1. Unnecessary longwinded and irrelevant Foreword
What does one do, on a depressingly bleary rainy Easter Monday?
- Stay in and abuse pharmaceutical substances while watching the entire second season of Scrubs, freshly downloaded off the net.
- Stay in and abuse pharmaceutical substances while working on a thoroughly useless piece of software instead of, say, earn a living.
- Go to church and bath in Holy Water.
Answer: 1) and 2) (all about multitasking).
Oh wait, sorry… that’s just me.
I believe the correct answer for regular God-fearing sinners is 3).
I know… One usually partakes in such activities on the preceding Sunday. But yesterday was way too busy attending a sun-tanning contest in the garden with my neighbours.
Seeing how I nearly lost an arm to self-combustion last time Holy Water hit my bare skin, we will have to make do with the next closest topic at hand today, and discuss religions in general.
Note: Because this blog wouldn’t be what it is without its overly affected pseudo-wordly brand of cynicism, you can expect a certain amount of negative thoughts and disparaging comments on the matter at heart. We would therefore cordially invite the strongly religious and easily offended among you, to go browse somewhere else for the duration of this entry. Hare Krishnas and Jehova’s Witnesses: you can stay; you are probably accustomed to people overtly mocking your faith by now.
Bah, I’m only kidding. Even though they seem to be the fastest growing trend among North American theocracies located south of Canada and East of San Francisco, I won’t be spitting bile on fundamentalist Christians today. Beside, pointing at western bigots and laugh (or cry, depending on the level of investment and hope you have in humanity’s future) is just way too easy.
Instead, brace yourself, for today, we won’t be discussing the irony of alleged bible followers gathering in angry lynch mobs to stone the sinners, or current official rate for choir boys sexual favors on the Vatican indulgence market…
Today, we will ruminate on the concept of Karma.
2. Unnecessary boring but somewhat relevant Ruminations
You see, I am neither very much into new age stuff, nor an established authority in the field of Upanishads and Vedas interpretation. Yet, Google seems to think otherwise (incestuous blogosphere cross-linking: 1 – semantically meaningful and useful web: 0), so why should I refrain from giving my highly uninformed and arbitrary opinion on the matter?
First, and for the benefit of those itching to resume staring at their cubicle wall and randomly hitting their keyboard while a spreadsheet simulation movie plays on their monitor, let me give you the skinny:
I don’t like Karma.
Not talking about good or bad karma either. I do not like any Karma. I do not like the concept of Karma, the “Law” of Karma, or more exactly, the belief therein and all the beliefs that stem from it.
Now, I will explain in lengthy and boring details:
Let’s clear a few things up for the crystal beads and henna tattoo crowd: Karma has very little to with the idea of being “rewarded” (or punished) for your good or bad deeds in some unforeseeable, yet concrete, future.
Unless, by “concrete future”, you are referring to your 3000 and some, past and future reincarnations. If you don’t believe me on this one, go read the Mahabharata again (personally , I’m more into tales of evil daemons abducting beautiful princesses and slaying half the planet, but maybe that’s just me).
In what does it make the slightest difference?
Why, I’m glad you asked, dear imaginary and mostly annoying rhetorical device:
We’ll put aside that entirely unrelated brand of Karma that we could label “Instant Karma”, which is what most westerners are thinking of when they speak of “Karma”. For now, let’s observe how the real thing affects cultures that have traditionally attached importance to it. Namely, cultures that derive from hinduism and buddhism.
If you have ever visited India, you know that, despite the massive changes that have washed over the country in the past few decades, the notion of Varna – socio-religious castes – is still very strong. Sure, you no longer have official birth rights over people of inferior castes, and there are, in fact, strong affirmative action laws enabled to help lower castes; but no amount of social democracy or government programmes will be erasing the general prejudice any time soon, especially in more rural parts of the country.
Karma is the cement that holds that obsolete edifice and the many despicable practices that go with it, tightly together still to this day.
No need to be a genius or Karl Marx to realize that organized religions have played (still occasionally do) a central role in keeping rigid socio-economic hierarchies in place nearly everywhere. Hear me now: I am not even implying some sort of evil design here. It’s quite natural, really. If you want to keep a somewhat oppressive class system working in a durable way and want to limit rebellious movements from the bottom and compassionate progressive tendencies from the top, you need to convince both ends that the system in place is not only good for a few and beneficial for most, but most importantly that it is fair to everybody, in at least one system of beliefs. That system is usually your official religion.
Believe me it works.
Of course, fairness is a very wide and entirely subjective notion here. In 12th century Christian notions, for example, “fair” means that some pray, some fight (or procrastinate when there’s nothing to fight) and the rest bust their ass in the fields. Not to worry though, because they’ll be first on St Peter’s doorstep to get their reward in the afterlife. Their working-class muslim brethren have about the same outlook, plus the promise of a truckload of fresh booties upon arrival. Twentieth century Dollarism carries a similar task repartition, with the added twist that a fraction of the population is allowed to change groups in between generations (never mind the fact that the fraction in question is statistically ridiculous and continuously decreasing, it’s the symbol that matters).
For most societies influenced by hinduism, Karma is what defines Fair. Conveniently enough, by stating that Karma affects your fate in your next life cycles, you retroactively imply that it has affected your current fate. As such, whether you are born a brahmin or an untouchable, you probably deserved it. Best you should hope for is that your good deeds and acceptance of your fate in this life will warrant a promotion in the next one.
Without getting into some debate about moral relativism, it’s easy to see how some nice, educated, hell, even somewhat compassionate people, might have no qualms about letting inferior castes rot in the gutter. Despite the many incredible minds who have stood against this idea in recent times, the idea that “you did something to deserve that” has been deeply, deeply ingrained into the hindu psyche for thousands of years. And the vector of this principle is what is called Karma. Quite far from the lovey-dovey new-agey modern definition, huh?
Buddhism is a slightly different problem, as it doesn’t emphasize the caste aspect of reincarnation cycles so much, instead focusing on the suffering that derives from Karma and meditation as a way to free oneself. Fundamental principles of harmlessness and compassion also result in a very different attitude.
As for Instant Karma, or the western notion that “what goes around comes around” etc., I don’t have anything against it. In fact, I am quite convinced that one doesn’t need to step far into the muddy fields of analytical psychology to tie the folk notion of Karma with vaguely more scientific concepts of subconscious, collective unconscious and whatnot. In fact, it might be one of the only thing Freud and Jung ever came to agree on (that and their respective claim that the other one was a sex-obsessed incompetent quack).
3. Thankfully brief conclusion
Sure, it’d be even nicer if people didn’t consider that their strongest incentive for not being a complete asshole to each other, is the semi-superstitious belief that they’ll die from a particularly nasty and painful disease otherwise. But I guess it’s better than nothing.