Karmic Relief for the Misuse of “Karma.”

Via Philip Goldberg
on Mar 20, 2012
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(Photo via Dad's Primal Scream)

If we’re going to use the word, let’s use it right.

In a recent PBS interview with Bill Moyers, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explained what his research reveals about the differences between liberals and conservatives.

Haidt’s work on positive psychology and what he calls Moral Foundations Theory has received well-deserved acclaim, and much of what he said in that interview was illuminating. But one reference he made was off base, and Moyers — a national treasure whose return to TV from premature retirement is cause to rejoice — did not challenge him on it. Someone should, so here goes.

When asked about the conservative view on policies such as taxing the wealthy, Haidt said, “The conservative moral position on this is the Protestant work ethic. It’s karma.”

Never mind the dubious linking of Protestants with a core premise of the religions birthed in India (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism). And never mind that the number of conservatives who would say they believe in karma is about as big as the number of Hindus who consider Jesus their personal Savior. Haidt went on to misconstrue the meaning of karma.

“Karma is a Sanskrit word,” he said, “literally for work, or fruit.” Not quite: it is usually translated as “action,” not “work.” But let’s move on. Haidt explained that “Hindu tradition believes the universe will right itself, balance itself. It’s like gravity. If I am a lazy, good for nothing, lying scoundrel, the universe will right that and I will suffer.” Fair enough.

But then he went astray by linking that grand cosmic principle with modern conservative values. Conservatives, he said, don’t like “liberal do-gooders and the federal government” bailing out the losers in the competitive marketplace, adding that the conservative position is basically that “liberals are trying to revoke the law of karma.”

As Haidt probably knows, if liberals think of the concept at all, it would be to affirm that social justice produces good karma.

Later in the interview, he brought up karma in reference to that infamous moment in the Republican debates when Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul about a hypothetical person who falls into a coma after choosing not to buy health insurance.

Moyers asked Haidt why the audience cheered at the suggestion that the coma victim should be left to die. “Because they want a world in which karma functions,” said the psychologist. Their reasoning, he said, is that the man “made a choice to not buy health insurance, and if karma works as it should, no one will pay for it and he will die.”

Since the audience in question was presumably heavily Christian, one is tempted to ask, “Never mind Hindu ideas, what would Jesus say?” But that’s another issue.

The point here is that the philosophy Haidt describes is closer to Social Darwinism than it is to the laws of karma. That is to say, it is more “survival of the fittest” than “you reap what you sow.”

It is true, of course, that karma posits a fair and balanced universe governed by a system of cosmic justice that functions as lawfully as gravity.

So many Americans have found the idea appealing that “karma” has entered the vocabulary as a kind of shorthand for getting what we deserve, whether as a reward for positive actions or as punishment for negative ones.

You hear the word on newscasts, sports reports, sitcoms, pop music and in conversations far removed from yoga studios and meditation retreats. As a way of understanding the age-old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people, and vice versa?” it is rapidly replacing the alternatives.

But it is widely misconstrued and commonly misused, even by well-informed scholars like Dr. Haidt. Any conservative who evokes karma to justify winner-take-all economics is making a grave error (although, to be fair, the same error has been made in India by those who wish to leave the caste system unchanged). Properly understood, karma does not uphold indifference, fatalism or apathy.

That’s one of many mistakes in Haidt’s cavalier use of the term. Another is the time frame. Karmic law can play out over a long period of time. And I mean long. Not long as in a drawn-out court case or a bureaucratic snafu, but long as in lifetimes; karma can’t be adequately understood without reference to its close cousin, reincarnation.

Hence, linking one’s current economic status exclusively to one’s prior actions in this life is simplistic to say the least. Nor is there necessarily not a connection. It’s simply beyond the powers of human calculation to trace a clean cause-effect line. That’s why the Bhagavad Gita refers to the complex patterns of karma as “unfathomable.”

Haidt also fails to account for future karma. What are the karmic consequences for well-off individuals who are callous about the less fortunate? What is the collective karma of a society that fails to provide adequately for all its citizens, or allows the ill to die for lack of health insurance? Does good karma accrue to those who act to balance the scales in the present?

In short, karma can be used to justify liberal positions too.

I don’t know if Haidt misunderstands karma or was merely attributing that interpretation to conservatives. I do know that the concept is catching on in the West, particularly in yoga circles, as a reasonable way to comprehend the impact of our thoughts, intentions and actions.

So, if we’re going to invoke the principle in public discourse, let’s get it right, before some yahoo claims it’s Iran’s karma to get bombed.



Editor: Andrea B.


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About Philip Goldberg

Philip Goldberg is the author or coauthor of nineteen books, including “The Intuitive Edge," “Roadsigns: On the Spiritual Path,” and his latest work, "American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West.” Based in Los Angeles, he is an ordained interfaith minister, a public speaker and seminar leader, and the founder of Spiritual Wellness and Healing Associates. He also blogs regularly on the Huffington Post. Visit philipgoldberg.com or americanveda.com for more information.


19 Responses to “Karmic Relief for the Misuse of “Karma.””

  1. karlsaliter says:

    Right on. Just posted to Elephant Spirituality on Facebook.

  2. Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.

  3. Harleigh Quinn says:

    This article still gets it wrong.
    Karma is where yin and yang originated.
    Therefore it is not a cosmic retribution, as the article still implies, but a balance of positive and negative, nothing more.
    Of course I will allow for the vaguarity of the article, in that it has been utilized to make a point, and in making that point, still makes the universal error.

  4. oz_ says:

    "As Haidt probably knows, if liberals think of the concept at all, it would be to affirm that social justice produces good karma."

    Yes, and the mistake liberals make is in thinking that the State – an entity wholly predicated on violence and the threat of violence (ahimsa anyone?) – is an appropriate and effective instrument with which to deliver social justice. In point of fact, issues of social justice are complex – but the organizational dynamic of government are capable – at best – of solving complicated problems – not complex predicaments. The Law of Unintended Consequences therefore always attends governments attempts to "solve" complex predicaments. More here: http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-10-12/

    So how do well meaning but ultimately foreseeably short sighted policies which wind up causing harm play in the karmic balance?

    One of the things I have always admired most about the Buddha is his stricture to 'see things as they are' – politically, though, modern Americans seem to specialize in seeing things as they desperately want them to be, or as they have been conditioned to see them, or in ways which are self serving in terms of maintaining a certain self image. I suspect there is a heavy price to pay for such delusion and refusal to honestly examine the cultural myths with which we think. Whether that price is 'karmic' or not, I'm not sure.

  5. @marrael says:

    I see this as partly the result of "My Name Is Earl". The intro had always made me cringe.

  6. Padma Kadag says:

    Everything, all phenomena that arises in our individual experience is due to Karma…cause and result. Long before we were born all of the conditions that have made us suffer or enjoy are results and our reaction to all of the "fathomless" results create the conditions and on and on and on. Though we can rightly point to "group" karma as in races and nations it is only through the concept that we are experiencing individual karma that we can purify current results and previous actions in order to begin to make our lives more open and free. If we have the karma and aspiration to practice teachings which are able "liberate" these compounded concepts. Individuals have the capacity to go "within", groups do not…as in liberals or conservatives or even nations and families. The Buddha never said that Buddhists as a group because they call themselves "Buddhist" would liberate themselves. The Buddha also never said that he could liberate individuals. The individual can and must "go within".

  7. ValCarruthers says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Valerie Carruthers
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  8. ValCarruthers says:

    It's also said, Harleigh, that neither "bad" karma nor "good" karma actually exist. There is only karma, pure and simple. Good and bad are only relative and judgmental values. And yes, they have their relative place for the purposes of this article.

  9. Prasanth Lade says:

    No karma is not about cancellation. It is not that I murder a person and I have negative karma and to balance that I save another person an achieve positive karma and both cancel each other. I will get the benefit of positive karma and I also have to suffer the negative karma.
    Because I first enjoy the positive karma it does not mean that there is no negative karma, it will come in its own time.
    They are independent according to Gita interpretation of Karma.

  10. nimitta says:

    "..the State…[is] an entity wholly predicated on violence.."

    Do you really believe that, oz? If so, I don't think you've been 'seeing things as they are', or as the Buddha put it, yatha-bhuta-dassanam. Our 'states', like our individual minds and bodies, are collective processes that embody many different and often competing values. Although a state – let's take the USA – may commit or threaten violence in many instances, it is also has a powerful collective mission to protect, support, and nurture its citizen's paths to freedom – in short, to embody what the Buddha called 'skillful/wholesome actions, kusala-kamma. States, like beings, are deeply contradictory and conflicted by nature, although they are of course different in many, many ways.

    However much we should acknowledge all the unwholesome ways governments act, including ours, it is hardly realistic to ignore the multitude of ways our country tries, however imperfectly, to protect our welfare and liberty – from the free exercise of speech and spirituality (this dialogue, for example), to potable water, to safe & navigable roadways, to effective medical care, to creating consequences for dishonest or violent behavior toward citizens and groups including minorities.

    Growing up in the 1950s as I did, for example, it seems to me that our gradual momentum toward a more protective and nurturing government is self-evident. There was no Social Security back then, no Medicare – both very effective instruments of social justice, I would say – and no civil rights for blacks, gays, or even women to a great extent. The US government was much more of a bully state, not unrelated to the fact that it regarded itself as locked in a dangerous ongoing confrontation with the Soviet Union and its allies. Relatively more enlightened dissent and vision arose in each of these areas, though, and gradually became ascendant, but it is always a mistake to imagine that the work is done.

    You might want to read the comment of Padma Kadag below, because in an important sense it points to the current limitations of groups understanding their own impulses and behavior. I say 'current' because we actually live in a time where the particular processes of group interactions are increasingly understood – as in game theory, say. So Padma's assertion that groups can't 'go within' must be regarded as provisional.

    Here's the punchline: governments are projections of the human beings they encompass. As such, they are complexes of both conscious and deeply embedded patterns that reflect both evolutionary influences, mostly subliminal, and our highest aspirations including tolerance, love, and cooperation with each other and our environment. As projections of the complex beings that we are, all intentional collectives, from sangha to state, have their shadows.

    By the way, since you're apparently a student of the Buddhadharma, you'll recall that there was a considerable shadow side even in the Buddha's own sangha. Even forgetting the Buddha's cousin Devadatta, who tried to instigate a mutiny and murder the Buddha on several different occasions, there was enough misunderstanding and misbehavior to drive the sangha's gradual evolution from a group with no real rules at all to what became quite a restrictive array of monastic guidelines, and eventually a patriarchy that squeezed out the bhikkhuni. (The early texts even acknowledge that there were too many rules – as he was dying, the Buddha is said to have told Ananda the sangha should jettison most of them – the 'minor' ones – but never got around to specifying which were minor.)

    At his death the Buddha was described as reluctant to dictate how the sangha should be after his passing, perhaps knowing that it would be no less vulnerable – and perhaps considerably more so – to unwholesome individual and cultural pressures. He was exactly right, too, but would hardly have argued for the sangha's eradication. Still, with his last breaths he said that the path must be located and followed by each one of us individually as well – to 'be an island unto yourself'.

  11. oz_ says:

    Nimitta, no offense, but this appears to me to be a very long piece of rationalization.

    Simply, governments take money by coercion from citizens and those same citizens can be lawfully killed if they refuse to participate in this extortionary scheme, even if they are ethically opposed to the uses to which that money is to be put. I'm sorry, but there is no possible way to argue this process does not rely wholly upon violence and the threat of violence. In fact, the very *definition* of government is: an entity that claims a monopoly on violence over a given territorial area.

    I am vehemently opposed to, for example, Obama's decision to expand the drone war from one country to six (at last count) and to continue to murder innocent people (usually, brown people – though at a mercifully reduced scale compared to his predcessor) – and yet, I am forced by law to support such war crimes with my tax dollars with no way to opt out except to 1) crawl off and die, or 2) risk imprisonment, and if I resist imprisonment risk being shot dead for resisting imprisonment forcefully. In other words, not only is the State inherently violent, but it insists I become complicit in that violence and if I do not, then either implicitly or explicitly it can kill me.

    Regardless of how many paragraphs one writes to try to get past this basic truism, it remains a basic truism: Government is wholly predicated upon violence and the threat of violence. The fact that such a simple truth can spark such a denial itself tells us something important, IMO.

    You state that the US government "has a powerful collective mission to protect, support, and nurture its citizen's paths to freedom " – I see no evidence that it – as an entity – actually believes it has such a mission, though we hear a lot of rhetoric about it (aka window dressing), and, desiring to believe, most of us choose to do so in the absence of such evidence (the mind is a wonderful ally when self-deception in the pursuit of solace is the game), let alone that it is acting to achieve such a mission. I think that what you have stated is wishful thinking based on cultural myths which have not been sufficiently examined. The thing is, unlike in times past, the cultural myths with which we think – whether this is the notion you have advanced OR opposing myths like 'humans are above and not dependent on nature' or 'humans are a result of a *progressive* evolutionary scheme and not subject to ecological constraints' or any of a number of others – are invisible to those who accept them. It's quite interesting actually – it is why liberals and conservatives insist on demonizing and objectifying each other in *precisely* the same way without even realizing it. My liberal friends think conservatives are hard hearted and my conservative friends think liberals are soft-headed – because neither understands that the other side is operating under the influence of myths which cause each to see the world in distorted ways. The distortion here is as regards the nature of the State. I'd recommend something like German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer's 'The State' for a clear eyed analysis.

    For example you imply that the mere fact that government does not prohibit you and I from engaging in this conversation constitutes freedom! As though an absence of violence and coercion in ALL areas equals freedom! Noam Chomsky has written extensively on this issue – I'd recommend viewing this Moyers' piece:


  12. oz_ says:

    The point is not that the US is somehow totalitarian in the Soviet sense – but that even as "freedoms" for blacks, gays, women, etc seemed to 'advance' in one sense, in another broader sense, the overall freedoms were decreasing as civil liberties were being constantly eroded. You must look at things holistically, but you are positing reductionist arguments by focusing on the components. It's the *system* that matters, in the end. Because if small freedoms are granted to this group and that group, but the end game is to restrict freedom for all (or to render all at the mercy of an all powerful and unaccountable and murderous State – e.g. PATRIOT Acts, Obama's signing of the NDAA and refusal to STOP torture, rendition, and endless war, etc), then those gains were 1) temporary and in the end 2) illusory. Don't get me wrong – I am happy for those gains, but I am also looking at the wider picture in which the losses are mounting – and accelerating. Based on your arguments, you are not.

    I would assert that your view that "our gradual momentum toward a more protective and nurturing government is self-evident." is in fact an excellent example of the inculcation of a cultural myth – note your use of the term 'self-evident' – this indicates an unexamined assumption on your part as I assure you that it is not at all evident to me or to many other intelligent and informed people – the fact that it seems so to you should, I assert, give you pause.

    You cite Social Security and Medicare as "effective instruments of social justice" – and yet the undeniable reality of our time is 1) the move toward austerity programs (i.e. the dismantlement of precisely these sorts of programs at the behest of the wealthy banking elites – and just a few short decades after they were instituted) and 2) the ongoing destruction of the US dollar, both of which will invalidate those programs within a very short span of time.

    Did you know that just over a century ago, there existed a complex web of entities – mutual aid societies, fraternal organizations, etc – which together constituted a *relatively* effective web of social support whose legacy stretched back to the guilds of the Middle Ages, and in some cases as far back as the Roman Empire? These civil society entities (with which one in three Americans volunteered their time) offered medical care, unemployment insurance, physician visits, etc – and they lasted and evolved over centuries, not decades! That is, they proved *sustainable* – while we are watching the unraveling of the government run replacement schemes in real time! The offered *community* support – NOT bureaucratic support – a major difference. And, like pre-industrial agriculture, they were a *polyculture* which means they were resilient – if one crumbled, there were others to take its place. When the government usurped these functions, all the eggs went into one basket – very much like our current 'monoculture' agriculture model – and that basket has now proven empty because of decades of dreadful mismanagement of the funds by – you guessed it – the State who usurped the function in the first place.

    In regard to the psychological argument you make, regarding Freudian projection and Jungian projection of the shadow, I humbly submit that you are mistaken in your understanding of these mechanisms. We as humans, and the collective we as society, do not project "our highest aspirations including tolerance, love, and cooperation with each other and our environment" – projection concerns feelings and internal states that we cannot tolerate due to the discomfort they generate, usually due to childhood traumas, which we displace onto others. We do not "project" (in the sense in which you have used the word) tolerance or love, etc. James Hollis' excellent 'Why Good People Do Bad Things' <a href="http://(http://tinyurl.com/8xu8v3q)” target=”_blank”>(http://tinyurl.com/8xu8v3q) includes a superb discussion on this, and so is worth consulting on the subject of cultural shadow projection.

    I am certainly familiar with the Devadatta story, but the notion that he was operating out of some shadow of the sangha is wholly unsupported. When a murderer murders, this is not evidence of the shadow at work, I'm afraid. I see this misconception crop up all the time in regard to the shadow. That's just now how it works, per Jungian analytical psychology. You'd actually get further using Alice Miller's work in this regard than Jung's!

    In other words, Devadatta's attempts on the Buddha's life were not due to some 'sangha shadow' – but seem to be rather a run of the mill case of power grabs based in envy and greed. This tendency to look at any 'bad thing' that happens and ascribe to it a 'shadow' motive is unfortunate, and unsupported. Happens a lot though.

    As for Padma's comment, and in fact in response to the original article, to be honest I lean toward Stephen Batchelor's analysis and conclusions regarding both karma and rebirth, which is to say, I don't buy these as doctrines as having any real meaning or impact, beyond the notion of karma as simple causality.

  13. oz_ says:

    So just in case the above two-part comment was too abstract, abstruse, or just too verbose, here's a simple way of looking at it. If in fact modern States have "a powerful collective mission to protect, support, and nurture its citizen's paths to freedom", then let's give a quick look at the outcome of the last century, which was very much a century in which Statism came into its own – when large, powerful, centralized and integrated States became the dominant form of sociopolitical organization. I'll cite here the data collected by RJ Rummel, professor at Univ of Hawaii under the heading of 'democide' (http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/MURDER.HTM) which finds that, during the last century, governments killed over 260 million of their own citizens, or those under their 'protection'. Note that this does not include combat war deaths (that number, IIRC, for the same period, was around 150 million). So during the century most disposed toward Statism, we find not only was the bloodiest in terms of wars, but also in terms of democide – killings of people under the 'protection' of their governments. I consider this to be prima facie evidence that this notion of State-as-savior (with all of its Hegelian overtones) is pure fantasy.

    So whatever evidence you have for this supposed mission on the part of States to "nurture its citizen's paths to freedom," there is this astonishing evidence that what happens in reality, all too often, is quite the opposite and in fact includes terminating vast numbers of those citizens very lives.

    It's an inconvenient truth, I'll grant you, but there it is.

  14. robertwolf681 says:

    This is the most intelligent, articulate, genuinely illuminating piece I've read on ele this week. Thanks.

  15. randolphr says:

    Karma looks after itself. It is not something to be wholly evaluated in 'real time'.
    Do your best without worry or self consciousness about repercussions you cannot
    see or foresee in terms of karma. Karma is not something that can be seen in another.
    Tall, short, happy, wealthy, etc … Accessing the attributes of another based on perceptions
    of karma is like giving full description of a star in the sky: there are uncountable factors as
    to the how, why & where of it …. and of everything.

    Everything changes. Two single words which, simply of themselves, describe our limitations.

    When a good article (like this) spurs good interactions (like those above) then there's a meaningfulness
    and value that I can't find elsewhere. I don't care for elements of lifestyle or collective self image. Those are
    things I find self policing and unhealthy.

    Over & out y'all


  16. chad henry says:

    Vaguarity? This use of a non-word totally cancels out anything else this guy tried to say. And he's also WAAAYYY wrong about the yin/yang thing.

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