Sunday, April 12, 2015

K is for Karma

Karma is one of those ideas that seems very popular, especially considering its origin. In a Western Judeo Christian world, that one facet of Hinduism should be so recognizable and understood is interesting. Why is this so? What does Karma offer that we find lacking in our own cultural background?

I can see the attraction for myself in my own personality: while I’m fierce about justice and fairness, I hate confrontation. The idea that the Universe is mysteriously acting on my behalf to right wrongs is perfect. But is that what karma really is?

As is true for all religious ideas, karma is much more complicated than the idea that the universe is mystically balances scales in a way we can understand. First, there’s the fact that karma exists in several religious traditions, so there are naturally variations and differences. Then there’s the fact that karma represents something beyond human understanding: It’s just not as simple as “Peter kills John, so Peter must be killed.”

I believe that karma offers us a couple of things. First, karma offers us the idea that there is true justice operating without interference. Given the complexities and flaws in the US justice system, that’s pretty attractive. But I think it also provides us with justification for something darker.

The Christian tradition teaches us that we can receive grace, which is a massively unfair concept. Grace allows anyone, anyone at all, to be at peace with God, at any given moment. There is no justice. Murderers, adulterers, drug dealers, and pedophiles will be sitting with us common liars, thieves, fools, and rageaholics in heaven. We don’t use the principle of grace in the US justice system, but we teach it in our churches, and in our culture. Love your enemies, forgive everyone.

Karma gets us off the hook for all that enemy loving and neighbor forgiving. It’s sly, the way it works. That neighbor who never picks up his dog’s poop, even when it’s in other people’s yards? We wouldn’t bat an eye if he fell down and got covered in mud, or dog poop. Our spouse doesn’t follow our advice and then gets into a mess? Suddenly it’s his problem, not our problem.

We want justice, just not applied to us. Karma would seem to offer that. In the world of grace, no one is treated justly, and so no one is better than someone else. In the world of karma, at least as it is simplified and reduced by US culture, people get what they deserve, and some people are better than others. It’s appealing.

I want to conclude by saying that I in no way intend for this post to be an accurate description of karma. And I’m not saying that karma is better or worse than the idea of grace. I just observe that in a culture heavily influenced by Christianity, which teaches grace, karma does not naturally become popular unless it fills a need. What do you think about karma?


  1. I would like to believe in Karma - I have seen what I believe to be Karma it in action a couple of times and it was great! I also have seen people get away with things for a long time and have not seen Karma bite them in the you know where and that is frustrating. I feel like Karma came back to 'pay me back' for an indiscretion 25 years ago. And I have seen some truly good people, have truly good 'karma' -

  2. Thanks for the reply, Judi! I think that often times karma is generally the way the world works.