Karma & Suffering
By Darryl E Berry Jr
Published: 6/10/2020 | Updated: 7/14/20
A scenario was presented at the end of the recorded lecture “Karma & Suffering (B)” in which a child, who is dying of thirst, happens upon the meager water cache of a small family that happens to be away at the time (Hoofard, 45:30-47:20). The question is – given that according to Hinduism, karma will punish the child for stealing the water and causing harm to the family – if it’s too difficult for the child to make the honest choice is it then unjust for karma to punish him further, i.e., with an even worse and more difficult next lifetime (Hoofard, 49:25-33)?
“If anyone ever got to that point where we could not reasonably expect them to choose the right thing because they’re in such a devastating circumstance… that means the next time they are probably going to come back in an even worse situation. And if this situation was too much to ask and expect them to do the right thing the next situation is going to be even worse. We can’t expect them do the right one there. It’s like you’re circling the drain getting lower and lower and lower. How can you ever pull out of it” (Hoofard, 48:10-37)?
Hoofard goes on to mention a charge I’ve seen levied against Christians in relation to Christianity many a times – that this hypothetical thirsting Sudanese boy might never have even heard of karma and doing good in this lifetime to ensure better karma next lifetime (Hoofard, 49:00-18). Just as someone from any culture prior to about two millennia ago might not have heard about the man we often refer to as Jesus Christ. How can they even consider getting “saved,” right?
Philosophically speaking – regarding the idea of subsequent lives being harder and thus even more difficult regarding the karmically established trials one must face – I suggest that over time the being and will gets stronger. The first analogy that comes to mind is weightlifting. The first day a bodybuilder trains they might not be able to lift 300 pounds of weight. But starting where they are, they build up and get stronger. But alas, they still can start somewhere – with a lighter weight. The child could either steal water or not, whether some or all of it. And the scenario presented is, it’s too hard for him not to steal water. Even if he steals a lighter amount of water there’s still more karmic debt, and a slightly worse life (unless balanced out by other deeds in that life, perhaps; an alternative I’ll discuss).
Perhaps we can refer instead to something more relevant, like pullups. I remember times when I’ve tried to do a pullup but couldn’t. But I kept trying and after so many days I could, and then could do multiple. And the same thing with people doing pushups. I propose that, given the above scenario, philosophically speaking, the atman would become ‘stronger’ in a sense in future lives, and thus more able to choose a more karmically sound response. This (or something just as practical) would have to be the case; otherwise, only those who ever had only good karma – or at least above a certain amount of bad karma – would ever be able to achieve moksha. And conversely, everyone with bad karma of a certain degree, and thus experiencing an exceedingly difficult lifetime, would inevitably have worse and worse karma and thus worse and worse lives. I present an argument to illustrate:
- If making karmically sound choices leads to good karma and better life conditions,
- And if not making karmically sound choices leads to bad karma and worse life conditions,
- And if good karma leads one to exit samsara via moksha,
- And if bad karma leads one to even more difficult life experiences,
- If life experiences of a certain difficulty make it impossible to make karmically sound choices,
- Then those with a certain difficulty of life experiences will inevitably remain stuck in samsara.
But to the contrary, it seems that Hinduism philosophy entails that everyone can and eventually will reach Brahman: “From BRAHMAN our soul has come and to BRAHMAN it will ultimately return, in a reunion called MOKSHA” (Haecker, 10). Therefore, it must be possible for everyone to respond karmically soundly to their life situations. That means however difficult those live situations are, and if not this lifetime then next lifetime. It must ultimately be possible for everyone, regardless of how bad karma gets, and thus how difficult life circumstances get, to make karmically sound choices and thus generate good karma, and eventually achieve moksha or liberation from samsara.
I must state that my perspective is no doubt influenced by my adherence to (to the extent I can) and my experiences through (a few of which being quite profound) the teachings of A Course in Miracles (ACIM), which state that:
“You are not persecuted, nor was I. You are not asked to repeat my experiences because the Holy Spirit, Whom we share, makes this unnecessary. To use my experiences constructively, however, you must still follow my example in how to perceive them. My brothers and yours are constantly engaged in justifying the unjustifiable. My one lesson, which I must teach as I learned it, is that no perception that is out of accord with the judgment of the Holy Spirit can be justified. I undertook to show this was true in an extreme case, merely because it would serve as a good teaching aid to those whose temptation to give in to anger and assault would not be so extreme. I will with God that none of His Sons should suffer… The message of the crucifixion is perfectly clear: Teach only love, for that is what you are.” (ACIM, T-6. I. 11, 13).
Regarding the proposed situation, it would mean that someone fully embodying these principles, even in the face of physical death, would respond with love. This section of the course specifically mentions anger, but the principle applies equally to fear, and greed, and scarcity.
A Course in Miracles doesn’t address what actions to take in the world, but simply informs us that no scenario would or even could ever cause us to respond fearfully. The world from the course’s perspective is our own illusory projection (ACIM T-21.in.1, T-18.I.4). And thus, being our effect, the world has no influence upon us regardless of how well we make it seem to be the contrary.
“In gentle laughter does the Holy Spirit perceive the cause, and looks not to effects. How else could He correct your error, who have overlooked the cause entirely? He bids you bring each terrible effect to Him that you may look together on its foolish cause and laugh with Him a while. You judge effects, but He has judged their cause. And by His judgment are effects removed. Perhaps you come in tears. But hear Him say, “My brother, holy Son of God, behold your idle dream, in which this could occur.” And you will leave the holy instant with your laughter and your brother’s joined with His.” (ACIM, T-27.VIII.9)
This of course seems a tall order from our everyday perspective – that is, looking past the apparent experience of being moments from dying of thirst. But given that the phenomenal world is an illusory effect, then recognizing its lack of affect upon our inner peace simply becomes a matter of choice. And having made that choice, neither fear nor pain of death would remain to drive any action or inaction. The inner choice for peace doesn’t address whether the child would or wouldn’t steal the water. It’s simply that having made that choice, only inner peace would remain, and thus whatever choice is made wouldn’t be a fear-based decision. Karma doesn’t exist as such from the course’s perspective, as the focus is on our thinking rather than our actions. The course recognizes that different and even apparently disparate actions can equally be expressions of peace and love given the scenario.
What someone totally in peace and love would do in that scenario I can’t exactly say. For one – while I do have my moments – I’m not perfectly in peace and love. And two, I’ve never been in that situation. And again, the course doesn’t specify actions. Perhaps the person would die. Perhaps steal the water. Perhaps wait until the family returns, and – if still alive when they do – ask to share the water and work together to find more. Or ask to work to replace whatever he had already drank to stay alive. But whatever decision is made would still be from a place of inner peace and fearlessness and love.
That would be a ‘perception that is in accord with the judgment of the Holy Spirit,’ to paraphrase a verse from the first quoted ACIM section. Such a perception is an interpretation or choice made from a place of inner peace and love. Such a choice, using Hinduism terminology, would be a karma free or karma alleviating or good karma yielding choice; and that again is however it looks or plays out in the world. The point is that, however bad the scenario, from the course’s perspective at least, it’s never so bad that it’s ultimately impossible for what could be in Hinduism termed a karmically good choice to be made. And as quoted from Haecker, it seems the precepts of Hinduism would agree (10).
And to the point I touched upon briefly: Surely, that incident in the life of the child, however few years he may have lived, isn’t the only incident he’s lived, nor the only choice he’s had to make. Who’s to say how many karmically good choices he made until that point? It seems entirely possible that that choice – if he fearfully or greedily stole the water – could have been the only karmically bad choice he made that entire lifetime. It’s entirely possible, as I understand the Hinduism karma concept, that he could still be balanced more towards good karma overall that lifetime, and end up with a better life scenario next lifetime – even if he steals the water with the worst of intentions. The thought then comes, can people then just do some good stuff to balance out the bad stuff they’re planning to do? In my understanding thus far, it seems that having such a karmically bad intention for karmically good actions negates the good karma of those actions. But I’m no expert on Hinduism.
Hoofard, Nathan Michael. “Karma & Suffering (B)”. YouTube upload, 2 Jun. 2000, https://youtu.be/6OGjsiajW7E.
Haecker, Dorothy A. Adventures in Philosophy: A Study of Ideas That Change the World, edited by Peter Van Dusen, 4th ed., Dorothy A. Haecker, 2020, p. 10.
Schucman, Dr. Helen. A Course in Miracles (ACIM), 3rd ed., Foundation for Inner Peace, 2007, Text Chapter 6. Section I. Paragraphs 11 & 13; Text Chapter 21. Introduction. Paragraph 1; Text Chapter 27. Section VIII. Paragraph 9.
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