Tag Archives: suffering

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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