Archive for May, 2011

Karma in the Western World

Hey what would it mean to you / To know that it’ll come back around again? /

Hey whatever it means to you / Know that everything moves in circles.

These lyrics, taken from the 2001 Incubus song “Nice To Know You”, sum up the general idea westerners have about the philosophical and religious notion of karma. When westerners speak of karma, they are likely not thinking of the Hindu religion, which originally documented the term karma, or the Buddhist religion that re-imagined it. Whatever their degree of assumed ignorance, the idea of karma still has power for those people uneducated in Hindu and Buddhist theology. The truth of the idea of karma is based in experience, and also in the way the human brain experiences reality. People’s minds have a natural associative faculty. From our earliest days, we associate mom with food. Later, we associate certain behaviors with rewards or punishments. Soon, we learn to connect a set of facial features with certain sounds: Grey eyes and a thin nose are “Aun-ty”. Our human brains are pattern-seeking, and connection-making. Karma is simply a name for the patterns we observe about the relationship of moral action and consequence.

In order to fully understand the meaning of karma, we must go to the source. Let’s look to Hinduism, the originator of this concept, for a better definition of karma. The Hindu idea of karma stems from a time of change in many religions, known as the Axis Age. The Upanishads, a primary Hindu text, record the intellectual expansion and varying spiritual practices of Hinduism during the Axis Age, while teaching a few core concepts of the Hindu perspective of life. Samsara is the belief that the universe travels in circles, unending, and is one of The Upanishads‘ most important concepts. The Hindu belief is that one has a soul: Atman. Atman is the pure essence of the person who takes on and gives up multiple incarnations within Brahman, the divine reality, through samsara in cycles of death and rebirth. Experiencing the World’s Religions explains the Hindu belief that “human beings have at one or another time existed as a ‘lower’ form, such as an animal, insect, [… or] plant” (p 87). (See my post for further explanation!) There is a quality-of-life ladder one travels up or down when renewing the cycle of rebirth. Plants, insects, and animals are seen as the lowest forms of life, respectively, because of their lack of choice. Humans born into poverty or forced to face cruelty are perceived as a slight advancement from an animal form reincarnation. Those who enjoy happiness and prosperity are one step closer to the ultimate goal of karma– moksha: an end to the cycle of rebirth. Karma can also be used as a justification for social or economic inequality and the effects of the Hindu caste system by placing the blame of a person’s social status on the actions of their Atman in a past life. The idea is that the human stage of reincarnation is crucial because human beings have freedom of choice. People can influence the quality of their next life by performing good deeds while living through their human incarnation. Karma is seen by Hindus as the natural “law” or “way” of the universe. It is not essentially good or bad, but human beings may experience it in negative or positive connotations throughout their lives. The concept of samsara is life as a constant wheel of suffering. This notion of life expresses dissatisfaction with mortality. As well, the idea of moksha as liberation from constant “re-death,” may give Hindus comfort about death as well as promise the power to escape it.

Buddhists use the same idea of moksha and reinterpret it as an enlightenment some may achieve on earth, known as nirvana. The founder of the Buddhist religion, Siddhartha Gautama, was named “the Buddha” after, as the legend goes, “he saw his past lives, fathomed the laws of karma that govern everyone, and finally achieved insight into release from suffering and rebirth” (p 129). The Buddha’s release from the suffering of rebirth may have simply been the revelation that there is no soul which is reborn, but Buddhism so closely follows the Hindu ideas of karma, that there is nearly nothing to say about their differences. The main technical distinction is that Buddha would see each life of a rebirth as being affected by the same cosmic force, and that karma could bring about positive or negative personality traits in every affected individual. The second important distinction between the two religions is the end goal of liberation. For Hindus, it’s moksha. For Buddhists, it is nirvana, which is said to evoke joy and peace, but is otherwise an indescribable state of being. The one thing we do know is that nirvana can be attained within a person’s lifetime, as was the case with Siddhartha Gautama.

It is unlikely that most western thinkers will imagine their future life as a Venus fly trap if they pass by a homeless person on the street without helping him, so the threat of consequence in a future life may not be inspiring. Additionally, the lure of freedom from future lives may not be appealing to Westerners who have been taught that they have only one life on Earth. Western religions tend to focus on the importance of belief and religious practice over the significance of good deeds. Though a person may be harmful to others, in Christianity, he or she may simply profess belief in Jesus Christ and his status as savior, and afterward, live an eternity of peace. Jesus Christ, after all, is a god of mercy, not justice. Similarly, Allah, the god of Islam, rewards those who practice the religion well, not those who are kind to others. Though one of the pillars of Islam is giving to charity, this kind of good deed can be thoughtless and anonymous, not like the Buddhist belief of good action with right intention. To Westerners, karma provides comforting laws about life: that we will get a reward for our good deeds, or that those who have wronged us will be punished. For those lacking belief in mysticism, karma is simply an Eastern tactic for encouraging good behavior, as the Golden Rule is a Western tactic for achieving the same goal. If one is metaphysical, though, moksha and samsara can be more accurately seen as similar to the Western notions of heaven and hell. For Hindus and Buddhists, rewards or suffering in another life must be earned, but for Christians, a bedside confession may be a ticket to forever in eternity. A person who causes much suffering by martyring himself for the sake of Allah may be granted the greatest rewards in heaven. The western latching on to the notion of karma may be a result of the need for justice in the lives and minds of Christians and Muslims. Atheists and Agnostics may also claim belief or practice of the concept of karma, as they take from many other religions and philosophies ideas that they deem worthy. The truth, however, is that bad things happen to good people and good things to people who cause harm. Though we may see an immoral activity and later see a repercussion, this is not evidence for a divine balancing law. Some activity repeatedly leads to a path of suffering, and some to a path of happiness and peace. In this way, karma can still be real for those who follow the Hindu or Buddhist religions, and those who do not. Karma is real for those who believe it, and the proclamation of its truth gives it the power to affect.

P.S. I posted this paper I wrote last semester in my World Religions class, because I was inspired by yet another article from I hope you enjoy and let me know what you think about karma- is it real, just another groundless belief, or a positive state of mind?

Word of the Day

Insuperable [in-soo-per-uhbuhl] .


Incapable of being passed over, overcome, or surmounted.

Textual Quote:

Why, if god was the creator of all things, were we supposed to “praise” him so incessantly for doing what came to him naturally? This seemed servile, apart from anything else…Why this continual prayer and no result? Why did I have to keep saying, in public, that I was a miserable sinner? Why was the subject of sex considered to toxic? These faltering and childish objections are, I have since discovered, extremely commonplace, partly because no religion can meet them with any satisfactory answer. But, another, larger one also presented itself. (I say ‘presented itself’ rather than ‘occurred to me’ because these objections are, as well as insuperable, inescapable.)

-Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great pg. 3

Practical Use: The calculus exam was insuperable within the 1 hour time allowance.

Famous Quote:

If the underdog were always right, one might quite easily try to defend him. The trouble is that very often he is but obscurely right, sometimes only partially right, and often quite wrong; but perhaps he is never so altogether wrong and pig-headed and utterly reprehensible as he is represented to be by those who add the possession of prejudices to the other almost insuperable difficulties of understanding him.

-Jane Addams

Latin origin circa 1340, insuperabilis  “that cannot be passed over,unconquerable.”