Karma and the sparks that restore the unity of the cosmos

Karma has become a highly popular term tossed about in everyday conversation, both in the West and in the subcontinent of Asia, its land of origin. But my reading has convinced me the vast majority of people in all parts of the world misundertand karma. From a careful consideration of Hindu and Buddhist concepts, karma comes out closely related to a Jewish tradition involving sparks (nitzutzot in Hebrew) of redemption.

The crude view of karma is this: You do a lot of bad things, you get reborn as a cockroach. Do good things, and you get reborn as some higher level of creature, perhaps gaining elevated economic and social status in this world or emerging as some higher form of life we can’t even conceive of.

After a bit of reading on the Vedantic and Buddhist traditions, I decided this reductionist view of karma is spiritually unsatisfactory. I checked with a friend who did some research with people who understand these traditions to a depth I never can. A new viewpoint emerged—one that is wonderfully aligned with the Jewish kabalistic tradition.

In Buddism, the self is an illusion. Retaining your self as you are reborn into some other life doesn’t make sense. In this view, we are more like waves of an ocean. When a wave dashes against the shore, the next wave is not a reincarnation of the first wave. It’s a whole new wave. The important thing is the ocean.

So what actually is karma? I can offer only my opinion. Doing good deeds in your life increases the general fund of virtue in the ocean of eternal life. When you don’t concentrate on yourself, you can do good deeds for the benefit of the general course of the universe.

Intriguingly, we can find substantial common traditions in Hinduism and Jewish kebalah. In these traditions, the unity of God burst apart during the creation of our material world, leaving sparks scattered throughout creation. By doing good deeds, expressed in Jewish tradition as carrying out God’s commandments, we keep these sparks alive and bring us a tiny bit closer to restoring the pristine unity of the universe. These sparks also appear in some Hindu traditions. In some interpretations, the goal of nirvana and moksha is for the self to reunite or merge with the universe, although different interpretations of the terms also exist.

Kebalah developed during the European Middle Ages, although it drew on some concepts that one can find in Jewish thought going back to a period shared by early Christianity. The near-identity of the Hindu concept with the kabalistic ones convinces me that Jews were somehow in touch with Hindu teachers in the Middle Ages, hard as it is to get one’s head around.

Does this rather abstract ideal make you more likely to do the right thing for fellow human beings and the natural world? I think so. These ideas are more likely to produce sustainable positive behavior than the pursuit of karma for your personal wealth and comfort.

More Biblical commentaries

Andy Oram
November 7, 2022

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.