His name is Earl.
There is a line halfway through the new NBC series "My Name is Earl" (Tuesdays at 9 pm/8 pm Central time) that perfectly captures the show's ludicrousness and its hope. Earl, the hero, is a shifty-eyed no-gooder. One day, he wins the lottery, has a life-threatening accident, and decides (with an assist from the Carson Daly's late-night show) to right every wrong he has ever done in his life. He begins with Kenny, the elementary school geek whom he tortured for the better part of their childhood. Kenny now has a good job and a nice home but no companion. Enter Earl, intending to rectify the situation.

Suffice it to say, things don't go as planned. Earl abandons the effort to correct this particular wrong. He returns with his brother Randy to their hotel room, and as soon as he walks in, he gets hit on the head with a telephone. It is his furious ex-wife, who has learned that he won the lottery and wants her share. Randy walks in and gets hit on the head, too.

"What happened?" asks a bemused Randy.

"Karma happened," Earl says earnestly, ignoring the obvious reference to a similar, more-famous phrase with scatological overtones.

Well, for starters, Karma doesn't happen. It is what you do. Karma in its most basic sense means action or duty. This series uses the term to mean cosmic retribution, as in the words of its own oft-repeated explanation: "what goes around comes around."

Earl is not alone is using karma in this context. Take, for instance, the lyrics of Alicia Keys' popular song, "Karma." Keys sings, "It's called Karma baby. And it goes around. What goes around comes around. What goes up must come down." That isn't karma. That is Newton's Law of Physics.

Do a search for "karma" on Amazon.com and you get 904 entries. Psychic Mary T. Browne links karma to reincarnation in her book, The Power of Karma. The back cover of the book says, "Karma is a powerful ancient law of cosmic cause and effect.. Simply put: what goes around comes around." The New York Times, in a spectacularly wrong usage of the term, describes this book as, "A practical handbook for the karmically deprived."

Another popular book on the subject called Karma 101 describes the concept through questions: "Is it punishment? Payback through divine intervention? A universal method of checks and balances?" before concluding that karma is all of the above. It's not that the way NBC uses karma is totally off base. Karma in Hinduism is also used in the context of retribution. When bad things happen, Hindus console themselves by saying that their current suffering is due to their past bad karma (by which they mean actions).

But if I had to pick one word to describe the true meaning of karma, I would pick duty or action. There is a famous phrase in the Bhagavad Gita that encompasses such a meaning. "Karmaneva Adikarasthe Mapaleshu Kadachana," which means that you only have responsibility over your actions and not the fruits of your actions. In simpler terms, it means, do your duty and don't worry about the consequences. It is interesting to note that the Gita was a lecture that Lord Krishna gave to Arjuna, a warrior and prince, on the battlefield because Arjuna was in an emotional knot about fighting and possibly killing his own cousins, uncles, and gurus. To Arjuna's emotional angst, Krishna had one response: do your duty, even if it means killing your cousins. Leave the rest to God.

In comparison to Arjuna's genuine conflict and anguish on the battlefield, Earl's list of the things he has done wrong in his life is childish and funny, which is the point of this series. Consider some of Earl's admitted misdeeds: peed in the back of a cop car, stole beer from a golfer, pretended to be handicapped to go in the front of the line at Adventure World. The various episodes of the series will have Earl trying to right all these wrongs.

There are many reasons why Hindus can rail against this series. NBC uses the word "karma" loosely, simplistically, out of context, and sometimes just plain wrongly. For instance, the series promotion says that Earl's list is "his roadmap to better karma." What they probably mean is better life.

How far will the karma craze go?

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