One way of gaining insight into the cosmic doctrine of karma is through the parable of the Kalpataru, the wish-fulfilling tree, narrated by Sri Ramakrishna:
Into a room full of children at play walks their uncle, who, of course, knows better. Laughing at their preoccupation with make-believe games, he asks them to go out to the massive banyan tree, which will grant them whatever they wish! The children rush out, stand under the branches of this huge tree that cover the sky, and ask for what all children crave: toys and candy. In a flash they get what they want, but along with an unexpected bonus: the built-in opposite of what they wished for. With toys they get boredom; with candy, tummy aches.
Sure that something has gone wrong with their wishing, the children ask for bigger toys and sweeter candy. The tree grants them their wishes, and along with them bigger boredom and bigger tummy aches. Time passes. They are now young men and women and their wishes change, for they know more. They ask for wealth, power, fame, sexual pleasure--and they get these, but also cupidity, insomnia, anxiety, and frustration/disease.
Time passes. The wishers are now old and gather in three groups under the all-encompassing branches. The first group exclaims, "All this is an illusion!" Fools, they have learnt nothing. The second group says, "We are wiser and will wish better next time." Greater fools, they have learnt less than nothing. The third group, disgusted with everything, decides to cop out and asks for death. They are the most foolish of all. The tree grants them their desire, and with it its opposite: rebirth, under the same tree. For, where can one be born, or reborn, but within this cosmos!
All this while one child has been unable to move out of the room. Being lame, he was pushed down in the scramble and when he dragged himself to the window, he was transfixed watching his friends make their wishes, get them with their built-in opposites and suffer, yet compulsively continue to make more wishes. Riveted by this utterly engrossing lila of desire and its fruits, a profound swell of compassion welled up in the heart of this lame child, reaching out to his companions. In that process, he forgot to wish for anything for himself. In that moment of spontaneous compassion for others, he sliced through the roots of the cosmic tree with the sword of non-attachment, of nishkama karma. He is the liberated one, the mukta purusha.
Another way of understanding this predicament is through trying to answer, what is Maya? This the question put by the wandering sage Narada to Vishnu. The story that follows was retold to the author Andre Malraux by a passerby in the Indian city of Varanasi:
Narada, the itinerant divine sage and inveterate experimenter, roams the three worlds, sowing seeds of discord. He goes up to Vishnu and demands that Maya be explained to him. Vishnu is silent. Narada is not one to be denied. He insists so persistently that the god has to answer him. "Maya cannot be explained, it has to be experienced," he says. "If you can't explain what you create, then I won't believe in you," retorts the never-say-die sage. Quickly deserting his serpent couch--for the fate of gods in whom humans do not believe is shrouded in uncertainty--Vishnu beckons him to follow.
Walking together, they reach a desert where Vishnu sits down under a tree and exclaims, "I am so tired, Narada! Take this lota and get me some water from that oasis. When you return I will explain Maya to you." Eager to plumb the mystery, Narada speeds off to the oasis and finds a well there beside a hut. He calls out, and a lovely girl opens the door. Looking into her eyes Narada is reminded of the compelling eyes of Vishnu. She invites him in and disappears indoors. Her parents come out and greet the guest, requesting him to rest and eat after his journey through the burning sands before he returns with the lota of water. Thinking of the lovely girl, Narada agrees.
Night falls, and they urge him to leave in the cool morning. Awakening in the morning, Narada looks out and sees the girl bathing beside the well. He forgets about the lota of water. He stays on. The parents offer him their daughter's hand in marriage. Narada accepts, and settles down here. Children arrive; the parents-in-law die; Narada inherits the property. Twelve years go by. Suddenly the floods arrive--floods in the desert!--and his house is washed away. Carrying his children on his shoulders, Narada wades through the raging waters with his wife. Suddenly, she is swept away. Reaching out to clutch her, he loses hold of his children who disappear in the waters. Narada is submerged in the floods and loses consciousness. He awakens to find head pillowed in someone's lap. Opening his eyes he gazes into the eyes of Vishnu, seated at the desert's edge under that same tree, those eyes that remind him of his wife's. "Narada," asks Vishnu, "where is the lota of water?" Narada asked, "You mean, all that happened to me did not happen to me?" Vishnu smiled his enigmatic smile.
Is the karmic law real? Who experiences what happens? Shankaracharya entered a dead king's body, experienced a royal life of luxury with queens, courtesans, retainers, war--everything. And he returned to answer the riddle put to him by a wise woman. Which of these was real? Do we dream or live? Certain things remain an enigma. It is said that the path of yoga breaks away from the adamantine shackles of karma. That is why the Buddha exclaimed that he had seen through the labyrinth of creation, hence the rafters are shattered, the edifice has crumbled, and never again will he be in the clutches of birth and rebirth.
After the Kurukshetra holocaust, when the blind Dhritarashtra bewails the unjustified misery thrust upon him and turns to Vidura for consolation, this child of a maidservant narrates a gripping parable that provides yet another clue to understanding our existential situation:
A certain Brahmin loses himself in a dense jungle filled with wild beasts. Lions and tigers, elephants and bears, yell and trumpet and roar. It's a scene dismal enough to frighten even the god of death, Yama. The Brahmin is terror-stricken. His mind is a bundle of fears. He begins to run, helter-skelter; he looks right and left, hoping to find someone who will save him. But the fierce beasts are everywhere-the jungle echoes with their weird roaring-wherever he goes, they are there, ahead of him.
Suddenly he notices that the fearful forest is swathed in a massive net. In front of him, with open arms, is a horrendous-looking female. Also, five-headed snakes hiss at him--tall snakes, their huge bodies slithering up to the sky.
In the middle of the forest is a well covered with grass and intertwining creepers. He falls in that well and dangles there, clutched by a creeper, like a jackfruit ripe for plucking. He hangs there, feet up, head down.
Horror upon horror! In the bottom of the well he sees a monstrous snake. On the edge of the well is a huge black elephant with six heads and twelve feet hovering at the well's mouth. And, buzzing in and out of the clutch of creepers, are giant, repulsive bees surrounding a honeycomb. They are trying to sip the deliciously sweet honey, the honey all creatures love, the honey whose real taste only children know.
The honey drips out of the comb, and the honey drops fall on the hanging Brahmin's tongue. Helpless he dangles, relishing the honey drops. The more the drops fall, the greater his pleasure. But his thirst is not quenched. More! Still more! `I am alive!' he says, `I am enjoying life!'
Even as he says this, black and white rats are gnawing the roots of the creeper. Fears encircle him. Fear of the carnivores, fear of the fierce female, fear of the monstrous snake, fear of the giant elephant, fear of the rat-devoured creeper about to snap, fear of the large buzzing bees... In that flux and flow of fear he dangles, hanging on to hope, craving the honey, surviving in the jungle of samsara.
The jungle is the universe; the dark area around the well is an individual life span. The wild beasts are diseases. The fierce female is decay. The well is the material world. The huge snake at the bottom of the well is Kala, all-consuming time, the ultimate and unquestioned annihilator. The clutch of the creeper from which the man dangles is the self-preserving life-instinct found in all creatures. The six-headed elephant trampling the tree at the well's mouth is the Year-six faces, six seasons; twelve feet, twelve months. The rats nibbling at the creeper are day and night gnawing at the life span of all creatures. The bees are desires. The drops of honey are pleasures that come from desires indulged. They are the rasa of kama, the juice of the senses in which all men drown.
This is the way the wise interpret the wheel of life; this is way they escape the chakra of life.
Dhritarashtra, of course, misses the point Vidura is making: man, literally hanging on to life by a thread and enveloped in multitudinous fears, is yet engrossed in the drops of honey, exclaiming, "More! Still more! I am alive! I am enjoying life!" And, like the blind king, we tend to miss the point too. Ignoring the law of karma, taking that other road, we fall into the pit and rale; but inveterately, compulsively strain to lick the honey. If heeded, this doctrine becomes a powerful instrument for building character, maintaining integrity and creating a society that functions not on matsya nyaya [the big devouring the small] that celebrates invidualism, but on dharma that upholds society and the world itself.
Pradip Bhattacharya: "Desire under the Kalpataru," Jl. of South Asian Literature, XXVIII, 1 & 2, 1993, pp.315-35. cf. P. Lal's Introduction to Barbara Harrison's Learning About India.
P.Lal: Valedictory Address in Mahabharata Revisited (papers presented at the international seminar on the Mahabharata organized by the Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi in February 1987), Sahitya Akademi, 1990, p.291-302.
P. Lal: The Mahabharata (condensed & transcreated, Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1980, p. 286-7)