Thursday, October 22, 2009

Getting what we deserve?


The concept brings to mind the ‘pay it forward’ idea that was recently made into a movie and the delightfully fun TV show, My Name is Earl. But is it really so simple? Do we truly “reap what we sow” for every single action or thought? Can the concept of Karma, so rooted in Eastern thought and tradition, be combined with Chrisitianity? Is it, in fact, actually present in the teachings of Jesus? These are the questions that author Mark Herringshaw seeks to answer in his book, The Karma of Jesus, structured within a conversation he had with a questioning young man.

Getting what we give makes sense on many levels. If we are kind to others, most of them are inclined to be kind back. If we are unkind or rude, they are inclined not to help us when we have need and to snub us when they have that chance.

This basic idea is present in most major religions and is believed to have originated in Shramanic thought. It can be simply described as the belief that past actions have impact on the present and future. Life was seen as the time to ‘get it right’ and each person would be reincarnated to go through many lifetimes until they reached perfection. With correct conduct and behavior, a person may escape the cycle of reincarnation. Buddhism developed from these early Indian beliefs. Siddhartha Gautama was the founder of Buddhism and a follower of Sramana philosophy. In the book of the same name, Siddhartha shows how he tries out each style of belief in an attempt to gain perfection, finally choosing self-denial of all desires in an attempt to gain perfection and end his cycle of reincarnation. It seems that once a follower ends the cycle of reincarnation, he ceases to exist at his death.

Hinduism’s karma is similar. All intentional and unintentional actions, thoughts, and words that produce affect on others produce a person’s individual karma. Each person must suffer the consequences until they have exhausted their store. Some ill effects of karma can be mitigated by the gods (very rarely, but sometimes as a reward for prayer, pilgrimage or worship) or by one’s virtue and good deeds.

In fact, karma is at the root of the most basic questions that Christians and non-Christians struggle with when considering God. They ask, “How can God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The underlying presumption is that if people are good they will get good in their lives. When they are bad, bad things will happen to them. It is essentially the most basic form of karma.

Reincarnation answers the question of why good things happen to bad people and why bad things happen to the good people for Hinduism and Buddhism. It explains that each person’s fate is a direct reaction to the karma they have stored up over their many lifetimes.

Herringshaw reveals that Christianity has a few teachings that somewhat parallel the idea of karma. “You reap what you sow” “As you judge others, so will you be judged” “Treat others as you would have them treat you” and others. However, the main difference is the concept of forgiveness that is present in Christianity and the lack of reincarnation. Christians believe that they can never atone for their wrongdoing of their own accord. How can they ever be ‘good enough’ to cancel out every wrong? And how could they ever know which deeds equaled another? The concept of forgiveness cancels out the idea that all must pay in kind for every wrong action that they have taken, although the natural consequences are not always lifted. Forgiveness cancels the debt that people's wrongdoing has racked up by paying for it with the death of Jesus on the cross. Thus Jesus exchanges his perfect goodness for the evil all mankind has done -- in essence taking our bad karma on himself so that we do not have to pay for our actions with our lives. People enter into this agreement with God with an act of will and it is available to all who ask. The lack of reincarnation makes all people responsible only for their current life. It also gives some urgency to the fact that forgiveness must be attained in the current life, as opposed to the idea that many consequences of your bad actions will be paid for in the next life.

This book gives a clear understanding of a modern American view of both karma and Christianity and seeks to show how they compare and how they differ. It seeks to answer the question of who or what truly rules our lives? God or karma? It also reveals what draws people to both options. I found it to be a very interesting book and one that I would recommend to all interested in the difference between karma and Christianity and the ways each have shaped American culture.


  1. Very interesting review! I wasn't sure what to think of this book when I saw you reading it. I'd be interested to know if it reads "objectively."

    Does anyone really believe though that they can effect the world around them with their actions? Doesn't all karma boil down to a desire to control an uncontrollable world?

  2. Not exactly objectively. The author definitely has his own beliefs that come through clearly. I thought it was a well-reasoned book that took to task various common saying about karma and examined it more closely. I think that Americans do tend to take a surface understanding of karma and believe that it can be separated from its origins, which is not the case.

    I think that everyone can affect the world around them, the extent to which they do so is what is debatable. And yes, karma is a hope that we have control over our own destinies, that we can be our own saviors.