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Karma Isn't Retribution

by on July 08, 2019 5:00 AM

California experienced two pretty intense earthquakes within days of each other last week, with continuing aftershocks. Several seismologists have predicted that the area will be unstable for the near future and more may be coming. As I was reading online coverage of the temblors, I noted the comments at the end of one of the articles. 

They started out with prayers and good thoughts to the residents of the area. Others asked if there were donations sites or places that were helping those impacted by the damage so they could volunteer or send money. And then it began. People making comments that the earthquakes were somehow payback for political decisions and legislation in California that they did not support. One guy suggested that the country would be better off if the whole state just cracked off and fell into the ocean. There were actually outright statements that said God had sent the earthquakes as punishment for lax immigration laws, sanctuary cities and Nancy Pelosi.

One person called it karma.

It would almost be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. Sadly, I’m sure there will be people on the other political side who somehow find a way to blame the earthquakes on President Trump. A random act of nature is no longer seen through some eyes as “How do we help?” but as something for which we can point a finger and place blame.

According to Hinduism and Buddhism, karma is the accumulation of our decisions and actions, in this life and, perhaps, in past lives, that determines where we end up in life.

Karma as a concept has been adopted into popular vernacular and is often thought of as some sort of retribution. A payback.  A get-back. If you do something good, good things will come to you. If you do something bad, expect the wrath of whatever God you may or may not believe in. 

It is described at times to be like a curse. At other times, it seems to have the feeling of buying a winning lottery ticket. I did this so I got that. I don’t think, however, it has ever meant that a politician can cause the shifting of the earth’s rock and the release of seismic energy.

I’m a firm believer in karma, but I don’t think it’s that simple. If that were true, we wouldn’t need children’s hospitals and cancer diagnoses would be limited to prisons.

As my yoga guru, Sona, says, at every second and in every situation, we are faced with an infinite number of decisions. Why we chose and what we decide determines our path. Karma isn’t always a direct cause and effect. It’s also not something we can call upon and assign to others.

I have used the example of the student I had several years ago who spent the semester telling me and another faculty member that he had cancer. He didn’t. I remember when we were addressing his academic dishonesty issue, several colleagues said,  “That’s some bad karma.” It is unfortunate that a young person made decisions to not speak the truth or to be accountable for his behaviors. Do I think it means he’ll eventually get cancer? No, that would be irony. I think it will mean some struggles as a life path formed through attempted short cuts, misrepresentations and lies won’t be an easy one. Eventually something would and did catch up to him. The link between the action and the reaction are not always so direct.

It’s like if I make the decision to hit the snooze button, take a long shower and have that extra cup of coffee in the morning. My decisions may mean that I will arrive later to work, not get the good parking stall and have to rush the start of my day. That may mean I am unprepared for meetings with students or for class. If I repeatedly make similar decisions, my evaluations by students and my superiors will not be what I think they should or could be. It’s the choices we make at the forks in the roads of life that result in the outcome.

The comments about earthquakes and karma just show the lengths to which we will go in 2019 to make something political, to take sides and to try to assign blame. In the thread of comments, I noted that at least one person replied to the karma post by posting a warning. “I would watch that karma thing if I were you.” Sending bad vibes to people who disagree with you may take you on a path that you didn’t intend.


Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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