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Karma: Beyond “bad things happening to good people”

Karma is a concept that has always fascinated me.  It’s complex, thought-provoking, and essential to Hinduism.   Yet it is a term that has been “dumbed” down over the years as it has entered everyday jargon.  And more recently, “karma, baby” tends to be casually thrown out as a reason or explanation when something “bad” happens to a person.  But the concept of karma is far more complex than that, and does not only apply to cases where “bad things” happen to good people.

At the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), we’ve described karma as:

  1. The principle of cause and effect
  2. The idea that an individual’s every action produces an appropriate outcome for him/her

Integral to this is the understanding that outcomes may span over lifetimes.  Thus, karma also presupposes a belief in an undying, everlasting soul, or atman, that carries on when one’s physical body dies.  A person’s actions – good or bad – are attached to the soul and are carried forward as the soul survives the death of the current physical body to be reborn in a new physical body.  Thus, the fruits of today’s thoughts, actions, and intentions may not be felt today, tomorrow, or even in the next five years.  They may take lifetimes to manifest.  But as of yet, no Swami, guru, or Hindu scholar has been able to provide me with an exact formula for karma.


Gadadhara Pandit Dasa – the Hindu Chaplain at Columbia and a friend of mine – took at a stab at explaining karma in his latest piece in the Huffington Post.  I think his piece is a great introduction to the concept:

  • stephen

    Since I was very young, I completely accepted the teaching of Jesus Christ and lived how he taught. I love everyone, never have been even a little selfish, and have complete honesty with everyone. It’s how I live my life, it’s who I am. I can’t imagine if I was so horrible in a past physical life to deserve the onslaught of complete evil that attacks me constantly, then why would my soul be completely opposite in this life. if Karma is a direct relationship to things I’ve done, then I must have done really, really bad stuff. And that couldn’t have been in this life due to my lifetime of complete love and respect for every single one of my fellow people, and a complete, uncompromising honesty. So, if Karma is not a result of things done in this life, then a past life? My lifetime commitment to the betterment of society as a whole and this commitment being a key pillar of who am I right down to the spirit level, makes hard to understand how that same soul in a different life could have committed the types of atrocities that would lend itself to the Karmic retribution that I go through on a daily basis. I’ve built my life up several times just to be destroyed by other malicious people. It’s easier for me to believe that I needed to go through these trials I’ve gone through, that God allowed me to go through this and blessed me with these tough situations, in order to have a sense of reference to help others, than to conceive of the fact that I actually somehow deserved it. I have an understanding of who I am, I know what kind of person I am.

    • nickatnoon

      So Stephen, U live a righteous life then? Tell me, how long have you been VEGAN?

  • SY21

    So, a good person with a terrible illness, for example…that would be karma from a previous incarnation of the soul in question? That is my stumbling block with karma. I know too many good, loving, giving people suffering terribly, and I can’t rationalise that in my head against an individual’s every action produces an appropriate outcome for him/her.

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