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". . . . good and evil fortunes fall to the lot of pious and impious alike . . . ."  ---Spinoza

"Whatever karma I create, whether good or evil, that I shall inherit."  Anguttara Nikaya v.57 - Upajjhatthana Sutta

Karma is a law in Hinduism which maintains that every act done, no matter how insignificant, will eventually return to the doer with equal impact. Good will be returned with good; evil with evil. Since Hindus believe in reincarnation, karma knows no simple birth/death boundaries. If good or evil befall you, it is because of something you did in this or a previous lifetime.

Karma is sometimes referred to as a "moral law of cause and effect." Karma is both an encouragement to do good and to avoid evil, as well as an explanation for whatever good or evil befalls a person.

On one level, karma serves to explain why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. The injustices of the world, the seeming random distribution of good and evil, are only apparent. In reality, everybody is getting what he or she deserves. Even the child brutalized by drugged adults deserves the horror. The mentally ill, the retarded, the homosexuals, and the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis deserved it for evil they must have done in the past. The slave beaten to within a breath of death deserved it, if not for what he did today, then for what he did in some previous lifetime. Likewise for the rape victim. She is just getting what she deserves. All suffering is deserved, according to the law of karma.

Despite the fact that there could be no evidence for a metaphysical belief in karma, the idea of karma is popular among many in western cultures where it has become detached from its Hindu roots. The theosophists, for example, believe in karma and reincarnation. So does James Van Praagh, who claims to be a psychic conduit for all the billions of people who have died over the centuries.

Let's say someone kills someone . . . at a bank machine.... It could be two things. It could be, the person who committed the crime used their free will to do that. Or this might sound weird, but it could have been a karmic situation where that person who was murdered had to be paid back for murdering  the other person in a previous incarnation. [Amazon.com interview with James Van Praagh, 2 February 1998] 

Van Praagh makes it clear that he thinks it is karma, not free will, that leads people to kill one another. If Van Praagh is right, we may as well dismantle our ethical and criminal justice systems. Everybody is just playing out his or her karma. Nobody is really good or evil. Nobody is really responsible for anything they do. We're all just karmic pawns doing a dance with destiny.

On the other hand, Van Praagh's conception of karma as negating free will is not accepted by Buddhists and others adhering to non-Western religions. Van Praagh's view is more akin to fatalism than to the idea of karma as understood by those who have adhered to this notion for thousands of years. Many in the West who reject karma as a meaningful concept deny the existence of free will. In short, karma is not about free will but about reaping what you sow. In the Abrahamic religions, god will reward the good and punish the wicked. Even though good people suffer and wicked people prosper on earth, in the end god will sort it all out and make sure everybody gets his just deserts. The karmic religions see things differently:

In theistic schools of Hinduism, humans have free will to choose good or evil and suffer the consequences, which require the will of God [sic] to implement karma's consequences, unlike Buddhism or Jainism which do not accord any role to a supreme god or gods.*

Van Praagh presents what might be called the New Age version of karma. Why would such an amoral principle be paraded forth as if it explained the ultimate justice of an indifferent universe? Because, says Van Praagh, "We are on this earth to learn lessons. This is our schoolroom here. . . .We must go through certain lessons in order to grow." According to Van Praagh, life on earth is actually life in purgatory. We are here working out our sins, evolving our souls, burning off some karma. These are the same feeble reasons given for the existence of evil in a world allegedly created by an omnipotent, all-good god. Van Praagh's version of karma is not likely to be accepted by Hindus or Buddhists.  They would maintain that when a person does evil, they are acting freely. And when a person suffers evil, it is because of some evil freely done by that person in the past.

Karma as understood by Van Praagh seems to make life trivial, a mere working out of a metaphysical "law" which reduces all humans to creatures devoid of morality and responsibility, mere causes and effects in a pointless system. Karma, as understood by Van Praagh, does not allow that the evil which befalls you may be undeserved. Nor does his concept capture the essence of the original idea: actions freely chosen have personal consequences, though those consequences may not be experienced in this lifetime. What one chooses in this lifetime determines whether one progresses toward escape from the cycle of rebirth and gets closer to nirvana.

See also reincarnation.

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further reading
Edwards, Paul. "Karma," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996).

Karma & Reincarnation - Hinduism Today

Last updated 24-Jan-2014

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