Devdutt PattanaikGuest Author

Who is a Hindu? Karma, caste and free will

By | Devdutt Pattanaik | Indian Author

The other day, a journalist kept repeating over and over again how she found the doctrine of karma problematic. Of course, her understanding of karma was the kind of understanding you would find among 19th Century Christian missionaries whose agenda was to prove that their version of Christianity was the true faith. It is tough to converse with the righteous. They have made up their minds.

European Orientalists linked Hinduism to karma, which they interpreted as fatalism or determinism. This allowed Christian missionaries to argue the case of conversion: they declared that Hinduism does not allow you to choose your caste, hence your life, but Christianity does allow you that option, for Christianity is based on free will, and choice.

This tactic backfired with the rise of rationalism and secularism in the 20th Century: the rationalist started arguing that since you can choose, you must choose rationality over irrational ideas such as God. Now, we have cutting-edge neurobiologists pointing out that perhaps free will itself is a human delusion, a myth constructed by Christianity. The human brain is far more complex and fools itself into believing it is independent of the ecosystem it lives in.

But is Hinduism fatalistic? Like all things Hindu, the answer is yes and no. The answer depends on context. For karma means action as well as reaction. In the Vedas, karma means the act of performing rituals. In the Upanishads, it means reaction: our present circumstances are outcomes of actions past. Buddhist Jatakas speak of tit-for-tat karma, good deeds lead to good results. Thus your present actions can change the future. This is also karma.

The Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, reveal things are not so simple. The universe has multiple forces at work, not all of which are in our control. And so our lives are not just the outcome of our desires, but also the desires of those around us. Ram goes to the forest not because he chooses to obey his father, but also because his stepmother, Kaikeyi, insists that he leave the palace, which in turn is the consequence of her insecurities, and the assurances and boons given to her long ago by her husband. And then we are told of how Ram is actually a form of Vishnu who establishes dharma on earth and so Ram’s birth is determined by the unrighteous deeds of Ravana. Then there are still other stories about how Vishnu was cursed by Shukra and was thus obliged to take birth on Earth as a mortal. Why are there so many backstories of curses and boons to explain the exile of Ram? To remind us that a moment is an outcome of many reasons, very few under voluntary and individual control. Of course, my journalist friend, and the missionary, will see these as ‘excuses, not reasons’.

The 19th Century was a time when everyone was obsessed with proving all religions are just the same. But all religions are not the same. They have different assumptions. In Abrahamic faith, the world is born out of nothingness, out of the ‘free will’ of God. But in the Puranas, the world comes into being when Vishnu ‘wakes’ up from his slumber. Creation of matter versus awakening of the mind. A very different paradigm!

In the traditional social structure, you were born into your caste, just as you were born into your body. You could not choose you gender, your caste, or even your spouse. Your caste determined your vocation. Who created this framework? No Hindu really knows, but 19th Century European translators of Hindu scriptures have convinced us that it was Manu, who functioned as Moses functioned in Egypt. Any alternative to this ‘fountainhead’ theory is gagged as ‘excuse, not reason’.

We want to believe that the caste system is imposed by ‘free will’ and so annihilation of caste can be achieved through ‘free will’. Those who don’t exercise this free will then become evil, to be shamed and scolded, something my journalist friend loved to indulge in.

However, in the alternate model, ‘sleep’ is when bad things happen, when demons rule the world, when we just don’t pay attention to the other, and let a society become so fractured and hierarchical that we do not realise the indignities heaped at the bottom of the pyramid.

Good things happen when we wake up. Now that we are aware of the horrors of caste, we can do actions (karma) whose reaction (karma) will be the annihilation of caste. This is not fatalism. This is responsibility. But it comes with the knowledge that every intervention (karma) has its own consequences (karma). So the state’s positive discrimination can be perceived as acts of vengeance against Hindu traditions, by those who suddenly find themselves losing their power. And nothing stops beneficiaries of anti-caste policies from working against those below, to ensure they stay above.

Republished with permission and originally published at

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