All worldviews from theism to atheism and polytheism ask a host of questions – questions that attempt to make sense of our existence. For instance, why there seems to be unbridled evil in the world, what the meaning of life entails, what ensues after we die, and henceforth. Every worldview tries to make sense of these existential questions, and in the case of Hinduism we find the doctrine of karma having some bearing on these vital issues.
What is karma?
Although the various schools of thought within Hinduism, and in Buddhism, make for a complex study (the various religious ceremonies, rituals, the many gods, its rich history, and so forth) the one doctrine that seems to be consistent is that of karma. Karma teaches that for every action there is an effect, and that every action will be a determinant on how one will be born in the next life. For instance, if we do good things then we are closer to enlightenment, whereas if we do bad things then one amasses a karmic debt that must be paid back in some way. The concept entails that we either live many lives in order to pay back this debt, or we do it in this life (iskcon.org/karma/). This is the Hindu doctrine that the Krishnas use to try and explain why bad things happen to good people, or why bad things in general happen, in this life. Subsequently, in Hinduism the person cannot be released from the karmic cycle until they are reborn into the Brahmin or priestly caste.
Issues with karma:
At first glance this all seems fair, and just. No bad deed that we perform will go unnoticed and hence unpunished as, on karma, every action has an effect. However, if we take the time to look into the doctrine of karma we somewhat see a different picture develop that was initially thought on a surface level reading. For instance, say we contract cancer, suffer and eventually die from it – it then was not really our fault that this penalty was enforced upon us as we were simply paying off our debt of the evil things we did in our previous lives. I can draw this out with a personal example:
One of our neighbours has suffered for most of her life from severe migraines, and thus has been prescribed powerful medicine for it. We find out that she once visited a New Ager (New Agers share much in common with Eastern religions and karma being one prominent facet) physician and according to this person these migraines were a result of bad deeds done in my neighbours previous life! Apparently my neighbour was also decapitated in her previous life, hence the ongoing trauma of her migraines.
But is it fair that she is experiencing these severe migraines in this life after she did not know what she did in her previous one that was deserving of the consequences? No-one knows what specific evil or bad deed was done in someone’s previous life, and of which they are suffering for in the first place. Furthermore, the karma victim does not know what to do to improve his life after he unknowingly begun paying back this debt. It thus becomes a guessing game in the way that even the most dedicated follower has to speculate on what bad deeds he did or what rule he broke in his previous life – what are the chances of guessing that right? Zero.
Even further, karma is harsh in the sense that it offers no comfort. For instance, a guide at a Temple once explained to a Christian that if a couple lost a child shortly after birth it was because the mother was paying back her karmic debt. So, if a person would ask a Krishna adherent why suffering in his life seems unjust and cruel the answer will always be the same: “karma!” But such does little to console or answer such an objection – it seems as if it is just a meaningless word given in reply to a meaningful question. Yet, not only is the karmic cycle seemingly cruel and unjust, it furthermore causes pain in the lives of the parents who have lost their baby.
In another instance one man was asked by a relative to donate blood for another relative’s operation, but one such Hindu teacher told him not to do so. The reason being is that in order for the man who received the blood to pay back the debt of the relative giving him his blood, he would need to somehow be in a life-threatening situation where he would be the one in need of the blood donated. So is the cycle of karma – no good deed goes unpunished, it seems.
In another case imagine witnessing a desperate and hungry old man begging on the street corner – his unfortunate situation would have been brought on by the evil deeds done in his past life, and thus he is paying of that debt in the present one. Would it then be a good thing for me to give him some relief money, or to even give him a meal at the risk of interpolating myself into his karmic debt cycle lest I complicate it, and thus prevent him from paying it off? I should probably ignore him, and that would seem cruel on my part at a moment when I could provide relief for him – such a case could be multiplied.
The doctrine of karma seems cruel, and unjust hence would be evil, and morally deficient, if it were true. The concept of justice within Christianity far surpasses this in the way that it teaches that God did not leave us to suffer whatever consequences we may have coming to us, and force us into an innumerable series of lives to suffer through until we get it all right. God sent his son to take our debt upon himself. He suffered so we don’t have to and he rose from the grave, proving that he did indeed defeat death.
I believe with the above study in mind karma is a seemingly deficient concept, and thus seems to be just another constituent of a man-made philosophy.