What is karma?

by avocadoandlemon

Last night, I had an interesting discussion on twitter about the notion of karma. My friend suggested that making someone responsible for their current situation, by blaming the karma of past lives, is incredibly unjust. Of course, I completely agree about it being unjust. But it’s also a misunderstanding and misuse of the concept of karma. Which took me many tweets to explain (140 characters isn’t a lot for something so complex, and for someone as verbose as I am!), and which is why I’m now elaborating on my points here.

Many people think of karma as a kind of blame, or a way of deciding who ‘deserves’ what. As in: “You’ve done bad things (in this life or another, if you believe in that), so you deserve bad things happening to you”. I disagree wholeheartedly with this interpretation of the concept of karma. Karma is not about blame, it’s not about someone deserving what’s coming to them, it’s simply a description of a cause and effect relationship. As in: “You’ve done bad things, so chances are you’ll probably have to pay for them in some way, at some point”. Whether or not someone ‘deserves’ to pay doesn’t come into it at all — rather just that it’s likely they’ll have to.

The twitter discussion was really centred around the idea of people whose situation in life is less than fortunate, and whether this is of their own doing. The concept of karma might suggest that it is in some way related to things that have happened in that person’s past, and that maybe some of their past actions might have led them to this point, but that’s a far cry from blaming someone for their situation, or saying that they deserve it. I mean, that’s about as useful to anyone as saying that you deserve to miss the bus to work because you were tired and needed a few minutes extra sleep. Suggesting you deserve it doesn’t get you on the bus, and it doesn’t take into account any of the circumstances that might have led to your being tired enough to hit the snooze button once more than was necessary if you were to make that particular bus. The word ‘deserve’ and the concept of ‘blame’ are the application of judgment, and karma is a step before any judgement — it’s a simple observation of relationships.

Using karma to blame someone for their situation also forgets that the concept of karma applies to all parts of time — past, present and future — and that to dismiss someone’s problems by saying they’ve got ‘bad karma’ is probably not going to do great things for our own future karma. To respond with compassion, however, and an attempt to aid the person, should they need and want that aid, is sowing more positive seeds.

It’s worth remembering that, religious beliefs aside, karma, like all living philosophies, are about how to live a more fruitful life, and one that’s not at odds with the community in which you exist. As far as I can see, blame is not a particularly useful concept, and often bogs us down for longer than is necessary in the kind of emotions and emotional reactions that really just make us feel crappy. Responsibility, on the other hand, is a more useful concept. I think someone can take responsibility for something without having to take blame, and I think that taking responsibility without taking blame frees a person up to actually make changes to a situation that they’re finding unpleasant or harmful. It’s all semantics, of course. But words matter. (I’m a writer — can you tell?)

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If you’re interested in a much more eloquent teasing-out of this concept, this article by yoga philosopher, Sally Kempton, is a great start.

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