What is the problem of evil? What is the theory of karma, as understood within Hinduism? Do you think that the theory of karma is a satisfactory or compelling response to the problem of evil?

Hinduism tackles the issue of evil much differently to Abrahamic religions in that there is no ‘original sin’ but rather an infinite regress of action and reaction (or Karma). Since Hindu’s believe life to be a series of discontinued conscious awareness stringed together by one’s self or atman rather than an eternal conscious soul, most believe that karma is carried with one’s atman and can be allocated to one at any lifetime in any life cycle.  This brings about obvious moral and ethical issues since one can never truly know why or when they are being made to suffer and some are seemingly pre-disposed to an eternity of suffering if they react in a bad manner to their circumstances.  However, there are also positive aspects to Hinduism and the Karmic theory that Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) lack, such as, the varied ways of finding fulfilment and the different Deities that one can worship as well as attempts to answer questions that all three religions are neither able to answer or approach.

The problem of evil is dealt with differently in different religions. In contrast to Abrahamic religions where ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ is totally controlled by a central God figure and he/she decides why a person suffers or has bad experiences, Karmic theory suggests that the bad experiences we have in each lifetime can be controlled on an individual basis since they are caused by our own behaviours and actions. It is essential to note that Karma is not a substitute for divine justice. Rather, Chadha and Tarakakis (Karma and the Problem of Evil: A response to Kaufman, 2007) suggest that, “God is not an essential part of the Karmic cycle”, and therefore, “it is wrong to conceive of the Karmic model of justice and divine justice.”The main issue that Karma theory brings is that it threatens Abrahamic notions of God being the ultimate controller and banisher of everything ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. Karmic theory suggests that each individual does not need a God figure to be the controller or banisher of evil. Adding to this notion of self-responsibility is the lack of a central ‘evil’ figure or the Devil, which further suggests that human’s are responsible for ‘evil’ just as much as they are responsible for ‘good’  (therefore adding to the notion that perhaps human beings have the ability to live their life without any belief or reliance on God).

Karma can be viewed at a basic level as the principle of action-reaction, that is, whatever you do has a consequence whether good or bad and most likely will be good if you’ve done a good deed or bad if you’ve done a bad deed. However, Hinduism takes the idea a step further and suggests that karma follows you throughout lifecycles, attached to your atman or soul and determines what you become in the proceeding lives as reincarnation occurs. Karma can be viewed in three stages, “Sancita, which denotes all the accumulated Karma of the past[1],  “Prarabdha, which refers to the karmic residues that shape the physical, social, and spiritual condition of each person”[2] and “Agami, or the residues that will be acquired on account of one’s future actions.”[3] In the same way that Abrahamic religions have the ultimate goal of heaven at the end, Hindu’s aim to reach a state of karma that leads them to moksha – the release from samsara (the cycle of reincarnation).

There are various issues with the theory of Karma, as outlined by Whitley Kaufman in Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil (2005).Although Kaufman mentions five problems, there are three that stand out the most in terms of moral and ethical value. First, the theory of Karma seemingly fails to teach or show one consequences that occur when something immoral is done. Since there is no continuity in consciousness throughout lifecycles, there is essentially no way for one to learn from their mistakes. This raises further ethical questions since karma is carried through lifecycles and can cause one to suffer in one lifetime for something they have no recollection of doing. As quoted in Kaufman’s article, Christmas Humpherys contention summarises the dilemma brought by karma exactly – “[the] injustice of our suffering for the deeds of someone about whom we remember nothing.”[4] In argument against this, Chadha and Tarakakis contest that “we do not need to commit crimes before we can learn that murder is wrong or that rape is despicable”[5] since, as children, “we are introduced to morals of our society through stories and fables that reiterate the point that good is rewarded and bad is punished.”[6]

Whilst Chadha and Tarakakis raise an important point, personal experience is invaluable. Although children are told about ‘good’ and ‘bad’, it is usually the experience and feelings that come from doing something ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that makes a child act in a way to avoid adverse situations and feelings.  This is most easily seen through playtime where young children not only develop their senses but also learn to form relationships and being to realise the part they play in the wider world and what is appropriate behaviour. When they hurt others, they learn that there are consequences in terms of external punishment but also learn about human emotion as they see the consequences of their action when their peer cries or is angry with them. Secondly, Karma theory seems to lack proportionality in terms of action-reaction. Since there is no conscious awareness of past lives, no one is really able to determine if what they’ve done in a past life warrants their present suffering. This dilemma points to a highly unethical premise since it’s almost as if each person’s suffering is due to factors beyond their control given that their present selves are not at all responsible for the suffering that they’re experiencing at the present moment. This idea turns especially gloomy when birthrights are taken into account since we know that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be involved in negative situations, which in turn, will affect their karma and lifetimes to come. Taking the example of people whom were involved with slavery provides another example of how troubling this contention is since Karma theory would suppose that the slaves were in fact responsible for their own fate rather than being apart of human evils. Furthermore, those who conducted slavery would have to face bad karma in lives to come regardless of their personal viewpoint and fears since they were ultimately involved in the causation of human suffering regardless of the fact that discriminatory behaviour was not viewed as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ but ‘just’ and ‘fair’. The same applies to today’s standards where homosexuals are treated unfairly and are often victims of other’s prejudices. They could ultimately be viewed as ‘bad’ since their suffering is an obvious bout of ‘bad’ Karma and those that discriminate against them also often believe that what they’re doing is right since they are taught that homosexuality is bad through transferred personal views and religions doctrine.

Taking these issues into account, it also important to discuss why Karma theory offers a more positive approach to the idea of redemption than Abrahamic religions do. Unlike Christianity, Islam and Judaism, which require a stringent belief that humans are to serve a central figure (God) and follow strict guidelines which are universal, Hinduism provides various ways that one can achieve enlightenment through worship of various Gods or one central God if so desired.  Furthermore, there are various paths to achieving enlightenment –including the path of Karma Yoga (“the Way of Works”[7]). Additionally, Karma theory proposes a more personal and controlled way of tackling the issue of evil since individual’s are ultimately responsible for their own fate rather than a reliance on God to find them worthy of ‘blessings’. It provides an answer to why there is suffering in the world, which other religions struggle to answer since the central God figure is just and loving – often raising the question of why he/she allows children to suffer despite being new/sinless souls according to Abrahamic religions.

Furthermore, as suggested above, Karmic theory suggests, to a certain degree, that living creatures on Earth play an even greater role in the order of life and the production of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ than understood and points to a notion that perhaps free will can surpass the notion of God since living creatures have the ability to control ‘good’ and ‘evil’. If everyone did manage to do their dharma then sure there would be a decrease in suffering as more atman will attain moksha.

Essentially, the theory of Karma is subjective since it faces the same issues in terms of validity as theories in other religions. Because there is no exact way to know if the theory is in fact ‘real’, it has to be approached with the same openness and to a large extent blind faith that other religious theories require. Looking at the issue of ‘evil’ particularly, a certain level of subjectivity is also involved since one man’s ‘evil’ is not necessarily another’s – for example, while some (like Kaufman) view death as the ultimate evil, other’s (such as Chadha and Tarakakis) view death as something that could be interpreted more widely and in many cases could be a good thing. However, no matter which way you approach the theory of Karma, it can be viewed as an essentially satisfactory approach to the issue of evil since its goal for its follower is a path of betterment and aims to eliminate suffering in the world by requiring each person to act in a manner that is both morally and ethically sound and to take responsibility for their own actions.

Bibliography

John Hick, Death and Eternal Life (Glasgow: Collins, 1976), Ch.16.

Nick Trakakis and Monima Chadha, “Karma and the Problem of Evil: A Response to Kaufman”, Philosophy East & West 57 (2007): 533-56.

Warren Matthews, World Religions, 5th edition (Belmont :Thomson, 2007), ch.3.

Whitley Kaufman, “Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil”, Philosophy East and West 55 (2005):15-32.

Whitley Kaufman, “Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil: A Reply to Critics,” Philosophy East & West 57 (2007): 556-60.


[1] Nick Trakakis and Monima Chadha, “Karma and the Problem of Evil: A Response to Kaufman”, Philosophy East & West 57 (2007): p.539.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Whitley Kaufman, “Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil”, Philosophy East and West 55 (2005):

[5] Nick Trakakis and Monima Chadha, “Karma and the Problem of Evil: A Response to Kaufman”, Philosophy East & West 57 (2007) p. 536.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Warren Matthews, World Religions, 5th edition (Belmont :Thomson, 2007), ch.3.

p.79.

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