The Unbearable Heaviness of Karma

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being describes our lives as inherently light — we only have one life to live and our decisions don’t matter. However, this lightness is unbearable since everything we do, think, say or feel is ultimately insignificant.

Having just finished discussing Hinduism with my classes, I’d like to offer a different, slightly “Eastern” bent on the concept.

The laws of karma state that all our actions — especially the intentions that underly them — matter. However, their true consequences are beyond us — at times they feel random and left to the whim of the gods — and often it becomes futile to even take stock of how much “good” or “bad” karma one has. In a way, this gives our actions a certain insignificance despite all of them being important — and this is the unbearable heaviness of karma.

We have all been at a moment where despite all the hard work we do, despite all the good deeds we have done, and despite all the honest things we say, think or feel, bad things still happen. Similarly, we have all been at a moment where good things happen despite not working for them or deserving them in the slightest. We can always be told that perhaps we have either had too much bad karma, or that we’ve had too much good karma, but the reality is we never really know. Life is still infinitely random. It is annica — everything is in flux.

This gives our life some sense of futility, our actions some measure of inconsequence despite believing that everything we do matters. So why dream? Why work harder? Why run the risks when the only thing we have to gain in life is truly nothing?

It is in the awareness of all these questions however that we become truly aware about our life. Yes, karma is unbearable but there is a way to lighten the burden. There is a way to release ourselves from the snare of karma, and this is through the performance of our dharma or duty.

In the context of classical Hindu society, the dharma was tied closely to one’s varna or caste. Taken more generally, dharma refers to the rightful mode of conduct in society. Place yourself once again in that karmic web where everything feels futile and pointless. In moments of despair and loss, isn’t it a common recourse for people to do what they have to do? A lot of people focus on their duties, responsibilities and obligations, and eventually find the ultimate meaning of their lives.

This dharma also draws a person out from himself and opens him to the other. Though this is a later innovation of The Buddha through his teachings of practical compassion, this understanding has formed the backbone of South Asian morality.

We have heard too many stories of people finding their “reason for being” through their work and the people they have touched through it. It is a powerful epiphany when one discovers that through making a difference in others’ lives, they have made a difference in their own. This is the liberating power of dharma.

Thus, it is through the performance of dharma when we realize that we live our lives for things other than ourselves. And it is through the unbearable heaviness of karma that we feel the imperative to live our lives, and thus discover our dharma.

“We are the path we choose” is a Hindu truism I believe in. It is an understanding I’ve come to by embracing this heaviness, and carrying it.

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