Karma: It’s Nothing Personal.

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Part Two of The Three Most Liberating Things I Have Learned from Yoga.”

(Part One is here.)

“Man’s life in the world is bound by his actions.”

~ Bhagavad Gita 15:2

When I was a kid, I used to get angry at inanimate objects.

I would dial our rotary telephone too fast and become incensed when the call did not go through. I would shift gears on my bicycle too quickly and grumble when the chain jumped off the sprockets. I would muscle the lawnmower through tall grass and grouse when it became clogged.

Though I cannot reconstruct my exact state of mind at the time, it seems that I attributed moral agency to machines, and interpreted their negligent or intentional thwarting of my purposes as conscious acts. My father tried over and over to convince me that it wasn’t a moral issue—that that was simply the way the machines worked. But I seemed to have been sure, at some level, that they were doing it on purpose.

Interestingly, it was this unarticulated belief that kept me from changing the way I behaved in order to change what happened to me. As long as I believed the telephone could have worked the way I wanted it to if it chose, its demand that I dial it in a certain way seemed arbitrary, and I refused to comply. I wasn’t responsible for what happened to me–the mean old phone was.

“Revelation, Chapter 14” by Bale

Does this sound familiar? If you were reared in a Christian environment, it may. In fact, it may even if you weren’t, because the belief in a personal God around which Western culture is built encourages us to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that the consequences of our actions are meted out by a discriminating entity bent on rewarding or punishing us. And you may have noticed that, as often as not, a rule-bound religious upbringing oriented toward pleasing a heavenly judge is about as much of a deterrent to bad behavior as capital punishment, and maybe less.

Whenever I hear people say that “everything happens for a reason,” I want to ask them whether they mean that every event has a cause, or that every event has a purpose. I suspect that most often, they mean the latter: that things happen because “the universe” wants them to for reasons of its own.

But I am here to dispute that: things happen because of what we do—not as a result of any conscious moral agency, but because that’s simply the way the machine works. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and every event is the result of causation. Garbage in, garbage out.

Of course, the obvious question is why the machine works that way, and so many answers have been posited for that one that I will not attempt to answer it here. I hasten to add that many of the most enlightened people I have known have had a deep, experientially informed faith in a personal God, and that simply has to mean something. But I am nevertheless going to insist that, when what goes around comes around, it does so not because God sent it, but because that’s simply the way the machine works.

This is the doctrine of karma as I understand it, and it has been immensely liberating for me because it has allowed me to experience what happens to me principally as the result of my own actions. Before, I was like the kids in a cartoon I once saw, marching around the kitchen banging on pots until one of them said, “I wish mom would tell us to stop; I’m getting tired.”

Now, responsibility rests with me—not because anybody says so, but because that’s just the way the machine works. Neither can one act without consequences, because the mechanism is simply not set up that way. As you sow, so shall you reap.[i]

So when the old hymn asks…

And must I be to judgment brought,
And answer in that day,
For every vain and idle thought,
And every word I say?

karma answers Yes; not because God is watching you and writing everything down in His book, but because every thought, word and deed creates samskaras (impressions) in the chitta (mind-stuff), and sends out ripples into the world, that are simply going to have to work themselves out.

Yes, every secret of my heart,
Shall shortly be made known,
And I receive my just desert
For all that I have done.[ii]

Yes, says karma­­–that’s absolutely true. And whether your belief in a personal God who knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness’ sake is explicit or implicit, up-front or deep beneath the surface, this is­—as strange as it may sound—very good news.


Visit Scott’s spiritual direction website, Open to the Divine!


[i] See Galatians 6:7-8

[ii] By Charles Wesley, prolific hymn-writer and founder of Methodism.



Editor: Brianna Bemel


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Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala mandalaband.net. Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs. 

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anonymous Aug 31, 2012 9:14pm

mmm.. I think even cancer and children dying especially is held to be karmic. I mean karma helps explain why such innocent ones who have don't little harm in this life can be harmed so bad, simply because of something they did in previous lives. If you only want the good, that is not karma but your own desire and view of the world.
I run into this a lot where people I know from bad upbringing have a hard time swallowing the idea that they chose those parents that molested or abandoned them. This is what karma says though. We choose this life to learn some things. I have sent some of these people to my Jyotisha , who can read karma / past lives, and sure enough there is something there. Nonetheless let's not just invent ideas around this. It is complex and very real. But if you don't believe it that is your karma too…

    anonymous Sep 2, 2012 1:38pm

    Thanks for writing, Ramani. I'm a little confused; are you saying I'm inventing ideas around this? I'd be interested in knowing which ones, if so. Thanks!

      anonymous Sep 3, 2012 4:38pm

      Some one above commented that they believe in karma when good things happen to them, but not when bad things happen. You replied " I agree". That was what I was commenting on. You went into complex systems of karma so maybe I am missing something.

anonymous Aug 31, 2012 7:27pm

Scott, I really appreciate your post here. I appreciate your view of karma in the context of Western theology. As a Reformed Christian, it helps me. Jen in her post above makes a great point about the Eastern concept. One day, we will all get the full answer.

anonymous Aug 31, 2012 2:41pm

Scott, I believe your view of Karma in this post is a very Western interpretation. However, the concept of Karma is very Eastern. From what I understand, in most Eastern philosophies/religions, time is not linear, but rather cyclical (hence, reincarnation). So, basically, your actions (or inaction) does have an effect on your present life's causes and effects, but also your past lives and future lives. Your karma from your future and past lives (as well as anyone you have ever been in contact with) affects your current life. That can perhaps be one interpretation as to why" bad things happen to good people." It doesn't mean that you get a free pass in life because of it, because every action has an effect (whether now or later). It's obviously better to spread a positive effect.

    anonymous Aug 31, 2012 3:15pm

    Thanks for writing, Jen; though I'm having a hard time spotting the contradiction or disparity between what you say here and what I wrote above.

anonymous Aug 31, 2012 8:28am

Scott, for me karma is an existentialist concept, so that every individual independently acting in a free manner makes their own karma. rubbellose

anonymous Aug 29, 2012 12:04pm

Thank you,YesuDas. My statement is the essence of what I 've taught- for several decades- to those with the sense to listen.

anonymous Aug 29, 2012 11:46am

Karma is an Indian word and concept for a property inherent in the universe , one that serves to remind us that we are connected to everything else , and that the freedom to act in the futherance of our own desires without affecting anything else, is an illusion.

    anonymous Aug 29, 2012 11:56am

    Thank you, Robert; well summarized.

    anonymous Aug 29, 2012 12:44pm

    We can agree to disagree. My teachings, and thus belief, come from cause and effect. Nothing happens to a person that they, themselves, deserve such (mis)fortune. Maybe those karmatic tendencies are not understood in this lifetime as they have come from previous (past) lifetimes or possibly from present day. One must understand the concept of merit as it relates to Karma. The purpose of such events is to learn, challenge, and grow to reach a place of compassion and wisdom. To each their own. Much love.

    anonymous Aug 29, 2012 1:05pm

    I would love to think this. I would also love to fully believe we make our own karma – everything that happens to us is because of something we did. But I can't, well not fully. I believe we make our own good in the world 100%, but a lot of the bad that happens to good people is not because the person was bad but because someone else was.

    Let's not even talk about cancers and children…

      anonymous Aug 29, 2012 7:38pm

      I agree, Colin–and I have another piece in the works that addresses that. Briefly, it has to do with Complex Systems Theory. Karma is a complex system: I have mine, you have yours, everybody else has theirs, and like bumper cars, our karmas are always bashing into each other. And if you believe that groups–nations, for instance–also accrue karma, it becomes even more complex. So while I absolutely think everything has a cause, and everything we do comes back to us, it doesn't follow that everything that happens to us is our own doing; there are just too many balls in play. That's the general idea, anyway.

      anonymous Aug 31, 2012 9:21am

      And you are right. According to the Buddha and Yogsi…it goes much further and has to do with samskaras…and impressions from a past life. I never was in favour of bad things happened because you let them or you were thinking wrong…that is just too simple…and excludes the web in which we truly live.

        anonymous Aug 31, 2012 10:39am

        Thanks, Heather; nicely put.

anonymous Aug 29, 2012 8:46am

To me, Karma is EVERYTHING personal.

    anonymous Aug 29, 2012 8:53am

    I see what you mean, I think–but karma itself is not a person bent on rewarding or punishing us, that's my point. Unless I am misunderstanding you.

anonymous Aug 29, 2012 8:00am

My comment is that there is a difference between fact and freedom in an indifferent world. There is an uneasy and unstable co-existence of the two. Karma has everything to do with freedom and nothing to do with the world as it is.

    anonymous Aug 29, 2012 8:51am

    Not sure I understand, Edward.

      anonymous Aug 29, 2012 12:29pm

      Scott, for me karma is an existentialist concept, so that every individual independently acting in a free manner makes their own karma.