Karma — The Infallible Law
“Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” — Bible, Romans 4:3
It’s not a concept that seems to jive well with Christianity. It’s a Hindu term for starters, and means something vaguely akin to “action” or “doing”, although neither of those words completely do the word justice. It is, in a large sense, the concept that everything that happens is more or less your fault. Westerners don’t like that. Not at all. For a long time, and more so in recent years, Western culture has had “The Victim” for its centerpiece. Blacks and slavery, the conquest of the Amerindians, the legal oppression of homosexuals, the plight of the poor, the pity of the lower class, the wage slave… the list goes on. Westerners feel very much that bad things just happen people, more or less at random. A unique perspective on man’s place in the cosmos, to be sure. You know, historically speaking.
You’ll hear people speak of “winning the birth lottery” or “the genetic lottery”, implying that our station in life is more or less a dice roll. Some people, turns out, just roll snake eyes, and they have to work at McDonald’s. That’s how most of us seem to think anyway. Correcting these random imbalances that have happened to us, “leveling the playing field” has been the aim of Western Culture for many decades. Equality. Equity. “All men are created equal.” All of these ideas are based on a worldview which sees the cosmos as a fundamentally random place. A “Big Bang” cosmos that “just happens.” A cosmos where life is based on random mutation.
This is not Karma.
It’s not even remotely compatible with Karma.
I don’t care what the soccer mom with the Om tattoo says.
No. In India they had (still do really) a caste system. And this was right and just in their eyes because there was no such thing as a “birth lottery” or “the luck of the draw.” No. If you were born poor that was your own fault and the best thing you could do to better yourself was take responsibility for it. You know, goodness, what horrible evils must you have committed in a previous life to end up as a beggar in this one? And likewise if you were born a woman. I mean, really, why’d you go and do that for? You could’ve incarnated as a man if you’d been a bit better of a soul last go around. Born a slave? Well you must have deserved it. Must have been a right nasty fellow in your last life. Or what if you were born with a deformity? That’s also your fault. Get raped? Your fault. Get murdered? Your fault. That was/is really the view of things. Heck, the discourse in The Bhagavad Gita makes a strong case that there are no innocent victims. Sometimes Krishna speaks so eloquently about it that he even convinces me.
Karma is an infallible law of justice. As you sow, so shall you reap. Maybe in this life, maybe in another one. Doesn’t matter. Either way, everything is your fault. Your doing. Your action.
And this idea isn’t absent from the Bible. Not at all, and after a moment’s thought you realize quickly that this shouldn’t be surprising. The Middle East isn’t too far from India after all. Cultural and religious cross pollination was inevitable through trade and migration. The *word* karma doesn’t appear in the scriptures, naturally, but the idea is there all the same. It’s nothing more and nothing less than the idea that you have a debt. That’s all.
Karma is a debt.
Debtors to God
Debt is not a concept economists came up with. I loathe economists. Sham science, sham discipline. A statistics game for the servants of Mammon. They’re always wrong and never learn from their mistakes. I think probably because they don’t actually know what money is. Certainly they don’t know what debt is. See, debt preceded the invention of money. Economists don’t know that. The concept of debt was part and parcel with the concept of karma. If you harmed yourself or another, in any way, Justice demanded that you make up for it. This is the beginning of religion. The quest for Justice. The quest to make things right again after they have gone so terribly, terribly wrong.
In like fashion, ancient man realized that if someone did you a favor, you, in a very real sense, “owed him one” as well. But of course, it doesn’t take long on that line of thinking before you go up a step or too and realize that you must certainly owe God something. He created you after all. That’s a pretty big favor. And you must owe your parents too, for similar reasons. Honor thy father and mother and all that. The Upanishads go so far as to say that a man is born with three debts, simply by virtue of existing. One, a debt to the sages, from whom the knowledge he will be instructed in is passed down. Two, a debt to his parents and the ancestors for siring him. Three, a debt, most ultimately, to God for granting him life. “You don’t owe anyone anything,” is a common phrase in America. It’s not true.
Lest you think I am being too syncretic and trying to shoehorn karma into the Bible, no, this is really something the people of the Old and New Testaments believed. It’s why commandments like “Honor thy father and mother” and “Have no other gods before me” exist. It’s all about the paying back of what you owe. Every single one of the ten commandments is about not stealing, and not repaying a debt is of course a form of theft. Murder is the stealing of a life, adultery the stealing of a wife, idolatry the stealing of worship due to your creator, bearing false witness is a stealing of the truth, coveting is the desire to steal, and so on. Stephen King noted this in one of his novels actually, The Stand I think it was. Good book.
It goes further.
Even reincarnation was not off the table for the ancient Israelites, nor for the Jews of the New Testament nor even the disciples of Jesus. Elijah did come back in John the Baptist after all. Reincarnation doesn’t work quite like most people today imagine though, as a “spirit” and a “soul” are not the same thing. John received the spirit of Elijah, not his soul. But… the division of soul and spirit is a deep well. One we will have to talk about another time. The larger point here is that the idea that one’s station in life, and even the health or sickness of one’s physical body was because of your own personal action, your karma, is very present in the Bible.
“Now, I was a well-favored child, and I came by a noble nature; or rather, being noble, I attained an unblemished body.” — Wisdom of Solomon, 8:19-20
Or, as the disciples asked Jesus of the man born blind, “Who sinned? Did this man sin, that he was born blind, or did his parents (broadly, his ancestors)?”
Jesus blows apart the question, of course, but not for the reasons perhaps assumed.
Debts. Moral debts. If you were deficient in paying them back you might end up with a deficiency in your life, your station, or your body. That was your way of paying. Because, yes, while it was always best to pay your debts voluntarily, if you didn’t… well, the gods would ensure you did. Somehow or other. Everybody in the ancient world thought this. It’s basic to religion. It’s karma.
Okay But Now What?
The problem of course quickly becomes, “Well, what to do about it?” I mean, as anyone who has ever made an earnest effort to be good knows, it’s a bit of a bitch. We’re fallen creatures. We have trouble doing good. Our lusts and desires and passions drive us onward, even against our will and better judgements. As Saint Paul said, “I do not understand myself. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”
Try as we might, we keep incurring debts. I lie to my brother, or hold jealousy for my neighbor’s possessions in my heart, or I hate someone who wronged me, or I steal, or I dishonor my parents, or whatever it may be. There are ten thousand ways to sin, for that way is quite broad and easy to take. So how can we appease God? How can we clear our outstanding balance on the karmic credit sheet of the cosmos? Just how can we be sure that when we die we don’t have a load of baggage to deal with before the judgement seat? A load of debts?
Well, a lot of people tried a lot of different things.
Because that’s the whole aim of religion. That right there. Making sure you have a good cosmic credit score. Every religion in the ancient world more or less revolved around that, each of them coming up with various schemes to get out of the red. The Egyptians even envisioned the judgement as a literal scale. All your good deeds on one side and all your evil ones on the other. Which is heavier? Is your heart really lighter than a feather after all?
Creative and unique as all the cultures of the past were, any religion that thought about the problem long enough landed on more or less the same solution.
How do you get out of debt? How do you pay God (or the gods) back?
You give them sacrifice.
A tenth of what you make, the first fruits of your garden, the fattest calf, the most beautiful goat. You kill it and you set it on a fire and you burn it up into smoke so that it rises up into the air, the aether, the sky, where God is, so that he can receive it and mark it towards your righteousness. God has given you good things, or maybe you’ve stolen them, either way, give them back. That will help the debt. That will help your karma.
It was never enough.
It never is enough.
This was the problem of the pagan world. One they were constantly wrestling with. A Gordian Knot that simply could not be cut. Sacrifice all you want, be pious, do all the righteous deeds, still, still, we find that we can never quite be good enough. Oh, and mark you, the ancient world tried. They tried. They would have sacrificial bonanzas, killing thousands and thousands of animals, burning near all the crops on the alter. Still. The debt was too big. They felt that intuitively. They knew it. So… what do? Well, you move on to sacrificing people. The Aztecs, bloody and barbaric as they were, were simply trying to appease the gods. Strange as it is to say, all the tearing out of the hearts and so on came from a good place. They wanted to be righteous. The principle goal of the Aztec warrior was to make his heart as light as a feather so that he could reincarnate as a humming bird. A sacred animal because it was so free.
This is why The Law damns you by the way. That’s what Saint Paul was on about. The Law, the law of Moses, the natural law, Dharma, the law of God… it makes it very explicit what God wants and, by extension, very obvious that you don’t measure up.
“Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” — Saint Paul, Bible, Romans 3:20
Declared righteous. Declared not in debt. For thousands of years the Israelites and all the pagan world with them wrestled with this problem and tried to clear their karma by their own power. They found they couldn’t. The ancient world ran out of steam. The great god Pan was dead. Historians ask why paganism vanished, why Christianity steam rolled over the world both Old and New. Well, it is because Christ came on the scene and showed them a way out of that tangle of guilt. A way to cut that Gordian Knot. A righteousness not by works but by faith. Something doable. Something you might have a shot at.
But Christ, in his own words, did not by his coming negate The Law. No, he fulfilled it completely. He was a sacrifice big enough to clear the credit score of the cosmos because He was God himself. And thus The Law is fulfilled on the cross. The cosmic credit sheet is balanced. Karma is extinguished through Love.
The Man of Faith
This is a post about Abraham.
Perhaps it does not seem so yet. But you see, Abraham believed God and it was credited to him, as righteousness. Abraham was the first man to have faith in Christ. The first man to make the leap of faith beyond the confines of Dharma, The Law, to something higher. A sinful man. Flawed in every way. A warlord. A keeper of slaves. At times a coward. The father of a bastard. A man who put his mistress and her baby out into the desert alone to die. And perhaps… just perhaps… perhaps because he was so aware of his sin he was forced to believe in something greater than the law he’d so obviously failed to keep. Maybe this is why prisoners so often find Jesus. I don’t know.
So it was that on a hot day, many thousands of years ago, Abraham and his son walked alone up a mountain. They’d been traveling for three days, and were weary. Sweaty and tired. The boy carried wood upon his back up that hill, much as Christ would so many years later. The boy didn’t know it, but his father was intending to burn him on that wood. To wrap him up in ropes, to tie him down and stab him in the heart with a knife and light his corpse on fire. God had told him to do this. God, perhaps in the quiet of the night as Abraham laid down on his bed, whispered to him, and told him to sacrifice his son. The son he loved. The person he loved most of all in the whole world.
Did Abraham agonize over it?
Did he spend many a night in a cold sweat begging for God to speak again. To unsay what he had said?
Did he almost die from heartbreak?
I have no doubt.
But he did it. Why?
Please, please do not miss this. Abraham brought his son up the mountain to kill him, not because he believed he could clear his karma, his debt. No. He was not in this moment a proto Aztec, nor a prefiguration of the Carthaginians sacrificing their babies to the gods. Saint Paul, again, the wisest mystic of all scripture, tells us plainly in the letter to the Hebrews that Abraham did it because he reasoned that God could raise even the dead.
Because he believed in the resurrection.
Because he believed in something nobody else in the ancient world did. Something they thought was insane. Death was final. Everybody knew that. Oh, sure, something of you might come back, in a new body, with its memories erased, fine. But that you. That child. That particular baby boy that Abraham loved.
Not even the gods could bring him back.
Not even the Titans could escape Tartarus.
Death was greater than all the pagan gods and all the faith of the ancient world.
But Abraham, the man of faith, saw something higher. Something greater. He believed in a Love strong enough to conquer death, something that could at last break the cycle of our action, our karma, the weight of all our deeds. For the wages of sin, is death. Abraham knew that. Everybody did. Death is what we deserved. What we were owed. It was our karma.
But by faith Abraham knew God loved us more than that. That he was not a cosmic accountant. As Saint Paul again clarified, Love keeps no record of wrongs.
Forgive us our debts. As we forgive our debtors.
I found it impossible to discuss the life of Abraham without discussing the importance of Abraham. Thus this post might seem to some to be out of congress with the others which have heretofore followed a more linear progression in time. Abraham however, and the faith he founded, only makes sense in light of the karmic faith of the ancient world and Christ who overcame it. The details of Abraham’s story are in themselves endlessly fascinating and the reader is encouraged to delve into them more deeply. For our purposes here though, it is enough to understand why he matters, and what it is that he did. In the next installment we will progress the Biblical story forward to the Exodus, and the escape from slavery, the model of all human life.
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Another excellent post in this series! I really appreciate your expositions on scripture, and how you tie them in to other cultures and religions. It really gives a sense of just how out of touch with ancient wisdom and true spirituality modern mankind is. Your ability to tease these ancient truths out of the scriptures is truly astonishing. You touched on the soul/spirit distinction early on. I've encountered this concept recently in the old Orthodox theologians and it's new to me. In their view, as I understand it, the soul is the "active" or passionate, or lower part of our inner being while the spirit is the higher "contemplative" or vigilant part, which is capable of union with God. It's a "bridge" so to speak between the human nature and the divine nature. The spirit, our connection to God, must be ever vigilant so as to direct the actions of our soul towards the good. The soul in turn is what drives our physical bodies to action and governs our thoughts. I hope you at some point come back to that concept and give it an in-depth treatment. I would love to read your take on it.
I love how Abraham and Isaac "prefigure" God and Christ. You touched on it in passing. When I first heard a sermon on it as a young man it deeply moved me and caused me to begin to look at the Hebrew Bible in a much different way.
Please don't stop writing. This is the best stuff on the internet right now.