Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Problem with Karma: Down the Rabbit Hole of Pagan Ethics

   Ethics can be a difficult topic when it comes to Paganism.  Mostly because Paganism is made up of so many different traditions, pantheons, and paths. We don’t really have a universal code of ethics.  The Rede isn’t something that is universally accepted and furthermore it is less than a hundred years old. It does not reflect the ethical constructs of ancients Pagans.  Ultimately the Rede is a suggestion, good advice and not something one can easily use as an ethical framework.  There are too many holes.  What interests me is how ancients Pagans dealt with ethical problems, how they sought to lead a good life.  But that is a whole different blog post all together. What also interests me is how we have gotten to the place we are as modern Pagans with our views on ethics. Because we seem to have some hang ups and carry overs. And they are fairly obvious, especially when we look at the concept of karma.    

   The first thing we have to accept is that what Neo-Pagans call “karma” isn’t actually karma. Karma in a Hindu context we have hijacked and bears only the mildest resemblance to what Neo-Pagan, and westerners in general, call karma. In Hinduism one’s karma (both positive and negative) is something that is worked through over the course of several life times.  It is not as we have come to think of it as “instant justice”.  To some extent we have merged the idea of the Threefold Law with what we think karma is to create our own uniquely 20th century Pagan concept. 

   We find the Threefold Law’s first appearance in 1949 in Gerald Gardner's High Magic's Aid, and has since been adopted as part of modern Wiccan liturgy.

“Thou hast obeyed the Law. But mark well, when thou receivest good, so equally art bound to return good threefold. (For this is the joke in witchcraft, the witch knows, though the initiate does not, that she will get three times what she gave, so she does not strike hard.)”

Blend this together with the Neo-Pagan version of karma and you have the modern Pagan concept of how the universe deals out justice.  If you do something bad, something bad will happen to you.  If you do good, good things come to you.  And this is usually used as an argument against cursing or hexing, even when protecting one’s self in a given situation would be the justified thing to do.  Striking back against an attack is often second guessed out of fear of causing bad karma or energy to rebound on us.  
   Furthermore the Threefold Law is often equated with the Law of Attraction.  While similar these don't really act the same way.  The Law of Attraction is a conscious thing.  If I use a certain herb or colored candle to attract a certain energy or quality while doing magick, the force of my will is directing it.  I am calling like to like consciously, and to some degree it is a mental que that I am using to get my mind in the right head space.  Something I use to attract certain things might not have the same connotation to someone else.  A criminal doesn't continuously want to be caught, or seek to manifest that result.  Quite the opposite, their will is focused on getting away with the crime. 

   But lets take a step back. What are the roots of this concept of universal justice?  Because that is what it all boils down to. The universe deals out good and bad karma, based on our actions.  Essentially we see the universe as dealing out justice. It’s a cause and effect that we have no control over and is outside of ourselves.  Sound familiar? If you were raised in an Abrahamic religion replace “universe” with “god” and you have exactly the same world view on how justice is handed out in the cosmos.  Whether its god or the undefined universe we see it as a universal law of restitution.  Like gravity it acts with impunity.

  Now there are some problems with this.  Like Morticia Addams points out “What is normal for the spider is chaos to the fly”.  What we perceive as justice often depends on our own point of view.  We are often heroes of our own narratives.  And sometimes justice and what is perceived as good or bad falls into a gray area.  If I do a spell to get a job and as a result land the job, have I done something the universe will punish with bad karma?  Maybe I might not have been the best candidate, maybe by bettering my own odds I am taking money and food out of the mouths of someone who needed it more. Yet from my perspective I didn’t do anything wrong, I brought something good into my life. So who is right? Will the universe from this mind set punish me or not?  And who is to say our human concept of justice, or good and evil is the same as the universe’s? Or the Gods' for that matter?

   I think in many ways we have taken a way of viewing how the world works from the religions of our youths and unconsciously carried it over to Paganism.  I can not say if this is necessarily good or bad, but certainly worth some reflection.  Certainly ancient Pagans had the concept of divine retribution and the gods dealing out punishment, but it wasn't exactly a universal thing. And at very least in Greek mythology punishments dealt out by the gods weren't always justice, but at times petty.  But ancient Pagans, regardless of culture, were very concerned with what it meant to live virtuously.  With what it meant to live a good life and what constituted right action.  The different is that it wasn't a force outside themselves, it was something that had to be sought within.  

  For myself I have to come to the conclusion that there isn’t a universal crime and punishment system that acts like a force of gravity. After all bad things do happen to good people. We don’t always catch the criminal.  And bad deeds often go unpunished.  I do think in many ways magick plays the role of evening the odds for those with no other avenue to do so, or for that matter have no other avenue of seeking justice. And I think that perhaps a consequence of having free will and agency as a being means that we have to seek out our own justice.  I’m not talking about taking the law into our own hands or becoming Batman.  But instead that is why we have laws as part of society, why we feel the need to wrap our minds around concepts like justice and ethics.  We must seek it out, its not a guarantee.