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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Henry V: Shakespeare's Discourse On The Subject Of Karma


[This article originally appeared in the August 2011 edition of Tiferet Journal]

As a long-time student of the Vedic tradition of ancient India, and of the Shakespeare plays, I hold the sincere conviction that William Shakespeare was an extraordinary yogic soul who incarnated in mid-1500s England.

My sense is that he came in that guise in order to play a beautifully scripted role on the global stage: to embed the living wisdom and knowledge traditions of ancient India in plays that would effect a creative, cultural and spiritual transformation of the Western world, for centuries to come.

There are many conflicting and legitimate schools of  thought about the authorship of the plays, with scholars claiming variously that Shakespeare, an undereducated country hack, couldn't possibly have had access to the lives of nobility, or even royalty, and thus couldn't have written so flawlessly about the dynamics that prevailed in those, or other strata of society that he handled, in the plays, so brilliantly and convincingly.  Many scholars suggest either Shakespeare was a front for different noblemen of the day who actually wrote the plays, or that he worked in tandem with a number of authors to create the staggeringly ingenious range of dramatic and emotional depth contained in those works.  

All of these theories are plausible explanations of the otherwise almost incomprehensible achievement of unsurpassed depth, insight, dramatic capability, pure poetry, relationship of the supernatural world to the natural, and commentary on the span of human experience, from countless young lovers to the lofty corridors of English royal power found in Shakespeare's works. And yet -- none of these varied and well-reasoned arguments have ever been substantiated to the definitive satisfaction of Shakespeare lovers, students or scholars. 

There is plenty of mystery surrounding the Bard of Avon; his personal history, his education, his genius, and his plays.

None the least of the mysteries shrouding Shakespeare is this: How is it possible that one man, no matter how personally gifted and intelligent, could possibly have created so many potent, impactful plays that have reached across centuries to touch the hearts and thrill the minds of millions of people world-wide, on myriad levels?

My own conclusion is there's another strong (and simpler, albeit more fantastical-sounding) possibility: that Shakespeare, as a remarkably capable yogic soul, was an enlightened character -- with an open, flowing access to the cosmic Intelligence. And that the consciousness in him was sufficiently awake that it could access whatever information or details about human life it needed, instantly, in order to create luminous, extraordinary, unforgettable plays. It makes sense that a divine character of that stature could access a full range, from the most mundane to transcendent truths, readily, including a massive insight into the dynamics of human psychology, and blend it all together seamlessly in order to teach certain fundamental spiritual principles to a young and evolving Western world.

In ancient India, the words 'saint' (meaning an enlightened soul) and 'poet' were synonymous, and it's not uncommon to find the illumined words of sages taking the form of poems. Although not all great saints were literally poets, the yogis were (and still are) famous for speaking simple phrases and sentences that function on many layers of meaning, simultaneously, depending on the depth and inner consciousness awareness of the listeners.

When Paramahansa Yogananda, the much-beloved yogi from Bengal who spent much of his life in the West, mentioned to a few of his innermost students that he had indeed been William Shakespeare, in a past life, that news probably didn't come as much of a shock to his intimate devotees. 

Yogananda, for whom English was very much a second language, was famous for using words that were unfamiliar to his students, and when they would protest, "But Master, that's not an English word!" his response was to laugh, assure them it was, tell them to look it up.... and inevitably the word in question would be an archaic one, meaning precisely what Yogananda intended in the appropriate context. 

As if this weren't mischievous enough a bow to a former life and its contributions to the spiritual literature in the world, Yogananda's general guidelines to his students, for a healthy spiritual life, included his recommendation that they should read the Shakespeare plays!

Why would an Indian yogi, formally fairly uneducated in the English language, recommend that spiritual students should be familiar with Shakespeare?

The answer lies in content: there are striking similarities to be found, between the themes found in stories and myths from Vedic India, especially the Puranas, and those found in Shakespeare's body of work.  The Puranas are full of descriptions of the dynamics that prevail between the natural world and the supernatural world (interwoven, the one in the other) -- it is worthy to note that Shakespeare is a master at weaving supernatural concepts, characters, and events into nearly every play.

The Vedic stories were concerned with the major energy mechanisms in this creation, and used drama (the 'lila', or 'play', in Sanskrit) to illustrate the principles of these mechanisms; chief among them being karma (action-to-reaction), kama (desire), and kala (time).

It is with an illustration of the role of karma in the plays that this essay is concerned --  the simple principle of action to reaction (like Newton's Third Law Of Motion: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.").  Although every Shakespeare play serves as a treatise on the laws and principles, ramifications and applications of karma, a particular excerpt from Henry V is a glaring example of a discussion (and instruction) about karma and how it operates in human lives.

In this passage from Act IV, Scene 1, the king, Henry V, is going about in disguise the night before a major battle, and talking with random members of his troops, to sound out their mood and inspiration levels before the morning's fight (what will become known, historically, as the Battle of Agincourt).

Amongst the random characters he encounters, this discussion evolves about who is culpable, if the soldiers are serving in the king's army -- are they responsible for all the harm they do? Whose responsibility is it, finally?   Is the king ultimately the one who has to bear the woes of their deaths, maimings, and loss to their families if the battle doesn't go well?   And what if the royal cause that they're fighting for isn't a just cause -- does that tip the karmic scales against the individual soldiers? 

Even resorting to the style of parables (an obviously Biblical device, but also one long-standing method employed by yogis and sages), Shakespeare lays out a clear commentary on a few aspects of the inner workings of karma, about as simply as one can do...


I dare say you love him not so ill, to wish him here
alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men's
minds: methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king's company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.


That's more than we know.


Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the king's subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.


But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of


So, if a son that is by his father sent about
merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the
imputation of his wickedness by your rule, should be
imposed upon his father that sent him: or if a
servant, under his master's command transporting a
sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in
many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the
business of the master the author of the servant's
damnation: but this is not so: the king is not
bound to answer the particular endings of his
soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of
his servant; for they purpose not their death, when
they purpose their services. Besides, there is no
king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to
the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all
unspotted soldiers: some peradventure have on them
the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder;
some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of
perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that
have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with
pillage and robbery. Now, if these men have
defeated the law and outrun native punishment,
though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to
fly from God: war is his beadle, war is vengeance;
so that here men are punished for before-breach of
the king's laws in now the king's quarrel: where
they feared the death, they have borne life away;
and where they would be safe, they perish: then if
they die unprovided, no more is the king guilty of
their damnation than he was before guilty of those
impieties for the which they are now visited. Every
subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's
soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in
the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every
mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death
is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was
blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained:
and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think
that, making God so free an offer, He let him
outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach
others how they should prepare.


'Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon
his own head, the king is not to answer it.

There are many profound points about the role and mechanism of karma, of the action-to-reaction, in this passage.

Similar to messages found in the Bhagavad Gita (itself a famous section of the Indian epic scripture, The Mahabharata, which also takes place on a battlefield), Henry's parables point to the greatness of doing one's duty -- and in that sense, absolution from responsibility for the fruits of those actions -- in the service of a greater good. 

However, his strict analysis is that whatever karmic balance sheet an individual brought, from their lives before, to the battlefield, it must get worked out, there. 

"... some peradventure have on them
the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder;
some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of
perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that
have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with
pillage and robbery."

Even if these men have avoided those particular karmic acts coming due, up to this point in their lives, those actions are still on their balance sheets, waiting to be paid.  Even if they've "defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God: war is his beadle, war is vengeance..."

The battlefield, to Henry (and to Shakespeare) thus becomes an amplified pressure cooker of karmas coming to fruition rapidly, and, with surgical precision, the immediate reaction coming to balance their previous actions.

The act of war, itself, then, to Shakespeare, is always a mechanism of karma -- in that it will show, clearly, each man his own karmic reflection accurately, on the battlefield. 

The whole passage, like those found in scriptures from ancient India, invokes the metaphor of the battlefield but is richly steeped in another, much deeper layer of meaning: advice for a life well-lived.  In this sense, the 'battlefield' becomes the stage upon which every life is played out, full of valour and violence, triumph and tragedy, conflict and heroism;  it is the story of life and death. It is the stage of challenges and their resolutions.

Henry's final advice, after explaining something of the mechanism of duty and individual karma, is to instruct his soldiers to wash out their consciences before going into the battle, to in effect make a reckoning of their lives, and acknowledge their mistakes to that point -- so that they can die with a clean conscience, if death is to be their fate that day.

Otherwise, if they survive, they've already done the hard, honest work of examining themselves and asking forgiveness for their mistakes, so they can then go on to live lives in clear, free state of mind and heart, able to share that process of cleansing and self-reckoning with others they encounter in the future.

This approach to living (and dying) is highly practical spiritual advice -- and some variation of it can be found in nearly every spiritual tradition in the world, including the Twelve Step programs (by way of a contemporary example).  In the Vedic tradition, yogis and sages will routinely recommend this kind of simple inner process, as a central kind of meditation, for any human being to follow -- whether they are spiritually inclined, meditators, or not at all involved in spiritual pursuits -- in order to live a more peaceful, centered, functional life. 

Although Shakespeare recorded this advice in the 1500s, and the Vedas thousands of years before that, its relevance as a simple recipe for a peaceful life today shouldn't be underestimated.

Taking a clear end-of-the-day inventory of ourselves, daily, acknowledging mistakes we've made or actions that could've been better, and asking heartful forgiveness (from God, our higher selves, or however we consider the universal force of creation) for anything we did that was harmful to others -- either with our conscious or unconscious awareness -- is an instant mechanism through which negative karmas can be dissolved. 

It's a highly useful and practical spiritual practice of unburdening, at the end of the day, so each of us can walk a little freer the next day, and, if so moved, in Henry V's words, "to teach others how they should prepare."


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