The Karma of Taylor Swift

What’s the Buddhist perspective of a certain hit pop song? Sarwang Parikh on why karma isn’t a god or boyfriend.

Sarwang Parikh
1 May 2024
Photo by Paolo Villanueva / @itspaolopv

I invite you to practice a little thought experiment: imagine yourself in any social context, such as in your workplace, in a restaurant, or walking down the street. Imagine you overhear someone say something like, “Well, that’s just their karma. They must’ve done something to deserve that.” Notice your reaction. What are the thoughts and sensory reactions that come up for you?

When I heard the song “Karma” by pop icon Taylor Swift, I reflexively reacted with a sigh and a shake of my head. I felt exasperation and constriction in my body as I heard her repeat the lyrics “Karma is my boyfriend/Karma is a god.”

“The Dalai Lama said that of all the Buddhist concepts, karma is the most complex to understand.”

This song, like so many expressions in pop culture, conveys an overly simplified idea of karma that is fairly common. In Western culture, karma is often reduced to a kind of instant retribution, framed around notions of revenge and payback. As Swift sings at the end of each verse, “It’s coming back around.”

Karma can also be used as a prop for moral superiority, to find comfort that justice will be served, as Swift does in the chorus: “Sweet like honey, karma is a cat/Purring in my lap…Me and karma vibe like that.” This simplifies karma into a false duality where those who do good get rewarded, while those who do bad get punished.

Karma is a concept deeply rooted in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Indian philosophies. The Sanskrit word karma (kamma in Pali) means “action(s), deed, or work,” and can also refer to the results of action. Growing up within a Hindu household, I often heard my mother refer to karma in relation to reincarnation (i.e. how one’s past-life actions influence both the present and future). While this also resonates with Buddhist cultural views, philosophically, Buddhism emphasizes the power of choice and the cultivation of personal responsibility in relation to karma.

The Buddha highlights the power of responsibility in the fifth contemplation found in the Upajjhatthana Sutta: “I am the owner of my actions, heir of my actions, actions are the womb (from which I have sprung), actions are my relations, actions are my protection. Whatever actions I do, good or bad, of these I shall become the heir.”

While action and words are often stressed when we discuss karma, our Buddhist practice places equal value on intention and thought. The venerable ancestor Thich Nhat Hanh says the seeds we plant in our mind will bear the fruit of happiness or suffering. Here, karma is interwoven as the basis of our liberation when viewing the noble eightfold path.

One of the most powerful stories on karma within the Buddhist texts is the Angulimala Sutta. Angulimala was a ruthless bandit and murderer who wore the fingers (anguli) of those he killed tied together in a necklace (mala). When he encountered the Buddha on a road, Angulimala wanted to kill him. The Buddha used his spiritual power and insight to break Angulimala free from the ignorance behind his wrongful actions. Angulimala then became a disciple of the Buddha and eventually became an arhat.

However, after he gave up brutality for the middle path, Angulimala was violently confronted by townspeople throwing rocks and sticks at him. Seeing this, the Buddha said, “Endure it, [noble one]! You’re experiencing the result of deeds that might have caused you to be tormented in hell for many hundreds or thousands of years.” This teaching points to the potential each of us hold to uproot the seeds of unwholesome karma toward the attainment of freedom, no matter the conditions.   

In contrast to simplified pop cultural ideas on karma, the Buddhist view of karma is an intricate and multidimensional set of interactions that span multiple lifetimes to locate us in the present moment. The Dalai Lama said that of all the Buddhist concepts, karma is the most complex to understand. This universal law of cause and effect pushes us along the wheel of samsara. But this is not a fatalistic reality that dooms us inevitably.

Swift sings:

Karma is the thunder
Rattling your ground
Karma’s on your scent like a bounty hunter
Karma’s gonna track you down
Step by step, from town to town
Sweet like justice, karma is a queen

Yet you don’t need to fear that karma is tracking you down, “on your scent like a bounty hunter.” On the contrary, the Buddhist path and practice invites you to be in a wise relationship with karma as an active force that can orient you toward a life of wholesomeness and freedom.

This article was published in the May 2024 issue of Bodhi Leaves: The Asian American Buddhist Monthly.

Sarwang Parikh

Sarwang Parikh grew up as a working-class immigrant within a devotional Hindu Indian family. He has studied and practiced Raja Yoga and Theravada Buddhist lineage for over twenty years. He serves the dharma at Buddhist Peace Fellowship and teaches at East Bay Meditation Center. Parikh is also a licensed psychotherapist weaving Eastern wisdom with a decolonized approach.