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 forming a cycle of rebirth.
“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. Karma is not fate, for we act with what can be described as a conditioned free will creating our own destinies.
When the cycle of rebirth comes to an end, a person attains moksha, or salvation from samsara. 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.
The doctrine of transmigration of the soul, with respect to fateful retribution for acts committed, does not appear in the Rig Veda. The concept of karma first appears strongly in the Bhagavad Gita. The topic of karma is mentioned in the Puranas.
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. Human beings are said to produce karma in four ways:
- 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.
Hindu scriptures divide karma into three kinds:
Sanchita is the accumulated karma. It is the full stock of karma.
It would be impossible to experience and endure all karmas in one lifetime. From 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. Prarabdha is the fruit-bearing karma; a 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. 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. 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.” 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.
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.
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.
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.
Followers of Vedanta, a leading practicing school of Hinduism in existence today, consider Ishvara, a personal supreme God, as playing that role. According to the Vedanta view, a supreme God is ultimately the enforcer of karma but humans have the free will to choose good or evil.
Karma is not seen merely as a law of cause and effect, a view espoused by Buddhism or Jainism, for example, but dependent on the will of a personal supreme God. Examples of a personal supreme God include Shiva in Shaivism or Vishnu in Vaishnavism. A good 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.”
Thus, the theistic schools emphasize that karma is one explanation for the problem of human suffering; a soul reincarnates into an appropriate body, which is dependent on karma and this is said to explain why some persons never get to see the fruits of their actions in their lives and why some children die when they have committed no sin. Thus, one must reap the fruits of one’s personal karma and one may need to undergo multiple births, incarnating variously as plant, animal, or human. Such fruits of karma may be analogized to a bank (i.e., God) not letting a person be released from karma’s effects until the bank account is settled.
In some earlier historical traditions of Hinduism, followers of an atheistic division of the Samkhya school, do not accept the idea of a supreme God. According to the Samkya school, a supreme God does not exist but lesser highly evolved beings assist in delivering the fruits of karma; thus,they consider devas or spirits as playing some kind of role. These beings can help to deliver well-being in the temporal world and the after cycles of birth and death, and salvation as well.
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. According to their view, neither supreme God nor does lesser divinities exist; rituals alone yield the fruits of karma; thus, they believe that the karmas (rituals) themselves yield the results, and there is no Supreme God or Ishvara or even lesser divinities dispensing the results.
These differing views are explicitly noted in a series of passes in the Brahma Sutras (III.2.38-40), which endorses the concept of Ishvara i.e., a personal supreme God, as the source of fruits of karma, but note opposing views in order to refute them. For example, Swami Sivananda’s commentary on verse III.2.38 from the Brahma Sutras refers to the role of Ishvara (the Lord) as the dispenser of the fruits of karma.
A commentary by Swami Vireswarananda on the same verse says that the purpose of this verse is specifically to refute the views of the Mimamsakas, who say that karma (work) and not Ishvara, gives the fruits of one’s actions. According to the Mimamsakas it is useless to set up an Ishvara for that purpose, since Karma itself can give the result at a future time.
Some interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita suggest an intermediate view, that karma is a law of cause and effect, yet God can mitigate karma for His devotees. However, another interpretation of verses in the Bhagavad Gita suggests that God alone is the ultimate enforcer of karma.