I could not have picked a better time to discuss the true meaning of karma. I have watched with keen interest as an inordinate amount of people invoked the term karma to reinforce retribution and punishment in response to recent events.
Karma is Buddhism’s best-known concept and the least understood.
Like most, I was not always enlightened and viewed Karma as a synonym for retribution. I held this view until a chance meeting with a practicing Buddhist at an airport in Miami a couple of years ago.
Our flight was delayed for two hours so I took that opportunity to call a colleague to discuss a recent business debacle which led to a peer losing his job.
“He belittled people, treated us like trash and screwed us over.” I bellowed. “Karma nailed him to the wall. What goes around, comes around.”
“Karma stepped in and took care of business! That is what happens when you treat people like animals.
“Karma is a baitch!” I concluded. “He had this punishment coming and he deserved it.”
The man sitting next to me heard the conversation because I was rather loud. When I finished the call, I heard someone say “excuse me” so I turned to his direction. He introduced himself and I did the same.
“May I share something with you?” He inquired after the introductions. “I am sorry, I could not help but overhear your conversation. I wanted to explain the true meaning of karma if you don’t mind.”
“Sure,” I said. “Please go ahead.”
“Karma is not about revenge, retribution or payback.” He explained. “Karma is not a force that rights wrongs by having someone else suffer in a like manner.”
My curiosity meter shot up and for the next hour, I listened intently as he educated me on the true meaning of Karma.
“Karma, as originated by the principles of Buddhism, is thought of as a form of reincarnation; the paying in this current life for the mistakes you made in the last,” he explained. “Our deep misconception of karma is tied to the misguided belief that for each action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
Simply put, karma translates to how the universe responds to one’s current thoughts and deeds in the next life. One can easily mistake the consequences referenced in the principles of karma as payback, retribution or punishment.
I was using karma incorrectly and I was none the wiser. Thanks to the media and the lack of exposure to the true meaning of the Buddhist concepts on harmonizing life, the teachings of karma has been twisted in popular culture.
You don’t have to take my word for it.” He concluded. “You can go and research the true meaning of Karma yourself.”
I did follow his advice and did my research. I discovered very quickly that his explanation about what karma truly meant was right. The principles of karma are centered around a balancing mechanism of thoughts and deeds, not cause and effect.
Below is the definition I found which best describes the true meaning of karma.
“The Principle of Karma requires that the experiences of the individual being, based on his actions during the lifetime, are imprinted in the subtle body, which will therefore have to possess some organized structure of fine matter as mental state within it, and will accordingly be impelled to move to specific locations for rebirth. The principle of Karma is fundamentally based on this very concept that the deeds of today shape the future events for man – the most intelligent of beings is gifted with the discriminating ability in addition to the instinctive habits that all other creatures possess.” – Paramahamsa Tewari
Note that the definition specifically states that the deeds of today shape your future events. Deeds in this sense was not defined as good or bad because it can be both.
The misinterpretation of karma is blatantly clear when one solely focuses on bad deeds. Most mistaken karma with a thought process which goes like this;
“If I steal from someone, someone else will steal from me.”
“If cheat on my wife, my wife will cheat on me too.”
“If I insult people, others will insult and shame me.”
This way of looking at karma is trivial because karma is not about payback or retribution. Karma is not about someone experiencing a mishap because he or she “deserved” that outcome due to bad deeds or behavior.
Karma is not about an instant or future reward for good deeds or punishment for bad deeds. The principles of karma rather state that what matters most is to be proactive in life, not reactive.
Karma, therefore, isn’t necessarily “punishment” for “bad” behavior. It is more of the sum of a person’s actions in earlier and current states of existence, which is seen as determining one’s fate in a future existence.
The fruits of Karma are not necessarily punishment or retribution, but simply, consequences or manifestation of our inner intents.
Simply put, karma is a process in motion. Karma calls for understanding the positive or negative reactions to our everyday deeds and thoughts, learning from it and adjusting our actions and deeds and intents accordingly.
The Buddhist principles of karma show that there are indeed, consequences for deeds and thoughts. The consequences are manifested by forces in the universe and nature, not by humans.
Karma does not measure consequences in the form of retribution, revenge or punishment.
The scriptures of Buddhism and the explanation of karma is not always easy to decipher. Christianity like Buddhism is complex and the scriptures of both religions cannot be taken literally.
The Bible, for example, states that an eye must be taken from another as a form of punishment. The same bible also calls for Christians to turn the other cheek when someone wrongs you. This complexity of scripture is also found in Buddhism and other such religions.
If you found yourself invoking karma by uttering the words “what goes around, comes around,” you knowingly or unknowingly celebrated acts of cruelty.
If you felt the threats of bodily harm on another was warranted because you dislike the person who was threatened or because that person committed similar acts, you endorsed and celebrated cruelty.
Let’s place this thought process into a practical situation. A man threatening a woman by asking her to kneel so he can supposedly pour acid and inflict excruciating pain and disfigurement for life is an act of cruelty in my opinion.
If you find this act of cruelty justifiable because the person who was asked to kneel is sinful and as such, deserving of the act of cruelty, you just celebrated a devilish act. A cruelty you mistakenly labeled as karma.
This incorrect view of Karma has a dangerous consequence; it can desensitize people to suffering. The danger of those who misconstrue the true meaning of karma and punish people is ever present.
Even scarier is the fact that if enough people incorrectly label acts of cruelty as karma due to the past or current sins of the accused, society starts to shun the concepts of fairness, truth and the opportunity for one to defend themselves.
In this environment, you breed mob justice and innocent lives are lost in the process. If enough people think this way and karma is used to justify cruelty and abuse, everyone will soon be walking around with a weapon.
If you are a religious person, you will be horrified to learn that your religious principles on harmony and balance are used as justification for punishment or as a celebration of cruelty.
If you are a Christian and you boldly declared that the misfortune which visited a sinner was justified because it is karma, you just went against everything your own religion teaches on love and forgiveness.
The only way to avoid misinterpreting and corrupting the religious principles of karma is to enlighten yourself. Unfortunately, enlightenment is reserved for those who choose to keep an open mind.
That said, most people will sadly continue to call upon karma to fix certain situations by having a sinner suffer the same act and feel justified in doing so.
I offer the same advice my Buddhist friend gave me years ago at the airport in Miami. Do not take my words as the absolute truth, go out and research the true meaning of karma yourself.
Let’s stick with positive vibes only!