Quick Guide to Karma

Often I hear something like this, “It’s karma,” which appears to mean something like “what you do will come back around to you later in life.”  We hear this phrase everywhere from the grocery store to Radiohead’s song “Karma Police.”  A refrain in the song is, “this is what you’ll get, when you mess with us.”  All this is puzzling and a bit amusing because it is clear that westerners haven’t the foggiest idea what karma actually is.  What they mean when they use it is “you will reap what you sow.”  They have a notion that there is some kind of ironic, cosmic justice that catches those who do evil off guard and cuts them down to size.  Another layer of irony is that this idea has more similarities with the biblical narratives than with actual karma.  Let me flesh that out.

The biblical narratives teach that the transcendent and personal God is just and that he brings an ironic reversal on those who do evil.  God is working for justice in the world to lift up the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.  One day God will put everything right in this world.

But karma in Hinduism (this is similar to how it is used in various forms of its cousin religion, Buddhism), is related to the idea that since forever ago there has been a wheel of good and evil, of death and rebirth (samsara).  This struggle has always been, and it always will be.  Karma is the principle that you will be payed back for evil and rewarded for good.  But that does not so much happen in this life.  According to karma, in this life, you are being repaid for good and evil of your previous lives.  Your next life will repay you for good and evil from this life.  The ultimate point of seeking enlightenment on Hinduism as well as Buddhism is escape from this cosmic wheel of misfortune.

So the irony is that when people say, “it’s karma,” they are implying either that the person did something wrong in a past life or that he did something now and will be payed back in his next life.  Another irony is that we westerners tend to be very democratic and egalitarian.  We don’t like aristocracy bossing us around.  But karma implies that various classes of society are the result of karmic justice.  This is why they have a Brahmin class in India along with the Dalit class, the untouchables.  An interesting book along this topic is Why I am Not a Hindu by a Dalit named Kancha Ilaiah.  In his book, Ilaiah exposes the many injustices of the caste system in India.

So next time someone tells you “it’s karma,” perhaps you should ask them, “what do you mean?  Do you mean that such a person has been reincarnated and is being punished for crimes of a past life?  Or do you mean that this person will be punished in a future life, perhaps by being reborn as a lower class?”  That might spoil the dinner party, but it would orient the conversation towards the question of real meaning.  And unless a conversation is oriented around meaning and truth, it’s just bullshit in the end.