Karma in society

Last time I explained why I think a constructive modern Buddhist philosophy should indeed focus on Buddhist philosophical texts as its sources for karma, and I stand by that. Yet ironically, even if we were to turn away from philosophy to karma’s functioning in society, as Thompson now recommends, we would then notice that even his sources for that point themselves do not establish what he claims they do: i.e. that “the concept is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa”. Just as Obeyesekere never made that claim historically, these sources do not make the claim sociologically.

The sources in question are three articles about karma, all by his UBC colleague Cindel White with some coauthors. Contra Thompson’s claim, these studies do not indicate that the Buddhist concept of karma “is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa”, even in the sociological context of everyday Buddhism. This is for two key reasons.

Most obviously, none of these studies are studies of Buddhists! The first, White et al. 2017, is not actually a study of how karma functions, but simply a research agenda for future such studies, inquiring about how it may function. The second, White et al. 2018, is a study of Canadian undergraduates, most of whom identify as Christian or nonreligious, and second of Indians of whom 0.2% were Buddhist. The third, White & Norenzayan 2019, is a large-scale comparative literature review. It stretches credulity to take any of these as sources on what karma means in Buddhism. None of them even claim to be about that. Non-Buddhist conceptions of karma are relevant when the question at issue is karma’s origins (as in Obeyesekere), since they are what Buddhist concepts of karma developed from, but after the Buddha created a distinctively Buddhist (more psychological) conception of karma, what would matter in determining the “beating heart” of the karma doctrine is what karma means for Buddhists. It matters very little what other karmic traditions think about it. It matters not at all what people think about related issues who do not even use the concept of karma, and it is those people who represent most of the subjects of White’s studies.

I could stop there, but I think it’s still worth noting further that even if we were to look for karma’s core among non-Buddhists (which, again, we should not do in a discussion like this) – even in that context, these studies still do not claim what Thompson says they do! That is: “In the case of karma, such studies indicate that the concept is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa (White et al. 2017; White et al. 2018; White & Norenzayan 2019)”. They indicate no such thing. White et al. 2017 (“What are the causes and consequences of belief in karma?”) simply establishes a research agenda, outlining questions about beliefs and practices that they deem karmic, questions that “it would be interesting to investigate”; they do not claim to provide answers to those questions. White et al. 2018 (“The content and correlates of karma across cultures”) – the only one in which the authors performed an actual empirical study (and again, not a study of Buddhists) – creates an analytic concept of karma that includes theodicy in the definition. The questions that they use to measure karma include several along the lines of “When people are met with misfortune, they have brought it upon themselves by behavior in a past life”. They conclude that belief in the different items of their questionnaire are correlated with each other – establishing at most that belief in karma typically includes a theodicy of this sort. It establishes nothing to the effect that karma “is fundamentally” about theodicy. Finally, the literature review in White & Norenzayan 2019 notes “Around the world, people believe in a multitude of supernatural causes for misfortune” (5), and indicates that karma is among them. That is true. I’ve never denied that theodicy is a function that karma sometimes serves, among Buddhists and others – but it too does nothing to establish that karma “is fundamentally” about theodicy. The authors never make any such claim about what karma “is fundamentally”, nor do they ever imply one – even among the non-Buddhists whom they study, let alone the Buddhists whom they don’t. So, it is entirely false that “such studies indicate that the concept [of karma] is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa”, even among irrelevant non-Buddhists, let alone among the actual Buddhists who are the only ones relevant to a discussion of being congruent with Buddhist sources on karma.

If we must turn to social science for the question of whether an interpretation of karma is congruent with Buddhist tradition, then we should instead look to thick anthropological studies of actual Buddhists in relatively traditional settings. There, we can see how karma functions in the minds of traditional Buddhists themselves, rather than of Canadian sociologists trying to propose a cross-traditional quantitative analytical concept. This is what I have previously done with Melford Spiro‘s study of Burmese Buddhists, which led Spiro to the distinction between kammatic and nibbanic Buddhism. Spiro notes that for the Burmese karma does sometimes serve the function of explaining people’s current status, but it is not primarily that. Even in that explanatory context, they are still not asking the general question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And in general they spend less time thinking of karma in an explanatory context and more thinking of it in terms of the future results of their own actions, to the point that they sometimes even keep “merit accounting books” to keep track of the good karma they have accumulated for their future well-being.

I might also note in passing that, despite their being in a (non-Buddhist) tradition that accepts karma and rebirth, when my own traditional Indian relatives (devotees of Ganesh) had to deal with the question of why bad things happen to good people in a tragically personal way – specifically, when my cousin died young in a motor accident – they explained the fact not in terms of bad karma from a past life, but in terms of the supernatural agency of a statue that had been improperly blessed. They clearly did need a theodicean explanation, they had easy access to the karma doctrine, they could have used karma for that purpose – and they didn’t.

So, while I again insist that a philosophical discussion should focus on philosophical texts, I’ll reiterate: even if we do turn to social science for a discussion of karma’s core, we still do not have any reason to believe that that core is the question of why bad things happen to good people.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

One Reply to “Karma in society”

  1. Who is responsible to make us good, better, best? Religion is not just philosophical discussions among the intelligentsia as Comparative Religions! Academia & Religions must learn to work together to inspire us to be good, by commitment to ethical and righteous conduct while working unselfishly together, for good of society as a whole, not just by dividing societies into mine vs not mine.
    What are the basic Principles of any and all Religions? To help and inspire us to get established in the habit and discipline of daily self-development practices, e.g. prayers, meditations, self-reflection, working in a spirit of worship for the good of the whole humanity, etc. Who else but HU could take a lead in ensuring that education 1st focuses on making the ‘good’ only then knowledge. Isn’t IQ without character & wisdom dangerous?

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