The concept of karma is probably familiar to most readers. If you’re like me, you think of it as some kind of cosmic payback when a person does something bad, or a reward when they do something good. Other than that cursory understanding, I have to confess that I haven’t given much thought to how karma is actually supposed to work.
In reading The Circle of Karma, by Kunzang Choden, for my book about Bhutan, I was interested to see that karma is used to explain everything that happens in a person’s life, good or bad. The book’s protagonist, Tsomo, is the daughter of an important religious man in their village, who explains that “everybody was the way they were because of the way they had lived their previous lives.” Religious practice allows a person to accumulate merit to ensure that his or her next life will be better than the current one.
This causes a certain amount of consternation for Tsomo since, as a girl, she’s not taught to read or write, two things that she wants to learn more than anything, and she worries that her lack of education will preclude her from accumulating enough merit to make her next life better. But she’s a dutiful daughter and stays home learning how to cook, work in the fields, weave, and care for her family.
Astrology is also an important factor in Tsomo’s village. Her mother is told by the astrologer that Tsomo “will be restless, always wanting to travel." Her mother doesn’t really believe that part of the horoscope is true because, “where can a girl, even a restless one, travel to?”.
Actually, a girl can travel to many places, as Tsomo discovers when circumstances cause her to leave her village, and she comes to the realization that “[s]he had to learn to be on her own.” Her travels over the next few decades take her to India and Nepal, where she learns to be self-reliant, meets new friends, and finds many ways to accumulate merit.
I had more trouble than I expected with the use of karma to explain every situation in this book. For example, I felt like the man who took advantage of Tsomo and treated her with indifference for many years before finally abandoning her got off much too lightly by having his behavior characterized thus: “He had come to collect the dues she owed him from some lifetimes past and he left her fifteen years later, completely depleted both emotionally and financially.” Invoking karma as an excuse for bad behavior was a bridge too far for me.
I admired Tsomo’s resilience, persistence, and resourcefulness, and I followed her travels with interest. The book's author, Kunzang Choden, is the first Bhutanese woman to write a novel in English, and I felt like she did a wonderful job of bringing Tsomo's character to life.
Throughout The Circle of Karma, Tsomo eats momos, a steamed dumpling common to the Himalayan countries of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. The ones she eats are filled with meat, such as pork or yak, but I found a recipe for vegan momos on the Aapdu Kitchen website. I followed the recipe fairly closely, except that I couldn’t find ginger garlic paste at my grocery store. Instead, I added a tablespoon of finely chopped ginger to the recipe, and substituted chili garlic sauce for the red chilli sauce in order to include the garlic flavor. The recipe calls for a capsicum, and I didn’t know what that was, so I looked it up. Turns out it’s just the scientific name for the pepper family. Since there were numerous references in the book to the Bhutanese people’s love of chillis, I used a spicy serrano pepper.
I wish I could say the momos turned out well, but I really can’t. I didn’t roll the dough thinly enough, and I felt like the chili garlic sauce overwhelmed the taste of the other ingredients. Serving the momos with mango chutney helped, but this recipe definitely won’t go down in the books as one of my best.
I checked the GlobalGiving website to see if they had any projects in Bhutan. They had one, helping the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy to create greater awareness among the citizens of Bhutan about how a participatory democracy works. The country transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 2008, holding the first election for the National Assembly of Bhutan. Since democracy is a new concept there, people are not necessarily familiar with their rights and responsibilities under this new system of government.
The Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy is taking a three-pronged approach to educating the people of Bhutan: “First, it ‘inspires active citizens’ through projects that tackle social problems. Second, it ‘encourages and expands public discourse’ by organizing forums focused on diverse topics such as the role of media and the crisis of democracy in modern times. Third, it produces ‘resources for democracy’ targeted towards all citizens, ranging from rural teachers to government officials.”
More information about the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/empower-bhutans-citizens-to-engage-in-democracy/.
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