Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Difference Between Karma and Revenge

There must be a great many closet Buddhists or Hindus among us these days, because wherever I turn I see something about karma. Religions seem to come out at us from the East, shrouded in mystery and a strange sort of dignity, and there is a great attraction in eastern religions for those who have spiritual tendencies, though they have squarely rejected the Western religious traditions. The Laffite and Little families were not immune to Eastern influences. Jean and Denise Laffite both seemed to know something about the I Ching,  and copied out quotations in their notebooks. But for all the attraction that he may have felt for the wisdom of the far east, I am pretty sure Jean Laffite was never a Buddhist. He believed in revenge, not in karma.

What is the difference between revenge and karma? Revenge is active and straightforward and involves punishing someone who has wronged you. Karma is passive-aggressive, and it involves waiting around for the universe to punish someone you don't like and then gloating about it.

The benefits of revenge is that it metes out direct justice for a specific wrong in a way that can be easily understood by all concerned, including disinterested onlookers. Revenge creates catharsis, releases anger, and allows life to return to normal more quickly after a bad event. Revenge speeds up the mourning process and brings inner peace. Revenge also has a good effect on society as a whole.  The world becomes a better place when someone works out correct revenge against an appropriate target, because everyone stands forewarned that misbehavior toward others does not pay. All the usual reasons for the criminal law are found in a revenge act properly executed: punishment, deterrence and a way to cut down on recidivism.

Now the sticking point is, of course, that it has to be the correct target.  If you attack an innocent third party for something that someone else did to you, then you are spreading injustice and sowing discord and suffering and war. So it is very important to go after the correct target and only the correct target. Bombing an entire village for something one person did is not proper revenge. The slogan that "an eye for an eye" will make all the world blind is actually based on the idea that you will go after the wrong target and create an avalanche of wrongdoing, instead of going after the original wrongdoer and help to enforce the law and cut down on crime. Revenge, properly executed, leads to closure.

In Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain, an act of revenge is even something that makes eventual forgiveness possible. It's not possible to forgive a wrongdoer when he is not penitent and will not apologize.  People rarely make a heartfelt apology unless they are truly contrite. Contrition is more easily achieved after experiencing a punishment that is related to the crime by an avenger who is kind enough to explain the connection.

Now compare this straightforward method of meting out justice with the ways of karma. Karma presupposes that the punishment for bad behavior will be doled out by the universe in an unfolding of mysterious long-deferred cause and effect. Rather than punishing your enemy, you have only to kick back and relax and wait for something bad to happen to him. People who believe in karma enjoy gloating over the misfortune of others.

The problem with that is that bad things happen to everyone.  Sometimes very bad things happen to very good people. Gloating over every misfortune is an ugly trait that some humans have. The Germans have a name for it: Schadenfreude.

Good people do not enjoy the undeserved suffering of other people. They do not tell a rape victim that she must have had it coming, or a holocaust survivor that he must be paying for the killing he did in a previous life.

According to Shirley MacClaine:

“What if most Holocaust victims were balancing their karma from ages before…. The energy of killing is endless and will be experienced by the killer and the killee.”

It is the belief in karma that perpetuates suffering by blaming victims for the wrongs that they suffer. Killing isn't bad. Murder is bad. Until and unless people learn to tell the difference, there can never be any peace, neither the conventional kind, as in the cessation of war, nor the internal kind, as in closure after a terrible injustice. A great man does not gloat  over the undeserved misfortunes of another, even if it is his own worst enemy. He does, however, avenge wrongs against himself and his family.

Lotus Flower


  1. True Buddhists do not gloat. The goal of Buddhism is enlightenment, and compassion for all living things.

    1. Well, perhaps, but there an awful lot of less than perfect Buddhists who do, Pam. They actually brag that they did nothing to make it happen, but the person who harmed them suffered terribly as a result of karma. And they also tend to suggest that every undeserved instance of suffering they encounter is a result of karma for having done something wrong in this or another life. My experience with Buddhists is that they are calm but relentless against those who stand in their way.

    2. Well, I am an admirer of the Dalai Lama, and while I do not identify as pure Buddhist in philosophy, I do follow those tenets as well as most of the Christian tenets, so I am sort of a Buddhist-Christian. True, I have not been among many pure Buddhists, so I do not know how they can act regarding perception of karma. Everyone is human, with foibles, however. The Buddhist goal remains enlightenment.

    3. Hi, Pam. I think in many ways the gloating about karma thing happens among Christians, too. I remember one very devout Christian woman told me about a co-worker who got her fired, and then said she was sure it was God punishing this woman for her wrongful act that caused the woman's son to die. This seemingly made my friend happy and took away any need for her to speak up about the wrongdoing of the co-worker to her employer.

      The problem is not just the gloating about another's completely unrelated misfortune, which is unbecoming. But it is that people find no need to do anything about evil that happens, because the checks and balances in divine nature will take care of it for them. So they will stand by and watch people slaughtered and feel very virtuous about it, and possibly even blame the people who are killed for their own suffering.

      I am not sure about the Dalai Lama, I did see him quoted as saying it is all right to defend yourself, which is a step in the right direction. But defending others is also important, when we can.