Monday, July 18, 2011


Welcome back to another installment of I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means, where I bust out my love of semantics all over a word that I feel has been misappropriated, misunderstood, or maybe not understood at all because no one's ever heard of it. Today's word is well-known to most people, even outside Hindu and Buddhist circles, and while most people get the general gist of it, there's a certain nuance to the concept that tends to get shoved aside.

Karma is a Sanskrit word that means "action." As in, to act upon something in a physical manner. That's the literal translation, feel free to pass that around at parties as a cool piece of trivia. However, in relation to religious/philosophical meaning, we understand it to mean "what goes around comes around" or "you get what's coming to you." It's the right idea, sure, and I think most cultures around the world have a similar concept, but "karma" sounds cool and gets the point across in one word.

The thing most of us forget or never learn in the first place about it is that at its core it's not a super judgmental term. A lot of us, because we're human and by nature we like feeling better than other people, use it as a way to basically call other people stupid, mean, or just inferior in some way, even though all of us have probably done stupid, mean things ourselves... like, say, scoffing at other people's unhappiness and misfortune. Karma, in its basic sense, is not about cosmic judgement for doing something wrong, like we tend to think of it. It's more like the principle in physics that states "every action has an equal and opposite reaction." Karma isn't a punishment from a sentient being to put us in our place when we get out of line, it's a universal force that acts essentially like a swing: when it gets pushed in one direction, it naturally swings back the other direction. A match catches on fire when it's struck with enough friction to light it-- the burning is the karma of the act of striking it, it's the natural end result of the action.
Like this, only the ball is that thing you said to your boss's wife at the Christmas party.

Now that isn't to say that there aren't moral judgments involved in the religious/philosophical teachings of the word; the ideas of "good karma" and "bad karma" are central to Hindu and Buddhist teachings. In Hinduism, it's one's actions that determine what becomes of them in their next life-- reincarnation runs on karma, so that the more good karma one collects during their life the higher they ascend in the cosmic hierarchy; this is also where the caste system comes into play. One is born into their position because of the actions they took in their past life. Their only way out is to perform the duties of one's position to the best of their abilities and lead a moral life so that they'll be reborn into a higher position in the next life, and so on. I hesitate to use the caste system as an example since a) it's very complex and I'm hardly an expert in it, and b) it's changed significantly over the course of Indian history, particularly in the wake of British colonialism, and again in the modern age where its significance is decreasing. But I did want to illustrate that the idea of what we call "instant karma," where the effect of one's action takes
place immediately afterward isn't really what the concept was originally about. It was more about long-term repercussions that may not take effect immediately during this lifetime, but that collect over time and affect one's next life drastically.
Makes you wish we thought about the long-term view a little more often.

What I find most ironic about the majority of the people I hear using the word karma in everyday conversation is that the very way they employ it would constitute bad karma. It's usually someone insinuating that another person's misfortune is deserved because that person did something stupid at some point, but looking down on other people for making mistakes is hardly the embodiment of self-awareness. Of course I'm just as guilty of it as anyone is, and writing these sorts of posts helps to remind me to remember that. As my old band teacher used to tell us, "when you point at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself." (Back then I spent an embarrassing amount of time missing the point by trying to devise a way to point ahead while keeping all other fingers aimed away from myself.) Of course she was talking about someone's instrument being out of tune and telling us that we should all check ourselves before assuming it's someone else, but I believe the point stands in a larger context. Or, as one of my favorite movies put it, "you'll never be a first-class human being until you learn to have a little regard for human frailty."
Also, everyone needs to go watch The Philadelphia Story right now.


  1. I totally agree! It's been my favourite movie since I was about 12.

    Have you seen the musical remake they did in the 50s with Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra called High Society? I couldn't sit through it.

  2. I caught part of High Society on TV a few years back, not knowing what it was. I recognized some of the lines from The Philadelphia Story and thought at first it was an homage, but then eventually realized I was watching a remake. I didn't finish watching it either, I thought most of the actors were miscast.