Modern American (Western) spirituality has adopted a number of ancient spiritual practices and terms as we embrace a larger expression of our connection to the Divine from this point in time. English language translations of terms from Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit often fail to fully capture the complete meaning, but we get the essence in a way that works for us.
Karma is a good example. While the concept of karma in the context of Hindu spirituality is defined as “the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences” in the West we see karma more in line with “what goes around comes around” or the spiritual concept of cause and effect.
In Hindu philosophy, dharma and karma are closely associated, so why the notable absence in the West’s adoption of karma without also adopting dharma?
The reason may be partially attributed to the fact that there is no direct translation into English for the word dharma. In addition, there are multiple types of dharma described across the different Indian religious traditions; Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism.
This post is not an attempt to explain the Hindu philosophy of dharma, but I am suggesting that if we in the West want to appropriate karma, we need to bring dharma along, too.
New Thought/New Age spirituality was heady with the concept of cause and effect in the early to mid-20th century. Coming on the heels of American dominance after the 2nd World War, it was hard to argue that we could not absolutely be ANYTHING we wanted to be; to do whatever we want to do. This was the American zeitgeist of the mid-20th century and it contributed to the full embrace of the concept of spiritual cause and effect without a lot of thought to what other factors may be involved.
While the concept of cause & effect was old hat to many ancient spiritual traditions, in Christian theology which has strains that believe God (or Jesus) controls everyone’s life; this was a refreshing new lease on life for many. This ecstasy, I believe, contributed to the heavy focus on cause and effect (by Holmes, Troward and others) and light treatment (if any) to the concept and concomitant role of dharma.
Of the many definitions for dharma, one theme is constant: the role our life plays in the big picture. Who we are, the skills and abilities we have, the roles we play in our life, the duties we are bound by to our families, communities and larger society. And it is the absence of these considerations in the more superficial spirituality of the 20th/21st century that leaves it wide open to criticism and eventual dismissal by the thoughtful.
New Thought spirituality teaches (among other things) that we can change our thinking (cause), and create some positive changes in our lives (effect). There’s no argument that if we move from being perpetually negative and miserable and begin to think, speak and act more positively we will indeed see improvement in many aspects of our lives. It gets tricky when we make the leap from this example to one where, like showcased in the movie The Secret, a young child dreamed/wished for a new bicycle and it appeared a few days later.
While this idea spread like wildfire, selling books, movies and lining the pockets of a number of Law of Attraction gurus; it did a great disservice to the spirituality at the foundation of the movie’s message.
We can absolutely have whatever it is we desire. The Universe does say, “your wish is my command“, but there’s more to it: the path to what we want runs right through where we are today – and here’s where we risk turning people off to this spirituality.
The fry cook with a GED who works in a fast food restaurant and a Harvard Business School graduate may both have dreams of being the CEO in a tech company. Both of these individuals have the opportunity to use spiritual principles to move toward their goals, but the fry cook needs to understand that his/her journey to the C-suite starts in a much different place than the Harvard Business School MBA: and here is where spiritual teachers and centers must be crystal clear to new spiritual seekers.
Yes, we can achieve whatever it is that we desire, but this is not magic, or voo-doo or hocus-pocus. The path to our desires starts where we are, and runs through who we are and where we live and what we do. In other words, our karma (what we attract to us by our actions) is interconnected with our dharma (my definition), or what I am defining as “what we bring to the party“.
Prosperity is one area where there is always a risk of missing this point. People are often attracted to a Center or metaphysical church to learn about prosperity with the expectation that they can do some affirmations, ask for treatment/prayer and then sit back and wait for the knock on the door and the giant check. The problems emerge when they realize that it doesn’t work this way and the Prize Patrol isn’t coming.
Like the fry cook who desires to be a CEO, there is a journey that begins with them, where they are right now. Prosperity often shows up in small, non-descript ways. The progress is real but measured and the giant lottery winnings almost never materialize. Increased experiences of abundance often show up as a small raise, or the opportunity to do extra work; as a small windfall that helps pay a bill or a gift that we weren’t expecting. These signs of movement and indications that our prosperity consciousness is expanding are all good news, but if we were expecting to win the Power Ball or meet the Prize Patrol, these small wins are a prescription for disappointment.
Teaching the universal spiritual principle of karma – cause & effect – is an important (foundational) concept in New Thought, but if we neglect to also teach the complementary principle of dharma – that we begin our journey with ourselves, our habits, our realities (e.g. level of education, particular knowledge, skills, abilities and aptitudes, family obligations and more) – we are setting people up for a big disappointment and potentially, turning them off to the many other gifts these teachings have to offer.
These principles are life changing, but they are not magic potions or wish-fulfillment games. As we embrace the ancient Truth principles from many cultures, it is important – if not critical – that we don’t pick and choose which ones to adopt. Karma in its Western interpretation is an appropriate spiritual principle to teach and learn, but it is incomplete without also considering and understanding the role of our dharma.