In the latest AMA, Anirudh asked:
How do you see the concept of karma?
Do you believe in the principle of karma, as a theory of a chain of cause and effect in human life? Or do you believe in the cycle of rebirths and karma, until one attains moksha?
I am asking since your blog is titled “Life is a Random Draw”, but the tagline says “It’s all Karma”. They are kind of like the opposite of each other, aren’t they?
In reply, I quote myself from a Aug 2013 post, “The Unbearable Collective Stupidity of the Masses.” Begin quote.
People often mistranslate the world karma, to say nothing of the misunderstanding of the concept. Karma definitely does not mean ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ in the sense that things are fated or predestined. In fact, it means precisely the opposite. Karma means that it is our actions that determine the future, that what we do matters and has consequences. The concept is a general formulation of the fundamental law of action and its consequences, a specific instance of which are Newton’s laws of motion. Therefore it is the ultimate statement of “The Buck Stops Here.” And so when one says, “It is all Karma”, one is acknowledging that what we do matters and we are ultimately responsible for what we enjoy or suffer.
Endogenous and Exogenous Suffering
It was in the quest to understand the nature and causes of existential suffering that the prince Gautama became the Buddha. The Buddha’s realization was that to break free of suffering, one has to follow what he called the Noble Eight-fold path. Look it up for details. The short form is that do the right action and the cessation of suffering follows.
The suffering that the Buddha showed a way out of is not our mundane material suffering. His inquiry related to a much broader definition of suffering than just the lack of stuff that makes our material existence harder than it ought to be. Suffering arising out of material deprivation is the easiest to fix and given that the Buddha walked the earth within the confines of present-day India, one would have expected India to be the last place to suffer materially.
Be that as it may, suffering is a consequence of wrong actions. While this is true both at the level of the individual and at the level of the collective, there is a distinction. The individual suffers not only the consequence of his own action (which I term “endogenous suffering”) but also the consequence of the collective that he is part of (which I term “exogenous suffering.”) In other words, individual suffering is partly due to individual karma and partly due to collective karma, and collective suffering is entirely due to collective karma.
The accident of birth determines how much collective or exogenous suffering one is subject to. If you are lucky to be born in a developed nation, most of what you suffer is probably your own karma. But if you are unlucky and are born in a desperately poor country — such as India — regardless of how wonderful your own karma or action is, you nevertheless will suffer the consequences of collective karma.
Karma is the action that you perform, and the consequences of your actions unfold over time. Your actions are the cause and the consequences that result are the effects. Maybe the consequences are transmitted across lifetimes, maybe there is no enduring self (anatman, in Buddhism), maybe there’s reincarnation, etc. We don’t really know and perhaps can never know. But for the here and now, karma makes sense.
What about life being a random draw? Yes, it is. One does not get to choose where, when and to whom one is born. It’s a random draw. And once once you are born, you get to act within the constraints that the random draw imposed on you. It’s all karma, neh!