Instant Karma's gonna get you,
Gonna knock you right on the head,
You better get yourself together,
Pretty soon you're gonna be dead."— John Lennon
The Wheel of Karma
It's a commonplace term these days. We talk about "karma" to refer to a process of cause and effect whereby our actions determine what we receive in this life. Sort of "what goes around comes around". Or, to put it another way, if I do a bad thing one day, I will be bound to pay for it the next. Likewise, if I do a good thing, I will be bound to receive my just rewards.
The problem with this is that it treats karma as like some sort of a cosmic bank-account. I put in my moral cash, as it were - my good deeds - in order to receive my moral interest. Or, if I overdraw on my cosmic credit card - bad karma - I am likely to get my soul repossessed. Something like that.
Which leaves us with the question: who do we think the banker is?
Is the banker some objective outsider - like God, for instance - or is it you yourself? And how do you work out what your credit rating is, whether you are in credit or not? In other words, how many bad deeds are we allowed before we have to start paying the price?
That's the problem with this karmic bank, there's no accountability. No cash-machines on the street. No office we can go to to find out the state of our spiritual finances.
Actually, if you look up the word in the dictionary, you will see that it has a very specific technical meaning to do with the basis of Hindu philosophy. Not an immediate thing at all - not Instant Karma - but something determined over a lifetime. Less like a current account, more like life insurance.
What I do in this life determines what I will be in the next. If I'm good, decent and kind I might end up as a middle-class person in a nice home in the suburbs with central heating and a fridge. If I'm petty-minded, mean and miserly I might end up as a spider.
Personally I'd rather end up as a cat. I wonder what exactly would you have to do to become a cat? That seems like the best karma to me. You still get the nice home in the suburbs, but you don't have to commute to pay for it.
Not that we have any choice in the matter. In Hindu philosophical terms karma is a process of blind inevitability, a force of the universe, like gravity. You don‘t get a choice over how gravity works, your only choice is whether to jump off any high buildings, and whether to carry a parachute if you do.
What is also true about the Hindu philosophical system is that its aim is to eventually escape the cycle of birth and rebirth.
Only human beings are true moral agents able to make such a decision. It is up to us to determine whether we remain forever trapped in the karmic cycle, or whether to free ourselves and to attain liberation at last.
Of course, both uses of the word fail to explain how it is that bad people seem to do very well in this life - piling up wealth and privilege, private jets and holidays in the Seychelles - while good people seem often to suffer by being blown up in their own homes.
Hindus might say that the bad person will pay for his actions in the next life by becoming a worm, say, or a head-louse.
But equally this implies that in their last life the bad person must have been a good person, or how else did they get to be wealthy?
You are also left with the strange puzzle of how a head-louse can do good deeds.
Eat more dandruff.
It doesn‘t bear thinking about.
© 2008 Christopher James Stone