Q: What are the similarities between karma in the Gita and Christianity?
A: In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is instructing Arjuna about his concern whether he should go to war or not and possibly end up killing Bhishma and Drona and others of his own relatives. Krishna says Arjuna is not simply killing his relatives, but in doing his duty as a warrior in war, he will also be freeing them from the pain and suffering of the law of karma upon them in this life and permitting them to start in another life—perhaps in a better state. Krishna teaches this based upon the soul being something that cannot be damaged or killed. Krishna teaches Arjuna to avoid the karmic reactions that a person might encounter from doing a deed. He advocates his duty as the way to be free from karmic reaction. It is this he says that will bring a person to escape the cycle of sin and death. Krishna tells Arjuna that to avoid his responsibility to fight would be to incur a karmic reaction. So simply do your duty.
Karma is taught to be a cosmic force that brings people their just due from the actions and deeds of previous lives. This is how the troubles and evils of the world that befall people are often explained. And there are different levels or types of karma, from the karma of an individual to the karma of a group. The type of karma Krishna talks about in the Gita is ‘Kriyaman’ karma—karma that is being produced during our lifetime. There is also karma from previous lives and future karma being laid out by our thoughts.
A popular way to understand karma would be something like a spiritual Visa card. Every month you get the bills, but the difference is that you have no way of knowing how much debt is coming due, and how you accrued the debt. There is no way to trace these accounts, but somehow the bank (karma) will always catch up with you. Karma can only be counteracted with good deeds and meditation, etc.
So what does Jesus teach? Is his teaching similar to the concept of karma?
In one sense, there is a similarity. Both karma and the teaching of Jesus on what he calls “sin”—both include the idea that man can and does do things wrong and evil. That there is something wrong with the human race is somewhat included in both of these concepts.
But the differences are great. The source of our problem and how to counteract it are very different in the teaching of Jesus. The Bible teaches that man lives once, and then after death there is judgment. Karma assumes many lifetimes in order to escape the cycle of birth and death and be freed from the web of Samsara. Jesus teaches that all men accrue a debt that comes from one life of deeds, motives, words, and thoughts that are bent or evil. In the teaching of Jesus, having more than one lifetime would only make the problem worse, the Visa debt would simply climb higher and higher.
The solution to sin is also deeper in the Christian teaching, in that deeds and meditation are not acceptable balances to the problem. Jesus teaches that God is absolutely perfect and demands this from His creatures as well. Man cannot make up for evil deeds with good deeds, because the standard is not a balance of good and evil, but goodness and purity and perfection. The Visa bill that is due is not payable in money or in pilgrimages or good deeds: in fact it is the lack of the fullness of these in a complete way that brings the debt due.
Jesus also reveals that God is compassionate and full of grace. The teaching and life of Jesus is that He came as God in the flesh, the only incarnation of God among men, and that He went to a cross intentionally-- to pay the debt for all the world’s sin. As the only perfect man, he was qualified to pay the debt. As God incarnate he has the full weight to pay for the sins of the entire world. The way of forgiveness is simply to address the Visa bills: “payable by Jesus.”
I hope this helps to show the similarities and differences of the Hindu concept of karma and the Bible’s teaching regarding sin.