The belief in karma is so widely accepted that few people ever stop to question it. Yet, like the belief in government, upon deeper examination, it too falls apart. Consider for a moment that since the beginning of history, those with power have sought to create beliefs which define the parameters of reality through cultural doctrine in order to control those without power, and thereby maintain the status quo. Religion has been a primary example of this. Even under the guise of “spiritual salvation”, religion has a vested interest in maintaining its influence and esteem, much like government (which is why they’re often intertwined). Therefore, engrained in to the precepts of both religion and government is the belief that without their purported “authority”, humanity would crumble in the corruption of its own self-created destruction and sin. This is a time-tested method of social manipulation. One such ideological construct to perpetuate this belief is “karma”.
WHAT IS KARMA?
Like most archaic spiritual concepts, there are various interpretations of what exactly karma is depending on which agenda is using the term. Some interpretations use the concept simply as a means of expressing the virtue of benevolent deeds and the benefit of living in the moment, as opposed to clinging to memory and perpetuating our past shortcomings. This kind of admonition is understandable since it implies no vilification. However, the most widely-accepted definition of karma defines it as:
“the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). Good intent and good deed contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad karma and future suffering. Karma is closely associated with the idea of rebirth in many schools of Asian religions [but also present in other religions, such as the concept of “Gilgul” in Judaism]. In these schools, karma in the present affects one’s future in the current life, as well as the nature and quality of future lives – one’s saṃsāra.”
Historically, the concept of karma came about in India with its earliest mention in the Upanishads, written between 800-500 BC during a time when the hereditary caste system reigned throughout the region. Just as monarchies and emperors relied on the church’s “rule by divine right” to justify their “authority”, the concept of karma was has been widely used as a spiritual justification for the inequities of social oppression and personal misfortune.
“In no instance has a system (in regard to religion) been ever established, but for the purpose – as well as with the effect – of its being made an instrument of intimidation, corruption, and delusion, for the support of depredation and oppression in the hands of governments.”
~ Jeremy Bentham
Embedded in the theory of karma is the supposition that you are somehow fallen and deserving of suffering, responsible for the misery which befalls your life (even if you are an innocent child being tortured and raped). The theory of karma claims that because you “screwed up” at some point, supposedly even in a past life, you are forced in to a subservient position in the unforgiving cosmic drama, and are now doing penance through a veil of tears.
And, of course, what is the proposed means of salvation given by the religious authorities proselytizing this “cosmic judgement”? That we can only truly be saved by rigidly adhering to the moral relativism, rituals, tithing, and narrow dogma of their particular religion.
… How convenient….
Since the dawn of society, people have sought safety and accountability in some form of authority/ justice which aligns with their own world view. This social tendency has given structure to cultures, often with a common myth to believe and unify under. However, when we try to apply our anthropocentric understandings as absolutes on to incomprehensible spiritual realms, we are left with just a parody, not the truth. In the words of Lao Tzu, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”
Tao mystics never talk about God, reincarnation, heaven, hell. No, they don’t talk about these things. These are all creations of human mind: explanations for something which can never be explained, explanations for the mystery. In fact, all explanations are against God because explanation de-mystifies existence. Existence is a mystery, and one should accept it as a mystery and not pretend to have any explanation. No, explanation is not needed – only exclamation, a wondering heart, awakened, surprised, feeling the mystery of life each moment. Then, and only then, you know what truth is. And truth liberates.
~ Osho, “Never Born, Never Died”
On the personal level, the concept of karma plagues many people who have had exceptionally difficult lives. Often they have been unconsciously conditioned, brainwashed, or coerced in to conditions they otherwise wouldn’t want. Other times they are simply afflicted by circumstances beyond their immediate control, like natural disasters or car accidents. Under the burden of karma, they may feel shamed and even cursed. They suffer the pain of hopelessness and guilt, imagining they somehow “brought it on themselves”. They live in fear, as if a sword of damnation is dangling above their heads for the rest of their lives.
Without questioning this belief in karma, we run the risk of victim blaming, assuming that any victim of any injustice is somehow deserving of it. Because karma lays the blame largely on the victim, it may reinforce within a victim a downward spiral of self-punishing/ self-sabotaging behavior. When a person internalizes unfortunate circumstances as if they “deserved it”, it causes them to focus on and anticipate pain. Subsequently, this creates anxiety around trusting those aspects of their life which would otherwise bring happiness and fulfillment because they’re afraid of some vague “karmic inevitability” where their wellbeing will be ripped away in yet another disaster. Eventually this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To this day, karma has been one of the most misunderstood and unquestioned religious beliefs. The concept of karma has become essentially akin to “God’s judgement”, used to vaguely justify events in life by projecting one’s value system on to the inconceivable immensity of all existence. Due to the numerous social and psychological burdens this belief perpetuates, it’s imperative that we critically examine the idea of karma. Anything that can be destroyed by the truth of objective analysis most certainly should be.
WHY KARMA DOESN’T MAKE SENSE
To objectively assess the validity of personal karma, let’s first examine the question: “What is the individual, objectively speaking?” If all things in existence are connected and, ultimately, “we are all one”, then how can we separate and define the individual apart from everything else? We can do so in name only, but not in reality. The truth is that we can no more separate the individual from the rest of existence any more than we can cut out a wave as entirely separate from the ocean. The concept of our individuality is just that – only a concept. But beyond this extremely limited and boundary-defined 3D perspective of separateness, the objective truth is that all of life, including our own experience, with its extremely limited perception, exists as a seamless, unbroken, continuous whole. Therefore, from this broader perspective, how can anyone possibly have personal karma?
“We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”
~ Alan Watts
“Individuality” is a natural construct for our subjective development. However, in light of a much broader awareness, we also come to understand that we cannot encapsulate and ascribe thoughts, words, or behaviors solely to one person. There are an infinite number of things which influence and dictate our consciousness beyond our awareness or control- our environment, genetic dispositions, unconscious conditioning, cultural programming, emotions, instinct, psychosomatic physiology, gut bacteria, spirit attachments, hyperdimensional manipulation, causality, quantum entanglement, and so much more! If you’re not entirely in control of yourself, then how can it be “your karma”? How can you be held ultimately accountable, condemned, or held indebted to circumstances beyond your awareness and control?
Of course, this isn’t to excuse and pardon all wrongdoing. Accountability is an important and necessary aspect of our reality. This is to simply provide a broader, more objective view of life beyond the limitations of anthropocentric categorizations.
“On the side of action, of the cosmic energies, it is seen that they move in masses, waves, currents constantly constituting and reconstituting beings and objects, movements and happenings, entering into them, passing through them, forming themselves in them, throwing themselves out from them on other beings and objects. Each natural individual is a receptacle of these cosmic forces and a dynamo for their propagation; there passes from each to each a constant stream of mental and vital energies, and these run too in cosmic waves and currents no less than the forces of physical Nature. ”
~ Sri Aurobindo
Just for a hilarious take on this issue, Comedian Bill Burr sheds some light on the absurdity of this belief:
“This might be the most arrogant thing I say all night but I actually resent the fact that I’m gonna get judged one day, like if that’s true. That somebody’s gonna judge me. That doesn’t even make any sense! Like, “Dude, you made me, so… this is YOUR fuck up. Alright? Let’s not try to turn this around on me. You know? Jesus Christ… You give me freedom of choice, you make whores, you have me suck at math, and you don’t think this thing’s gonna go off the rails? Like… YOU SET ME UP TO FAIL and now you’ve got the BALLS to now question your own goddamn work.”
Dude, if I made a car, if I built a car and it didn’t run, I wouldn’t like burn it forever: “YOU EVIL PIECE OF SHIT!”, and light it on fire… I wouldn’t. I would troubleshoot: “Is there gas in the engine? Is the battery charged?! Anything beyond this and I’ve got to get a REAL MAN to look at this! But I believe in you! I’ll try and help you out…”
~ Bill Burr
Of course the dynamics of “cause & effect” do exist in many ways; we can measure and predict them throughout various aspects of life. But an objective assessment of karma goes well beyond our extremely limited and biased capability to perceive “cause and effect”. We mustn’t overlook our tendency to project our limited categorizations and moral preferences as “spiritual truths” on to life, much less as “karmic absolutes”.
“The force of the temptation which urges us to seek for such evidence and appearances as are in favor of our desires, and to disregard those which oppose them, is wonderfully great. In this respect we are all, more or less, active promoters of error. In place of practicing wholesome self-abnegation, we ever make the wish the father to the thought: we receive as friendly that which agrees with, we resist with dislike that which opposes us; whereas the very reverse is required by every dictate of common sense.”
~ Michael Faraday
In light of life’s inequities, it’s natural to seek some semblance of justice or understanding in any way we can. The problem with most spiritual beliefs is that many of us – finding distaste with consensus reality – have just pieced together our own more pleasing version which is no more objectively accurate than the previously held belief. By doing this, we give our power away to lies and liars who make us feel good about our subjective preferences, who comfort us with promises of ascension, awakening, and “spiritual superiority” in one form or another.
There’s a peril in picking spiritual beliefs simply on the basis that they “resonate” and “feel good”. While it may provide some temporary personal benefit by providing a more empowering perspective on life, this is by no means an accurate metric of objective truth by which we should assess others. This is called “motivated reasoning”, whereby a person forms a confirmation bias towards that which reaffirms only what supports their subjective desires, interpretation of morality, and anthropocentric views. People seek out plausible explanations for complex phenomena in order to make things fit into their comfortably held belief systems. It is a form of “lying to the self“.
The fact is that nobody (not even well-established religious or governmental institutions) can absolutely tell you what’s objectively “good” and “bad”. Nor can they tell you how you should live your life in all conditions, and much less what fully happens after death and why.
IF NOT KARMA, THEN WHAT?
Ultimately, life holds all things, allows all things in existence, and supports the interplay of all things. The totality of existence is an unfathomably multidimensional nexus of interconnected, infinite being coalescing for a greater purpose far beyond our constructs of law, ethics, and morality.
What is this “greater purpose”? The best we understand from looking at the big picture is that life – with all its “good & bad” – is a dynamic equilibrium not always in alignment with our subjective preferences. Generally speaking, life favors evolution through creativity, courage, and connection. This is made evident by the fact that the most fundamental trend throughout all known history is the complexification and connection of both matter and consciousness. This evolution frequently relies on the friction of forces which can appear harsh and destructive, but is a developmental necessity. The predominant tendency of existence is to become increasingly connected through time; galaxies form, life sophisticates, and creativity blossoms exponentially. If destruction and entropy were the dominant forces at play, we wouldn’t see this constantly increasing growth, connection, and creativity. This fundamental constant is the best we can surmise as a “universal purpose”.
Within this greater purpose, each person has their own unique set of circumstances with different lessons to learn and experiences to co-create. There is no “karma”; there is only “what is”, a continuum of unfolding existence toward this purpose. All things therein aspire toward their own purpose with no blame, no damnation, and no superiority. All of life is a co-creating dynamic equilibrium of cosmic forces working through us, since we are all subjective transducers of an objective divine consciousness. Karma is no more than a quaint religious myth at best, because the totality of life orchestrates itself in ways beyond the mind’s ability to fully conceive, comprehend, moralize, or even put in to words.