Worse than a “Vale of Tears”: Karma in the Shadow of the Cross


C. Wayne Mayhall

Article ID:



Apr 22, 2024


Jun 11, 2009

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 30, number 3 (2007). For more information about the Christian Research Journal, click here.



The Hindu doctrine of Karma is directly linked to the doctrines of reincarnation and rebirth in Hindu thought and, in its various appropriations, has universal appeal both in and out of its original context. The Sanskrit roots of the word karma literally mean “to do,” “what is done,” and “a deed,” but its universal meaning in writings of the East centers on the law of cause and effect, governing the sphere of human action and all of natural existence. The Western popularization of the various dimensions of karmic theory and practice, some argue, has subordinated its eternal value to a lesser world of momentary irony and paradox. Critics of this arcane evolution from the authentic karma to karma-lite, its Westernized version, attempt to offer a fresh contextualization to a doctrine that almost everyone in India—from cradle to grave, pauper to prince—swears by. Their attempts also create a space for a renewed scrutiny of defects inherent in the doctrine of karma in respect to the cross and person of Christ. If the word of the cross is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks, it can appear to be both a stumbling block and foolishness to Hindus. According to the law of Karma, if Jesus were to suffer to the point of death on a cross, it must have been because of His own bad karma and such suffering could not possibly be associated with the very Son of God, whom, Christians hail as the Savior of the world.


Present day Hindus are in general convinced that all religions are good in as far as they lead men to perfection. They would be inclined to accept and even join in with it, if Christianity would consent to give up its exclusiveness and its consequent claim to be the definitive religion.

—R. Panikkar1

In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

—Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 5:19)2

Earl, the hero of the NBC television series My Name Is Earl, is a former petty criminal who wins the lottery and sets out to right wrongs committed over a lifetime, generating laughs along the way. For example, in Episode 12, “O Karma, Where Art Thou?” Earl and brother Randy take money from a stolen wallet and discover that the theft results in a missed honeymoon for two newlyweds. To right his wrongs Earl takes over for the groom at a fast food restaurant run by a bona fide jerk. How this man with such a charmed life (a big house and a beautiful wife) could remain ignorant to the idea of karma, the one thing that radically rearranged his own perspective, eludes Earl throughout the episode.

The problem with Earl’s comedic quest for karmic redemption, according to writer and American Hindu Shoba Narayan, is that he bandies about the Hindu term karma without any idea of its true meaning: “For starters, karma doesn’t happen. It is what you do. karma in its most basic sense means action or duty. This series uses the term to mean cosmic retribution….Take, for instance, the lyrics of Alicia Keys’ popular song, ‘Karma.’ Keys sings, ‘It’s called karma baby. And it goes around. What goes around comes around. What goes up must come down.’ That isn’t karma. That is Newton’s Law of Physics.”3

Narayan’s exploration of popular culture’s marketing of the mystic East4 includes a search for “karma” at Amazon.com (there are at least 900 entries), an exploration of psychic MaryT.Browne’s references to karma in her book The Power of Karma5 (“Karma is a powerful ancient law of cosmic cause and effect….Simply put: what goes around comes around”6), and The New York Times’ “spectacularly wrong usage of the term,”7 when it describes Browne’s book as “a practical handbook for the karmically deprived.”8

Devout Hindus don’t use the term as frequently as American popular culture does, writes Narayan. “Granted, Earl is consumed by the concept, but much of his dialogue appears disingenuous given that he has only just heard the word and barely knows its meaning. Just like the Americanization of yoga, ‘My Name is Earl’ could further dilute the religious weight of the Hindu concept of karma and wedge it deeper into the American vernacular,”9 or (here Narayan salvages one reason for Hindus to be thrilled about the series) “it will help securely lodge what is essentially a Hindu concept into the collective unconscious of America [and] might on occasion create lively debates about the meaning of the word karma.”10

It is probably no surprise that the Westernization of the concept of karma, like that of yoga currently, results in an understanding antithetical to its origin. Narayan finds nothing necessarily wrong with that, other than the process of uprooting yoga and karma and converting them into something they are not, simply because “there will be enough Americans…who know the difference between ‘true’ yoga [and karma] and [their] more fashionable shape.”11


Both the word and the concept of karma are familiar to all Hindus. It is derived from the Sanskrit root kri (“to do”), and signifies literally “what is done”—a deed. It is the ceremonial deed par excellence. It declares that any action in the present arises necessarily out of actions in the past, and that it, in its turn, will have its influence in determining what action shall arise in the future. As Hindu missionary EdgarW.Thompson wrote in his classic work of historical inquiry, The Word of the Cross to Hindus, “The law of Karma cannot be limited to the sphere of human conduct. By Karma the sun, moon and planets keep their appointed courses; by Karma the tides rise and fall—the winds blow, turn about and sink to rest; by Karma the sap rises in herb and tree, the seasons succeed one to another, and all animate creatures pass through all the stages of their life from birth to death.”12

The law of karma is complex because it is inextricably intertwined with the world of samsara (reincarnation), a world of constant change in which souls are continually dying and being reborn. One Hindu parable describes this world as worse than “a vale of tears,”13 a frightening jungle full of hungry beasts and deadly snakes:

Imagine finding yourself in such a terrible jungle. You decide you would rather meet your ruin on the run than standing petrified in fear, and a frantic flight for freedom ensues. The trail grows thick, impenetrable. You struggle to push through. Frustration grows to the point of giving in…an awkward step…stumble…slip…and suddenly you’re falling headlong into a deep pit. Just before you hit bottom, vines at the mouth of the pit wrap around your ankles and you are left suspended head downward. At the bottom of the pit, mere feet away in the fading light, you make out an enormous cobra poised and waiting. You look up again and there stands a huge elephant at the mouth of the pit ready to trample you if you are able to crawl back out. You also notice an overhanging branch to which is attached a bee hive simultaneously attracting a rare species of deadly killer bee and dripping honey down into the pit. If you twist yourself just so, you can catch a drop or two. In the next moment the tree to which that branch is attached is uprooted, falls over the edge, and carries you crashing downward to the floor of the pit, where the cobra waits.14

Hindus hold this world to be a place of terror and pain. Pleasure is short-lived and illusory, masking for a moment the stern reality of pain accompanying this mortal life. The main preoccupation becomes the search for a way of escape from this world and beyond the passage of time.

Contrast such unsettling pessimism with a Western love affair with human potential and with our cultural enslavement to the “tyranny of the urgent.”15 We loathe suffering for its metaphysical conceit. Indoctrinated in “the denial of death,”16 we are quick to bury the dead17 before the mourning even begins. We no longer imagine life without the Palm Pilot or Blackberry. Reader’s Digest at bedside, there is barely enough sand left in the hourglass to read a quip from “Laughter, the Best Medicine,”18 or to channel-surf late night televised serial slapstick to help us digest the jagged forgetfulness pill.


Hindus, irrespective of their views of God, accept the teaching of karma as an inevitable factor in life. They believe, rather strongly, that one cannot change one’s karma. Your meeting with the deadly cobra was bound to happen, and Earl, even if the series were renewed ad infinitum, just won’t get it right. The world is evil and full of suffering and sorrow and the Hindu would rather be “free” of this wicked world because it is, indeed, a snare and a trap where cobras and bona fide jerks dwell. One is caught by these traps and struggles to be free but remains in bondage in the long run; to face this reality is to embrace a feeling of hopelessness, which under the circumstances is inevitable and fills this life…and the next.

Suffering is not caused by sin in the universe of karma; it occurs because of one’s ignorance of spiritual principles. Good actions always produce good karma; bad actions result in bad karma. Almost all Hindus believe that all suffering is due to a person’s karma. One is responsible for one’s own suffering and, therefore, capable of taking care of one’s own problems. A clear understanding of this principle is the right place to begin the spiritual pilgrimage.

The world is a manifestation of the Supreme Being and of Atman (the Self), and one reaches complete comprehension of reality when one undertakes rigid discipline such as yoga and comes to realize Atman within his or her own being. There is no guarantee, karma-wise, however, that such a state ever can be achieved. Hindus strongly believe that they will have to return again and again until all karmic debt is settled.

Hindus believe that heaven is not real and that hell is not a physical place. One must strive to balance out one’s karmic equation completely, and thus one must prepare for total identification or oneness with the Supreme Being before one can reach, or hope to reach, spiritual perfection. The real goal of life is not to reach heaven or escape hell but to be delivered from the karmic cycle of life and death that all life forms undergo, which alone can lead to this oneness with the Supreme Being. The world inflicts suffering. To be born into the world is to ask for suffering. The wise person therefore seeks release from the world by seeking an understanding or oneness with the Self.

Some Hindu scholars suggest that moving in the direction of inner search in itself cancels out bad karma and produces good karma. Other Hindus disagree. They contend that when a person begins to move in the direction of searching inward, his karmic debt already has been balanced.


Having established the ultimate goal of life, Hindus also contend that one cannot comprehend, or even raise, the ultimate questions about reality in one lifetime. One needs to be born into this world as many times as necessary to begin to understand the journey.

Hindus also suggest that this journey is not always directed upward. A person can move up or down the scale according to his karmic indebtedness or position. Some Hindu texts suggest that even gods undergo several life forms according to their karma. In other words, no one is free, spiritually speaking, to act on his own without having to bear the consequences of his past actions, or earn the consequences of his present actions in future lives.

Again, all Hindus subscribe to this concept or teaching of reincarnation (which applies to all life forms, not just to people). The basic concept with regard to people is used to explain or understand differences in social status, in spiritual awareness, in health, in intelligence, and in wealth. Hindus believe that the conditions of a person’s birth are determined according to his own personal accumulated karma. Good karma is always associated with the so-called good things of life, such as material riches.

Hindus contradict themselves, however, when they allow materially poor but spiritually rich people, Hindu seers, to have authority in religious matters. Hindu priests, wise gurus, and holy men are considered people with good karma. They are looked on with reverence by almost all Hindus as seekers and interpreters of the ultimate truth. Some of these holy men even claim to know the truth.

Some Hindus believe that when one is born as a Hindu male, in an upper caste, however, one is naturally reaping the rewards of his accumulated good karma. When one is born a female or a foreigner, one is not reaping the rewards of good karma, and is not considered upwardly mobile, spiritually speaking.


Bad actions do lead to bad karma in Hinduism, but bad actions are not considered sins, per se. Bad actions lead to undesirable life experiences and circumstances. Since humanity is free to choose its own form of worship, it, in a sense, is also free to develop its own moral and ethical code of conduct. Humanity, according to Hinduism, is not judged according to a divine code; it is judged according to the religious code of ethical and moral conduct that it selects and exercises for itself.

If there is no understanding of sin, if there is no need of an external God, and if all life forms are different manifestations of the same Supreme Being, one can see how these definitive statements eliminate the concept of evil and ultimately condense all life forms to divine forms. One creates one’s own problems, in a sense, and one must therefore seek one’s own solutions. Some Hindu texts, however, do define the two opposing concepts of good and evil and detail elaborate sacrifices, which can be offered to one’s chosen deity to ward off evil.

There is no judgment day in Hinduism. Hindus would insist that humanity is being judged by its own actions almost on a daily basis, and that it is receiving due and just rewards arising from those actions. Humanity is the policy maker, policy keeper, and policy enforcer—all on its own. Why should Hindus have to wait to receive judgment from God when they continue to judge themselves? Why should Hindus seek a Christian God when they each have been performing the functions of a god? Why do they need salvation in Jesus when they believe they can obtain salvation for themselves?

The Christian message appears to be judgmental. Hindus react, rather strongly, to someone judging them. In their view, no one has the right to develop a moral code for others, and no one has the authority to enforce such a moral code. As noted earlier, each person acts as his or her own judge and monitors his or her own conduct according to his or her own frame of reference.

Religion is cosmic and eternal, transcending human history, which is cyclical. The Hindu concept of religion extends far beyond the human domain. Most Hindus do not restrict or limit the definition of religion. They do not believe that religion is the acceptance of academic abstractions or the celebration of ceremonies. Most Hindus describe religion as a kind of life or experience.

Everyone is on the road to eternal rebirth (moksha), although there are up and down movements in the cycles of reincarnations. The final destiny and desire of each and every soul is the same and Hindus are convinced that they definitely are going to make it. They are on a glorious path to the ultimate blissful and peaceful destination: becoming one with the One! The possibility that they may be pursuing uncertainties does not occur to them.


For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom.5:19–21)

On January30,1948, Mahatma Gandhi, en route to a prayer meeting in Delhi, India, was shot twice in the chest at close range and died moments later. Gandhi’s assassination shocked the world, and national leaders in India as well as Hindu newspapers boldly proclaimed his death an opportunity for the Hindu to understand the meaning of the cross of Jesus Christ in a manner that a century of Christian missionary preaching could not realize.19 Hindu Missionary E.M.Thompson, in his classic work of historical inquiry, The Word of the Cross to Hindus, wrote: “Here was one who had himself resorted to pleading for mercy and justice to the lowliest and for toleration and amity between Hindus and Muslims, and the wickedness of his own country-men had conspired against and killed him at Delhi, even as the hands of wicked men had crucified Jesus at Jerusalem.”20

Admittedly, there are similarities between the death of Christ on a cross and the murder of Gandhi at the hands of a Hindu extremist, but the fundamental differences between the two events and the two men are profound. Gandhi was more than willing to lay down his life for the dissolution of the Hindu caste system and the evils he believed inherent therein, and his radical philosophy had placed him in harm’s way in a volatile climate many times before, but no one would suggest that Gandhi, like Christ on His way to Jerusalem, was aware that it was his time to die for the explicit purpose of the salvation of the human race.

Jesus was only 33 years old and the fruit of His ministry was only three years ripe on the vine, when the cross was there before Him. He both foresaw and foretold His death in this brief span of time, and considered the reality of such an event necessary to accomplish a goal far beyond the reaches of even the most enlightened guru.

The revelation that He is Christ comes surprisingly to one of His disciples, at which point Jesus confesses without hesitation that He must go up to Jerusalem, “suffer many things,” and, in the end, “be killed” (see Matt.16:17–23, especially v.21). There was no need for a show of force to prevent His going there, for He had set His face for such a time as this. During the night that gave way to that horrifying day He went to a familiar garden to prepare His spirit for ultimate surrender, like a lamb readying itself for the ritual slaughter.

If in the incarnation of Christ, God Himself comes into our world, lives as a man “tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb.4:15), and is obedient to His own laws to the point of death on the cross, what of the law of karma?

Good theology should teach us that God by His very nature is both righteousness and love. A person must see the holiness of God’s laws and at the same time be assured of the greatness of God’s love, which forgives those who have rebelled against those laws. In the death of the God-man who was without sin, Jesus accepts the suffering wrought in the crucible of obedience because He cannot be other than His very nature—righteous and good.

To the Hindu, we try to reach perfection, as we understand it, by following a rigid regimen of prescribed disciplines of diet, exercise, yoga, meditation, asceticism, and avoidance of the temptations around the next corner. Picture, if you will, the outstretched arms of the crucified Christ. On one hand Christ offers free and complete emancipation from the exercises in futility that turn the wheels of karmic indebtedness and, on the other hand, reconciliation with God, the Father, by the exercise of one’s simple trust and faith in Him. Hindu modes of perfection do not make any promises in this life or the next, whereas this hanged Christ offers total forgiveness and acceptance to those who put their faith in Him.

Alfred George Hogg (1875–1954), the great Scottish educational missionary to India, whose encounter with the Hindu doctrines of karma and transmigration resulted in an understanding of both that few in history have approached, wrote:

It follows that, if God is freely and fully to express Himself, the universal order must have at least two inviolable laws or principles. It must have the Karmic law, the law that, if sin enters the phenomenal system, penalty must enter too. It must also have the law of Salvation, the law that, if sin enters the phenomenal system, God shall be compelled—with reverence by it spoken!—by all the moral forces of His nature to throw the whole infinitude of His being into the phenomenal system, that is, to incarnate Himself in order to abolish sinfulness….The story of Christ is not the story of a divine expedient: it is the revelation of the inmost necessities of the being of God.21

Narayan believes that an understanding of karma will increase as the yogis and purists have more of an opportunity to educate those who have misunderstood it. She holds out hope that “every once in a while—perhaps after watching [My Name Is Earl, some] college student might be drawn to it because it finally puts a name on a concept that has resonated in him for a long time. And he might start reading about karma, and therefore Hinduism.”22

It is a sincere hope of this writer that that same student, or anyone so inclined to explore the concept of karma in its various guises,23 might also be drawn to the foot of the cross of a crucified Christ, where “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men”(Rom.1:18), and where the question, “Am I under karma or the shadow of the cross?” confronts the face of grace and truth, and the haunting words of Pilate in John19:5 linger today: “Ecco Homo” (“Behold the Man”).24



  1. Raimundo Panikkar, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism: Towards an Ecumenical Christophany (New York: Orbis Books, 1981),151.
  2. All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.
  3. Shoba Narayan, “Pop-Karma: NBC’s ‘My Name Is Earl’ Bandies about a Key Hindu Term without any Idea of Its Real Meaning—but That’s Not Such a Bad Thing,” Belief Net, http://www.beliefnet.com/story/174/story_17471_1.html.
  4. Beginning in the late 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Westerners descended on India, disciples of a cultural revolution that proclaimed that the magic and mystery missing from their lives was to be found in the East. Indian Gita Mehta’s book Karma Cola became an instant classic for describing what happens when the traditions of an ancient society are turned into commodities.
  5. Mary T. Browne, The Power of Karma (New York: HarperCollins, 2003). In The Power of Karma, psychic Mary T. Browne debunks assumptions about Karma, noting that it is an active process over which we can seize control simply by positive action; basically, it is the idea that you get out of life what you put into it.
  6. Mary T. Browne, The Power of Karma, back cover, quoted in Shoba Narayan, “Pop-Karma.”
  7. Shoba Narayan, “Pop-Karma.”
  8. New York Times, “Sunday Styles,” quoted in Mary T. Browne, The Power of Karma, back cover, quoted in Shoba Narayan, “Pop-Karma.”
  9. Shoba Narayan, “Pop-Karma.”
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Edgar W. Thompson, The Word of the Cross to Hindus (Madras, India: The Christian Literature Society, 1956),102.
  13. This parable is roughly paraphrased from R. C. Zahhner’s Hinduism (London: Oxford University Press, 1962),87–88.
  14. Ibid.
  15. See Charles Hummel, Tyranny of the Urgent (1967; repr., Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994) and Charles Hummel, Freedom from Tyranny of the Urgent (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), in which the author introduced and amplified the distinction between the important and the urgent, and offered a biblical understanding of how God’s will should take precedence in determining what has value in life.
  16. See Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973). Becker focuses in this Pulitzer Prize-winning book on how we as Westerners develop strategies to forget our mortality and vulnerability and convince ourselves that we are immortal.
  17. See Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), in which the author writes about this phenomenon from the perspective of an undertaker in small-town America.
  18. Sample from that column: “What did the ginger-bread man put on his bed? Cookie sheets.” Reader’s Digest, December2006,140.
  19. Edgar W. Thompson, 117.
  20. Ibid., 117–18.
  21. Alfred George Hogg, Karma and Redemption: An Essay Toward the Interpretation of Hinduism and the Re-Statement of Christianity (Madras, India: The Christian Literature Society, 1970),114-15.
  22. Shoba Narayan, “Pop-Karma,” http://www.beliefnet.com/story/174/story_17471_2.html.
  23. What follows is a short list of books that address either the doctrine of Karma or the person of Christ in both secular and sacred venues. Ram Gidoomal and Michael Fearon, Karma ‘n’ Chips: The New Age of Asian Spirituality (London: Wimbledon Publishing Company, 1994); Alfred George Hogg, Karma and Redemption (Madras, India: The Christian Literature Society, 1970); Gajanan Wasudeo Kaveeshwar, The Law of Karma (Gurudeva R. D. Ranade Memorial Lectures, University of Puna, 1974); Yuvraj Krishan, The Doctrine of Karma: Its Origin and Development in Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jaina Traditions (Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1997); S. Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life (New Delhi, India: HarperCollins, 1998); Anantanand Rambachan, The Advaita Worldview: God, World, and Humanity (New York: SUNY Press, 2006); Bruce R. Reichenbach, The Law of Karma (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990); Rudolf Steiner, The Manifestation of Karma (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1968); Edgar W. Thompson, The Word of the Cross to Hindus (Madras, India: The Christian Literature Society,1956).
  24. “So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the man!’” (John19:5).
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