David J. Neumann: Karma

Finding God Through Yoga by David J. NeumannToday we welcome a guest post from David J. Neumann, author of Finding God through Yoga:  Paramahansa Yogananda and Modern American Religion in a Global Age, just published by UNC Press.

Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952), a Hindu missionary to the United States, wrote one of the world’s most highly acclaimed spiritual classics, Autobiography of a Yogi, which was first published in 1946 and continues to be one of the best-selling spiritual philosophy titles of all time. In this critical biography, David Neumann tells the story of Yogananda’s fascinating life while interpreting his position in religious history, transnational modernity, and American culture. Beginning with Yogananda’s spiritual investigations in his native India, Neumann tells how this early “global guru” emigrated to the United States in 1920 and established his headquarters, the Self-Realization Fellowship, in Los Angeles, where it continues today.

Finding God through Yoga is available now in both print and ebook editions.



Among the many concepts from sacred Indian tradition that have made their way into American popular culture, perhaps none is as pervasive as karma. Not surprisingly, common understanding of karma as a rigid cosmic law of cause and effect reflects a lack of nuance.

For one example of such popular misunderstanding, consider Alicia Keys’ song “Karma,” which moved to the top of the charts after its 2003 release. The song is addressed to a former lover who broke up with her. She had begged him to stay, but he said “the love was gone.” But the tables have turned; he has changed his mind and now he is the one “cryin’, desirin’ to come back.” In Keys’ view, the suffering her ex-lover experiences after having inflicted so much pain on her is perfect, unrelenting karmic justice: “What goes around, comes around/What goes up, must come down,” the refrain proclaims four times during the song.

This idea of an inexorable, impersonal force of judgment is not a complete misunderstanding of Hindu thought. Swami Vivekananda, one of the most important figures in popularizing Hinduism in the United States around the turn of the twentieth-century, emphatically stated, “Our Karma determines what we deserve and what we can assimilate. We are responsible for what we are; and whatever we wish ourselves to be, we have the power to make ourselves.”

If the doctrine of karma is more complex and nuanced than many Americans think, it also has intriguing parallels with other religious traditions, offering an opportunity to compare ideas on such fundamental ideas as guilt, justice, and fate.

But Vivekananda also made clear that this feature of karma as moral consequence was only one element of a more complex understanding of the principles guiding all human “action,” which etymologically captures the root of the Sanskrit word from which karma derives.

More importantly, the seemingly inexorable law of karmic justice turns out to be a lot more complicated in Hindu teaching than the popular notion of “instant karma,” to use the title of another song, this one by John Lennon. According to some Indian teachings, the consequences of karma may not all be realized in one’s lifetime. Evil actions performed in this life may plant seeds that only bear fruit after one or more reincarnations. This can make it very difficult to determine why something bad (or good) happens to a particular individual.

Also, according to some teachers, the consequences of negative karma are not entirely inevitable. The practice of meditation or worshipful devotion can burn the seeds of past karma, preventing them from bearing fruit. In this way, disciplined spiritual action in the present can overrule the apparently inescapable future consequences of previous actions.

Perhaps most intriguingly, many Hindus believe that an individual does not always have to bear personal responsibility for her or his karma. In some cases, a fully-realized guru may take on the karmic burden of one or more disciples, suffering vicariously on behalf of his or her disciples. This often causes severe physical anguish to the guru. This is what Paramahansa Yogananda, for example, claimed to have done for his disciples. He told favorite disciple James Lynn, “I have taken almost all of your karma on myself—and I will work the sufferance out in this body—that you may be free from the subtle traps of desires and attachments and have a clear sailing, like a shooting star in the distant heavens.”

This may strike readers as analogous to some understandings of Jesus’s crucifixion as the vicarious substitutionary atonement for his disciples’ sins. Yogananda often hinted at similarities between himself and Jesus. And shortly after his death in 1952, his disciples looked back on the final meal they had eaten with him as a Last Supper.

If the doctrine of karma is more complex and nuanced than many Americans think, it also has intriguing parallels with other religious traditions, offering an opportunity to compare ideas on such fundamental ideas as guilt, justice, and fate.


David J. Neumann is assistant professor of history education at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.  For more info, visit his website.  You can read his previous UNC Press Blog post here.