Is karma about why bad things happen to good people?

Continuing my reply to Evan Thompson, I will focus next on karma, because the reinterpretation of karma is central to my own eudaimonist Buddhism, and therefore it forms a focal point in Thompson’s critique. Karma is Thompson’s example of how I and other Buddhist modernists “recast Buddhist concepts in a way that makes them incongruent with their traditional meanings and functions.” Why? Thompson asserts that eudaimonism is not the core idea of karma, “if ‘core’ means what lies at the heart of the concept’s formation. On the contrary, the core problem, which drove the formation of the concept, is to explain why bad things happen to good people.”

I disagree entirely with this assertion.

Before I explain why, I think it’s helpful to first recall a basic point about the concept itself to avoid confusion. “Karma” as it is used in English, including in this conversation, means something a little different from the Sanskrit/Pali terms karma/kamma, which simply mean “action”. When we are referring to “karma” in English, we are really talking about karmavipāka or karmaphala (the “ripening” or “fruit” of action), or alternately about the paired concepts of puṇya/puñña for “good karma” and pāpa for “bad karma”, which identify the process by which the seed of action comes to ripen as a fruit.

So, what is the core of the idea of (English) karma, aka Sanskrit karmavipāka? Thompson appears to think that the “core” of an idea is constituted by the reasons that that idea first historically appeared, what “drove the formation” of the concept. I do not. As a philosopher, I am not primarily concerned with the philological question of origins. In my view, the philosophical core of Buddhist karmavipāka or puṇya/pāpa is the way that the concept functions in classical Buddhist ethical and other philosophical texts. I will turn to that functioning in an upcoming post. But first I do want to examine in more detail Thompson’s claim about questions that drove the concept’s formation.

For even if we are looking to the history of the formation of the concept of karmavipāka, as Thompson recommends, it is still simply not the case that the core problem which drove this concept “is to explain why bad things happen to good people.” To support that claim, Thompson links to Gananath Obeyesekere’s Imagining Karma. But Obeyesekere makes no such claim in that book! Obeyesekere’s argument in Imagining Karma is that concepts of “non-ethicized” rebirth predate those of karmavipāka; that is, the nature of rebirth originally (in the Vedas) had no connection to good or bad actions. We first start seeing the ethicized karmavipāka in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad, where the sage Yājñavalkya says “A man turns into something good by good action and into something bad by bad action.” But the question this is in response to is: “when a man has died… what then happens to that person?” (BaU 3.2.12-13, quoted on Obeyesekere 4) Here when the formation of the concept of karmavipāka is being driven, it is that question, the nature of the afterlife, which is being answered. By contrast, in this and other related passages in the early Upaniṣads, the question “why do bad things happen to good people?”, or anything analogous to it, is not asked.

I don’t think it should be a surprise that early Indian texts generally do not ask the question of why bad things happen to good people. Thompson points out the analogy of that question to theodicy in the Abrahamic traditions. But there is a reason theodicy is called theodicy: the question arises as a deep problem for those traditions because they posit an omnipotent omnibenevolent god. It seems obvious that such a being would be both able and willing to prevent the terrible sufferings that befall good people in the world, yet the manifest suffering of the world also makes it seem obvious that he is not actually doing so. I think that this problem is damning for these traditions, and it is a core reason I do not believe in their God or anything like him. In Indic traditions, on the other hand, no such being is posited, and so the question of theodicy is far less urgent. (Other questions pose considerably bigger problems for them – like, if there’s no self, who gets karmavipāka?) It so happens that if people in Indic traditions want an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people, they can have one, but they don’t need one. And so it should not be any surprise that such a question was not what historically drove the formation of concepts of ethicized rebirth and ethicized karma. Now Thompson is absolutely right to point out that eudaimonists do face an analogous problem to theodicy, and I will be addressing that point later this week – but for now the point is simply that no such problem ever drove the formation of the concept of karma.

All of this is the case centuries before Buddhism comes on the scene. By the time that it does, the ethicized doctrine of good and bad karma, tied to rebirth, has already long been operating, in both Upaniṣadic and Jain traditions and probably more. In the Indian context, karma is not a distinctively Buddhist doctrine. The Buddha takes the karma doctrine up, but it is what he does with it that is distinctively Buddhist – and that is to psychologize it! What appears in early Buddhist texts and does not appear in Jain or Upaniṣadic traditions is the identification of karma with cetanā, intention (as in the Nibbedhika Sutta and elsewhere). For the Buddha of the suttas, kamma, action, is no longer just a matter of a physical action and its effects, but of a mental state associated with it. That is why Jain monks wear masks and sweep brooms to avoid killing microbes (nigoḍa), and Buddhists do not: the killing of microbes is unintentional, and therefore Jains view it as karmically bad and Buddhists do not. The intentionality of karma, or lack thereof, is a theme that repeatedly shows up at the heart of Jain-Buddhist philosophical debates. So what the Buddha adds to preexisting discussions of karma – which had never been driven by theodicy-like questions – is exactly the psychological dimension.

There are some Buddhist texts that invoke puṇya/pāpa to explain a person’s fate. Obeyesekere refers to passages in the Majjhima Nikāya and in the Milindapañhā that ask “what is the cause and condition why human beings are seen to be inferior and superior?” (in the sense of short-lived and long-lived, ugly and beautiful, rich and poor, etc.) And the Buddha replies that the reason is their action (kamma). But not only do these passages come centuries later than the concept’s formation (and therefore do not drive it), they do not even ask “why do bad things happen to good people?” They are simply asking for an explanation of the fact that some people are better off than others; the goodness or badness of the people is part of the answer, not the question.

As noted, however, I don’t think the question of what drove the initial formation of the karma concept is the most helpful one to ask. In my view, that does not indicate what is at the concept’s core. Rather, its philosophical core has to do with its function in Buddhist philosophical texts. And so I stand by my original claim, “that the core idea of karma is also the core idea of eudaimonism: that an agent’s good actions and good states of character typically improve that agent’s well-being (flourishing, eudaimonia).” I will defend that claim next time.

Cross-posted on Love of All Wisdom.

4 Replies to “Is karma about why bad things happen to good people?”

  1. I think( based on some studies of Hindu views) :
    1. Karma correlates actions involving morality to their future rewards/punishments.
    2. “Karmaphalas “are always one of these three kinds,namely
    a. birth in rich/educated families
    b. flourishing in life
    c. duration of life , whatever may be the nature (good/bad ) of the actions.
    We may be tempted to add that the intentions behind the actions might play a role
    in determining the severity of karmaphalas.

  2. Pingback: Is karma about why bad things happen to good people? | Love of All Wisdom

    • Sure, but the difference for Jains is that if we don’t wear a face mask, we still get the bad karma for the microbes we kill even though it wasn’t intentional.

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