Karma… karma, karma, karma, karma
Except it kind of is. Trite eighties pop songs by cross dressing slightly chubby DJs aside, it sort of is, in a poetic sense. It seems to be one of those slippery words, like faith, that changes with the context of every sentence in a paragraph about it. Try to nail one person down on what it actually means to them and it soon becomes a familiar story. They sort of believe in it in a nebulous, wishy washy kind of way but don’t really have the capacity to say what it is and answer epistemologically relevant questions about it without getting angry. It’s the same old religious/woo cognitive dissonance game we always play as sceptics when someone wants a free pass for a load of mystical bollocks.
It doesn’t help that there are so many problems when western ex-Judeo Christian people latch onto something from the Far East’s culture and bastardise the living crap out of it. The melding of the two cultures never seems to go too well and people seem to only grasp onto the most superficial aspects of a philosophy.
“Well it’s sort of what goes around comes around, innit? Kind of like you smack someone in the mouth sooner or later someone smacks you in the mouth. That guy in the pub the other day got what was coming to him. There you go; Karma!”
This is often said with such a throwaway lack of thought and sense that all has been said that needs to be said on the matter (which is now settled beyond doubt, of course) that the idea goes totally unchallenged. Except no, it isn’t.
This ridiculous after the fact justification of events needs challenging. What is actually being said here?
It Is What It Is. It Isn’t What It Isn’t
First and foremost let’s do away with the idea that when people invoke the idea of Karma they are merely talking about cause and effect or accumulated social ramifications of being an arsehole or a nice person. If that’s what you mean when you say Karma then shame on you! What a redundant thing to apply such a label to.
No! The labelling of something as Karma is far darker than that. By and large the focus chosen by Westerners is one of glorying after the fact in the misfortune of those we despise. If that sounds deeply unpleasant, it is.
Wouldn’t it be nice if bad people were punished by some sort of cosmic justice? Even if we never get to see this happen in our lifetimes, isn’t it a comforting thought that our adversaries and our oppressors will get what’s coming to them; that obviously evil people will be repaid in kind even if they got away with it in life? I am, of course describing the motivation for believing in Hell. And what an awful thing that belief is! Hands up all those people who think the nasty Christians have been vile in indoctrinating children to believe in this heinous idea. Most of you? I thought so.
But now what? How do we deal with that nagging feeling that the bad people often get away with being bad, and even worse, live rewarding lives, even thriving on being a bad person and gaining social kudos? How do we cope with the annoying fact that the school bully who tormented us has a better job than us and is highly thought of? How do we deal with Jimmy Savile and his escape from justice? Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some god-free way to satisfy the wishful thinking that he should get what he “deserves”?
Enter Karma. OK, in its Far Eastern form it universally panders to the ideas of reincarnation and Saṃsāra but surely we can just ignore these incompatible bits and focus on the idea of what goes around comes around, right? Well, no, not really, but that doesn’t seem to stop people.
“It’s a Buddhist thing, innit, and they don’t have gods so that’s like atheism so Karma is OK.”
How many times have we heard people say this sort of thing? Quite a lot?
But here’s the problem: what goes around manifestly does not come around. If we think it does we are simply practising a delusion. Let’s examine what would need to be true for this idea to have any merit.
- There would need to be a way for some sort of unseen agency to know what a person did.
- There would need to be some sort of unseen agency that is capable of judging a person’s actions in objective terms.
- This agency would need to have a human perspective on what is right or wrong that is culturally relevant to your culture and even sub-culture.
- There would need to be an unseen intelligence that can then arbitrate an appropriate consequence for such actions (be it reward or punishment) and for that agency to then be able to engineer subsequent events in order to bring that about.
Did I just describe a god? I think I did.
So what is actually happening in the minds of those who think they are witnessing Karma and believe in it? Nothing more than a post hoc application of our own biases onto events that have happened. We see the person we hate get run over by a car and we think that is bad Karma for having done all the things we hate. We see the person we love win an award for bravery and we feel that they are getting a richly deserved reward for being so wonderful and we attribute it to good Karma. We conveniently gloss over the fact that we just made to the massively narcissistic assumption that the way the universe works is in tune with what we personally like or don’t like. We also practise a ludicrous amount of confirmation bias in only singling out events that fit this model for such thoughts. If this isn’t ringing alarm bells that you are suffering from a delusion if this is your line of thinking by now, then I really don’t know what else I can do to persuade you.
To me, what we have is an appalling need for vengeance. In situations where we feel powerless to exact vengeance we simply wish that in some way something terrible will happen to our foes. So when it just so happens that this is so, we delight in it. We revel in the suffering of others. We also convince ourselves that we are deserving of good fortune that is denied to others by our goodness and virtue we endow ourselves with. The rather inconvenient flip side to this that those less fortunate are obviously deserving of their misfortune seems to slide right on by.
Stealth God - Stealth Hell
I say this is a dreadful side to our nature. We are still yearning for some sort of Heaven/Hell dichotomy, only this is a Hell on Earth, if we believe in Karma. We are still appealing for a universe with agency and intent (as much a defining characteristic of a god as any I can call to mind that we superficially claim to not believe in) to intervene magically in our favour - to perform retributive miracles on behalf of our prejudices. This is utterly vile, to my mind and should be fought by reasoning people.
One need only look at the hateful caste system in India to see the damage this thinking does to a culture. When someone’s accident of birth can be said to be a result of his Karma and used to justify social inequality what more reason do you have for seeing the wrong in an idea? Why do you think modern Indians are turning away from the idea in droves and it is now illegal?
Move Away From The Hell, People
So stop giving Hell a new, bastardised, culturally raped Far Eastern cloak, folks. Look inside yourself and see the same savage instincts that invented Hell in this new age, insidious and frankly evil idea. Shake yourself free of superstition once and for all and accept that sometimes things happen that we cannot control nor redeem. In short: join the real world!
Photo Credits: GrafittiWatcher