What is Karma?
The Sanskrit word karma means "actions" or "deeds." As a religious term, karma refers to intentional (usually moral) actions that affect one's fortunes in this life and the next. Karma (or kamma in Pali) is a concept common to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, but interpreted in different ways. This article focuses specifically on Hindu beliefs about karma.
The concept of karma or "law of karma" is the broader principle that all of life is governed by a system of cause and effect, action and reaction, in which one's deeds have corresponding effects on the future. Karma is thus a way of explaining evil and misfortune in the world, even for those who do not appear to deserve it - their misfortune must be due to wrong actions in their previous life.
In Hindu texts, the word karma first appears in the ancient Rig Veda, but there it simply means religious action and animal sacrifice. There is some hint of the later meaning of karma in the Brahmanas, but it is not until the Upanishads that karma is expressed as a principle of cause and effect based on actions. One example is in Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5.
Karma as law
Karma is regarded as a fundamental law of nature that is automatic and mechanical. It is not something that is imposed by God or a god as a system of punishment or reward, nor something that the gods can interfere with.
The word karma refers primarily to "bad karma" - that which is accumulated as a result of wrong actions. Bad karma binds a person's soul (atman) to the cycle of rebirth (samsara) and leads to misfortune in this life and poor conditions in the next. The moral energy of a particular moral act bears fruit automatically in the next life, manifested in one's class, disposition, and character.
Hindu texts also prescribe a number of activities, such as pilgrimages to holy places and acts of devotion, that can wipe out the effects of bad karma. Such positive actions are sometimes referred to as "good karma." Some versions of the theory of karma also say that morally good acts have positive consequences (as opposed to simply neutral).
In Vedanta and Yoga teachings, there are three types of karma:
- Prarabdha karma - karma experienced during the present lifetime
- Sancita karma - the store of karma that has not yet reached fruition
- Agamin or sanciyama karma - karma sown in the present life that will come to fruition in a future life
The process by which karma is understood to work through various rebirths is as follows:
- Good or bad actions create impressions (samskaras) or tendencies (vasanas) in the mind, which in time will come to fruition in further action (more karma).
- The seeds of karma are carried in the subtle body (linga), in which the soul transmigrates.
- The physical body (sthula sarira) is the field in which the fruit of karma is experienced and more karma is created.
The purpose of life in Hinduism is thus to minimize bad karma in order to enjoy better fortune in this life and achieve a better rebirth in the next. The ultimate spiritual goal is to achieve release (moksha) from the cycle of samsara altogether. It may take hundreds or thousands of rebirths to get rid of all of one's accumulated karma and achieve moksha. The person who has become liberated (attained moksha) creates no more new karma during the present lifetime and is not reborn after death.
Various methods to attain moksha are taught by different schools, but most include avoiding attachment to impermanent things, carrying out one's duties, and realizing the ultimate unity between one's soul or self (atman) and ultimate reality (Brahman).Sources
- "Karma." John Hinnells, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Religions, (1997).
- "Karma, kamma." John Bowker, ed., Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions (2000).
- Hinduism: Doctrines of transmigration and karma - Encyclopedia Britannica Online
- The Hindu Law of 'Karma' - Chennai Online (questions the validity of the doctrine)
- Varanasi - holy city on the Ganges River where karma can be washed away