The Problem with Karma

When I was five, my grandmother had a good friend who used to visit her frequently. I  rather liked him, but since I was five, this was beacuse he got me a Nestle Milkybar every time he came over. It was a chocolate I cherished. So I was puzzled to learn that this nice man was blind from birth. He was the first blind man I had seen and I was rather intrigued. In the innocent yet insensetive manner of five-year olds, I persisted in asking him if he could tell how many fingers I was holding up or whether he could tell if it was night or day. But I couldn’t help wondering why God ( I was a believer then), who, I was always told was a rather charming fella, would make someone blind from birth.When I asked my grandmother about this, she shrugged and said maybe he had done something bad in a past life. When I asked what sort of ‘bad thing’ he might have done in his past life, my gandmother shrugged again, and said ‘I don’t know- maybe he swore at someone?’

 And in this crude manner, I was introduced to the concept of karma. But a word about swearing first: if my grandmother was right, then in my  next life I will be a deformed, demented, deaf, mute, blind, leperous, hermaphrodite with a gay siamese twin; and my troubles will only truly being when he starts dating.

Although ‘karma’ has strong roots in India and eastern Asia since ancient times, its inroduction to the West is rather recent. The concept of karma was first introduced to Europe (on a large scale) in the 19th century through the writings of European Indologists, Germans, mostly. The study of Indian philosophy was then fashionable in the upper classes of Britain, despite their disgust of the ‘idolatrous Hindoo ways.’ In the modern West, karma has earned a place in popular philosophy through the agency of TV and self help books- those pillars of civillization. People who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ (whatever the fuck that means) claim to believe in karma, and in the West, ‘bad karma’ and ‘good karma’ are concepts so universally understood that they even find their way into political speeches. But few people stop to consider the ridiculousness of the idea. 

Let’s first set down what it means. Basically, karma (‘act’ or ‘deed’ in classical Sanskrit) is, in Vedic reilgion, the cycle of cause and effect where the net effect is that good is rewarded with good and evil is rewarded with evil. If you do good, good things will happen to you, and if you do evil, you will be punished. Since karma is not bound to a single life, good or bad karma may accrue in subsequent lives as well. I submit, however, that the theory of karma however, is inherently fallacious. Consider the following:

1. Evidence:

This is the first (and usually the last) challenge to any religious idea. If you claim something is true, prove it. Give evidence. By evidence, I mean the scientific, logical kind of evidence you would use to evaluate any other statement about the world. And no, the karmic concept is not beyond science or in the relam of the unknowable. That is a very common argument used to brush off the responsibility of proving what you claim is true. The karmic law is like any other scientific hyposthesis in that it attempts to explain a phenomenon, and thus is not exempt from the same logical analysis that would apply to any other hypothesis. So evidence must be produced. I do not mean anecdotal evidence. I mean the kind of evidence that must be supplied, in scientific terms, for a theory to become a law. Not one proponent of this philosophy as produced this evidence. The karmic law, in that sense, is like Murphy’s law, where the qualifier ‘law’ is actually just a misnomer, but sarcastically, so, in the latter case.

2.  Good and Evil:

If good and evil are rewarded and punished respectively, then what is good and what is evil? Who decides? Good and evil are objective terms, judged against prevailing social mores. There has never been a permenant yardstick for good or for evil. So if Iwere to attract karama-phala according to my actions, how would they be judged in the first place? Is tax evasion good or evil in the karmic sense? What about stealing from the rich in order to feed the poor? There is also the problem of who administers karma. Some writers say God (don’t get me started), and other say that it is an automatic process, like soil erosion or photosynthesis. And, forgive the repetition, where is the evidence for either of these explanations?

3. Karma gone wrong:

Talk about bad karma!

The best disproofs of the karmic ‘law’ are two simple facts:

A) bad things happen to good people and vice versa 

B) bad things happen to children

In case of the former, this directly shows the opposite of what the karmic law states and in case of the latter, a child may be born with or contract horrible afflictions or suffer due to human actions, when it has done nothing to deserve the suffering. How does the karmic law apply in these cases? The answer supplied by proponents of the karmic theory to this question is another biggie: reincarnation. And yet again, I must call for evidence. But in any case the idea itself is bizzare: a person who has no knowledge of or intention to commit an evil act is  punished for something he had done in a ‘past life.’  Assmuing that reincarnation is real, a person is a different person in one life from what he is in the next. As such he is being punished for acts done, in essence, by someone else. This is a very convenient way of explaning away the two facts I have listed above. But this leads to another problem of its own….

5. Implications

If all pleasure and suffering is rightly deserved by a person, then a  seven year old girl who is raped and murdered deserves it.  A person who steals deserves the profit and a person who is robbed deserves the loss. This, in effect removes the necessity of all criminal laws in the first place, since the karmic law makes criminals themselves the agents of cosmic justice! To push even futher, it eliminates the necessity of economy, polity and society. People need not endeavour to have a good life since they will get one if they deserve it, and nothing they can do will change this fact. We might as well dismantle our whole justice and political system, since it’s all perodained by things we did when our souls occupied other bodies. 

The concept of karma appears in most of our epic literature, and on many occasions defines the fates of our epic heroes. The Mahabharata, which remains my favourite work of literature, has many instances of karma in action. I could recount the stories, but you have to read it yourself to feel its full magic. However, we must not be fooled by godmen and quacks who claim that this is real. When we frown upon black magic and superstition, we do so because there is no evidence for its claims. On that same logic, we should reject philosophical ideas which have no basis in fact- and not let them rule our lives.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “The Problem with Karma

  1. Hi!

    Nice to see a post from you after a long time. Very eloquently written, and meticulous in analysis. There’s one small complicating aspect in the entire concept of ‘Karma’ you might have overlooked–the concept of ‘Geeta saar’–“phal ki apeksha mat karo, apna karm karte jaao”. Since I believe expectation can arise only after anticipation of consequences a particular deed could produce (cause-and-effect relation), as a corollary, the Geeta’s concept also says–“don’t think of the consequences of or purpose behind your acts”. To quote Nike–“Just do it!”. Why I’d to bring in this aspect is because many people justify the philosophy of Karma on the basis of Geeta by stating that Lord’s ways are unfathomable, and the above concept of detached karma is oftquoted.

    Also I think, what Christians believe as eternal burning in hell is also a similar in spirit–only of the two (purported cause and purported effect) is visible. In the assumption of Christian Hell, it’s the purported cause (bad acts on Earth) that’s visible, but the purported effect–eternal burning in the hell is not. One aspect of theory of Karma also states this–that if you commit bad acts, you’ll take another birth as a human after 85 lakh incarnations! And, of course, you’ll suffer like a vermin in all those incarnations! You can moksha only as a human! So, in this sense both theories are similar. And in the aspect you’ve discussed effect (the wasted child above) is visible, but the purported cause (bad deeds in previous incarnations) is not.

    Had the definition of good karma been in keeping with the goals of betterment of human lives, these concepts could’ve still been acceptable for purely sociological reasons. But even that’s not the case! More often than not good karma constitutes fasting, visiting religious places, not questioning the ancient ‘wisdom’ of elderly and dead forefathers. I’ve explored this theme (though in less impassioned an analytical fashion than here) in my post–‘A few responses to criticism of atheism’

    http://ketanpanchal.blogspot.com/2009/03/few-responses-to-criticism-of-atheism.html

    TC.

  2. There you are- I was hoping you’d bring that up!

    ‘Geeta saar’–”phal ki apeksha mat karo, apna karm karte jaao

    This one belongs on the list of the most hackneyed philosopical sayings, and it sounds pretty nice when you read it for the first time. But imagine what your life would be if you just lived it without expecting any reward at all and being happy with whatever good things did come your way. It would be a listless existence. This little saying clear knocks “pursuit of happiness” out of the equation! Now I know I might be taking it out of context, but I, personally cannot agree. I don’t advocate a selfish existence, far from it, but it is reasonable to expect a reward for what you do- otherwise where’s the motivation to do anything at all? Humans are wired that way. Your’re right, ‘detached karma’ is often preached in order to justify the disequilibrium we see in the so called karmic cycle, and ‘the Lord works in mysterious ways’ is nothing more than an admission of ingnorance cloaked as a profound metaphysical satement.

  3. Well, I too knew you’d talk of motivation to live. ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged’ are my favorite novels 😉 I hope you’ve read them, and recommend, if you’ve not. I was just pointing out an even more fundamental logical flaw in the statement of Geeta saar–who decides what should be our duties? And on what bases? Whenever someone allots someone else a duty, it’s bound to be with LOGICAL expectations at least on the part of one who allots them. Say, a tribal head asks a few members to go farm, it’s definitely with expectation that grains will grow and will satisfy the community’s needs. That Geeta saar statement is the linguistically most pleasant way of saying, “just take my orders and don’t ever think of my motives, or the consequences of following them”

    TC.

    I’ve read the fountainhead, I rather liked it. a little too extreme, though. If Roark is her model for the objectivist man, i can’t really say i like him a lot. Havent read atlas shrugged, but my father swears by it. Who the fuck is John Galt anyway?

    Couch Clown

    • Well, the thing’s Roark appears extreme because of how the world was (and probably still is). Had the society been appreciative of talent and true functionality, rather than pretences, Roark would’ve appeared a real champion.

      True, I also won’t be like Roark, rather am not, but that’s be because I don’t have enough courage to be like that. And I know I won’t be as lucky as Roark was in the novel. More often than not, I’ll compromise on few principles, and try to find a middle ground–afterall, it’s a matter of survival these days.

      I don’t agree with all of Rand’s assertions, or what I interpreted of them, and would try doing a post on that.

      If I type more than this, I’d be way off mark!

  4. I must add that I found your argument about ‘why should we interfere?’ with God’s designs quite appealing. I’ve also tried to argue on these lines with a few theist friends–for instance, why should we try to cure a cancer patient? Isn’t that God’s verdict for the patient to suffer? Won’t God be angry with us for meddling with his/her ways? So, we should close all hospitals, ban all vaccines and drugs, stall all ambulances–basically, stamp out of existence anything that has potential to alter God’s designs. But then all I get in response is “you won’t understand” either spoken verbatim, or in a more diplomatic manner. Not that it would hurt me as there’s nothing really to “understand”.

    TC.

    They all say it when they run out of baseless assertions. Nobody likes losing an argument, and I’m no exception 😉
    Couch Clown

  5. nitwitnastik

    good to see you back CC and glad you wrote about karma…nice one…I have been thinking of writing about it too but never got around to doing it..

    It unfortunate that one of the most famous verses in the Geeta is the one which both Ketan and you have mentioned

    “Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
    Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani”

    IMHO, the reason it is so widely quoted is because it is confusing to most people and people somehow attribute some deep metaphysical meaning to it only because they don’t understand it well and think that it’s too “deep” for them. The fact that it is interpreted even by sanskrit scholars in different ways is an indication that even they don’t agree on the meaning or purport of the message.

    Yes, that and the fact that it sounds really wise at the first reading.
    CC

  6. Hi Nitwit!

    Glad to see you back. That you and TCC came back at the same time better be a very good coincidence! Otherwise, I’ll start believing in conspiracy theories all the more!

    I’d tried to maintain a distinction between the complete body of Geeta (which I’ve not read) and what’s so ubiquitous–Geeta saar, which I’ve read so many times in Hindi, English as well as Gujarati. And they’d all meant the same. Even if it’s a case that that Geeta has been misunderstood and misquoted, then my argument is against that misunderstood misquotation. What name or authorship we attribute to the idea of ‘discharging one’s duties without any expectations of result’ is immaterial. The fact is this very statement is used to defend the concept of karma.

    If any assertion claims to justify karmic theory, then I’d be ready to examine it. Who first produces that argument would be immaterial to me.

    I believe in a theory similar to Karma–that bad deeds would bring me harm, but one which would be sourced in my own conscience, and not dependent on an external agency. I’ve discussed these concepts in my post–‘My morality’ where I think you’ve already commented, Nitwit.

    I’m genuinely curious of the more authoritative interpretation of above shloka, and if I find it appealing, I’d incorporate it in my outlook.

    TC.

  7. The purpose of the Karma theory – when a friend of mine said, these days the poor are not satisfied with their lot because they do not understand that their present deeds are a result of their past karma. The Dalits must continue to clean toilets for nominal pay because that is their karma too. I think the Karma theory was created partly to soothe (in situations where you could do nothing, to give hope that the next life will be better etc.) and partly to brain wash.
    We can continue to be Mary Antoinette(s) and offer cake if bread is not available and still fear no revolutions because we Indians believe in our Karma.
    (I know she did not say that etc etc, I am just using that as a metaphor for our condescending attitude).

    The picture of the child is very disturbing.But I liked this post very much. I will come back to read the other comments to see how someone can seriously disagree (Ketan might!)…

    For whatever purpose the karma theory was dreamt up, there is no doubt that it was used to justify the caste system. For a person who faces the prospect of cleaning gutters all his life, there was no better antidote to rebellious thoughts than the belief that if he bites the bullet and cleans the drain, maybe in his next life he’ll be a bramhin. But how does the karma theory serve to soothe? In fact, it brings a sense of powerlessness in that it discourages people from wanting to make the present life any better and instead asks them to live out their life meekly and then hope for a better one next time.

    Couch Clown

  8. Neety Thakkar

    THIS SUCKS!!

    Thanks and congratulations – you have the honour of giving me my first hate mail
    The Couch Clown.

  9. #5 sums it like nothing else. Try explaining it to an Ignorant (which I use to refer to a blind believer). Oh, “you won’t understand”.

  10. Welcome to the circus, siddarth.

    Many times, ‘you won’t understand’ when used by an induhvidual (my term of choice for a blind believer) actually means ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘don’t think so much- clearly, those who came up with (insert crazy idea) knew better’. It’s annoying how people, when faced with a reasonable, logical argument, will scoff in your face and accuse you of ignorance as if thereby scoring a point for their mad belief.

    Number 5 is my favourite too, because it’s interesting to see how induhviduals try to reconcile karma and free will when the two are inherently incompatible. Same goes for astrology. As for those who maintain that there is no free will (yes, you have those types too), even they cannot satisfactorily answer the question ‘why do anything at all ?’. The irony is that this question is in fact often posed to atheists.

    Cheers, The Couch Clown

    • Induhvidual–oh, I loved this neologism. You have any more?

      • ‘Induhvidual’- Since we live on a planet of six billion ‘ignorants,’ as Siddarth calls them, it would be unwise to call them that to their faces, so ‘induhvidual’ is a safer term, like so:

        You: Tim, you’re ignorant.
        Tim: Fuck yourself.

        BUT,

        You: Tim, I think you’re quite the induhvidual.
        Tim: Thanks, man.

        If I think of or find any others, I’ll be sure to tell you.

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