Sometimes referred to as The Rule of Three or The Threefold Return, when a Pagan describes The Threefold Law a comparison is often invoked, such as “it’s like Karma”. Where this comparison may be useful to help non-magical folk understand the basic idea of The Threefold Law; it is not accurate nor respectful to the people who believe in Karma. I believe we, as in Pagans, fall into using this comparison because of two things; we don’t really know what Karma is, and we are using an already respected religious principle to give ourselves validity. I myself have made this comparison and that is why I decided to do my research. What I discovered and hope to share with you is that The Threefold Law is not Karma.
So what is The Threefold Law? First seen in Gerald Gardner’s High Magic’s Aid (1949) “Mark well, when thou receivest good, so equally art bound to return good threefold” and popularized in Raymond Buckland’s writings The Rule of Three is a widely believed guideline in the Neo-Pagan world. A more modern verse “What you put out comes back to you three, times three, times three” written by Scott Cunningham in Wicca, A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. It is described as whatever action or intent you put out into the universe comes back to you threefold. The ‘what’ that comes back to you threefold is defined in a variety of ways and can change from person to person or tradition to tradition. Some of the ways the threefold return is believed to occur include; your output comes back in a set of three waves or three different things happen, three times worse or three times better, or the effects are physical, emotional, and spiritual. If you poll the Pagan community you will find people who believe all of these interpretations work together, only one of them holds true for them, and people who don’t believe or follow in The Threefold Law at all.
Karma is very different. Not as up for interpretation as The Threefold Law, Karma is a belief system held by many religious sects including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Sikhism. Coming from the Sanskrit word meaning action, work, and deed Karma is a spiritual principle of cause and effect, yes like The Threefold Law. Also, Karma holds that the actions and intent of individuals’ influences their future. That is where the similarities end. Karma not only effects the individuals future in this life but also determines their quality and circumstance of future lives. Karma has three themes that are seen in all belief systems that hold it; causality, ethnicization, and rebirth.
These Karmic themes bring a level of sophistication that The Threefold Law lacks. Starting with causality which deals with the actions and intent. Causality explains for every action there is an effect on karma, intentional or not. Ethnicization is the idea that like attracts like. So within Karma ethnicization establishes similar return of the intent and actions the individual releases. The effects or return in Karma are two-fold; phala and samskaras. Phala is the immediate effects and occur in this life. Samskaras are an effect that occurs to the individuals’ mindset that lessens the possibility for that individual to experience happiness in the future this life and others. So where some of these ideas are seen in other aspects of Neo-Paganism they are not internally present in The Threefold Law its self.
We know the builders of Wicca were very aware of Eastern philosophy so it is no stretch to believe that The Threefold Law is borrowed in part from Karma, but the builders of Wicca were also constructing a new form of worship in a different culture. So, they might have left more up for interpretation or some ideas from Karma might have been lost in translation at that time. Later showing up as the religion aged. However, this lack or loss of ideas is not a bad thing when it comes to Neo-Paganism. A large percentage of Neo-Pagan practitioners came to the craft because of the ability to discover and build they’re own prescriptive of their religion. This adaptability is a major “selling point” so why tarnish its individuality by comparing?
What happens when we compare our religions to others is that we are not establishing ourselves on our own terms. If a non-Pagan hears about Neo-Paganism in the terms of “we are not like them”, “we are similar to them”, and so on. The speaker is relying on the listener’s understanding of these other religions and their feelings or bias of them. If the speaker misjudges the listener’s biases or exposure to the compared religion there will be miscommunication and misunderstanding. If the listener has the same knowledge and feelings of the compared religions as the speaker, then comes away with the ideas of Neo-Paganism based on others and not its own belief system. If a comparison is unavoidable to us as speakers are then required to do a lot of groundwork to avoid miscommunication. A future topic will be on how to talk about Paganism with others so please look for that to continue this discussion.
A late but very blessed Beltane to all.
As always please feel free to comment and share! If you have any questions or wish to get in contact with me please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org