“Karma” is not a word native to the English language.
Indeed, it is a Sanskrit word meaning “act” or “action”. It is often associated with Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. However, many of us in the West (and in many other locations around the world) have some form of basic understanding of this principle.
In broad terms, Karma can be described as the law of cause and effect.
Today, one of the most famous ideas that we link to the doctrine of Karma is the idea of “poetic justice.”
If someone sets a trap for another and then gets himself caught in his own trap, we say this was poetic justice – that deserved what happened to them.
There are countless expressions which are used to describe this idea, some of which are perhaps more traditional or rooted in religious doctrines such as:
Tit for tat
An eye for an eye
He who lives by the sword will die by the sword
The humorous ideal
The punishment fits the crime
Other more modern phrases which also encapsulate this idea include:
What goes around comes around
That’s her karma
He got what was coming for him
Karma’s a b—
All of this has to do with evil acts, with crime and punishment, with the idea that evil is ultimately punished.
In our minds it suggests that Karma is also a matter of crime and punishment or, more broadly, a matter of recompense for evil thoughts as well as deeds.
We tend to put into this concept of Karma our own notions of morality, even some petty things we object to, and so to make Karma the policeman for our own rules of behaviour.
The punishment always seems to be in the distance – some point in the future where our acts will eventually catch up with us; we will one day pay for our crimes in the years to come, when we least expect it, perhaps when we have forgotten all about the harm we have caused in the first place and our punishment comes as a bitter reminder.
Karma is Now
However, much closer to the genuine doctrine of Karma is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Compensation. He gives many instances of immediate compensation, of its nowness. One phrase which stuck out to me was:
“Though no checks to a new evil appear, the checks exist, and will appear.”
I learned this bitter lesson when I was one of two junior authors, who with a senior author had prepared an article for publication in a professional magazine.
The senior author confided to me that it might be best to drop the name of the other author, and I did not object. When the article was published it was my name that had been omitted! I was furious, but powerless to object because I had already conceded that it was acceptable to drop the name of one author without his consent!
There we can see the immediacy of Karma; it sets in motion as soon as the act is done.
Any time you accept or condone the idea that the rights of another may be disregarded, in that same instant you deny to yourself the same protection of your own rights.
When you take what is not yours, immediately you become aware that your own possessions are liable to the same taking, and you have to redouble your guard.
It would be “poetic justice” if your own rights or your own possessions were put in jeopardy in the very near future.
“All infractions of love and equity in our social relations are speedily punished. They are punished by fear.”
Dr. Harvey Spencer Lewis pointed out:
“The law [of compensation] has efficiently demonstrated itself in the lives of millions of human beings and is a very definite principle.
It shows that we can and do bring upon ourselves in the immediate or near future the conditions and circumstances which constitute our lot in life.
Through our observations of the working of the law, we are warranted in believing that it is an immutable law, a law that will work in the distant hereafter as well as the present cycle of time, and also that we can and do create for ourselves in the future afterlife many of the circumstances and conditions with which we will have to contend.”
It is this belief that Karma will manifest in the future, perhaps even in future lifetimes, that overshadows the popular conception of Karma, ignoring the immediacy of effects that were emphasised by both Emerson and Lewis.
In a somewhat poetic sense each person is a parent to his or her own subsequent incarnations and passes on to these “children” his or her own spiritual assets and liabilities – “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations.”
But to focus on such far future effects of Karma is to miss the main point.
Good vs Evil
Another popular misconception is that Karma pertains only to evil.
We often view Karma in a negative sense, as a punishment or the bearer of bad luck.
However, since Karma is simply the law of cause of effect, it applies equally to so-called “good” actions as it does to so-called “bad” actions. In this sense, Karma is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ – it is the outcome of our actions and our thinking behind these actions.
There is a quote by Sol Luckman which captures the essence of this point:
Contrary to popular misconception, karma has nothing to do with punishment and reward.
It exists as part of our holographic universe’s binary or dualistic operating system only to teach us responsibility for our creations – and all things we experience are our creations.
It starts with you
Lastly, Karma does not only apply to our actions towards other people. Even in the context of crime and punishment, yes, we most often do refer to acts of violence against someone else, however we also condemn and punish acts that harm no one else – what are called “victimless crimes.”
Right there is the essence of Karma – the things we do to ourselves which estrange us from God, from the Divinity within us and which henceforth stunt our spiritual growth.
The same is true of our errors of understanding which close the doors to more universal or cosmic understanding.
According to Karma, there must be compensation, one way or another, for harm done to others (even if it takes many lifetimes to accomplish it). Our own suffering, whether or not the Karmic results of our own actions, does not square the debt – it can only teach us the necessary lesson, so that we learn and do not repeat the same mistakes.
On the other hand, the harm we do to ourselves, the constraints we place on our own lives because of misconceptions, cannot be compensated for in any such way.
The only relief comes from a turnabout within ourselves; we have to stop hurting ourselves.
If we want cosmic blessings and advantages in our lives, we have to stop doing without them; stop trying to do without them; stop pretending that we can do without them.
No power on earth or in heaven can “bring” them to us.
After all, if one steps into the shade, how can one expect to then summon the sun?