WICHITA, KANSAS, July 1, 2006: HPI note: This article appeared in the Wichita Eagle, a newspaper based in Wichita, Kansas.)
Karma, according to many Eastern religions, is the ultimate in objective justice–the innately moral music to which our universe twirls. Karma dictates that, sooner or later, we reap what we sow. Like many other spiritual beliefs, karma is a paradox. It’s simple but filled with subtle complexities. It’s a concept that predates Christianity by a thousand years, but for some it’s cutting-edge trendy, says this article. The Karmadu Web site encourages its members to send "good karma" to fellow surfers. Moonlight Fighter Productions sells a variety of karma-related T-shirts, jackets and mugs. Alicia Keys’ song "Karma" includes the lyrics "What goes around comes around/What goes up must come down." And then there’s NBC’s hit "My Name Is Earl," in which the disheveled title character tries to repair his tattered karma an episode a t a time.
Many Hindus and Buddhists say it’s nice to have a bit of Eastern spiritualism find a comfy spot in popular culture. And it’s great if it gets folks thinking in karmic terms. But the philosophy of karma–real karma–is too complex to fit comfortably on a T-shirt. "Karma is not just some kind of destiny that is written in the stars," said David Gardiner, assistant professor of religion at Colorado College. Gardiner, a Buddhist, thinks "what goes around comes around"–a phrase often used to describe karma–doesn’t mean much of anything. A better phrase, he says, is "you get what you give." The word karma means action, and people are constantly racking up karmic credits and debits in their daily lives, according to Gardiner. Building homeless shelters would build up good karma. Ignoring the homeless, or ridiculing them–or worse yet, burning down someone’s house, would be a karmic no-no. "What we do now will create new fruits in the future," Gardiner said. "It’s not a deterministic theory. It has a free will."
In Western religions, people are punished for their sins. In karma, people are punished BY their sins. "It all depends on natural laws," said Kailash Jaitly, a Hindu. "Nobody intervenes. The only one who can intervene is you." Sometimes, Jaitly said, karmic retribution is obvious–like when someone cuts down a tree illegally and the tree falls down on the would-be-lumberjack’s car. But often payback is subtle and internal. "Sometimes, it’s not so much a cause and effect, but you hurt yourself by the action," said Gardiner. Donating to a charity makes you feel good. Stealing a candy bar brings on guilt. Karma, Jaitly said, isn’t necessarily a tit-for-tat morality system. It’s cumulative–like cholesterol. Most Hindus and Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and that our present-life circumstances are determined by our past-life actions. "Karma is continuing and effecting."