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

Karma II: Average Karma, Karma and Caste, Interpersonal Karma

The Law of Average Karma and Good and Bad People

(this is part two of my discussion of karma. view the first part (click here))

Here I propose the existence of a certain level of karma which I will describe as the average level of karma in the world or in a specific karmic system (such as a country). In fact there cannot really be a limited domain of karma since all countries and communities in the world interact, although not always to a great extent. But the idea is that there is a certain average level of karma, at which about half of the people will be above, and half of the people will be below.

Outstandingly good and outstandingly bad people, are in my view affected by this differently. The very good person, who has rather good karma, is held back by the average level of karma around them. They are constantly constrained by the reactions and actions of those around them, which prevent them from reaching higher levels of achievement.

The rather bad person,on the other hand, is able to take advantage of the positive karma of people around them for their own benefit. If most people are good for example, the bad person can use this to their benefit. For example, if most people do not lie, and we don’t expect people to lie, the bad person can take advantage of this, because they can be dishonest, and many people will believe them. If most people are non-violent, they can do many bad things and never suffer any bodily injury because of their behaviors, because the ethical codes of the people around them prevent them from doing physical harm to that person.

The point is, that rather than good people always being rewarded by their actions, they may actually encounter resistance which is quite unjustified by their conduct. And the bad person can actually escape without ever truly bearing the karma or consequences of their action.

Of course, good and bad people are affected directly in other ways by their own actions. The good person will have an inner sense of peace at being a good person, while the bad person will either 1) construct elaborate psychological defenses to prevent them from feeling like a bad person, or 2) they will feel like a bad person inside. Even constructing a defense mechanism is hurtful in that it prevents that person from having a more truthful perspective on life and achieving higher levels of understanding, of which a certain degree of realism about their own behaviors is necessary.

The truly good person can also benefit and insulate themselves to a certain degree by surrounding themselves with other good people. And truly bad people will be relegated to the domain of other bad people, or they will constantly be moving around to avoid their previous actions catching up with them. This will prevent them from having enduring positive relations which are important to us as human beings.

I also theorize that the average level of karma in the world could improve or get worse at different points in time. For example, right now in the world, many people are suffering as a result of higher fuel and food prices, which may, in desperation, lead them to commit acts which they previously would not have considered. At the same time, people are probably more frustrated and overworked at this time, which may make them more irritable and less able to be kind to others. Similarly, the current high degree of polarization in geopolitics, especially between the Muslim and Western worlds, could lead people to develop greater prejudice and hated towards members of other groups.

Karma, Caste, and Passivity in Issues of Justice

One of the reasons that I reject the interlife (reincarnation) view of caste is that it serves to justify and perpetuate systems of injustice such as the caste system. It should be apparent to anyone that the caste system is extremely unjust. Yet the belief that one’s birth is conditioned by previous life actions justifies this, proposing that if one is born into a low caste, that it is actually one’s own fault. This not only justifies the system of caste, but disempowers those who should fight against it, since they often buy into the belief system of interlife karma.

Belief in the idea of karma can also make a person passive in the face of injustice. This can happen in two ways. First, people I have observed in Buddhist countries sometimes believe that if a person is wealthy or powerful it must be because of their good karma. This makes them accept class injustices in their society which actually should be challenged. Or if one of these wealthy or powerful people is the perpetrator of some kind of abuse, the people’s awe of this person prevents them from seeing the perpetrator as they really are.

The second way it makes people passive is through the belief that “karma will somehow repay the perpetrator”. The person involved feels like they need not do anything to the perpetrator, since they will ultimately suffer as a result of their bad karma. As I have said, I think bad people can get away with it because their bad karma “dissolves” into the larger system, without ever coming back to the perpetrator. In that sense, for justice to be served, the victim, in my view, should actually pursue justice themselves rather than expecting the karmic system to do justice.

As an example, a friend of mine was recently discriminated against by her employer and fired in a way that was a violation of the law. I advocated the person should pursue the offense in the context of the law, and assert her rights, but she was content in the thought that karma would eventually make that person suffer for their wrongs. This is just an example, and perhaps not pursuing it was the best choice, but it illustrates the concept. I feel pretty strongly that the perpetrator in this case will never suffer from their wrongdoing.

Karma in Interpersonal Relations

We often take very simplistic views of karma in interpersonal relationships. We tend to emphasize the karma of the other person and fail to recognize our own. For example, I do something, and it “makes” you act in a certain way. You emphasize that I MADE you act that way. However, this ignores the reality that a third person may react totally differently to the same stimulus, which shows how important the receiver of the original action is in their own reactive behavior.  I’ll use the terms person “A”, the original actor, and person “B”, the receiver and reactor, to make it easier to follow my discussion.

In fact, in any interpersonal relationship, the reaction is a function of both the initial action (from A), and the person receiving it (B). The person receiving it acts a filter, through which the action passes, which then conditions the response that they give. The filter is formulated by the accumulation of their karma and experiences in life.

The original actor(A) will then act as a filter to the reaction, and produce a further reaction from the original doer.

Let me give an example. Recently a friend of mine did something to me that I didn’t really like. I felt like she was being unfairly judgmental towards me. As a result of that, I took certain actions designed to eliminate this kind of behavior in the future. My friend was really hurt by this reaction, and complained to me about how mean I had been. However, she was unable to see her own role in it through her original action, and instead placed all the blame on me.

I tried to emphasize to her that it was at least partly her own karma by her original action. However, I did not claim that it was all her fault. Instead, I recognized that my reaction was partly my own karma as well, since the person I am is conditioned by my experiences and choices in life. And ultimately, I chose to react in the way that I did. I also recognize that another person in my same situation may have reacted completely differently.

The value of this perspective is two-fold. First, it allows us to recognize that in any events between two people, there are always two players involved. We should never say that “you MADE me do that”, thereby acting as if we had no role in it.

Second, in any conflict, we may allocate blame, but we need to recognize that ultimately it is a subjective process. I may argue that you were at fault because you yelled at me, but the other person may say that they yelled at me because of something I did. The only way we can resolve this is to appeal to some standard of proper behavior, which may be held by a majority of people, but which is usually not universal. Only if both people accept the standard can there be a resolution about allocating blame. There may also be cultural or even gender differences about what those same “standards of behavior” are or should be.

Often, however, what really stands in the way of one person accepting blame is ego, emotion, or fear. For example, their sense of ego prevents them from recognizing their own fault. Or they may feel hurt by something that happened, and ultimately don’t want to accept responsibility because of that. Or they may fear the consequences of accepting blame (for example the end of the relationship, or demands for a change in behavior that they aren’t prepared, or able, to make).

Which is one reason why I think in interpersonal relationships, one should not be attached to one’s sense of self, or ego. And at the same time, two people must always try to moderate their emotions (i.e. not get too emotional).

Going Back to Popular Use of Karma

As I noted at the beginning of the other post on karma, it is popular when something happens to someone, to allocate that to their karma. This is a kind of self serving judgement which reflects our hope that they will be repaid for some perceived injustice. While I cannot say that a person should never entertain this thought, we should always question this thought process, and remain open to the idea that what happened to our friend or acquaintance was actually a result of injustice or chance. And ultimately, even if we are thinking that, we probably should not tell our friend that we think it was their karma that caused their misfortune, as they are most likely hoping for sympathy at that moment, not judgement!

I would be very interested in your thoughts on this subject! Please leave a comment- I think its an interesting philosophical point…

View the first post of two on karma- (click here)

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  1. my sister thru out the years has said some very mean things to me. not invited me for holiday dinners, etc. crushing, and heartbreaking. she is 11 yrs older. she now has reuhmatory arthritus, and must undergo monthly treatments that could have life threating side effects. I help her whenever possible an always pray for her. however, I cant help but think about the karma thing.

  2. Well, first I can say that I don’t know this situation fully, so I can’t know whether in fact you did not in some way influence your sister’s behavior towards you.

    But assuming that your sister was in fact unfair to you, and that you really didn’t deserve it…this is a situation in which, because she is your sister and had a long relation with you, the inner feelings which occurred due to her knowledge (at some level) that her actions were unfair, could have resulted in some kind of sickness, due to the mind-body connection. Further, if she was unfair to you for no real reason, then she probably also was similarly unfair to other people, compounding the effect.

    On the other hand, perhaps she was never in really good health to begin with, which could be one cause for the way she treated you. I really believe that many emotions and behaviors have a physiological root. I often observe in myself how my physical state influences my emotions and behavior. I think for people in poor health they have to work even harder than a healthy person to have good behavior or good action. The presence of toxins in the system, for example, from smoking or alcohol, also has an effect I think. So if your sister was never in really good health, it could have influenced her behavior.

    From a third perspective, maybe its just a coincidence that your sister got sick. Because many people get ill no matter what kind of person they are. Even the kindest, nicest people have gotten very serious illnesses.

    I don’t know what kind of communication you had with your sister, so I don’t know if she ever explained why she said negative things to you. Some people just have negative patterns of behavior which can result from habit or various psychological phenomena. But one of the points I was trying to make in the post was that it is often very difficult with two people, to get one of them to admit that they were in fact more at fault in a given situation. They can always create some kind of argument to support them, and it often seems subjective, who is right and who is wrong. I do believe that in many cases one person is more wrong than the other, it’s just that it is very difficult for two people to come to agreement about that.

    But whether you think it is karma or not that your sister became ill, one of the things I was trying to say is that I think you should refrain from saying that. Because your sister is probably really suffering now, and for you to remind her of that at this time would probably be very hurtful and/or annoying. I don’t know if you have felt tempted to say that to her, but if so, you can try to make sure you are in a calm and peaceful state of mind when you see her so that you won’t feel inclined to say that to her.

    Thanks for your comment- I enjoy this kind of discussion! I would be curious also if you have any more thoughts on it!

  3. you still have to go deeper than the use of your intellect patrick to understand the deeper import of karma…it runs very deep…the fun is in going deeper…so dont ask me how…am not ur guru…

    • Yes the subject of karma is very deep, that’s why its interesting to consider. Of course, a person considers these things on a deeper level than the intellect as well… And by the way, is there a need for everyone to have a guru in order to reflect on these questions?

  4. Excellent article!
    Having left the Christian religion not too long ago, I myself am looking at other schools of thought. I find that the concept of karma and Western religions is very much fear-based.
    Why we cannot find a middle ground and leave off the need to scare people into submission I know somewhat well, but I just wish that this mental manipulation would cease.

  5. Grace Song,

    Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you appreciated the article.

    I want to say that although I don’t consider my self to be a Christian, I still think that there are many positive messages in Christianity (as well as other religions.) In particular, I think the Gospels contain good messages which are worth considering.

    Although I can understand why people want to be part of organized religion, I think the fear- based manipulation, as you describe it, ultimately serves the powers within organized religion which want to maintain their membership, so as to preserve their power base. For example the claim that “If you don’t believe Jesus Christ was God, you will go to hell”, is a clear fear based manipulation to make people remain Christians, not question Christianity, or look at other religions.

    I also wish that the mental manipulation would cease, but it seems unlikely to happen since the people who hold power within religion benefit from it. (And also they usually truly believe what they are saying!)

    Good luck in your search for your own truth and spirituality!

  6. Thanks for the write up. I have a friend of mine, he does Yoga. Well, he was born in India and learned Yoga from a Russian:) ..

    well, he always said the same.. that karma only mean “kARM” – ie. action and that the common perception of Karma – is concocted and isn’t what most people – at least in india – use that as..

    regardless, you explained it much better..

    olga shulman lednichenko

  7. and i do like your blog very much.. thank for your writing your thoughts

    olga shulman lednichenko

    and namaste :)

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