While waiting in line for coffee in Santa Fe a few years ago, I met a nice young woman. She was in her early 20s—an intelligent college student and a bit of a free spirit. While her double-mocha-soy-something was being made, we struck up a brief conversation. I don’t know what prompted the talk—perhaps it was one of those nuggets of wisdom printed on the cups—but we briefly discussed beliefs. “I believe in karma,” she told me. “Are you a Buddhist?” I asked. She cocked her head, slightly amused. “No, why?”“Well, karma is part of Buddhism; I just wondered if you were Buddhist. Just like if you said you were visiting Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, I’d ask if you were Muslim …” “Oh. No, I’m not really religious, but I do think that what comes around goes around.” She handed a $5 bill to the cashier and got back a few pennies in change. Before I could inquire further about her understanding of karma, she smiled and was gone. I wondered if she really did believe in karma, or if she just thought she did. I suspect she embraced the superficial, pop culture version of karma, without really understanding what it is. The word karma comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “fate, work or action.” The concept of karma varies somewhat among Buddhists, Hindus and Jainists, but the popular understanding is that karma assures that good things will happen to good people and bad things to bad people. Karma in Buddhism holds that the fate of the soul is determined by its karma, its actions. Every act—whether good or bad, no matter how insignificant—will eventually return to the person who does the act, and with equal force. So far, so good. Most people mistakenly assume the good or bad will come back in this lifetime, but that’s not what karma says. Those who do good deeds will be rewarded in future lives, and those who do bad deeds will be punished in future lives (such as by being reborn as a lowly animal).While many people say they believe in karma, most don’t really understand, or believe in, the Buddhist idea of karma. For one thing, there would no need for prisons or punishment; cosmic justice will be meted out in another realm. If people really believed in karma, they would believe that thieves and murderers will be punished in a future life, so there is no need to seek legal justice. Furthermore, karma is inextricably linked to reincarnation; in Western society anyway, the idea of being reborn as a dog or rodent in a future life doesn’t really seem very likely, nor that much of punishment. There is a dark, cruel aspect to karma, one that is rarely discussed. Everything bad that happens to you is your own fault: the car accident that killed your loved one, the disease that ravages your body, everything. Karma says you deserve every moment of pain and anguish and terror in your life. As Robert Carroll notes in his book The Skeptic’s Dictionary, “Karma says that everybody is getting what he or she deserves. Even the child brutalized by drugged adults deserves the horror. The mentally ill, the retarded, the homosexuals and the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis deserved it for evil they must have done in the past. The slave beaten to within a breath of death deserved it, if not for what he did today, then for what he did in some previous lifetime. Likewise for the rape victim. She is just getting what she deserves. All suffering is deserved, according to the law of karma.” I suspect the woman in the coffee shop probably would reject the real idea of karma in favor of her own sanitized and misunderstood version. I didn’t expect her to be an expert on comparative religions, but if you claim a belief in (and support of) an idea, it implies you actually understand what you say you believe. Calling what she believes “karma” isn’t quite right. If you don’t believe you deserve all the pain in your life, you don’t believe in karma. If you don’t believe you will be reincarnated, you don’t believe in karma. Saying you believe in karma but not these tenets is like saying you believe in Christianity but not Jesus. People can, of course, believe whatever they like and call their beliefs whatever they wish, but if they’re going to make up their own idiosyncratic idea of karma that has little or no resemblance to its true meaning, they might as well say, “I believe in framoozle.”Furthermore, I’m not sure I trust someone whose life or actions are truly guided by karma, because I believe people are inherently good. If you think about it, the premise of karma is that people need to be threatened with cosmic retribution into good conduct: Don’t do evil, or else it will come back to you. How about just being good to others because it’s the right thing to do? Do people who believe in karma really need to be threatened into doing the right thing? What comes around goes around. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Take your pick. I’m in favor of the golden rule, and it is certainly true that our actions guide our lives. Just don’t call it karma.
Benjamin Radford has investigated mysterious and unexplained phenomena for more than a decade. He is a columnist for LiveScience.com and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His latest book is Lake Monster Mysteries , available at his website: www.RadfordBooks.com.