I see a lot of people invoking karma these days, from FaceBook memes that call on karma for vengeance to ACoNs in support groups expecting karma to punish their narcissistic parents. Their very invocation of karma tells me they have little or no idea what it is or how it works…and may not even like the whole concept, if they knew what it really was.
Karma isn’t sentient
According to my husband, who was born and raised a Hindu, karma is a force of nature, like gravity. Would you call on gravity to punish someone who hurt you? If that person fell off a porch and broke his ankle, would you think gravity consciously injured the person as payback for hurting you? Of course not…and that is the point with respect to karma…karma is no more sentient than gravity.
Karma isn’t cosmic vengeance
Because karma isn’t sentient, it can’t avenge you. It can wreak havoc on an individual, but not for the purpose of avenging wrong doing. There is, in fact, no vengeance in karma at all.
You create your own karma
Think of karma like a ledger sheet: you enter credits (“good” karma) and you enter debits (“bad” karma). When you have more credits than debits, your karma is good; when you have more debits than credits…when the unkind, thoughtless, and selfish thoughts you think, words you say, actions you do, are totted up and you have more of those than acts of selfless kindness, then your karma is bad.
You cannot manipulate your karma
You cannot consciously create good karma: to do a good deed because it is good for your karma is a selfish act. So doing a good deed in order to benefit from it yourself is an act that will bring you bad karma, not good. It is only by adopting a kind and generous way of thinking and living, by living your life doing good for others out of compassion for them, that you can create good karma for yourself. The moment selfish motives come into the picture, good karma goes out the window.
Karma works over multiple lifetimes
We sometimes think that the bad guy “got away with it” and that makes us feel angry…or even hopeless. We are anguished that our narcissistic parents continue to get away with hurting us, that the family sides with them, that you can get no justice or peace.
Mmmm…you may not like this but…if you are a true believer in karma, you know that the suffering and injustice you endure in this lifetime is probably your karma for your misdeeds in a previous lifetime. Karma depends on the concept of reincarnation: that if you think you got away with it in this lifetime—just wait until the next one. And, to make matters even more diabolical, you may be suffering punishment for a previous life’s misdeeds, but you aren’t allowed to know what you did so it is impossible for you to hunt down your victims, apologize, and obtain their forgiveness. Karma is immutable: you did bad in a previous life, now the scale will balance itself by life doing bad to you.
Karma often looks to be unjust
A lot of people have trouble with the concept of paying in this life for the sins of a previous one, saying it is not fair to be punished for something that occurred in a previous life, it is victimizing the innocent, but that completely misses the point. If you tripped and fell and went over a cliff, would anyone think gravity was being unfair or victimizing you? Of course not…everyone knows that gravity is not sentient, it is an indisputable force of nature. Those who invented the concept of karma, the Hindus, think of karma in much the same way as Westerners think of gravity.
Western people tend to think of the soul or “life force” as being an entity that, when the body dies, goes on to its “reward,” and that each newly born person comes with a brand new, untarnished soul that is all his own. At death, if the person has lived a virtuous life, the soul goes to Heaven where it is rewarded richly for eternity; if the person has not lived a virtuous life, the soul goes to Hell where it is punished for eternity. Hinduism believes the soul is reborn into subsequent bodies until the person learns the lessons necessary to move on to a higher plane of existence. That means your soul not only doesn’t go to Heaven or Hell, it comes back in another body, time and time again, until you learn to live a life sufficiently virtuous and selfless to move on to the next stage of existence.
And when your soul comes back in another body, the soul carries the sins of its previous incarnation. Those sins are not addressed as punishment: sins are the manifestation of the lessons you need to learn in order to move up and move out to a higher plane of existence. So, if you think that karma is punishment or vengeance, you are missing the point: the bad things that happen to us as a result of karma represent lessons we need to learn, humility we need to acquire, compassion we need to exercise. The more reluctant you are to learn this, the more serious the misfortune that can befall you.
A lot of Westerners tend to think of this as grossly unfair: what about the baby that is born with some devastating condition and dies soon after birth? What sin did he commit? What can he possibly learn from the experience? Western thought does not easily wrap itself around the idea that a newborn child can arrive not with a shiny new soul but with an old, battered one, a soul that carries the burdens…and rewards…of many lifetimes. The consciousness that resides in our brains, that makes up our minds, is not the consciousness of the soul.
Karma can strike at any time
Unlike Heaven and Hell, karma does not wait until you are dead to manifest itself. And, unlike gravity, it does not occur predictably and instantaneously when challenged. Sometimes an evil person appears to get away with his evil, but those who truly believe in karma (real karma, not the bastardized Western version of it) know that in a subsequent life, this evil-doer will reap the fruit of the seeds he has sown.
But sometimes karma is swift: it can occur almost instantaneously, it can occur within minutes, it can occur at just the right time for the victim to witness it. The man who has a heart attack while cheating on his wife…the bully who discovers the wimpy little guy he is picking on has a 3rd degree blackbelt…the guy who gets knocked down by a speeding truck because his arrogance led him to carelessness. In many cases of irony, there is a hint of karma, a payback with an ironic twist.
Karma is there to teach you lessons.
Karma exists to teach you lessons, to help you better yourself, by giving you a taste of your own medicine. How better to learn compassion than to experience the lack of it from others? How do you handle that unpleasant experience? By being angry and resentful and even more mean-spirited than you were in your previous life? Or by learning compassion for others who are in the same situation…and even having compassion for the people who give you none because you know what their futures are going to be like? If you refuse to learn the lessons karma presents to you, then your next incarnation may have even more troubles than this one, until the lesson is learned.
Karma cannot be fooled
Karma has no consciousness. It does not choose to punish you harshly and me leniently. You create your karma, both now and in your past and future lives. You can have a superficially wonderful life with beauty and money and luxuries, and yet be fraught with anxiety and fear and emotional pain…might karma not be presenting you a lesson in counterbalance to a crushing envy you had in a previous life? You can’t fool karma any more than you can fool gravity: your thoughts and deeds in this life set the stage for your soul’s existence in the next.
What do I believe?
I am not a religious person, so religious concepts don’t mean much to me. Do I believe in karma? Not in the traditional religious sense, but I do believe that we create our own realities, for good or for ill, from the choices we make. When we treat people badly, we do not motivate others to treat us well. When we lie and cheat, when we allow the poor treatment of others to justify, in our minds, not being the best we can be, then we are creating for ourselves the blowback that others perceive as karma.
Many of us were badly treated as children and I do not believe we created that in previous incarnations or even our early lives. I do believe, however, that much of the anguish we endure as adults is as a result of choices we made as we left childhood and continue to make as adults. We choose to allow people to put us on the horns of dilemmas because we don’t want to make choices that might have repercussions…but we fail to realize that any choice we make will have consequences, intended or not. If we simply make different choices, we get a different life. Not necessarily better…life doesn’t come with guarantees of a happily ever after for any of us…but certainly different.
Karma, as perceived by the Westerner, is a very different concept from that of the people who originated it, the Hindus. Western thought is often imbued with the concepts of vengeance, punishment, and retribution whereas Eastern thought is more one of harmony and peacefulness. Karma is envisioned as a way of honing and fine-tuning one’s perceptions of the world and helping each person to gain the inner peace that leads to compassion, empathy, selflessness and, eventually, oneness with the Godhead.
Very different from the vengeful, punitive Western concept of karma, wouldn’t you say?