Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म; IPA: [ˈkarmə] ( ); Pali: kamma) means action, work or deed; it also refers to the principle of causality where intent and actions of an individual influence the future of that individual. Good intent and good deed contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad karma and future suffering. Karma is closely associated with the idea of rebirth in some schools of Asian religions. In these schools, karma in the present affects one's future in the current life, as well as the nature and quality of future lives - or, one's saṃsāra.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Definition and meanings
- 3 History
- 4 Eastern interpretations
- 5 Similarities in traditional Western religions
- 6 Understanding within Western culture
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Sources
- 10 External links
Karma as kárman a neuter n-stem, nominative kárma कर्म from the root √kṛ कृ, means "to do, make, perform, accomplish, cause, effect, prepare, undertake". The root kṛ (kri) is very common in ancient Sanskrit literature, and it is relied upon to explain ideas in Rigveda, other Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, the Epics of Hinduism. The root "kri" also appears in the word Sanskrit, to imply a language that is "well made". The word Kárman itself appears in Rigveda, for example at 10.22.8; as does the word karma.
Karma is related to verbal proto-Indo-European root *kwer- "to make, form".
Definition and meanings
Karma is the executed "deed", "work", "action", or "act", and it is also the "object", the "intent". Halbfass explains karma (Karman) by contrasting it with another Sanskrit word kriya. The word kriya is the activity along with the steps and effort in action, while karma is (1) the executed action as a consequence of that activity, as well as (2) the intention of the actor behind an executed action or a planned action (described by some scholars as metaphysical residue left in the actor). A good action creates good karma, as does good intent. A bad action creates bad karma, as does bad intent.
Karma, also refers to a conceptual principle that originated in India, often descriptively called the principle of karma, sometimes as the karma theory or the law of karma. In the context of theory, karma is complex and difficult to define. Different schools of Indologists derive different definitions for the karma concept from ancient Indian texts; their definition is some combination of (1) causality that may be ethical or non-ethical; (2) ethicization, that is good or bad actions have consequences; and (3) rebirth. Other Indologists include in the meaning of karma as that which explains the present circumstances of an individual with reference to his or her actions in past. These actions may be those in a person's current life, or, in some schools of Indian traditions, possibly actions in their past lives; furthermore, the consequences may result in current life, or a person's future lives.
The difficulty in arriving at a definition for karma arises because of the diversity of views among the various schools of Hinduism that co-exist and thrive; some schools, for example, consider karma and rebirth linked and simultaneously essential, some consider karma essential but not rebirth, and a few schools of Hinduism discuss and conclude karma and rebirth flawed fiction. Buddhism and Jainism have their karma precepts. Karma thus has not one, rather multiple definitions and different meanings. It is a concept whose meaning, importance and scope varies between Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and other traditions that originated in India, and various schools in each of these traditions. O'Flaherty claims that, furthermore, there is an on-going debate regarding whether karma is a theory, a model, a paradigm, a metaphor, or a metaphysical stance.
Karma theory as a concept, across different Indian religious traditions, shares certain common themes: causality, ethicization and rebirth.
Karma and causality
A common theme to theories of karma is its principle of causality. One of the earliest association of karma to causality occurs in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of Hinduism. For example, at 4.4.5-6, it states:
Now as a man is like this or like that,
according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be;
a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad;
he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds;
And here they say that a person consists of desires,
and as is his desire, so is his will;
and as is his will, so is his deed;
and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.
The relationship of karma to causality is a central motif in all schools of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist thought. The theory of karma as causality holds that (1) executed actions of an individual affects the individual and the life he or she lives, and (2) the intentions of an individual affects the individual and the life he or she lives. Disinterested actions, or unintentional actions do not have the same positive or negative karmic effect, as interested and intentional actions. In Buddhism, for example, actions that are performed, or arise, or originate without any bad intent such as covetousness, are considered non-existent in karmic impact or neutral in influence to the individual.
Another causality characteristic, shared by Karmic theories, is that like deeds lead to like effects. Thus good karma produces good effect on the actor, while bad karma produces bad effect. This effect may be material, moral or emotional — that is, one's karma affects one's happiness and unhappiness. The effect of karma need not be immediate; the effect of karma can be later in one's current life, and in some schools it extends to future lives.
The consequence or effects of one's karma can be described in two forms: phalas and samskaras. A phala (literally, fruit or result) is the visible or invisible effect that is typically immediate or within the current life. In contrast, samskaras are always those invisible effect that are produced inside the actor because of the karma, thus transforming the agent and affecting his or her ability to be happy or unhappy in this life as well as in future lives. The theory of karma is often presented in the context of samskaras.
Karmic principle can be understood, suggests Karl Potter, as a principle of psychology and habit. Karma seeds habits (vāsanā), and habits create the nature of man. Karma also seeds self perception, and perception influences how one experiences life events. Both habits and self perception affect the course of one's life. Breaking bad habit is not easy, it requires conscious Karmic effort for release from a cycle of negative behaviors. Thus psyche and habit, suggests Potter, as well as other scholars, link karma to causality in ancient Indian literature. The idea of karma may be compared to the notion of a person's "character", suggests Lochtefeld, as both are an assessment of the person and determined by that person's habitual thinking and acting.
Karma and ethicization
The second theme common to karma theories is ethicization. This begins with the premise that every action has a consequence, which will come to fruition in either this or a future life; thus morally good acts will have positive consequences, whereas bad acts will produce negative results. An individual's present situation is thereby explained by reference to actions in his present or in previous lifetimes. Karma is not itself "reward and punishment", but the law producing consequence. Halbfass notes, good karma is considered as dharma and leads to punya (merit), while bad karma is considered adharma and leads to pāp (demerit, sin).
The theories of karma are an ethical theory, suggests Reichenbach. This is so because the ancient scholars of India linked intent and actual action to the merit, reward, demerit and punishment. A theory without ethical premise would be a pure causal relation; the merit or reward or demerit or punishment would be same regardless of the actor's intent. In ethics, one's intentions, attitudes and desires matter in the evaluation of one's action. Where the outcome is unintended, suggests Reichenbach, the moral responsibility for it is less on the actor, even though causal responsibility may be the same regardless. A karma theory considers not only the action, but also actor's intentions, attitude and desires before and during the action. The karma concept thus encourages each person to seek and live a moral life, as well as avoid an immoral life. The meaning and significance of karma is thus as a building block of an ethical theory.
Karma and rebirth
The third common theme of karma theories is the concept of reincarnation or rebirth (saṃsāra). Rebirth is a fundamental concept of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The concept has been intensely debated in ancient literature of India; with different schools of Indian religions considering the relevance of rebirth as either essential, or secondary, or unnecessary fiction. Karma is a basic concept, rebirth is a derivative concept, so suggests Creel; Karma is a fact asserts Yamunacharya, while reincarnation is a hypothesis; in contrast, suggests Hiriyanna, rebirth is a necessary corollary of karma.
Rebirth, or saṃsāra, is the concept that all life forms go through a cycle of reincarnation, that is a series of births and rebirths. The rebirths and consequent life may be in different realm, condition or form. The karma theories suggest that the realm, condition and form depends on the quality and quantity of karma. In schools that believe in rebirth, every living being's soul transmigrates (recycles) after death, carrying the seeds of Karmic impulses from life just completed, into another life and lifetime of karmas. This cycle continues indefinitely, except for those who consciously break this cycle by reaching moksa. Those who break the cycle reach the realm of gods, those who don't continue in the cycle.
The theory of "karma and rebirth" raises numerous questions—such as how, when, and why did the cycle start in the first place, what is the relative Karmic merit of one karma versus another and why, and what evidence is there that rebirth actually happens, among others. Various schools of Hinduism realized these difficulties, debated their own formulations, some reaching what they considered as internally consistent theories, while other schools modified and de-emphasized it, while a few schools in Hinduism such as Carvakas, Lokayatana abandoned "karma and rebirth" theory altogether. Schools of Buddhism consider karma-rebirth cycle as integral to their theories of soteriology.
The earliest known occurrence of karman in ancient Indian literature is in Rigveda, where it occurs some 40 times; there, it means work or deed, and the context is ritual or sacrificial acts. In Satapatha Brahmana 22.214.171.124, the word karma appears with an expanded context where sacrifice is declared as the "greatest" of works; while Satapatha Brahmana 10.1.4.1 associates the potential of becoming Amara (Sanskrit: अमर, immortal) with the fire altar Agnicayana karma. However, none of these sources unambiguously link karma to causality, ethicization and rebirth.
Truly, one becomes good through good action, and evil through evil action.—Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 3.2.13
It is unclear where, how and who invented the principle of karma for the first time, a development that ultimately led to eloquent phrases in Upanishads and those in the literature of Buddhism and Jainism. Some scholars suggest the concept of karma may have originated in the shramana tradition, of which Buddhism and Jainism are continuations. Obeyesekere offers an alternate hypothesis; he first shows that the idea of rebirth is not unique to India. Rebirth theories emerged in ancient times in Africa, Greece, Melanesia and elsewhere. Obeyesekere, goes on to suggest that tribal teachers in the Ganges valley may have provided the inspiration for the karma doctrine. O'Flaherty notes that this is merely shifting one unknown with another unknown, because we know nothing about these hypothetical tribal sages; or in other words, crediting unknown sages for karma doctrine may simply be a scholarly way of admitting that we do not know who invented the karma doctrine.
Scholars suggest at least some of the complex ideas of the then developing theory of karma flowed from Vedic thinkers to Buddhist and Jain thinkers. For example, the question whether karma can be transferred from one person to another (sraddha rites) troubled many schools of Hinduism, as well as Jainas and Buddhists. Sraddha rites literature is traceable to have originated in Vedic era. McDermott has demonstrated that Buddhists struggled with sraddha rites, while Jaini shows Jainism scholars would not allow the possibility of karma transfer. This dynamic suggests that scholars of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were sharing ideas, debating, evolving and forming their own conclusions on appropriate Karmic doctrine over a period of Indian history.
Karma concept in Hinduism developed and evolved over centuries. The earliest Upanishads began with the questions about how and why man is born, and what happens after death? As answers to the latter, the early theories in these ancient Sanskrit documents, include pancagni vidya (the five fire doctrine), pitryana (the cyclic path of fathers) and devayana (the cycle-transcending, path of the gods). Those who do superficial rituals and seek material gain, claimed these ancient scholars, travel the way of their fathers and recycle back into another life; those who renounce, go into the forest and pursue spiritual knowledge were claimed to climb into the higher path of the gods, it is these who break the cycle and are not reborn. With the composition of the Epics - the common man's introduction to Dharma in Hinduism - the ideas of causality and essential elements of the theory of karma were being recited in folk stories. For example:
As a man himself sows, so he himself reaps; no man inherits the good or evil act of another man. The fruit is of the same quality as the action.
In the thirteenth book of the Mahabharata, also called the Teaching Book (Anushasana Parva), sixth chapter opens with Yudhisthira asking Bhisma: "Is the course of a person's life already destined, or can human effort shape one's life?" The future, replies Bhisma, is both a function of current human effort derived from free will and past human actions that set the circumstances. Over and over again, the chapters of Mahabharata recite the key postulates of karma theory, that is: intent and action (karma) has consequences; karma lingers and doesn't disappear; and, all positive or negative experiences in life require effort and intent. For example:
Happiness comes due to good actions, suffering results from evil actions,
by actions, all things are obtained, by inaction, nothing whatsoever is enjoyed.
If one's action bore no fruit, then everything would be of no avail,
if the world worked from fate alone, it would be neutralized.
Over time, various schools of Hinduism developed many different definitions of karma, some making karma appear quite deterministic, while others make room for free will and moral agent. Among the six most studied schools of Hinduism, the theory of karma evolved in different ways, as their respective scholars reasoned and attempted to address the internal inconsistencies, implications and issues of the karma doctrine. According to Halbfass,
- Nyaya school of Hinduism considers karma and rebirth as central,
- Vaisesika school does not consider karma from past lives doctrine very important,
- Samkhya school considers karma to be of secondary importance (prakrti is primary),
- Mimamsa school gives negligible role to karma from past lives, disregards Samsara and Moksa,
- Yoga school considers karma from past lives to be secondary, one's behavior and psychology in the current life is what has consequences and leads to entanglements,
- Vedanta school acknowledges karma-rebirth doctrine, but concludes it is a theory that is not derived from reality and cannot be proven, considers it invalid for its failure to explain evil / inequality / other observable facts about society, treats it as a convenient fiction to solve practical problems in Upanishadic times, and declares it irrelevant; in the Advaita Vedanta school, actions in current life have moral consequences and liberation is possible within one's life as jivanmukti (self-realized person).
The above six schools illustrate the diversity of views, but are not exhaustive. Each school has sub-schools in Hinduism, such as Vedanta school's nondualism and dualism sub-schools. Furthermore, there are other schools of Hinduism such as Carvaka, Lokayata (the materialists) who denied theory of karma-rebirth as well as the existence of God; to this school of Hindus, the properties of things come from the nature of things; causality emerges from the interaction, actions and nature of things and people; determinative principles such as karma or God are unnecessary.
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.
Within the Buddhist system of belief, the term karma is used in two senses:
- On the specific level, karma refers to those actions which spring from the intention (cetanā) of a sentient being. Karmic actions are traditionally likened to a seed that will inevitably ripen into a result or fruition (referred to as vipāka or phala in Sanskrit and Pali).
- On the general level, contemporary Buddhist teachers frequently use the term karma when referring to the entire process of karmic action and result.
Within Buddhism, developing a genuine, experiential understanding of karmic action and result — i.e., how one's actions will have a consequential outcome — is an essential aspect of the Buddhist path. Karmic actions are considered to be the engine that drives the naturally occurring cycle of rebirth (samsara) for sentient beings. Correspondingly, a complete understanding of the process of karmic action and result enables beings to free themselves from samsara and attain liberation.
Within Buddhism, the theory of karmic action and result is identified as part of the broader doctrine of dependent origination (pratityasamutpada), which states that all phenomena arise as the result of multiple causes and conditions. The theory of karmic action and result is a specific instance of this broader doctrine that applies to sentient beings. Specifically, when there is a conscious intention (cetanā) behind an action, whether positive, neutral, or negative, then that action is karma, and the corresponding results are karmic results. Thus, every deed of body, speech, or mind is considered to be a karmic action, and the determining factor in the quality of one's actions is one's intentions or motivations.
In the Buddhist view, karmic results are not considered to be a "judgement" enforced by a God, Deity or other supernatural being that controls the affairs of the Cosmos. Rather, karmic results are considered to be the outcome of a natural process of cause and effect. Contemporary Buddhist teacher Khandro Rinpoche explains:
- Buddhism is a nontheistic philosophy. We do not believe in a creator but in the causes and conditions that create certain circumstances that then come to fruition. This is called karma. It has nothing to do with judgement; there is no one keeping track of our karma and sending us up above or down below. Karma is simply the wholeness of a cause, or first action, and its effect, or fruition, which then becomes another cause. In fact, one karmic cause can have many fruitions, all of which can cause thousands more creations. Just as a handful of seed can ripen into a full field of grain, a small amount of karma can generate limitless effects.
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
Ownby claims that Falun Gong differs from Buddhism in its definition of the term "karma" 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."
The karma doctrine of Taoism developed in three stages. In first stage, causality between actions and consequences was adopted, with supernatural beings keeping track of everyone's karma and assigning fate (ming). In second phase, transferability of karma ideas from Chinese Buddhism were expanded, and a transfer or inheritance of Karmic fate from ancestors to one's current life was introduced. In the third stage of karma doctrine development, ideas of rebirth based on karma were added. One could be reborn either as another human being or another animal, according to this belief. In the third stage, additional ideas were introduced; for example, rituals, repentance and offerings at Taoist temples were encouraged as it could alleviate Karmic burden.
Similarities in traditional Western religions
Mary Jo Meadow suggests karma is akin to "Christian notions of sin and its effects." She states that the Christian teaching on last judgment according to one's charity is a teaching on karma. Christianity also teaches morals such as reap what one sows (Galatians 6:7) and live by the sword, die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). Most scholars, however, consider the concept of last judgment as different than karma, with karma as on-going process that occurs everyday in one's life, and last judgment in contrast being a one time review at the end of life.
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.
Understanding within Western culture
Western culture, influenced by Christianity, holds a notion similar to karma, as demonstrated in the phrase what goes around comes around. Generally, Western popular culture portrays karma as more of a supernatural force than a perspective on causality. This is more similar to Hinduism's concept of karma than Buddhism's.
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, "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.
Karma and emotions
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 experiences are hypothetically devoid of any karma (nirvana).
Karma, free will and destiny
One of the significant controversies with the karma doctrine is whether it always implies destiny, and its implications on free will. This controversy is also referred to as the moral agency problem; the controversy is not unique to karma doctrine, but found in some form in all theistic systems.
The free will controversy can be outlined in three parts: (1) A person who kills, rapes or commits any other unjust act, can claim all his bad actions were a product of his karma, he is devoid of free will, he can not make a choice, he is an agent of karma, and that he merely delivering necessary punishments his "wicked" victims deserved for their own karma in past lives. Are crimes and unjust actions due to free will, or because of forces of karma? (2) Does a person who suffers from the unnatural death of a loved one, or rape or any other unjust act, assume a moral agent, gratuitous harm and seek justice? Or, should one blame oneself for bad karma over past lives, assume that the unjust suffering is fate? (3) Does the karma doctrine undermine the incentive for moral-education because all suffering is deserved and consequence of past lives, why learn anything when the balance sheet of karma from past lives will determine one's action and sufferings?
The explanations and replies to the above free will problem vary by the specific school of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The schools of Hinduism, such as Yoga and Advaita Vedanta, that have emphasized current life over the dynamics of karma residue moving across past lives, allow free will. Their argument, as well of other schools, are threefold: (1) The theory of karma includes both the action and the intent behind that action. Not only is one affected by past karma, one creates new karma whenever one acts with intent - good or bad. If intent and act can be proven beyond reasonable doubt, new karma can be proven, and the process of justice can proceed against this new karma. The actor who kills, rapes or commits any other unjust act, must be considered as the moral agent for this new karma, and tried. (2) Life forms not only receive and reap the consequence of their past karma, together they are the means to initiate, evaluate, judge, give and deliver consequence of karma to others. (3) Karma is a theory that explains some evils, not all (see moral evil versus natural evil).
Other schools of Hinduism, as well as Buddhism and Jainism that do consider cycle of rebirths central to their beliefs, and that karma from past lives affects one's present, believe that both free will (Cetanā) and karma can co-exist; however, their answers have not persuaded all scholars.
Another issue with the theory of karma is that it is psychologically indeterminate, suggests Obeyesekere. That is, (1) if no one can know what their karma was in previous lives, and (2) if the karma from past lives can determine one's future, then the individual is psychologically unclear what if anything he or she can do now to shape the future, be more happy, reduce suffering. If something goes wrong - such as sickness or failure at work - the individual is unclear if karma from past lives was the cause, or the sickness was caused by curable infection and the failure was caused by something correctable.
This psychological indeterminacy problem is also not unique to the theory of karma; it is found in every religion with the premise that God has a plan, or in some way influences human events. As with karma and free will problem above, schools that insist on primacy of rebirths face the most controversy. Their answers to psychological indeterminacy issue is the same as those for addressing the free will problem.
Transferability of karma
Some schools of Asian religions, particularly Buddhism, allow transfer of karma merit and demerit from one person to another. This transfer is an exchange of non-physical quality just like an exchange of physical goods between two human beings. The practice of karma transfer, or even its possibility, is controversial. Karma transfer raises questions similar to those with substitutionary atonement and vicarious punishment. It defeats the ethical foundations, dissociates the causality and ethicization in the theory of karma from the moral agent. Proponents of some Buddhist schools suggest that the concept of karma merit transfer encourages religious giving, and such transfers are not a mechanism to transfer bad karma from one person to another (that is, demerit).
In Hinduism, Sraddha rites during funerals have been labelled as karma merit transfer ceremonies by a few scholars, and disputed by others. Other schools in Hinduism such as the Yoga and Advaita Vedantic philosophies and Jainism hold that karma can not be transferred.
- Amor fati
- Causes of Karma
- Ethic of reciprocity
- Ho'oponopono (Karma section)
- Just-world hypothesis
- Karma yoga
- Nishkam Karma
- Self-fulfilling prophecy
- Types of Karma
- Unintended consequence
- Work (Christian theology)
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