Hello, my name is the late 20th century and I’d like to massively misinform you about the nature of Karma!
The concept of Karma has become massively popular in modern culture, even outside the spiritual sphere of thinking due in part to pop-culture references (such as the Radiohead album Karma Police, video games like Fable, Fallout and Mass Effect and the shows likeThe Simpsons), but also largely due to a rise in general spiritual awareness. You could ask any man, woman or child to define it and they would probably all be able to give you a fairly comprehensive answer. It would most likely go something like this:
“If you do bad stuff, bad stuff will happen to you.”
Pretty succinct, you don’t need anyone to further explain that to you, and as a massively reductive and simplified statement they are, in a way, correct. Bravo, humanity, you have grasped a cosmic concept as old as time itself! The interesting stuff happens, however, when you consider what the broad understanding and application of this concept means to us in society today. First though, let’s look at the history of Karma and some of the belief systems which encompass it:
The idea of Karma itself originated in the shramana traditions which permeated the spiritual centre of the world, deeply influencing the practises of Buddhism and Jainism to this day. This rapidly spread, permeating the region and soon swept Asia, forming the foundation of the ‘Karma System’ within the so-called ‘Indian Religions’. These religions include both Buddhism and Jainism, but also weigh heavily in the teachings of Hinduism and Sikhism as well. The meanings within these belief systems, however, could not be more radically different.
Hinduism and Buddhism convey basically the same interpritation of what Karma ‘is’- and can most easily be described using the phrase: “You reap what you sow.” Humans are, of course, gifted with free will and as such the system of Karma believed in by these systems is considered to be free of any influence of fate. They both also profess that Karma influences life after death- not incentivising believers as Abrahamic religions do with the threat of some dark inferno, but by saying that if you lead a ‘good’ life you’ll not only be rewarded in life but also by positive reincarnation, or even ascension. It’s not only a great way of getting people to be nice to each other, but it also gives us a far more positive reason for faith, which is always nice.
For a prolific explanation of the Hindu belief in Karma why not check out the poem Bhagavad Gita and try to find your own understanding? It’s profound as well as beautiful, so you may as well- you’ve got time to read this blog, why not read an age-old poem?
Now, the Sikhs’ understanding of Karma is a little different, although not as radically as the Jainistic belief- which I will touch on in just a second. Now, they believe that all beings are elements of ‘maya’, which translates roughly as ‘illusion’, or perception to use a more apt term. They are subject to the observation of a force known as the ‘eternal time’- which isn’t so much an entity as it is a backdrop for all beings to be held up to.
The Sikh’s interpretation of ‘you reap what you sow’ is about as refined and literal a meaning as one can understand from an allegory; they believe that the amount of good and evil you do will impact upon you directly. Not as a metaphor, not in some cosmic accident by which you end up stubbing your toe the day you don’t tip- we’re talking an absolute definition of how close you are to being a pure being, both in life and death. It’s a quantifiable, indelible mark on one’s very being, and as such one with low Karma is viewed asfar from pure, and as such is destined to be miserable. Now, if your entire country’s belief system is based upon this, it’s going to become true, on a social level at least, but social Karma is a matter for later discussion.
We now move onto the views Jainism holds on Karma, which are completely separate to the popularised view Hinduism and Buddhism has imposed upon today’s world.
Jainism is a tricky kettle of fish to describe at the best of times, and their concept of Karma is ridiculously complex, so forgive me if I make any mistakes in explaining this: Jains believe, much like the Buddhists that following a long cycle of death and rebirth it is possible to achieve a state which they call ‘Liberation’, which refers to a freedom from incarnating into the world we mortals perceive around us. The path to Liberation is, as with the other Indian Religions, walked by leading a righteous existence and committing moral acts through free will.
In the Jain phillosophy Karma is seen as a corruptive force, which hampers free will and leads to complacency which can corrupt an incarnation and hinder the path to Liberation. This, of course, has come under fire from almost every other one of the Indian Religions, but their moral beliefs have remained unmoving.
Quoting the Jain holy text, the Tattvarthasutra, Karma can be described as:
“”a mechanism that makes us thoroughly experience the themes of our life until we gained optimal knowledge from them and until our emotional attachment to these themes falls off.”
In short, the Jain experience of Karma is that of attempting to overcome moral corruption and complacency, so that eventually through enduring suffering and spiritual corruption, and thereby truly understanding these issues, followers may transcend this world’s moral boundaries and become higher beings.
Makes you think, doesn’t it.
Anyway, this article’s getting kinda long, and I know that reading can be tough, especially when it’s a wall of unfriendly text, so a modern application of Karma will have to wait for another time; this said, however I would like to briefly touch upon the subject of ‘Social Karma’.
Social Karma is the driving force which governs the way in which we interact with each other. it’s utterly commonsensical and is the most obvious example of how Karma works in our daily lives. Say you tell a lie, or act like a dick to someone in a way that reflects badly upon you; the results are glaringly obvious. That person will not like you any more. This is simple cause and effect, but (as they say) you reap what you sow and your reputation will be damaged.
Word gets around quickly, especially now that the world is so much smaller thanks to the advent of the Internet, and people talk. If one person thinks you’re a dick, they’re going to tell people they know that you’re a dick, and as such your reputation spreads until suddenly everyone around you, even people you’ve never met before see you in a negative light simply because of a simple lifestyle of transgression. This may seem commonsensical, but it’s astonishing how often people forget the repercussions of their actions, and even though this is a pretty simple social structure, where an impolite comment or offensive joke may be meant as innocent, your actions and words do define the way that people around you see you.
Karma’s a bitch.
Anyway, here’s a picture of a Mandala to cheer you up after suddenly filling the screen with words of responsibility: