The law of karma
One of the most famous laws of life discovered by the human mind is the law of causation, popularly known as the law of karma. The origins of this law have its roots in our powerful inner need to know causes. But this need to know causes stems from another powerful need, which is for meaning. If something adverse happens in our life we need to know why it happened, and what caused it. We want to know the meaning of it and how it fits in with the rest of our life. This leads us to embark on a journey to discover the causes behind every happening. The cause gives us the meaning. The event then becomes meaningful and gives us peace of mind. Until we discover the cause and thereby the meaning we are not at rest. But the cause need not be the real cause. Even an imaginary cause will do to give us peace. Karma helps us in assigning causes to events.
We are unwilling to come to terms with the fact that certain causes are undiscoverable. There is something deeply irrational inside us that wants to believe the unbelievable. Many cultures in the past believed that the cause of the drought was a god angry for the sins committed by mankind resulting in the sacrifice of innocent people to appease these imaginary gods. Since they did not have access to the scientific knowledge that we have today they had to believe in any cause dished out by their culture. Similarly, since we do not know the origin of this universe there are any number of creation myths, which we are willing to believe. Any cause is better than no cause seems to be the motto of the mind. So also with moral causes. It is impossible to know the consequences of moral transgressions. Karma says that moral improprieties have severe consequences.
The law of karma has traditionally been viewed as the law of reward and punishment. It is based on retributive justice, the principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It is a very effective tool to keep people from going astray, breaking the law, and performing immoral and unethical acts. This law proclaims that those who do good deeds will be rewarded by life and those who do bad deeds will be punished by life. But then who is to decide the quantum and type of punishment or reward and what are the yardsticks? For this, we need to have an agency that is omniscient. Therefore, the mind had to create a supernatural entity. This supernatural being is supposed to know exactly the quantum of punishment for bad deeds and how much reward for good deeds, and the yardsticks to use. We will never know what is in the mind of this supernatural lawgiver. For those people who cannot keep their lower impulses in check, karma is indeed an effectual law. Like human laws, it works on the fear principle.
But karma is a complicated concept. It is largely to do with morality. However, it is not clear whether good deeds will wipe out the consequences of bad deeds or if we have to suffer the consequences of bad deeds irrespective of the good deeds we perform thereafter. Do the two operate independently? We get the rewards for good deeds but have to pay for our sins. Some also believe that karma is played out over several lifetimes. You have to pay for what your former self did in previous lifetimes. Seems a bit unfair. It is also believed that your karma determines where and to whom you are born. We are therefore encouraged to accumulate good karma so that we are reborn into a good family with congenial surroundings. Further good and bad deeds are socially defined concepts. What is a bad deed in one culture may not be so in another culture. There is also a belief that karma is collective. Countries, communities, religions, and professions have collective karma which affects all members of the group. Karma is based on the belief that we have free will and we are responsible for all our thoughts and actions. Some dispute that we have free will. We are conditioned beings and this conditioning is mostly unconscious. Our choices and decisions are not entirely ours. Karma also says that our moral actions have material consequences. If you tell a lie today then you may lose money in your business someday. How a moral act like lying can have the effect of losing a material object like money is unfathomable. Karma says that there is a connection between the two.
The mind is also eager to know why only some people are born rich, beautiful, or intelligent while most others are not. It is impossible to know as such knowledge is hidden from us. But the mind is restless and cannot live in a state of ‘not knowing’. To soothe the mind the theory of karma gives an explanation. We are what we are and who we are because of our deeds in previous lifetimes. If we behave well in this lifetime we will be rewarded in our next life with a good birth. That is a great incentive to perform good deeds. It is also believed that those who have attained liberation in this lifetime have been working on it for many lifetimes. That is the reason they attain liberation spontaneously and seemingly effortlessly. Their efforts were in their previous births. The unexplainable can be explained by the theory of karma.
Karma also explains why bad things happen to good people. They are paying for their sins of the past. It also explains why good things happen to bad people. They are reaping the rewards of their good deeds in the past including past lifetimes.
Some believe that even our unconscious bad acts will create bad karma. Karma accepts no excuses. Inadvertent actions are not exempt. Even if you harm someone by accident you have to pay for it. Sounds harsh.
Some argue that your motives don’t count as much as your actions. Even if you give money to charity in order to be appreciated by others you will get good karma points. Some believe that intention by itself creates karma. Good intentions may end in a bad result and you are not to be blamed for the result.
A soldier who kills an enemy in the line of duty will suffer the effects of karma if he feels he has committed a crime. Will a cannibal create bad karma? Some believe he does. Some don’t and argue saying that the cannibal doesn’t think that he is doing anything wrong. Karma is all about right and wrong, good and bad.
Not only deeds and actions but thoughts also create karma. The kind of thoughts we harbor day in and day out will ultimately result in action. Negative thoughts will breed more negative thoughts resulting in improper action. Who we become ultimately depends on the thoughts we keep constantly thinking about.
Not everyone believes in the theory of karma. But everyone knows that there are consequences to every action. Yet we do things that will harm us and others. Knowing the theory is one thing and putting it into practice is another. Fear of consequences doesn’t seem to deter some people.
If you are a person who operates from higher values and principles then you do not need such a law to keep you in check. You will not be unethical because you will be punished, but because you realize that is not the right thing to do. You will not steal because you will be put in jail, but because stealing goes against your sense of values. You will not jump the queue out of a sense of fairness and not because you will be born as a mouse in your next life. You will not cheat your partner because you will be cheated in turn by life in the future, but because cheating is not your way of life.
The law of karma is commonly viewed as some kind of mystical law monitored by a supernatural being. It is time we understood it psychologically. We do not need a supernatural being to dispense karmic justice. This will be a thankless full-time job for this omniscient being, monitoring the activities of one species. Such a being will have better things to do, like create a new universe in another dimension with a better species. Instead, life has been designed in such a manner that any transgression on our part automatically triggers guilt. You cannot prevent guilt from arising as conscience is inbuilt in us. Everyone has a sense of right and wrong, good and bad and it cannot be wished away. It is this negative energy charge of guilt that attracts negative situations in our lives, which we call punishment. Similarly, when we do good deeds the positive energies attract positive situations, which we call rewards. But what normally happens is that this guilt is rationalized, suppressed, and pushed into the unconscious. The first bribe will be difficult, as our conscience will speak up, and our sleep will be disturbed that night. After a few more indiscreet acts, the conscience seems to keep quiet. Guilt has now gone underground and we don’t feel it consciously. But guilt is not something we can get rid of by suppressing it. It is a potent negative force that can cause silent damage. It is our most powerful enemy within. It can fester inside us for a lifetime. Guilt never dies. It can generate enormous anger. Tell a corrupt man that he is corrupt and he will seethe with anger. What triggers that anger? His guilt and conscience. People don’t like to be reminded of their transgressions. But if you are brought up in a culture where corruption is a way of life and is considered normal then the law of karma should not, logically speaking, operate. You have not done anything ‘bad’ either in your eyes or in the eyes of society.
When we see so much injustice in this world the law of karma gives us the solace that the wrongdoers will be punished someday. When something bad happens to them we immediately say that it is because of their past bad deeds and that they deserved it. We feel delighted at this thought. We say it with a ‘serves them right’ feeling. Because everyone thinks like this, we find it normal. But is such thinking good for us? What are the consequences of such a thought process? Taking delight in a bad person’s misfortune seems the right thing to do. What is the message we are giving ourselves? That misfortune will follow bad deeds? That this universe is governed by a moral law that will eventually catch up with us? When it does catch up, we feel vindicated and delighted. Justice seems to have been done. But is such an event a great event? A cause for celebration? From a higher viewpoint, it is a sad day for all. Is the number of people going to jail an indication of a great society?
Blaming everything on karma is very convenient but faulty. Those who live in earthquake-prone areas should not invoke karma when an earthquake shatters their homes. If we live near a volcano and it erupts, it is not a result of bad karma. It only means we chose the wrong location to live. Due to an unhealthy lifestyle if we get a heart attack it is not due to karma. If we failed in the examination, it is not because of our karma, but inadequate preparation or writing skills.
But it is useful to use karma for questions that have no answers. If someone dies in an accident, we have a tendency to ask why it happened. We are not happy with the immediate material cause, which is the accident. We want a supernatural cause. So, to calm the mind it is helpful to say that it was due to karma. During such moments it is wise to accept any explanation that will calm the troubled mind.
We also invariably search for single causes for events. Our minds think in a linear fashion so we assume one effect follows one cause. Maybe that is not the way life works. There could be multiple causes. There is the quantum view that since all of life is interconnected the entire universe causes every single event and every single event affects the entire universe in however small a way. We have been endowed with the faculty to discover material causes. Non-material causes have been scoped out of our capabilities. All we can do is speculate and believe our own speculations.
Good karma is believed to be caused by good deeds. Here again, we have to be careful. Take money for example. If we have been good, we think we should be rewarded with wealth. There is no such correlation or quid pro quo. There are no such bargains or barters available. Goodness cannot be used as a bargaining tool with life. Goodness will keep away negative vibrations, which is its greatest reward. It will not create guilt, another great benefit. But if we expect some monetary benefit out of goodness then we may be disappointed. Goodness is best regarded as being its own reward. It is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself. It is a way of life, in and for itself. But if goodness becomes an identity, it may have negative consequences, with the arising of a holier than thou attitude and contempt for people who are not good.
To sustain goodness against the provocations and temptations of the world is no easy task.
Then we have this issue of karmic debt. It is a good idea but one should not lose sleep over it. If someone has done us a good deed, we must reciprocate to the extent possible. If we are not able to, due to circumstances, we will not be punished for it. We can always send them good thoughts or, thinking of them, do some good deeds for others. That will settle our karmic debt to them. Otherwise, we will be caught in a trap. We may never be able to repay our karmic debt to our guru or our parents, for instance. To overcome the problem of karmic debt the giver should create an opportunity so that the receiver can pay him back. That will lessen the tension in the receiver. Otherwise, when someone does us a favor there is always a nagging feeling within us to square it off early. We don’t like to be in debt for long. But when we do a favor we would like the other person to be in our debt for as long as possible. As long as he owes us, we feel one up on him. When someone wants to repay your kindness, accept it gracefully. You are doing them a favor by allowing them to square off their debt and giving them peace of mind.
The word karma is often used to mean predestination or determinism. But we must be careful while using it with this meaning. Otherwise, apathy and fatalism will set in. It is necessary for us to feel that we are in control of our lives and have free will to make our own choices, even if we don’t have complete free will. The problem is compounded when religious people tell us to surrender and leave everything in the hands of God. There seems to be some misunderstanding here. We cannot leave ‘everything’ to God. Only things outside our sphere of influence. Where we have the power to act, we have a responsibility to act. When someone has a terminal illness, it makes sense to pray and leave it in His hands. But when you have a fever, you have to pop in some pills and not add it to God's long list of favors to be granted. You have to earn your living, you have to take care of your self-image and, most importantly, you have to make your choices every day. You then surrender to the outcome, the results of your choices. If God is going to do everything for you, when will you ever grow?
But what is really interesting is that, even though we talk so much about karma, we don’t take it seriously. The corrupt and the criminal think they are exempt from the law. We don’t factor karma in our decision-making process. We live as though karma does not exist. It is more a topic for drawing-room discussions.
If we strip this law of its supernatural status, with its punishing God and retributive justice, what is the law of karma really telling us? Is it not telling us to be careful with the choices we make? The law operates at the decision-making level. Every decision we make has short-term and long-term consequences. The diabetic who chooses to eat a sweet is overwhelmed by instant gratification. It seems to overpower the long-term consequences and weakens his will. Every time he gives in to short-term benefits, which are detrimental to his well-being, he is creating, one might say, bad karma. This bad karma weakens his will further the next time. Why do we give in to the impulse of the moment? Because long-term consequences seem so far away. We tell ourselves ‘I will face the consequences when they come’. To create good karma, we need to make it a habit of thinking about the long-term consequences of our actions and gradually cultivate the willpower to overcome the enormous pressure of instant gratification and short-term benefits. This does not mean that we should never act on impulse. We have to use our common sense and depending on the situation, make our choices.
Another way of looking at the issue is the notion of the future self. The one that creates bad karma is your present self. The one that suffers later on is your future self. Your present self does not exercise today and ten years later your future self pays the price. If we practice thinking of our future self as being as important as the present self it may restrain us from giving in to the impulse of the moment. We do have a responsibility to our future selves.
On the whole, the theory of karma is a very useful mind management tool though it may not always sound fair and just. Life is inexplicable but karma tries to make the inexplicable explicable. Karma is a good belief to have, even if it cannot be logically proved as we cannot link moral cause and material effect. We cannot do double-blind studies with karma and have it peer-reviewed. We have to see its practical utility in our lives and how best we can make use of it. Most importantly it will keep our wayward minds in check. It will make us better moral human beings. We are creating karma with every thought we think and every action we perform. But it affects us most at the decision-making level. The law of karma is there to remind us of long-term consequences and also to avoid creating guilt. We need to bring the law of causation into our daily lives at the point when are we making decisions. Essentially this means evaluating long-term consequences and the effect they will have on our future selves. This is karma in action.