A friend of mine made some interesting comments about my last post on Karma vs Grace. It helped me think more on the topic and since many of you may have the same concerns, but won’t read the “comments” section here, I thought it would be helpful for all if I posted the edited version of my response.
I don’t claim knowledge of any religious system, but I am on a spiritual journey and value any help and route corrections by fellow travelers.
Karma has different meanings. The doctrine of Karma and its meaning is quite complex and it has also evolved over different periods of Indian religions. So, it will take sizable space and time to be expounded.
Let us not confuse the meaning of karma as an “act” or “action,” that is a necessity for everyone’s existence, with the “karma” as a theological concept or as a law of causality (cause and effect) employed to explain the sufferings of life just like it is done in every religious system. What is meant by “karma” as a sacrificial or ritual “act” (as in karmakanda) during the Vedic period is not the same meaning of karma as one’s moral obligation used in the later literature of “the Epic Period” of which the Bhagwad Geeta is a part.
Most believers of karma understand individual karma to mean: “If I do X, then Y happens; and Y is the result of my past X action.” Good actions reap good results and bad actions result in suffering and pain. However, they’re at a loss to understand and explain when something happens at a large scale such as an accident in which several people die or a natural calamity (an act of God!?) such as tsunami that claims thousands of lives. Whose karma was it the result of? Was it the result of collective karma of all who died or the result of the karma of individuals themselves? It is difficult to answer these questions for the believers in individual karma; therefore, it is also difficult for them to justify engagement in removing of societal injustices and wrongs. It is also hard to motivate believers of karma to engage in helping others for the betterment of their life, which is actually the result of their own actions in the past. Furthermore, believers of karma do not like the idea that they’re at the mercy of an omnipotent and omniscient God. Logically speaking, if one fully believes in the law of causation, there is no room for an omnipotent celestial Being; hence, there is no place for grace or mercy in one’s life!
Moreover, since X happens because of Y, and Y is the result of X, it naturally leads one into a vicious cycle, which the followers of karma call the “karma samsara” or the cycle of rebirths. The goal of an individual is to escape this karmic cycle. As only an individual is wholly responsible for his/her actions, he/she alone should strive for moksha or liberation from the karma samsara, without any outside help. Because of your X actions, Y is the result; so you’re not committing any “sin” against a Supreme Being. Hence, there’s no need or room for any grace of that Supreme Being.
As for the concept of karma in the biblical literature; yes, there is no denying that the concept exists as it has been part of almost all religions. However, it is the doctrine of grace and its absolute necessity for the believer’s life and salvation and not karma that is emphasized in the Bible (please see the first few chapters of the book of Romans). Yes, the Bible and particularly the New Testament talk about good works (karma) and the need for a believer to engage in good deeds. However, the most significant difference here is that the forgiveness of our sins, our salvation now and the eternal life after death are NOT dependent on our deeds however good they might be. That is absolutely the work of grace by God which we need to appropriate by faith. As the Apostle Paul clearly states, we are not saved BY good deeds but by grace FOR good deeds:
“All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2: 3- 10).
Some might cite Galatians 6: 7– “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” as belief in the karma worldview. However, it must be seen in the larger context of what the Apostle Paul is saying to the believers who are already saved by grace. He’s not exhorting them to do good deeds for their future salvation or eternal life. Paul said that it is seeding time now and the reaping time will be later in the afterlife. Therefore, believers should be busy doing the sowing by engaging in good deeds of the spirit than carnal deeds. Again, like Paul writes in Ephesians, these good deeds are done not to earn our salvation because that is by grace alone, but because we are saved by grace for doing good deeds. That is why Mother Teresa and millions of other believers have engaged in doing good to others.
Grace cannot be grace if you have to work for it. Instead, grace is what you need but don’t deserve! It is the sheer mercy of God which He decides to grant me what I need it but don’t merit it through my works/actions—good or bad. That is grace. May the Lord continue to lead us all into the deeper spiritual recesses of the grace of God during this Lenten season. Blessings!