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)