On karma and magic

“Karmic,” by Horacio Cardozo.

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.

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13 thoughts on “On karma and magic

    1. Thanks for that very interesting link, vampyricfront. I shall be checking out the rest of that blog. It’s refreshing to see a resurgence of old-school witchcraft and in particular, witches and other magical practitioners taking a stance of resistance against the monoculture (cf. Peter Grey’s essay Rewilding Witchcraft http://scarletimprint.com/2014/06/rewilding-witchcraft/). At the same time I think that we should stop worrying so much about authenticity. Authenticity is a red herring–first because it’s unattainable, second because it is not necessarily even desirable (e.g., we do not live 2000 years ago; times change), third because focusing on what others are doing “wrong” divides our ranks when I think we would be a lot more effective if we could join forces, not to mention that defining ourselves in contrast to something else only gives that something else more legitimacy. And finally because I think that quest for authenticity was a big part of what put the New Age on the wrong path. I mean, you can also point the finger at the influence of the Rockefellers and late-20th century capitalism, the zeitgeist of ’60s peace and love, the Cold War, and especially the fact that the New Age draws heavily on Theosophy which was never authentically anything but itself. But there were also a lot of reasonably charismatic individuals pushing their own UPG as universal-and-thus-authentic truths. I love old stuff and being an archaeologist by training makes me look to the past for the roots of the present, so I have to continually fight the urge to seek “accuracy” and “authenticity” in the past. (I mean, sometimes you do find it there, but you can’t assume it’s there, if you know what I mean.) I think it’s inevitable that esoteric truths get dumbed down for the masses (and so the elites can better manipulate them) but the only solution to that is to resdiscover those truths rather than attempt to resuscitate older versions of them.

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      1. Salient points. The tradition followed by the blog mentioned (and by myself) believes it is not so much an ancient tradition, but one which has rediscovered the true essence of Western magick; seperate from the typical run-of-the-mill qabala nonsense of magickal names and circle casting (which is inherent in every branch of withcraft- no matte rhow unique it claims to be).
        Perhaps you would be interested in reading further into the Septenary system, of which I can provide resources.

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      2. I know nothing about the Septenary system and am curious, would be happy to know more if you care to share. That said, I don’t have a problem with kabbalah per se. It’s as valid as any other approach and historically is a current within Western magic generally, but I do agree that it–or at least, a Theosophical-Victorian-Edwardian version of kabbalah-lite–has congealed into dogma in modern magic. It seems to have become taken-for-granted, and given the poor knowledge of history in the general populace, too few people question why that should be the case. Or even recognize its origins in the first place.

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      3. ‘It’s as valid as any other approach and is a current within Western magic”. Define validity?
        And simply existing does not constitute authentcity, surely.

        Regarding the Septenary, despite it being not so well known a great deal has been written about it- so much so that I do not know where to start you off!

        Perhaps this would be a good start, and do feel free to peruse the other articles, fellow seeker!

        https://omega9alpha.wordpress.com/hermetic-origins/

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      4. Thank you, I will definitely check that out. Re: validity and authenticity, as I see it, there are two rubrics for validity, the first being whether something gets the desired results, and the second being whether it not only exists but has a historical precedent. So for kabbalah specifically, I don’t regard it as seminal in the WMT in the way that Greek and Egyptian philosophy, magic, cosmology, etc. were, but it’s not a new addition either. Kabbalah was flourishing in medieval Muslim Spain (al-Andalus), kabbalists intellectually cross-pollinating with sufis, and al-Andalus was also where philosophical, magical, cosmological, etc. texts from the ancient world were preserved and used before being rediscovered by Renaissance Europe. So kabbalah has been in the mix since the middle ages, and as one of the many contributing threads of the WMT I consider it valid and authentic. From a personal perspective, I don’t feel particularly called to it, but I do intend to learn more about it just to cross my historical Ts and dot my historical Is.

        I view the re-injection of kabbalah into the occult by Theosophists and such in the late 19th/early 20th century as being akin to the revival of druidism in the late 18th/early 19th century. A few old texts taken out of context, some UPG, a longing to inject some occult-friendly esoteric cosmology into a predominantly materialist milieu, et voila a new approach that claims all the legitimacy of the old. I still don’t see that as being inauthentic per se, it’s just authentically something else. I wish people had sufficient knowledge of history to not believe in spurious connections with the ancient past, e.g., I wish Wiccans and neo-druids would all throw away their copies of The White Goddess and excise everything based on it. But they are doing their thing. It’s not my thing, but my thing is not their thing, and that’s good.

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      5. Thanks for your kind words! Our conversation here has inspired me to write a post on the question of authenticity, which should appear sometime in the next few weeks.

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      6. Delightful! Perhaps you would be more interested in my Witchcraft blog- yorkshirerounwytha.WordPress.com.

        Enjoying the work you have on here, keep it up

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    1. Thank you! I feel your pain there. Somehow people don’t really appreciate it when I launch into a 20 minute lecture about karma and such…I can’t imagine why not.

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