ID:18837 Section: Science

Updated:Tuesday 14th October 2014

Karma Definition

(Wikipedia) - Karma This article is about the Indian religious concept. For other uses, see Karma (disambiguation).Endless knotNepalese temple prayer wheelKarma symbols such as endless knot (above) are common cultural motifs in Asia. Endless knots symbolize interlinking of cause and effect, a Karmic cycle that continues eternally. The endless knot is visible in the center of the prayer wheel.

Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म; IPA:  ( listen); Pali: kamma) means action, work or deed; it also refers to the principle of causality where intent and actions of an individual influence the future of that individual. Good intent and good deed contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad karma and future suffering. Karma is closely associated with the idea of rebirth in some schools of Asian religions. In these schools, karma in the present affects one''s future in the current life, as well as the nature and quality of future lives - or, one''s saṃsāra.

With origins in ancient India, it is a key concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shintoism and others.

  • 1 Etymology
  • 2 Definition and meanings
    • 2.1 Karma and causality
    • 2.2 Karma and ethicization
    • 2.3 Karma and rebirth
  • 3 History
  • 4 Discussion
    • 4.1 Karma, free will and destiny
    • 4.2 Psychological indeterminacy
    • 4.3 Transferability of karma
    • 4.4 Karma and the problem of evil
  • 5 Eastern interpretations
    • 5.1 Hinduism
    • 5.2 Sikhism
    • 5.3 Buddhism
    • 5.4 Jainism
    • 5.5 Shintoism
    • 5.6 In Falun Gong
    • 5.7 Taoism
  • 6 Other interpretations
    • 6.1 Christianity
    • 6.2 Spiritism
    • 6.3 Wicca
    • 6.4 New Age and Theosophy
  • 7 Karma and emotions
  • 8 See also
  • 9 References
  • 10 Sources
  • 11 External links


Karma as kárman a neuter n-stem, nominative kárma कर्म  from the root √kṛ कृ, means "to do, make, perform, accomplish, cause, effect, prepare, undertake". The root kṛ (kri) is very common in ancient Sanskrit literature, and it is relied upon to explain ideas in Rigveda, other Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, the Epics of Hinduism. The root "kri" also appears in the word Sanskrit, to imply a language that is "well made". The word Kárman itself appears in Rigveda, for example at 10.22.8; as does the word karma.

Karma is related to verbal proto-Indo-European root *kwer- "to make, form".

Definition and meanings

Karma is the executed "deed", "work", "action", or "act", and it is also the "object", the "intent". Halbfass explains karma (Karman) by contrasting it with another Sanskrit word kriya. The word kriya is the activity along with the steps and effort in action, while karma is (1) the executed action as a consequence of that activity, as well as (2) the intention of the actor behind an executed action or a planned action (described by some scholars as metaphysical residue left in the actor). A good action creates good karma, as does good intent. A bad action creates bad karma, as does bad intent.

Karma, also refers to a conceptual principle that originated in India, often descriptively called the principle of karma, sometimes as the karma theory or the law of karma. In the context of theory, karma is complex and difficult to define. Different schools of Indologists derive different definitions for the karma concept from ancient Indian texts; their definition is some combination of (1) causality that may be ethical or non-ethical; (2) ethicization, that is good or bad actions have consequences; and (3) rebirth. Other Indologists include in the definition of karma theory as that which explains the present circumstances of an individual with reference to his or her actions in past. These actions may be those in a person''s current life, or, in some schools of Indian traditions, possibly actions in their past lives; furthermore, the consequences may result in current life, or a person''s future lives. The law of karma operates independent of any deity or any process of divine judgment.

The difficulty in arriving at a definition for karma arises because of the diversity of views among the various schools of Hinduism that co-exist and thrive; some schools, for example, consider karma and rebirth linked and simultaneously essential, some consider karma essential but not rebirth, and a few schools of Hinduism discuss and conclude karma and rebirth flawed fiction. Buddhism and Jainism have their karma precepts. Karma thus has not one, rather multiple definitions and different meanings. It is a concept whose meaning, importance and scope varies between Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and other traditions that originated in India, and various schools in each of these traditions. O''Flaherty claims that, furthermore, there is an on-going debate regarding whether karma is a theory, a model, a paradigm, a metaphor, or a metaphysical stance.

Karma theory as a concept, across different Indian religious traditions, shares certain common themes: causality, ethicization and rebirth.

Karma and causalityLotus symbolically represents karma in many Asian traditions. A blooming lotus flower is one of the few flowers that simultaneously carries seeds inside itself while it blooms. Seed is symbolically seen as cause, the flower effect. Lotus is also considered as a reminder that one can grow, share good karma and remain unstained even in muddy circumstances.

A common theme to theories of karma is its principle of causality. One of the earliest association of karma to causality occurs in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of Hinduism. For example, at 4.4.5-6, it states:

Now as a man is like this or like that, according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be; a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad; he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds; And here they say that a person consists of desires, and as is his desire, so is his will; and as is his will, so is his deed; and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.

—Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 7th Century BC

The relationship of karma to causality is a central motif in all schools of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist thought. The theory of karma as causality holds that (1) executed actions of an individual affects the individual and the life he or she lives, and (2) the intentions of an individual affects the individual and the life he or she lives. Disinterested actions, or unintentional actions do not have the same positive or negative karmic effect, as interested and intentional actions. In Buddhism, for example, actions that are performed, or arise, or originate without any bad intent such as covetousness, are considered non-existent in karmic impact or neutral in influence to the individual.

Another causality characteristic, shared by Karmic theories, is that like deeds lead to like effects. Thus good karma produces good effect on the actor, while bad karma produces bad effect. This effect may be material, moral or emotional — that is, one''s karma affects one''s happiness and unhappiness. The effect of karma need not be immediate; the effect of karma can be later in one''s current life, and in some schools it extends to future lives.

The consequence or effects of one''s karma can be described in two forms: phalas and samskaras. A phala (literally, fruit or result) is the visible or invisible effect that is typically immediate or within the current life. In contrast, samskaras are always those invisible effect that are produced inside the actor because of the karma, thus transforming the agent and affecting his or her ability to be happy or unhappy in this life as well as in future lives. The theory of karma is often presented in the context of samskaras.

Karmic principle can be understood, suggests Karl Potter, as a principle of psychology and habit. Karma seeds habits (vāsanā), and habits create the nature of man. Karma also seeds self perception, and perception influences how one experiences life events. Both habits and self perception affect the course of one''s life. Breaking bad habit is not easy, it requires conscious Karmic effort for release from a cycle of negative behaviors. Thus psyche and habit, suggests Potter, as well as other scholars, link karma to causality in ancient Indian literature. The idea of karma may be compared to the notion of a person''s "character", suggests Lochtefeld, as both are an assessment of the person and determined by that person''s habitual thinking and acting.

Karma and ethicization

The second theme common to karma theories is ethicization. This begins with the premise that every action has a consequence, which will come to fruition in either this or a future life; thus morally good acts will have positive consequences, whereas bad acts will produce negative results. An individual''s present situation is thereby explained by reference to actions in his present or in previous lifetimes. Karma is not itself "reward and punishment", but the law producing consequence. Halbfass notes, good karma is considered as dharma and leads to punya (merit), while bad karma is considered adharma and leads to pāp (demerit, sin).

The theories of karma are an ethical theory, suggests Reichenbach. This is so because the ancient scholars of India linked intent and actual action to the merit, reward, demerit and punishment. A theory without ethical premise would be a pure causal relation; the merit or reward or demerit or punishment would be same regardless of the actor''s intent. In ethics, one''s intentions, attitudes and desires matter in the evaluation of one''s action. Where the outcome is unintended, suggests Reichenbach, the moral responsibility for it is less on the actor, even though causal responsibility may be the same regardless. A karma theory considers not only the action, but also actor''s intentions, attitude and desires before and during the action. The karma concept thus encourages each person to seek and live a moral life, as well as avoid an immoral life. The meaning and significance of karma is thus as a building block of an ethical theory.

Karma and rebirth

The third common theme of karma theories is the concept of reincarnation or rebirth (saṃsāra). Rebirth is a fundamental concept of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The concept has been intensely debated in ancient literature of India; with different schools of Indian religions considering the relevance of rebirth as either essential, or secondary, or unnecessary fiction. Karma is a basic concept, rebirth is a derivative concept, so suggests Creel; Karma is a fact asserts Yamunacharya, while reincarnation is a hypothesis; in contrast, suggests Hiriyanna, rebirth is a necessary corollary of karma.

Rebirth, or saṃsāra, is the concept that all life forms go through a cycle of reincarnation, that is a series of births and rebirths. The rebirths and consequent life may be in different realm, condition or form. The karma theories suggest that the realm, condition and form depends on the quality and quantity of karma. In schools that believe in rebirth, every living being''s soul transmigrates (recycles) after death, carrying the seeds of Karmic impulses from life just completed, into another life and lifetime of karmas. This cycle continues indefinitely, except for those who consciously break this cycle by reaching moksa. Those who break the cycle reach the realm of gods, those who don''t continue in the cycle.

The theory of "karma and rebirth" raises numerous questions—such as how, when, and why did the cycle start in the first place, what is the relative Karmic merit of one karma versus another and why, and what evidence is there that rebirth actually happens, among others. Various schools of Hinduism realized these difficulties, debated their own formulations, some reaching what they considered as internally consistent theories, while other schools modified and de-emphasized it, while a few schools in Hinduism such as Carvakas, Lokayatana abandoned "karma and rebirth" theory altogether. Schools of Buddhism consider karma-rebirth cycle as integral to their theories of soteriology.


The earliest known occurrence of karman in ancient Indian literature is in Rigveda, where it occurs some 40 times; there, it means work or deed, and the context is ritual or sacrificial acts. In Satapatha Brahmana, the word karma appears with an expanded context where sacrifice is declared as the "greatest" of works; while Satapatha Brahmana associates the potential of becoming Amara (Sanskrit: अमर, immortal) with the fire altar Agnicayana karma. However, none of these sources unambiguously link karma to causality, ethicization and rebirth.

The earliest unambiguous presentation of karma doctrine appears in the Upanishads. For example, the causality and ethicization occurs in Bṛihadāranyaka Upaniṣhad 3.2.13 and again at 4.4.5:

Truly, one becomes good through good action, and evil through evil action.

—Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 3.2.13

It is unclear where, how and who invented the principle of karma for the first time, a development that ultimately led to eloquent phrases in Upanishads and those in the literature of Buddhism and Jainism. Some scholars suggest the concept of karma may have originated in the shramana tradition, of which Buddhism and Jainism are continuations. Obeyesekere offers an alternate hypothesis; he first shows that the idea of rebirth is not unique to India. Rebirth theories emerged in ancient times in Africa, Greece, Melanesia and elsewhere. Obeyesekere, goes on to suggest that tribal teachers in the Ganges valley may have provided the inspiration for the karma doctrine. O''Flaherty notes that this is merely shifting one unknown with another unknown, because we know nothing about these hypothetical tribal sages; or in other words, crediting unknown sages for karma doctrine may simply be a scholarly way of admitting that we do not know who invented the karma doctrine.

Scholars suggest at least some of the complex ideas of the then developing theory of karma flowed from Vedic thinkers to Buddhist and Jain thinkers. For example, the question whether karma can be transferred from one person to another (sraddha rites) troubled many schools of Hinduism, as well as Jainas and Buddhists. Sraddha rites literature is traceable to have originated in Vedic era. McDermott has demonstrated that Buddhists struggled with sraddha rites, while Jaini shows Jainism scholars would not allow the possibility of karma transfer. This dynamic suggests that scholars of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were sharing ideas, debating, evolving and forming their own conclusions on appropriate Karmic doctrine over a period of Indian history.


Karma, free will and destiny

One of the significant controversies with the karma doctrine is whether it always implies destiny, and its implications on free will. This controversy is also referred to as the moral agency problem; the controversy is not unique to karma doctrine, but also found in some form in monotheistic religions.

The free will controversy can be outlined in three parts: (1) A person who kills, rapes or commits any other unjust act, can claim all his bad actions were a product of his karma, he is devoid of free will, he can not make a choice, he is an agent of karma, and that he merely delivering necessary punishments his "wicked" victims deserved for their own karma in past lives. Are crimes and unjust actions due to free will, or because of forces of karma? (2) Does a person who suffers from the unnatural death of a loved one, or rape or any other unjust act, assume a moral agent, gratuitous harm and seek justice? Or, should one blame oneself for bad karma over past lives, assume that the unjust suffering is fate? (3) Does the karma doctrine undermine the incentive for moral-education because all suffering is deserved and consequence of past lives, why learn anything when the balance sheet of karma from past lives will determine one''s action and sufferings?

The explanations and replies to the above free will problem vary by the specific school of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The schools of Hinduism, such as Yoga and Advaita Vedanta, that have emphasized current life over the dynamics of karma residue moving across past lives, allow free will. Their argument, as well of other schools, are threefold: (1) The theory of karma includes both the action and the intent behind that action. Not only is one affected by past karma, one creates new karma whenever one acts with intent - good or bad. If intent and act can be proven beyond reasonable doubt, new karma can be proven, and the process of justice can proceed against this new karma. The actor who kills, rapes or commits any other unjust act, must be considered as the moral agent for this new karma, and tried. (2) Life forms not only receive and reap the consequence of their past karma, together they are the means to initiate, evaluate, judge, give and deliver consequence of karma to others. (3) Karma is a theory that explains some evils, not all (see moral evil versus natural evil).

Other schools of Hinduism, as well as Buddhism and Jainism that do consider cycle of rebirths central to their beliefs, and that karma from past lives affects one''s present, believe that both free will (Cetanā) and karma can co-exist; however, their answers have not persuaded all scholars.

Psychological indeterminacy

Another issue with the theory of karma is that it is psychologically indeterminate, suggests Obeyesekere. That is, (1) if no one can know what their karma was in previous lives, and (2) if the karma from past lives can determine one''s future, then the individual is psychologically unclear what if anything he or she can do now to shape the future, be more happy, reduce suffering. If something goes wrong - such as sickness or failure at work - the individual is unclear if karma from past lives was the cause, or the sickness was caused by curable infection and the failure was caused by something correctable.

This psychological indeterminacy problem is also not unique to the theory of karma; it is found in every religion with the premise that God has a plan, or in some way influences human events. As with karma and free will problem above, schools that insist on primacy of rebirths face the most controversy. Their answers to psychological indeterminacy issue is the same as those for addressing the free will problem.

Transferability of karma

Some schools of Asian religions, particularly Buddhism, allow transfer of karma merit and demerit from one person to another. This transfer is an exchange of non-physical quality just like an exchange of physical goods between two human beings. The practice of karma transfer, or even its possibility, is controversial. Karma transfer raises questions similar to those with substitutionary atonement and vicarious punishment. It defeats the ethical foundations, dissociates the causality and ethicization in the theory of karma from the moral agent. Proponents of some Buddhist schools suggest that the concept of karma merit transfer encourages religious giving, and such transfers are not a mechanism to transfer bad karma from one person to another (that is, demerit).

In Hinduism, Sraddha rites during funerals have been labelled as karma merit transfer ceremonies by a few scholars, and disputed by others. Other schools in Hinduism such as the Yoga and Advaita Vedantic philosophies and Jainism hold that karma can not be transferred.

Karma and the problem of evil

There has been an on-going debate about karma theory and how it answers the problem of evil and related problem of theodicy. The problem of evil is a significant question debated in monotheistic religions with two beliefs: (1) There is one God who is absolutely good and compassionate (omnibenevolent), and (2) That one God knows absolutely everything (omniscient) and is all powerful (omnipotent). The problem of evil is then stated in formulations such as, "why does the omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent God allow any evil and suffering to exist in the world"? Max Weber extended the problem of evil to Eastern traditions.

The problem of evil, in the context of karma, has been long discussed in Eastern traditions, both in theistic and non-theistic schools; for example, in Uttara Mīmāṃsā Sutras Book 2 Chapter 1; the 8th century arguments by Adi Sankara in Brahmasutrabhasya where he posits that God cannot reasonably be the cause of the world because there exists moral evil, inequality, cruelty and suffering in the world; and the 11th century theodicy discussion by Ramanuja in Sribhasya. Epics such as the Mahabharata, for example, suggests three prevailing theories in ancient India as to why good and evil exists - one being everything is ordained by God, second being karma, third being chance events (yadrccha, यदृच्छा). The Mahabharata, which includes Hindu deity Vishnu in the form of Krishna as one of the central characters in the Epic, debates the nature and existence of suffering from these three perspectives, and includes a theory of suffering as arising from an interplay of chance events (such as floods and other events of nature), circumstances created by past human actions, and the current desires, volitions, dharma, adharma and current actions (purusakara) of people. However, while karma theory in the Mahabharata presents alternative perspectives on the problem of evil and suffering, it offers no conclusive answer.

Other scholars suggest that nontheistic Indian religious traditions do not assume an omnibenevolent creator, and some theistic schools do not define or characterize their God(s) as monotheistic Western religions do and the deities have colorful, complex personalities; the Indian deities are personal and cosmic facilitators, and in some schools conceptualized like Plato’s Demiurge. Therefore, the problem of theodicy in many schools of major Indian religions are not significant, or at least of a different nature than in Western religions. Many Indian religions place greater emphasis on developing the karma principle for first cause and innate justice with Man as focus, rather than developing religious principles with the nature and powers of God and divine judgment as focus. Arthur Herman states that karma-transmigration theory solves all three historical formulations to the problem of evil while acknowledging the theodicy insights of Sankara and Ramanuja.

Some theistic Indian religions, such as Sikhism suggest evil and suffering are a human phenomena and arises from karma of individuals. In other theistic schools such as those in Hinduism, particularly its Nyaya school, karma is combined with dharma and evil is explained as arising from human actions and intent that is in conflict with dharma. Nontheistic schools such as Buddhism, Jainism and Mimamsa schools of Hinduism, karma theory is used to explain the cause of evil as well as to offer distinct ways to avoid or be unaffected by evil in the world.

Those schools of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism that rely on karma-rebirth theory have been critiqued for their theological explanation of suffering in children by birth, as the result of his or her sins in past life. Others disagree, and consider the critique as flawed and a misunderstanding of the karma theory.

Eastern interpretations Hinduism Main article: Karma in Hinduism

Karma concept in Hinduism developed and evolved over centuries. The earliest Upanishads began with the questions about how and why man is born, and what happens after death? As answers to the latter, the early theories in these ancient Sanskrit documents, include pancagni vidya (the five fire doctrine), pitryana (the cyclic path of fathers) and devayana (the cycle-transcending, path of the gods). Those who do superficial rituals and seek material gain, claimed these ancient scholars, travel the way of their fathers and recycle back into another life; those who renounce, go into the forest and pursue spiritual knowledge were claimed to climb into the higher path of the gods, it is these who break the cycle and are not reborn. With the composition of the Epics - the common man''s introduction to Dharma in Hinduism - the ideas of causality and essential elements of the theory of karma were being recited in folk stories. For example:

As a man himself sows, so he himself reaps; no man inherits the good or evil act of another man. The fruit is of the same quality as the action.

—Mahabharata, xii.291.22

In the thirteenth book of the Mahabharata, also called the Teaching Book (Anushasana Parva), sixth chapter opens with Yudhisthira asking Bhisma: "Is the course of a person''s life already destined, or can human effort shape one''s life?" The future, replies Bhisma, is both a function of current human effort derived from free will and past human actions that set the circumstances. Over and over again, the chapters of Mahabharata recite the key postulates of karma theory, that is: intent and action (karma) has consequences; karma lingers and doesn''t disappear; and, all positive or negative experiences in life require effort and intent. For example:

Happiness comes due to good actions, suffering results from evil actions, by actions, all things are obtained, by inaction, nothing whatsoever is enjoyed. If one''s action bore no fruit, then everything would be of no avail, if the world worked from fate alone, it would be neutralized.

—Mahabharata, xiii.6.10 & 19

Over time, various schools of Hinduism developed many different definitions of karma, some making karma appear quite deterministic, while others make room for free will and moral agent. Among the six most studied schools of Hinduism, the theory of karma evolved in different ways, as their respective scholars reasoned and attempted to address the internal inconsistencies, implications and issues of the karma doctrine. According to Halbfass,

  • Nyaya school of Hinduism considers karma and rebirth as central,
  • Vaisesika school does not consider karma from past lives doctrine very important,
  • Samkhya school considers karma to be of secondary importance (prakrti is primary),
  • Mimamsa school gives negligible role to karma from past lives, disregards Samsara and Moksa,
  • Yoga school considers karma from past lives to be secondary, one''s behavior and psychology in the current life is what has consequences and leads to entanglements,
  • Vedanta school acknowledges karma-rebirth doctrine, but concludes it is a theory that is not derived from reality and cannot be proven, considers it invalid for its failure to explain evil / inequality / other observable facts about society, treats it as a convenient fiction to solve practical problems in Upanishadic times, and declares it irrelevant; in the Advaita Vedanta school, actions in current life have moral consequences and liberation is possible within one''s life as jivanmukti (self-realized person).

The above six schools illustrate the diversity of views, but are not exhaustive. Each school has sub-schools in Hinduism, such as Vedanta school''s nondualism and dualism sub-schools. Furthermore, there are other schools of Hinduism such as Carvaka, Lokayata (the materialists) who denied theory of karma-rebirth as well as the existence of God; to this school of Hindus, the properties of things come from the nature of things; causality emerges from the interaction, actions and nature of things and people; determinative principles such as karma or God are unnecessary.


In 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 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 is 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) law of karma. Like other Indian and oriental schools of thought, the Gurbani also accepts the doctrines of karma and reincarnation as the facts of nature.

Buddhism Main article: Karma in Buddhism

Within the Buddhist system of belief, the term karma is used in two senses:

  • On the specific level, karma refers to those actions which spring from the intention (cetanā) of a sentient being. Karmic actions are traditionally likened to a seed that will inevitably ripen into a result or fruition (referred to as vipāka or phala in Sanskrit and Pali).
  • On the general level, contemporary Buddhist teachers frequently use the term karma when referring to the entire process of karmic action and result.

Within Buddhism, developing a genuine, experiential understanding of karmic action and result — i.e., how one''s actions will have a consequential outcome — is an essential aspect of the Buddhist path. Karmic actions are considered to be the engine that drives the naturally occurring cycle of rebirth (samsara) for sentient beings. Correspondingly, a complete understanding of the process of karmic action and result enables beings to free themselves from samsara and attain liberation.

Within Buddhism, the theory of karmic action and result is identified as part of the broader doctrine of dependent origination (pratityasamutpada), which states that all phenomena arise as the result of multiple causes and conditions. The theory of karmic action and result is a specific instance of this broader doctrine that applies to sentient beings. Specifically, when there is a conscious intention (cetanā) behind an action, whether positive, neutral, or negative, then that action is karma, and the corresponding results are karmic results. Thus, every deed of body, speech, or mind is considered to be a karmic action, and the determining factor in the quality of one''s actions is one''s intentions or motivations.

In the Buddhist view, karmic results are not considered to be a "judgement" enforced by a God, Deity or other supernatural being that controls the affairs of the Cosmos. Rather, karmic results are considered to be the outcome of a natural process of cause and effect. Contemporary Buddhist teacher Khandro Rinpoche explains:

Buddhism is a nontheistic philosophy. We do not believe in a creator but in the causes and conditions that create certain circumstances that then come to fruition. This is called karma. It has nothing to do with judgement; there is no one keeping track of our karma and sending us up above or down below. Karma is simply the wholeness of a cause, or first action, and its effect, or fruition, which then becomes another cause. In fact, one karmic cause can have many fruitions, all of which can cause thousands more creations. Just as a handful of seed can ripen into a full field of grain, a small amount of karma can generate limitless effects.JainismThe motifs in Indian temples often use interconnected shaped and knots symbolizing karma and the link between all lives. Above is an interconnected motif in a Jain temple.Main article: Karma in Jainism See also: Types of Karma (Jainism)

In Jainism, "karma" conveys a totally different meaning from that commonly understood in Hindu philosophy and western civilization. In Jainism, karma is referred to as karmic dirt, as it consists of very subtle and microscopic particles (pudgala) that pervade the entire universe. Karmas are attracted to the karmic field of a soul due to vibrations created by activities of mind, speech, and body as well as various mental dispositions. Hence the karmas are the subtle matter surrounding the consciousness of a soul. When these two components (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,

his 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 can be stated as follows:

  • Karma 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 karma-bandha or an increment in bad karma. For this reason, the Ratnatraya gives a very strong emphasis to samyak dhyan (rationality in thoughts) and "samyak darshan" (rationality in perception) and not just "samyak charitra" (rationality in conduct).
  • In Jain theology, a soul is released of worldly affairs as soon as it is able to emancipate from the "karm-bandh". A famous illustration is that of Marudevi, the mother of Rishabha, the first Tirthankara of the present time cycle, who reached such emancipation by elevating sequentially her thought processes, while she was visiting her Tirthankara son. This illustration explains how nirvana and moksha are different than in other religions of India. In the presence of a Tirthankara, another soul achieved Kevala Jnana and subsequently nirvana, without any need of intervention by the Tirthankara.
  • The karmic theory in Jainism operates endogenously. Tirthankaras are not attributed "godhood". Thus, even the Tirthankaras themselves have to go through the stages of emancipation, for attaining that state. While Buddhism does give a similar and to some extent a matching account for Gautama Buddha, Hinduism maintains a totally different theory where "divine grace" is needed for emancipation.
  • Jainism treats all souls equally, inasmuch 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.
  • Shintoism

    Interpreted as Musubi, is recognized in Shintoism, view of karma as a means of enriching, empowering and life affirming is observed.

    In Falun Gong

    Ownby claims that Falun Gong differs from Buddhism in its definition of the term "karma" in that it is taken not as a process of award and punishment, but as an exclusively negative term. The Chinese term "de" or "virtue" is reserved for what might otherwise be termed "good karma" in Buddhism. Karma is understood as the source of all suffering - what Buddhism might refer to as "bad karma". Li says, "A person has done bad things over his many lifetimes, and for people this results in misfortune, or for cultivators it''s karmic obstacles, so there''s birth, aging, sickness, and death. This is ordinary karma."

    Falun Gong teaches that the spirit is locked in the cycle of rebirth, also known as samsara due to the accumulation of karma. This is a negative, black substance that accumulates in other dimensions lifetime after lifetime, by doing bad deeds and thinking bad thoughts. Falun Gong states that karma is the reason for suffering, and what ultimately blocks people from the truth of the universe and attaining enlightenment. At the same time, is also the cause of ones continued rebirth and suffering. Li says that due to accumulation of karma the human spirit upon death will reincarnate over and over again, until the karma is paid off or eliminated through cultivation, or the person is destroyed due to the bad deeds he has done.

    Ownby regards the concept of karma as a cornerstone to individual moral behaviour in Falun Gong, and also readily traceable to the Christian doctrine of "one reaps what one sows". Others say Matthew 5:44 means no unbeliever will not fully reap what they sow until they are Judged by God after death in Hell. Ownby says Falun Gong is differentiated by a "system of transmigration" though, "in which each organism is the reincarnation of a previous life form, its current form having been determined by karmic calculation of the moral qualities of the previous lives lived." Ownby says the seeming unfairness of manifest inequities can then be explained, at the same time allowing a space for moral behaviour in spite of them. In the same vein of Li''s monism, matter and spirit are one, karma is identified as a black substance which must be purged in the process of cultivation.

    Li says that "Human beings all fell here from the many dimensions of the universe. They no longer met the requirements of the Fa at their given levels in the universe, and thus had to drop down. Just as we have said before, the heavier one''s mortal attachments, the further down one drops, with the descent continuing until one arrives at the state of ordinary human beings." He says that in the eyes of higher beings, the purpose of human life is not merely to be human, but to awaken quickly on Earth, a "setting of delusion", and return. "That is what they really have in mind; they are opening a door for you. Those who fail to return will have no choice but to reincarnate, with this continuing until they amass a huge amount of karma and are destroyed."

    Ownby regards this as the basis for Falun Gong''s apparent "opposition to practitioners'' taking medicine when ill; they are missing an opportunity to work off karma by allowing an illness to run its course (suffering depletes karma) or to fight the illness through cultivation." Penny shares this interpretation. Since Li believes that "karma is the primary factor that causes sickness in people", Penny asks: "if disease comes from karma and karma can be eradicated through cultivation of xinxing, then what good will medicine do?" Li himself states that he is not forbidding practitioners from taking medicine, maintaining that "What I''m doing is telling people the relationship between practicing cultivation and medicine-taking". Li also states that "An everyday person needs to take medicine when he gets sick." Schechter quotes a Falun Gong student who says "It is always an individual choice whether one should take medicine or not."


    Karma is an important concept in Taoism. Every deed is tracked by deities and spirits. Appropriate rewards or retribution follow karma, just like a shadow follows a person.

    The karma doctrine of Taoism developed in three stages. In first stage, causality between actions and consequences was adopted, with supernatural beings keeping track of everyone''s karma and assigning fate (ming). In second phase, transferability of karma ideas from Chinese Buddhism were expanded, and a transfer or inheritance of Karmic fate from ancestors to one''s current life was introduced. In the third stage of karma doctrine development, ideas of rebirth based on karma were added. One could be reborn either as another human being or another animal, according to this belief. In the third stage, additional ideas were introduced; for example, rituals, repentance and offerings at Taoist temples were encouraged as it could alleviate Karmic burden.

    Other interpretationsIt Shoots Further Than He Dreams by John F. Knott, March 1918.

    Western culture, influenced by Christianity, holds a notion similar to karma, as demonstrated in the phrase what goes around comes around.


    Mary Jo Meadow suggests karma is akin to "Christian notions of sin and its effects." She states that the Christian teaching on last judgment according to one''s charity is a teaching on karma. Christianity also teaches morals such as reap what one sows (Galatians 6:7) and live by the sword, die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). Most scholars, however, consider the concept of last judgment as different than karma, with karma as on-going process that occurs every day in one''s life, and last judgment in contrast being a one time review at the end of life.

    Spiritism Main article: Spiritist doctrine

    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. How we know of this without remembering we had the choice is ambiguous. 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.


    Wicca teaches the Rule of Three, which states that whatever energy a person puts out into the world, be it positive or negative, will be returned to that person three times.

    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 was a precursor to 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 Theosophist I. K. Taimni wrote, "Karma is nothing but the Law of Cause and Effect operating in the realm of human life and bringing about adjustments between an individual and other individuals whom he has affected by his thoughts, emotions and actions." Theosophy also teaches that when humans reincarnate they come back as humans only, not as animals or other organisms.

    Karma and emotions

    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 experiences are hypothetically devoid of any karma (nirvana or moksha).

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