No, this is not about Beck, Hannity and O'Reilly getting busted by a celestial truth squad. It's about karma on Fox TV. The broadcast network just unveiled Past Life, a one-hour series -- with American Idol as a lead-in, no less -- whose premise hinges on reincarnation.
Inspired by a suspense novel by M.J. Rose, the show's main characters are scientists who use insights gleaned from past lives to help people solve problems in the present. Crimes are solved, conflicts are resolved, and the karmic scales are balanced. Judging from the opening episode, the crises are what you'd expect: race-against-the-clock dramas with high stakes. Since the goal is to glue lots of eyes to the screen, philosophical accuracy will no doubt be sacrificed now and again, but never mind. Millions of viewers are about to be schooled in Eastern philosophy, or at least one component of it.
That such a show has been given a premier time slot is yet another indication that central teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism have penetrated the fabric of American culture. The process actually began about 200 years ago, when early translations of Asian texts helped shape the thinking of Ralph Waldo Emerson, America's paramount homegrown philosopher. The concept of karma -- and its necessary twin, reincarnation -- were revelations to the Sage of Concord, fueling the development of his theory of compensation. Platoons of gurus and yoga masters followed, along with stacks of books and a parade of scholars, scientists, and artists who incorporated Eastern themes into their work.
Among the many consequences of that East-to-West current is that karma entered the national vocabulary. Search for the word at the iTunes Store and you'll find about 150 titles, from John Lennon and Alicia Keys to artists you've never heard of. You'll hear the word on the news too, especially in sports reports, where karma is often shorthand for why some teams deserve to win and others do not. On TV, it's in every episode of My Name is Earl, and it showed up on Desperate Housewives when Carlos told Gabi why bad stuff happens to them: "It's karma. We've been selfish and greedy, and the universe is telling us to be better people." Reincarnation has also figured into the plots of several feature films. And if pop culture references aren't convincing, consider this: surveys show that about 24% of American adults believe in reincarnation, as do a stunning 10% of born-again Christians.
What does this all mean, aside from the prospect of good ratings for a show that requires buy-in on karma and reincarnation? To me, it indicates that society's notion of cosmic justice is undergoing a seismic shift. Until the 1970s, when Eastern thought started permeating the mainstream, Americans had two choices when they wrestled with the eternal question of why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to villains and crooks. They could decide there is no justice and the universe is basically unfair; or they could settle on one of the Judeo-Christian versions, all of which give us one chance to get it right before facing a zero sum, binary verdict: the fiery furnace or Club Med for eternity, as Norman Mailer, a believer in reincarnation, once described it. For an awful lot of people, the first choice -- no justice -- seems not only bleak but intuitively wrong, and the second seems as unjust as determining a child's entire future based on first grade test scores.
Enter karma. Suddenly, people who could not accept either of the earlier options had an alternative that resembles matriculating through a school system and operates on something more akin to the laws of physics -- every action has an equal and opposite reaction -- than on the judgment of an omnipotent and seemingly capricious deity. The idea caught on with a large segment of the population, with major implications for how we live our lives, and how we relate to the mysteries of the cosmos.
Those implications are still unfolding, but one thing's for sure: the Past Life producers and Fox execs, who presumably have their fingers on pulse of American culture, think viewers will buy into the premise. If the show succeeds, it's likely that millions of people will reconsider their ideas about the afterlife and the nature of cosmic justice. If the show fails, well, it's tempting to say it would be Rupert Murdoch's karma, but in fact we'll never really know why. It may be true that what goes around comes around, but as the Bhagavad Gita says, the details of how karmic law actually plays out are unfathomable.