What is Karma?

A close friend once asked me what karma is, and how it relates to action and sin. Here is my response from 3 March 2002:

Here is a short list of the various interpretations of the word “karma”. I’ve tried to number them in order of historical development. But I’ve written them in a different order.

  1. The Sanskrit definition of “karma” is simply “action”.

  2. There is a modern English usage that The American Heritage Dictionary rightly calls “Informal: A distinctive aura, atmosphere, or feeling” as in “There’s bad karma around the house today.” Just forget about that usage for now.

Now, during the development of Hinduism and then Buddhism, karma took on various implications…

  1. The American Heritage Dictionary recalls the Hindu implication that karma is “action that has consequences”. This is the interpretation we see repeatedly in the Bhagawad Gita, the fundamental Hindu scripture.

  2. Karma is often associated with the notion of a “balance sheet” of good and evil deeds (the latter being sins) that determine whether one is rewarded or punished by destiny. Modern preachers like to claim that this association predicted Newton’s Second Law, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. I believe it is simply the observation that “as ye sow, so shall ye reap” or “what goes around comes around”. People are rewarded for good deeds and punished for sins.

Now, at some point, some one must have noticed that a lot of good deeds go unrewarded and evil ones unpunished. Therefore, the association between “karma” and the “balance sheet” that determines your destiny became closely connected with the idea of reincarnation: some things are reaped in the next life. Conveniently, this explained why some good people seem to suffer at the hands of fate while some evil-doers thrive: it is due to their “balance” from a previous life.

This association of the word “karma” with a “balance sheet” and reincarnation does exist in Hinduism, but I think it is much more clear cut in Buddhism.

Now, based on my understanding of karma, I like the Catholic idea of confession a lot. (I must say, I’ve heard criticisms of Catholicism, but I have no personal experience of being Catholic, mostly what I see in movies and on TV.) Here’s why: There’s stuff in the world and there’s stuff in your head (your thought patterns and memories). The rules of the two realms are different. What happens in the world can’t be completely undone, because you can’t reverse time. What happens in your head is much more malleable.

If you do something wrong in the world, I believe it is only right that you should do your best to undo it in the world and to prevent it from happening again. So if a priest is not instructing a murderer to turn himself in to the police, or instructing an alcoholic to join AA, that’s worthy of criticism. I think you would agree. But confession recognizes that there are limits to what can be undone in the world, at which point, it should be undone in your head via the forgiveness of the church. This is so powerful!

I think confession works best for acts that are strictly mental: if you have had lustful thoughts, then engage in some pure thoughts by praying and reciting some number of Hail Marys. Then, why carry around any guilt about those lustful thoughts? It’s just emotional baggage.

Next best, it works for things that can’t possibly be undone in the real world: if you are disrespectful to some one and they die before you can apologize, then the only thing you can fix is your mental record, through contrition and prayer.

The critics say, “Who is the priest or the Pope to be forgiving my sins?” Some might even say, “Who is Jesus Christ to be forgiving my sins?” My answer is: they are the wielders of the power that comes from your faith and your community’s. It’s not necessarily about them forgiving you, it’s about their using that power to make you forgive yourself.

Maybe I’m being idealistic here, and the Catholic church works differently than I’m thinking. Anyway…

  1. Karma Yoga: The Bhagvad Gita says that the two realms are different, but connected: what you do in the real world may have an effect in the mental/spiritual one (or may not, depending on your attitude). What you do in the mental/spiritual world has a definite effect in the real one. That effect includes your fate in this life and the next. Much of the Gita is devoted to a description of Karma Yoga. “Yoga” means “joining,” implying “joining of the individual with God”. Karma Yoga is a method for spiritual enlightenment via action. The idea is that we can act in the physical world in ways that balance our “balance sheet” and thereby eliminate negative mental/spiritual impressions and any need for rebirth.

The Gita is also very explicit that just trying to work everything out in your head, in the mental/spiritual world, is not only impossible for the average person, but sets a very bad example in the world. Action is required. So the murderer who hears “Te absolvi” and goes along his merry way is probably deluding himself and definitely misdirecting every one.

So, to answer your questions, sins definitely earn one “bad karma”. Good deeds negate the “bad karma” and earn one “good karma”.

Tags: Language, Philosophy, Religion

Updated at: 3 January 2016 4:01 PM