Jon Kennedy's 'Postcards from
Word study: karma
Jonal entry 1112 | May 12 2010
In last week's discussion of the phrase "fixin' to die," I suggested that part of "fixin' to die" should be "repairing bad relationships and clearing any 'debts' off one's karmic balance sheet." The adjective "karmic" there is derived from "karma," a sanskrit (East Indian) word from Hindu teachings. And though the idea of karma became popularized here in several waves of eastern religion (meaning Hinduism, primarily, which islike Islam, Christianity, and Buddhismbroken into several expressions or what in the west are usually called "denominations") it has been filtered through American secularism as "what goes around comes around."
And it has, at least in its surface meaning, a parallel in Christianity in Saint Paul's teaching, "whatever a man sows he shall reap." And in Old Testament Judaism it is somewhat paralleled in the principle that the sins of the fathers are visited on the generations that follow (see, for example, Exodus 20, Numbers 14, Deuteronomy 5, and Jeremiah 32). The Old Testament teaching that sins of the fathers are visited on later generations can be interpreted as a matter of patterns established in one generaion being hard to break by the descendants, but that breakthroughs are always possible, especially with God's help, as Jewish history demonstrates time and again.
The popular secular, Christian, and Jewish takes on karma are but a shadow of the Hindu sense of the word, which plays a central role in that religion's belief, reincarnation, which holds that a soul migrates from one body to another and rises closer or falls farther from nirvana or "salvation" depending on whether the karma of the latest life is mostly good or bad. Biblical religionsGod be praisedhave no complement to this.
But my current interest in karma is not a byproduct of my interest in comparative religion but a recent plunge into the television sitcom, My Name Is Earl, which is now in reruns and can be seen in two back-to-back episodes every afternoon in the area I live. That's become a reason to look forward to 5 p.m. for me. It can be called a white trash serial if there ever has been one. The main characters, two middle-aged brothers named Earl and Randy Hickey, have been in and out of jail much of their lives primarily on true charges of theft and larceny. Earl is divorced from but still involved with the blonde who was the class tramp in high school, and lives, in a mobile home that sometimes lies on its side, in her current marriage with two children by two fathers from as many races. In other words, it's a metaphor of us all on our "badder" days. (Interestingly, whereas in real life people of their "station in life" are often jailed on drug charges, there is little to no mention of such drugs"weed," "meth," "ecstasy"in the storyline.)
Earl, a fun-loving good-old-boy reminiscent of the Dukes of Hazard, is the narrator of the story. He noticed somewhere after age 30 that when he did deeds that were bad for other people bad things happened to him, and when he did good deeds good things happened to him in return. He learned that this is popularly known as "karma," and that led to the realization that "the karmic balance sheet" of his life was seriously out of whack. So he made a list of bad deeds he had done thus far in life, which is into the hundreds somewhere in the current episodes, and determined to make all of these wrongs right again. His "odyssey," then, is looking up everyone he did dirt to in the past and doing a mitzvah of comparable character for them now. One of the points of some episodes that borders on "great truth," is that some of the people he wronged actually learned from the "misfortune" Earl had visited on them and ended up being better people for it.
Of course none of the big four, or even the top five, TV networks would ever do a sitcom around a character who is a convert to Christianity and realizes he must make amends (though at least two major dramatic seriesTouched by An Angel and Highway to Heavendid closely skirt such themes within living memory). So despite the absurdity of "karma," or "Karma," as Earl personalizes it, being a motivation for a major change in life direction, it is refreshing to see any show, especially a recent comedy show, built about the premise that its central character is dedicated to doing good to others.
There are many philosophicaland even more theologicalproblems with the premises of the show, and many subtexts to explore; enough to fill a book of the kind that has been written repeatedly, for example, about The Simpsons. But the characters from Earl and Randy on down, as well as their "situations"are believable enough that it's easy to ignore the show's weaknesses and laugh along. It almost makes me miss my former adult Sunday school classes, where I'm sure Earl and Randy's Excellent Adventures would no doubt be recurring discussion topics.
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