The two ideas may shape our understanding of conflicts, but Hinduism, which is based on karma, is more complex. Whenever we are deeply hurt, a question comes to our mind: do we seek justice through retribution, or do we let go? Justice and forgiveness are two concepts that really come to us from the Bible. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic framework based on Abrahamic mythology, God is the judge. The Old Testament speaks of ‘an eye for an eye’, which is about justice and vengeance. The New Testament speaks about ‘turning the other cheek’, if slapped on one, which basically refers to forgiveness. These two ideas shape our global understanding of any conflict.
People have tried to use the same framework to appreciate the Hindu response to a crisis. Therefore, when there is a crisis, people need either justice or a compromise for peace. The Hindu worldview is more complex than that. Hinduism is based on karma: every event that happens before us, or to us, is the result of the seeds we sowed in the past. Hence, we must take responsibility for events which happen in our lives. Taking responsibility, however, is the toughest thing in the world. It’s very difficult to handle.
Let’s understand karma by looking at the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Ramayana begins with the story of Valmiki watching two birds, one of whom is shot and killed. The surviving bird mourns the death of her beloved. Valmiki gets so upset by this event that he curses the hunter. The bird cannot curse; it only knows how to grieve. This event draws attention to the difference between animals and humans, nature and culture. In nature, there is no concept of justice or forgiveness, there is only suffering. Humans, however, can compensate for suffering by demanding justice or forgiveness. Or maybe there is something else because the human mind is capable of imagining a world of karma where every event occurs because it’s supposed to occur: there is no one to blame and therefore, no one to forgive.
We often discuss how Krishna established dharma by getting Pandavas to defeat Kauravas, but we rarely speak about the collateral damage.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian physician turned leadership consultant, mythologist, author and communicator whose works focus largely on the areas of myth, religion, mythology, and management.