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Apr. 28th, 2007

Karma Essay

The misuse of the word karma in the western hemisphere bothers me. Sure many people know that karma originated from the Hindu religion in India, but it seems a precious few people realize that karma has no meaning without the context of the word dharma. Now dharma is a fancy way of saying one's life path. Webster's dictionary pegs it as “an individual's duty fulfilled by observance of custom or law “ or “ a : the basic principles of cosmic or individual existence : divine law b : conformity to one's duty and nature”. Now, a person's life path could be that of a good person or a bad person but dharma is a certain set of rules that apply to how that person interacts with the world. Watch out all you crazy peace loving hippies, because dharma isn't the same as being righteous or living a good life. For example the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu religious text, tells us the story of Arjuna. His dharma was the way of the warrior. He was preparing for a battle when it occurred to him that the fight is was about to start would be a long bloody one where the loss of life would not be worth the potential gains. However, he had the dharma of the warrior and to fulfill this life path he must go into the battle field and destroy the enemy or die trying. His reasons to not fight were pure and just; however, it was not his dharma to follow this. In the end to be a good Hindu and continue on his sacred path he had to fight and slaughter. Oh and get this, those people he slaughtered and brutalized, it was their dharmas to die in such a way. By being what most of us would consider a cruel heartless person, Arjuna not only fulfilled his own life path but is also fulfilled the life paths of those he killed.
Now dharma works particularly well in context of the Hindu religion thanks to the caste system, because people were born into a well mapped out life path with very specific rules. Since in America and other countries a person can grow up to be whatever they want, some people speculate that it is impossible to have dharma or karma. After all if a person isn't born into a dharma then how do they get one? Can a person create their own dharma and can a person's dharma change? I'm not sure how far I want to explore these options, but I do think that even people who aren't born into one specific life path can have some dharma. While in America there is no one life path that is clean cut on exactly how a person should act, we could find our own way. Perhaps there is still a Universal life purpose in store for the average American. Some parts of Arjuna's parable would no longer apply. We aren't forced to do something we don't want to do anymore, but that doesn't mean we don't have a dharma. It also doesn't mean that just because we can choose a job that there aren't parts of a job we don't like to do. There could still be a road we should follow. The lack of caste system would make it harder to appropriately identify it.
Karma is gathered based on one's adherence to one's dharma. It isn't energy. There isn't good karma or bad karma, it is all just karma. You can't stop yourself from gaining karma either...unless you die. I'm pretty sure that while dead a person gathers no karma. Long and short of it is that karma is just like a tally of your life compared to however your dharma said you should have lived your life.
Here's the part that most westerners mess up the worst. Karma doesn't take effect until after you are dead. Adhering to one's life path will have a person be reincarnated into a higher being that is closer to enlightenment while failing one's dharma gets a person reincarnated into a lesser being that will take them longer to achieve enlightenment. It is that simple. There are no cycles where karma is “catching up” to people in this life time or where you are always rewarded for doing good things. Sometimes for some people the good thing is the wrong thing to do in the karmic system.
Since karma can be a brutal as it is kind you can see why it would annoy me that people toss the word around. Karma and dharma don't fit into the same system as good and evil. The words are not meant in these contexts and it bothers me when people bastardize the word, particularly in a western setting.
I know what you are going to say, definitions change over time, why should this karma stuff be any different. I agree, definitions do change over time. Still, we aren't talking about a change in definition with the word karma, we are talking about one culture misunderstanding another's religious beliefs and then popularizing a mistranslation. If I mistranslated “perdo”, the Spanish word for dog, as penis and tried to excuse this mistranslation by telling everyone that the meaning of words change over time, it would be unacceptable. I don't see how the mistranslation of karma is any different. In fact, in some ways our insistence that karma means some sort of “do good things and good things comes to you” catch all is more insulting because in twisting this definition we have twisted and misrepresented the basic principles of the Hindu religion. The west doesn't really know much about Hinduism in general, but we sure don't need to go around spreading a distorted picture of Hinduism to add to the cunfusion.
I know change can be hard for the masses. Especially when shows like “The Life of Earl” preach about karma like it is an extension of the golden rule. Instead of “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” it is “Do good to others and good things will come back at you, do bad and bad will come at you.” It might make an easy sitcom, but it makes for terrible philosophy. After all, how often does doing the “right thing” or the “good thing” put you personally out in the cold? Is the “right thing” really all about a reward or is the “right thing” the right thing to do regardless of the consequences? In my experience things that are in the moral right often take time, effort, and are rarely enjoyable. Where is my medal?
Plus how many of us know that saintly person with the worst luck? They are so good and so wonderful but tragedy after tragedy keeps happening to them. Are they not really doing good works after all or is the system just a stupid one? I mean, we could start rationalizing by putting ludicrous hindrances on the system. Saying things like “If you do good only to get good then you aren't really worthy.” But this only causes more problems. It makes people judge other's intentions. We tell a person that if they really meant their good works then they would benefit, but how can we judge who really means their actions? Likewise, if I commit genocide, as long as I don't mean it, do good things still happen to me or are there some things so terrible that it doesn't matter if you meant it?
Suddenly all these additions not only make karma not karma, but they also make karma something Christians and other followers of YHVH able to understand. We can say that the Hindus really do follow the same rules they do. It proves that God is universal because even though Hindus have many Gods and have a lot of different beliefs, karma is the same as the golden rule.
But karma isn't the same. Hinduism isn't the same as an Abrahamic faith. Even all the different followers of YHVH are vastly different. To mush it all together into a super religion or to try and force the shapes to be the same is insulting and belittling.
So now that we are in this mess where karma has come to signify a lot of mainly Christian influenced garble that is unrelated to karma's actual meaning how do we stop this? The easiest way is to continue to present the truths and facts about karma's true meaning when it comes up. Politely correct people and what not; however, there is a major problem with this. Often, when someone is discussing karma, there is an emotionally charged conversation going on. How can a person interrupt and correct a person without becoming an insensitive listener? I mean they are crying about their mother's death and how their miserable karma must have done it from that time they stole all those cookies. You're just trying to laugh at how ridiculous their pity fest is. Then imagine trying to look for a way good in to explain how even if that were true and you could “energetically” kill people you cared about by stealing cookies that would have nothing to do with karma.
See, writing a paper about karma, while fun, ends up being pointless. I know the meaning of the word. Everyone should, but most westerners don't. There is no doubt someone will be offended by my little lecture that just told some pompous “know it alls” everything they thought about karma is a lie. On the other hand, the majority of people probably find the speech boring. I can see you looking at it now being like “really who cares”? I care and others should too. I know when we talk about faith and I step in and correct people on the definitions they are using they think I'm being offensive. I'm right but I'm still a jerk for “telling them what to believe” or “daring to correct their faith”. After all there “is no one true way” and my “fundamentalist ways” have to go. People forget that we need to adhere to definitions or else words lose meaning. If words lost meaning, we wouldn't be able to communicate at all. It is possible that sometimes I am too stringent in my quest to correct other's words, but it is equally possible that these people just have no idea what they are talking about. No one should throw around words they don't understand. Maybe it's just my dharma to be a pretentious and correct people when they are misusing religious terminology. Maybe its just others' dharma to be emo and easily offended when religious beliefs are addressed. Perhaps like Ajruna through doing an ugly task and I'm totally gaining enlightenment.