Quick, Hand Me That Karma!
Week 22 (K): quick, hand me that karma! or how people sometimes get concepts like karma wrong
You hear about karma everywhere, but definitions vary widely. I’ve heard karma referred to as “payback”, “life”, and “the universal force that controls all our lives” (yes, someone really said that). It’s both all and none of those things. Like most things that are explained simply, it’s far more complex than that.
Karma derives from a Sanskrit word that means action or work. It’s the idea that the present affects the future. It reminds me a little bit of the butterfly effect: the idea that the tiniest thing can result in huge changes down the road. Only instead of in terms of magnitude, karma is measured in terms of degree. That is, the good deeds you do in the present can positively affect your future, both in this life and the next. Conversely, bad intentions add up to future suffering.
Part of karma is the idea of causality. Both action and intention affect your life. Like attracts like, which is normally a phrase that makes me puke since it comes from some very foofy New Age principles that aren’t really my thing. But it’s also a truism: if you do bad things, bad things are more likely to happen to you. What you do, and the intentions behind your actions, affect your quality of life.
It’s more about consequences than it is about rewards and punishment. Coming back again to the “like attracts like”, it’s not that you’re being rewarded for being nice to people. It’s that what you do has consequences, and those consequences often match the deed. Reincarnation is another familiar (but commonly misunderstood) concept that’s closely tied to karma, which is why I mentioned that your actions can affect this life and the next.
So karma isn’t necessarily “the rule of three: what you send out comes back to thee”, which is how I’ve heard a good deal of pagans explain it. I think that’s an oversimplification of the idea that actions have consequences. And while the teacher side of me is a fan of simple explanations for complex concepts, it also flattens the idea of karma more than is necessary. Simplicity should only make something easier to understand; it shouldn’t dull the original.
Full disclosure: I’m mixing traditions here a bit in my explanation of karma. Most of this is Hindu tradition as I understand it, but there’s some Buddhist flavoring to this post as well. Part of the reason for this is because I’m an eclectic witch, so mixing traditions is a pretty common occurrence. If you understand karma differently, I’d love to hear more.
Karma is an ubiquitous feature of New Age and Pagan communities everywhere. People don’t think deeply about it as a concept though, and many rarely question what it actually is. The real answer is: complicated. Like string theory, if you think it’s simple and straightforward, you probably don’t understand it.
Karma on Wikipedia (surprisingly comprehensive)
Physics and Punishments (a really excellent comparison of karma to Newton’s Third Law)