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Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म IPA: [ˈkarmə] ( ); Pali: kamma) is the concept of "action" or "deed", understood as that which causes the entire cycle of cause and effect (i.e., the cycle called saṃsāra). Originating in Bharata Khanda also known as Ancient India and originally used in "Sanātana Dharma", and later religions such as Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shintoism and others.
A concept of karma (along with samsara and moksha) may originate in the shramana tradition of which Buddhism and Jainism are continuations. This tradition influenced the Brahmanic religion in the early Vedantic (Upanishadic) movement of the 1st millennium BC. This worldview was adopted from this religious culture by Brahmin orthodoxy, and Brahmins wrote the earliest recorded scriptures containing these ideas in the early Upanishads. Until recently, the scholarly consensus was that reincarnation is absent from the earliest strata of Brahminical literature. However, a new translation of two stanzas of the Rig Veda indicate that the Brahmins 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. The idea that the moral quality of one's actions influences one's rebirth is absent from India until the period of the shramana religions, and the Brahmins appear to have adopted this idea from other religious groups.
Some traditions (i.e., the Vedanta), believe that a supreme being plays some kind of role, for example, as the dispenser of the 'fruits' of karma or as exercising the option to change one's karma in rare instances. In general, followers of Buddhism and many followers of Hinduism consider the natural laws of causation sufficient to explain the effects of karma. Another view holds that a Sadguru, acting on a god's behalf, can mitigate or work out some of the karma of the disciple. And according to the Jainism perspective, neither a god nor a guru have any role in a person's karma—the individual is considered to be the sole doer and enjoyer of his karmas and their 'fruits'. Laws of karma are codified in some books.
Many Hindus see God's direct involvement in this process; others consider the natural laws of causation sufficient to explain the effects of karma. Followers of Vedanta consider Ishvara, a personal supreme God, as playing a role in the delivery of karma. Theistic schools of Hinduism such as Vedanta thus disagree with the Buddhist and Jain views and other Hindu views that karma is merely a law of cause and effect but rather is also dependent on the will of a personal supreme God. A summary of this theistic view of karma is expressed by the following: "God does not make one suffer for no reason nor does He make one happy for no reason. God is very fair and gives you exactly what you deserve."
Karma is not punishment or retribution but simply an extended expression or consequence of natural acts. Karma means "deed" or "act" and more broadly names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction, that governs all life. The effects experienced are also able to be mitigated by actions and are not necessarily fated. That is to say, a particular action now is not binding to some particular, pre-determined future experience or reaction; it is not a simple, one-to-one correspondence of reward or punishment.
Karma is not fate, for humans act with free will creating their own destiny. According to the Vedas, if one sows goodness, one will reap goodness; if one sows evil, one 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 response.
One of the first and most dramatic illustrations of Karma can be found in the Bhagavad Gita. In this poem, Arjuna the protagonist is preparing for battle when he realizes that the enemy consists of members of his own family and decides not to fight. His charioteer, Krishna (an avatar of god), explains to Arjuna the concept of dharma (duty) among other things and makes him see that it is his duty to fight. The original Hindu concept of karma was later enhanced by several other movements within the religion, most notably Vedanta, and Tantra.
Another meaning of Karma as per Bhagwad Geeta is the action prescribed by Bhagwan Shri Krishna. All human beings have Aatma (soul) inside their heart. This Aatma is part of the Paramaatma (The Complete Supreme Reality or Divinity). The goal of the Human being is to unite the Aatma (soul) with the Paramaatma (The Complete Supreme Reality or Divinity). The unification of Aatma with Paramaatma happens inside one's heart that is one experiences, understands the true nature of Paramaatma and become one with it inside ones heart and not in the outside world. Bhagwan Shri Krishna prescribes a certain process of worship and meditation (to be done inside the mind) for unification of Aatma (soul) and Paramaatma (The Complete Supreme Reality or Divinity). This process is called as Yagya. Performing the Yagya as prescribed by Bhagwan Shri Krishna in Bhagwad Geeta is the real Karma. Any action other than Yagya are the worldly compulsions and not the Ordained Action indicated by Bhagwan Shri Krishna in the Bhagwad Geeta. The Karma is done to attain liberation (Moksha) from the cycle of the death and birth and free oneself from the great fear of being old and death.
In this way, so long as the stock of Sanchita karma lasts, a part of it continues to be taken out as Prarabdha karma for being experienced in one lifetime, leading to the cycle of birth and death. A jiva cannot attain moksha until the accumulated sanchita karmas are completely exhausted.
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.
In Buddhism, karma (Pāli kamma) is strictly distinguished from vipāka, meaning "fruit" or "result". Karma is categorized within the group or groups of cause (Pāli hetu) in the chain of cause and effect, where it comprises the elements of "volitional activities" (Pali sankhara) and "action" (Pali bhava). Any action is understood as creating "seeds" in the mind that will sprout into the appropriate result (Pāli vipaka) when met with the right conditions. Most types of karmas, with good or bad results, will keep one within the wheel of samsāra, while others will liberate one to nirvāna.
Karma is one of five categories of causation, known collectively as niyama dhammas, the first being kamma, and the other four being utu (seasons and weather), bīja (heredity, lit. "seed"), chitta (mind) and dhamma (law, in the sense of nature's tendency to perfect).
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,
[T]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 differs from the other religions such as theistic traditions of Hinduism, 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.
In Falun Gong
Falun Gong differs from Buddhism in its definition of the term "karma," Ownby says, 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."
Many Western cultures have notions similar to karma, as demonstrated in the phrase what goes around comes around. Christian expressions similar to karma include reap what one sows (Galatians 6:7), violence begets violence and live by the sword, die by the sword. In Hinduism, God plays a role and is seen as a dispenser of its version of karma. The non-interventionist view is that of Jainism and Buddhism, the latter originally a non-theist religion. Generally, Western popular culture portrays karma as more of a supranatural mystical force than a perspective on causality. This is more similar to Hinduism's concept of karma than Buddhism's.
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.
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 that "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.
In the West, karma is often confused with concepts such as the soul, psychic energy, synchronicity (a concept originally from psychoanalyst Carl Jung, which says that things that happen at the same time are related), and ideas from quantum or theoretical physics (which most physicists would not grant as having any bearing on morality or codes of conduct, much less on supernatural notions). This mishmash of word associations is well illustrated by the once-common bumper sticker "My karma ran over your dogma".
Karma and emotions
The modern view of karma, devoid of any spiritual exigencies, obviates an acceptance of reincarnation in Judeochristian societies and attempts to portray karma as a universal psychological phenomenon which behaves predictably, like other physical forces such as gravity.
Sakyong Mipham eloquently summed this up when he said;
Like gravity, karma is so basic we often don't even notice it.
This view of karma, as a universal and personally impacting emotional constant, correlates with Buddhist and Jungian understanding that volition (or libido, created from personal and cultural biases) is the primary instigator of karma. Any conscious thought, word and/or action, arising from a cognitively unresolved emotion (cognitive dissonance), results in 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 experience are hypothetically devoid of any karma (nirvana).
As Rabindranath Tagore most eloquently explained about the heat of human emotions;-
Nirvana is not the blowing out of the candle. It is the extinguishing of the flame because day is come
- kárman—"act, action, performance"—a neuter n-stem, nominative kárma कर्म ; from the root √kṛ which means "to do, make, perform, accomplish, cause, effect, prepare, undertake"
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- Gavin D. Flood (1996), An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University Press: UK ISBN 0-521-43878-0 – “The origin and doctrine of Karma and Samsara are obscure. These concepts were certainly circulating amongst sramanas, and Jainism and Buddhism developed specific and sophisticated ideas about the process of transmigration. It is very possible that the karmas and reincarnation entered the mainstream brahaminical thought from the sramana or the renouncer traditions.” Page 86.
- Padmanabh S. Jaini 2001 “Collected Paper on Buddhist Studies” Motilal Banarsidass Publ 576 pages ISBN 81-208-1776-1: "Yajnavalkya’s reluctance and manner in expounding the doctrine of karma in the assembly of Janaka (a reluctance not shown on any other occasion) can perhaps be explained by the assumption that it was, like that of the transmigration of soul, of non-brahmanical origin. In view of the fact that this doctrine is emblazoned on almost every page of sramana scriptures, it is highly probable that it was derived from them." Page 51.
- Govind Chandra Pande, (1994) Life and Thought of Sankaracarya, Motilal Banarsidass ISBN 81-208-1104-6 : Early Upanishad thinkers like Yajnavalkya were acquainted with the sramanic thinking and tried to incorporate these ideals of Karma, Samsara and Moksa into the vedic thought implying a disparagement of the vedic ritualism and recognising the mendicancy as an ideal. Page 135.
- A History of Yoga By Vivian Worthington 1982 Routledge ISBN 0-7100-9258-X – "The Upanishads were like a breath of fresh air blowing through the stuffy corridors of power of the vedic brahminism. They were noticed by the Brahmin establishment because the yogis did not owe allegiance to any established religion or mode of thought.. So although, the Upanishads came to be noticed by Brahmin establishment, they were very largely saying what may well have been current among other sramanic groups at that time. It can be said that this atheistic doctrine was evidently very acceptable to the authors of Upanishads, who made use of many of its concepts." Page 27.
- A History of Yoga By Vivian Worthington 1982 Routledge ISBN 0-7100-9258-X: "The idea of re-incarnation, so central to the older sramanic creeds is still new to many people throughout the world. The Aryans of the Vedic age knew nothing of it. When the Brahmins began to accept it, they declared it as a secret doctrine. […] It will be seen from this short account of Jains, that they had fully developed the ideas of karma and reincarnation very early in history. The earliest Upanishads were probably strongly influenced by their teachings. Jainism the religion, Samkhya the philosophy and yoga the way to self discipline and enlightenment dominated the spiritual life of Indian during the Dravidian times. They were to be overshadowed for over thousand years by the lower form of religion that was foisted on the local inhabitants by the invading Aryans, but in the end it was Sramanic disciplines that triumphed. They did so by surviving in their own right and by their ideas being fully adopted by the Brahmins who steadily modified their own vedic religion." Page 35.
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- Buddha, at First Council of monks (approx. 544 b.c.e.): Bhikkhus, this is the one and the only way for the purification (of the minds) of beings, for overcoming sorrow and lamentation, for the cessation of physical and mental pain, for attainment of the Noble Paths and for the realization of Nibbana. That (only way) is the four satipatthanas. What are these four? Here (in this teaching), bhikkhus, a bhikkhu (i.e. a disciple) dwells perceiving again and again the body (kaya) as just the body (not mine, not I, not self, but just a phenomenon) with diligence, clear understanding, and mindfulness, thus keeping away covetousness and mental pain in the world; he dwells perceiving again and again feelings (vedana) as just feelings (not mine, not I, not self but just as phenomena) with diligence, clear understanding, and mindfulness, thus keeping away covetousness and mental pain in the world; he dwells perceiving again and again the mind (citta) as just the mind (not mine, not I, not self but just a phenomenon) with diligence, clear understanding, and mindfulness, thus keeping away covetousness and mental pain in the world; he dwells perceiving again and again dhammas as just dhammas (not mine, not I, not self but just as phenomena) with diligence, clear understanding, and mindfulness, thus keeping away covetousness and mental pain in the world.
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