Karma and Altruism

Some people argue that because we are predestined to suffer and enjoy due to karma therefore there is no point in helping people. This view of karma is interpreted to mean that Vedic philosophy is opposed to altruism and charity. In fact, practitioners of some religions such as Christianity claim that the belief in karma makes people less compassionate toward others. They also claim that by giving up the ideas about karma and thinking of everyone as God’s children, we become more compassionate. In this post I will describe how karma is misunderstood and how it entails altruism although for a completely different reason—you help others to help yourself.

The Methods of Loss and Gain

While it is true that karma fixes the losses and gains in your life, it doesn’t fix the methods by which you lose or gain. For example, karma fixes the money you will lose or gain. But the losses can be due to someone stealing money from you, your investments being squandered away due to mistakes, loss of wealth in curing illnesses, or giving away the money in charity. Similarly, the gain in money can be due to earnings by hard work, windfall gains due to a lottery win, inheritance from some known or unknown sources, or receiving money in charity.

Karma entails that you cannot change the money gained or lost. But it doesn’t mean that the money lost through charity is the same as the money lost in a theft. It also doesn’t mean that money earned through hard work is the same as the money earned through a lottery.

When we lose money through theft, we negate the previous bad karma just as much as we negate the karma when we give money in charity. However, when we give money in charity, we also create good karma, which doesn’t happen when we lose money due to theft. Therefore, whether or not you lose the money is decided by karma. But whether you will lose it through theft or through charity is free will. If you know that you are going to lose money, you can make the best of a bad deal—you can give the money in charity instead of losing it in theft.

The Argument for Altruism

Everybody has some destiny due to which they will gain or lose. But a voluntary loss is better than a forced loss, because a voluntary loss creates good karma even as bad karma is being negated, while a forced loss only negates the bad karma. Therefore, altruism is as much about helping others, as it is about helping oneself. Instead of just negating bad karma you are also creating good karma. Charity is the act of creating good karma while negating bad karma.

Even when you give away your money, the receiver of that wealth is predestined to receive the same wealth. If you don’t give away in charity, the receiver will get it from another source. Therefore, your charity makes no difference to the receiver. It however makes a difference to you. Karma ensures that if the receiver doesn’t have the good karma they will never be able to receive the charity even if you are willing to be charitable. Therefore, your charity doesn’t negate karma or its effects. In fact it creates new effects due to your actions.

Here, an example from financial accounting is helpful. When we give away money as a loan, our cash reserves decrease but our assets increase. The person who receives this money has an increased income but his liabilities are increased. Therefore, the increase in the lender’s assets balances the increase in the borrower’s liabilities. On the other hand, if you just spend the money in a way that is not adding to your assets – e.g. on vacations, travel, or food – then the loss of wealth is counted as an expense, which decreases your cash reserves but does not add anything to your assets. In both cases, the money is flowing out of the donor but when given as a loan it increases the donor’s assets (to be recouped in the future) whereas it only adds to the expenses if spent otherwise. In the same way, bad karma results in the loss of wealth, but this loss can become an asset for future, or remain an expense lost permanently. Therefore, nature can be viewed as an accounting system in which you are required to lose some wealth at some time, but you are free to lose it in different ways.

The argument for altruism is therefore that we should lose our wealth in the best possible way—the manner in which we can gain it back. The argument for altruism is not that we must help people because without our help they will remain helpless. Nature has a perfect arrangement for ensuring that everyone will receive their due owing to karma. But the intelligent person voluntarily accepts losses through charity. The foolish person laments after the losses have been forced upon them. Charity, therefore, is help to others that helps oneself.

Mistaken Ideas About Charity

There are two mistaken ideas about charity that people often carry. The first mistaken idea says that because there is karma and everyone’s suffering and enjoyment is fixed, therefore there is no point in doing good to others. The second mistaken idea says that I’m empowered to help others, and without my help they would remain helpless. Both these ideas are rooted in the belief that charity and altruism are about the graciousness of the person who is helping and the helplessness of the person taking the help. It is an egoistic idea about charity. The charitable person boosts their own ego about their ability to help rather than becoming humbler in the process of helping.

The fact is that we cannot help anyone beyond their own destiny, so even though I’m empowered to help, my help is not going to make a material difference. Rather, all my help is going to go to someone who was already predestined to receive something by their own karma. Even if I do not help them, they will still receive the help from some other source. Therefore, the person taking the help is not dependent on my grace, and they are not required to express their gratitude for receiving the help. The help that I give to someone is factually to negate my own bad karma and create good karma. I am not necessary for helping others, but I can help myself through the act that seems to help others. By voluntarily giving away what I have, I avoid the forced renunciation, and I create the potential for gains in future.

The Charity of Knowledge

When you give away wealth, you have lesser wealth. However, when you give others knowledge, you don’t reduce your knowledge. Therefore, the charity of wealth is finite—it ends when you run out of wealth. But the charity of knowledge is infinite because you never lose your knowledge, and by giving away knowledge you create the future potential for gaining more knowledge. Compared to the charity of wealth, therefore, the charity of knowledge is far superior.

Knowledge—understood at the level of mind and intelligence—is also a deeper reality which means it brings about a bigger change in a person’s life. For example, you can give away food in charity and that will satisfy the hunger of the receiver one time. However, the person will be hungry again in a few hours. On the other hand you can educate someone and with that knowledge they can find a job by which they can earn food again and again. Therefore, the charity of gross material things is short-lived, but the charity of subtle reality is longer-lived; the deeper the level of knowledge, the longer-lived and broader effects it has.

Therefore, the charity of knowledge is better than the charity of money, food, clothes, etc. because not only is it longer lived, but by giving away knowledge the giver doesn’t become poorer. Even material knowledge is however temporary. What you learn today is outdated tomorrow and you have to keep updating your knowledge, which means that the charity of material knowledge produces temporary benefits. Spiritual knowledge however transforms the person permanently and this knowledge does not need to be updated. As we give away spiritual knowledge, we create the potential to receive more spiritual knowledge, and because the knowledge is never lost, it produces the effect of infinite and never-ending expansion.

Altruism and Selfishness

The theory of karma tells us why the benefit of others is non-different from the selfish benefit. Without the theory of karma, selfishness and altruism are contradictory, and people have to be coerced into altruism—or the greater benefit of others. But if we understand that others are not dependent on our help and that help is guaranteed from some source due to the laws of nature, then our attempts will be self-help.

Karma removes the contradiction between altruism and selfishness, and whether the person is selfish or altruistic, karma dovetails their tendencies into both individual and collective good. Therefore, the notion that karma makes us non-compassionate is false. Whether we perform the charity of material things or material knowledge, there is always something to be gained both by the giver and the receiver. And when we perform the charity of spiritual knowledge, the process of giving and receiving becomes infinite and ever expanding.

The Argument for Compassion

The fact that nature helps us if we help others, and the two are proportional, isn’t however an argument against causeless compassion. We are not saying that because helping others gets you good returns, therefore, you must always help others for these returns. You are in fact free to be causelessly compassionate and charitable—expecting nothing in return for favors performed. Karma doesn’t prevent you from being selflessly compassionate; it only makes you more compassionate (even for selfish reasons) if you are not already compassionate.

In fact, selfish compassion creates good karma which has to be reaped as good results in the future; while in general that is a good proposition, it does entail rebirth to accept those rewards. To escape from this cycle of birth and death, one has to move from selfish compassion to selfless compassion, which is devoid of any tinge of desire for results coming from our charitable actions.

Selfless compassion is very hard. Even when we are compassionate we have subtle expectations that our charity will be accepted, appreciated, and recognized. Most charitable people are therefore performing charity because it gives them fame and prestige, and power over the people they supposedly serve. The same people would stop performing charity if this fame, prestige, respect, and power ceased to exist. Demonstrating compassion without these benefits is true selfless compassion, and it is very hard to achieve, because even the most charitable and kind people desire something in return, although it may be far more subtle in nature. In lieu of selfless compassion, the theory of karma helps us understand the merits of selfish compassion and engages us in charitable acts.

This engagement should not be misconstrued as encouraging selfish compassion over selfless compassion. We should rather understand that if we cannot be compassionate selflessly (without any expectations) then we must at least try to be compassionate selfishly. Selfish compassion is therefore not a replacement for selfless compassion but rather a stepping stone toward selfless compassion.