A few weeks ago, I was returning from Trader Joe’s and noticed a young man at a traffic stop. He was holding a sign, “Karma for a Dollar.” He was asking for money as a payment into the Bank of Karma. In goes US money– Out comes absolution or good fortune.
Something seemed odd– the G word was missing.
Nature is healing.
It used to be common to see people use the name of their religious overlord to ask for money from their fellow humans. An entity that sits above in space, about sixty miles from the planet’s surface, bearded and sometimes angry or jealous, and passing judgment on everything. This overlord is the only authority; all communication must be through and to “Him.”
As America becomes less formally religious, the conversation is shifting away from invoking this all-seeing eye that judges everyone to a spiritual system that we trust balances itself out. This is Karma. Did you notice that I didn’t have to write the term in italics or explain that this is a Sanskrit word? It wasn’t necessary because we all know what Karma is. It has become a part of American culture. And now it is shaping American religion.
Karma comes from Dharmic traditions, such as Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Karma is the understanding that there is a universal law of balance, and what you do will eventually come around to you as well. This works because we understand the Universe as a self-contained system. Like an ocean from which the fish arise and disappear back into (like waves). In this self-contained system, the actions must balance each other out. Newton might approve of this language, seeing as his third law of motion posits an equal and opposite reaction to every action. What you put into the Universe will eventually work its way back into how the Universe deals with you.
Obviously, since good things happen to bad people all the time, it is important to link Karma with reincarnation. Once you wrap your head around multiple lives, actions and reactions can happen invisibly across lives and time horizons, with the understanding that there is a system keeping track of actions and consequences. Actions have consequences, and Karma will get back to you eventually.
Now if you trust in Karma, you trust the Universe. You trust the Universe to remember everything. You trust the Universe not merely to be jealous or angry but always to be fair and consistent. You don’t need to think of an old man or his young son- gone too soon- to help balance out the scales of the universe. You also don’t need to pay agents to talk with the overlord on your behalf. You also vaguely understand the idea of multiple lifetimes, which means you are not scared by the prospects of a coin toss to infinite heaven or hell. There goes that incentive to listen to the travel agent promising you good seats in exchange for dollars.
And with this chain of logic, the fabric of traditional Western religion begins to unravel. A more confident return to a fair, just, and positive system. Your actions determine their reactions, so you control your destiny. We have now arrived at a very American philosophy requiring each individual to take charge of their actions. No one gets out of jail free, whether they have a free pass from the father, the son, or the agent. A more hopeful, more American system of belief, not one that is ultimately pessimistic and fearful but one that is positive, self-reliant, and confident. What could be more American?
This is Karma Americana. And this is why, in California, a young man would rather invoke Karma than name an overlord to get help.
May Karma Bless America.
Here’s my colleague Fred Stella’s Dharmic Meanderings on Karma https://www.patheos.com/blogs/dharmicmeanderings/2023/01/a-sweet-way-to-learn-about-karma/
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