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Can karmic retribution or fear of God deter people from wrong deeds?

by Dr Sulekh Jain
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Conventional deterrents like the police force and the military employed by societies have failed to stop crime and violence. What can?

Throughout human history, violence and crime have been an unfortunate reality. Wars have been a recurring phenomenon. Civilization may have advanced but incidents of murder, rape, looting, and human trafficking have not abated. Terrorism is a new menace. The non-violent crimes – which do harm others – of cheating, scamming, adulteration, and smuggling have only gone up.

Deterrents that society employs

Every society places a high value on the safety and security of its citizens and employs various means to deter crimes and violence. These measures, collectively known as deterrents, encompass both formal and informal strategies.

Some of the deterrents employed on the collective level include the military, police, legal systems, prisons, corporal punishment, and the death penalty.

The fear of getting caught and punished may keep people like you and me on the straight and narrow. But in societies, there is no stopping violence and crimes – old and new. The question then arises, why do humans continue to engage in such deplorable acts and do the established deterrents work?

Military and Police: The presence of a strong military and effective police force is often seen as a deterrent to external threats and domestic crime. The idea is that an enemy nation will think twice before attacking, and your own citizens will be deterred by the fear of being caught and punished.

Yet, geopolitical issues, the powerful arms industry, and the development of newer and superior weapons of mass destruction have kept things on the boil globally. Even the  United Nations has been reduced to just a bystander, not able to stop or end wars.

As for the police, surely it has become smarter in technology and ammunition, but so have hard-core criminals and traffickers.

Courts and the Legal Systems: The elaborate and ever-increasing laws impose fines and prison sentences to resolve disputes and punish wrongdoers. Yet, the legal system has failed to adequately deter wrongdoing. Witness the courts clogged with criminal cases. The fact also remains that all laws, the police and court systems, and the degree of punishment are manmade,  varying from place to place and from time to time. That leaves grey areas between right and wrong for the criminal to be less restrained.    

Ordinary folks also become less respectful of laws when they see that the rich and influential people use bribes, their clout, and smart attorneys to regularly escape punishment for their crimes.

policeman

All laws and the degree of punishment vary from place to place and from time to time, leaving grey areas between right and wrong for the criminal to be less restrained. Besides, seeing rich and influential law-breakers go scot-free, many become less respectful of the system.    

Unconventional deterrents

Karmic reckoning, punishment meted out by divine powers (commonly God), fear of hell, and the view from the vantage point of old age and death have been considered deterrents in many religions and societies. These deal with all types of actions and harm – physical, mental, and fiduciary. Modern societies and systems, of course, dismiss such amorphous notions as superstition, and their sway has become less potent in our times.

Old Age: All human beings age and eventually die. Some believe that the natural consequences of aging and the inevitability of death should serve as deterrents to engage in visible and non-visible violent, criminal, and other harmful activities. With age, individuals are expected to gain wisdom and a sense of responsibility.

But this too does not appear to serve as a big deterrent. When one is young and healthy, old age is not on your radar.

Death: Similarly, very few people think of death as a deterrent. Generally, criminals and wrong doers think that they are made of steel and are immortal. “It is the other people who will die, not me. There is only one life to live and hence I am free and entitled to enjoy it fully and do whatever, whenever, and to whoever I want to do,” goes their thinking. But many of them repent when death knocks, but it is too late by then.

Yet, if you contemplate that today may be the last day of your life, you will be less likely to do wrong.  

Karmic Repercussions: In Indic religions (Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism) as well as a few other cultures, there is a belief in the eternal and all-encompassing laws of karma. The adage “as you sow, so shall you reap” underscores that one’s actions bear consequences in this life – or the next. Actions are generally categorized into two types: ‘punya’ (good or meritorious deeds) and ‘papa’ (bad and unmeritorious deeds). Punya karma result in happiness, joy, good health, and prosperity, while papa karma lead to pain, suffering, and unhappiness.

Karmic reckoning

Karmic reckoning, punishment meted out by God, and fear of hell have been considered deterrents in many religions and societies. But modern societies and systems dismiss such amorphous notions as superstition, and their sway has become less potent in our times.

The laws of karma are universal, unchanging across time and place, and are applicable to all visible and invisible deeds and actions. Since no one can escape the consequences of their actions, karma should serve as a moral and spiritual deterrent against wrongdoing. Regrettably, many individuals, when engaging in papa karma often disregard the reckoning that is bound to come one day. It’s only when the consequences come to bear that they realize their mistakes and folly. But by then, it’s often too late. 

This realization too has proven to be insufficient as a deterrent in many cases.

Belief in the Divine and Almighty: Most cultures and religions worldwide promote faith in the existence of a higher power, whether it’s God or Ishwar (the creator, preserver, destroyer, rewarder, merciful/punisher, etc). God is believed to be omnipresent, all-knowing, and impossible to hide from. God is impartial and cannot be swayed or manipulated. The Bible agrees, proclaiming: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”  

Many people turn to their faith as a moral compass that dissuades them from engaging in immoral or unlawful acts. People often pray to God to seek favors, blessings, mercy, and forgiveness through prayers, pujas, or charity.

But since God is invisible, some believers may even question His very existence. The reality is that while committing a crime, very few think of hell or divine retribution.

Degree of Effectiveness

The effectiveness of conventional or unconventional deterrents varies from one individual to another, and from one society to another. While military and police forces can deter some crimes and external threats, they may not always prevent them entirely. Legal systems, while serving as a deterrent for the law-abiding, may fail to address the root causes of criminal behavior, such as poverty or lack of education. Belief in old age, death, karma, and divine entities as deterrents relies on individual belief systems. They may work for some, but they do not provide deterrence universally.

Conclusion: The unfortunate reality is that there is no deterrent that man is afraid of and as such there is hardly any effective deterrent to contain crime and violence in society and the world.

Last Laugh: The other day I was sharing these thoughts with a friend, and he said, ‘Man is afraid of only one deterrent and that is his wife.’

Visuals courtesy: www.blomeyer.berlin, King’s Church International, and Samuel Martins.

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