Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म from the root kri, "to do") is a term used in several eastern religions referring to the entire cycle of cause and effect which governs human life. The "Law of Karma" is central to the indigenous religions of India, (Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism) and plays a seminal role in the thought of Indian philosophy.
Karma literally means "deed" or "act" and is associated with earthly existence. The concept of karma in Indian philosophy and religion is inextricably associated with the doctrine of rebirth, or reincarnation. According to the law of karma, a person’s individual and collective actions determine the nature of his or her future existence in the present life or in a future life. Karma is not punishment or retribution, but simply an extended expression of natural acts. The doctrine of karma and samsara (the realm of rebirth and karmic retribution) provides causal explanations for the phenomena of life, serves as a foundation for ethical and religious understanding, and rationalizes the commitment to seek liberation from a painful and unsatisfactory worldly existence. The Hindu concepts of karma differ in important ways from the corresponding ideas found in Buddhism and Jainism. Most schools of Hinduism place God in the position of administrator, supervisor, and even mitigator of karma. Jainism and Buddhism regard karma as an impersonal force or law operating independently of God.
Origins and development
The concept of karma in Indian philosophy and religion is inextricably associated with the doctrine of rebirth, or reincarnation. The historical origins of the doctrine of karma and rebirth cannot be clearly determined. The term “karma” (action) can be traced back to the early Upanishads. Early Hindu texts, the Vedas, the Brahmanas, and the Upanishads prior to 500 B.C.E., contain some suggestions of the doctrine, but do not indicate a clear and definitive understanding of it. Buddhist teachings appear to have contributed a strong sense of moral responsibility and its consequences. Jainism attempted a detailed explanation of the process of karma and even gave karma the status of a material substance. Beginning around 400 B.C.E., Hindu texts such as the Mahabharata illustrate a fully developed and generalized understanding of the doctrine of karma and rebirth. It was adopted and interpreted in various ways by most schools of Indian philosophical and religious thought. The law of karma also became the basis of theories of law, medicine, embryology, and astrology, and the theme of popular narratives and mythologies in all the Asian countries influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism.
The concept of karma in Indian thought has several different interpretations according to context, time period, and philosophical school. The doctrine of karma and samsara (the realm of rebirth and karmic retribution) has several functions in Indian thought. It provides causal explanations for the phenomena of life, serves as a foundation for ethical and religious understanding, and rationalizes the commitment to seek liberation from a painful and unsatisfactory worldly existence. Various schools of thought disagreed over the nature of the karmic agent, the process of rebirth, the significance of human acts and decisions, the relationship between knowledge and action, and the possibility and method of achieving liberation or transcending the cycle of rebirth. The Hindu concepts of karma differ in important ways from the corresponding ideas found in Buddhism and Jainism. Most schools of Hinduism place God in the position of administrator, supervisor, and even mitigator of karma. Jainism and Buddhism regard karma as an impersonal force or law operating independently of God.
Karma and free will
Karma is associated with earthly existence. The doctrine of karma implies that every soul embodied in a human being has the will to make decisions and choose what actions to take. Those decisions and actions generate karma, which determines the future circumstances of that soul’s earthly existence(s). Animals, plants, and inanimate objects (which some schools of thought consider to be sentient) do not have the freedom to act consciously. Karma may determine the circumstances into which a person is born, the various experiences to which he or she is subjected, and the person’s natural predispositions, but it does not determine how the person will act in those circumstances. Human beings can choose to act in ways that will diminish negative karma, such as the practice of asceticism, which denies the physical body and lessens its attachment to the material world; and in ways that will generate positive karma, such as devotion to God, the performance of religious rites, and the fulfillment of filial duties.
Karma is considered an impersonal law that cannot be abrogated by any person but may be mitigated by God. Karma is not punishment or retribution, but simply an extended expression of natural acts. The effects experienced are also able to be mitigated by actions and are not necessarily fateful. The effects of karma may be experienced immediately or at some later time in the life of an individual, or may accumulate and manifest themselves in some future rebirth.
Hinduism postulates three types of karma:
- sanchita karma, the sum total of karma stored as a result of past acts, which has yet to begin manifesting itself, like a seed that has not begun to germinate.
- prarabdha karma, that portion of sanchita karma that is to be experienced in this life.
- kriyamana karma, the karma that humans are currently creating, which will bear fruit in the future.
According to the law of karma, meritorious acts may create rebirth into a higher level, as a superior human being or a godlike being, while evil acts result in rebirth as a human living in less desirable circumstances, or as a lower animal.
Many schools of Hinduism contend that God is all-merciful and His grace can overcome or mitigate the karma of man in many cases. Of his own free will, humanity must seek God. Bhakti (devotion) or disinterested service to God, which can only be performed by someone who understands the truth, is a form of karma.
Even if a very ill-conducted man worships me, not worshiping anyone else, he must certainly be deemed to be good, for he has well resolved. He soon becomes devout of heart and obtains lasting tranquility. O Arjuna, know firmly that My devotee is never ruined. He who does My work, who yields himself unto Me, who is devoted to Me, void of attachment, without hatred to anyone, O Arjuna, comes to me (Krishna speaking to Arjuna, Bhagavad Gita, IX. 30, 31, 34).
In the Bhagavata Purana, there is a story of Ajamila, who had done many bad deeds during his life such as stealing, abandoning his wife and children, and marrying a prostitute. His youngest son was named Narayana, an important Sanskrit name for Vishnu which is also commonly used as an Indian first name. At the moment of death, Ajamila involuntarily chanted the name of Narayana, and received moksha or union with God and was saved from the messengers of Yama. Ajamila, at the moment of his death, was actually thinking the name of his youngest son. But the name of God has powerful effects, and he was forgiven for his great sins, and attained salvation, despite his bad karma.
The caste system in India was traditionally interpreted as a manifestation of the law of karma, in which those who had performed good deeds in past lives were born into the spiritual and privileged brahmana caste.
A Saivite interpretation of karma
The Saivite interpretation of the law of karma is that it does not operate autonomously, but depends on the will of God, who acts as an agent and administrator of karma. According to the Upanishadic texts, God and jivas (souls) are without beginning and exist eternally. However, the jivas can never enjoy the highest form of liberation without pure knowledge, which can not be attained without going through the experiences of earthly existence. God is the agent who associates souls with earthly bodies, and arranges the circumstances in which each individual jiva can work out the karma generated by its past actions. Good and bad deeds are qualities of the mind of a person. Each person performs good or bad actions according to his or her inclinations, which were acquired in previous existences, and those deeds determine God’s creation of future circumstances in which the law of karma can be fulfilled. When a person’s deeds are finally exhausted through enjoyment and suffering, self-knowledge arises which leads to the supreme bliss of liberation. 
Ramanuja attributes all evil and suffering to the accumulation over time of evil karma associated with the jivas, or human souls, and maintains that God is amala, without any stain of evil.
Madhva, the founder of the Dvaita school, believed that even if karma is accepted as without beginning and as the cause of evil, there must be an initial cause for the variations in karma. The fact that the jivas have many different kinds of karma, both good and bad, must mean that all must not have started with same type of karma from the beginning of time. Thus, Madhva concludes that the jivas are not God's creation, but are rather entities co-existent with Vishnu, although under His absolute control. The souls (jivas), are dependent on Him in their pristine nature and in all transformation that they may undergo.
According to Madhva, although God has control, He does not interfere with humanity's free will, and although He is omnipotent, He does not engage in extraordinary feats. Rather, God must enforce a rule of law and give the jivas (souls) full freedom to follow their own natures and experience the consequences of their own actions. Thus, God is the sanctioner or divine accountant, and the jivas act freely according to their innate natures and accumulate karma. The ultimate power of existence comes only from God; the jivas utilize that power for good or evil according to their innate natures.
Madhva’s doctrine that the jivas (souls) were not all equal at their inception led to a concept of eternal damnation which differs significantly from traditional Hindu beliefs. He divided jivas (souls) into three classes: Mukti-yogyas, which qualify for liberation; Nitya-samsarins, who are subject to eternal rebirth or eternal transmigration due to samsara; and Tamo-yogyas , who are eventually condemned to eternal hell (Andhatamas). No other Hindu philosopher or group of Hinduism holds such beliefs; most Hindus believe in universal salvation, the concept that all souls will eventually obtain moksha, even if it occurs after millions of rebirths.
Buddhism regards karma as a causal principle, which contributes to the continual cycle of rebirth. The term “karma” in Buddhism is usually associated with action that is "tainted" with ignorance; ignorance and karma continue to determine each other and ensure that the agent remains trapped in an everlasting cycle of samsara. An individual’s present actions are the result of impressions (predispositions) of the karmas of past lives, and they in turn shape predispositions that will affect future lives. Only intentional actions are karmic "acts of will." An individual can generate liberating karma that will allow him to break the cycle of rebirth which always leads to suffering, leave samsara and permanently enter Nirvana, by developing proper insight into the (un)reality of samsara. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, including the practice of ethical self-discipline, asceticism, and various forms of meditation.
Jainism explains karma as an invisible, material substance which adheres to the soul (jiva), weighing it down and determining the conditions of the next reincarnation. Karma is the link which ties the soul to the body, and the cause of bondage and sorrow. Every action that a person performs, good or evil, opens up channels of the senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell), through which karma filters in and adheres to the jiva. Ignorance of truth and four passions of anger, greed, pride, and delusion attract the flow of karmic matter which obscures the radiance of the soul.
The way to deliverance from this bondage is through the three jewels of right faith (belief in real existence), right knowledge (knowledge of real nature without doubt or error) and right conduct (the practice of the five virtues). Through them, the flow of karma into the soul is stopped, and existing karma is discharged. When the last particle of karma has been exhausted, “the partnership between soul and matter is dissolved,” and the soul achieves infinite faith, knowledge, bliss and power. It then transcends the cycle of earthly existence (samsara) and goes to a place or state called Siddhashila, where the jiva, identical with all other pure jivas, experiences its own true nature in eternal stillness, isolation, and noninvolvement and dwells in eternal bliss. Jains believe that this highest and most exalted state, the permanent release of the jiva from all involvement in worldly existence, can only be achieved by individuals through their own efforts without the assistance of any god or spirit.
Jains avoid professions which involve violence to the self or other living beings, such as agriculture or the military, and go to great lengths to avoid harming any living thing, because such an action attracts karma.
- Wilhelm Halbfass, "Indian Conceptions of Karma and Rebirth" in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1998).
- Chennai Online, Ajamila, The Vile Sinner. Retrieved November 2, 2007.
- Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume V, The Southern Schools of Saivism pp 85-87.
- Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, eds., A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1973). ISBN 0691019584
- Chandrahar Sharma, A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy (Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 2003). ISBN 8120803647
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- Karma by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2000)
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