West’s Perception of Karma Co-opts an Important Religious Concept
Karma is a key concept in religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Taoism. (Photo: Marcus Johnson)
At a fundamental level, most people would like to believe that all actions have consequences. While believing in what is colloquially referred to as “karma” provides comfort in the face of adversity, a central part of one of the world’s larger religions has been co-opted by many in the western world who fail to understand its larger implications.
Without delving too far into the history of world religions, karma as a concept originated in the Hindu and Buddhist religions, and strictly pertained to reincarnation.
Referring to the sum of a person’s good or bad deeds in this and previous states of existence, karma as a religious belief dictates in which state of existence a person will be reincarnated. It is not—as many frappuccino-sipping, pseudo-spiritual, western yoga students would have you believe—a punishment/reward system.
Further exacerbating the bastardization of a core belief of a prominent religion by westerners is the entire complicated nature of individuals who have been designated as “untouchables” within certain cultures who believe in karma. These untouchables are infamously subjected to brutal social injustices based on the belief that they are serving out their punishments for transgressions in a past life.
These complex societal problems, that are still very real, are hardly a concern of those who carelessly toss around a term without even the slightest interest in its original, and still relevant, definition.
“Any responsible overview of the concept needs to be sensitive to the diverse traditions, religions, and interpretations involved,” said Dwight Goodyear, Associate Professor of Philosophy at WCC.
“Any quick generalizations about ‘east’ and ‘west’ will oversimplify things and obscure interesting subtleties that the application of the concept has come to acquire.” – Professor Goodyear
Despite the true meaning and significance of karma in practicing members of faiths who believe in it, the prevalent mindset regarding karma in the west is as a supernatural system which rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior. In oversimplifying and casually throwing around a term of crucial importance to over 1 billion people, westerners have also secularized the term—removing it from its contextual significance in the Hindu and Buddhist faiths.
In removing the term from the context of its faith it becomes a part of meaningless watercooler conversation, in which people idly ask each other nonsensical questions about whether or not they “believe” in karma. In these scenarios, it can most often be assumed that those asking the question are not referencing, nor do they believe in, reincarnation.
Regrettably, due to widespread misuse and secularization, many have begun to see karma as mere superstition, on par with breaking mirrors or stepping on cracks.
“I try to stay away from superstitious things,” said Henry Gulergun, President of the Student Government Association, reflecting the popular mindset. “I feel like some days I believe in it and some days I don’t.”
While it is true that languages evolve and words develop new meanings, “karma” still has a very concrete meaning for the estimated 1 billion adherents of the Hindu faith. At the very least, the colloquial misuse of the term is something of a cringeworthy misnomer.