Defining Karma

This is one of those entries that I have been itching to write for a long time. Pop culture would have one believe that Karma is a matter of doing something bad, and then “the universe” paying the offender back by something bad happening to them. New Age culture especially, would have you believe that there is a celestial ledger of good and bad, and that “the universe” doles out punishment and reward. This could not be farther from what karma actually is.

Karma is a Hindu concept. Now, to be clear, I am a white woman in Canada, raised rather WASP-y, and have no ties to Hinduism beyond my own study. I welcome the input of anyone from the Hindu faith who may have more accurate knowledge and wish to correct me.

Within Hinduism, there is the belief in reincarnation, that the soul is eternal, and must evolve from one life to the next. Throughout the course of our many lives, we must experience every state of being, and each life is like a classroom. The lessons we must learn in each life is our “Dharma”. We complete our Dharma through actions. The word “Karma” translates to action. We must experience and learn if we are to evolve. If we fail to learn a lesson, it is repeated in the next life. Once a soul has completed every lesson, they can enter “Nirvana”, which is a blissful afterlife that translates to “No Wind.” There is no sense of malice or punishment.

We must experience being rich and poor, male and female, childless and parent, grief and pleasure. But the action, the Karma, is neither pure or evil. Learning the lesson gives one good karma. Failing the lesson gives one bad karma. If it was someone’s Dharma was to be incarcerated for life, or to take a life, then being a serial killer would give that person good karma. If someone’s Dharma was to learn patience, then a career requiring quick decisions would give them bad karma.

We also need to be careful about assuming someone’s actions are giving them good or bad karma, because these concepts are absolute. A person could volunteer at the senior’s centre, be a loyal friend, donate regularly to charity, always recycle, rescue stray cats, but if this person happens to be your ex who cheated on you, you can’t really call it karma when they are hit by a pick up truck. Taking joy in the misfortunes of others is called schadenfreude, which is very bad for your karma.

There are natural and applied consequesnces. A natural consequence of driving under the influence may be getting into a collision, hurting yourself or others. An applied consequence of the same action would be eye-watering insurance rates, revoking of a driver’s license, and/ or possible jail time. There is always cause and effect, but not always the way we want, or the way society expects. If you poison the water upstream from the village, either accidentally or purposefully, the natural consequence is that the village will be poisoned. The applied consequence is that the village will be upset with you, and may socially shun you, or formally exile you. If you are a youtuber who constantly breaks Terms of Use, the natural consequences is that you will lose views and subscribers, but the applied consequence is possibly getting your channel deleted. We like to believe that life is fair- that if applied consequences don’t reach you, that “the universe” will balance itself out with some sort of unrelated applied consequence.

Much of the New Age misinformation about karma seems to be an extension of prosperity gospel. Prosperity gospel is the belief that those in God’s favour are bestowed rewards in life, such as wealth and good health, while those who are not in God’s favour receive punishment such as povery or disease. This then blames the victim, as those who ascribe to prosperity gospel may look at someone who is struggling in life, and assume that their poor health or job loss is the result of sinning, and therefore evoking God’s temper.

Another culprit is the “Law of Attraction”, more commonly known as “The Secret”, or the “New Thought Movement”. This movement assumes that “thoughts are things” and that every single thing that is happening in your life is a direct result of your thoughts. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe that we can cause change in our world through the thoughts we have in altered states of consciousness. But, the belief that everything bad that happens to you is your fault, is literally victim blaming. Author of The Secret, Rhonda Byrne said of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami that killed almost a quarter of a million people, that they must have been thinking “tsunami-like thoughts”. She has also stated that parents of abducted children must have secretly wished that their child was gone. These are HORRIBLE things to say! No one caused the tsunami. No parent wants such a fate for their child.

And then, we also must think of terrible people who were never punished. And good people who were. It is difficult for me to not discuss current politicians in this case, but for the sake of non-partisan peace, I will try to stick to examples not in modern politics. Roman Polanski only spent 42 days in jail for violating a 13 year old. Gian Ghomeshi’s assault cases were dismissed, as was Kevin Spacey’s. OJ Simpson was found guilty in civil court in the deaths of two people, but was aquitted in criminal court. Countless celebrities have killed people in DUI car crashesl, and received a mere slap on the wrist. Nazi criminals fled to Argentina to live out their lives in luxury. Karla Homolka only served 12 years for the murder of at least three girls, and is currently living on a Carribean island, married with three children, under a new name. It’s clear that none of these people will ever truly pay for their crimes.

And what about the other side? A few years ago, we were all hashtagging #bringbackourgirls. But the Boko Haram terrorists who kidnapped 300 school girls, and sold them as child brides, never did. Seven years later, was that karma for those young women? And what about a generation of black grandmothers raising their grandbabies because their sons were incarcerated for minor crimes like carrying a joint, while George W. Bush has admitted to using cocaine (yeah, I know I wasn’t going to talk politics, but I couldn’t help it)? What about so many hard working, good people who just can’t get a break., or who become diagnosed with awful diseases. I will argue hard that a 6 year old cannot manifest a pedophile. And a 2 year old does not visualize brain cancer. Sometimes crappy shit just happens. And it’s not anyone’s fault. It just is, and it sucks.

And that’s the point, right? Sometimes crappy shit just happens. And sometimes the world is not a fair place. But we so want to believe that it is. We want to believe that there is a ledger that punishes the people we don’t like, but rewards us for being good. We want to believe that if applied consequences aren’t enacted, that natural consequences will balance the ledger. I wish that was the way that it works, but it just doesn’t. Sometimes good things happen to bad people, and sometimes bad things happen to good people, and no one is to blame. Accepting that is a hard truth. All we can do is focus on learning the lessons set before us in this life, and for many of us, that lesson is compassion.

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