
Karma is an interesting concept. The way I understand it, it is the lingering residue from each action. If I respond to my host with anger, even if I get my way, I am leaving a trail of negativity in my mind. Over time, these traces consolidate to form our personality and subtly create favorable or unfavorable circumstances for us to experience.
"Do you think it's possible to run away from your karma? If I go on a pilgrimage, or live in the Himalayas, or stay in this bungalow, does it really make a difference?" I ask him.
"My question is why go do all these crazy things? Why not just accept what you are given, and do the best you can?" he counters.
"Are you able to do the best you can?" I counter his counter question. By now, the conversation is more sincere and open. Since I'm able to stand my ground rationally, I seem to have gained some credibility in his eyes.
"You shouldn't be greedy with doing good. Just do what you can. Be content. God has given you the ability to a few things, and you should be satisfied in doing them."
I absolutely detest this argument -- I am greedy in all aspects of my life, but when it comes to removing that greed, I want to be connnnteeennnnttt. Ha! But I take a practical example to explain the concept in another way. "You know Vivekananda, right? When Vivekananda went to Ramakrishna, he wasn't content with the world; he wanted to see, experience God, and he wanted it right now. Do you think he was greedy? Not really. There was simply a sense of urgency, an immediate calling to see beyond the illusions of the mind."
"Well, I believe you should accept whatever your karma is."
"Would you recommend the same to a robber?"
"No, I think you should do good. If you have money, help people with money; everyone needs it. But if you don't have anything, how are you doing to help anyone?"
His arguments were starting to get really loopy -- climb the corporate ladder in the name of taking care of your family but practice contentment when it's comes to the spiritual ladder; tell a robber to be good but learn to accept everything as your karma.
I try to conclude, "Well, I'm personally not very happy being greedy after money, power and fame. It doesn't satisfy. So I try to stop it. And when I can't stop it, I go out to cultivate more tools. That's what this pilgrimage is about, that's what my life is about."
"Let me be up front with you. Kids your age should be taking care of their parents, starting a career and family life. What is all this walking business? You sound like you could make good money; you should earn and give people what they really need -- money. No one cares for your pilgrimage. And how are you going to help others, when you can't even help your parents?" he finally lays out the prejudices that he's been meaning to lay out.
Yeah, baby. If I was single, I bet he would've said I should get married; if I was walking alone, I bet he would rag on me for being a bad husband; if I was ten years older, he would've told me about having kids. But for now, he talked about my parents. This time, though, I laid it down on him hard and cold. I told him that my parents weren't narrow minded, self centered or insecure -- instead of having me stay next-door in the well-lit island of my past merits, they want me to travel to the farthest frontiers of my consciousness; instead of filling in their bank account with security, they want me to fill unknown hearts with love; instead of getting ahead in my life, they want me to 'stay behind' so I can serve the world many times over. When we left, they sent us with their full blessings.
For the first time in our conversation, our host is silent for a few minutes. Then he changes topics again. :) We had been talking all the way through 1AM and it was actually a decent conversation by the end. The next morning, before we left, he jokingly admitted that he "sort of" understood what this was about. :)
Karma Yoga, most eloquently described in 18 chapters of the Bhagavad Geeta, is the art of selfless action. Its essence is quite simple, pure and practical -- act without regard for the outcome of that action. Just like a bird leaves no traces when it flies, a Karma Yogi makes sure there is no lingering residue from any of his/her actions.
To understand and transform the residue of your past actions requires meditation; to work in the present without leaving any traces requires a still awareness; to put to rest any worries of future conditions requires an awakened wisdom. All of this put together is a Karma Yogi.
A true Karma Yogi is no weak person who accommodates his spirituality to justify a confused lifestyle. A true Karma Yogi is no lazy person who shies away from looking at his faults until bombs explode. A true Karma Yogi is no scared person who is stays away from unchartered territory. No, sir. A true Karma Yogi is one who walks boldly into the arms of his/her karma, with full determination to leave no traces behind.
Maybe they should've put a warning label on Karma Yoga -- do not try at home. :)