From Health Central: Is There Such a Thing as Karma?

I remember, way back when I was still trying to figure out Americana, reading a bumper sticker with this message: "Sorry, my kar-ma ran over your dog-ma". I chuckled over the pun and the double entendre, but thought that somewhere between being clever and sounding philosophical the message had fallen through the cracks to become incomprehensible!

The concept of karma, unfortunately, has become or been made incomprehensible either through popular usage and misinterpretation, or deliberate mischief by those seeking to label Eastern religions, especially Hinduism, as fatalistic. Thus, Hindus are accused of believing in fate, not believing in free will, and of being therefore sluggish and lethargic in their response to life's exigencies. One cannot dismiss such an assessment or accusation of Hindus/Indians as pure balderdash and mischief, because indeed a misinterpretation of the concept of karma, and/or a simplistic notion of karma peddled by many ignorant people, as well as the very harsh 1,000 years of foreign occupation of India, has led sometimes to sluggish if not catatonic responses to some of the societal evils plaguing Indian society, or of individuals copping out of facing a problem fair and square, and energetically.

If that is so, what is or are the right meaning/s of karma, and should we believe in karma?

Karma is action. But it also means the effects of action. The simplest equivalent to karma is "causation," and in fact, causality is a scientific concept, and a logical concept. However, in science and scientific experiments we can control the variables in a laboratory experiment, and conclude an effect is the consequence of a particular action or actions. In life, however, with a complex set of factors acting upon us and determining our actions, we don't always necessarily know what caused what, and why we did what we did, and why something happened to us. "I have been good, kind, and gentle, but look my life is in ruins," I might say, and wonder why bad things happened to me despite being good.

In Hindu, Buddhist, and other Dharmic belief systems this conundrum has been resolved variously, and especially through the formulation of cyclical life or reincarnation (birth, death, rebirth) and wherein actions in one lifetime can and do have consequences in subsequent lives. Or else how can we make sense of life events? Is it all arbitrary, chance, and accident as some of the scientific reductionists, secular humanists, and atheists have us believe about the cosmos and our place in it or is there some logic to our life events, our personalities, and what happens to us and what we do to others? There has been some fascinating research done at the University of Virginia on reincarnation, and the late Prof. Ian Stevenson did some pioneering work, traveling all over the world, and collecting and analyzing claims of rebirths. At the famous temple town of Kanchipuram in South India Brahmin priests read old palm leaf manuscripts and will tell you about your past life and your future, and whose predictions are so good that the Japanese have been flocking to this town to make sense of their lives!

But beyond rewards and punishments, life, death and rebirth, we do have to do our work (karma) according to the principles of dharma (righteous duty). It might be that God will determine what to reward us with, based on our actions, as Hindus believe, or maybe there is no role for God in such a dispensing mechanism, as the Buddhists believe. Hindus believe that we have free will and we can choose to act and do the way we want to or desire, but where do those wants and desires originate? Karmic theory surely provides us a powerful explanation to the events in our life. However, the other powerful and cautionary advice in Hinduism is that of performing actions without desiring the fruits thereof - nishkama karma - for one of the important aspects of Hindu belief is to transcend one's self, and act without ego consciousness.

I do indeed believe in the concept of karma. And I hope I did not run over your dogma!

Published originally in The Washington Post, online --


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