Posted by: Patrick Mosolf | Tuesday, 1 July, 2008

Fallacies of Karma and its Relation to Injustice

You have a motorbike accident and hurt yourself. Or you lend money to a friend and they don’t pay you back, causing you to feel stress over whether you will ever recoup the money you lent. Another friend, resenting something from a personal conflict, smiles knowingly, and announces that this is a result of your karma for having hurt them. Nice isn’t it? Something bad happens to you and your friends or acquaintances jump on it as proof of your wrongdoing. Welcome to the world of popular use of the term “karma”!

(this is the first part of two posts on karma.  To view the second part (click here))

Karma in Conflict with Concept of Injustice

But my concerns with the concept of karma go beyond this popular use of the term karma, to more fundamental issues with its use in its original context in eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. The concept of karma poses philosophical problems to the concept of injustice, since it poses the idea that if something negative happens to a person (in some cases what we might consider an injustice), that is actually as a result of actions taken by that individual or group previously. This concept that a person/ group is actually responsible for incidents of injustice which happen to them essentially negates the idea of injustice, since injustice fundamentally holds that something unfair happened to someone (i.e. it wasn’t their fault).

Many people around the world are struggling to remove and reduce injustice and I would like to think that I am one of them. Recognizing that injustice exists is of course a main priority as a prerequisite for this task, and thus requires that we deal with the concept of “karma”.

The Origin of My Interest in Religious- Philosophical Ideas

I was born in to the Catholic faith but have long since left that faith as I became more intellectual and well educated. As a high school student I began to question basic tenets of the Catholic religion, particularly whether someone like the Pope should be able to make decisions on my behalf, and then command that I agree with him.

Ultimately my answer was “no”. At around that time I embarked on consideration of religious/ spiritual issues and began to search for my own answers. My first direction was to “look East”, since the Eastern religions are the most different from Christianity, and since in the US they are imbued with a sort of exoticism.

I practiced meditation, and over the years read the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita. My understanding of these religions remains somewhat limited, but my limited knowledge is also supplemented by a strong critical thinking capacity.

Basics of Karma

One of the main concepts from Eastern religions which has penetrated the Western consciousness is the concept of karma. This concept has a number of folk meanings as well as its more specific meaning as propagated by a specific religion’s proponents.

The basic concept is that when something happens to you, that this somehow reflects a response generated by your own actions previously. In other words, “you reap what you sow”. The word “karma” actually means “action”, which implies that when one takes action, there will be some kind of counter- reaction.

One fundamental misunderstanding of karma is that one aims to achieve “good karma”. In fact, in Buddhism and Hinduism, the highest goal is to reach the cessation of karma- one wants to have neither good karma nor bad karma. However, for most laypeople, this is perhaps an unrealistic goal, and a positive intermediary is to aim for good karma.

Three Domains in Which to Consider Karma

For the sake of this discussion, I would like to consider karma in three domains- 1) the interlife dimension, 2) the total system domain of karma in this life, and 3) the “immediate sphere” of karma in this life.

Most traditional discussions of karma are grounded in the concept of reincarnation- the idea that a person is reborn into a new body after death, rather than going to heaven or hell as prescribed by the Western religions. Linked to this belief is the idea that a person is born into this life based on their karma from previous lives. That is, their actions in previous lives affect or prescribe the “conditions of their birth” in this life.

The problem here as it relates to injustice is that the world’s people are born into highly variant conditions which have a strong impact on how they will experience their life. Some people are born into poverty which affects their life chances, as they will be unable to attend school and work their way out of poverty. Or a person is born into a country that is at war, and they become a refugee, or even worse are killed in the fighting. Once I was at a session where a great Buddhist teacher was speaking, and during one of the breaks, one of the attendants told me that they felt that if someone is born into a country which is at war, that reflects their karma from a previous life.

Ultimately I reject this view. While there is no way to disprove this thesis, on this type of issue I often ask the question “which perspective will empower us to have the greatest impact on the world and its suffering?” If on the one hand we believe that a person deserves their disadvantaged status because of actions in a past life, that will not really empower us to help them. If, on the other hand we assume that this is a result of chance, and that the person did not deserve those things that result from their birth, then we will feel inspired to do something about it.

The Third Domain of Karma

Let me skip now to the third realm of karma, the immediate sphere of karma in this life, and leave the most difficult one (the second) for last. I do believe that our karma in our immediate sphere of relations affects us and is our responsibility. This can be broken down into thoughts, words, and actions. For example, I create my own thoughts, I structure my living environment, I make my own choices about which path to take in life, I choose who my friends will be, etc. This is clearly a person’s own responsibility and does affect them, so I do believe that karma exists in this sense. If on one hand, I am always thinking angry thoughts, or I am always despondent about life, then this will affect me. Or if I am often unkind or cruel to others, this will not only affect how other people treat me, but also how I feel about myself.

The Second Domain of Karma

Let me now turn to the second domain of karma, that is the universal, or total system domain of karma in this life. A belief in karma in this sense would hold, for example, that if a random act happens to you, such as another person, who is intoxicated, runs into you while you are driving and you are injured, that this is somehow a repayment for one of your own actions. Or if your wallet is stolen by a stranger, that this is somehow a result of your own bad karma.

These are seemingly random acts from anonymous people that you did not know and had no effect on. The belief in this idea of karma would have to posit that in some way, your previous actions dissolved into the surrounding world, and somehow were reformulated and directed towards you again at a specific time and place.

From a purely cause and effect point of view, this seems unlikely. In my view, negative or positive karma often dissolves into the much larger world system, is “absorbed” by it, its effects are felt elsewhere, and it never returns to affect the original actor. Holding that karma does affect a person in these impersonal events would need to presuppose some kind of Spirit, God, or devil which is redirecting karma towards a person. In science, one must have a testable hypothesis in order to gain knowledge through inquiry. This perspective of the “return of impersonal karma” cannot be tested, and so it falls outside the realm of scientific discourse. That is, it is purely in the realm of belief.

See my further continuation of the discussion of karma in the second post, in which I discuss karma and caste and injustice, and karma in interpersonal relationships. (click here)

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  1. I was born in to the Catholic faith but have long since left that faith as I became more intellectual and well educated.”

    You’d better watch out Patrick, before “newly” comes along and accuses you of stereotyping Catholics. :-)

    But seriously, I really like your blog. I’m glad you posted a comment on mine. I’m going to link to yours and come back often.

  2. I’ll have to re- read newly’s comments on your blog to see what you are referring to. I know many Catholics actually don’t agree with what the Church says, but still remain Catholics. That just didn’t make sense to me, especially since my views on religion are so far “out there” that they would probably disown me (or try to burn me at the stake!) (just kidding about that- I hope they wouldn’t really try that!)

    Thanks for your support and comments! I will make a link to your blog also in my blogroll…

  3. What is a Conflict? And no. I am not talking of the Yom Kippur War or Iraq.

    By the way: Here is the Yom Kippur war:

    The Yom Kippur War, Ramadan War or October War (Hebrew: מלחמת יום הכיפורים‎;

    transliterated: Milkhemet Yom HaKipurim or מלחמת יום כיפור, Milkhemet Yom Kipur; Arabic:

    حرب أكتوبر‎; transliterated: ħarb October or حرب تشرين, ħarb Tishrin), also known as the 1973

    Arab-Israeli War and the Fourth Arab-Israeli War… more

    Yom Kippur war was an attack – on Israel- from 3 sides. I am talking of the war from two sides.

    Ironically, the war from 2 sides is a never ending war. Its a Conflict. So, it has to have 2 actors – 2 players. Here are the warrior factions:

    The mind
    The Heart

    Let me explain:

    In the night when no one is listening: its the heart that’s doing the talking
    But suddenly, there is a voice – the one that justifies. It starts with the sound of —– BUT ————

    SO the conflict = Difference between the above two voices.

    Funny, thing is : you don’t even need a Bible or Torah. Geeta or Koran.
    You have those 2 actors – inside – built-in – by Design.
    So, now we know what a Conflict is :We are ready to answer : what is Confusion:
    Confusion = Not knowing which voice to suppress?
    Food for thought – a talk with you – Tonight:
    Are you clear or confused ? Wait a minute: Are you in a conflict?
    Before you answer : Answer this: Who are you answering this – TO ?
    You are the receiver and the Transmitter. No one’s listening. Are you?
    Between the two voices: One is called Psychology – and the other Philosophy.
    The place where Psychology meets Philosophy is called – YOU.
    Are you listening to YOU? Are you free from YOU? –
    If not then who are you listening to ?

    If you are in doubt : Consult You. I know. I know. There is a but – impeding YOU ..Now, Some Hints for you:

    You won’t find the answer in any book. No Bible. No Koran. No Torah, will tell you – you.
    Before you label it outlandish : let me ask you : Is admonishion = an answer? Hint: Thou Shalt NOT -> Is an admonishion.. Is it not?
    What is answer ? –> Here it is : An Answer = One that resolves the Anxiety.

    Finally: Are you – now – going to read the book called YOU?

    Warning: Don’t be sorry -> Everyone has the But – Inside. Its called the “Intelligent Design”///

    PS: This is 100 % original, no copy, no paste -> not even – inspiration – and/or perspiration


    Olga Lednichenko

  4. Olga,
    I have been meaning to reply to your comment for a long time, but there is an irony in my life, which is that the longer someone’s message to me, the longer it takes me to reply. That is because I consider it only fair to reply to them with an equally long message, which makes it harder to reply.

    Your reply is very poetic, so its hard for me to know exactly what you mean. You are speaking of conflict, but I’m not sure if you are replying directly to my blog post or if you are just making a new comment.

    I won’t reply to the political part of your comment about The conflict between Israel and the Arab world- I am not prepared to comment accurately on that at this time.

    But I can reply to a few other parts: First on conflict. Since for many years now I have been thinking about ways to improve our small, shared planet, of course I thought about and reflected on conflict. The conclusion I have come to is that at least SOME conflict cannot be avoided. Even in the most just world, there will always be some conflict between people. I do think that as humans we can significantly reduce the conflicts in the world by reducing injustice and finding new structures and ways to address problems. However, some conflict will always remain which results from the unavoidable fact that we are separate and do not always have the same wishes.

    The issue, then, is not to eliminate conflict, but rather how to manage conflict. Since conflict is unavoidable, we need not feel particularly distressed about it, but simply strive to handle it in the best way. I won’t delve now into how I think this can be done.

    As for inner conflict, I also think this is unavoidable- although the conflict may not always be between the mind and the heart, as you have suggested, but may be within the mind, or even within the heart as well. Again, as for inner conflict, I see no need to be distressed about it, as inner conflict is natural at some stage of life. Some people may feel too much inner conflict, which may indicate that they need more time for reflection, or need to listen to what they truly feel inside. But in many cases inner conflicts are just normal. They require insight, and in some cases patience, to resolve. In many cases, the external world will resolve these conflicts for us as conditions change.

    Its interesting that you talk about the heart. I used to facilitate a meditation group which involved concentrating on the heart. I think most people these days hardly listen to their heart at all. Some of the people in the meditation group commented that they couldn’t feel their heart at all during the meditation.

    I find it somewhat amusing that you refer in large case to “YOU”. It amuses me- since I have been influenced by Buddhism, I’m not sure if I really believe in the concept of the ego, or of an “I”. The ego is just made up of component parts of consciousness which can be dis-assembled. Perhaps that is why inner conflict does not concern me- because when the ego dissolves it is easier to see plainly and clearly the thoughts and feelings which are present and to be aware of their interactions, without any sense of angst.

    A further comment: You said “you won’t find it in any Gita, Bible, Koran.” In a way I agree with you. I remember reading a Zen story a few years ago, in which one of the monks burns all of the cherished books of sutras, much to the shock of the other monks. The point the monk was trying to make was that Enlightenment can’t be found in any book. On the other hand, I don’t agree with you, since religious- spiritual books can often be a guide, although one should not follow them too rigidly but rather approach them critically. For example, I have learned a great deal from the Bhagavad Gita, and it still invigorates me when I read it. I also benefitted greatly from the Tao Te Ching. The point is, while we need not take any book as having the final answer, they can often introduce new ideas and concepts which will stimulate us to greater accomplishments…

    Finally, I don’t know if you are alluding to the idea that external conflict, or conflict in the world, will be eliminated, if people’s inner conflicts are also eliminated. Over the years, when I asked people how to bring peace in the world, this was an answer I often got. I think this is true in many ways, but I also think it is too simplistic. On the one hand, I think it is true. If, for example, US citizens were more peaceful, and had less tendency towards violence and aggression internally, I strongly believe that they would have resisted the Iraq War much more strongly. However, violence is so much a part of US society, that I believe there was a kind of resonance between Bush’s proposed actions and how they were feeling internally.

    On the other hand, I think that even if people feel inner peace that in and of itself will not bring peace in the world because of structural problems and inequalities of power. For example, in the US many people were against the war, but they had no real power to do anything about it. And that is in a democracy where people have access to information and have more power to influence things. In a country like Iraq, where before they had virtually no power relative to a dictator, and were probably easy to manipulate due to control of the media, there is virtually no chance that the inner peace of the Iraqi people could prevent a war. Because they have absolutely no power to control their leader, and further, through the media, which cannot tolerate true debate, they can easily be manipulated to support war.

    So what I am saying, in response to one of the truisms that I often have heard (“peace will come in the world when people feel inner peace”), is that peace will never come to the world without the resolution of some of the external, structural causes of conflict, which are outside of people.

    In sum, you seem to be suggesting some sort of inner reflection. I wholly support this, especially in a kind of meditative practice which would be similar to “Insight meditation”, or “mindfulness meditation.” At the same time, we also need to address the structural problems in the external world which amplify conflict and create many conflicts which actually do not need to exist. If we do that, in the end there will remain some conflicts, both internally and externally, but they will certainly be manageable by wiser people who have developed more than we as humans have, up to this point. May we all strive for greater realization and understanding.

  5. I want to thank you for taking the time and writing that piece. I came across it on my search to find the answers to my questions on karma. The one question i truly wanted understanding to, i found here. Are people born into poverty and live in such unfortunate circumstances, really living that way because of past life actions? Didn’t sit right with me. Your braking it down to three domains made so much sense…i kept nodding my head in agreement as i read along :) I look forward to reading more of your work.

    • Nour- Thanks so much for your comment- its good to hear that you got something out of that writing. I think its a very important philosophical point and reflects on an issue that is very important to me- justice…Do you have any more ideas about the concepts related to karma? I would be interested to know if you still ave any more thoughts and questions to discuss. Any ideas on other things to write about?

  6. Loved the post. I can definitely see your viewpoint. I am a practising Hindu. I myself find it hard to believe that what you did in a previous birth affects your present circumstances. That why, i believe that what we do in this life, we shall benefit or pay for it – it is cause and effect.

  7. Shil,

    Glad to hear you enjoyed the post. And its not surprising that Hindus as well sometimes question aspects of this philosophy, since there are many thinking people about.

    But what we do in this life, is more governed by immediate cause and effect, so it’s more logical for people.

  8. […] Fallacies of Karma and its Relation to Injustice – A humanist explains the injustice of the karmic philosophy. […]

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