Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म kárma (help·info), kárman- “act, action, performance”; Pali: kamma) in Indian religions is the concept of “action” or “deed”, understood as that which causes the entire cycle of cause and effect (i.e., the cycle called saṃsāra) originating in ancient India and treated in Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh philosophies.
‘Karma’ is an Indian religious concept in contradistinction to ‘faith’ espoused by Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), which view all human dramas as the will of God as opposed to present – and past – life actions. In theistic schools of Hinduism, humans have free will to choose good or evil and suffer the consequences, which require the will of God to implement karma’s consequences, unlike Buddhism or Jainism which do not accord any role to a supreme God or gods. In Indian beliefs, the karmic effects of all deeds are viewed as actively shaping past, present, and future experiences. The results or ‘fruits’ of actions are called karma-phala.
A concept of karma (along with samsara and moksha) may originate in the shramana tradition of which Buddhism and Jainism are continuations. This tradition influenced the Brahmanic religion in the early Vedantic (Upanishadic) movement of the 1st millennium BC. This worldview was adopted from this religious culture by Brahmin orthodoxy, and Brahmins wrote the earliest recorded scriptures containing these ideas in the early Upanishads. Until recently, the scholarly consensus was that reincarnation is absent from the earliest strata of Brahminical literature. However, a new translation of two stanzas of the Rig Veda suggest that the Brahmins may have had the idea, common among small-scale societies around the world, that an individual cycles back and forth between the earth and a heavenly realm of ancestors. In this worldview, moral behavior has no influence on rebirth. The idea the the moral quality of one’s actions influences one’s rebirth is absent from India until the period of the shramana religions, and the Brahmins appear to have adopted this idea from other religious groups.
Some traditions (i.e., the Vedanta), believe that a Supreme Being plays some kind of role, for example, as the dispenser of the ‘fruits’ of karma or as exercising the option to change one’s karma in rare instances. In general, followers of the Buddhism and many followers of Hinduism traditions consider the natural laws of causation sufficient to explain the effects of karma. Another view holds that a Sadguru, acting on a god’s behalf, can mitigate or work out some of the karma of the disciple. And according to the Jainism perspective, neither a god nor a guru have any role in a person’s karma – the individual is considered to be the sole doer and enjoyer of his karmas and their ‘fruits’.
In the Indian religions
Om • Brahman • Ishvara
Karma in Hinduism is also considered to be a spiritually originated law. Many Hindus see God’s direct involvement in this process, while others consider the natural laws of causation sufficient to explain the effects of karma. However, followers of Vedanta, the leading extant school of Hinduism today, consider Ishvara, a personal supreme God, as playing a role in the delivery of karma. Theistic schools of Hinduism such as Vedanta thus disagree with the Buddhist and Jain views and other Hindu views that karma is merely a law of cause and effect but rather is also dependent on the will of a personal supreme God. Examples of a personal supreme God include Shiva in Shaivism or Vishnu in Vaishnavism. A good summary of this theistic view of karma is expressed by the following: “God does not make one suffer for no reason nor does He make one happy for no reason. God is very fair and gives you exactly what you deserve.”
Karma is not punishment or retribution but simply an extended expression or consequence of natural acts. Karma means “deed” or “act” and more broadly names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction that governs all life. The effects experienced are also able to be mitigated by actions and are not necessarily fated. That is to say, a particular action now is not binding to some particular, pre-determined future experience or reaction; it is not a simple, one-to-one correspondence of reward or punishment.
Karma is not fate, for humans act with free will creating their own destiny. According to the Vedas, if one sows goodness, one will reap goodness; if one sows evil, one will reap evil. Karma refers to the totality of our actions and their concomitant reactions in this and previous lives, all of which determines our future. The conquest of karma lies in intelligent action and dispassionate response.
One of the first and most dramatic illustrations of Karma can be found in the Bhagavad Gita. In this poem, Arjuna the protagonist is preparing for battle when he realizes that the enemy consists of members of his own family and decides not to fight. His charioteer, Krishna (an avatar of god), explains to Arjuna the concept of dharma (duty) among other things and makes him see that it is his duty to fight. The whole of the Bhagavad Gita within the Mahabharata, is a dialogue between these two on aspects of life including morality and a host of other philosophical themes. The original Hindu concept of karma was later enhanced by several other movements within the religion, most notably Vedanta, and Tantra.
According to Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda, one begets Karma in four ways:
- through thoughts
- through words
- through one’s actions
- through actions others do under one’s instructions
Everything that one has ever thought, spoken, done or caused is Karma; as is also that which we think, speak or do this very moment. After death we lose Kriya Shakti (ability to act) and do Karma. Actions performed consciously are weighted more heavily than those done unconsciously. But just as poison affects us if taken unknowingly, suffering caused unintentionally will also give appropriate karmic effect. We are in position to do something about our destiny by doing the right thing at the right time. Through positive actions, pure thoughts, prayer, mantra and meditation, we can resolve the influence of the karma in present life and turn the destiny for the better. A spiritual master knowing the sequence in which our Karma will bear fruit, can help us. As humans, we have the opportunity to speed up our spiritual progress with practice of good Karma. We produce negative karma because we lack knowledge and clarity.
Sri Tulsidas said: “Our destiny was shaped long before the body came into being.”
Hindu scriptures divide karma into three kinds :
- Sanchita is the accumulated karma. It would be impossible to experience and endure all Karmas in one life. From this stock of sanchita karma, a handful is taken out to serve one lifetime and this handful of actions, which has begun to bear fruit and which will be exhausted only on their fruit being experienced. Hence, it is the sum of one’s past karmas – all actions (good and bad) that follow through from one’s past life to the next.
- Prarabdha Fruit-bearing karma is the portion of accumulated karma that has “ripened” and appears as a particular problem in the present life.
- Kriyamana is everything that we produce in current life. All kriyamana karmas flow in to sanchita karma and consequently shape our future.
In this way, so long as the stock of sanchita karma lasts, a part of it continues to be taken out as prarabdha karma for being experienced in one lifetime, leading to the cycle of birth and death. A Jiva cannot attain moksha until the accumulated sanchita karmas are completely exhausted.
Within Sikhism, all living beings are described as being under the influence of Maya’s three qualities. Always present together in varying mix and degrees, these three qualities of Maya bind the Soul to the body and to the earth plane. Above these three qualities is the eternal time. Due to the influence of three modes of Maya’s nature, jivas (individual beings) perform activities under the control and purview of the eternal time. These activities are called Karma. The underlying principle is that karma is the law that brings back the results of actions to the person performing them.
This life is likened to a field (Khet) in which our Karma is the seed. We harvest exactly what we sow. No less, no more. This infallible law of Karma holds everyone responsible for what the person is or going to be. Based on the total sum of past Karma, some feel close to the Pure Being in this life, and others feel separated. This is the Gurbani’s (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, SGGS) law of Karma. Like other Indian as well as oriental school of thoughts, the Gurbani also accepts the doctrines of Karma and reincarnation as the facts of nature.
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In Buddhism, karma (Pāli kamma) is strictly distinguished from vipāka, meaning “fruit” or “result”. Karma is categorized within the group or groups of cause (Pāli hetu) in the chain of cause and effect, where it comprises the elements of “volitional activities” (Pali sankhara) and “action” (Pali bhava). Any action is understood as creating “seeds” in the mind that will sprout into the appropriate result (Pāli vipaka) when met with the right conditions. Most types of karmas, with good or bad results, will keep one within the wheel of samsāra, while others will liberate one to nirvāna.
Buddhism links karma directly to the motives behind an action. Motivation usually makes the difference between “good” and “bad” actions, but included in the motivation is also the aspect of ignorance such that a well-intended action from an ignorant mind can subsequently be interpreted as a “bad” action in the sense that it creates unpleasant results for the “actor”.
Other causal categories
In Buddhism, karma is not the only cause of everything that happens. The commentarial tradition classifed causal mechanisms governing the universe as taught in the early texts in five categories, known as Niyama Dhammas:
- Kamma Niyama—Consequences of one’s actions
- Utu Niyama—Seasonal changes and climate
- Biija Niyama—Laws of heredity
- Citta Niyama—Will of mind
- Dhamma Niyama—Nature’s tendency to produce a perfect type
This article is part of a series on Jainism
Karma in Jainism conveys a totally different meaning as commonly understood in the Hindu philosophy and western civilization. In Jainism, karma is referred to as karmic dirt, as it consists of very subtle and microscopic particles i.e. pudgala that pervade the entire universe. Karmas are attracted to the karmic field of a soul on account of vibrations created by activities of mind, speech, and body as well as on account of various mental dispositions. Hence the karmas are the subtle matter surrounding the consciousness of a soul. When these two components, i.e. consciousness and karma, interact, we experience the life we know at present.
Herman Kuhn quoting from Tattvarthasutra describes karmas as – a mechanism that makes us thoroughly experience the themes of our life until we gained optimal knowledge from them and until our emotional attachment to these themes falls off. 
According to Padmanabh Jaini “this emphasis on reaping the fruits only of one’s own karma was not restricted to the Jainas; both Hindus and Buddhist writers have produced doctrinal materials stressing the same point. Each of the latter traditions, however, developed practices in basic contradiction to such belief. In addition to shrardha (the ritual Hindu offerings by the son of deceased), we find among Hindus widespread adherence to the notion of divine intervention in ones fate, while Buddhists eventually came to propound such theories like boon-granting bodhisattvas, transfer of merit and like. Only Jainas have been absolutely unwilling to allow such ideas to penetrate their community, despite the fact that there must have been tremendous amount of social pressure on them to do so.”
The key points where the theory of Karma in Jainism differs from the other religions such as theistic traditions of Hinduism, can be stated as follows:
- Karma in Jainism operates as a self-sustaining mechanism as natural universal law, without any need of an external entity to manage them. (absence of the exogenous “Divine Entity” in Jainism)
- Jainism advocates that a soul’s karma changes even with the thoughts, and not just the actions. Thus, to even think evil of someone would endure a “karm-bandh” or an increment in bad karma. It is for this reason, that Jainism gives a very strong emphasis on “samyak dhyan” (Rationality in thoughts) and “samyak darshan” (Rationality in perception) and not just “samyak charitra” (rationality in conduct).
- Under Jain theology, a soul is released of worldly affairs as soon as it is able to emanicipate from the “karm-bandh”. A famous illustration is that of Mata Marudevi, the mother of Shri Rishabh Dev, the first Tirthankar of present time cycle, who reached such emanicipation by elevating sequentially her thought processes, while she was visiting her Tirthankar son. This illustration explains how “Nirvana” and “Moksha” are different in Jainism, from other religions. In the presence of a Tirthankar, another soul achieved Keval Gyan and subsequently Nirvana, without any need of intervention by the Tirthankar.
- The karmic theory in Jainism operates endogenously. Tirthankars are not attributed “godhood” under Jainism. Thus, even the tirthankars themselves have to go through the stages of emanicipation, for attaining that state. While Buddhism does give a similar and to some extent a matching account for Shri Gautama Buddha, Hinduism maintains a totally different theory where “divine grace” is needed for emanicipation.
- Jainism treats all souls equally, in as much as it advocates that all souls have the same potential of attaining “nirvana”. Only those who make effort, really attain it, but nonetheless, each soul is capable on its own to do so by gradually reducing its karma.
An academic and religious definition was mentioned above. The concept of karma is part of the world view of many millions of people throughout the world. Many in western cultures or with a Christian upbringing have incorporated a notion of karma. The Christian concept of reaping what you sow from Galatians 6:7 can be considered equivalent to Karma.
According to karma, performing positive actions results in a good condition in one’s experience, whereas a negative action results in a bad effect. The effects may be seen immediately or delayed. Delay can be until later in the present life or in the next. Thus, meritorious acts may mean rebirth into a higher station, such as a superior human or a godlike being, while evil acts result in rebirth as a human living in less desirable circumstances, or as a lower animal. Some observers[who?] have compared the action of karma to Western notions of sin and judgment by God or gods, while others understand karma as an inherent principle of the universe without the intervention of any supernatural Being. In Hinduism, God does play a role and is seen as a dispenser of karma; see Karma in Hinduism for more details. The non-interventionist view is that of Buddhism and Jainism.
Most teachings say that for common mortals, being involved with karma is an unavoidable part of daily living. However, in light of the Hindu philosophical school of Vedanta, as well as Gautama Buddha’s teachings, one is advised to either avoid, control or become mindful of the effects of desires and aversions as a way to moderate or change one’s karma (or, more accurately, one’s karmic results or destiny).
In Spiritism, karma is known as “the law of cause and effect”, and plays a central role in determining how one’s life should be lived. Spirits are encouraged to choose how (and when) to suffer retribution for the wrong they did in previous lives. Disabilities, physical or mental impairment or even an unlucky life are due to the choices a spirit makes before reincarnating (that is, before being born to a new life).
What sets Spiritism apart from the more traditional religious views is that it understands karma as a condition inherent to the spirit, whether incarnated or not: the consequences of the crimes committed by the spirit last beyond the physical life and cause him (moral) pain in the afterlife. The choice of a life of hardships is, therefore, a way to rid oneself of the pain caused by moral guilt and to perfect qualities that are necessary for the spirit to progress to a higher form.
Because Spiritism always accepted the plurality of inhabited worlds, its concept of karma became considerably complex. There are worlds that are “primitive” (in the sense that they are home to spirits newly born and still very low on intellect and morals) and a succession of more and more advanced worlds to where spirits move as they are elevated. A spirit may choose to be born on a world inferior to his own as a penance or as a mission.
New Age and Theosophy
The idea of karma was popularized in the Western world through the work of the Theosophical Society. In this conception, karma is affiliated with the Neopagan law of return or Threefold Law, the idea that the beneficial or harmful effects one has on the world will return to oneself. Colloquially this may be summed up as ‘what goes around comes around.’
The omniverse idea includes concepts such as souls, psychic energy, synchronicity (a concept originally from psychoanalyst Carl Jung, which says that things that happen at the same time are related), and ideas from quantum or theoretical physics.
Karma and emotions
Since the 20th century emergence of emotional intelligence as a novel paradigm for viewing human experience, karma has become a sectarian term which umbrellas the entire collection (both conscious and subconscious) of human emotionality. This modern view of karma, devoid of any spiritual exigencies, obviates the need for an acceptance of reincarnation in Judeochristian societies and attempts to portray karma as a universal psychological phenomenon which behaves predictably, like other physical forces such as gravity.
Sakyong Mipham eloquently summed this up when he said;
Like gravity, karma is so basic we often don’t even notice it.
This view of karma, as a universal and personally impacting emotional constant, correlates with Buddhist and Jungian understanding that volition (or libido, created from personal and cultural biases) is the primary instigator of karma. Any conscious thought, word and/or action, arising from a cognitively unresolved emotion (cognitive dissonance), results in karma.
Jung once opined on unresolved emotions and the synchronicity of karma;
‘When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate.’
Popular methods for negating cognitive dissonance include meditation, metacognition, counselling, psychoanalysis, etc., whose aim is to enhance emotional self-awareness and thus avoid negative karma. This results in better emotional hygiene and reduced karmic impacts. Permanent neuronal changes within the amygdala and left prefrontal cortex of the human brain attributed to long-term meditation and metacognition techniques have been proven scientifically. This process of emotional maturation aspires to a goal of Individuation or self-actualisation. Such peak experience are hypothetically devoid of any karma (nirvana).
As Rabindranath Tagore most eloquently explained about the heat of human emotions;
Nirvana is not the blowing out of the candle. It is the extinguishing of the flame because day is come.