Karma is sometimes confused with poetic justice. In an old saying, for example when a person’s scheme, backfires and he is caught in it himself, “He is hoist with his own petard.” In another saying, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” It satisfies our sense of fitness when “the punishment fits the crime.” These are examples of poetic justice, in which vice and virtue is rewarded in a way that seems ironically appropriate. But this is not the gist of karma. In some ways karma works out like retribution, but it is never ironic.
To identify karma with retribution is also inadequate and misleading, because karma is more than that. Retribution is mostly repayment in a kind as a way to even things up – tit for tat, an eye for an eye, spite for spite, measure for measure. According to this limited view, karma puts us in a position to be done to as we have done to others – the converse of the Golden Rule, or “Let it be done to us as we have done to others.”
A person who thinks of karma as only retribution might endure much difficulty, even some that he could alleviate, because he has decided that this is his karma, retribution for something he must have done in a previous life, and that there is no escape from it, nothing he should do about it except to bow under it. This then becomes his pretext, his copout; he makes karma the scapegoat, not only for his woes but also for his failure to do something constructive about them. Not all his woes can be traced to karma. The ups and downs of life are not all predetermined, but they are all learning situations. How he copes with these ups and downs – or fails to cope and merely gives in – creates more karma that is effective now as well as in the future. How he copes today sets the pattern for tomorrow.
Karma is also called the law of compensation, which is more than retribution to even things up. It also implies atonement, whereby we compensate others for wrongs we have done to them – but not, conversely, for wrongs they have done to us.
Karma is not strictly associated with right or wrong, or good or bad. More accurately, it is a principle of cause and effect, within which we can try to maximize the effects that we think are good. It will be seen, however, that what we hold to be good, or evil, is part of the web of karma that we weave about ourselves – for better or worse.
However, karma is not a policeman nor a judge, nor the enforcer for any such system, though it might be said that insight into the workings of karma is at the root of all such systems. Karma is rather the mechanics of cause and effect in its most universal application.
Not what we do to others, but what we do to ourselves, makes up the chief burden of our own karma. Included in this are the effects on us of what we do to others.
The widespread error or blind spot is the assumption that any act can be detached and have no other reactions or consequences, that things exist piecemeal in the universe without any intrinsic connection with each other. The great blind spot is our failure to acknowledge this whole, this omnipresent source of all life, energy, and intelligence. If one is unaware of this omnipresent source, or turns his back on it, he shuts the door to the primary agency of growth, discovery, and understanding. He must then deal piecemeal with the world, its people, circumstances and problems.
To disregard this universal source does not release us from its dominion. Neither does it cut us from the source, nor from its basic benefits.
The function of karma is to teach these facts, not by words, but by example. In order to dispel webs of unfortunate karma that we have woven about ourselves, we must heed its admonitions. We must stop doing whatever redounds (contributes, leads) to our misfortune and loss, whatever keeps us in the dark, misguided and undeveloped.
The solution is to step back fully into the sunlight, to become aligned with the facts of life, and especially to form a fitting and normal relationship with cosmic or divine powers, with the source of all living, doing, thinking, feeling, and striving. But this simple solution seems hedged with difficulties. Instead of stepping out of the shadow and into the sunlight, we want to summon the sun to shine on us here in our darkness. We might pray and petition for such a benefit. It seems too much to ask of ourselves that we renounce the darkness and whatever keeps us in the dark, and so make our escape from it.
Insofar as we do step back into the sunlight, the ills of existence in the shadow mostly disappear; that is, much unfortunate karma seems to evaporate. Whatever restricted pattern we held to as being good and desirable was itself part of our own web of karma, like an umbrella restricting our horizons; to step out from under this was to be released and absolved from its handicap.
However, some specific retribution might still have to be faced. What we did in ignorance and error may have harmed others. Renouncing the roots of such action does not always free us from the consequences of earlier actions – not until we try to atone for them in one way or another. Often it is not possible to find and redress those who were harmed. The alternative is an even greater effort to acquire merit, that is, to make up for it by way of beneficence to others. While this does not redress the original harm directly, it compensates indirectly (because of the inherent unity of all things), and also makes it easier for us to deal with any legitimate retribution, if and when we must face it. Although such compensation could be viewed as evening things up to some extent, its purpose is, instead, to complete our own emancipation – which is a matter of self-interest.
In the shadow, things appear disconnected. In the sunlight of cosmic governance, things become not merely interrelated, they become integrated and whole again. Then there is no segregation as to what is good for you, or me, or others. Whatever threatens or deprives one part negatively affects everything else.
These are some ramification or corollary of the principle of karma. To say it another way, these are principle of mystical religion, one expression of which is karma. To sum up karma more briefly: it is the law – the gracious law of growth, that teaches by example, that constantly urges mankind toward emancipation, wholeness, and harmony with the universe and with each other. To enjoy its benefits we must learn to heed its wordless signals. Whatever stands in its way evokes the compensatory reactions that are popularly associated with karma, but are popularly view as penalties rather than helpful signals of admonition.
- Author Unknown