Is There Such a Thing as “Good” Karma?
Karma plays a large part in several Eastern religious traditions, particularly Hinduism. It is the law of cause and effect, the idea that you reap what you sow. Popular conceptions of karma tend to portray it in a dualistic manner. People often speak of “good” karma and “bad” karma, obviously favoring the good over the bad. However, in the grand scheme of Hindu cosmology karma may not be so double-sided after all. Rather, it is possible to make the argument that all karma is in fact “bad” karma. So which view is more correct?
Karma is often considered to be good when it is used to bring positive things into your life. For example, if someone is kind to others then it is commonly understood that they are acquiring good karma and will experience positive things in return, such as others being kind to them. Using karma in this way is said to bring health, happiness, and all sorts of spiritual or material rewards. Also, since Hindus believe in reincarnation, good karma can spill over into the next life. If you accrue a lot of good karma in this life then your next rebirth will be higher up on the great chain of being. This means that a “good” cow might become a human, and a human might be reborn as a god.
On the other hand, bad or negative karma will have exactly the opposite effect. If you are a selfish, greedy, and violent person then karma dictates that you will only invite negativity into your life. Someone with negative karma will be reborn into a “lower” state. A particularly evil person might end up as a bacterium frozen in the ice on Mars. This means that it would take them eons and eons to be reborn as a human again.
So it does seem that karma can be divided up into “good” and “bad.” Good karma rewards you while bad karma ensures that you get your much deserved punishment. Most people would agree that it is desirable to accrue good karma.
The caveat here is that health, happiness, rewards, and higher rebirths are not the ultimate religious goals in Hinduism. Instead, what each and every soul is supposed to be striving for is liberation from the continuous cycle of birth and death. With the ultimate goal of liberation in mind, karma becomes a problem. Karma is the force that keeps souls trapped in the cycle of rebirth. Accruing karma means that you have to be reborn in order to receive the rewards or punishments that you have coming to you.
It is useful to imagine karma as sticky little bits of matter that attach themselves to the soul. It does not matter if the actions that produced these particles were good or bad, they will still look and function in the same way. It is simply actions themselves that attract karma to the soul and keep it trapped in this world.
Hinduism does recognize that not everyone can seek liberation at the same time. Therefore material success, family life, learning, and various other activities can all be considered “legitimate” goals in life. Nevertheless, liberation is the ultimate goal for each and every single soul, regardless of whether they are currently seeking it.
Another consideration that must be made is that you might want to accrue good karma in order to obtain a higher rebirth. This is because the higher on the chain of being you are the easier it is to avoid performing karmic actions. For example, humans have an advantage over dogs because they are aware of the need for liberation and can choose to take a path which leads to it. In this way karma can be effectively used to bring someone closer to liberation. However, it will never lead someone all the way there because ultimately the key is to accrue no karma at all. So while it might be easier to achieve liberation as a hermit in a male human body, it is also possible, though much more difficult, in the form of a cricket.
In the end, it is a matter it perspective. The answer to “is there such a thing as good karma?” will change depending on who you talk to. If your goal is to reap rewards in this life and to be happy in the here and now, then it is possible for karma to be “good.” However, if your goal is to attain liberation in this life, or at least sometime in your next few lives, then no karma can really be considered beneficial.