Tuesday, September 13, 2022

The non-retributive Karma theory

(Abstract of my lecture at the World Conference on Logic and Religion, 4-8 November 2022) Everyone nowadays has heard of the retributive Karma doctrine. Internationally, and among Western-influenced Indians, it doesn't have a very good reputation, for it is deemed to justify injustice. In many classical sources, this is precisely what it does. Thus, when Śākyamuni’s friend general Bandhula and his sons are sentenced to death for high treason, his widow consoles her daughters-in-law that while their husbands were ostensibly innocent, they must have earned this punishment through a wrongdoing in a past life. This way, any injustice can be justified as the consequence of an unseen past sin. Indeed, the very earliest scriptural introduction to the karma doctrine already does this. The Chāndogya Upaniṣad introduces jointly the doctrine of reincarnation and the doctrine of karma. It says that a fortunate birth in a high caste is the consequence of past good behaviour, an unfortunate birth in a low caste or as an animal the consequence of past bad behaviour. In all anti-Hindu literature, the link between the karma doctrine and social injustices like Untouchability is emphasized. An even more fundamental objection to this retributive karma doctrine is that it implies that the universe is just. The conspicuous fact that many good people end in misery while many evil-doers flourish, is nullified here by the unproven hypothesis that this misery is explained by past evil and this good fortune by past good. Isn’t this wishful thinking? No sudden good fortune is innocent anymore, it all becomes part of a universe-spanning calculus of reward and punishment. There are two alternatives to this widely-believed retributive karma doctrine. One is to preserve reincarnation but drop the "action at a distance" between good or evil acts performed in one life and attraction of good or bad fortune in a next life. Outside India, many reincarnation beliefs are ignorant of a karma doctrine, both ancient ethnic (Druze, Amerindian, Celtic) and among modern reincarnation researchers (Ian Stevensson, Erlendur Haraldsson, Hans ten Dam). Kṛṣṇa's explanation to Arjuṇa that dying is but an illusion, like taking off old clothes to put on new ones tomorrow, does strictly not posit an "ethical causality" either. The other alternative is the non-retributive karma theory. The purpose of this paper will be to analyse and evaluate this lesser-known understanding of karma. The non-retributive understanding of karma shares with the retributive variant that it extends the field of causality: the former gives it a psychological dimension, the second an ethical one. It fits the Buddhist theory that a life is conditioned by the quotum of desires, including negative desires, i.e. fears, with which you die. Hence the focus in some Buddhist schools on purifying the thoughts you will entertain in your dying moments: they will determine the contents of your next incarnation. For an example in a non-Buddhist source: when Ambā gets consumed with a desire for revenge upon Mahābhārata hero Bhīṣma, she is reborn in circumstances where she can join the enemy army and thus kill him. Here your quotum of good or evil committed is of no consequence, there is no reward or punishment. (In the debate on karma and the problem of evil, as recently in Philosophy East & West, it essentially cuts short the debate, or at least is one of the extremes within it: no relation!) Yet there is a precise connection between past and next lives, viz. your sum total of desires determines the contents of a next life; that's why desire is the motor of reincarnation, and is the target for destruction in Buddhist meditation. This version of karma is a "law of conservation". To be sure, Buddhism is not exclusively wedded to this more subtle theory of karma. Common Buddhists are just as much into the more vulgar retributive version, and even the Buddha himself was. An illustration is the Buddhist story of the Śākya-hatya. When his own tribe is being massacred by the soldiers from Kośala, the Buddha explains that this is a just punishment: in a past life, the Śākyas were villagers who heartlessly refused to throw fish that had landed on the dry during the hot season, into the remaining rivulet; so now they get punished. The soldiers back then were those fish, who now take revenge. So that is the hypothesis of reward and punishment at work. But it is not over yet. The soldiers go home and camp out on the riverside. That night, the rainy season starts, the river overflows, and the sleeping soldiers get drowned. Karmic reason: in their past lives they had begged to be thrown in the water, and now they have gotten what they had asked for. That is the "law of conservation" version of karma, a desire having effect at a distance. But the two versions are conceptually distinct, and purists may fully reject the retributive version while accepting the non-retributive version. The modern age with its positive valuation of rationality favours such an outcome: an automatically just universe may satisfy our wishes but is unproven and unlikely, while a law of conservation might be scientifically tenable even if applied to desire.


Shankar Sharan said...

Going to be very interesting, and thought provoking! What better place than Kashi for the presentation - an oldest seat of learning & Dharma.

SamsaraEnjoyer said...

This was fascinating, I've listened to the Sangam Talks lecture twice. The subtle Theory of reincarnation I believe does find mention in the Yoga Sutras too. The issue i find no incentive to discard the Retributive doctrine except for leaving it on supposed rationality of Hindus