Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy


    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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Fallacies in the doctrine of ‘karma’

Posted by robertpriddy on January 24, 2011

The doctrine of ‘karma’ has become more widely believed since the advent of Indian ‘gurus’ and preachers of Hinduism in the West. The central aspect of the doctrine of karma – is that whatever happens to you is what you deserve because of your own previous actions. This idea is logically inseparable from questions about the origin, meaning and purpose of the cosmos and all that happens, which has been sought by metaphysicians and theologians, artists and mystics, of many cultures. The ideal is an all-embracing explanation of the countess apparent chance happenings, injustices and crises of the world of the conflicts of human life and society and the solutions to them.

The solution proposed which took over most of human culture was that God was the sole cause of all that happens. Mainstream religions held that God had somehow created a perfect ethical order, which – in India of centuries ago – was called karma or the universal law of action and reaction in all things, including human actions.

The main doctrine of karma arose as an attempt to account for what non-believers today would call accident, luck or the result of circumstances beyond ones control (genetic traits, society, nature, or other persons’ actions). That a good person should suffer disasters needs explanation if one is a believer in a benevolent God, and even in a punishing God. The Jews and the Greeks both adopted such conceptions of an ethical order operating on human destiny, which became a cornerstone of Christian and European thought.

However, The science of nature was soon developed by the early Greeks started from ideas of an underlying order in nature itself, a ‘logical cosmos’ (cosmos as logos). The nature of certain regular physical events were examined and described, which led to ideas about underlying structures or laws of nature that determined the ordering of events in time and space. With the human mind’s propensity to seek regularity, such as causes and effects, order became a guiding ideal of rational thinking, the basis of the development of discursive reason and logic and also of systematic scientific research. This was no longer mere speculation assuming a Deity. Defenders of tradition beliefs in karma point to the law of action and reaction being expressed by natural scientific causal principles seen as ‘laws’ of nature.Yet science has not found comprehensive theories which hold up when natural scientific methodology is applied.In short, one cannot claims that the deterministic physical models are relevant to explaining event from all perspectives when applied to the mental, emotional, ethical, and social spheres.

Karma theory assumes that hereditary illness is an inevitable result of the past actions of the sufferer, either carried out in this lifetime or an earlier incarnation. Not only that, but it often goes as far as relegating everything that happens to an individual, whether felt as good or bad, is due to karma, which is God’s law. This is extremely hard to accept by people of modern scientific education and humanistic outlook. When, as very often, there seems to be nothing in ones past that can account for it (e.g.. no ‘sin’ or ‘good act’), it is supposed that you lived in one or more ‘former lives’ and caused your present circumstances by your acts then.

What most repels Westerners, perhaps, is that all the ‘bad’ results of karma are not to be blamed on others, on nature or on God, but solely on the individual involved (as an inevitable reaction attaching to his or her ‘soul’). Many Eastern gurus also teach – with typical inconsistency – that the ‘good’ results can only be attributed to God (not to oneself or other persons). The idea of karma comes in several variants, some being popularised by New Age people, most often in superficial ways. Some proponents of karma doctrine even argue that all the most horrific events that occur including all heinous human acts are necessary and integral parts of the divine cosmic harmony, which is ultimately for the benefit and good of all! This doctrine that ‘everything is as it should be’ and/or that this is ‘the best of all possible worlds’ is recognised by most thinkers as sheer escapism. How much further one can get from reality and sanity without actually suffering from a pathology it is hard to conceive.

The law of karma conflicts with the idea of freedom from is thrall. However, political freedom is desired from suppression of individuals or groups and for individual justice as appropriate in each instance. Nations or races seek freedom from external forces, whether military, economic or otherwise and they desire the freedom to exercise socio-economic and political justice. Democracy is based on the ‘freedom’ of the individual to vote on who should govern. (‘freedom’ thus interpreted as ‘choice between given alternatives’). That such freedoms can and do exist is a historical and social fact.

A further unsolvable problem with the doctrine of karma that it assumes that each individual, regarded as an eternal soul, generates and suffers his or her own karma through ages quite independently of others’s karma. Karma is non-transferrable by virtue of it being one persons’ private account with God, so to speak. This is known as solipsism (from solus ipse meaning ‘oneself alone’). This ignores the fact that people interact, influence one another’s thoughts and actions and are often complicit in a given action. The 

Examples of the ethical wrongness of karma theory The sheer disdain which this doctrine of blame receives in well-educated countries is shown, fortunately, by the huge national uproar this doctrine caused in the UK in the 90s when the manager of England’s national football team, Glen Hoddle, no more than indirectly hinted at as a possible explanation of some illness! (see under ‘Dismissal from England job’ Wikipedia) Prime Minister Tony Blair then denounced the doctrine firmly in public and contributed to the immediate sacking of the England coach from his position, one of great prestige in the nation. The doctrine of karma – and it associated primitive Hindu religious ideas – has been held by many Indian intellectuals to be the main cause of discrimination and almost total neglect of sufferers of all diseases and ills by successive Indian governments and authorities, as well as by the general public. The state of a country is always related to the predominant beliefs held by the majority there. The severe lack of social welfare, old age pensions, health care and much else can be seen as the historical result of the karma doctrine and related otherworldly religious belief and ‘non-dual’ philosophy.

One reason for aversion to a doctrine of retributive karma as ‘inevitable punishment for sins’ can hardly be better stated than by the English writer Edmund Gosse in his autobiographical book, Father and Son of 1907. “The notice nowadays universally given to the hygienic rules of life was rare fifty years ago and among deeply religious people, in particular, fatalistic views of disease prevailed. If any one was ill, it showed that ‘the Lord’s hand was extended in chastisement’, and much prayer was poured forth in order that it might be explained to the sufferer, or to his relations, in what he or they had sinned. People would, for instance, go on living over a cess-pool, working themselves up into an agony to discover how they had incurred the displeasure of the Lord, but never moving away.” (p.34)

Among Western supporters of the general idea of karma, some are less stringent and more acceptable. According to Edgar Cayce, a 20th century American ‘mystic’ who sometimes talked sense, “Karma is the meeting of oneself in the present through thoughts and deeds from the past. Karma is tied to the concept of reincarnation and balance. Karma is neither a debt that must be paid according to some universal tally sheet, nor is it necessarily a set of specific circumstances that must be experienced because of deeds or misdeeds perpetrated in the past. Karma is simply a memory. It is a pool of information that the subconscious mind draws upon and can utilise in the present. It has elements that are positive as well as those which may seem negative.”

The idea of evil and sin is a religious ideology and an unsolvable logical problem in all theistic religions. In an attempt to deal with this problem, Alan Watts wrote a book entitled ‘The Two Hands of God’. He regarded that what we perceive either as good or evil are both part of a unity, which some call God. His idea of God is one having two aspects (hands) the good and the evil. The Christian tradition tried to make God exclusively good  and so the origin of its opposite was relegated to Satan – and human beings are born sinners. Islam and Hinduism have their own variants of this pseudo-solution of ‘the theological problem of evil’. The split between the worldly and the other-worldly, the profane and the sacred, the transient and other supposed ‘eternal’ and so forth was all part of this mental confusion and ideological schism. To resolve the dilemma finally, the only rational solution is to reject the entire hypothesis that there is a God who created or rules over the cosmos. It is only a belief, and one which brings with it endless troubles for believers, conflicts for society and misappropriation and misdirection of human resources. The belief may bear up people who cannot manage psychologically without it, but it is no less of an empty hope for that.

In Britain, where people once widely believed in healing by holy touch (of the king, primarily), things have changed vastly in modern times. Two examples: In A History of the English-speaking Peoples, (London, 1956), Winston Churchill wrote about the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket: “All England was filled with terror. They acclaimed that his relics healed incurable diseases, and robes that he had worn by their mere touch relieved minor ailments. (p. 167) and about Henry de Montfort: “Among the common people he was for many years worshipped as a saint, and miracles were worked at his tomb.” (p 225). Yet despite this, the business of “spiritual healing” has flourished in recent decades in UK and many another affluent Western nation where the health services – however scientifically advanced – are far from perfect. Many attribute the cures to outside agencies, however, such as whoever is the spiritual healer or a divine figure (Christ , etc.), other schools see cure as a combination of the person’s attitudes and actions with a healer’s agency, while a few regard all cures are self-generated through self-faith and techniques of self-healing which have to be learned from someone, most often for money. The figure worshipped appears to be merely the catalyst to the self-generative powers of the human body and brain.

Among the weirdly superstitious and medically laughable ‘truths’ that a widely accepted God Avatar (Sathya Sai Baba) advances is: “Today man is putting his senses to misuse and as a result his body is becoming weaker day by day. He shortens his life-span by his unsacred vision and by indulgence in sensual pleasures. Lakhs of light rays in his eyes are being destroyed because of his unsacred vision. That is the reason what man is developing eye defects.” (Sai Baba, discourse on 5/7/2001 (Sanathana Sarathi, August 2001, p. 226) As if the vast improvements in health, life span and eye-care made by science in recent centuries have not occurred and age expectancy had not risen progressively in almost all countries in the world. This the kind of absurdly anti-scientific doctrine, totally unsupported by any facts, experimental or other knowledge, is being taught in India and in many New Age sects and cults. Apropos, Bjørn Lomborg writes in his 2001 book The Sceptical Environmentalist: “Fewer and fewer people are starving. In 1900 we lived for an average of 30 years; today we live for 67. According to the UN we have reduced poverty more in the last 50 years than we did in the preceding 500, and it has been reduced in practically every country.” So, any shortcomings in world health certainly have quite other causes than unsacred vision!

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