Is Karma Fair?

Is Karma fair? Really? How is it that there can be a concrete law that judges everyone on their positive and negative actions delivering customised reward or punishment? What are the degrees of good and bad? Is there a rating system? One would hope that our notions of good and evil are calibrated with that of karma to make sure we don’t end up being reincarnated as a rat! What’s interesting about this notion of reward and punishment for deeds done in one’s life is just how many people believe in such a system even if they don’t realise it. I’ve even had conversations with atheists who, when speaking about ‘bad’ people, have said things like;

“Well, he’s got what’s coming to him!”

It seems that a belief in Karma whether within a religious context or not is somewhat innate in humans. There’s something deep down, lurking within our primitive subconscious…  An ancient and perhaps irrational notion that tells us, surely ‘bad’ people will eventually get what they ‘deserve’. You see, whether religious or not, people seem to believe that you will indeed ‘reap what you sow’.

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So, what is it about our human psyche that feels the need to believe that the laws of the universe are responsible for holding people accountable and whose opinion is this judgement based on? I’ve spoken to people who have no belief in a God, an afterlife or even a soul but, they believe that everyone gets their just deserved… Strange. To me, karma seems to contradict a secular world as it must imply that there is an all-seeing external judge who hands down cosmic justice.

Perhaps karma is just a naïve belief that stems from the simple fact that we feel that, if people do bad things, then surely they must be punished? However, is it as simple as that? Is this view a bit fairy tale-esqe, like believing in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus? Perhaps it’s our limited way of making sense of a world that’s more often than not, unfair. We feel that surely there must be justice and we look to the notion of karma as a coping mechanism but we don’t tend to questions the mechanics.

Don’t get me wrong… There are indeed deep and complicated versions of karma within the frameworks of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. However, I’m referring more to the mainstream pop-culture references to a belief in karma and an over-simplistic view that ‘what goes around comes around’ without consideration of who or what dictates what people ‘deserve’.

The fresco painted inside the giant dome. It depicts the levels of heaven and hell from top to bottom. Florence, Italy

The fresco painted inside the giant dome. It depicts the levels of heaven and hell from top to bottom. Florence, Italy

You see, if you believe in a universal law that says – ‘if people do bad shit, then they will pay for it’ – then, you’re believing in a higher power. It doesn’t matter if you call it God, Buddha or simply karma, the fact is that you’re believing that there’s a judge. Not only are you believing in a higher power but you’re believing in a supreme being who is able to judge ‘bad’ people’s life situation without bias and with ultimate accuracy and objectivity to the point where they can act on that individual’s life to either reward or punish them fairly.

I don’t think it’s that simple… Not even by a stretch.

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I watched a documentary recently called ‘(Dis)Honesty‘. This film interviewed people who had been ‘caught out’ for lying in a public arena and got them to talk about their motivations and why they did what they did. It also included many psychological tests on honesty that continued to display how dishonest we actually are. For me, the outstanding thing in this documentary was that I could relate to all the stories of the ‘liars’. They were all stories that I felt, if the same circumstances occurred to me, I could find myself telling the same lies for the same reasons.

The essential message of this documentary is that, in mainstream society, there’s no such thing as good or bad people, there’s just people. In fact, deep within our genetics, we’re designed to deceive. Some evolutionary biologists even argue that humans who deceive have better reproductive success than those who are honest. It seems that there’s some primal, dormant and hidden system in our brain that continues to play out patterns of deceit as if living in a pre-evolution past where deceit could mean a matter of life and death.

We haven’t yet evolved to a state of conscious awareness where we understand that deceit is no longer necessary to our survival. Our boss may ask how we’re going with a due presentation that we’ve forgotten about and instead of rationally explaining that we haven’t yet started, our ancient fight or flight deception kicks in and our primal urge to deceive takes chemical and hormonal priority over rationality as we take the concept of ‘deadline’ very literally and… We lie.

The thing is that we’re all designed to deceive and do ‘wrong’ things… So who oversees this black and white notion of Karma and how can we be sure that any universal being calling the Karma judgments really understands our basic limitations as humans and takes into account why it is we did what we did.

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I’m sure we (myself included) can all think of situations we didn’t handle well. Situations that other people judge us on and wish bad karma upon us… Perhaps they’re so angry at something we did that the thought of the universe sorting us out through ‘karma’ allows them to let go and get some peace. However, think about some of these situations for a moment. Most of them are likely unfortunate situations where you never meant any mal intent. Perhaps things turned out the way they did because of circumstance, not deliberate ‘bad’ deeds. If you could go back in time you might even change things. Maybe the reality is that you had your back pressed against a wall at the time and if only the judgers actually knew all the details then they may not even wish bad karma upon you.

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However, they don’t know… They just see the situation from their perspective as the victim (whether right or wrong) and due to this, they feel that you should ‘pay’ in some way. But only you know how things really turned out. Only you know you had no other choice at the time and you didn’t mean to be ‘bad’. Perhaps you know that you were naïve… So, how can karma accurately weigh up on these elements and be an arbitrary judge that impacts your future…Which side of the story does karma take? Is it fair? Does it consider the circumstance and the intent? God, one would hope so right?

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On the opposite end of the spectrum are people who go out to attract good karma…By good karma, I mean people whose actions are dictated by the law of karma and the belief that, if they deposit enough karma, they can withdraw positive karma and better themselves. The question in this scenario is… If you do a good deed, with the knowledge or karma in mind,  do you really do it for the right reasons? How much are you focused on helping others versus how much you want to ‘attract’ good karma for yourself? Is there really any altruistic acts in the world of karma or, is everyone just trying to build their positive karma retirement fund and hoping for the best?

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So, this takes us back to the old chestnut of… If you do something for someone else but, you do it for personal reward, is it the same? Can you buy yourself into positive karma? Like a Jehovah’s witness who door knocks his way into heaven claiming to save others, but also earning his own ticket… We have to question his true intentions.

Is there any action that we, as humans do, without expecting something in return? Are there any true selfless acts? Maybe, the notion of karma is actually influencing society and causing us to subconsciously become obsessed with earning credits to be cashed in during an afterlife that we may or may not believe in. Even if we’re not spiritual in nature, ‘good karmic acts’ help us sleep at night and feel better about ourselves. If that’s the case… Is any of this even real?

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It’s funny because we all have a built-in human mechanism that discourages us from doing bad things… This is the emotion of guilt. If we commit an act that we feel is wrong, whether we get found out or not isn’t important. Usually (unless you’re a sociopath) the mechanism of guilt will eat away at you and destroy you if you commit an act that’s against your morals… So discouragement from doing things against our values and beliefs is easy, right?

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So, what about our motivation to do good things? Sure guilt can play a part if we feel that we’re far more advantaged than the less fortunate and can help out. However, generally in life if we see people doing things for others we tend to be sceptical and consider how much ego is involved. Are they just trying to attract positive karma? What’s their agenda? Or perhaps it’s arrogance and the belief that we’re helping others because we believe that our knowledge and way of life is superior. Or, are we simply trying to buy a ticket into an afterlife that we believe has to be earned through good deeds? Things get a bit more blurry when it comes to understanding people’s motivation to help others.

The idea of being punished for ‘bad’ deeds can also be dangerous. Especially if you believe that you will be punished but you don’t fully understand the concept and complexity of human behaviour. I remember when I was a child, from about 7 years old, I became extremely paranoid about religion. I lived in an obsessive-compulsive fear that I would displease God and be punished. You see, I had learnt about heaven and hell and God and the devil and I knew about karma and how bad things will eventually happen to bad people but I was too young and naïve to understand more. So I spent my days in fear of God. I always felt guilty for small things, human things, unimportant things.

Then, as I grew older through my early teens I started to question the bible. I had learnt about dinosaurs, the ice age and the age of the earth and I wondered why the old testament didn’t talk about these things… I began to doubt God and this made me terrified. I thought that for sure God would punish me for my doubt and I tried so hard to rationalise a way that I could still believe in an Adam and Eve, Noah and his Arc whilst still having a curious scientific knowledge of the world.

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The ironic thing is that I was fearful I would be punished for my doubt in God which means that I still did believe in God. You can’t fear a God that doesn’t exist right?

My point is that when you apply a basic notion of reward and punishment, it can create paranoia and cause people to behave in ways to seek reward, avoid punishment or spend their days in self-pity and guilt feeling as though they will be punished and there’s nothing they can do.

So, it seems that karma can be dangerous and perhaps a little unfair. A simplistic view of good and evil, reward and punishment doesn’t seem to allow for the complexities of human behaviour, our genetic shortcomings and our tendency to deceive. If we don’t take a more holistic and evolved view of the world then we may find ourselves spending our days in naive fear of retribution constantly feeling as though we’ve failed.

What have you done today to attract your good karma?

 

 

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