Karma in the Oglala Indian Tradition

By Rudi Jansma

Karma, a Sanskrit word meaning "action," is regarded as a law of absolute universal justice, in which effect is linked with cause. It covers all causality in the universe, but the emphasis is on ethical causality or responsibility. According to Eastern doctrines, no living being is excepted from karma, not even a god, though the karma of a god is on a different level from that of a man, who is often guided by personal desires and selfish motivations.

The Oglala Indians of South Dakota belong to those tribes who called themselves Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Fireplaces, now generally known as Sioux Indians. Much eternal wisdom is concealed under the surface of their myths. In summarizing their story on cosmogenesis, our emphasis will be on the concept of Skan, a divine being of great interest in relation to their ideas on ethical causality. Skan literally means "to do, to act, to move about": the acting moving principle.

In the beginning was Inyan (the rock), beginningless, omnipresent, and omnipotent, soft and shapeless. His spirit was Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit or Great Incomprehensible. From a part of himself, Inyan made Maka (Earth), who in her spirit remained part of him. Inyan's blood became the rivers, his powers became the sky -- not the material sky, but the spirit of Skan, the source of energy. Although Skan was the third of the sacred beings, he was the highest, because Inyan and Maka were material, and the world of matter has no powers except those given by Skan. Maka demanded all kinds of things for herself, such as light and shadow, warmth and adornments. Skan heard her complaints and uttered the first decree: "Maka must remain as she was created, joined to Inyan as a part of the world, but she shall be able to see herself and control the waters." Thus Skan was established as the final judge of all things.

After further complaints from Maka, Skan created Wi (Sun) by taking parts from Inyan, Maka, the waters, and himself. When Maka complained to Sun that he was too warm and that she wished shadows, he replied that he could only obey the orders of Skan. One day Skan assembled the sacred beings and told them that they were four yet one -- that one being Wakan Tanka -- that each is a part of the Great Incomprehensible: "I, Skan, am the source of all power, and I shall give rank and domain to each of you." He gave Sun first rank, and himself second. Later Wi declared that Skan should take first place in the hierarchy, as the source of all powers and wisdom, and all the sacred beings agreed.

Then Skan granted each one the power to create a companion for himself. Wi created Hanwi (Moon); Maka created a female being of magical beauty, named Unk (Passion) with a part of ill nature. Skan created Tate (Wind) as a companion for himself, a faithful servant and messenger. Inyan created Wakinyan (Thunderstorm) who laid an egg from which was born Ksa (Wisdom). Ksa had a strange shape, but all liked him except Unk. Ksa invented language and stories, names and games. Then Skan created a beautiful daughter, Woope (spirit of Friendship and Compassion). From Unk was born Iya (Evil Spirit) and he begot a child with his mother, a charming son, Gnaski (the Demon). Then Skan created the ancestors of mankind: the Pte people. He gave them a spirit and commanded Tate (Wind) to breathe into each image a breath of life. Ksa (Wisdom) gave them intelligence, Moon gave them affection for each other and Woope gave them longing and love for offspring.

These first ancestors of humankind, Father and Mother, obeyed Ksa's instructions. The demon Gnaski saw all this and planned to cause trouble wherever he could. Skan knew his evil intentions; however, just as the wishes and demands of Maka and others are always granted by Skan (though he sometimes points out the limiting conditions which will result from their fulfillment), so is Gnaski allowed to do certain things. For example, he spits on certain plants making them spiny or poisonous; he urges his mother to create in the waters microbes that cause pain and disease, and later he makes biting insects, among other things.

Then comes the exclusion of Unk (Passion) from the circle of sacred beings, because she claimed too much for herself and would not be advised by Ksa (Wisdom). She challenges the sacred beings, separating herself from them. Unk decides to outwit Wisdom with the cunning of Gnaski: "We have only Skan to fear, for he is beyond our power." But Gnaski does not fear Skan since Skan allowed him to be the son of Unk. Gnaski indeed succeeds in defeating Ksa (Wisdom), by sowing confusion. Disguised as Ksapela (Little Wisdom) he looks so much like real wisdom, that the people cannot distinguish one from the other. What he speaks is funny, attractive wisdom, but in reality folly. He finally succeeds in getting Ksa completely entangled and Ksa becomes, through Skan's judgment, a spider, the trickster Iktomi. One of the deceptive ideas that Gnaski brought to the people is the concept of vengeance. "What is vengeance?" they asked. "Ksa taught us nothing about that."

"It is the justice of repayment for injury or insult. One who causes pain or grief is repaid by suffering," said Gnaski in his disguise as Little Wisdom.

Father and Mother of mankind now die, instituting death for the first time. A part of the one who dies returns whence it came; another part, the Nagi, appears before the Great Spirit and tells how the person conducted himself during life; Skan is the judge. The place of Father and Mother is taken by Old Man and Old Woman (Wakanka, who could look into the future). They had a daughter Ite (Face). Tate, companion and messenger of Skan, wishes to live among the humans and Skan grants his wish. He fell in love with Ite, but Gnaski was there also in a handsome form as Little Wisdom. Ite asked her mother to look into the future and tell her about the handsome Little Wisdom. "He is more than a man," said Old Woman. "But he makes people happy only for selfish reasons."

"Which one shall I choose, Little Wisdom or Tate?" asked Ite.

"One of the two will sit at the place of honor in your lodge, but I cannot foresee which one. Try to choose the one who helps you most." After a long struggle with doubt, she chooses Tate, but keeps a link with Little Wisdom.

In his subtle ways of confusing real wisdom with attractive wisdom or folly, he feeds the latent human desire for more power and more beauty in Ite, which finally leads her to take the seat of Moon, wife of Sun. For this offense -- leaving her own husband Tate and making Moon ashamed -- Skan has to pronounce his great judgment: Ite will henceforward be Anog-Ite (Double-Faced) -- one face beautiful, the other so ugly that everyone will run away from her when she shows it. She will no longer be allowed to see her husband until there is a "fourth time"; her husband, however, may see her as often as he wishes, but will be invisible to her.

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In this myth Inyan, the formless, soft rock, beginningless and omnipresent, represents the primordial state of the universe, undifferentiated subtle matter with spirit inherent in it. In the first stages of cosmic manifestation a separation takes place between gross matter (Earth), the waters (later ruled by passion), and the sky or Skan, the spiritual, intelligent, divine energy, source of all powers, and cause of all movement. As such Skan is the first cause in the manifested universe, and as giver of all energy and motion he is the cause of all action. But he is not responsible for actions done by the beings who come into existence, that is, for how these beings use their free will. All other spiritual beings recognize him as the highest sacred being in the manifested universe, the highest principle in each human being, and the final judge of all things, cosmically and individually. According to his judgments the destiny of the universe unrolls, while his judgment of the individual soul after death determines its destiny on the spirit-path. Because of his divine intelligence and insight he understands ethics in the deepest sense, but he does not create ethics: the ethical laws of necessity are beyond his power and his judgments are based on knowledge of them.

A remarkable characteristic of Skan's divine power-intelligence-justice is that he never prohibits anything. All the "selfish" requests of Maka (Earth) are granted; and he does not interfere when Unk chooses willingly to disobey his decrees. He sometimes points out the consequences which are strictly logical from the moral point of view, without any feeling of vengeance or disdain. Why does Skan allow harmful causes which bring suffering upon the beings committing them and upon the world at large? What is it that is even greater than Skan, above his power and right to interfere?

A hint may be found in the hierarchy of sacred beings, where Wi (Sun), created by Skan, is by Skan himself placed above him. Sun is the governor of cycles: day and night, the month, through his self-created companion, Moon, and the year. From an esoteric point of view the movements of manifestation -- creation and evolution -- are subject to the law of cycles, that is, the necessity for all life to manifest in forms, to experience, to learn, to become self-conscious, and to give the higher manifestations of consciousness the opportunity to help the lower ones upwards. However, within the cycles, which run their infallible and inescapable course, all is determined by the law of causality, for which Skan is the judge. It is hard to say if the Oglala meant all this when they thought of the sun and the hierarchy of Wi and Skan; nevertheless, the myth has the power to evoke these thoughts.

From Skan originate Tate (his companion and messenger), and Woope (his daughter and later messenger), who represent two aspects of the higher nature in man, the higher self and compassion respectively. From matter (Earth, which is one with Skan in the Great Spirit) originate passion and evil, which lead mankind and the individual away from the spirit-path. Tate, created by and from Skan, wishes to embody among early mankind or, we may say, in every human being. But passion is also an aspect of humankind. It is the human soul, represented by Ite, daughter of Old Man and Old Woman, who has to make choices and face the consequences. She has to choose the "one who helps her most": the higher self, silent and in the background, or the attractive but foolish Little Wisdom, a disguise of the demon Gnaski born from Passion. She marries Tate, but not without lending an ear once more to the Demon, by whom she is almost kidnapped. Though Gnaski loses this time, he doesn't give up. By mingling himself more and more with Ksa (Wisdom), he confuses the people and subtly undermines their power of discernment. This is the challenge man has to meet as a self-responsible and evolving being. Even though misled he is accountable and has to face the judgment of Skan. These judgments are not for eternity, however; they are limited by time cycles, so that the consequences of wrong action last only until their time is run, no longer, no shorter.

There is no way of escaping the result of what is done. Even good deeds cannot counteract the wrong of the past, as when Old Woman, Wakanka, by Skan's judgment must be a witch until the "fourth time," because she used her prophetic power in an irresponsible way. She tells Tate: "Since I was banished to the world (according to Skan's judgment) I have used my powers only to do good to the young and to punish evil. . . . you are the companion of Skan, whose judgment none can deny; I pray you to show him that I am determined to pay for my wrongdoing with good deeds . . ."

Tate answers, "Do right, because it is right, and not to gain for yourself, and Skan will know it." The evil causes from the past cannot be done away with: Skan's judgment has to be fulfilled. Every action, good or bad, bears a variety of fruits. Bad deeds cannot be repaid or equilibrated by good deeds; the result of an action is finished only when it has been worked out completely. Tate expresses this to one of his sons by Ite, saying that "he forgave the faults of the past, for they had brought about their punishment and it would be so forever."

The best way to rise above consequences of thought and action is to cease thinking and acting for the sake of one's own gain, or with even the subtly selfish afterthought of wishing to get rid of the judgment. This is exactly the interpretation of karma in the Bhagavad-Gita: action, both good and evil, binds one to illusionary cyclic existence, and the way to liberation is to act without attachment to the result, free from selfish desire, for it is in the realm of desire where attachment is born as well as the first thought from which a chain of causes and effects comes forth.

With the Oglala Indians causality is a universal principle, a law of necessity, to be respected by even the highest divine being. Because all power to act, move, or change has been granted by him, all causes originate in this highest divine being, a manifested aspect of the Great Spirit or Great Unknowable on all cosmic levels. Thus all causes find their source in consciousness, and "blind" causality does not exist. Powers to act and change have been granted to divine, human, and lower beings along with a certain portion of free will and responsibility, giving rise to imperfect or "evil" causes which lead to confusion and corruption. Causality is logically linked with the acting, moving principle and with power and energy. Action is the literal meaning of both karma and Skan.

Causality is also one with universal justice, personified as a divine judge. As all energy and power come from the divine being who also has jurisdiction over its use, and as the divine is the essence of every being and nothing can be done outside universal and natural moral laws, it seems that no action can ever take place without the involvement of the divine being. Causes necessarily work out their effects and cannot be counteracted. The effects are the responsibility of the actors, according to the logic of universal justice. All beings recognize the absoluteness of divine justice, which is clearly opposed to the "human justice" of vengeance that leads to discord and distance from spiritual understanding.

The divine is involved in every aspect of cosmic evolution, but at the same time does not "come down" to live in the world. The divine sends its representatives, created from himself, to live in man as the higher soul and as compassion. Thus the divine actor and judge is at the same time separate from and involved in created cosmic manifestation. He is also the judge after death of every human being, interviewing the human soul and deciding if it is worthy to go on its spiritual journey. Apparently there is a moment after death when one comes face to face with the highest within oneself and is "judged" according to the deeds done and thoughts thought during earthly existence. As this occurs in every dying man or woman, there are at least as many Skans as there are individual human beings. Yet there is but one Skan as the cosmic principle.

In Native American philosophy the fundamental interconnectedness an oneness of all beings forms the basis of all other aspects of their understanding of the universe. Therefore, any cause has its effect both on the entity involved, as well as on the whole, and events never stand isolated. Living and acting in harmony with the Great Spirit is the basis of all ethics. It saves one from harming others and oneself, leading ultimately to a return to the Great Spirit, from which we all come, and to wholeness instead of loneliness or separateness.

Because all causal actions are taken by conscious beings to whom powers have been granted, there is always a question of moral goodness or wickedness. No event is without moral value. But the Oglala's is not a dualistic ethical system, like the Christian God and Devil. The root of evil is Unk, Passion, who came forth from Earth, offspring of Inyan, primordial spirit-matter, from which Skan also sprang. The four sacred beings are really one: they are the Great Spirit.

Dooling, D. M. (ed.): The Sons of the Wind: the Sacred Stories of the Lakota. Parabola Books, New York, 1987; 136 pp.
Powers, William K.: Oglala Religion. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln/London, 1977; 233 pp.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1991; copyright © 1991 Theosophical University Press)

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