Conceptions and Misconceptions about Karma

Past live blame is another big thing that I tend to see from them, where anything that happens to you (in addition to being your own fault because of your current life thoughts…) is some kind of karmic ripple effect of something you did in your past life.  I’ve seen people say that if someone steals from you, it’s ‘obviously’ because you were a thief in a past life, and it’s just balancing out the scales.

Well, in Indian theology, it often IS because of something you did in one of your past lives. That doesn’t mean you should be blamed in your current life, or that you shouldn’t be empathized with or helped, or that the criminal shouldn’t be brought to justice. It simply means that the reason something bad happened was because something else bad happened in a different time and place.

Basically, in Indian theology, evil begets evil and good begets good. That’s why “be good” is such an important part of Hindu or Buddhist worldview. If you choose to do evil now, by stealing or killing, it will continue to ripple and multiply indefinitely throughout the rest of time.

It’s not as deterministic as you might think. Every Karmic reaction starts with a free-willed choice. You might have bad Karma from a past life, but you choose whether or not to do good works or bad ones in this life. A thief still chooses to be a thief, even if Karma dictates that someone “deserves” to be robbed; the person doing the bad thing still chooses to continue the cycle of Karmic retribution. If all the world’s thieves chose to stop stealing, and murderers to stop murdering, the cycle of Karmic retribution would come to a halt.

You must also remember that Karma, originally, existed in the context of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. It didn’t stand alone punishing people indiscriminate as a discrete system.

Rather, in the belief systems where Karma exists, there are always ways to stop the cycle, and to repay your Karmic balance. In Hinduism, religious devotion, good acts, and penance can help to clear your Karma, so that you don’t have to suffer in your later lives. There’s also the afterlife, where you can be punished for your crimes all at once, before being reborn into a new body.

Another important thing to remember is that not everything is Karmic. People have free will, and can choose to do bad things to innocent people. You should never accuse or assume a victim deserved what happened to them due to their past lives; it’s possible that an evil person chose to do evil without the victim having any bad Karma at all.

For example, a man who was good in their past life could be murdered by another man who was also good in his past life, because all people have freedom of choice. This would result in the killer getting bad Karma, and in long term retribution upon his later lives.

The point of Karma is to scare people into being good, not to blame the victims of evil for doing things to bring that evil upon them. Rather, the notion that a single murder could turn into thousands of murders, and increase it’s harm by orders of magnitude, due to Karma, serves to make people less likely to murder at all. No evil is small enough to be tolerated, because it won’t stay small.

Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists don’t celebrate Karma. It’s not a force for justice, it’s a force for vengeance, and it’s a force we seek to mitigate in the world. The Gods don’t make Karma happen, and they actually encourage avoidance of Karma.

People often find Karma distasteful because the see it as unfair and injust… but that’s the point. It IS unfair and injust, and it hurts the innocent. Karma is the enemy in eastern theology; unlike Hell and Damnation in western though, it isn’t something inflicted righteously upon evildoers by the Gods, rather it is something that simply exists, like gravity or inertia, as a rule of the universe, and which is caused by evildoers doing evil, with long term consequences.

So, to summarize:

Karma can be good or bad, but it’s not a moral process, but an automatic, unavoidable, natural one in Indian theology. It’s not just, and it’s not justice, but rather it’s unfair and cruel. The point of Dharma, fundamentally, in Indian religions, is the avoidance of Karma. The process of Karmic retribution magnifies the damage done by a single evil act by orders of magnitude. Karma is meant to discourage evildoers from thinking their evil actions have finite, limited consequences, when those consequences are really  infinite. Karma isn’t Damnation, it’s not justice or judgement, it’s a mindless force that oppresses people in the material world, which should be avoided and feared. 

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