When it comes to the nature of reality, one of the few things I feel pretty certain of is that most Westerners are completely wrong about karma.
The general attitude to karma in the West is that there is some cosmic scorekeeper, who punishes you with unpleasant life circumstances when you do wrong, and rewards you when you do right. Just as declaring bankruptcy doesn’t erase your student loans, death doesn’t rebalance your “karmic debt,” so if you are a bad person in this incarnation you can be assured of having a bad time of it next time around.
It makes sense that Westerners would see karma this way–it’s a viewpoint drawn directly from Christianity. Though there are some sects of Christianity in which it is believed that there’s no way for a person to deserve God’s grace, there are others–especially Catholicism–in which a person can accrue merit through good deeds. This may or may not result in blessings in this life; my understanding is that usually it’s construed as shortening one’s time in Purgatory. Many Protestant sects, especially those influenced by Calvinism, are of the opinion that happy life circumstances are a sign of God’s favor, whether or not you did anything to deserve them (not that you ever could, you miserable sinner). In fact, they argue that your behavior is already pre-ordained anyway, so the amount of grace in your life was determined before you were born.
In the 20th century, many Christians abandoned the idea of a judgmental God, original sin, and heaven and hell, but still wanted wrongdoers to be punished, and a misunderstanding of karma as an impersonal yet deterministic and judgmental force fit the bill. Even people who are not Christians (at least not any more) love the idea. There are even magic(k)al versions, such as Wicca’s threefold law of return (everything you do comes back to you in triplicate).
I recently came across this opinion that karma “has no place in western [sic] society” and “there is no karma unless you choose to believe in it.” (Spoiler alert: The author doesn’t believe in the threefold law either, and is pretty down on Wiccans generally.) I am not a Wiccan so I have no dog in that race, but I do take issue with the idea that karma exists only if you believe in it and you shouldn’t believe in it if you’re from the West.
I don’t have the slightest problem with learning from other cultures. Indeed, it would be stupid not to. Archaeologists and historians are pretty sure this is why the Norse colony in Greenland died out–they tried to farm and raise livestock like they had back home, and when the climate proved unsuitable, they opted not to learn marine mammal hunting from their “heathen” Inuit neighbors. The Inuit made it through the Little Ice Age fat and happy; the Norse Greenlanders all died. Racial and cultural essentialism is ahistorical bullshit and also stupid from a survival perspective.
But appropriation is a big worry for many Western white people nowadays. Basically, we pitched most of our traditions into the rubbish bin in favor of scientistic materialism, then, having grown dissatisfied with that, many white Westerners cast about for something that would give them a sense of spirituality and meaning and connection, and they/we pretty much had no choice but to borrow from other cultures that hadn’t fallen into the materialist trap, or occasionally, make up new stuff. (I’ll come back to appropriation in another post.)
At the same time, not coincidentally, European empires were heavily invested in oppressing and exploiting various less-materialistic societies, and that created a convenient opportunity for mining interesting philosophical and spiritual teachings. Especially for the British in India, where there were thousands of years’ worth of philosophical writings to reward those who could be troubled to learn Sanskrit and Pali. And so karma–or rather the total misconstrual thereof–made its way West. There were a lot of things that the Theosophists didn’t get right (and to be fair, plenty of Asians get it wrong too, as is the way with all esoteric conepts), but “karma” has probably been the most popular for the reasons I outlined above.
But as defined in its original meaning–and there are subtle differences of interpretation among different Indian philosophical schools, as one would expect–karma is an immutable law, and a damn useful concept. It’s an essential component of a worldview that magic(k)al people should recognize.
It works like this:
All beings are interconnected, directly or indirectly (six to infinity degrees of Kevin Bacon). For us animists, that means literally everything is interconnected. (Here’s one take on that.) Sticking with Indian philosophy for the sake of consistency, we can call this Indra’s Net, in which each being is a multifaceted jewel. From the Avatamsaka Sutra:
“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering “like” stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.“
(My emphasis.) Indra’s Net is thus a metaphor “used to describe the interpenetration of microcosmos and macrocosmos.” Hmm, interpenetration of microcosm and macrocosm…where have I heard that before? Oh right. That would be the Western Magical Tradition then.
If we accept the interpenetration of microcosm and macrocosm, and thus of all beings in the universe, it stands to reason that the ripples of one’s actions touch all beings. Given sufficient time (and pretending for the moment that time is linear and unidirectional), each action would affect and reflect from every single jewel in Indra’s Net, bouncing around and back again.
That’s karma. Karma is the situation of every action as–to borrow John Michael Greer’s phrase–“an ongoing cascade of interactions” within the infinite interconnectivity that is the universe. The complexity of it is beyond what the human brain can grasp.
Is there some cosmic calculator that makes sure you get punished for being bad? Of course not, but there is already shit in the pool, and if you shit in there too, there will be even more shit to swim through. What is this “shit”? It’s the Black Iron Prison, it’s man’s inhumanity to man. No one punishes you, you just deal with what you and others have co-created.
Magicians, sorceror/esses, witches, wizards, occultists–I haven’t met one that doesn’t believe in taking ownership of one’s creations. I don’t believe in a law of return, but I do accept the laws of thermodynamics. Because I recognize my part in unconsciously befouling the pool, with my conscious actions I try to fill the pool with rose petals, diamonds, and unicorns. Inevitably I am, like you, only magnificently human. We mess up a lot. Your personal system of ethics doesn’t have to include the concept of karma; you don’t have to be guided by empathy for others; you don’t have to think about the wider (indeed, infinite) effects of your actions or the unforeseen unfurling of your magics in space/time. But whether you think about it or not, you are bound in Indra’s Net. We are all in this universe together (unless we’re not, but that’s a topic for another day). Now that the term has been well borrowed into my native language, English, I find “karma” to be a convenient and succinct handle for this truth. What you choose to call it is up to you.