Thursday, February 26, 2015

Bad Karma, My Ass

I’ve always liked Shirley MacLaine. I like her as an actress; as a woman who gained the respect to be treated like one of the boys instead of a bimbo in Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack; and I like her interest in other cultures, distant lands, and spiritual/philosophical ideas that make a lot of people think she’s wacky. She doesn’t care if people think she’s a New Age nutjob and I like that, too.

But Shirley crossed a line when (as reported this week) in her new memoir, What If... (she’s written enough autobiographies for several lifetimes), she wrote: “What if most Holocaust victims were balancing their karma from ages before…The energy of killing is endless and will be experienced by the killer and the killee.” Shirley isn't the first person to suggest this connection. She’s just the first one to do so whom I like.

And not for nothing, but: killee? This is not a word. The word is victim. Not used in a sentence, one might say: “The Nazis killed more than 12 million people, half of them Jews, the rest: homosexuals, the aged, anti-Nazi political activists, the mentally ill and retarded, the physically disabled, and everybody they caught trying to help such people.”

The notion of karma – which is the Sanskrit word for action, human behavior – has been a core religious and philosophical concept since the days of ancient India and remains so today in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Taoism.

Unfortunately, in the sense that Shirley means karma, it's bad karma and punishment in this life for crimes, sins and other really bad stuff one did in this or a past life. But the repercussions of bad karma are a small part of the larger wisdom of karma. In all the traditional schools of thought and faith there are The 12 Laws of Karma, and they are focused on how one should behave in this life in order to learn, grow and make the world a better place. (Give it a click, it’s a good read.)

Nowhere in karmic creed does it say it’s permissible for someone to deliberately harm or kill another as punishment for that person’s “bad Karma.” But, not surprisingly, western New Agers have grabbed on to a piece of a concept that appeals to them, in this case the idea that “you’ll get yours,” even if it distorts the context of the larger laws of karma. Think of it as The Cliff Notes of Enlightenment On My Own Terms. 

Which is why I have never liked the concept of what-goes-around-comes-around bad karma.  And I think it’s no accident that this aspect of karma was so fervently embraced in Asia, which for many centuries has contained styles and levels of poverty, starvation, cruelty, official punishment, criminal violence and abject suffering that are particularly (if not uniquely) horrendous, overwhelming, and seemingly beyond defeat. It’s much easier to watch a paraplegic six year old drinking out of a mud hole, or listen to the screams of a 12 year old being gang raped when you believe it’s their bad karma come home to roost.

The idea of retribution for bad karma is very dangerous right now. It places a tidy, comforting, blanket of righteous cosmic justice on the unspeakable as we move further into an era defined by terrorism, war, human trafficking, a desperate lack of the basics of survival (food, water, shelter, the usual) in many places, a lessening of human rights and an increase in oppression – especially of women and girls – along with extraordinary poverty, the ravages of climate change, and the dark side of new technology (signs of which are already apparent to some, but not to most).

I haven’t read What If..., which includes many other questions.  So, to give Shirley the benefit of the doubt, what if she was just posing a spiritual question about the victims of the Holocaust? The problem with that question is the inherent answer – which many people find insensitive and insulting – is that the victims’ bad karma would make the Holocaust comprehensible and okay. It is neither. And to possibly suggest so is a form of Holocaust Denial: yes, the Holocaust happened, but it was for a sound spiritual reason. 

Nein, Shirley. Such a conclusion would be dishonest, dishonorable and disgusting. I don’t know if you’re wacky, but you need to realign your chakras or dye your aura or change your mantra or something, because you’ve got it all twisted. You’re 80 years old. Where’s your common sense, personal growth and sound wisdom? Just asking a question.

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