Is Karma King?


Historian Will Durant defined karma as "that universal law by which every act of good or of evil will be rewarded or punished in this life, or in some later incarnation of the soul."[1] Belief in this law may have had its roots in the Jewish culture of Solomon's time, or it may have been imported into Solomon's culture from earlier or neighboring cultures.

The Law of Karma is not exactly the same in Judaism as it is in Hinduism and Buddhism. The different versions of the concept relate to differing beliefs about life after death. The Jewish style of application may have naturally shifted when transplanted to a Hindu culture as Hindus adapted it to their way of thinking and integrated it with their other beliefs. Jews believed in a single life after death, if they believed in an afterlife at all, whereas Hindus believed in repeated reincarnation. It would have been an easy matter to extend the concept of good and bad consequences to the long view of many lives as opposed to one lifetime.

Hindus were captivated by the far-reaching implications of a belief in repeated reincarnation. If you believe you are the reincarnation of a prior being, who could have been some kind of animal, and you are an heir to the good or bad karma of that prior being, you look at the tragedies and good fortunes of your life quite differently than if you did not believe you could have existed previously. To a Hindu, the misfortunes of this life are most likely the result of bad deeds from one of your prior lives. Because of this belief, it is not uncommon in India for people to choose not to help someone who is struggling—to do so would be to interfere in the natural consequences of their bad karma. Buddha disagreed with this perspective, calling his followers to help those in need—not to subvert the workings of karma, but to practice compassion for all sentient beings.

Buddha assumed reincarnation as a fact, not something to wonder about. Karma is so key to Buddhism that Buddha's first two proverbs in the Dhammapada highlight it:
    All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.[2]

    All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.[3]
The apostle Paul also believed in karma: "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap."[4]

So it would seem that karma is king. If you can get Solomon, Buddha and Paul to agree on something, then it likely is so. However, Jesus made it clear that karma is not always king.
    Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him."[5]
Jesus then healed the man of his blindness, giving him sight for the first time in his life. Giving sight to the blind is cited in Isaiah 35:5-6 in the Old Testament as one of the miracles that the Messiah was prophesied to fulfill. So, his performance of this healing served as a witness that he was the Messiah. One of the times that karma is not king is when some higher purpose is being served than the basic working out of karma created by past actions.

We will see in the next upcoming blog article that there are many ways in which karma is not king, and that for the Christian, this is far more true than for the Buddhist. Just as an airplane transcends the law of gravity, by respecting yet overcoming its earthward pull, so the grace, mercy and forgiveness of God can overcome the debilitating drag of bad karma.


[1] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Part I: Our Oriental Heritage (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), 427.

[2] Dhammapada 1.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Galatians 6:7 (NKJV).

[5] John 9:1-3 (NKJV).
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