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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  • The constant bandying about of the word 'karma' itself is out of context. Even the most devout Hindus don't use the term so frequently. Granted, Earl is consumed by the concept, but much of his dialogue appears disingenuous given that he has only just heard the word and barely knows its meaning. Just like the Americanization of yoga, "My Name is Earl" could further dilute the religious weight of the Hindu concept of karma and wedge it deeper into the American vernacular. All these are aspects of the series that could potentially irritate Hindus.

    That said, "My Name is Earl" has many redeeming factors. For one thing, it isn't malicious or disrespectful about the concept of karma-or Hinduism in general-as compared to, say, Mike Myers' satire on Hindu Gods in a Vanity Fair photo spread, which rightly provoked so much ire from Hindus. Earl is worshipful of the power of karma. He doesn't make any references to Hinduism at all, which is both a good and bad thing: good because he doesn't misrepresent the faith; bad because he takes a core Hindu concept and popularizes it without mentioning its origin.

    But there is one compelling reason why Hindus shouldn't rail against this series, and should even applaud it. Earl is attempting to popularize the notion of karma, however imperfectly he grasps the concept, just as Jivamukti, the ultra-chic yoga center in downtown Manhattan, popularized yoga years ago.

    If they aren't already, most viewers of "My Name is Earl" will throw around the term karma without the slightest knowledge or interest in its religious and philosophical overtones. But the reason why I am thrilled about this series is because, if the show is successful, it will help securely lodge what is essentially a Hindu concept into the collective unconscious of America. It could provoke coffee-table conversation on the subject; it might on occasion create lively debates about the meaning of the word karma.

    The yogis and purists will say that the series got it totally wrong-and in the process they'll educate those who have never heard of the term. Randy, Earl's brother, speaks for this latter group perfectly when he hears the word for the first time. "Who's Karma?" he says. But every once in a while-perhaps after watching the series or listening to Alicia Keys or reading any of those 904 books about karma-some young adult or high-school kid will be inspired to research the topic a bit more; some school-teacher might assign it as the topic for an essay. Some college student might be drawn to it because it finally puts a name on a concept that has resonated in him for a long time. And he might start reading about karma, and therefore Hinduism. Deepak Chopra could write a how-to explaining the concept and spawn a whole series of imitators. In the process of explanation and dissent, some genuine interest in the ideas of Hinduism might arise. And that, in my mind, is a good thing.

    If it does go that far, I am sure there will be days when I rue this television series and the fact that it helped made karma a popular concept, like yoga is to Americans. The same is true for all the songs, books, and everything else that references karma. As the book "The Tipping Point" says, nobody can control a trend or fad once it gains momentum. The Americanization of karma might end up in forms that are totally antithetical to its origin, somewhat like yoga in its current state, with Christians engaging in it as a way of connecting to their God. Nothing wrong with that, except that they have wrested yoga from its roots and converted it into something it isn't. Similarly, karma may assume a shape that is no longer palatable or even authentic to its true character. But the good news is that there will be enough Americans to point that out, just as there are enough Americans who know the difference between 'true' yoga and its more fashionable shape.

    Of course, there is always the danger that this television series-like many before it-could simply fizzle out and die, in which case all my theories will be proved wrong. But we can blame that, as Earl himself would admit, on the show's bad karma (and here I use it in the concept of retribution and destiny).

    And we-none of us-have any control over that.

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