Monday, February 4, 2008

Traffic Karm-ing

I sit in the car, in seven lanes of stationary traffic. Our reservation at the restaurant is already forty minutes out of date. Monu’s singing under his breath, his face smooth. Every couple of minutes, we hiccup forward half the length of a tuk-tuk. Cars edge across sideways, changing lanes, jockeying for position with a chirpy admonitory beep. At home, windows would be opaque with frustration by now, cumulative rush-hour irritation accounting for at least a couple of degrees of global warming. Here, it couldn’t be more different.
All the faces I see – immobilised drivers, passengers who should already be somewhere else, side-stepping pedestrians – are wiped clean of emotion. They wait, not resigned, just passive.
Mother-child, husband-wife, colleague-colleague, friend-neighbour – the whole gamut of possible human interaction is here, most of it right in front of us on the pavement. But not anger. And, because I don’t miss it, it’s a couple of days before I notice.
Karma’s a word regrettably abused in the mouth of the West, with our Pic’n’Mix take on world culture. Anyone who talks about the colour of your aura, or tells you how to Feng Shui your fish-tank, will probably have a brief fandango with karma, before long, if they haven’t already. But the passivity all around us is definitely philosophical.
Karma is rooted in philosophy and religion, and has been fundamental to Hinduism and Buddhism for thousands of years. It’s the doctrine of causality. It’s not judgemental, but deals pragmatically with what is. Each person, therefore, is responsible for his or her own life. (As someone who devoted whole slices of her university life to putting Free Will through its paces, I don’t know how I can have read Siddhartha, and not noticed this. I was too busy flirting with existentialism, I think, batting my eyelids at Sartre and his chums...)
Karma’s like banking, you can only get out what you put in: beneficial effects can only result from past beneficial acts. (I used to tell my exam classes exactly this, relative to hard work and revision, but it applies equally well to the whole rich pageant of life.) It therefore follows that only evil can come from evil deeds. Work it out: we’re responsible for making our own hell, as well as heaven. In this philosophy, free will still exists, even though it seems you spend your days mechanically living out the price of what you did yesterday. Your active choice involves tomorrow.
The tricky thing I didn’t consider, in my undergraduate musings, was accumulation. All our thoughts and deeds have repercussions, but the tally doesn’t die with you. Reincarnation is central to Hinduism, so past lives also have to be taken into consideration. This explains, incidentally, how bad things can happen to seemingly good people. We can’t always attribute causality, because our knowledge of past lives is necessarily limited. It also clarifies how the Baddy sometimes appears to get away with his evil deeds – the fact is, he doesn’t, ultimately. And, taking the longer view, it explains the inequality of birth. Karma means inequality is not down to chance.
This One-Size-Fits-All philosophy explains both tsunamis and traffic jams. I look again at the peaceful faces in the idling cars on all sides, and it comes to me that nothing I can do will alter the outcome. Dinner or no dinner. So what? I feel strangely calm - or is it karmic? - and decide that this is something, along with the saffron spikes and embroidered slippers, that I definitely want to take home with me.