Crude Karma

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.

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7 thoughts on “Crude Karma

  1. The ripple and wave analogy sits well with me. I do like the neutrality aspect of Karma. People seem to have no problem with Nature being neutral, but Karma is often perceived as reward and punishment.

    Thanks for this. Now I’m both thirsty and need a bio break.

  2. Well said. The concept of neutrality is so often difficult for people to understand, in the sense of an action causing a reaction, without regard for ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Recently I had an encounter with someone who twisted the meaning of karma so badly, to imply that someone was ill with potentially terminal cancer because he’s gay. I just may send this article to him!

  3. Perhaps, Sauma, inspite of all her studies about karma, needs more elaboration about causes and effects of karma. I am happy to give below a short note on this subject for her information.


    Everyone in this world desires happiness and dislikes misery, but we find that one is a millionaire while another is a pauper; one is healthy while another is diseased; one is white while another is black; one is handsome while another is ugly; one is stout while another is lean; one is intelligent while another is an idiot; one is a master while another is a slave. Similarly, we find the high and the low, the mutilated and the lame, the blind and the deaf, and many such oddities. What is the reason for all these conditions? People would say that it is due to individual luck. What is that luck? Who made it? Who governs it? How can you be free from all the above oddities and truly be happy? The Jain religion shows us the correct path to follow and we shall see in the following pages how to do it.

    As said above there are many oddities in this world. It will have to be admitted that behind all of this some powerful force is at work. This force is called “karma”. We are unable to perceive karma by our naked eyes, yet we are able to know it from its actions. The thrones of mighty monarchs are gone, the proud and the haughty have been humiliated in a moment and reduced to ashes. What is the principal cause of all this? It is karma. Even amongst the twins born of the same mother we find one an idiot and another intelligent, one rich and another poor, one black and another white. What is all of this due to? They could not have done any deeds while they were in their mother’s womb. Why then should such oddities exist? We have then to infer that these disparities must be the result of their deeds in their past births though they are born together at one time.

    In Jain philosophy the word karma has quite a different and unique significance. The starting principle of Jainism is that there is an eternal union between soul and matter. This union though without a beginning is not without an end. Once the union is entirely broken, when the soul is free from the slightest vestige of contact with matter, nothing can bind it again. It is liberated. The activity of soul which invites and enables matter of an exceptionally subtle form to flow into it, as also the matter which actually does flow into the soul, is technically called Karma. The thought activity is called Bhava-Karma, and the actual matter flowing into the soul and binding it is called Dravya Karma. It is a substance. It is in itself inert matter, lifeless like a pebble, but in combination with jiva (life) its potency is immense, beyond calculation and measure. It then keeps the jiva itself bound and fettered. A prisoner, dancing constantly at karma’s every beck and gesture. At each step, the momentum for a new movement is gained. At each embrace of matter, the delighted deluded soul throbs and vibrates for a fresh embrace. Matter is ever ready to attack the soul and to flow into it with its billion insinuations, to keep alive the vigorous bondage of the living by the nonliving. It is so very fine and subtle, that it cannot be perceived, recognized, discerned by any the most highly developed sensory organ, or by the most perfected icroscope. It eludes all efforts of the chemist and the physicist to calculate, measure, graph, photograph, use, harness, or control it. It is millions of times finer and subtler than the waves of sound, light, or electricity, or the electrons and protons conceived by man. Yet this matter is ever and anon surrounding us on all sides, and permeating through and through every particle of our body and soul. There is no space where it is not. It is perceivable, appreciable, and knowable by the omniscients. Its workings, metamorphoses, make-ups, and changes are explained by Acharyas, who have heard the voice of the omniscient, and who have transmitted the knowledge thus directly acquired from the omniscient to others through the past millenniums, by mouth and in writings.

    Karma is the original cause, the first the ultimate, which keeps the universe going. All phenomena, all changes, all manifestations are due to karmic effects. Jain saints, the masters of wisdom, have analyzed the workings of karma in the most minutest details in the Jain Shastras. Karmic matter never remains in an isolated condition. As soon as it takes form, it combines with the physical or fluid body, which stimulates it into activity. The stimulation into activity is called asrava or inflow, and when it combines is called bandha or bondage. The karmic molecules produce their effect after a certain period. The natural siddance, falling or shedding off, of karmic molecules in due course during the period of duration is called nirjara or shedding. This can also be effected earlier, and the operation and duration period can be shortened, by austerities. The duration and effect or fruition of karmas can be increased or decreased. A person is the maker and master of his destiny. He can make himself happy or miserable, he can rise above ircumstances, and can make a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell. A karma bound in one life may produce its effect in the same life, in the next, or in a life thereafter.

    Just as gold is mixed with mud in the mines, the soul is covered with karmas from the infinite past. Just as gold is purified by means of acids and other processes, the soul is purified and freed from karmas by the process of mercy, charity, penance, self control, etc. The soul then attains salvation. The living souls (jivatmas) are infinitely infinite. Each has a distinct entity. If these were parts and parcels of one soul we would have found every one happy or miserable at the happiness or misery of any one of them. However, what we see is entirely different. If one eats sweets he alone enjoys sweetness. At the death of one, all do not die. From this we have to conclude that though similar in nature the soul of each individual has a distinct existence. The soul which gets absolved from karma becomes a Parmatma. Such a soul is not affected by karmas again and is not born again. There are no births and deaths for such a soul. It becomes Siddhatma.

    The soul gets covered with karmas mainly due to attachment (raag) and hatred (dwesha). The fruits of karmas i.e, actions would be good or bad according to the nature of actions (good or bad) done. One who has self control and can resist from acquiring karmas i.e. One who has no attachment or hatred is called Jina and the religion which teaches us to become a Jina is known as Jainism. Those who follow this religion are Jains. To follow the Path of Liberation it is not necessary to be born a Jain. However one should lead a life which is in accord with Jainism and conforms to the type and measure of faith, knowledge, and conduct leading to the goal. If that be so the soul may be sure that he or she is a liberal being and on a path to truth and freedom from the miseries and limitations of embodied existence.

  4. This piece is beautiful. I especially like your example of the child, not understanding why it has to pee; as we grow older, certain events just become part of the ebb and (inadvertent pun!) flow of life. That’s great.

    I’m curious to know, though, is if responsibility ever enters the story?? I do understand that, as humanity (and all life) forms a large complicated web of causality, we can’t just pin tragedies on “them.” But, at the end, you do mention the desire to change. If there’s no way to tell that any individual or group is at fault, then why would someone or some group decide to change? Clearly, we are all mixed up in each other’s actions and destinies– that makes it feel very hopeless that any of us can decide to make specific, positive strides towards making the world better.

    Would love to hear more on this. Thanks!

    1. Hello Matthew, sorry for my long delay in replying!

      Yes, personal responsibility is important, because it is each of our choices that later decide the outcome of events. It can seem daunting and pointless: like the choices we make as consumers, it’s easy to say, “what difference does it make if I buy fair-trade coffee/a product with less packaging/etc. ? I’m just one person and this does not make a difference.” It does and it doesn’t– because each person is asking that question, so millions of us are asking that question. When we make a choice, it DOES make a difference, even if only seems it is making a difference to us as individuals. We are part of something bigger. It’s harder to see, but we are.

      We are connected to our economy, community, political, and environmental systems– huge systems that influence the way life is lived for many people and creatures. Our tiny choices shape these systems, and we are in turned shaped by them.

      We are also effected by our own choices in a spiritual and emotional sense: when we make the decision to see ourselves as part of a larger world, we live a little differently, are aware of other things and see ourselves in a particular way, because of it. It can make us more careful about how we maneuver through life.

      I hope that’s at least a start on answering your questions!

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