31 May 2008

How Karma Works

The idea of secularized, new age karma is having its moment in the limelight. Newspapers and magazines use the word to spice up headlines or subtitles with colorful flair. Restaurants plaster their tip jars with signs promising good karma for only a dollar or two. Singers ponder over the power of a vaguely vindictive karma in songs like "Instant Karma" and "Karma." And according to the Social Security Administration, "Karma" even made it into the top 1,000 baby names for girls in 2006. But what is karma, and how did it get transplanted from Eastern religion to Western pop culture?

Karma is a central concept in Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. The word "karma" has its roots in the Sanskrit word "karman," which means "act." In general, it is believed that actions affect the quality of life and the quality of future lives. Good deeds create good karma and evil deeds create negative karma. Karma's effect can manifest immediately, later in life or after multiple lifetimes. Some religions view karma as the law that governs reincarnation. Others believe that karma is actual particulate matter, something that gets stuck to the soul and must be removed through acts of piety.

In the West, the relatively modern idea of karma is not so much a spiritual reality as type of luck influenced by deeds. It's an appealing attempt to influence fortune -- something seemingly beyond our control -- with definite action. Most people would agree that it's reasonable enough to believe that good behavior merits a reward and bad behavior warrants punishment. Karma is also a convenient way to explain ostensibly random hardships. In a rational age, karma is a popular and fairly legitimatized form of superstition, unlike its closely related partner, reincarnation.

For most adherents of the major Eastern religions, karma is a spiritual, philosophical and ethical fact. It helps explain inequalities among animals, encourages virtue and allows people to make sense of life's ups and downs. However, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism have differing ideas about how karma works and its effect on one's existence in subsequent lives.

Hindus believe the soul is trapped in a circle of birth and rebirth called samsara. Until a person quells all desires and accepts that the individual soul is the same as the absolute soul, he or she must suffer in samsara and forgo moksha -- the goal of salvation. But because moksha is an ultimate goal, and one that can be achieved only after it is no longer desired, most Hindus attempt to generate good karma so that they can be born into a better life.

The law of karma controls samsara, with good actions engendering good karma and bad actions creating negative karma. For Hindus, good karma is usually produced by correctly performing the duties of one's caste, or social class. If a person lives admirably and fulfills the responsibilities of the caste, the soul can be reborn into a higher caste. Hindus also believe that because karma is its own law, it requires no divine interference.

While most Hindus believe that an unchanging soul is reincarnated until it achieves salvation, Buddhists believe that a soul's accumulated karma, rather than the soul itself, transmigrates between bodies. The soul, which consists of the five skandhas -- aggregates of body, sensations, perceptions, impulses and consciousness -- expires at death. However, the soul's accumulated karma becomes vijñana, or the "germ of consciousness," in a new life. Like Hindus, Buddhists strive to escape the cycle of samsara by achieving a state of complete passiveness. Many Buddhists believe that an individual can end the cycle of reincarnation and achieve nirvana by passing through multiple lifetimes and following the tenets of the Eightfold Path or "middle way."

Sikhism also teaches karmic law and reincarnation. For Sikhs, karma affects the quality of life and of future lives. To exit the chain of reincarnation, Sikhs must understand God and ultimately become one with him.

Not all Eastern religions conceive of karma as law. Jainism teaches that karma is an atomic substance -- an actual particulate that attaches itself to the jiva, or soul. Jain followers believe that as long as a soul is burdened by karma it remains trapped in a cycle of birth and rebirth. Because negative qualities of the soul (like anger, greed or pride) make karma more inclined to stick, Jain believers try to minimize passions, live soberly and inflict harm on no living thing, except in self-defense.

Most religions include some sort of impetus for good social behavior. For many Eastern religions, karma is that impetus -- its law decrees that positive and negative actions will be rewarded or punished (eventually). While karma works like a mechanical law, Western faiths usually entail a final judgment at the end of one's life. Good and bad actions are presumably tallied and leveled upon the soul at death.

However, the idea of karma is still appealing to people unfamiliar with its Eastern roots. Karma suggests that self-determination is possible and that action can influence the future's quality. Karma has become a popular New Age ethical philosophy -- one largely removed from religious connotations. The simple ethical basis of karma -- that good engenders good and vice versa -- translates into most religions.

The secularization of karma in the West started in part with the creation of the Theosophical Society in the late 19th century. The Russian émigré Helena Blavatsky founded the society with Henry Steel Olcott, a lawyer and journalist, in 1875 in New York City. Blavatsky originally shaped the group's doctrines around her gnostic and kabbalah beliefs, but an 1879 trip to India steered her toward Hinduism and a more regimented understanding of karma. Blavatsky believed that the Theosophical Society's studies, discussions and meditations could help prepare the world for the Aquarian Age -- a time of enlightenment and brotherhood. Annie Besant, an English woman, helped extend the society's reach and introduce modified Hindu beliefs to the West. Today, the Theosophical Society defines karma as "a law of spiritual dynamics related to every act in daily life". It's a view of karma that is only loosely connected to the structure of Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or Jain philosophies.
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