As a Hindu and as a younger person, I did not quite believe in (or understand) karma. Perhaps this was because of the simplistic way in which people discussed it–similar to the way many religious concepts are discussed in one-dimensional, black-and-white ways–and because of my belief in the goodness of human nature. Karma did not make sense to me. Interestingly, though, all religions seem to have a sense of consciousness that is structural, be it karma, sin, Judgment Day, the afterlife, etcetera: all psychological mechanisms that encourage individuals to think beyond one’s daily actions and individual desires. With Hindu karma, naturally, there is the idea of reincarnation and rebirth into higher forms or castes until one attains moksha, or divine liberation. As someone who has really struggled with the idea of caste and who follows a branch of Hinduism that is against this and welcoming to all castes, I felt deeply upset and frightened by this aspect of my religion.
However, through my mid-adult years and the recent past, I began to think more deeply about this, and start to see how life had a way of evening out circumstances and situations for people. I came to realize that karma was not something silly and tit-for-tat, such as you will have bad karma if you skip mass and watch the Super Bowl, are working on a paper on the Sabbath, or are a Hindu who eats beef once in a while (as some of my friends do, though I’m a vegetarian.) Karma was something more about life balancing things out, and a couple years ago I came upon a quote by leading North American teacher and nun Pema Chödrön (formerly of the Shambala tradition) that made everything so clear, was a major insight:
People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.
And suddenly, it all made sense, it was so beautifully put. I began to reflect on my own life and that of people I knew, to see how the trajectories of their lives played out in a spiritual sense, what lessons they had been given. This was something that one could only see in middle age, after people have gone through life’s ups and downs. Just as in all religions there are simplistic ways of interpreting complex concepts, karma was no exception.
The girl for whom everything came easily in school and in life ended up in a profession where she has had to seek out all her opportunities. The young woman who faced a lot of financial struggle with her boyfriend (who became husband) in their early years together ended up getting a nice home in an expensive area of America when her mother inherited money back in her home country. The man who grew up moving very often due to his father’s career became a very open-minded global citizen with a career around the world and developed tremendous resilience, something unusual for people in his country, who tend to stay close to home. The couple who did not nurture friendships and social connections when younger have ended up isolated in old age, and have been forced to learn how to connect during the pandemic. The young woman who suffered many unexpected setbacks and traumas in her 20s, 30s, and early 40s is enjoying calm and prosperity in her late 40s. The man who died at age 42 had fortunately lived a very full life, having grown up in a stable family, studied at Ivy League schools, traveled around the world, and had a successful career. The woman who has jumped from job to job to find the “next best thing,” relationship to relationship, place to place, and wants everything easy has found herself alone and unfulfilled. The struggling single mom who moved alone cross country for an academic job ended up becoming a professor at a top university who is nationally renowned in her field and getting acclaim even in her advanced years.
Without knowing the stories behind these individuals, this could all potentially read as simplistic. However, in knowing these people, and their life stories, one can see a sense of balancing out, be it challenging lessons they have had to learn, or unexpectedly wonderful turns in their lives. Karma, as per Pema Chödrön’s definition, has been a great teacher for all of these people; perhaps they could not have seen or predicted what would happen. Many of them may not be aware of the karmic lessons they have undergone, or still need to undergo. It is still an evolving process for the above people and for everyone. Some may have a heavier spiritual load than others, and this is not an easy thing to bear. If we see karma as a teacher and a practice of opening and of love, this makes dealing with life easier. We are indeed spiritual beings, and life is our greatest teacher if we let it be so.