Comments on my posts about group karma have made it clear that not all of my readers are aware of the basics of the doctrine of karma.
The law of karma (a law of nature just like the law of physics) basicly states that all action will have consequences for the person acting. In everyday life the word karma is often loosely used in a way that reminds one of the word fate. Something bad happens and we might say “that’s your karma”. In other words: apparently you deserved that, based on past action.
In my explanations of group karma I mainly focused on the present and the future however. I stressed that current actions have future consequences.
Generally speaking I think group karma is something that works within one lifetime. That is: part of each individuals karma is the group they were born into. This aspect of karma is the response of the impartial law to actions in past lives. Similarly – I am a member of certain groups as a result of actions in this life. I will have to deal with the consequences of the group karma of those groups in this life. For instance, were I to join a racist group – I would be subject to the negative stigma attached to that group. All of that is short term karma.
Long term however I’m responsible for my own actions. The actions of groups are only relevant to the extent that I personally contributed to them. Still, joining a racist group would make me actively co-responsible for the continuation of racism in the world. Karmic consequences might include being born into such a group in a future life. There would be, in that case, good reason for me to have to face the group karma of black people. I hope it is obvious that the only way to break a cycle like that is to not be racist and to oppose racism. Saying ‘they deserve it, it’s their karma’ is almost as bad as actively contributing to the stigma.
These examples show, I hope, that the law of karma is about cause AND effect. It is about how we act today, taking the responsibilities life makes us take TODAY. Because not taking responsibility, means having to face up to them another day. Taking responsibility, acting kindly, wisely, independently today – means growing in wisdom and avoiding the future bad karma associated with indifference, hate, ignorance and group thought.
The law of karma does not distinguish between sociological, psychological, economical or other ways to look at human action. Sociological theory focuses on how humans interact on a large scale. It’s a useful science that shows just how much we are dependent on each other. Just how important culture is. That sort of thing. To explain human nature we need sociological theory. But sociological theory does not address the question of the individual. Why did I end up where I ended up? What is my responsibility in this situation? What is right action? The law of karma does say something about each of these questions. The answer to the question ‘why did I end up here?’ is – this is exactly where you deserve and need to be right now. This is where your life’s lessons are. This is where your potential for growth is. This is where you need to clean up a mess that you helped create in a past life.
The answer to the other two questions ‘what is right action’ and ‘what is my responsibility’ is more simple to put into words, but harder as well. The answer is simple: your responsibility is to do the best you can in your circumstances. The hard part is of course acting on that. Luckily for me, that’s beyond the subject of today’s post.
A version of this post appears in my book Essays on Karma.