Karma is a flexible word, yogic in its ability to twist into different meanings. People use it when something dramatic happens, to indicate luck, fate, destiny, justice, punishment or reward. None of those are quite right. Trying to understand karma through events is useful, but crude. I don’t mean crude in a crass sense, but rather visceral, material, something visible and measurable.
In the tradition I was raised in, karma refers to patterns of existence under the surface, the ebb and flow of the universe, a tide we affect as much as we are affected by it. It is metaphysical more than religious, as easily understood by physics as scripture. It is as much what doesn’t happen, as what does. Crude, we can see. It floats on the surface of things; it can reveal some of what’s in the depths. Analyzing crude karma –what events mean– can be illuminating, because it is based on things we can see. Analyzing life through certain events can also be misleading and distorting: emphasizing drama rather than assessing the everyday. We have to be careful to keep our vision clear and honest. The most significant lessons are the ones we don’t want to learn.
Every time there is a disaster, some Hindu somewhere says: It was their karma. This drives me crazy. Nobody needs to hear that after experiencing trauma. The way karma is commonly understood, this seems to imply that suffering was deserved. “Deserving” is another flexible word, implying either entitlement or punishment. Karma is morally neutral. It is not judgment and it is not license to judge others. No one is the authorized agent of karma: you can’t go around smacking people upside the head and then smugly proclaiming it must have been their karma. Bad manners and exploitation have no spiritual justification. The application of any ideal must stand up to common sense and common decency.
Karma is the consequence of action. I could insert some poetic quotes from the Bhagavad-Gita, but I’ll spare you. The Gita is a wonderful, wise book, but we don’t need to look to the ancient world for battlefield examples; we are struggling through our own epics right now. We live in a time of dramatic, large-scale events. Now we have to make sense of them. But understanding is a subtle, slippery thing. Trying to draw a direct correlation of one event to another is tricky. We want to ask: why is this happening? (or, why does this keep happening?) and come up with an answer. But understanding is not an event or intellectual exercise; it is a process. We live it.
Karma is not fatalistic; it is the opposite: the measure of how our actions on the Universe affects us in return. However, it can appear fatalistic, because once set in motion, certain things must play out. If you drink water, you feel nice and hydrated, but at some point, you will have to pee. That’s an obvious (and crude!) example, but a good one. When you’re a little kid, the need to pee is an event that just seems to happen, totally disconnected from anything going on at the time: one minute you’re building a tower out of blocks, then suddenly….It can be pretty traumatic. I’m sure toddlers wonder: why is this happening to me? As you get older, you figure out that it’s not this mysterious thing. It’s not a punishment, reward, fate, justice, luck or destiny, but it didn’t just randomly occur either. To adults, it may be inconvenient or a relief (or both), but it’s not good or bad. You don’t feel guilty or proud of it. It’s just life in motion. You drink, you pee. You buy, you pay. That, crudely, is karma.
You can learn, and change, and next time the outcome can be different…to some extent. You will always have to pee, but it stops being an event. The drama that gives it an emotional or moral component is gone. You know it’s going to happen, and you learn to be competent. This might seem like a facetious example, but it’s not intended to be silly. It’s amazing, the things we struggle to come to terms with, then absorb, and then barely think of again. So much of what drives our lives become invisible to us.
Life is driven by choice; according to Hindu belief, to be born (or not) is a choice: you return to life again and again not just because of “karma” to fulfill, but because life is fun; or, some say, we amass karma because we want to stay connected to life…as if life is someone you like but are too shy to ask out, so you leave your sunglasses at their house for an excuse to return.
Karma does not have to be a burden. It’s frequently compared to payment, or debt: I think this is apt but misleading, because we have considerable emotional and cultural baggage about debt. No-one really likes the idea of being in debt: we’d like to own our lives free and clear. But—debt is often what lets us have our cozy homes, our speedy cars, our work wardrobes, vacations, and so on. Incurring debt is often a lot of fun. The money you owe (or earn) does not express the joy and sorrow it helped you experience. Your home is far more to you than the value of your house. Debt can get out of hand, but it can be enriching, too. There are some prices we enjoy paying.
The process of living is a constant series of exchanges. The idea of Karma unites us: what you do affects me, and vice versa. One person’s action ripples to effect many. There is no question of being deserving or undeserving. We’re all in this together. We all shop in the same market, we all swim in the same Waters. We all thirst.
This sense of connection makes it appealing, and easy, to lay the blame for things that cause us pain on someone else’s doorstep, someone else’s actions. It’s tempting to blame our Mom, the Universe, God, the Government, Corporations, for letting us down, leading us astray, failing to protect us, or generally screwing us up (or over). But there is no “Government” or “Universe” that is above and beyond us, all powerful and all knowing. Our mom is a lady who did her best; our Government is elected and held accountable by us; our friends, relatives and neighbors work for Corporations from which we buy goods that we want to remain affordable, so we can do what we need to do, and enjoy life along the way. There is no “them.” We are the Corporations and the Government. We are moms and dads. We are the Universe. This is our world, our joy, our mess. Embedded in our everyday choices are a whole host of consequences. Choices direct life.
Karma is life in action. Now watch what happens. See the ripples spread. When we’re all choosing the same thing, all acting the same way, those ripples coalesce into an a wave, a flood, an event that unbalances the world. The game board tips: we all go tumbling. Why does this keep happening? This is crude karma. It is not done by “them” to “us.” It is not justice, or judgment. It is not luck, fate, destiny, reward or punishment. Although some people may bear the brunt of the suffering and others seem to wallow in good forture, they do not deserve it. We do not have to feel guilty or proud, but if we really want a change, we have to live a process that can lead to a different outcome.
Our thirst leads us to all manner of tasty delights, but there is a consequence to reckon with, here in the material world. Actions continue far beyond our intent. Eventually the tide brings everything back to our own precious shores. Some of what returns to is joy, some is sorrow. But all of it is life. Karma moves above and below the surface of our understanding, and we ride it the best we can.