Saturday, May 26, 2012

K is for Karma

aka "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Today I am going to talk about karma, and then I am going to talk about what the Western world thinks karma is.
Karma is a Dharmic concept. It is very much tied into Hindu and Buddhist religions and the cultures from which they sprang, and doesn't make a whole lot of sense when removed from its contexts and transplanted into Western New-Ageism. Essentially, the term has been appropriated to apply to some sort of "what you give out comes back to you" concept, which is different from what karma actually is - or at least is a massive simplification that destroys the essence of the concept.

I was going to write all this shit about what karma is and isn't, but you know what? I actually know bugger all about karma. And I know bugger all about karma because I am not massively interested in Dharmic religions and as such, I am pretty uninformed about them. And because I am uninformed about them, I find it somewhat difficult to process all the information about karma. Because karma is fundamentally related to Dharma. So you should go read this and this and this and read the Vedas and books by scholars and understand what karma means in context, and to how all the different sects of Hinduism and Buddhism and so on relate to the term, before you nick off with it to mean just "what goes around comes around". OK? OK. Karma as a concept is rich and deep and involved and reducing it down and removing it from context in such a way that is done in some branches of Neo-Paganism is bad form. It is embarrassing. It reflects poorly on the religious umbrella that is Neo-Paganism. Everyone will think we are dicks. There's that term "the Law of Return"; use that instead.

Now, moving on, let's talk more about the new-age, Western idea of what karma is. I think it is bollocks.

I don't believe in "what you give out comes back to you". I can't look at the world, and see multi-millionaires exploiting thousands of people and lying in order to maintain an income most of us couldn't spend in a lifetime, and think "hey, the world is fair, people do Bad Things and Bad Things Happen to them". I can't look at FOX news, who gets the highest ratings for a 24-hour news channel in the US and bundles of cash, and think "the world is fair". The world is not fair. The entire basis of how everything works - how we got here via evolution etc - depends on the world not being fair. The young are killed because they're vulnerable. The weak bow to the strong. Success depends on out-competing others of your species for resources and for mates. It depends on crushing the less fortunate beneath your boot. Of course, we are social animals. We have affection for one another. As a young genus we helped and protected our weaker friends. On the other hand, put us in a situation with weaker enemies and we will destroy them and take their stuff. That's not fair. It's dickish and unfortunate. But that's how we functioned. Now we realised that it is dickish and unfortunate, and we try to mitigate these things in ourselves (at least, many of us do. Turns out a lot of people are quite happy being dickish). But not-being-a-dick - trying to make society fair and just - doesn't make the world fair or just. We want it to, because we want to assure ourselves that our actions will keep terrible things from happening. But they don't. Sometimes, terrible things happen. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people.

Innocent people are convicted of horrible crimes and then executed. Not fair. The Pope covered up the rape of children, and he sits, adored by millions, on a throne of gold. Not fair. Dick Cheney got a new heart, meaning not only that some other poor bastard didn't, but that someone died in order for the organ to be donated. Not fair. Chevron polluted the Amazon rainforest for years (among other terrible things), yet they continue to operate quite happily as a company and to make good profits. Not fair. Dan Harmon was fired from Community. Not fair. I look at the world and I don't see much that is fair. And overall I am OK with that; I don't expect the universe to sort that shit out for me. The world doesn't operate according to my own beliefs on what is "good" and what is "bad".

For us as humans the important thing is more how we are perceived by others, and that's related to whether we are honourable and trustworthy. You act like a jerk, and people will perceive you as a jerk, and respond accordingly. In a sense this is "what you give out you get back", but not governed by some universal system, just by others responding to you favourably or unfavourably depending on your actions. Unfortunately, how people perceive and respond to us is also related to whether we are black or white, straight or gay, male or female, short, well-dressed, well-endowed, goth, hipster, Muslim, Pagan, tattooed, mentally ill. And often people will respond in a way that is unfair. Sometimes to the point of genocide. As humans (well, OK, not all humans, turns out some people want to preserve their privilege) we want it to be fair, and we work towards making it more fair, or as fair as we can. But the universe doesn't give a shit about whether things are fair. There is no system of cosmic justice making sure Steve Jobs got cancer because his products are made by Chinese sweat shops. And honestly (as much as I can't stand Apple as a company) the whole concept of any bad thing happening to you being just and deserved is sort of twisted. Those of us who think that way only do so because they don't want these bad things to happen to them, and they're hanging their hope on the victim actually deserving blame.... because if this could happen to anyone, then it could happen to you.

Personally, I just find it difficult to believe in a Just World of any kind, given the number of rich, happy people who continue to get richer by actively exploiting others. And if there was a cosmic system of justice, we wouldn't need to come up with our own. I'm fine with other people believing in it; that's up to you. I am not going to assume you are a victim-blamer if you believe in it, or that you're not socially conscious. The "law of return" does contain elements of that for me, when I look at it, but that's not why I don't believe in it. I just don't see any evidence for it in the world around me. My credo is "Shit Happens". The thing that matters is how you deal with it when it does.

However, I loathe this tendency for some people to look at someone's actions and say "Don't worry, karma will get them" as if karma was their personal private police service, or their pitbull. Hey, you lovely and caring person, even if there is a system of cosmic justice, maybe this person you don't like isn't actually doing anything "wrong". Your personal concepts of "right" and "wrong" aren't necessarily in line with those of the cosmic justice system, and you could be the one lined up for some punishment. Telling people that their actions will result in bad karma - "Karma will get you" - is so fucking passive-aggressive. You get to threaten someone without actually taking any personal responsibility for doing so, so you feel like you retain the moral high-ground. Wipe that fucking smirk off your face because no one is swallowing that crap. If some sort of "law of return" (which is what you think karma is) actually exists, it isn't your servant, and surprise! you may get a spiritual whallop over the back of the head if it turned out being a passive-aggressive cuntrag is "bad karma". I know if I was in charge it fucking would be. In fact that would be the cardinal sin and the only thing actually punishable via Cosmic Justice.

(Actually maybe I will get a pitbull and name it Karma. Then I can hang up signs that say "If you trespass, Karma will bite your ass".* God I'm so witty.)

As for the Threefold Law, that's something else entirely. It seems to be something of a ritual contrivance, used in a Wiccan ritual for whatever reason; my belief is that, as with much of Wicca, you would need to be an initiate and to experience the ritual in question in order to make proper heads or tails of it. As such, I can't really make comment one way or the other. For what it's worth, the Wiccans I've come across don't seem to take it literally. So in a sense, I can't reject it as a concept... but as I'm not a Wiccan, nor does it have any relevance to me. It doesn't affect me so I ignore it. Doreen Valiente mentioned in an interview once that she didn't really understand the idea of there being one rule for witches and one rule for everyone else. It does seem a bit weird... is it meant to be just for energy work, or for anything a witch does? I'm not too familiar with it; I don't really bother because as I say I generally assume I won't understand it without the grounding of Wiccan initiation.

*Note: I have an American Staffy / Rottweiler cross and he is the biggest sook in the world. He is an absolute gem and I love him to bits. I think pitbulls are wonderful, loving dogs, some of whom have unfortunately been poorly cared-for - even specifically trained to be aggressive - resulting in violent animals and injuries to both humans and to other dogs. My comment was not meant to imply that I think pitbulls and their relatives are naturally violent animals. Blame the deed, not the breed. I oppose movements to eradicate pitbulls as a breed. Adopt a rescued pitbull or staffordshire terrier from your local shelter or SPCA today. This has been a public service announcement.


  1. Thanks for this, it was educational. Although honestly, somewhat hard to take. As someone who was raped and sexually abused, I have often wished karma--or something--would visit my abuser. But I guess I'll wipe that fucking smirk off my face now.

    1. If you'll reread the paragraph in question, that sentiment was directed at those who threaten people with karmic backlash in a passive-aggressive, douchey way, not people who fervently hope those who have seriously harmed them get their comeuppance. ;)

      You could always curse them.

    2. Thanks. 'Tis a touchy subject for me.

  2. aka "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

    *falls over snickering*

    Oh, I love, love, love your post.
    This is so true, all this fucked up torn out of context 'Karma' bs around.

    No, the world is not fair. Period.
    And that's where my next pet peeve comes in, because, if you tell someone who believes in 'Karma' that you don't see it happening, they pull out their 'get out of jail' card and - wait for it - toss the previous/future lifes in the ring.

    Now any further argument is senseless, because you can't proof that something good will not happen to the poor guy that took a beating by fate in this life, and while they can't proof either, that the rich bad guy will get punished in the next life, they live happily ever on with this threadbare explanation.

    Can you tell I am not buying it?

    1. See, I've always thought "they'll get it in their next life" is tremendously unfair. They won't remember anything. They could be the nicest chap in the world in their next life and all this horrible shit will happen to them and they'll be sitting there going "What did I do to deserve this ;_;".

      It seems wrong to me to punish someone for something that, in a practical sense, was done by someone else. Another person living another life.

      What I don't get is people who say they see it happening. They're all "I know the threefold law exists because I've seen it" or whatever. Why does it happen in their life, or the lives of their friends, but not in the world at large? It leads me to suspect observer bias.

  3. I admit it, I'm guilty. Thoroughly guilty of talking about Karma as some law of return. I don't generally do it as an off the cuff, "that jerk cut me off, Karma will get him"... It's more of a "The pedophile living next door, who got caught in the act, and is awaiting trial will get his..." But I should probably stop doing it altogether, because I probably don't understand it.
    Based on my limited research, a long time ago, I figure Karma to be something along the lines of the things that you do create your reality and you reap the benefits/consequences of your reality.
    I don't know though, maybe I should set up a scorn stick, instead of passive-aggressively waiting for cosmic justice to strike him down. Heh... That would be pretty amazing...