As it turns out, it’s not that easy to nail down. Karma is a concept that is used in various forms, occurring in many Eastern religions (including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism) as well as a lot of New Age religions. And each of these religions, to say nothing of various schools within each, seems to have a slightly different idea about what karma is and how it behaves, particularly in regards to ideas like predestination and reincarnation.
At its most basic level, karma is about consequences. The idea being that eventually you will reap what you sow. If you do “bad” things, you accumulate “bad karma,” and if you do “good” things, you accumulate “good karma.” In some versions intentionality plays a role, such that bad actions accompanied by bad intent incur a worse karma load than ones where no harm was intended. Somehow, the universe arranges circumstances so that an accumulation of bad karma results in some kind of later punishment or lesson that is supposed to discourage repetition of bad behaviors, and an accumulation of good karma results in some kind of reward or pleasant outcome.
Basically, it reads like an effort to tie morality to the phenomenon of cause and effect. And in some ways, it makes sense. After all, it does seem that, in general, good and pleasant people get more enjoyment out of life compared to bad and unpleasant people (who also seem more likely to come to bad ends). Even if that doesn’t appear to always be the case, there is this human desire for justice that certainly makes us want that to be the case. And, of course, we also want to encourage people to behave in a good and just manner, and discourage them from cruel and unjust behavior. These desires are a running theme through a great number of religious and philosophical systems, and one of the many objections to atheism is outrage at the idea that people who led horrific lives (either giving or receiving said horror) might never get a measure of justice. That can be a tough pill to swallow. People just don’t like the idea that Joseph Stalin could kill tens of millions of people and sentence millions of others to lives of painful toil and torment, only to get off Scott free by dying instantly of a heart attack at the height of his power and influence. Or that a kindly family could live a life of drudgery, poverty, and disease only to be wiped out by a random tsunami. The concept of karma, particularly when combined with ideas of reincarnation, would seem to reassure us that even if we can’t see the results ourselves, somehow the balance will get redressed.
The problem, though, is that it just doesn’t appear to be true. And that can have some real and problematic consequences.
You see, even though the action of karma is frequently referred to as “the law of cause and effect,” there actually is not an observable link between causes and effects inherent in the idea. A person can “receive their bad karma,” years, or in some cases literal lifetimes, after the supposedly precipitating actions, with no way to know what the cause was supposed to be. We just have to accept that there was a cause for which they somehow deserved their fate, even if we can never see it. Or, as I’ve seen it described, the universe “knows” what people have done and why, and then somehow arranges events so that they will receive their lesson in just the right time and place to ensure that it is learned. But how have we demonstrated that the universe “knows,” anything at all? By what mechanisms does it arrange lessons? Where has anyone ever seen a conscious intervention by “the universe” in the lives of anyone that is demonstrably directed at teaching a specific lesson? For that matter, by what criteria has “the universe” decided which actions were good and which were bad, and why should we accept its judgments on these matters? Would we have a choice if we didn’t? What can be the actual, demonstrable link between an action performed in one lifetime and the consequence reaped in another, when one can’t even demonstrate that people live multiple lifetimes?
The karma thing also poses some interesting questions regarding predestination, morality, and free will. For example, if you rob someone, did you behave immorally, or were you just an agent of karma punishing them for a past transgression? Did you really have any choice in the matter? If you feed a starving person, have you chosen to do something good or are you simply an agent of karma rewarding their past good behavior? Could you have chosen to do otherwise? If you choose to go rock climbing, fall, and break your leg, is that a result of your own free choice, or did your karma impose that choice upon you?
It seems many schools have settled on the explanation that your free will and your karma interact and influence each other; your choices affect your karma, which in turn affects your future choices. But that seems a little too pat, and not free of further questions. After all, aren’t your current choices affected by your karma from your past choices as well? In what way is it then appropriate for you to be punished or rewarded for them later? Is it only the choices you made completely free of karma’s influence for which you will be held accountable? How on earth would you even know which choices those were? And if you can’t know, how do you figure out what lessons you’re supposed to be learning?
The other day, I was listening to Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God,” (highly recommend), and she described a period in her life when she was looking into Buddhism. She travelled in the East trying to learn about it, and in one story describes encountering a woman who was caring for a child crippled from birth. When she complimented the woman for caring for “that poor child,” the response she received was “Don’t call this ‘a poor child.’ He must have done something truly terrible in a past life to be born like this.” Which raises another problem of the idea of karma: victim blaming. It’s the flip side of the belief that your actions now will be rewarded or punished by the universe in the future. That necessarily implies that your present condition is the reward or punishment for your past actions. It gives rise to the idea that however awful and/or apparently undeserved a seemingly good person’s current suffering may be, somehow, for some unknown and unknowable sin, they actually do deserve it (e.g., babies who get cancer deserve to have cancer). Or that no matter how wonderful the life of a seemingly awful person may be, somehow they were saintly enough in the past to deserve their current great fortune. There are caste systems based on this very idea.
And that last bit raises another question. Doesn’t the existence of people who seemingly gain every reward in life, yet behave awfully, suggest that karma is kind of a failure as a teaching tool? If they were good people before, which earned them this reward, and are now awful people, that would seem to represent regression.
There are a lot of questions opened up by the idea of karma, and I doubt that I’ve come up with anywhere close to all of them on my own in this short space. There are a lot of proposed answers to these questions as well, and I don’t pretend to have those either. The problem I see is that karma as described is a largely unobservable mechanism. So many schools of thought propose many different possible answers, and people can be quite satisfied with whichever one seems to agree best with their own outlook on how the universe should operate. But because karma’s action is an unobservable mystery, there’s no way to know which (if any) of them represent the way the universe actually does operate. That holds true right up to including whether karma really is a thing.
I guess this article has been mostly a series of questions. They represent the perspective of someone who has not really delved all that deeply into the topic, and I’m sure many of them have been asked and answered many times over by others in the past. Probably, this article has told you more about how my mind operates than about any seriously developed philosophies that hold karma as a central concept. My own research thus far has been top-level at best, and of course I didn’t grow up with constant exposure to any philosophies that treat karma with seriousness. I just hope it represents something worth thinking about.