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Article ID: 15689

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Age Group: Adult

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Karma and Sin

Author: Janice Van Cleve
Posted: May 11th. 2014
Times Viewed: 2,830

At a recent seminar of the Theosophical Society, the idea of Karma was discussed and debated. Karma as a concept is very old. It arose on the Indian subcontinent out of early pre-Hindu traditions and reached perhaps its most definitive form in the teachings of the Buddha, sometime around 400 BCE. Sin is also a very old concept arising out of Semitic traditions on the Arabian Peninsula. It found definition in the writings of Jewish scribes during their captivity in Babylon during the 6th Century BCE. While the two concepts occasionally display some similarities in language, they are vastly different in operation.

First it must be recognized that any concepts that old have obviously been altered, added to, borrowed, and reshaped over the centuries. Karma, for example, has come to carry with it ideas of causality, consequences, rebirth, influence of past lives on current status, and so on. Modern Buddhism, Jainism, and branches of Hinduism mix and match these ideas into their own definitions of karma. However, one common thread among all of these religions or philosophies is that actions and intentions do have consequences for the actor. Thus, good actions produce good karma and bad actions produce bad karma. This sounds very similar to the Wiccan Rule of Three – that what we do will come back to us threefold.

The effects of good karma or bad karma can impact us later in this life or, if one believes in reincarnation, carry over into another life. Thus did Buddha explain why some people are born into well off families, like his own, while others were born poor, crippled, or diseased. According to some interpretations, karma can have psychological effects as well, changing the character of a person. If we engage in road rage while driving, it may become our habitual first response and if carried to extremes, tend to make us aggressive, dangerous drivers or give us an ulcer. Or it may manifest in making us defensive, irritable, or untrusting. If on the other hand, we don’t care who gets to the stoplight first, we can devote more of our energies to safe driving and the music on the radio and our habitual first reaction may likely be more generous and forgiving. It may manifest in an easygoing personality, confident in ourselves and in others.

Karma gets tied in knots when it is juxtaposed to the concept of free will. If bad actions produce bad karma, does bad karma necessarily produce bad actions? Is a killer responsible for a murder if he is merely acting out of past life karma? Or did the victim deserve to be killed because of his past life karma? Both of these concepts manifest in US courts when judges consider mental capacity of the defendant or when attorneys try to blame the victim of rape on the way she was dressed. Various Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist schools of thought dance on all sides of this issue.

Regardless of the contortions of philosophers and religious teachers, the basic root of karma remains. Karma is a natural balance of cause and effect. At core it explains that actions, intentions, and words have consequences. These consequences are neither good nor bad, they just are and they will manifest sometime and in some way.

Sin is an entirely different concept. Sin is not a natural cause and effect. Rather, it is a violation of a divine or supernatural law. This violation is held to incur punishment, which bears little or no relation to the offense. Thus in Roman Catholic tradition, 5 Our Fathers and 5 Hail Marys, somehow magically atone for losing one’s temper and beating a child or failing to help a crippled person up the stairs. In Muslim tradition, repentance plus many good deeds wipe out the bad ones. In both cases, the consequences of the sin, unlike karma, can be wiped away by a religious formula.

The only “past life” implications of sin is the concept of original sin. Muslims do not believe in original sin. According to the doctrine of original sin, humans come into this world in sin and only by accepting Jesus as their savior can they be freed from this sin. Some Christians accomplish this freedom through a ritual called baptism. Others imply a predestination theory, which gets into the same knotty tangles with free will that karma, does. The amazing accomplishment of Paul of Tarsus, called St. Paul by Christians, is that he convinced his audiences that original sin exists. He was employing the two fundamentals of marketing: 1) Convince your potential customers that they want something that they lack or that they have something they want to get rid of, and 2) Convince them that you have the answer. The early Christian church capitalized on these fundamentals by going one step further to claim that it had a monopoly on the answer and that all other answers are wrong.

Divine or supernatural laws are arbitrary. They are what their interpreters say they are. The interpreters have complete control over the laws, which is why they can forgive them. Karma, in contrast, is never as clear-cut as a law and it cannot be forgiven. Thus the concept of sin operates to give its interpreters power over their customers. As one medieval king complained to his bishop, “If I want to raise taxes, all I can do is threaten my subjects with force. You can threaten them with eternal damnation.”

This is how Christian leaders can declare persecution of Jews to be a good thing or Muslim leaders can declare that blowing up a school bus full of children is martyrdom. This is how the Vatican can declare Pope John Paul II a saint only 9 years after his death in spite of the fact that his church was beset by rampant child abuse by his priests, yet it took the same Vatican 500 years to canonize Joan of Arc after previously burning her at the stake. This is how faith based religions can declare a war “holy” regardless of the baser political and economic motives behind it. Sin and its pardon are entirely in the hands of the clergy who control it.

Wicca, and the Neo-Pagan movement of which it is a part, is closer to the behavioral norms of karma that those of sin. Neopaganism does not employ the concept of sin, original or otherwise. Its one rule “An ye harm none, do what ye will” or “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the Law. Love under Will” assumes all people are inherently good. There is no Bible, Koran, Veda, Torah, or Book of Mormon to lay down any supernatural laws on Pagans, nor are there any popes or mullahs to interpret such laws.

Which is why our Pagan religion is so fragmented, diverse, eclectic, and inherently free. We have been called a nature religion, a fertility religion, witchcraft, and all sorts of other characterizations. What matters most, I think, is how we think of ourselves and how we manage our own integrity. That would make us a personal responsibility religion, which is a definition to which I can subscribe.


Copyright: Janice Van Cleve. Copyright 2014.


Janice Van Cleve

Location: Seattle, Washington


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