Transcendental Commentary on the Issues of the Day

Karma Kicks A Coach

ON JANUARY 30 this year, Britain woke up to unusual headlines in the newspapers. “Hoddle says disabled are paying for sins of previous life,” announced the more serious press, while the tabloids went for variations of “Hoddle goes mad.”

The story made headlines for two reasons: First, the man in question was Glenn Hoddle, coach of the England football (soccer) team; and second, just about all observers thought his views utterly outrageous. Who did he think he was to pass such harsh judgment on a disadvantaged class of people? Had he no sensitivity? The sports minister for Britain, Tony Banks, said Hoddle was “from another world.”

“I have listened carefully to Glen Hoddle’s views,” said Banks. “They are totally unacceptable. If his theory is correct, he is in for real problems in the next life. He will probably be doomed to come back as Glenn Hoddle.”

It had been a fairly innocent statement by the unfortunate Hoddle, made during a sports interview. Most of the interview had been about England’s footballing prospects. But the interviewer, obviously with an eye to a hot story, knew about Hoddle’s beliefs and questioned him accordingly.

When asked about his belief in karma, Hoddle replied, “You and I have been physically given two hands and two legs and half-decent brains. Some people have not been born like that for a reason. The karma is working from another lifetime. I have nothing to hide about that. It is not only people with disabilities. What you sow, you have to reap.”

The interviewer had struck gold. That short section of his interview, cleverly headlined by him, made the headlines in every other newspaper. For days afterward a debate raged. Calls for Hoddle’s sacking came from all quarters. Eventually Hoddle’s authorities bowed to the pressure and forced him to resign.

Among a host of other pejorative descriptions, Hoddle’s beliefs were labeled “potty,” “crackpot,” and “barmy.” I was astonished at the blatant hypocrisy: People were tearing Hoddle to pieces for his “slur on the disabled,” while at the same time dismissing someone’s religious beliefs as nonsense.

But what about those beliefs? Are they nonsense? Did Hoddle get it right? Does the concept of karma include the idea that those suffering disability are receiving the results of former sins? Surely that’s a hard pill to swallow for those so afflicted, especially, of course, if one has no belief that there ever was a former life. And even if there was, what terrible sins did I commit? Looking around me, I don’t see that disabled folk are any more “sinful” than others. Some seem a whole lot more pious.

Who defines sin? Who decides what reaction should follow our actions? Can reactions be changed, or is everything predetermined? Unless you can answer all these questions, then your belief in karma and reincarnation will be rather hollow.

Of course, even if he could answer any of the above questions, Hoddle was given little chance. After his declaration of faith, he was carried by the wave of indignation to his sure fate. But if he had been given a fair trial, perhaps he could have called upon the evidence of the Bhagavad-gita. This ancient Vedic scripture clearly explains the teaching of karma and answers all the above questions.

Followed by hundreds of millions, the Gita is the basis of Hinduism, which accepts karma and reincarnation as central tenets. So too do Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, and other philosophies coming out of the central strand of Hinduism. We’re talking about almost half the world’s population.

So what does the Gita say about karma? The first principle is that every living being is an eternal soul, moving from life to life until achieving ultimate liberation. The Gita helps us recognize our eternality with a simple explanation: “As the soul travels from childhood to youth to old age, it similarly travels to another body after death.” In other words, reincarnation takes place at every moment, not just at death. Even in one lifetime, the soul is constantly changing bodies. In adulthood we can see that our childhood body is gone, but we’re still the same person. We all know the joke “You must have been a beautiful baby but, baby, what went wrong?” It should be obvious that we, the person, are different from the body we inhabit.

Perhaps also this is where the disabled can take some comfort: They know that despite their physical disability, they are no less a person than anyone else. If a man loses an arm or a leg, he does not feel he has become only three-quarters whole. He is still the same person within. It should thus be obvious that the body is not the self.

But now we come to the tricky bit. Why is it that some souls get a body like, say, actress Pamela Anderson, while others are consigned to a frame wracked by disease, or even that of a dog, or a worm, or a cockroach? “As you sow, so shall you reap,” quoted Hoddle, and the Gita does not demur. It agrees that all our actions will produce reactions, good or bad.

But the Gita also points out, “The intricacies of karma are hard to understand even for the highly learned.” In other words, while in principle it may be true that our suffering in this life has at its root some mistakes in this or a former life, it is impossible to know what those mistakes were or when we made them and it is not very important to know anyway.

In fact the Gita is concerned more with permanently ending all reactions, whether so-called good or bad. We eternal souls do not belong in this world, which is ultimately only a place of suffering for everyone, able-bodied or otherwise.

The Gita teaches us to get out of the material world, to enter the eternal spiritual atmosphere where we really belong, and where suffering does not exist. And the Gita makes clear that anyone can achieve this, regardless of bodily condition. All souls are equal, the body nothing more than the soul’s temporary covering.

Perhaps Hoddle understands this well enough. I don’t know. But his brief mention of karma has certainly given the concept a bad name. That’s a shame. For me at least, the alternative belief of things just happening by chance, with all its apparent unfairness and injustices, is unacceptable. It is a belief in helplessness and can only lead to despair. The poor souls suffering in this life are just losers in the great cosmic lottery.

And if we believe that, why should we display any compassion or concern? What use is it anyway? One person wins, another loses that’s it. It’s out of our control and happening purely by chance.

Even if we say no, God is there and in control, still our compassion seems pointless if we do not accept karma. If God is simply acting whimsically, dishing out misery without rhyme or reason, what can we do about it? Our attempts to improve the situation can be dashed in a moment by this capricious and malevolent God. If he wants us to suffer, for whatever unfathomable reason, how will we ever prevent it?

If we deny karma, we are left with frightening alternatives to explain our misery. It may be hard to accept, but seeing suffering as the consequences of our own acts is the only sensible explanation. And this, after all, is the way we run our lives. We want to hold people responsible for their acts. Would we release a criminal who pleaded, “But, your honor, the knife in my hand stabbed him purely by chance”? As parents, do we not constantly tell our children they must accept the consequences of their acts? Does it not therefore make sense that the supreme authority, God, should work by the same principle? It seems natural to me that we should be responsible for what we do.

So I was surprised to see the hue and cry over Hoddle’s statements. When I first discovered karma, I felt empowered. Accepting that my misery was a consequence of my own acts made me realize an important fact: I can change those consequences. My fate lies entirely in my own hands. I don’t need to blame my environment, other people, or events outside my control.

This understanding is the only basis for real compassion. We can do something to help a suffering person only when we understand the cause of that suffering. Otherwise, without negating the root cause, our attempts to help will at best be makeshift. While it is fine to do whatever we can to make life more tolerable for the afflicted, surely the most important assistance we can render is to remove the affliction forever.

For those disabled or afflicted, this is a philosophy of liberation. My actual identity is different from my external, painful body. Whatever mistakes I may have made in the past that resulted in my present condition, I can now act in ways that will lead to my permanent happiness. No more pain. That goes for all of us, disabled or otherwise. Each one of us is suffering one way or another. Disease, old age, and death will eventually visit us all followed by another birth in who knows what kind of body. But theGita describes how we can end that cycle once and for all.

I hope poor Mr. Hoddle’s abrupt removal from office will at least have stimulated some deeper thinking about what are, after all, some pretty deep concepts. Karma and reincarnation surely deserve a better press than they have had of late.