Theodicy is not the core of karma

I will close out this latest round of replies to Evan Thompson with a recap: It is simply not the case that karma “is fundamentally about” why bad things happen to good people (or vice versa). To try to portray karma in that way, it seems to me, requires more cherry-picking and selective quoting of sources than does portraying it as a form of eudaimonism. Obeyesekere’s study of the concept’s origins, which Thompson originally cited as his source, shows that its formation is in something quite different. The passages that Thompson quotes from Śāntideva do nothing to establish that karma for him is about why bad things happen to good people. The sociological studies that he now cites do not even claim to establish any such thing, and their evidence does not imply it either – so they would not establish this claim even if they had been studies of Buddhists, which they are not. Going by Thompson’s own sources – historical, philosophical and sociological – we see absolutely no reason to believe that the question of theodicy is or ever was at “the beating heart” of the karma concept, for Buddhists or anybody else. Actual anthropological studies of karma beliefs in context establish its core as something very different, just as Obeyesekere’s study itself does.

Why then does Thompson continue to insist that bad things happening to good people and vice versa – the core problem of Christian theodicy – is also the core problem of traditional Buddhist karma, when it has turned out multiple times that even his own sources provide no reason to believe this claim? Thompson himself is clearly deeply bothered by the fact that bad things happen to good people, which he calls “shocking and disturbing”, a “cosmic affront to our human sense of fairness”. It is hardly unreasonable to be bothered by this fact in this way, and Thompson is entitled to be so. What is not acceptable is to then reread this preoccupation back onto traditional Buddhist sources.

But it appears to be just such a rereading that Thompson wants to do. Thompson says that “from a position outside the world of the text” of the Upaniṣads, “using historical, anthropological, and cognitive scientific methods and evidence, we can redescribe the text as grappling with the question of why people are born into strikingly different fortunate and unfortunate circumstances, and why people experience strikingly different fortunes and misfortunes in their lives.” Sure, we can totally redescribe the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad’s relevant passage that way if we want to. We can also redescribe it in the terms of eudaimonism! Both are redescriptions. Thompson is clearly bothered by the fact that bad things happen to good people in a way that the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad just as clearly isn’t, and that’s fine. He can read his concern with that problem into the text as a way of helping himself address the problem constructively, and that’s also fine – but what he can’t legitimately do is pretend that that concern of his is the concern of the original text. Thompson says “This is the question that the ethicized idea of karma is supposed to answer.” No, it’s not – unless it is only him that is doing the supposing! That question is not there in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad itself and never was; it is only there in Thompson’s modern redescription of it. There is nothing wrong with such a redescription, but that redescription is at least as far from the original text as any eudaimonistic reading.

The Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad does not care about Thompson’s theodicean concerns, and it is a disrespect to the original text to pretend that it does. Thompson’s post-Christian theodicy is every bit as much a redescription, a rereading, a reinterpretaiton, as any rebirthless eudaimonist interpretation is. If what Thompson means to say is that 20th- and 21st-century social-scientific evidence gives us reason to think that the Upaniṣads were turning to karma to answer questions of theodicy, well, neither his sources nor mine establish that that is the core of karma beliefs in everyday Buddhist society even now – let alone giving us licence to read the concerns of 20th- and 21st-century people back on to ancient texts with the assurance that the intervening three thousand years made no significant difference in the way people think about anything. Obeyesekere, it is important to point out again, does not himself indulge in anything close to such a rereading. He is an anthropologist by trade, one who did most of his fieldwork in his home country of Sri Lanka, so he is extremely aware of how karma functions in that Buddhist society now – and, it bears repeating for a third time, he never once tries to claim that the original purpose of the rebirth doctrine, or its later ethicization in terms of karma, was to explain why bad things happen to good people. Obeyesekere does describe karma as an “eschatology”, but theodicy is not what he means by that term, nor is it what “eschatology” means in any other sort of theological discourse.

By contrast, Śāntideva claims multiple times that our good actions and habits bring good results to us (and vice versa), in this life and future ones. Thompson himself has agreed with an effectively eudaimonistic description of so-called “karmic eschatology” according to which, in his words, “in the long run—in the next life—people will receive the good results of their good actions, and the bad results of their bad ones.” Śāntideva agrees with this statement with one modification: the long run in which we get the results of actions does not only include the next life, but also this one. Śāntideva himself is a deterministic eudaimonist, and his eudaimonism can be deterministic because it does includes future lives. I do not believe in a future life, at least not one with the kind of ethical causality Śāntideva sees, and therefore my eudaimonism cannot be deterministic but must be probabilistic. To make the eudaimonism deterministic rather than probabilistic is indeed a departure from Śāntideva’s views, but the basic eudaimonism itself is contiguous with them. For that reason, I submit, reading Śāntideva’s view of karma as eudaimonistic is considerably less of a form of cherry-picking than is reading it as theodicy in the way Thompson wishes to do. I therefore reaffirm that my reading of karma is congruent with sources like Śāntideva’s texts (which are the important ones) – as much, anyway, as Śāntideva’s Mahāyāna is congruent with the teachings of the historical Buddha! (It is quite possible the move from early Buddhism through Mahāyāna through East Asia to modernism as a relatively continuous process of Descent.)

I am sensing that at the edges of Thompson’s critiques so far there may be a genuinely powerful Buddhist critique of eudaimonism to be made, one that has to do with eudaimonism doing an insufficient job of revaluating our life priorities – something, perhaps, to do with self-transcendence and the connection of the cosmos to the meaning of human lives. (Actual eschatology, as opposed to theodicy, can speak to such questions.) Thompson’s closing discussion of authenticity hints at such a critique, and I would be interested in hearing more critiques along that line. But I think that any such points have mostly gotten lost in the discussion so far, and will continue to get lost as long as Thompson continues to insist on the evidenceless claim that Buddhist karma is fundamentally about explaining why bad things happen to good people.

Cross-posted on Love of All Wisdom. I have now edited the index to our correspondence to reflect this latest round of replies.

8 Replies to “Theodicy is not the core of karma”

  1. It does not seem that karma as theodicy and karma as eudaemonism are mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary. But karma as theodicy does entail the concept of rebirth, which you seem to be at great pains to reject.

    • That’s all correct, Jeff. Karma as theodicy entails not only rebirth but ethicized rebirth – good actions producing good results in future lives and bad ones likewise – and even the Stevenson/Tucker kinds of evidence on rebirth shows no evidence for that.

  2. Can you think of any reason why -despite the fact that you could not find any textual reference supporting the claim- it is such a widespread popular opinion that karma is (at least in part) about “why bad things happen to good people”?

    Also, does not by logical contraposition at least follow that the absence of “positive revenue” discounts positive acts in one’s past?

    • I’ve wondered about a similar question before, and didn’t really have an answer. I do suspect it is a common human trait to desire justice so much that we invent it where there is none (the “just-world fallacy” that psychologists speak of). That desire surely didn’t hurt the formation of karma beliefs, though (as I’ve shown earlier in this correspondence) it was never the main or driving impulse behind them. I think that desire is considerably stronger among people who inhabit monotheistic traditions, since there the existence of cosmic injustice is a genuine problem (it makes little sense that an omnipotent omnibenevolent god would permit it) – and though Western readers of Indian traditions are less likely to be theists these days, their viewpoints are still shaped by a theistic history that insists on cosmic justice in some way. I think that that inheritance makes it tempting to view theodicy as a bigger part of Buddhist karma than it actually is.

  3. M.K. Gandhi’s interpretation of Bihar earthquake as God’s chastisement for the practice of Untouchability gives us a new insightful reading of the Law of Karma. Interestingly such an understanding constitutes the life-world of many ordinary Indians who are not bothered about the academic nitty-gritty of the question. In fact if philosophical reflection is understood prima facie to be a second-order activity, then Gandhi’s view is very significant as it beckons us down to the earth, the lived-life. Tagore critiqued Gandhi’s response as ‘unscientific’ and ‘fatalistic’ but Gandhi stood his ground. Later it was left to his grandson the Philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi to explore the nuances of Gandhi’s views ontologically.

  4. A few thoughts on theory of karma :
    We have a tendency to believe in scientific theories based on their explanatory powers and their predictive powers( which is their purpose).
    Similar to those theories,the theory of karma has a great explanatory power (of life`s paradoxes )and has a chosen purpose of building a morally sound society.Here the drawback is that it expects us to believe in “rebirth”,an unproven premise.But we know that it is not necessary for this belief to be true for deriving the theory`s targeted purposes.
    In conclusion,it means that our rationality is no way diminished if we entertain an uncertain metaphysical belief for their proven utility value.

  5. After reading this discussion, it seems like the analysis of karma could benefit from a more sensitive discussion of karma within a particular tradition. At times it seems like the discussion revolves around the role of karma in Buddhist traditions, specifically Śāntideva’s, while at others it seems to be about karma in general. I am unfamiliar with Thompson’s discussion, but it seems questionable to me to make any sweeping claims about the role of karma in South Asian traditions in general. For example, Upaniṣadic formulations should likely be distinguished from Buddhist ones and Buddhist ones from those of the 6 darśanas. There are clear passages in some early Upaniṣads, such as Chāndogya, that discuss karma as the reason why things happen in general; why some are born brahmins while others are not. While this is not quite an endorsement of the theodicy view, it is clearly meant to explain why things happen as they do, which would include the answer to why bad things happen to good people.

    • I agree that it’s not very helpful to have a discussion of karma-in-general. My concern is and always has been with Buddhism, and I think the amount of light that discussions of non-Buddhist karma can shed on that is limited at best. I’ve been talking about non-Buddhist karma because Thompson has, in order to show just how baseless the idea that theodicy is the heart of karma is. But even if it could be shown that theodicy was the core concern of non-Buddhist karma (which, again, I don’t think it can), that wouldn’t matter unless we could show that that was actually true for Buddhists.

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