This is the inevitable answer I hear from my students when I ask them what karma means.
I also hear things like “what you give comes back to you,” “If you do something bad, something bad will come back to you,” on and on, one answer just another way of saying the same things. The answers I receive have one thing in common: like a boomerang, karma comes back to me.
And if someone does something bad, they “have” bad karma.
In March 2014 I wrote a post titled “Amer-I-Can Upanishad” in which I looked at the American practice of yoga as divorced from its tradition of origin: Hindu India.
Much as America has adopted yoga, so too has the term “karma” been accepted into everyday usage to the point that something like this:
is not an uncommon sight. And just as many of my students do not know the Indian roots of yoga, rare do I find one who knows the root of the term either. Not to pick on my students of course–the answers to my question “what is karma?” are expected.
And what is my expectation? A fundamental misappropriation and misunderstanding of the term which, much like my discussion on yoga, to an American sensibility.
So what is karma?
First off, it is not what goes around comes around like some boomerang. So if that is your understanding of karma, place it on the backburner.
“Karma” means “action” or “to do.” Karma refers to actions, physical as well as mental (as in thoughts). As such, action do not “have” karma they are karma.
Karma also refers to the law of cause and effect: one action (cause) leads to an effect, and that effect it at once another cause, leading to another effect, on and on down the line. Or in the reverse: every act is also the effect of some previous karma (a previous action). A series of links in an unending chain and when deeply delved into, karma can be quite dizzying. For example, I was born to my two parents. My birth was an effect of their coming together (cause). But their meeting, and eventual marriage, and eventual making me were also effects of previous causes. I wonder, what were those previous causes? Their upbringing of course influenced them. That is to say, my grandparents. How did my grandparents meet? And of course there are large gaps between the meeting of my grandparents and the meeting of my parents, gaps consisting of innumerable actions (karma) I could have no way of knowing. And of course, I could keep going back.
What of the actions I perform today? What effects will they lead to? The thing about karma is that we never know when the effect of a certain action will manifest. It might be instant, it might be tomorrow, next week, five years from now. According to Hindu belief, it might even be next lifetime (and maybe karma from a previous life has finally manifested in my life today).
I am just talking about me here. But karma is not about “me.” My actions (karma) also influence others. My actions can be good or bad–good or bad karma–and that karma, whether good or bad, will lead to good or bad effects, themselves being new causes. Thing is, I will also never know how such karma will effect others. Maybe something I did or something I said in class will have an effect on a student which in turn dramatically (or insignificantly) changes his or her life that will in turn effect the life of his or her child.
Again, I could go backwards–to the lives of my parents or my grandparents and the great many causes that lead to effects that led to my birth, that (as of right now) led me to writing a post on karma (and hopefully in some time, for you to be reading it yourself.)
Or I could go “horizontal.” I am writing on a computer made somewhere in Asia. By people living in Asia. Karma led them to working in a factory that builds computers. Of course there is the machinery involved in making the computers…Machinery built by someone else., who were the children of someone else…
Karma is not what goes around comes around, it is not a boomerang, it is not the circle of dominoes the man pushes in the illustration at the head of this post.
Karma is a web. Nothing “escapes” it. It links everything together in a network of relations whether we realize it or not. It is not “about” us. I don’t have karma. If anything, it has me.
So if you left that definition of karma on the backburner, now let us move it to the front and look at what’s brewing.
Much as American yoga has divorced itself from that which does not serve an American sensibility, so too has the general American understanding and usage of karma diverged from its place of origin, thus allowing us to see just one more example of how we in America often take from other cultures and rather than possibly be transformed by what we take, we are the ones doing the transforming.
And like much of what we take, karma has become just another possession. Again, I “have” karma in an American understanding. Once a possession, it is easy to turn karma into a commodity. Karma is in our tip jars, it is in our commercials.
And of course “my” karma is about “me.” Just like any good commodity, it’s mine, mine, mine. So as much as karma has been usurped by capitalism, so too (as is often the case) has karma been hyper-individualized.
The irony? If anything, as the web of cause and effect that ties everything together, karma is precisely not “about” me. But in America don’t like that.