The doctrine of karma is sometimes interpreted as a system of cosmic justice. God is the chief prosecutor enforcing his laws through reward and punishment. Suffering is divine retribution for sin, and sin is disobeying God’s commands.
With this interpretation of karma, it follows logically that people deserve to suffer. Their suffering is a just punishment for unknown moral crimes they’ve committed, either in this life or a previous one.
But this interpretation is a misrepresentation of the doctrine of karma. It imposes an Abrahamic idea of God onto the dharmic conceptual framework.
Karmic reactions aren’t a system of justice. No one is being punished by God and no one deserves to suffer.
In the dharmic view suffering is an unnatural state of existence. The natural state of consciousness is bliss (ananda). Bliss is the positive expression of consciousness and suffering is the absence of bliss.
Rather than reward or punishment, karma is natural law, a description of the natural movement inherent in reality. There is no moral blame or praise involved in the operation of a natural law.
Karma as a law of nature
The word karma means action. Karma is a doctrine about the laws of causation in the mental or conscious realm. We’re all familiar with the natural laws describing the physical world. We understand that if we jump from a cliff, the force of gravity will cause us to suffer the pain of broken bones.
But we don’t think gravity is punishing us for committing a crime and we deserve the suffering. The pain and suffering come from the laws which govern the action of bodies moving through space-time. There is no punitive justice system being enforced.
If a child places their hand on the stove and suffers the pain of burns, we don’t think they deserve to suffer. Their ignorance of the laws of nature caused their action, and the operation of the natural laws caused the suffering. There is no blame or punishment being inflicted. The child hasn’t committed a crime.
Rather than seeing suffering as something wrong with us, the dharmic view is that we’re in an unnatural state, a negative state of consciousness. Consciousness is knowledge and it’s negative state is ignorance. Ignorance causes suffering. Remove the ignorance and the cause of the suffering is also removed. Once the child has the knowledge that fire causes pain, they won’t touch the stove.
The dharmic view of reality
In the dharmic framework action and reaction happen according to natural laws, no intervention by God is required. Our free actions aren’t something God judges and then enforces punishment or reward. There is only the natural reaction to our actions, cause and effect.
In Hinduism the foundation of existence is a substance known as Brahman, which is spirit. Brahman is composed of eternal, conscious, bliss (sat, chit, ananda). Both the soul and God are made of this substance. Brahman is the fabric of reality like space-time is the fabric of the physical world.
This spiritual substance is conscious and so it also has will. God’s will is the ultimate cause of all movement. God is omnipotent, which means his will is always effective. Everything in existence moves within the fabric of God’s will, just as in the physical world everything moves within the fabric of space-time.
The movement of our will should be in harmony with God’s will because that is the natural order of reality. But we also have free will, and sometimes we choose to move against God’s will. We disregard the universal will and move according to our selfish will.
Movement that isn’t aligned with the universal will is a distortion of the natural order. The movement is not aligned with God. God is bliss, so movement not in alignment with God’s will causes not-bliss, or suffering.
Transcending both good and bad karma
Even when we understand that karma isn’t a justice system, many people think the goal is to achieve good karma and avoid the bad karma. Good karma is action which causes material pleasure and bad karma is action which causes suffering.
While everyone wants to avoid suffering, in the dharmic framework both good and bad karma are undesirable. Both pleasure and suffering entangle us in the material world.
From the absolute perspective pleasure is a more dangerous trap than suffering, it will bind us more firmly to this world. If we experience suffering, we’re motivated to try and understand how to get free of it. No one becomes attached to suffering.
But we become attached to the source of our pleasures and our attachment binds us tightly to the world. We continually seek out material pleasures as if they were the solution to suffering.
According to dharma the only cure for suffering is transcending both good and bad karma. Both types of actions bind you to the material world. You must reincarnate to enjoy the good karma as well as the suffering of the bad karma.
Reincarnation involves the unavoidable suffering which accompanies a physical body. Birth, death, disease and old age. The goal is liberation (moksha), freedom from all karmic reaction and therefore all suffering.
Cause and effect in the mental realm
The karmic causal chain in the mental realm starts with a movement of thought. This is called vritti, which literally means “whirlpool”. These thought waves are disturbances or movements within consciousness.
Once a thought wave leaves the conscious mind it sinks to leave an impression in our subconscious. These subtle impressions are called samskara, which means “well-planned action”.
Intentional actions, where we focus our thought and will, create the strongest impressions in our psyche. When these actions and thoughts are repeated, they reinforce the mental impressions. This creates the habits and dispositions that form our psyche.
The psyche we create in turn moderates our future thoughts, perceptions and actions. This is how our karma, our physical and mental action, creates our future self. As we act, the world reacts. Our thoughts and actions cause effects, both physical and mental.
The fruits of our actions
Karma is compared to a seed. It needs certain conditions to sprout and grow and it takes time to bear its fruit. Some actions need to be repeated to create the desired effect, others are instantaneous.
If you place your hand in the fire the burn is immediate. Other actions take longer to produce their effects. If we take drugs it takes time to produce the effect of intoxication. Repeated drug taking creates a habit or addiction.
That addiction then affects our perceptions of the world and our actions. Under the influence of an addiction our freedom of action is restricted by our thoughts and desires. Addiction affects our perceptions, desires and actions. We create a type of mental prison for ourselves.
The analogy of a drug addict is a more accurate way to understand the cause of our suffering due to karma than as a punishment we deserve for moral crimes. A drug addict doesn’t deserve punishment, they’ve committed no crime.
Their situation should cause us to feel sympathy and a desire to help them, not condemnation. Their situation is caused by pursuing pleasure without understanding the repercussions. Their earlier choices have slowly entangled them in forces beyond their control.
Intentional acts created their suffering and only intentional acts can cure their disease. The solution isn’t to punish a drug addict. They need to willingly seek a cure. They’ll only do this once they understand the actions they thought would bring them pleasure, also cause suffering and degradation.
While there is some pleasure associated with the intoxication, it’s accompanied by unavoidable suffering as well. Once the addict realizes the excessive cost of that pleasure, they’ll intentionally act to regain their freedom.
Empowering our choices
This general karmic principle applies to all mental acts. Karma isn’t a fatalistic system which punishes us for unknown crimes, it’s the mechanism which empowers us to create our own destiny.
Every thought and action we take determines the type of person we become. With every thought and deed, we plant the seeds of our future self and our future perception of reality.
Rather than viewing people as victims of an opaque cosmic justice system, the doctrine of karma empowers us to create our future selves. We all face different conditions in our lives, and some of us have challenges that seem unfair.
We have limited power to change our external circumstances, sometimes it’s completely out of our control. But we always have the power to choose how we react to those circumstances. The thoughts we repeatedly focus on and the intentional actions we perform, have the power to change our future.
Our past choices of how to live and relate to the world culminate in the person we are today. The choices we make today create the person we will become.
Each thought and action, regardless of how insignificant it seems, creates its impact and leaves its impression both on us and the world. Karma is a doctrine of individual empowerment, not victim blaming.