The True Nature of Karma
by Sharon "Tut" LaBorde

In the aftermath of a terrible disaster the likes of Hurricane Katrina, it's only natural for people to search for a sense of reason; a means of explaining on a spiritual, cosmic level why such awful things tend to happen. Such questions reflect humanity's larger question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

Of course, one all-too-common explanation has already been making the rounds: that the hurricanes are punishment, either as divine retribution for the sins of an entire city or karmic retribution for those with "incorrect views". Still others who embrace a more animistic view of the natural world have suggested that maybe such a destructive storm was the work of a powerful being.

But to me, these lines of reasoning at best sell short the natural and spiritual world around us in the case of the latter argument, and at worst are nothing but an attempt to justify bigotry as in the case of the former argument. To even consider that an all-powerful God would willfully wreak havoc and death upon the humanity created in His image, simply to punish the immorality of certain beings, implies a decided lack of discretion and forgiveness--both traits found too often in human beings, but most certainly not in a God who is supposed to be all-knowing and all-loving.

It is further hubris to assume that such a calamity represents a backlash of karma on a grand scale, the result of societal buildup of "wrong" acting and thinking. Karma, which comes from an old Sanskrit word that means 'action', is far more complex than simple reward and punishment; in truth, to label a catastrophic event as "bad karma" is no better than ascribing the whole event to a vengeful deity!

True karma is better understood as the logical chain of actions and their ultimate consequences. This chain of events and circumstances is inherently neither good nor bad; it simply is. In Buddhism, for example, the theory of "Mind-only" states that qualifiers like "good" and "bad", "pleasure" and "suffering" are only distinctions that the human mind makes to differentiate what it perceives. Applying this concept to the Katrina disaster, it can be said that the hurricane itself was not something evil, nor was it some form of divine justice; it simply was. The damage inflicted upon humans, animals and buildings was terrible to us because of its detrimental effects.

Furthermore, the hurricane damage was itself a result of how humans built their buildings, levees and other structures. Casinos in Biloxi, Mississippi were constructed on water to comply with statutes that did not take into account the possibility of a destructive storm, so they were destroyed. A levee in New Orleans was not built by the Army Corps of Engineers to the strength requirements put forth by contractors, so it failed, flooding the city. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency failed to prepare for a major natural disaster, so as a result they were disorganized and ineffective in responding to the needs of people trapped in the city. In short, the disaster was indeed the result of human actions--of karma--but not as punishment. It was simply the inevitable outcome of shortsightedness and carelessness.

Many people are debating whether Katrina and Rita were caused by global warming. I think they indeed were. Whether they in fact were or not, environmental issues like global warming are just another manifestation of gradual, repeated actions by human beings. It is our choice to control our own actions, thus our own karma and its fruits as reflected by the world around us.

But what of the people who displayed acts of heroism in the hurricane's aftermath, trying to save others who were stranded? What of the people who committed acts of barbarism in the midst of anarchy? Any sense of justice would demand that generosity be rewarded and treachery be punished. For that matter, why would a Universe with any sense of order be so turned upside down that innocent people lose their homes, their livelihoods, everything?

Those questions are not easy to answer. I've found in my own experience that sometimes bad things do happen to good people--but it is not, as some have tried to convince me, because of some deep inborn karma that determined something was "deserved". However, sometimes bad things happen to good people because other people were either negligent or outright malicious. For those negligent or malicious people, I believe there is indeed a form of punishment, one which lies in the human spirit.

Spirituality is difficult for some because we live in a physical world; our own physical bodies anchor us and shield us, so we aren't always aware of the spiritual energy we both give and receive. But when we die and leave our physical forms, there is nothing to shield us anymore. The ancient Egyptians would refer to a dead person as "True of Voice"; I think it refers to that idea of no longer being hidden from our own spiritual selves. If a person has made others suffer, and caused pain during the course of their life, they may think it has no effect on them. But when they leave their physical form, nothing can protect them from the hurt they caused, and it will most certainly be a weight upon their souls. The same would also be true of good feelings a person has perpetuated. Perhaps this spiritual "weight" of anger, hurt and regret, or "lightheartedness" of love, joy and fond memories, was what Anubis measured the hearts of the dead for against the feather of Ma'at, or Truth. (Ma'at can also be translated as Justice, or the right order of things, both of which would still apply.)

Ultimately, storms are a part of nature that we as humans must face from time to time. Our own diligence, preparations and heart will determine whether we thrive or fail in such situations. No God, Goddess or other kind of being can do those things for us--only we can.

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