Many times, during discussions in the Pagan community – particularly those revolving around perceived negative behavior – you’ll hear someone invoke the idea of Karma, the notion that what goes around comes around. However, the original concept of Karma is far more complex than simply a giant cosmic payback machine. Let’s look at the way some eastern religions view Karma, and how it’s been adapted by the modern Pagan and metaphysical communities.
Our About.com Hinduism Expert, Subhamoy Das, has a great article explaining Karma as a law of cause and effect. In other words, it’s not just bad stuff that comes back on you, but good works and actions as well. Furthermore, Karmic results often do not appear in this lifetime, but in the next. He says, “Hindu philosophy, which believes in life after death, holds the doctrine that if the karma of an individual is good enough, the next birth will be rewarding, and if not, the person may actually devolve and degenerate into a lower life form. In order to achieve good karma it is important to live life according to dharma or what is right.”
In Buddhism, Karma is also a law of cause and effect, but as our Buddhism Expert Barbara O’Brien points out, many westerners use the term “Karma” to refer to the results of Karma, rather than the action itself. She explains that to Buddhists, Karma is non-linear, and has multiple loops and turns. This means, she says, “although the past has some influence on the present, the present also is shaped by the actions of the present.”
In modern Paganism, Karma is often interpreted slightly differently than as a law of cause and effect. Instead, it’s sometimes seen more as a cosmic payback. Do good things, and you’ll have good things happen to you. Treat people badly, and someday, Karma’s going to catch up with you, and respond accordingly.
Much like the Wiccan rule of three and the Law of Attraction, Karma doesn’t always work in a way that we see as fair or just. If it did, people who are jerks would always have bad things happening to them. Those who are good and pleasant would be surrounded by nothing but good things. The fact is that – at least on the material plane – that’s not always the case.
Some people try to see Karma as a variation on the law of physics - for every action, there is a reaction. It may be good, it may be bad, it may impact you now and it may impact you later, but it will indeed take place eventually.
Many people prefer to look at Karma on a universal and metaphysical scale. Do good things for others? Awesome! If you don’t get good things in return this time around, you might have them happen in the next lifetime.
So, is Karma real?
No one can answer that question with any degree of certainty. After all, much like many other questions in the metaphysical realm, everyone is going to have their own unverifiable personal gnosis that colors their answer. However, it’s probably safe to say that if you can live this life in a way that is honorable, fair, and acceptable to your own moral standards and to those of the people who are important to you, then it doesn’t matter whether you’re building up Karma points for the next lifetime or not.