With the news of convicted Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff losing a second son — the first to suicide, the most recent to cancer – some have speculated that some sort of divine cosmic justice is being meted out to a man whose Ponzi scheme cost about $65 billion in savings.
A piece on Salon.com noted that the recent deaths of Joan Rivers and Andrew Madoff were attributed to karma on social media:
“2 weeks ago Joan Rivers stated Palestinians deserve to die and they were asking for it,” noted one typical tweeter Thursday evening. “Now she’s dead. #karma.” Another added, “Karma at work there. Without a doubt.” It was a sentiment that had already been expressed elsewhere earlier in the week, when Bernard Madoff’s son Andrew died of mantle cell lymphoma at the age of 48. (Madoff’s other son Mark committed suicide four years ago.) “Bernie Madoff’s last remaining son passed away today,” tweeted one armchair analyst of spiritual payback. “If you have any doubts about Karma catching you for bad deeds, here’s the sad proof.” Another observed, “There’s a mysterious karma that still surrounds Bernie Madoff.”
Karma is a widely-used word and pop culture notion, but is there any validity to the idea that if you put bad stuff out there, it comes back to you? Let’s take a closer look.
We must first distinguish karma from justice. After all, if a criminal is apprehended, convicted, and sentenced to prison, that’s not karma, that’s just the ordinary course of justice. Karma is also not simply paying the consequences for an act. If you punch someone in the face and get punched in return, that’s just retaliation, not karma.
Instead karma usually refers to delayed and/or extra-judicial moral revenge, something that a person did at one time that they didn’t have to fully answer for — in their critic’s eyes anyway — but paid a higher price for later, in the form of some devastating misfortune.
The word karma comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “fate, work or action.” The concept of karma varies somewhat among Buddists, Hindus, and Jainists, but the popular understanding is that karma assures that good things will happen to good people and bad things to bad people. Karma in Buddhism holds that the fate of the soul is determined by its karma or actions. Every act — whether good or bad, no matter how insignificant — will eventually return to the person who does the act, and with equal force.
However many people mistakenly assume that the good or bad will come back in this lifetime, but that’s not what karma says. Those who do good deeds will be rewarded in future lives, and those who do bad deeds will be punished in their future lives (such as by being reborn as a lowly animal).
While many Westerners say they believe in karma, most don’t really understand or believe in the Buddhist or Hindu idea of karma. For one thing, there would no need for prisons or punishment. Cosmic justice will be meted out in another realm. Karma is fundamentally linked to belief in reincarnation. In Western society anyway, the idea of being reborn as a dog or rodent in a future life doesn’t really seem very likely, nor that much of punishment.
There is also a dark, cruel aspect to karma, one that is rarely discussed. The doctrine of karma holds that everything bad that happens to you is . . .