The Rank Absurdity of the 'Law of Karma'
On this sixth anniversary of the Islamic atrocity in New York City, I dedicate this article to the victims, for whom both religious morality and the law of karma failed so spectacularly, and to their families and friends who were so cruelly robbed of their loved ones.
One of the most vapid and contemptible of the new-age nostrums is the statement: “There is no injustice in the universe.” I heard it bandied about freely in the late ’60s as I was growing up at the Summit Lighthouse. Forty years later, you don’t have to look far to find this feel-good pablum masquerading as unquestioned existential truth. It’s a big part of that empty gravy-train (works every time) called The Secret. Or found on copycat sites like The Law of Attraction.
Traditional theologians would recognize this aphorism as a feeble attempt to wipe away the Problem of Evil. It’s all part of “God’s plan,” you see. And for new-agers, it’s a philosophical squeegee that operates effectively even while eliminating the need to believe in a personal god. It’s just so. The universe is ‘self-balancing’ and ‘self-correcting.’ This allows wealthy or fortunate spiritual dilettantes to excuse any of their personal failings while taking credit for all their successes. “It’s just my good (or bad) karma,” they say. At the same time, people with birth defects or born into poverty must have done something wrong in a past life to deserve their fate–which blunts their compassion for them.
I never understood how this supposedly enlightened doctrine was much different from fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism. It seemed to me equally judgmental as the preacher’s threats of hell and damnation, and equally incompatible with any kind of liberal humanistic world view. It rests, at its core, upon spooky-action-at-a-distance, the assumption that somehow our actions are recorded by the substrate of the universe and sent back to us automatically. It’s a quantum energy thing, I suppose. This is how it is expressed in Jainism, Hinduism, or Buddhism, an impersonal and irrevocable principle of cause-and-effect.
In the more elaborate new-age cosmologies in “masters” organizations, there is a cosmic record-keeping agency headed up by the “Lords of Karma.” This “Karmic Board” employs legions of “listening angels,” or “angels of record” who keep elaborate ledgers to see that nothing is forgotten, and every “jot and tittle” of god’s law is fulfilled (a reference also to KJV Matt 5:18).
The idea of karma was popularized in the Western world through the work of the Theosophical Society. Kardecist and Western New Age reinterpretations of karma frequently cast it as a sort of luck associated with virtue: if one does good or spiritually valuable acts, one deserves and can expect good luck; conversely, if one does harmful things, one can expect bad luck or unfortunate happenings. In this conception, karma is affiliated with the Neopagan law of return or Threefold Law, the idea that the beneficial or harmful effects one has on the world will return to oneself. Colloquially this may be summed up as ‘what goes around comes around.’
There is also the metaphysical idea that, because karma is a force of nature and not a sentient creature capable of making value judgments, karma isn’t about good and evil deeds, because applying those labels would be judgmental, but that it is about positive and negative energy, where negative energy can include things not seen as “being bad” like sadness and fear, and positive energy can be caused by being creative and solving problems as well as by exuding love and doing virtuous acts.It is referred to as “omniverse karma” or “omni-karma” because it requires the existence of an omniverse, that space that contains all possible universes. The omniverse idea includes concepts such as souls, psychic energy, synchronicity (a concept originally from psychoanalyst Carl Jung, which says that things that happen at the same time are related), and ideas from quantum or theoretical physics.
It’s not surprising that both ancient and modern traditions have tried to establish a sense of cosmic justice. One of the human universals is the concept of (and beliefs about) fortune and misfortune–loosely the idea that bad luck comes to somebody who commits misdeeds and vice versa.
On the surface, the idea of karma seems to make sense. According to the rules of evolutionary psychology, reputation counts. Those who treat others with kindness and respect are generally treated better in return by their community. But this rule only works for those who have agreed to abide by the social contract–who have a stake in the system. Our concepts of justice, then, rely on us having a conscience based on long-term self-interest. We can accurately say that those with a conscience who treat others well are happier. Happier people do better in life. So we do in fact have a limited correlation between good deeds and good fortune. But sociopaths, on the other hand, routinely get away with murder.
Consider this: If the law of karma were to remain accurate in the universe, how would someone like Hitler, Stalin, or Mao pay for their atrocities? According to the law of karma, it would be through the Hinduist ‘wheel of rebirth.’ They must reincarnate and give life to all those from whom they took life. Let’s play devils advocate here, and assume this to be true. We don’t have to do much math to see the problem. Assuming that the interval between embodiments is 100 years. That would be 70 for a normal lifespan, plus 30 to “work things out and get back on earth.” (Humor me, humor me.)
Assume that our reincarnated Mao-Zedong was prolific and had 10 children each life. He is reputed to have presided over the deaths of 40,000,000 to 60,000,000 people. Let’s take 50,000,000 as a good round number. So our repentant Mao would need 5 million lifetimes to replenish those he killed. At 100 years each, this would take a grand total of 500 million years, or around one eighth of the time since the earth was formed! This is patently absurd. We can be pretty certain that life on earth will not continue uninterrupted for the next half-billion years. There’ve been 5 great “extinction level” events in the last 550 million years. So it’s clear that the law of karma is hopelessly doomed for the case of Mao. His victims will never be avenged. So we’ve got to ask ourselves: If karma doesn’t hold true at this level, how about for lesser killers?
Considering Hitler: At the same rate, it would take him over 200,000,000 years to pay for his crimes through the wheel of rebirth. It’s not likely to happen. So then we have to ask: what about for a killer of a single individual? Is it fair that under the law of karma and rebirth, he or she should have to spend their “next life” giving back the life they stole? Of course, you might say. But why should a petty killer be held to account for his crime, while sociopaths like Hitler and Mao get off virtually scot free? We can easily see that in a ‘just’ universe, they shouldn’t.
We could stretch the fantasy further, and imagine that the 19 hijackers plus Osama each reincarnated and married 72 virgin wives. They could conceivably give birth to 3,000 people in one lifetime. But would that mean the people killed in the towers would then be forced to grow up in repressive and fanatical Islamic families?? How is that fair? And why would such murderers get away with only the fun part of siring the children, while their 72 wives actually raised the kids and did the hard work? Even if the hijackers came back as women and bore the children, this is an insane tall tale that exceeds even the Rapture in its ridiculousness. But that’s what it would take for us to accept this silly canard that is the “Law of Karma.”
New-agers and fundies alike will mumble and grumble that “God’s will” is not for us to understand, and that we have to just “trust Him” to take care of people like Mao, Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Charles Manson, or the Hillside Strangler. Some have recognized the impossibility of precise karmic repayment, and have tried to rescue the whole mess by inventing the stopgap concepts of “hell” and the second death. These are totally abstract and unverifiable, and certainly don’t work to intimidate either the righteous fanatic or the truly depraved. I don’t see how this cosmic-revenge-fantasy justice is different from a complete absence of justice. It fails the same way every other rationalization of blind faith fails: it provides zero comfort to anyone but the hopelessly credulous (who have long ago given up on evidence anyway). Why do they even bother with a rationale? Kill ’em all and let god sort ’em out!
Under the most basic critical analysis, we have to admit that no one actually pays for murder, unless they receive physical punishment or reprisals. And up to half of all murders are never solved, depending on which statistics you believe:
From HBO’s Dr. Baden
Is there such a thing as a perfect murder?
Yes. But there are two categories of perfect murders. Technically, any unsolved murder is a perfect murder. In the 1960s, eighty-five per cent of murders were solved in New York and close to it around the country. That means at that time, there were ten or fifteen per cent of perfect murders where people committed murder and didn’t get caught. Counter intuitively in the late 1980’s, when DNA evidence comes into the picture, we find that less than fifty per cent of murders in New York City are now solved, and less than sixty per cent nationwide.
So clearly both human forms of justice and any imagined form of divine justice are woefully ineffective.
Religious notions of morality such as karma or hell only work for those who are already unlikely to commit such crimes. Humanistic morality is equally weak to the killer–relying on the ancestral fear of tribal reprisals or loss of reputation. In spite of the theologians and new-age hucksters, anyone with a decent criminal mind has already worked out the odds and realized exactly what I’ve written here. Individuals focus on avoiding human detection, since they know it’s all they have to worry about. Mass sociopathic killers have always insulated themselves behind governments, internment camps, and weapons of mass destruction. That they eventually die (often by execution or their own hand) is no consolation.
So to sum up, we can take that old feel-good new-age chestnut I mentioned earlier and reverse it: There is actually “no justice in the universe.” Like our parents should have told us, truth is not a bedtime story. We cannot escape competition with powerful and dangerous people in the world, and life is definitely not fair.
Why do the rich have bodyguards? They understand this equation. If we want to change it for the rest of us, we will have to submit to greater surveillance, and hire more police and detectives. We will have to continue to fight wars to subdue the genocidal maniacs. Because those physical measures are all that stand between us and our killers. The “law of karma” and other concepts of divine justice are nothing but vain tomfoolery and remain wholly impotent for our protection.