Karma and Cosmic Justice

It is popularly held that the law of karma functions as a type of judicial system, meting out “good” to the “good” and “retribution” to the “evil”. When this is not obvious in a particular lifetime, the notion goes, then it will be served up in a subsequent incarnation. Karma is then seen as a type of divine providence or machinery of justice that is able to weigh up the good or bad deeds and mete out the required recompense.

While this notion has its apparent benefits to those in power in the world who would like to curb the impulses of the masses, it is clear that it is far too mechanistic and far too wooden in its construction to actually capture the essence of the true action of karma.

The question arises, can good lead to bad, or bad lead to good? We can see, in fact, that karma is a working of energy not a legal justice system, and thus, the energy will have its effects, regardless of the moral or ethical interpretation that we put on the actions from our own limited perspective. We can see, in fact, throughout the course of history that some actions that were interpreted as “good” led to negative consequences later; and those that were interpreted as “bad” actually led to a long-term positive result. And then there is the “law of unintended consequences” where the intention was good, but the energy that was put into motion had “side effects” that could be disastrous.

We face certain of these quandaries in our society today. In trying to heal people of various diseases we have developed antibiotics. These have relieved a lot of pain and suffering, but eventually, they are being used so widely that they are getting into the water supply, and breeding “super-bugs” that are antibiotic resistant and potentially capable thereby of creating a scourge far more deadly and wide-spread than the diseases that those antibiotics were intended to treat.

Removing our short-sighted ethical and moral judgments and simply looking at the energy and its impact, we can assert a “law of Karma”. The subtlety of this working and its significance is a subject that will occupy further posts.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

The Deeper Sense of the Law of Karma

Having critiqued the popular notions of the law of karma, Sri Aurobindo takes up the deeper meaning of the law of karma and points out that one way or the other, actions have consequences, and those consequences create results. He points out that “all energies in Nature must have their natural consequence; if any are without visible result in the present life, it may well be that the outcome is only delayed, not withheld for ever.”

The popular view does not often deal with more general consequences, but there is also a truth to the fact that the acts of a particular individual may in fact have consequences on and effects for others, both those tied to that individual through some direct relationship and through general impacts which we may call the “societal karma”, whereby the pooled focus and actions of a number of people may create a wide-reaching impact that can affect entire societies, civilisations and the planetary systems themselves. The concept of “climate change” for instance represents a collective action by billions of humans on the planet which is already visibly creating widespread suffering and destruction through drought, flooding, higher intensity storms, rising sea levels, wider territories for disease or insect vectors to operate, etc. The law of karma clearly carries out the effect of the actions and visits them to the degree that they impact the world and its beings.

Of course, there is also the “personal” working of the law of Karma which can and does create both the individual human being’s life and circumstances, as well as, through its momentum and direction, the impact on life after death and a subsequent rebirth. “Man’s being, nature, circumstances of life are the result of his own inner and outer activities, not something fortuitous and inexplicable: he is what he has made himself; the past man was the father of the man that now is, the present man is the father of the man that will be. Each being reaps what he sows; from what he does he profits, for what he does he suffers. This is the law and chain of Karma, of Action , of the work of Nature-Energy, and it gives a meaning to the total force of our existence, nature, character, action which is absent from other theories of life.”

The working of the law of karma is an inevitable and indisputable part of the cosmic machinery and it makes intelligible the way the development of human lives proceeds, providing an inner sense and significance to it.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality