Karma (Sanskrit, karman ; literally, "deed," "action") is an adjunct in Indian religious thought to the doctrine of Reincarnation. In one form or another, it is part of the beliefs of Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. The actions of a living being are regarded as having a special class of causal effects that determine his future spiritual condition, both in this life and in succeeding ones. These effects are known as the "fruits" of the action. Good deeds lead to progress toward liberation (mokṣa, nirvana); bad ones, to regress from this goal. Usually caste status, disease, prosperity, and so forth are thought to be the consequences of actions in previous lives. Thus, karma is an ethically oriented causal law; and although some Hindus regard karma as the work of God, the concept does not necessitate this interpretation, and the award of deserts is as often regarded as an automatic process in nature.
The archaic notion of karma seems to have been that action as such binds men to the world (and thereby to suffering and ignorance); hence, liberation must involve suspension of all activity. Thus, in Jainism, which represents a very ancient strand in Indian religion, even a good action, although inducing an influx of meritorious karma, ties the person to matter. Indeed, karma, as the force determining rebirth, is itself regarded as a subtle form of matter. Also—and hence the emphasis on "noninjury" (ahiṃsā )—especially evil effects follow from a person's destroying life, even microorganisms. Such ideas lay behind the heroically quietistic Jain ideal of suicide by self-starvation. Moreover, the concept of karma in Vedic literature had the meaning of ritual act, so that combined with the need to refrain from activity there runs through much Indian ascetic thought the notion that even religious acts, although they may bring heavenly rewards, bind men to the cosmos and to rebirth: heaven is part of the cosmos and itself must be transcended.
These ideas presented a number of problems to speculative and religious thinkers: (1) How can liberation ever be achieved if even the effort to be inactive, and inactivity itself, may be forms of binding action? (2) How can the ordinary man, involved in his worldly duties and concerns, have any hope of escaping rebirth? (3) By what mechanism does karma operate on future births? (4) Why, if karma is what keeps empirical life going, does the saint (jīvanmukta ), who has attained serenity and release in this life, keep on living? (5) How can there be any human initiative or free will if our present state is inexorably determined by past karma?
Various answers to these questions were given, among them the following: (1) The Jains hold that karmic matter can be annihilated by austerities, so that gradually it can be totally removed from an individual. On the other hand, Buddhism transformed the notion of karma by holding that motives, rather than the acts themselves, are what count and that karma needs craving (taṇhā ) as a necessary condition of its effectiveness. Hence, by removing craving through the purification of one's motives, one can find release from rebirth. For the Hindu theologian Śankara, the power of karma depends on ignorance, so that the contemplative knowledge that the Self is the sole reality brings liberation from the continuing effects of karma.
(2) On the one hand, the ordinary man can hope to become a recluse, monk, or holy man in a future life. On the other hand, theistic ideas introduced grace as a countervailing means of liberation. Thus, in the Bhagavad Gītā it is stressed that a man, in performing his duties without regard to their fruits and in sole reliance upon the Lord, can escape the bonds of karma. Likewise, in Mahāyāna Buddhism the theory of the transfer of merit involves the belief that the otherwise unworthy individual can be given merit by a bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) out of the latter's infinite store, acquired through many lives of heroic self-sacrifice on behalf of living beings; thereby the individual qualifies for rebirth in paradise (where the conditions for attaining nirvana are peculiarly favorable). Thus the operation of karma is short-circuited by grace and faith.
(3) It is commonly held that karma is adṛṣṭa, an invisible force, so that the need to postulate an observable mechanism is evaded. However, among some schools the doctrine that the soul is all-pervasive (and not localized) helps to explain the concept of karmic action-at-a-distance. Traditional medical writings (first or second century) affirm that a person's characteristics are not derived solely from his parents (in this, there is an incipient conflict between modern genetics and the theory of karma).
(4) It is generally held that there is a limited continuance of karmic effects, like the running on of a potter's wheel after the potter has stopped turning it—but when the saint's death occurs, there will be no further rebirth for him.
(5) Various positions are adopted concerning the question of free will. The Buddha, for instance, was clearly impressed by the principle that knowledge of causes gives one the opportunity to determine the future, so that a proper understanding of karma and its causality should in no way involve fatalistic conclusions. He attacked Makkhali Gosāla, a contemporary teacher, for holding a fatalistic predestinationism, allied to extreme asceticism (which was in no sense a cause of final release, but merely symptomatic of one's progress). The Jains held that theoretically, in its pure state, the life monad or soul is capable of any kind of effort: Because of this "omnipotence" it never needs to be subservient to karma.
Although some schools argued that, since the effects of karma are morally regulated, one must presuppose a conscious regulator, namely God, atheistic and agnostic proponents of karma theory held that the difficulties of belief in God are as great as, or greater than, those inherent in assuming the automatic operation of karma. Moreover, belief in God generally involves the notion that unworthy people can short-circuit karma through calling on God in faith, and this cuts against the concepts of moral responsibility and self-help.
Dasgupta, S. N. A History of Indian Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1922. Vol. I, Ch. 4.
Paranjoti, Violet. Saiva Siddhānta, 2nd ed. London: Luzac, 1954. Pp. 38ff.
Parrinder, Geoffrey. Upanishads, Gītā and Bible. London, 1962. Ch. 9.
Tucci, Giuseppe. Storia della filosofia indiana. Bari, Italy, 1957. Part II, Ch. 10.
Ninian Smart (1967)
A doctrine common to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Theosophy, although not wholly adopted by Theosophists as taught in the other two religions. The word karma itself means "action," but implies both action and reaction. All actions have consequences, some immediate, some delayed, others in future incarnations, according to Eastern beliefs. Thus individuals bear responsibility for all their actions and cannot escape the consequences, although bad actions can be expiated by good ones.
Action is not homogeneous, but on the contrary contains three elements: the thought, which conceives the action; the will, which finds the means of accomplishment; and the union of thought and will, which brings the action to fruition. It is plain, therefore, that thought has potential for good or evil, for as the thought is, so will the action be. The miser, thinking of avarice, is avaricious; the libertine, thinking of vice, is vicious; and, conversely, one thinking of virtuous thoughts shows virtue in his or her actions.
There is also a viewpoint which believes that karma comes not from the action itself, but the beliefs and feelings which motivate or allow the action. "The law of karma is not a justice and retribution system, so anyone who has had much suffering in this life is not a victim of 'bad karma,' but simply finds themselves in predicaments that are simply the result of their own beliefs about themselves."
Arising from such teaching is the attention devoted to thought power. Using the analogy of the physical body, which can be developed by regimen and training based on natural scientific laws, Theosophists teach that character, in a similar way, can be scientifically built up by exercising the mind.
Every vice is considered evidence of lack of a corresponding virtue—avarice, for instance, shows the absence of generosity. Instead of accepting that an individual is naturally avaricious, Theosophists teach that constant thought focused on generosity will in time change the individual's nature in that respect. The length of time necessary for change depends on at least two factors: the strength of thought and the strength of the vice; the vice may be the sum of the indulgence of many ages and therefore difficult to eradicate.
The doctrine of karma, therefore, must be considered not in relation to one life only, but with an understanding of reincarnation. In traditional Hinduism individuals were seen as immersed in a world of illusion, called maya. In this world, distracted from the real world of spirit, one performs acts, and those actions create karma—consequences. In traditional teaching the goal of life was to escape karma. There was little difference between good and bad karma. Karma kept one trapped in the world of illusion.
During the nineteenth century, Western notions of evolution of life and the moral order were influenced by Indian teachings. Some began to place significance upon good karma as a means of overcoming bad karma. The goal gradually became the gaining of good karma, rather than escape. Such an approach to reincarnation and karma became popular in Theosophy and Spiritism, a form of Spiritualism.
Western scholars have often mistakenly viewed karma and fate as the same concept. Fate, however, is the belief that the path of one's life is established by agencies outside oneself. Karma is the opposite, implying the ability to alter one's path of life—in a future life if not the present—by altering one's feelings and beliefs, and by engaging in positive practices. "It is the coward and the fool who says this is fate," goes the Sanskrit proverb. "But it is the strong man who stands up and says, "I will make my fate."
According to this view, reincarnation is carried on under the laws of karma and evolution. The newborn baby bears within it the seeds of former lives. His or her character is the same as it was in past existences, and so it will continue unless the individual changes it, which he or she has the power to do. Each succeeding existence finds that character stronger in one direction or another. If it is evil the effort to change it becomes increasingly difficult; indeed a complete change may not be possible until many lifetimes of effort have passed. In cases such as these, temptation may be too strong to resist, yet the individual who has knowledge of the workings of karma will yield to evil only after a desperate struggle; thus, instead of increasing the power of the evil, he helps to destroy its potency. Only in the most rare cases can an individual free himself with a single effort.
The karmic goal in reincarnation, however, is said not necessarily to raise the soul to a higher plain of existence, but entreat enlightenment to reign at whichever level of existence the soul happens to find itself. "Many…see the process of enlightenment as "ascension"; it is in fact more true to say that it is a process of descension, that is bringing the light down to all levels."
Abhedananda, Swami. Doctrine of Karma: A Study in the Philosophy and Practice of Work. Calcutta: Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, 1965.
Carus, Paul. Karma: A Study of Buddhist Ethics. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1894.
Feuerstein, George. The Shambala Guide to Yoga. Boston and London: Shambala, 1996.
Glasenapp, Helmuth von. The Doctrine of Kerman in Jain Philosophy. Bombay: Bai Vojibai Jivanial Panalal Charity Fund, 1942.
Hanson, Virginia, ed. Karma: The Universal Law of Harmony. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1975.
Jast, L. Stanley. Reincarnation and Karma. Secaucus, N.J.: Castle Books, 1955.
"Karma: Meaning and Definition." Hinduism Today June 19, 1994, http://www.spiritweb.org/.
Payne, John. "Reincarnation & Karma." January 1, 1995 http://www.spiritweb.org/.
Reichenbach, Bruce R. The Law of Karma: A Philosophical Study. London: Macmillan, 1990.
Sharma, I. C. Cayce, Karma and Reincarnation. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1975.
Silananda, U. An Introduction to the Law of Karma. Berkeley, Calif.: Dharmachakka Meditation Center, 1990.
The term "karma" is derived from the ancient Sanskrit language and carries an idea that is centrally important in the major religious traditions that come from India. The basic idea is that action (karma or karman) has consequences. The Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions share this assumption. To whatever extent one is capable of intentional and willful action, one is responsible for it and eventually will experience its consequences. The general assumption in the notion of karma is that whatever action you intend or actually carry out will reflect your present character and will determine your future destiny to an extent that you may not be able to anticipate at the time when you entertain or perform the act itself. In short, the idea of karma places a very high value on the cultivation of careful and consistent patterns of thought and behavior.
In the traditional religions of India, the context for taking account of karmic patterns of acts and consequences is greatly extended because of a second and closely related idea. This is the idea of rebirth or reincarnation. It affirms that any living entity is at most only a link in a longer and larger chain of life that extends far into the past and future. Although a living person may seem to be exclusively the product of a unique human birth that happened just a few years ago, from the perspective of karma and rebirth that person is a contemporary manifestation of earlier life-forms and a step on the way to later forms of life that are integrally connected to the present one. Although hardly anyone claims to remember his or her previous births or is capable of predicting future ones, the fact that a few rare people display or seem to display such powers is convincing to many Hundus, Buddhists, and Jains, who believe that every form of life is part of a universal karmic process that does not uniquely privilege humans over others.
The idea of karma, only sometimes combined with the notion of reincarnation, has been part of American religious thinking since the New England Transcendentalists, who were inspired by the religions of India and discussed the Bhagavad Gītā, which is the Hindu text best known to modern people. The work of the Theosophical Society, which had headquarters in America and in India and which contributed to the revival of Hinduism and Buddhism in South Asia during the colonial era, as well as the several visiting lecturers from Asia who came to the United States to speak at the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, did much to spread the idea. From World War I through the 1960s, this-worldly or ethical notions of karma were spread by the influence of great practitioners of civil disobedience such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Since the late 1960s, new religious movements and new immigrants from Asia have begun to make the idea of karma seem to be part of the American cultural fabric. Although Columbus did not find India, in time the karmic process brought India to America.
Conser, Walter H., Jr., and Sumner B. Twiss, eds. Religious Diversity and American Religious History: Studies in Traditions and Cultures. 1997.
Ellwood, Robert S., ed. Eastern Spirituality in America. 1987.
Keyes, Charles F., and E. Valentine Daniel, eds. Karma: An Anthropological Inquiry. 1983.
Miller, Timothy, ed. America's Alternative Religions. 1995.
Neufeldt, Ronald W., ed. Karma and Rebirth: Postclassical Developments. 1986.
O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, ed. Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. 1980.
Tull, Herman W. The Vedic Origins of Karma: Cosmos as Man in Ancient Indian Myth and Ritual. 1989.
Tweed, Thomas A., and Stephen Prothero, eds. Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History. 1999.
Gene R. Thursby
In Hinduism, the word karma first appears in the Ṛg Veda, where it means religious action, specifically sacrifice; there is no hint here of its later meaning as the force driving beings through saṃsāra. There is some hint of this in the Brāhmaṇas, but only with the Upaniṣads do we really find karma in the sense of causality of action—e.g. Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad 4. 4. 5.
Action creates impressions (saṃskāras) or tendencies (vāsanās) in the mind which in time will come to fruition in further action. The subtle body (liṅga or śūkṣma śarīra), in which the individual soul (jiva) transmigrates, carries the seeds of karma; and the gross body (sthūla śarīra) is the field (kṣetra) in which the fruit (phala) of action is experienced, and which also creates more karma.
Vedānta and Yoga speak of three kinds of karma: (i) prārabdha, karma to be experienced during the present lifetime, (ii) sañcita, latent karma, or the store of karma which has yet to reach fruition, and (iii) āgamin or sañcīyama, the karma sown in the present life which will be reaped in a future life. Liberation (mokṣa) is freedom from karma. When mokṣa is attained, the great store of sañcita karma is burnt up, but the prārabdha remains to complete its course. The liberated person (jivanmukta) creates no more new karma and at death, having no more karma, is no longer reborn.
In Buddhism, much of the same basic sense of a law of consequence is retained, but there is no ‘self’ to be reborn. Only intentions and actions free of desire, hate, and delusion are free of karmic consequence. Karma/kamma is neither fatalistic nor deterministic, since true insight enables one to direct the stream of continuity, or even to bring it to cessation.
Among Jains, karma is a kind of subtle matter which attaches itself to the jīva and weighs it down in bondage and rebirth. All actions, good as well as evil, cause karmic matter to attach to the soul. Therefore, the abandoning of action, in complete ascetic renunciation (even to the extent of voluntary starvation), is necessary.
For Sikhs, karma (Pañjābi, karamu) is accepted as consequential action, but against it is set karma (Arab., karam, ‘favour’) meaning the grace of God. Sikhs concentrate on bringing karma (grace) to bear on karma, leading to union with God.
Hinduism has many different definitions of karma, some making karma appear quite deterministic. A clear classical description is found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (c. 200 b.c.e.–c. 200 c.e.) (sutras II: 12–14 and IV: 7–9). This description has been widely influential and makes room for free will. Every time one does an action or thinks a thought, a memory trace or karmic seed is laid down in one's unconscious. There it waits for circumstances conducive to it sprouting forth as an impulse or predisposition to do the same action or think the same thought again. This impulse is not mechanistic in nature, rather, it simply predisposes a person to do an action or think a thought. Through the use of free choice one decides either to go with the karmic impulse, in which case it is reinforced and strengthened, or to say "no" and negate it, in which case its strength is diminished until it is removed from the unconscious. Karmas can be either good or bad as defined by Hindu scripture. Good actions and thoughts lay down good karmic traces in the unconscious for the predisposing of future good karmic impulses. Evil actions or thoughts do the reverse. Karmic impulses do not disappear at death but are carried forward into the next life as one is reborn (samsara ).
See also Determinism; Hinduism
the yoga sutras of patanjali, trans. j. h. woods. harvard oriental series, vol. 17. varanasi, india: motilal banarsidass, 1966.
A term literally meaning "action," it came to be used in Hindu doctrine to signify the chain of cause and effect by which every action necessarily produces a given effect, not only in the physical but also in the moral order. This chain of cause and effect was believed to extend beyond the individual life-span, so that each man's character and fortune is determined by his past action or karma in a previous life. Thus, every soul has its own karma, which it inherits from the past, and continues to create new karma by its actions in the present. Nevertheless, by good works, especially of a religious nature, and by refraining from all harmful action, it is possible to destroy the effects of past karma and to avoid acquiring new. Accordingly, though one's life, character, and above all one's position in society are largely determined by karma, an element of freedom is left. The goal of every soul is ultimately to be set free from karma and to attain liberation (mokṣa ) from the wheel of time (saṁsāra ). Hence, though there is an element of fatalism in the doctrine of karma, it is rightly contended that it leaves a place for freedom and morality.
See Also: indian philosophy; hinduism.