What Is Pagan About Karma?

This is the second post for the festival of Lughnasadh and it may not seem overly apparent why I would choose to talk about Karma at the high festival of Lugh, but it’s all about the harvest. Vulgar English loves to talk about sowing what you reap and other quotations from the Bible and no less Shakespeare which all come back to gloating over those who get knocked down for stepping out of line with the rest of society. Memes go leor celebrate people getting “what’s coming to them,” so when you couple that to the very popularized notion of Karma that comes to us first from post-colonial Orientalism and then through the New Age movement you have a highly prevailing social sensibility — but is this notion of Karma, which can easily bleed into a notion of divine retribution, pagan? Its ubiquity and multifarious manifestations from Christian approbation of calamities (however unsightly) to popular entertainment suggest so, but to my knowledge there is no call yet to really consider the tenets of Karma in terms of traditional paganism. Is it pagan?

Well, that depends …

Karma comes to us from India, the word being Sanskrit (कर्म) meaning something like ‘thing(s) done.’ It has so saturated popular consciousness in the West that it hardly needs any explanation, but the basic idea is that if you do good now, you’ll enjoy good in the future. Conversely if you do evil you will experience evil. It became a staple of New Age ideas with reflexes appearing in the Law of Attraction as promoted by The Secret and the aforementioned internet memes, but it is properly a doctrinal tenet for several religions, namely Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Taoism.

Karma? Nothing to do but grin and bear it.

Of these, only Hinduism and certain variants of Taoism could be considered potentially pagan, though they do not really fit our definition perfectly. Buddhism and Jainism can be classified as atheistic, Buddhism seeing so-called higher beings as those born into higher realms of existence and Jainism conceiving reality as uncreated and populated only by souls in various stages of ascendence. Similarly, Sikhism sees divinity as being transcendent and to some degree unknowable, but its focus on right teaching makes it properly orthodox. Taoism takes on a great many different forms because the Tao or the Way does not focus on understanding what things are essentially so much as how our understanding in our individual moments can help us integrate with how the world is working now, at this moment. Thus many Taoists still practice Chinese folk religion, which is basically pagan.

Now while other forms of paganism have a sense of natural justice in which there is a right balance to the world and if that is upset there will be a corresponding rebalancing that could be very uncomfortable — think of the Norns in Norse tradition or the Moirai in Greek tradition — karma itself as a cohesive system that can prescribe certain actions does not show up. Even in Hindu tradition there is contradiction in the agency of karma: is it simply an impersonal process of action and reaction or is there an active, divine force behind it that ensures the good are rewarded and the bad punished?

This is an important question as it suggests a distinction between a traditionally pagan karma and one that is more informed by modern thought. Traditionally pagans have seen the world as extending from the multifarious action of many beings whose nature is more profound and inscrutable than mankind’s, i.e. gods, giants and the rest. Natural processes are inseparable from the actions of different beings whose purview they are. In this perspective, it makes sense on the one hand for there to be gods and goddesses of karma while on the other karma would be a fairly swift process as the gods are always taking an interest in our welfare. If anything, the pagan perspective is far more personable because certain gods actually work for individuals’ benefit, sending good to someone even if they may not have done anything to deserve it. This is not to say that the gods will overlook evil action; they are nothing if not just, so if we really do something wrong there will certainly be a repercussion.

It is important to note also that while karma as it is perceived now in popular culture may not have much to do with traditional paganism because it is often seen as a disembodied, impersonal process with no divine agency behind it, the moral force of karma is not outside the contemporary pagan’s ethic. The foundational sensibility behind karma is that we should act well in all ways, and that is very much traditionally pagan. There is no simply saying you’re sorry and being forgiven in traditional paganism. Each act that you perform changes you into something, good or bad. You cannot unwrite what you have written. It is part of you now just as it is part of your world. This is not to say that one cannot overcome the evil they’ve done. Making things right when you have really messed up is an indelibly good action, but it takes work and personal growth. You can change the things about you that you see as evil or wrong, and what is more you not only have the help of those around you but all your good ancestors and associated spirits. All the same, you have to make the change.

Now perceiving evil and good — that’s another question and one outside the scope of today’s post. It is enough to say that the feeling bound up with the popular notion of karma, that feeling that we should do well to others because those actions will come back to us as good turns, has more behind it than the weight of all our aggregated actions. That feeling is grounded in the actions of the gods and spirits that are here in the world with us, whether or not they act for our benefit. There is natural justice in the world, and you can talk to its agents through prayer and ritual, both of which inform the taking oaths as in yesterday’s post. When we take an oath we call out our action deliberately as being part of that karmic web, invoking the potential repercussion of the unseen forces at work in the world. Taking an oath is a moment when we consciously act with the knowledge that our future actions will bring consequences to us, and it is that relationship of cause to effect that connects the harvest back to Lugh.

The lotus flower represents karma in a number of traditions, the seeds being actions and the flower the result. Lugh’s foster mother was Tailtiu, the Fir Bolg goddess associated with the harvest. When she died, Lugh started a harvest festival in her honour, many of its games and events being preserved in his own festival of Lughnasadh. The connection between oath-taking, justice and the harvest is the same connection found in the lotus blossom.

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