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Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म), or Kamma (Pali) 'action, effect, fate'. In Hinduism and Buddhism, it is the sum of a person's actions, regarded as determining that person's future states of existence. The law of Karma originated in the Vedic system of religion, otherwise known as Hinduism or Sanatan Dharma (perennial faith). As a term, it can at the latest be traced back to the early Upanishads, around 1500 BC.


Karma in the Dharma-based Religions


The concept of Karma, based on the Vedas and Upanishads was a concept that was adopted by other religions like Buddhism and Jainism. One of the first and most dramatic illustrations of Karma can be found in the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. The original Hindu concept of karma was later enhanced by several other movements within the religion, most notably Vedanta, and Tantra.

Karma literally means "deed" or "act" and more broadly names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction which governs all life. Karma is not fate, for man acts with free will creating his own destiny. According to the Vedas, if we sow goodness, we will reap goodness; if we sow evil, we 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 reaction. Not all karmas rebound immediately. Some accumulate and return unexpectedly in this or other births.

As Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami explains it, unkindness yields spoiled fruits, called papa and good deeds bring forth sweet fruits, called punya. He further notes that as one acts, so does he become. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action."

Three Kinds of Karma

  • There are three types of karma,
    1. sanchita karma , the sum total of past karmas yet to be resolved;
    2. prarabdha karma , that portion of sanchita karma that is to be experienced in this life; and
    3. kriyamana karma , the karma that humans are currently creating and will bear fruit in the future.

Notably, Karma in Hinduism, unlike Buddhism and Jainism, does involve the role of God. For a detailed look at such a role, please see Karma in Hinduism.


In Buddhism, only intentional actions are karmic "acts of will". The 'Law of Karma' refers to "cause and effect", but Karma literally means "action" - often indicating intent or cause. Accompanying this usually is a separate tenet called Vipaka, meaning result or effect. The re-action or effect can itself also influence an action, and in this way, the chain of causation continues ad infinitum. When Buddhists talk about karma, they are normally referring to karma/action that is 'tainted' with ignorance - karma that continues to ensure that the being remains in the everlasting cycle of samsara.

This samsaric karma comes in two 'flavours' - 'good' karma, which leads to positive/pleasurable experiences, like high rebirth (as a deva, asura, or human), and bad karma which leads to suffering and low rebirth (as a hell-sufferer, as a preta , or as an animal).

There is also a completely different type of karma that is neither good nor bad, but liberating. This karma allows for the individual to break the uncontrolled cycle of rebirth which always implies suffering, and thereby leave samsara to permanently enter Nirvana.

The Buddhist sutras explain that in order to generate liberating karma, we must first develop incredibly powerful concentration, and proper insight into the (un)reality of samsara. This concentration is akin to the states of mind required to be reborn in the Deva realm, and in itself depends upon a very deep training in ethical self-discipline.

This differentiation between good karma and liberating karma has been used by some scholars to argue that the development of Tantra depended upon Buddhist ideas and philosophies.

Understanding the universal law of Karma provides order to a beginningless and endless universe. Alongside this view is the related notion of Buddhist rebirth - sometimes understood to be the same thing as reincarnation - which has its roots in the principle of Karma.


Jains believe that karma is a form of matter. Mahavira described karma as "clay particles". Jains do not believe in "good karma" or "bad karma"; they try to avoid all karma.

Parallels with Christianity

Christian teachings do not usually include the idea of Karma, although some parallels can be made, as exemplified by biblical verses of God is not mocked, what a man sows he must reap and Vengeance is mine says the Lord.

For the most part, however, the idea of the Abrahamic God makes the concept of Karma redundant for Christians.

It is also worth noting that most interpretations of Christianity do not emphasize the religious importance of thoughts and intentions (volition), that are usually understood to be a major form of Karma by the doctrines that use that concept.

Western Interpretation

An academic and religious definition was mentioned above. Although, the Karma cannot be proven as easily as the law of gravity, millions of people believe in it and is a part of many cultures and psyche of groups of people. Even more people, without a religious background, especially in a western culture or with a Christian upbringing, come to the conviction of the existence of Karma. For some, karma is a more reasonable concept than eternal damnation for the wicked. Spirituality or a belief that virtue is rewarded and sin creates suffering eventually leads to a belief in Karma.

According to Karma, performance of positive action results with the reaction of a good conditioning in one's experience, whereas a negative action results in a reaction of a bad response. This may be an immediate result following the act, or a delayed result occurring either in the present life or the next. Thus, meritorious acts may create rebirth into a higher station, such 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. While the action of karma has often been compared with the Western notions of sin and judgment by God or gods, karma instead has been commonly perceived by Westerners to operate as an inherent principle of the Universe without the intervention of any supernatural Being. That notion is incorrect and holds true for only Buddhism and Jainism. In Hinduism, however, God does play a role and is seen as a dispenser of karma; see Karma in Hinduism for more details.

Most teachings say that for common mortals, having an involvement with Karma is an unavoidable part of day-to-day 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).

New Age and Theosophy

The idea of karma was popularized in the west through the work of the Theosophical Society. Kardecist and Western New Age reinterpretations of karma frequently cast it as a sort of luck which is associated with virtue: if one does good or spiritually valuable acts, one deserves and can expect good luck; conversely, if one does harmful things, one can expect bad luck or unfortunate happenings. 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.

See also

References and Related Links

Cited from Dancing with Siva by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami

Last updated: 08-17-2005 11:54:56
Last updated: 08-17-2005 18:26:32