Three spiritual concepts that are often misunderstood.
Wise spiritual concepts have been mangled and misinterpreted ever since seekers first gathered around sages in a forest, a desert, or a village. As soon as the listeners walked away and told friends what they'd heard, the misconceptions began, only to spread and multiply, with consequences ranging from trivial to catastrophic.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about misunderstood principles rooted in the Indian spiritual traditions—concepts that have by now influenced millions of people in the West. I’ve seen those mistakes repeated for more than forty years, but they’re on my mind now because they are often used to justify social apathy and disengagement—attitudes we can't afford in these perilous times.
The first term is karma. It means, literally, action. The larger meaning, as is now commonly known, is that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, just as in physics. The implication is that everything we do, or say, or even think, matters. The influence reverberates through the cosmos, like ripples in a pond when a pebble is dropped in, and then returns to its point of origin. In practice, this means that everything that happens to us, here and now, is the result of something (or many things) that we did at some indecipherable time in the past—and that what we do now will have consequences in the future, positive, negative and everything in between.
Those who believe in the principle of karma can take solace in the knowledge that, despite appearances, the universe is fair. Cosmic justice prevails, even if the evidence before our eyes suggests otherwise. Knowing that we reap what we sow serves as a corrective to selfish, short-sighted, or malicious behavior, and as an incentive for kindness, compassion, and generosity.
What karma decidedly is not is a rationale for shrugging off suffering and injustice, as in "It's their karma," the Eastern equivalent of "It's God's will." I’ve seen far too many people do that. They reason that the horrors endured by victims of violence, persecution, or social injustice are coming to them by virtue of karmic law; they are simply reaping what they sowed in the past, and they cannot move on in their evolution until that debt is paid. So, hands off.
Sorry, it’s not that simple. If it were, the countless saints and sages in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions over the centuries—believers in karma all—would not have spent so much time and energy trying to help the poor and disadvantaged. Think of it this way: it may be true that those who suffer now are paying the price for their past actions, but we will just as surely pay the price for what we do right now in the face of that suffering. If karma is real, our attitude and our actions will reverberate back to us in either rewards for compassion or penalties for callousness.
Like karma, the term maya has become familiar to many in the West, and it is even more commonly misunderstood. Normally translated as “illusion,” it has been interpreted by many to mean that the material world is merely an illusion, i.e. “not real.” Taken literally, that interpretation leads to the conclusion that the familiar world that we navigate every day—the world of form and substance, of dualities and polarities—doesn’t actually exist, like the mirage of water seen by a thirsty person in the desert, and only the unchanging, eternal, infinite Reality (Brahman in Sanskrit) is real. Of course, this flies in the face of the obvious: You and I may be One in the absolute sense, but on the relative plane we are emphatically separate entities; if I punch you in the nose, only one of our noses will bleed.
Unfortunately, the "unreal" interpretation of maya can lead to crippling apathy. If none of this, including human suffering, is real, why intervene? But another interpretation of “illusion” carries different connotations. In that view, the world is illusory in that we think it’s all that is when it’s not. This is “illusion” in the sense that magicians use the term. Magicians manipulate perception, i.e. create illusions, so we think something is happening when in fact it is not. The rabbit isn’t really in the hat; the woman isn’t really sawed in half. Hence, maya functions like a cosmic magician, tricking us into thinking the One is really many and the perceived universe is all there is. Spiritual aspirants are called upon to lift maya's veil and perceive the Transcendent Unity within the apparent diversity and know that mundane, transient phenomena are also Divine. They are not asked to dismiss problems and tragedies as merely dramatic illusions.
Finally, we come to the concept of non-attachment. This stands high in the rankings of good advice for spiritual advancement, a central teaching in Buddhism and classic yogic texts like the Bhagavad Gita, where the classic guidance, don't be attached to "the fruits of your actions," originates. But non-attachment emphatically does not mean indifference. It is not just a mood of non-concern; it's a deep and profound inner state in which one's peace and contentment is unshakable even in the midst of outer turbulence—as secure in defeat as it is in victory. In the Gita, the wisdom of non-attachment is expressed by Krishna, an embodiment of God, to Arjuna, a great warrior who is about to battle forces of evil. Would Krishna want him to be indifferent to fate of those he is sworn to defend? No more than you would want your children to be blasé about harming others or your sports team to be complacent about the game ahead. Not caring is not true non-attachment; it's emotional lethargy cloaked in misguided spirituality.
The world may be a stage play, but the cosmic stage directions ask us to play our roles as if what we do really matters.