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This article is about the Indian religious concept. For other uses, see Karma (disambiguation).
"Karmic" redirects here. For the EP by Nada Surf, see Karmic
Karma (/ˈkɑːrmə/; Sanskrit: कर्म, romanized: karma, IPA: [ˈkɐɽmɐ] (About this soundlisten); Pali: kamma) means action, work or deed; it also refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). Good intent and good deeds contribute to good karma and happier rebirths, while bad intent and bad deeds contribute to bad karma and bad rebirths.
The philosophy of karma is closely associated with the idea of rebirth in many schools of Indian religions (particularly Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) as well as Taoism. 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 – one's saṃsāra
Karma as action and reaction: if we show goodness, we will reap goodness.
Karma is the executed "deed", "work", "action", or "act", and it is also the "object", the "intent". Wilhelm 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 definition of karma theory 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 law of karma operates independent of any deity or any process of divine judgment.
Difficulty in arriving at a definition of karma arises because of the diversity of views among the schools of Hinduism; some, for example, consider karma and rebirth linked and simultaneously essential, some consider karma but not rebirth essential, and a few discuss and conclude karma and rebirth to be flawed fiction. Buddhism and Jainism have their own karma precepts. Thus karma has not one, but 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 ongoing 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.
Lotus symbolically represents karma in many Asian traditions. A blooming lotus flower is one of the few flowers that simultaneously carries seeds inside itself while it blooms. Seed is symbolically seen as cause, the flower effect. Lotus is also considered as a reminder that one can grow, share good karma and remain unstained even in muddy circumstances.
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.
— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 7th Century BC
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 invisible effects, produced inside the actor because of the karma, transforming the agent and affecting his or her ability to be happy or unhappy in this life and future ones. 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 habits is not easy: it requires conscious karmic effort. Thus psyche and habit, according to Potter and others, link karma to causality in ancient Indian literature. The idea of karma may be compared to the notion of a person's "character", as both are an assessment of the person and determined by that person's habitual thinking and acting.
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 that produces 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).
Reichenbach suggests that the theories of karma are an ethical theory. 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, 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
The third common theme of karma theories is the concept of reincarnation or the cycle of rebirths (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, Hiriyanna suggests 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 Charvakas, Lokayatana abandoned "karma and rebirth" theory altogether. Schools of Buddhism consider karma-rebirth cycle as integral to their theories of soteriology
The Vedic Sanskrit word kárman- (nominative kárma) means "work" or "deed", often used in the context of Srauta rituals. In the Rigveda, the word occurs some 40 times. In Satapatha Brahmana 188.8.131.52, sacrifice is declared as the "greatest" of works; Satapatha Brahmana 10.1.4.1 associates the potential of becoming immortal (amara) with the karma of the agnicayana sacrifice.
The earliest clear discussion of the karma doctrine is in the Upanishads. For example, the causality and ethicization is stated in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3.2.13 ("Truly, one becomes good through good deeds, and evil through evil deeds.")
Some authors state that the samsara (transmigration) and karma doctrine may be non-Vedic, and the ideas may have developed in the "shramana" traditions that preceded Buddhism and Jainism. Others state that some of the complex ideas of the ancient emerging theory of karma flowed from Vedic thinkers to Buddhist and Jain thinkers. The mutual influences between the traditions is unclear, and likely co-developed.
Many philosophical debates surrounding the concept are shared by the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions, and the early developments in each tradition incorporated different novel ideas. For example, Buddhists allowed karma transfer from one person to another and sraddha rites, but had difficulty defending the rationale. In contrast, Hindu schools and Jainism would not allow the possibility of karma transfer
Main article: Karma in Hinduism
The concept of karma 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 these, 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 Yudhishthira asking Bhishma: "Is the course of a person's life already destined, or can human effort shape one's life?" The future, replies Bhishma, 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.
— Mahabharata, xiii.6.10 & 19