Wednesday, April 13, 2005

What goes around comes around and around and around

So I've just got back from Wales where I've spent the last four days half way up a mountain in an isolated farm house training in all things Yoga. We're currently trawling through the Vedanta section of the yogic philosophical cannon and one of the topics we've been covering is Karma and re-incarnation. Some of the others on the course did a set of presentations to the rest of us, this and the subsequent discussions got me thinking.

Re-incarnation is a thread that runs through most Indian philosophical thought and is linked in with the concept of karma. The general concept is that Karma is generated by our actions (both in this life and in our previous lives) and we are bound to this Earth to be born again and again until we reduce that Karma to zero, when that happens the next time we die we either transcend this material plane or we become one with it (depending on which strand of Indian philosophy you believe in).

Karma is generated by all action, not just bad action. Good karma is useful because it negates and reduces bad Karma (which still being on this plane, we are assumed to have a surfeit of) but at the end of the day any action (good or bad) indicates an attachment and so is something that will bind us here.

Now I've always been in two minds regarding the Karma/re-incarnation issue and after giving it some thought and study I've began to notice some seeming inconsistencies and holes.

Firstly there is the obvious and most uncomfortable one, if you are born into a life due to the karma you've carried over from previous your lives, then are those who are born into abusive families, disabled or in some other disadvantaged state somehow deserving of their fate?

This is something I have no truck with personally but the concept of Karma certainly allows for this interpretation.

Another problem with the idea that, essentially, we are all recycled is that it implies that the number of souls available for this process is finite. I've yet to come across a reference where souls are created anew so according to Karmic theory we are all essentially old souls who have under-gone many lifetimes. This becomes a problem however when you consider that the worlds population is increasing, if there are now more people than there were a thousand years ago then where are these new souls coming from?

This leads into my third philosophical conundrum. If the number of souls is finite, then was there then a point when they were all created? If so wouldn't there then have been a time when they had very little or no karmic baggage? So why are there so many of us about now? Surely back in the day people would have been shuffling off the karmic wheel by the dozen?

You could argue that there may have been many more of us then and those of us left now are the real dregs, the right bastards who have been going round in the spiritual washing machine for millennia until we're bleached white. But this doesn't hold up if you go back to point two, the worlds population is increasing, if new souls are coming into being then these new souls would have considerably less karma than the older souls who have been around longer.

My own opinion? Well I have two; the cynical and the spiritual. The cynical is that the idea of Karma and re-incarnation have an obvious use for social and political control. Everyone gets what they deserve from a previous life, so be happy with what you've got and be good so you can hopefully come back higher up the ladder. Those at the bottom have something to hope for and those at the top can feel satisfied that they deserve to be there. Like the Christian concept of Heaven, Karma works on the carrot principle; things will be better after you're dead so don't moan while your here.

Also re-incarnation makes the selling of enlightenment easier, the object of the Indian spiritual traditions (in fact almost all esoteric traditions) is to transcend the illusion of reality and peek below the surface, well how gutted would you be if you didn't quite make it? There you are sitting under your bohdi tree contemplating your navel for years on end, you're just about to glimpse the ultimate when your heart packs up and you shuffle off the mortal coil. You've just completely blown your only chance at enlightenment and wasted all that (non) effort. Not really going to bring in the devotees is it? If however you can come back and try again and again and again until you get it right, well that's like finding the infinite lives cheat on a computer game isn't it?

The spiritual opinion? Well the Vedantic view point, as stated earlier, is that we are all part of the same whole and that our eternal self or Atman is really one with Brahman (the infinite), therefore the concept of a single individual soul is irrelevant because we are all effectively small parts of one higher entity. Enlightenment comes from realising we are not separate from anything else and that we are all one 'I am That'.

While I personally find the inclusive approach of Vedanta appealing and the idea of one ultimate soul or Self does cover some of the problems mentioned above, it still leaves some problems. For instance if we are all part of one greater whole why do we need to keep coming back until we realise it? If there is in reality no individual self, just the illusion of separation, what part of us actually comes back when reincarnated?

At the end of the day it is important to remember that these are the maps and not the territory, all these concepts come from the experience of some vast and numinous 'something' that appears to have been occurring to mystics in all cultures throughout history. The seeds of our religions have grown from various attempts to explain that experience and attempting to work it out intellectually is like reading the car manual without ever having driving the car, it's up to us to walk the path and find it for ourselves not sit around passively waiting for redemption to be handed to us on a plate.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

One for all you budding evil geniuses out there

So you've got your jumpsuited minions, island base and a nice white cat but what uber baddie is complete without a fool-proof plan to destroy the Earth? Well if you're struggling to find a diabolic scheme, fear not, some irresponsible geek has done all the legwork for you: Ways to destroy the Earth.

Right you'll have to excuse me, I'm just off to build a Von Neumann machine.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Cunning Folk

Went to a talk on cunning folk last night at a bookshop in London called Treadwells, good night very informal. Everyone mingles upstairs and then goes downstairs for the talk after which we came back upstairs for wine and more chat.

The talk itself was very interesting, it was by Owen Davies and was based on his book Cunning Folk which I'm about half way through. It focused on one particular cunning man who was to all intents and purposes a right bastard, basically a huxter and multiple bigamist who was out to fleece the unwary. He got caught up in dealing with a slightly unhinged client who ended up killing his wife because of a misinterpreted astrologically reading, which brought notoriety and eventual imprisonment.

I really enjoyed the talk and I met some interesting and friendly people afterwards, you're made to feel very welcome which is nice, definitely going to go back for some of the other talks they've got lined up in coming weeks.

I've written a more general review of the history of Cunning Folk over at Key23 , so click the link below to read more.

Cunning Folk Article