Karma

The Problem of Evil in India

The fundamental thing to remember about the word "karma" is that it means "action" -- or "work," "deed," "function," etc. (The root is actually karman -- like Brahman -- but the "n" drops off when the word is inflected in the nominative and accusative cases and is not commonly used in English.) In some important terms, like karmayoga, the principal teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, "karma" only means "action."

The most important thing, in a practical and moral sense, about action is whether it is right or wrong, good or bad. The first question about this is to ask what determines whether something is right or wrong. In India, the general answer to this would be dharma, "duty" (the root does not end in n); but what one's dharma is depends on who one asks.

In Hinduism dharma is supposed to be established by the Vedas, but dharma is not the same for everyone. Hindu/Vedic dharma is very individualized, and it depends on at least three variables:  (1) your caste, (2) your age, and (3) your sex. The characteristics of the caste system are treated elsewhere. Dharma varies with age because of the four stages of life. In the fourth stage there is no dharma at all, because one is considered dead to the world. Dharma varies with sex because the principal duty of a woman is obedience to her father, husband, or son. A husband always has the role of a teacher (guru) to his wife.

This social version of dharma disappears where heterodox Indian religions, like Buddhism and Jainism, reject the Vedas and, at least in part, ignore the caste system. In Buddhism, the Dharma is simply the Teaching of the Buddha. The Dharma was even thought to have a definite lifespan and would fade and disappear after some time -- after as little as 500 years (the "True Dharma" age) it would never be as effective as at first. On the other hand, the Dharma later was also thought to be eternal, as the cosmic "Dharma Body" of the Buddha. Future Buddhas therefore simply renew the efficacy of the Dharma among humanity.

Given some standard to distinguish right from wrong actions, one thing we then want to know about is justice:  Will right actions always earn reward and wrong actions punishment? Clearly, in terms of real life, this is not always the case. Right actions are often unrewarded, and wrong actions are often unpunished. Human agency is unable to detect much right and wrong, much less to restow the appropriate reward or retribution. The wicked often prosper. One question about life, then, is justice, not just human justice, but cosmic or divine justice.

Another thing we might want to know about is just the often apparently random distribution of reward and punishment, or goods and evils, that we see. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Often, or even usually, this seems to have little to do with their actions or character. This raises the question of cosmic justice to one of the Problem of Evil:  Why is there evil in the world? If there is a benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent Creator God, why does he allow it to happen? If benevolent, he would want the good; if omniscient, he would know everything; and if omnipotent, he would be powerful enough to make things be any way he would want, which would be the best. But that is not what we experience.

In ancient religions, the Problem of Evil tended to be avoided because the gods of those religions were usually neither benevolent, omnipotent, nor omniscient. Evil existed for us because we are mortal, and that's just the way things are. In the later monothesitic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islâm, cosmic justice is relatively easy, since God can reward the good and punish the wicked to any extent necessary. With the Problem of Evil, however, they have more of a problem. The God of such religions does possess the three maximal attributes. Attempting to explain divine action is then a difficult exercise in theodicy, i.e. the "justice" (dikê) of "God" (Theos).

The basic terms of this dilemma can already been seen in Plato's Socratic dialogue, the Euthyphro. All the monotheistic religions try to preserve for God some freedom of action, so that he does some things just because he Wills it, but only Islâm really goes all the way with that:  "God does what he wishes" [Allâhu yaf'alu mâ yashâ'u], Qur'ân, Surah 3:40 (or 3:35). Judaism and Christianity want to preserve some element of good and rational purpose, but neither goes all the way to the Greek philosophical view that God only does that for which there is a sufficient good and rational purpose. However, either view implies that the standard of right and wrong does not depend on God's will, and this is viewed, quite consistently, by Islâm (and by some Jewish and Christian philosophers, like Baruch Spinoza and William of Ockham) as compromising God's omnipotence.

Judaism and Christianity have tended to atrribute the existence of evil to our own acts of free will, i.e. God gave us free will because it is good, but then we misuse it. However, this means that God creates people whom he knows, because of his omniscience, will do evil and whom he will have to put in Hell. Since he creates them anyway, this would seem to compromise his benevolence -- he could avoid all that nastiness and suffering by just not creating them. Since Classical Islâm did not believe in free will, this approach doesn't even get off the ground. The Qur'ân says that God could save everyone if he wanted to, so the wicked are something created by God also, whom we are no one to question.

Even if the explanation of free will were adequate for human evils, it still doesn't govern natural evils. People die in floods, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and all sorts of other events, which in law are even quaintly called "Acts of God." In the Whittier Earthquake of 1987, two men were killed when they panicked and jumped out of windows. The harm can be laid to their miscalculation, but there was a woman who was simply walking out of a parking structure at California State University, Los Angeles, when a decorative concrete slab, bolted to the side of the structure, broke off and fell, killing her. If that was an "Act of God," then God seems to be up to no good -- or at least his purposes are so obscure that there is no point in trying to figure them out.

In India, cosmic justice and the Problem of Evil are handled with a theory that stands entirely separate from divine beings, whatever they are like. It is hard to be sure about the origin of this theory, but it is first clearly stated in the works of the Mîmâm.sâ School, beginning with aphorisms by Jaimini (c.400 BC) and progressing to more discursive treatments by Shabara (c.400 AD) and then Kumârila Bhat.t.a and Prabhâkara (after 700 AD). The Mîmâm.sâ School, of course, was concerned with the interpretation of the first two parts of the Vedas, which meant a basic concern with ritual and dharma. It is natural then that the issue of the fruit of dharma and adharma should be treated.

The theory that was developed was that right and wrong actions result in a kind of deposit, charge, or potential in the agent. Good deeds make a good deposit, evil deeds and bad deposit. The state of this charge or potential was called the apûrva, the "unprecedented" or "extraordinary" state (literally, "without prior"). This is now an unfamiliar term because in time the term "karma" came to be used to mean, not just action, but also the apûrva. Right and wrong actions (i.e. karma) thus cause good and bad "karma" (i.e. apûrva). This is a little confusing, but it should be clear that actions are momentary and transient, while karma=apurva can be with the agent for a long time after the actions are even forgotten.

The apûrva becomes the mechanism of cosmic justice and the solution of the Problem of Evil. In time the potential of the apurva is discharged, and this causes good and bad things to happen to the agent, good for good, evil for evil. No good deed goes unrewarded, no wrong unpunished. The knowledge and actions of the gods, or of God, are not even necessary. Good and evil take care of themselves. Consequently, one sometimes sees "karma" itself defined as "cause and effect" or "causality," since good actions ultimately cause good effects, and so forth. The "karmic" or "causal" body can be thought simply to consist of the apûrva.

If cosmic justice is therefore assured, the existence of evil is also explained. If bad things happen to good people, it is nevertheless the fruit of some prior wrongful deed, perhaps even in a previous lifetime. If good things happen to bad people, it is nevertheless the fruit of some prior righteous deed, again, perhaps even in a previous lifetime. Lottery winners do not simply have extraordinary luck. No one can get away with a lifetime of crime, because even if they die unpunished, they will be reborn in circumstances of punishing misfortune.

Despite the basic simplicity of the theory, there is a great variety of beliefs about karma. Some kinds of karma are expected be to discharged only in future lifetimes. Many people hope that their bad karma can be discharged through ritual acts rather than through the suffering of karmic consequences -- that bad karma can even be ritually turned into good karma. Such beliefs about karma, however, are either irrelevant to the basic theory or they are adverse to it. If bad karma can be ritually negated, then karma fails as a theory of cosmic justice, since strict retribution can be avoided. Also, it is often believed that bad karma can compel one to a certain course of action, e.g. it may be the karma of a serial killer to be that way. This also is adverse to cosmic justice, since karma is supposed to accrue for voluntary action, to be just. But if bad actions are themselves caused by previously earned bad karma, this seems rather pointless or unjust, either simply magnifiying the penalty for some originally voluntary action, or punishing someone for actions over which they have no control. Care must be taken with the developments of karmic theory, therefore, that the original point of the theory, as a theory of cosmic justice or an explanation of the Problem of Evil, is not undermined.

The "Law of Karma" is a powerful explanatory theory, but its strength may also turn out to be its weakness. It may explain too much. If every natural evil is the result of bad karma, which they must be to answer the Problem of Evil, then there is really no such thing as an innocent victim in life. This introduces a certain fatalism and callousness, fatalism because everything is as it should be, good and bad, and cannot be otherwise, and callousness because even the most apparently innocent victim must really be guilty. One consequence of the fatalism in India may be the strength of the caste system. Over the centuries, many people at the bottom of the caste system, Untouchables and Shudras, seem to have converted to Buddhism, Islâm, and other religions. The striking thing is not that so many should have converted, but that so many remain within Hinduism. The willingness of so many seems inexplicable unless they accepted their lot as the fruit of their own karma. The oppressed can hope for salvation or for a better rebirth, but the whole idea of social improvement or material progress is meaningless. The "oppressed," including the young brides in India who are murdered for their doweries by their in-laws, or the widows who used to be burned with their dead husbands ("suttee"), are only oppressed by their own karma. At the same time, children with cancer or birth defects are not innocent victims of random suffering:  it is their karma, even if they clearly have done nothing in this life to earn it. Even parents who share in the suffering of their children are merely experiencing the fruit of their own karma. The woman who was killed at Cal State LA in 1987 may have lived a perfectly exemplary life, but she must have deserved her fate because of some actions in a previous life.

The mischief of these ideas can be examined in a book by Shirley MacLaine, Out on a Limb, which was made into a television movie in 1987. In the autobiographical story, MacLaine is down in Peru, hanging out with a guy who says he has met extraterrestrials. MacLaine does not meet any ET's, but there is a revealing moment for our concerns about karma. Peru, of course, is crossed by the Andes, whose highest peak in the country is Mt. Huascarán, at 22,205 feet. At one point MacLaine and her friend are driving on a perilous mountain road, with no shoulder, no guard-rails, and a sheer drop into a deep canyon on one side. The road, however, is heavily travelled, often by overcrowed and poorly maintained buses. These buses occasionally lose their brakes and go over the side of the road. MacLaine sees one of these at the bottom of the canyon, and her companion says he remembers the crash. There were no survivors. MacLaine expresses some horror and outrage at this, but the response is that everyone who died on that bus was meant to be there. At the end of the movie scene, MacLaine, playing herself, says that she still can't get over it that so many people died. The compainion answers, "That is the point. They didn't." All the "deaths" merely resulted in rebirth.

What lessons are we to derive from this? Bad roads and bad brakes are OK because, if anything bad happens, it is meant to be? Fatalism can have that kind of effect. There is no point in trying to improve life, because misfortunes are deserved and required? A lot of tort lawyers are going to be out of work if everyone just decided that it was just their karma that some bad thing happened. This is precisely the attitude that gave India one of the most rigid and conservative social systems in the world. But then, after all, maybe it would be better not to have all those tort lawyers....

The problems that the monotheistic religions have with cosmic justice and the Problem of Evil are thus not simply "solved" by the Law of Karma. All these theories have shortcomings or unsatisfying aspects, costs and benefits. That this is the case may be suggestive of something else, for instance the Kantian system of Antinomies and the limitations of our knowledge about transcendent objects.

Good karma and bad karma share the same drawback:  they both cause rebirth. If salvation is the avoidance of rebirth, as it is for Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, then neither good nor bad karma are productive of salvation. One must avoid karma, achieve no karma, in order to achieve salvation. Since karma is the consequence of action, however, it might hardly seem possible to avoid it. Logically, no karma would have to mean no action, and no action would mean doing absolutely nothing, not even eating. Who would seek salvation on those terms?

Well, as it happens, there is a major Indian religion where salvation is ultimately attained by self-starvation, and that is Jainism. Jainism was founded by a near conteporary of the Buddha, Nataputta Mahâvîra (c.599-527 BC), or just Mahâvîra, the "Great Hero." A Jain saint, like Mahâvîra, is a Jin, or "Conqueror," "Overcomer," i.e. who has conquered or overcome bondage, and the religion is named for this term (although it is also used by Buddhism). As in Buddhism, gods in Jainism are secondary and unimportant. In the early 1990's, there were about 3.7 million Jains in India, which was less than one half of one percent of the population. The relatively small numbers of the Jains, and their failure to spread outside of India, are probably due to the ascetic rigor of the religion. Nevertheless, that same rigor has always given Jainism an influence, in a country respectful of asceticism, out of proportion to its numbers.

Since Jainism takes "no karma" seriously as "no action," and aims to achieve salvation through starvation, one might wonder that there are any Jains left. However, starvation is only the ultimate practice. It is not something that one does at a whim; there is a discipline of lifetimes that must precede it. The discipline begins with some simple practices that are observed by the whole Jain community, lay and monastic.

While vegetarianism and non-violence can be practiced by all Jains, more rigorous practices require a monastic way of life.

Jainism is occasionally to be seen suffering from Western political correctness. An otherwise good show on PBS about the Jains some years ago, idealizing the non-violence and "animal rights" aspects of the religion, didn't bother mentioning the more rigorous ascetic practices, like starvation, and also managed to find a Jain doctor who endorsed, of all things, abortion. Since Jains worry about killing insects and micro-organisms, it would be astounding hypocrisy if more than the very rare individual countenanced the killing of human embryos and fetuses. It was the documentary makers, not most Jains, whose thought was so incoherent. There are limits, indeed, to which Jain asceticism is going to fit into Western societies. I am eager for the day when a Digambara monk visits the United States and refuses to wear clothes for any purpose, even an appearance in court on an "indecent exposure" charge. The "free exercise of religion" clause of the First Amendment will face a severe test. Some Hindu sadhus also go naked in India, and the unremarkable nature of all this was evident in a wire service photo years ago of Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, visiting a Digambara monk. At the time, it was hard to imagine Ronald or Nancy Reagan standing next to a naked old man like this was important spiritiual business.

While Jainism takes "no action" literally and accepts the consequences, Hinduism and Buddhism take it less literally. The Bhagavad Gita, for Hinduism, describes the detachment of mind that is needed for the yoga (the means of salvation) of doing one's dharma without producing karma thereby. Yoga is a cognate of the English word yoke, not like the yoke of an egg but like a yoke of oxen. The verb yuj means to "harness" or "yoke"; and yoga can mean a "team," like yoked oxen, or "equipment," "means," "device," or "union." A yoga, indeed, is a device for salvation, and salvation can be seen as a union of Brahman and the Âtman. Because of the teaching of the Gita, it is often thought that there are three yogas, but the three yogas themselves can consist of other yogas, and one of the Six Schools of Hinduism is itself the Yoga School.

Dharma remains at least a necessary condition for religious practice that leads to salvation. In Buddhism, traditional belief was that obedience to the Dharma resulted in the accumulation of merit which eventually enabled one to perform the highest levels of Buddhist practice. However, not all Buddhists saw the logic of this, and many forms of Buddhism, like Zen, did not believe that the accumulation of merit was necessary, or even that all the moral requirement of the Dharma need be observed. These complications, however, need not be consided further here.

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