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Karma means action, deed, or work at its most basic level. In Indian philosophy and religion, karma is the universal law that causes good or bad things to happen. The good or bad actions, that is, a person’s karma, also influences their future actions and existence. This spiritual principle of cause and effect that determines one’s actions is known as the principle of karma.

It is generally understood that good actions and intentions lead to good karma and, consequently, happy rebirths. In contrast, bad intentions and deeds lead to bad karma and a negative cycle of rebirth. Karma is called ‘karma’ in Sanskrit and ‘Kamma’ in Pali.

Karma And Rebirth

The association of karma with the concept of rebirth is believed in several Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Taoism. A person’s karma in the present affects one’s future in the current life cycle and the future life cycles after rebirth. This cyclicality of life resulting from rebirth and existence is called samsara in Sanskrit, meaning the world.

In popular understanding, it is the cycle of death and rebirth. Samsara is also known as transmigration, reincarnation or punarjanma, and the karmic cycle. Karma can be understood as the ethical dimension of samsara. To release oneself from this cycle of death and rebirth, the principle of karma in Indian philosophy advocates the achievement of moksha or salvation. The doctrine of karma, thus, aims to motivate people to live a moral life. It also explains the presence of evil in one’s life and the world.

Development Of The Theory Of Karma

The term ‘karma’ originates from the Sanskrit word ‘Karman,’ which means ‘act.’ The word karma initially did not have any ethical dimension associated with it. In ancient Vedic texts of around 1000 to 700 BCE, karma simply referred to ritual actions and sacrificial acts.

The word ‘karma’ was often used in Srauta rituals. It also appears in the Rigveda as well as the Satapatha Brahmana. Over time, Brahman priests theorized the theology of sacrifice and ritual action. In their theories, karma came to be understood as functioning outside of godly influence. In other words, karma slowly came to be understood as working according to a cosmic ritual law rather than any specific religious law.

One of the earliest discussions on the theory of karma and its association with ethics is recorded in the Upanishads. The issues of causality and the ethical dimension of karma are explicitly elaborated in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Some of the core themes of the principle of karma include the principle of causality, karma’s association with rebirth, and its ethical nature. The notion of free will and destiny and the idea of evil are also contested in the theory of karma.

Karma In Various Religions

Karma In Hinduism

Within Hinduism, karma delineates a system in which good actions lead to a good life, and evil actions lead to bad karma. This system of actions and reactions in a soul’s or jivatman’s reincarnated lives forms the continuous cycle of rebirth. The principle of causality applies to one’s actions and deeds. Additionally, it also applies to one’s thoughts and words. In the Puranas, which are traditional texts of Indian literature on various topics, Shani or the planet Saturn is said to be the god of karma.

One of the most prominent schools of Hindu theology called the Vedanta states that God or Isvara controls the effects of karma. Various sub-schools of karma within Hinduism, like the Nyaya school of the Samkhya school, have differing understandings of the concept. The theory of karma was studied mainly by learned scholars and priests.

With the composition of epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the ordinary people were also introduced to the idea of karma through the stories recited in them. There are three different types of karma in Hinduism – prarabdha karma, sanchita karma, and kriyamana or agami karma.

Karma In Buddhism

Karma and karmaphala (fruit of action) constitute some of the foundational concepts of Buddhism. Like in Hinduism, karma in Buddhism is also related to the idea of samsara or rebirth. Whereas one’s intentional actions keep them tied to the cycle of rebirth, following the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path provides a way out of this cycle.

In the Buddhist tradition, karma stands for actions driven by one’s intentions. Intended action means deeds done deliberately and consciously through one’s body, mind, or speech. In Buddhism, intentional acts are a result of volition, disturbing emotions, or cravings.

The concepts of karma and samsara are also connected to the doctrines of impermanence and the idea of no-self—these form subjects of philosophical inquiry within Buddhism.

Karma In Jainism

The idea of karma is quite different from its understanding in Hindu philosophy or the common Western perception. In Jain philosophy, karma refers to karmic dirt. Karmic dirt is constitutive of fine particles of matter infused throughout the universe.

In Jainism, body (matter) and soul (pure consciousness) are seen as entirely separate things. The karmic field of a soul attracts the karmic matter due to the vibrations caused by the actions of body, mind, and speech. Karmas are, therefore, understood to be the subtle matter encompassing the soul’s consciousness. Followers of Jainism believe that when karma and consciousness interact, humans experience life.

Karma In Taoism

Taoism (or Daoism) is a philosophical school of thought and a religion that originated in China and dates to as early as the 4th century BCE. In Taoism, the Tao or the natural order of the universe is considered the ultimate principle of reality.

Karma is an essential concept in Taoism as well. In Taoism, every action is supposed to be followed by spirits and deities who reward people for their good deeds. Karma is also linked to the concept of rebirth in the Tao tradition.

The idea of karma is present in another East Asian religion called Shinto. The Shinto religion originated in Japan. Karma is interpreted as musubi in Japanese and refers to a way of empowering and enriching life.


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