Karma in Hinduism

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Karma is a concept in Hinduism which explains causality through a system where beneficial effects are derived from past beneficial actions and harmful effects from past harmful actions, creating a system of actions and reactions throughout a soul's reincarnated lives[1] forming a cycle of rebirth. The causality is said to be applicable not only to the material world but also to our thoughts, words, actions and actions that others do under our instructions.[2] When the cycle of rebirth comes to an end, a person is said to have attained moksha, or salvation from samsara.[3] Not all incarnations are human. The cycle of birth and death on earth is said to be formed from 8.4 million forms of life, but only in human life is an exit from this cycle possible.[4]


The doctrine of transmigration of the soul, with respect to fateful retribution for acts committed, does not appear in the Rig Veda.[5] However, a new translation of two stanzas of the Rig Veda indicate that the Rishis may have had the idea, common among small-scale societies around the world, that an individual cycles back and forth between the earth and a heavenly realm of ancestors. In this worldview, moral behavior has no influence on rebirth.[6] The concept of karma first appears strongly in the Bhagavad Gita.[7] The topic of karma is mentioned in the Puranas.[8]


"Karma" literally means "deed" or "act", and more broadly names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction, which Hindus believe governs all consciousness.[9] Karma is not fate, for we act with what can be described as a conditioned free will creating our own destinies. According to the Vedas, if we sow goodness, we will reap goodness; if we sow evil, we will reap evil .[citation needed] Karma refers to the totality of our actions and their concomitant reactions in this and previous lives, all of which determine 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 lifetimes.[9] Human beings are said to produce karma in four ways:[10]

  • through thoughts
  • through words
  • through actions that we perform ourselves
  • through actions others perform under our instructions

Everything that we have ever thought, spoken, done or caused is karma, as is also that which we think, speak or do this very moment.[2] Hindu scriptures divide karma into three kinds:[2]

  • Sanchita is the accumulated karma. It would be impossible to experience and endure all karmas in one lifetime. From this stock of sanchita karma, a handful is taken out to serve one lifetime and this handful of actions, which have begun to bear fruit and which will be exhausted only on their fruit being enjoyed and not otherwise, is known as prarabdha karma.
  • Prarabdha Fruit-bearing karma is the portion of accumulated karma that has "ripened" and appears as a particular problem in the present life.
  • Kriyamana is everything that we produce in the current life. All kriyamana karmas flow in to sanchita karma and consequently shape our future. Only in human life we can change our future destiny. After death we lose Kriya Shakti (ability to act) and do (kriyamana) karma until we are born again in another human body.

Actions performed consciously are weighted more heavily than those done unconsciously. On this basis some believe that only human beings who can distinguish right from wrong can do (kriyamana) karma.[10] Therefore animals and young children are considered incapable of creating new karma (and thus cannot affect their future destinies) as they are incapable of discriminating between right and wrong.[11] This view is explained by the concepts of a Karma-deha ('action' body) and a Bhoga-deha ('completion' body).

Tulsidas, a Hindu saint, said: "Our destiny was shaped long before the body came into being." [4] As long as the stock of sanchita karma lasts, a part of it continues to be taken out as prarabdha karma for being enjoyed in one lifetime, leading to the cycle of birth and death. A Jiva cannot attain moksha (liberation) from the cycle of birth and death, until the accumulated sanchita karmas are completely exhausted.[12]

The cycle of birth and death on earth is formed from 8.4 million forms of life, only one of which is human. Only as humans are we in position to do something about our destiny by doing the right thing at the right time. Through positive actions, pure thoughts, prayer, mantras and meditation, we can resolve the influence of karma in the present life and turn our destiny for the better. A spiritual master knowing the sequence in which our karma will bear fruit can help us. As humans we have the opportunity to speed up our spiritual progress with the practice of good karma. We produce negative karma because we lack knowledge and clarity.[4]

Unkindness yields spoiled fruits, called paap, and good deeds bring forth sweet fruits, called punya. As one acts, so does one become: one becomes virtuous by virtuous action, and evil by evil action.[9]

The role of divine forces[edit]

Several different views exist in Hinduism, some extant today and some historical, regarding the role of divine beings in controlling the effects of karma or the lack thereof.

Vedanta view[edit]

In the theistic side of Vedanta, the dualistic school, the creator Ishvara rules over the world through the law of karma.[13] In non-dualistic (Advaita) school of Vedanta, the creator is not the ultimate reality, "I am God" is the supreme truth, the pursuit of self-knowledge is spirituality, and it shares karma-rebirth-samsara ideas found in Buddhism.[14]

Mimamsa view[edit]

Earlier historical traditions of Hinduism such as Mimamsakas, reject any such notions of divinity being responsible and see karma as acting independently, considering the natural laws of causation sufficient to explain the effects of karma.[15][16][17]

According to the Mimamsakas it is useless to set up a God for that purpose, since Karma itself can give the result at a future time.[18]

Proof of existence of God from Karma[edit]

In the later writings in the Nyaya, school of philosophy, Udayana's Nyayakusumanjali used Karma for the last of his nine proofs of the existence of a creative God:[19] See Nyaya on God and Salvation.

Swami Sivananda Saraswati puts it like this:

"Some people die when they are eighty years old; some die when they are in the womb; some die at twenty; some at forty. What is the cause for the variation? Who has fixed the span of life for all? This clearly proves that there is the theory of Karma, that there is one Omniscient Lord, who is the dispenser of the fruits of the actions of the Jivas, who fixes the span of life of the Jivas in accordance with their nature of Karma or actions, who knows the exact relation between Karmas and their fruits. As Karma is Jada or insentient, it certainly cannot dispense with the fruits of their actions."[20]

Views of the theistic Hindu traditions believing in a supreme God[edit]


For more details on the treatment of karma in other schools of Vedanta, see the section on Vaishnavism which include the Vedantic schools of Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita.

Theistic schools of Hinduism such as Vedanta disagree with the Buddhist, Jain and other Hindu views that karma is merely a law of cause and effect but instead additionally hold that karma is mediated by the will of a personal supreme God.

Sankara (Advaita)[edit]

In a commentary to Brahma Sutras (III, 2, 38, and 41), a Vedantic text, Adi Sankara, an Indian philosopher who consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, a sub-school of Vedanta, argues that the original karmic actions themselves cannot bring about the proper results at some future time; neither can super sensuous, non-intelligent qualities like adrsta—an unseen force being the metaphysical link between work and its result—by themselves mediate the appropriate, justly deserved pleasure and pain. The fruits, according to him, then, must be administered through the action of a conscious agent, namely, a supreme being (Ishvara).[21]

A human's karmic acts result in merits and demerits. Since unconscious things generally do not move except when caused by an agent (for example, the ax moves only when swung by an agent), and since the law of karma is an unintelligent and unconscious law, Sankara argues there must be a conscious God who knows the merits and demerits which persons have earned by their actions, and who functions as an instrumental cause in helping individuals reap their appropriate fruits.[22] Thus, God affects the person's environment, even to its atoms, and for those souls who reincarnate, produces the appropriate rebirth body, all in order that the person might have the karmically appropriate experiences.[23] Thus, there must be a theistic administrator or supervisor for karma, i.e., God.

Swami Sivananda, an Advaita scholar, reiterates the same views in his commentary synthesising Vedanta views on the Brahma Sutras. In his commentary on Chapter 3 of the Brahma Sutras, Sivananda notes that karma is insentient and short-lived, and ceases to exist as soon as a deed is executed. Hence, karma cannot bestow the fruits of actions at a future date according to one's merit. Furthermore, one cannot argue that karma generates apurva or punya, which gives fruit. Since apurva is non-sentient, it cannot act unless moved by an intelligent being such as God. It cannot independently bestow reward or punishment.[24]

There is a passage from Swami Sivananda's translation of the Svetasvatara Upanishad (4:6) illustrating this concept:

Two birds of beautiful plumage — inseparable friends — live on the same tree. Of these two one eats the sweet fruit while the other looks on without eating.

In his commentary, the first bird represents the individual soul, while the second represents Brahman or God. The soul is essentially a reflection of Brahman. The tree represents the body. The soul identifies itself with the body, reaps the fruits of its actions, and undergoes rebirth. The Lord alone stands as an eternal witness, ever contented, and does not eat, for he is the director of both the eater and the eaten.

Swami Sivananda also notes that God is free from charges of partiality and cruelty which are brought against him because of social inequality, fate, and universal suffering in the world. According to the Brahma Sutras, individual souls are responsible for their own fate; God is merely the dispenser and witness with reference to the merit and demerit of souls.

In his commentary on Chapter 2 of the Brahma Sutras, Sivananda further notes that the position of God with respect to karma can be explained through the analogy of rain. Although rain can be said to bring about the growth of rice, barley and other plants, the differences in various species is due to the diverse potentialities lying hidden in the respective seeds. Thus, Sivananda explains that differences between classes of beings are due to different merits belonging to individual souls. He concludes that God metes rewards and punishments only in consideration of the specific actions of beings.[25]


Thirugnana Sambandar[edit]

Karma as action philosophy and value theory: if we sow goodness, we will reap goodness.

Sambandar of the Shaiva Siddhanta school, in the 7th century C.E., writes about karma in his outline of Shaivism. He explains the concept of karma in Hinduism by distinguishing it from that of Buddhism and Jainism, which do not require the existence of an external being like God. In their beliefs, just as a calf among a large number of cows can find its mother at suckling time, so also does karma find the specific individual it needs to attach to and come to fruition.[26] However, theistic Hindus posit that karma, unlike the calf, is an unintelligent entity.[26] Hence, karma cannot locate the appropriate person by itself. Sambantha concludes that an intelligent Supreme Being with perfect wisdom and power (Shiva, for example) is necessary to make karma attach to the appropriate individual.[26] In such sense, God is the Divine Accountant.[26]

Appayya Dikshita[edit]

Appayya Dikshita, a Shaiva theologian and proponent of Shiva Advaita, states that Shiva only awards happiness and misery in accordance with the law of karma.[27] Thus persons themselves perform good or evil actions according to their own inclinations as acquired in past creations, and in accordance with those deeds, a new creation is made for the fulfilment of the law of karma. Shaivas believe that there are cycles of creations in which souls gravitate to specific bodies in accordance with karma, which as an unintelligent object depends on the will of Siva alone.


Srikantha, another Saivite theologian and proponent of Siva Advaita, believes that individual souls themselves do things which may be regarded as the cause of their particular actions, or desisting from particular actions, in accordance with the nature of the fruition of their past deeds.[28] Srikantha further believes that Siva only helps a person when he wishes to act in a particular way or to desist from a particular action. Regarding the view that karma produce their own effects directly, Srikantha holds that karma being without any intelligence cannot be expected to produce manifold effects through various births and various bodies; rather fruits of one's karma can be performed only by the will of God operating in consonance with man's free will, or as determined in later stages by man's own karma so the prints of all karma are distributed in the proper order by the grace of God Shiva).[28] In this way, God is ultimately responsible on one hand for our actions, and on the other for enjoyment and suffering in accordance with our karmas, without any prejudice to humans' moral responsibility as expressed through free will or as determined later by our own deeds.[28] A good summary of his view is that "man is responsible, free to act as he wills to, for Siva only fulfills needs according to the soul's karma." [29]


Sacred Texts[edit]

Bhagavata Purana[edit]

In Chapter 1 of 10th book of the Bhagavata Purana, Vasudeva, the father of Krishna, exhorts Kamsa to refrain from killing his wife, Devaki, the mother of Krishna, by stating that death is certain for those who are born and when the body returns to the five elements, the soul leaves the body and helplessly obtains another form in accordance with the laws of karma, citing passages from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, IV:4:3.[30] Moreover, he adds and states that the soul materializes into an appropriate body whatever the state of the mind one remembers at the time of death; i.e., at the time of the death, the soul and its subtle body of mind, intelligence and ego, is projected into the womb of a creature, human or non-human that can provide a gross body that is most suitable for the dominant state of the mind of the particular person at the time of death; note that this passage is similar in meaning as Bhagavad Gita, VIII, verse 6 [30] Such commentaries were provided by Edwin Bryant, Associate Professor of religion at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

Vishnu Sahasranama[edit]

Many names in the Vishnu Sahasranama, the thousand names of Vishnu allude to the power of God in controlling karma. For example, the 135th name of Vishnu, Dharmadhyaksha, in the Advaita philosopher Sankara's interpretation means, "One who directly sees the merits (Dharma) and demerits (Adharma), of beings by bestowing their due rewards on them." [31]

Other names of Vishnu alluding to this nature of God are Bhavanah, the 32nd name, Vidhata, the 44th name, Apramattah, the 325th name, Sthanadah, the 387th name and Srivibhavanah, the 609th name.[32] Bhavanah, according to Sankara's interpretation, means "One who generates the fruits of Karmas of all Jivas (souls) for them to enjoy."[33] The Brahma Sutra (3.2.28) "Phalmatah upapatteh" speaks of the Lord's function as the bestower of the fruits of all actions of the jivas.[33]

Ramanuja (Vishishtadvaita)[edit]

Ramanuja of the Vishishtadvaita school, another sub-school of Vedanta, addresses the problem of evil by attributing all evil things in life to the accumulation of evil karma of jivas (souls in bondage to a corporeal form) and maintains that God is "amala," or without any stain of evil.[34] In Sri Bhasya, Ramanuja's interpretation of the Brahma sutras from a Vaishnavite theistic view, Brahman, whom he conceives as Vishnu, arranges the diversity of creation in accordance with the different karma of individual souls.[35]

Ramanuja, in Sri Bhasya 1.1.1., reiterates that inequality and diversity in the world are due to the fruits of karma of different souls and the omnipresent energy of the soul suffers pain or pleasure due to its karma.[36] The distinction between the fruits of karma, i.e., good and evil karma, are due to Vishnu as the supreme Enforcer of karma yet souls alone have the freedom and responsibility for their acts.[36]

Furthermore, Ramanuja believes that Vishnu wishing to do a favour to those who are resolved on acting so as fully to please Him, engenders in their minds a tendency towards highly virtuous actions, such as means to attain to Him; while on the other hand, in order to punish those who are resolved on lines of action altogether displeasing to Him, He engenders in their minds a delight in such actions as have a downward tendency and are obstacles in the way of the attainment of God.[37]

Madhva (Dvaita)[edit]

Madhva, the founder of the Dvaita school, another sub-school of Vedanta, on the other hand, believes that there must be a root cause for variations in karma even if karma is accepted as having no beginning and being the cause of the problem of evil.[38] Since jivas have different kinds of karma, from good to bad, all must not have started with same type of karma from the beginning of time. Thus, Madhva concludes that the jivas (souls) are not God's creation as in the Christian doctrine, but are rather entities co-existent with Vishnu, although under His absolute control. Souls are thus dependent on Him in their pristine nature and in all transformations that they may undergo.[38]

According to Madhva, God, although He has control, does not interfere with Man's free will; although He is omnipotent, that does not mean that He engages in extraordinary feats. Rather, God enforces a rule of law and, in accordance with the just deserts of jivas, gives them freedom to follow their own nature.[39] Thus, God functions as the sanctioner or as the divine accountant, and accordingly jivas are free to work according to their innate nature and their accumulated karma, good and bad. Since God acts as the sanctioner, the ultimate power for everything comes from God and the jiva only utilizes that power, according to his/her innate nature. However, like Shankara's interpretation of the Brahma Sutras as mentioned earlier, Madhva, agrees that the rewards and punishments bestowed by God are regulated by Him in accordance with the good and sinful deeds performed by them, and He does so of out of His own will to keep himself firm in justice and he cannot be controlled in His actions by karma of human beings nor can He be accused of partiality or cruelty to anyone.[39]

Swami Tapasyananda further explains the Madhva view by illustrating the doctrine with this analogy: the power in a factory comes from the powerhouse (God), but the various cogs (jivas) move in a direction in which they are set. Thus he concludes that no charge of partiality and cruelty can be brought against God. The jiva is the actor and also the enjoyer of the fruits of his/her own actions.[38]

Madhva differed significantly from traditional Hindu beliefs, owing to his concept of eternal damnation. For example, he divides souls into three classes: one class of souls which qualify for liberation (Mukti-yogyas), another subject to eternal rebirth or eternal transmigration (Nitya-samsarins), and a third class that is eventually condemned to eternal hell or Andhatamas (Tamo-yogyas).[40] No other Hindu philosopher or school of Hinduism holds such beliefs. In contrast, most Hindus believe in universal salvation: that all souls will eventually obtain moksha, even if it is after millions of rebirths.

Gaudiya Vaishnavism view[edit]

"According to their karma, all living entities are wandering throughout the entire universe. Some of them are being elevated to the upper planetary systems, and some are going down into the lower planetary systems. Out of many millions of wandering living entities, one who is very fortunate gets an opportunity to associate with a bona fide spiritual master by the grace of Krishna. By the mercy of both Krsna and the spiritual master, such a person receives the seed of the creeper of devotional service."[41]

"Karma refers in the broadest sense to any activity, but it often means activities performed within the bounds of Vedic injunctions with the intention of enjoying the results. (Another term, vikarma, is used for activity forbidden by the Vedas.) So karma, although having religious stature, is still material. The karmi is interested in rewards like money, sense pleasure, and fame in this life, and he also seeks promotion to higher planets in the next life. The great defect of karma is that it always results in reactions, which force the karmi to take another material birth by the process of transmigration of the soul. Therefore, whether "good" or "bad," pious or impious, all karma keeps one bound within the cycle of birth and death."[42]

The difficult question why some people are born into more and others into less suffering (problem of evil) is answered by explaining that people reincarnate according to the law of karma. Everybody is enjoying and suffering the reactions of his/her own previous deeds. God wants voluntary, spontaneous love and service, not mechanic execution of orders. This implies the necessity of free will of the individual and as such the possibility to misuse free will. The law of karma does not mean doom to eternal material life, because God is beyond karma and can free those who want to serve Him purely. A pure devotee attains the transcendental eternal abode of God, where there is no evil and sufferings, because all people there are spontaneously serving God. There is no negative karma in the abode of God because there is no negative thought there, what to speak of negative action.

Swaminarayan view[edit]

In the Swaminarayan sect followed by many in the Indian state of Gujarat, their spiritual leader, Lord Swaminarayan stated that karma is not to be confused as the giver of the fruits of our actions. In His Vachanamrut, a foundational scripture of the Swaminarayan faith, Lord Swãminãrayan says, “Just as when seeds which are planted in the earth sprout upwards after coming into contact with rainwater, similarly, during the period of creation, the jivas which had resided within maya together with their kãran sharir (causal body), attain various types of bodies according to their individual karmas by the will of God, the giver of the fruits of karmas.” [43][44]

So, thus, just as in other theistic schools of Hinduism, followers of the Swaminaryan faith believe that God is the giver of the fruits of our actions. Although people may think that God is cruel when He dispenses the fruits of bad actions, this is not the case. God, in fact, is impartial towards all. The Brahma Sutras by Veda Vyasa say, “God is not biased in giving happiness and misery to anyone but gives the fruits of one’s karmas.” (2-1-34)[44] However, unlike general schools of Hinduism, the Swaminarayan followers believe in Lord Swaminarayan as the supreme God, which is not believed by followers of Hinduism.[45]

Other Vaishnavite thoughts[edit]

Kulashekhara Alwar, a Vaishnava devotee, says in his "Mukundamala Stotra": 'yad yad bhavyam bhavatu bhagavan purva-karma-anurupam'. And purva-karma or bhaagya or daiva is unseen adrsta by us, and is known only to God as Vidhaataa.[46] God created the law of karma, and God will not violate it. God does, however, give courage and strength if asked.

Other viewpoints[edit]

Vivekananda, a Vedantist, offers a good example of the worry about free will in the Hindu tradition.

Therefore we see at once that there cannot be any such thing as free-will; the very words are a contradiction, because will is what we know, and everything that we know is within our universe, and everything within our universe is moulded by conditions of time, space and causality. ... To acquire freedom we have to get beyond the limitations of this universe; it cannot be found here.[47]

However, the preceding quote has often been misinterpreted as Vivekananda implying that everything is predetermined. What Vivekananda actually meant by lack of free will was that the will was not "free" because it was heavily influenced by the law of cause and effect—"The will is not free, it is a phenomenon bound by cause and effect, but there is something behind the will which is free."[47] Vivekananda never said that things were absolutely determined and placed emphasis on the power of conscious choice to alter one's past karma: "It is the coward and the fool who says this is his fate. But it is the strong man who stands up and says I will make my own fate."[47]

Similarly, Vivekananda's teacher Ramakrishna, using an analogy said that man is like a cow tied to a pole with a rope—the karmic debts and human nature bind him and the amount of free will he has is analogous to the amount of freedom the rope allows; as one progresses spiritually, the rope becomes longer.

Other teachers, such as Swami Mukundananda, a disciple of Kripalu Maharaj, states that karma is generally fixed and humans reap the fruits of their actions and notes that not even God violates the law of karma. Swami Mukundananda cites two prime examples; the Pandavas suffered immensely, even though they were great devotees of Krishna; even though Vishnu's avatar Rama was the child of Dasharatha and Kausalya, Kausalya became a widow upon Dasharatha's death, yet God did not interfere to remove their miseries.[48]

However, Swami Mukundananda also notes that the results of one's karma is dependent on many factors: 1) prarabdha karma, or fixed karma that is to be experienced in this life; 2) kriyamana karma, which are actions we perform and reap the fruits of in this life, 3) God's will; 4) karma of other people present in a particular situation; and 5) chance (i.e., events in which we happen to be present by chance).[49] But he notes that many things in karma are mysteries in creation and humans should leave this question to God until they become God-realized.[49]


The Nyaya school, one of six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, states that one of the proofs of the existence of God is karma;[50] It is seen that some people in this world are happy, some are in misery. Some are rich and some poor. The Naiyanikas explain this by the concept of karma and reincarnation. The fruit of an individual's actions does not always lie within the reach of the individual who is the agent; there ought to be, therefore, a dispenser of the fruits of actions, and this supreme dispenser is God.[50] This belief of Nyaya, accordingly, is the same as that of Vedanta.[50]


In Hinduism, more particularly the Dharmaśāstras, Karma is a principle in which “cause and effect are as inseparably linked in the moral sphere as assumed in the physical sphere by science. A good action has its reward and a bad action leads to retribution. If the bad actions do not yield their consequences in this life, the soul begins another existence and in the new environment undergoes suffering for its past deeds”.[51] Thus it is important to understand that karma does not go away, one must either reap the benefits or suffer the consequences of his past actions. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states, “According as a man acts and according as he believes so will he be; a man of meritorious acts will be meritorious, a man of evil deeds sinful. He becomes pure by pure deeds and evil by evil deeds. And here they say that person consists of desires. An as is his desire so is his will; and as is his will, so is his deed; and whatever deeds he does that he will reap”.[52] The doctrine of karma dates from ancient times and besides the above author is mentioned in the Gautama dharma-sutra, Shatapatha Brahmana, Kathaaka-grhya-sutra, Chandogya Upanishad, Markandeya Purana and many others.[53]

The shastras written about karma go into some detail about possible consequences of karma. There is often talk about coming back as a variety of different object when it comes to reincarnation and pasts lives. In this case, it holds true, or at least insofar as the texts state. The Kathaaka-grhya-sutra states, “some human beings enter the womb in order to have an embodied existence; others go into inorganic matter (the stump of a tree and the like) according to their deeds and according to their knowledge”.[54]

More extensively discussed is the consequences of karma in relation to sin. “Karmavipaka means the ripening (or fruition) of evil actions or sins. This fruition takes three forms, as stated in the Yogasutra II. 3, i.e., jati (birth as a worm or animal), ayuh (life i.e. living for a short period such as five or ten years) and bhoga (experiencing the torments of Hell”.[55]

There are long lists of birth of lower animals and the diseases and deformities from which sinners suffer.[56] Some authors offer specific ramifications for specific sins. For example, in “the Haritasamhita it is said the killer of a brahmana suffers from white leprosy and the killer of a cow from black leprosy.”[57] While the list is extensive for ways of reducing sin and therefore reducing bad karma, some authors, such as Mitākṣarā, a commentator on the Yājñavalkya Smṛti, believe karma is, “not to be taken literally, but is meant to induce sinner to undergo such prāyaścittas or penance as Prajapatya which entail great worry and trouble and which no one might willingly undertake.”

Further the Karmavipaka states, “that no soul need be without hope provided it is prepared to wait and undergo torments for its misdeeds, that it need not be appalled by the numerous existences foreshadowed in those works and that the soul, may in its long passage and evolution, ultimately be able to discover its true greatness and realize eternal peace and perfection.”[58]

Mitigation of bad karma[edit]

According to a theistic view, the effects of one's bad karma may be mitigated. Examples of how bad karma can be mitigated include following dharma, or living virtuously; performing good deeds, such as helping others; bhakti yoga, or worshiping God in order to receive grace; and conducting pilgrimages to sacred places, such as Chidambaram Temple or Rameswaram to get grace of God.[59] In another example, Ganesha can unweave his devotees from their karma, simplifying and purifying their lives, but this only happens after they have established a personal relationship with Him.[60]

Examples of getting God's grace are further illustrated below.


The story of Markandeya, who was saved from death by Siva, illustrates that God's grace can overcome Karma and death for His beloved devotee.[61]

In another similar story, Krishna resurrected his teacher Sandipani's son from the world of Yama, the lord of death, by noting that his teacher's son was brought there due to his personal karma, but due to His power and lordship over Yama, brought him back to life.[62] Sandipani was Krishna's teacher during his boyhood days.

The story of Ajamila in the Bhagavata Purana also illustrates the same point.[63] Ajamila had committed many evil deeds during his life such as stealing, abandoning his wife and children, and marrying a prostitute. But at the moment of death, he involuntarily chanted the name of Narayana and therefore received Moksha or union with God, and was saved from the messengers of Yama. Ajamila was actually thinking of his youngest son, whose name was also Narayana. But the name of God has powerful effects, and Ajamila was forgiven for his great sins and attained salvation, despite his bad Karma.


Shvetashvatara Upanishad 7 and 12 aver that the doer of the deeds wanders about and obtains rebirth according to his deeds but postulates an omnipotent creater, i.e., Isvara and the doctrine of grace.[64] Isvara is the great refuge of all and a person attains immortality when blessed by Isvara or at Isvara's pleasure.[65]

A person can be free from sorrow through the grace of Isvara. Therefore, the Shvetashvatara Upanishad postulates a supreme Being whose grace to devotees provides a way of escape from the law of karma.[65] As Adi Sankara stated in his commentary on Shvetashvatara Upanishad VI:4, "If we dedicate all our works to Ishvara, we will not be subject to the law of karma." [64]


The Dharmaśāstras turn to means of reducing sin, some of which are hard to reconcile with the doctrines of karma. For example, one such practice, Śrāddha, or as the Brahma Purana states, “whatever is given with faith to brahmanas intending it to be for the benefit of pitrs (ancestors) at a proper time, in a proper place, to deserving persons and in accordance with the prescribed procedure”[66] is meant to honor ancestors; however, by contrast, a believer of karma would agree that when the body dies, the soul automatically enters into another body, regardless of whether one performs srāddha for his or her ancestors.

Therefore, in contrast with karma, Kane states that Śrāddha, “the doctrine of offering balls of rice to three ancestors requires that the spirits of the three ancestors, even after the lapse of 50 or 100 years, are still capable of enjoying in an ethereal body the flavor or essence of rice balls wafted by the wind.”[67] Of course, the two differing views can be reconciled if we take into account the belief of the sastras which state that karma is not to be taken literally. However, as evidenced by the variety of opinions written on this subject, the consistency between differing views on karma will not hold elsewhere.

Relation between birth in a particular body to karma[edit]

See also: Reincarnation

Theistic schools believe in cycles of creations where souls gravitate to specific bodies in accordance with karma, which as an unintelligent object depends on the will of God alone. For example, Kaushitaki Upanishad 1.2 asserts that birth in different forms of existence as a worm, insect, fish, bird, lion, boar, snake or a human, is determined by a person's deeds and knowledge.[68]

Chandogya Upanishad 5.10.7 distinguishes between good birth such as birth in a spiritual family, i.e., (brahmin caste) or an evil birth, such as birth as a dog or hog.) Thus, the doctrine of karma comes to explain why different life forms manifest, into widely various levels of biological development such as characterization into different species from plants to various types of animals, and to even differences between members of the same species, such as humans.[69]

Thus, many, such as the Upanishadic readings suggest that birth in a particular caste is in accordance with karma, as those with good deeds are said to be born into a spiritual family, which is synonymous with the brahmana caste. Good deeds will lead one to be born into a spiritual family where his future destiny will be determined by his behaviour and deeds in the current life. In the Gita, Krishna said that characteristics of a brahmin are determined by behavior, not by birth. A verse from the Gita illustrates this point: "The duties of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas as also of Sudras, O scorcher of foes, are distributed according to the gunas (behavior) born of their own nature." (Bhagavad Gita 18.41)[70]

The verse 4.13 of the Bhagavad Gita can be cited to illustrate the belief system of division of gunas and karma which is cited in the verse 18.41. In this verse, Lord Krishna communicates this point: The four castes were created by Me according to the divisions of gunas and karma. Though I am their Creator, yet know that I neither act nor change. Swami Nikhilananda interprets this verse in this way. Four Castes- These are Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Sudras. The Division of gunas and karma- the gunas are sattva (goodness and harmony), rajas (foulness and activity), and tamas (darkness and inertia). The Gita lays utmost emphasis on svadharma- the dharma, or duty, of an individual-as determined by his svabhava, his inner nature formed as a result of his own past actions. The word "Nature" may mean māyā, the power of the Lord, consisting of three gunas. According to the gunas of Nature, the different castes are endowed with different attributes. A brahmin's nature consists mostly of sattva; a kshatriya's of rajas and sattva; the latter being under the influence of the former; a vaishya's of rajas and tamas, tamas being under the influence of rajas;sudras of tamas and rajas, rajas being under the influence of tamas. The karma, or action of brahmin, is characterised by control of the mind, control of the senses, austerity etc.[71] The karma, or action of kshatriya, is characterised by heroism, high spirit, etc.[72] The karma, or action of vaisya, is characterised by agriculture, cattle-rearing, and trade.[73] The karma, or action of sudra, consists only of service.[74] All classes can liberate themselves by worshiping the Lord.[75] The Blessed Lord instructed:[76] Fix your mind on Me, be devoted to Me. Having thus disciplined yourself, and regarding Me as the Supreme Goal, you will come to Me.

Swami Nikilananda comments: As the rivers, following their different courses, ultimately merge in the ocean and give up their names and forms, so the devotees, losing their names and forms, become one with the Supreme Reality.[77]

Relation between astrology and karma[edit]

Charles Keyes, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and E. Valentine Daniel, professor of anthropology at Columbia University state that many Hindus believe that heavenly bodies, including the planets, have an influence throughout the life of a human being, and these planetary influences are the "fruit of karma." [78]

The Navagraha, planetary deities, including Shani (Saturn), are considered subordinate to Ishvara (i.e., the Supreme Being) and are believed by many to assist in the administration of justice.[78] Thus, these planets can influence earthly life.[78]

Such planetary influences are believed by many to be measurable using astrological methods including Jyotiṣa, the Hindu system of astrology.[79]

Other uses in Hinduism[edit]

Besides narrow meaning of karma as the reaction or suffering being due to karma of their past lives and that one would have to transmigrate to another body in their next life, it is often used in the broader sense as action or reaction.

Thus, karma in Hinduism may mean an activity, an action or a materialistic activity. Often with the specific combination it takes specific meanings, such as karma-yoga or karma-kanda means "yoga or actions" and "path of materialistic activity" respectively. Yet another example is Nitya karma, which describes rituals which have to be performed daily by Hindus, such as the Sandhyavandanam which involves chanting of the Gayatri Mantra.

Other uses include such expressions such as "ugra-karma", meaning bitter, unwholesome labor.[80]

It has also been argued that Karma has a role in Hindu society as a whole. When one abides by their caste duty good Karma is earned and vice versa; and the Karma one collects is reflected in the next life as movement within the Caste system. The promise of upward mobility appealed to people, and was made plausible through Karma. This effectively "tamed" the lower castes into passive acceptance of the status quo. Thus, the Karma doctrine discouraged actual social mobility.[81]

See also[edit]


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  42. ^ Pure devotional service, on the other hand, is far superior to fruitive work, philosophical speculation, and mystic meditation. ... Activities of karma, jnana, and yoga are not condemned as such by those practicing bhakti, devotional service. Rather, when these lesser activities are dovetailed in the service of the Supreme Lord, they are favorable methods of devotional service. For example, when karma, or activity, is joined with devotional service, it becomes karma-yoga, action in Krsna consciousness. Lord Krsna recommends this in the Bhagavad-gita (9.27): yat karosi yad asnasi yaj juhosi dadasi yat yat tapasyasi kaunteya tat kurusva mad-arpanam / "Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform -- do that, O son of Kunti, as an offering to Me" (Bg. 9.27).Narada Bhakti Sutra 25
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  71. ^ verse 18.42
  72. ^ verse 18.43
  73. ^ verse 18.44
  74. ^ 18.44
  75. ^ verse 9.34
  76. ^ in the verse 9.34
  77. ^ [The Bhagavad Gita, Indian Sacred Text], By Swami Nikhilananda,Chapter 4,9, 18,Ramakrishna -Vivekananda Centre Press, 2004
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Further reading[edit]

  • Krishnan, Yuvraj (1997). The Doctrine of Karma. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-1233-6. 
  • Michaels, Axel (2004). Hinduism: Past and Present. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-08953-1.  (English translation of Der Hinduismus: Geschichte und Gegenwart, Verlag C. H. Beck, 1998).
  • Vireswarananda, Swami (1996). Brahma Sūtras. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama Publication Department. ISBN 81-85301-95-6. 

External links[edit]