Karma in Paganism and Witchcraft

Let’s explore karma in paganism.

Karma is the belief that what a person does in one life must be balanced in the next life, and that ones status in life is predicated by the actions of the previous life. Simplified: when bad things happen to you now, it’s because in the life before this one, you did bad things. And if you’re a good person now, in your next life you’ll have a higher caste. Karma is a core belief of Hinduism.

That’s right. I said karma is a core tenant of Hinduism.

Karma underlays the entire system of caste in Hindu society. Where Western belief is that a person can rise or fall in wealth and status by their actions here and now, in Hinduism it’s impossible to rise or fall from ones birth caste; once a dalit, always a dalit. The only way to get into a high caste is to be born into it, and the only way to be born into a high caste is to have been a good person in a previous life. Wealth and power are rewards for virtuous living, but only in the life after this one.

For modern neo-pagans and witches, karma has taken on a different meaning altogether.

Ask a pagan or practitioner of witchcraft what karma is, and they’ll spout the Rule of Three, or tell you that karma is the universe giving you what you deserve. Paganism takes karma and makes it far more fast moving and immediate, and also less far reaching than it’s original meaning. Karma to a modern witch happens in the same life, often coming about within days or weeks of an action, and impacts personal life without deeply effecting status or wealth (most of the time). Witches and practitioners will invoke karma on people who make them mad, without stopping to consider the wider implications.

It can be satisfying to think of a person getting what they’ve sent out into the world right back in their teeth.

An aware and woke practitioner will keep in mind the roots of karma, and it’s historical use to keep lower classes disenfranchised and disempowered through cycles of abuse. And an especially aware individual will draw parallels between Hindu karma and Christian ‘just world’ philosophies. It’s incredibly tempting to see two events and assume that one caused the other; correlation is not causation, however. A person can be a terrible human being and win the lottery, while a perfectly saintly person can wind up the victim of a horrible crime. Is it karma, at long last? Or is the universe sometimes a perverse son of a bitch that doles out what seems like good things randomly? Is it the hand of God? Justice from a previous life? A hex gone awry?

What do I think about karma?

I think it’s an idea that got appropriated badly from Hinduism, twisted and malformed to mirror and mimic some of the worst and most abusive philosophies of Christianity, and applied to pagans and neo-pagans in order to replicate what we were already familiar with and primed to accept. Through cultural Christianity, the idea that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds punished is one we’re familiar with. Shoehorning in mangled philosophy from ‘exotic’ places using fancy vocabulary doesn’t change the actual objective truth: bad things happen to good people, and sometimes there’s very little that can be done about it.

Zen tells us, as does Vajrayana, that when bad things happen to good people, our central mistake is in using identifiers like “bad” and “good”. Things happen to people, and how we react to those things is far more important than taking time to judge whether that person ‘deserved’ what happened to them. We can eliminate a lot of our own suffering when we let go of labeling events good or bad, and stop trying to figure out what we did to deserve these things. Hardships are universal, though they may strike more heavily on those with less cushion and reserves. Banding together to use community and communal resources to help one another when things are difficult is a far better use of our time and energy than trying to decide who deserves to eat or have shelter.

Look to modern political arguments about who should get access to SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance. Or conversations about drug testing welfare recipients. Or who we turn away from our borders and who we let in. Full of judgment and declarations of who’s ‘bad’ and who deserves our help, when the reality is all living beings deserve food, shelter, access to water, the ability to bathe and feel safe. Full stop, absolute period. Even murderers and horrible people, those we feel should not be allowed in society, we still don’t starve them to death and call ourselves righteous.

So, karma in paganism and witchcraft.

I don’t mess with it, because it’s an irrelevant distraction. Karma obscures the innate shared humanity that we all possess, and distracts us with questions about good, bad, and who deserves to be treated like a person.

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