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Karma Theory Analysed --By Krishna Priya

Karma: Origin and Interpretations
RELI 315: Buddhism
Krishnapriya Jeyakumar

The Essay explores the meaning and origins of the Buddhist concept of Karma, through looking at the current outlook of the concept by popular culture. It also goes into detail about the consequences of the misinterpretations of the concept of Karma, and how this could impact one’s personal life.

It also briefly looks into the reasons behind the theories related to rebirth and its integration with Buddhist culture and tradition, with a special focus on Tibetan Buddhist views.


The teachings of Buddhism have enamored and captivated the minds of people around the world for many years. They embrace pragmatism and their goal is to help the follower attain overall spiritual transformation. Over the years, the religion has significantly evolved and branched out into different schools of thought, but the fundamental principles continue to be predominantly unaltered. To understand Buddhism, it is important for one to be aware of its significant concepts like Karma, Dharma and Re-birth etc.

Of all the Buddhist concepts, Karma is one that has gained a lot of popularity over recent years. The acceptance of the concept is very widespread across the world, as it is in accordance with most religious doctrines. The usage of the word ‘karma’ has become very commonplace in today’s culture. But its stand against the test of time has made its origins ambiguous and connotations misconstrued.

Popular Beliefs surrounding the Concept

One definition for the term karma is “a concept of ‘action’ or ‘deed’ in Indian Philosophy understood as that which causes the entire cycle of cause and effect originating in Ancient India mentioned in Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Buddhist Philosophy.” (Singla, 1) So, karma can refer to both, the general principle of human conduct and simply as a ‘willed action’. But often, especially in western popular culture it is presented as an overarching force of moral equilibrium that restores harmony and balance in the universe. Even though it is a principle relating to human conduct, the implications of the above representation can be misleading because it suggests that Karma is a kind of cosmic judge, perhaps even an intelligent power, which isn’t the case. Karma is also perceived by some as fate or destiny, which from a Buddhist point of view is inaccurate and misleading. Popular culture portrays karma as more of a supernatural mystical force that indifferently hands out suitable punishments and rewards than a perspective on causality. This has become a prevalent outlook because of its popularity, but what most people don’t know is that, it is just a small part of the overall concept of Karma. “Karma is a complex term, with several layers of ‘use’ and ‘meaning’.” (Nagapriya, 1)

Implications of the Misinterpretation of Karma

One of the main consequences of believing that, Karma is a kind of moral determinism, a system of universal and inescapable moral retribution are, the inability to practice free will. The ancient Hindus believed in similar systems, where, change of status and position within one’s current life were considered impossible. But the Buddha rejects this view because it prevents the possibility of a spiritual life. A spiritual life requires change for the better, if we were completely governed by our karma from our past lives this would be impossible. Another main limitation of this approach towards Karma is that it is untestable and unfalsifiable. If someone claimed that everything that happened to him/her was due to past karma, there is no pragmatic method of proving/disproving this. Also, it is important to realize that, in some cases attributing moral causes to external events or sufferings leads to inaccurate and faulty responses from the victim. Surprisingly, this view of karma is actually supported by some branches of Buddhism, like Tibetan Buddhism. Their school believes that Karma is responsible for all the triumphs and tragedies in one’s life. Such an outlook of the world could lead to a world with no compassion and undermine the value of philanthropic work, since everyone would deserve the suffering that they were going through. It inculcates indifference into people’s normal helping tendencies. Ironically, the same Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes the growth of compassion.

In some cases, people misinterpret that Karma can be commodified or transferred to other individuals. This belief contradicts the basic Buddhist principle of self-responsibility and implies that merit can be given away or relocated to cancel out the undesirable effects of karma. As discussed above the concept of Karma has been misconstrued in many ways since its origin. Therefore it is important to understand it’s origin to know its real meaning.

The Origins of Karma

Buddhism was born in a culture that was dominated by Hindu thought and culture. It was highly influenced by oral texts like the Vedas. Buddhism accepted a number of key terms and religious themes from the culture that it was born in, but also rejected some, such as the presence of the ‘Atman’ (Eternal Soul). The religious life in the Hindu religion was heavily focused on ritual sacrifice. Ritual sacrifice was needed to sustain the cosmos, the life of the gods and the life of man. The Sacrifice created a sort of karmic deposit bond which could be cashed in later. So, the actual origin of Karma was in ritualistic deeds and sacrifices. Eventually the notion of sacrifice internalized due to the presence of wandering ascetics who practiced many methods of self-suffering. The whole entire life of the ascetic became a sacrificial performance. Karma still didn't possess any moral implications at this point.
The Buddha was the first spiritual leader to come up with a completely moral notion of karma. The Buddha also stressed the moral implications of mental intentions over bodily action, for him, it was the underlying intention that mattered most.

Intentions (cetana): The Buddha believed that Intention or volition that motivated an action was more important than any obvious physical or verbal behavior. So the Karmic value of an action cannot be known by just observing it at just a mere superficial level. Actions have different Karmic values based on their motives. Intentions can be classified into two different types, Skillful (kusala) and Unskillful (akusala). Skillful ones are one that originated from positive emotions of generosity, compassion, and understanding. Unskillful ones are rooted in craving aversion and spiritual ignorance.

But even the earliest scriptures themselves seem inconsistent with their interpretation on the concept of Karma. This is not only because of the difference in opinions but also because of gradual evolution of the concept itself.

Death and Rebirth

Perhaps the major reason for the origin of the idea of rebirth is due to the mystery that shrouds the reality of death. The fear of death is essentially the fear of losing one's identity and one's place in the world. It is because of the attachment one exhibits towards one’s material possessions and power that he/she forgets that this life is temporary and that nothing actually belongs to us. It is a topic that confuses and scares many people, and makes many turn to religion and faith for solace.

In Ancient Indian tradition and cultures, rebirth is absolutely accepted as the regular way of existence. Rebirth might actually be a significant part of Buddhism only because of the culture that it had risen from. Even though all Buddhist traditions seem to accept the notion and concept of rebirth, there is no cohesive view of the actual happenings after the moment of death of the individual. Theravada Buddhists believe that the rebirth is immediate, while some other schools like the Tibetan branch believe in the existence of an intermediate state (bardo). This intermediate state can last up to forty-nine days. The details of the whole process of rebirth and the intermediate state and more, are detailed in a book popularly known as the ‘Tibetan book of the Dead’. Irrespective of the differences in the processes of rebirth, it is believed by most Buddhists, but I believe that it isn’t a major requirement to believe in it to be a practicing Buddhist.


From analysis of my thoughts and personal experience in life, I have a strong inclination to believe that the creation of a well-founded system of Rebirth was mainly for reasons of accessibility. It is hard to convince some people to see the fruits of leading a virtuous life, just because of the sole reason of virtue alone. But introducing a karmic universal system of justice and a cycle of rebirth that is influenced by your moral choices gives the common man, an extra motivation to being and doing ‘good’.

I think in any religious teaching it is important to look past the actual content and try to interpret and analyze it in such a way that helps us make it relevant to our current lives. Esp, when dealing with scriptures from ages back.

Add personal story somewhere.

About how in the beginning it was hard for me to forgive others of their mistakes because it is normal for someone to feel indignation at the thought of someone getting away with wrong doing. But soon, as I learned to forgive and forget, and was told that karma would deal with them, I could ignore others’ misgivings and focus on my life, which helped me develop and strengthen my own core. Now I don’t need to believe in the existence of a Universal force of justice to be able to forgive and move on past others’ bad deeds. Over all, I think the concept of an overarching force is to train the unsettled mind to do good, even in adverse situations, and only a transformational tool rather than an actual doctrine that we are forever governed by.


Nagapriya. Exploring Karma & rebirth. Birmingham: Windhorse, 2004. Print.

Singla, Parvesh. The Manual of Life – Karma. Parvesh Singla, 2 Apr. 2009. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho, Jeffrey Hopkins, and Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho. The Meaning of Life: Buddhist Perspectives on Cause & Effect. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2000. Print.

Hairfield, Steven L., and Donald S. Moore. The Twelve Sacred Principles of Karma. [Audubon, Iowa]: Innercircle Pub., 2009. Print.

Koṅ-sprul, Blo-gros-mthaʼ-yas. Buddhist Ethics. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1998. Print.

Ringu, Tulku, and Ann Helm. The Ri-me Philosophy of Jamgön Kongtrul the Great: A Study of the Buddhist Lineages of Tibet. Boston: Shambhala, 2006. Print.

The Buddha went even further. He told the bhikkhus that a disciple should examine even the Tathāgata (Buddha) himself, so that he (the disciple) might be fully convinced of the true value of the teacher whom he followed.

According to the Buddha’s teaching, doubt (vicikicchā) is one of the five Hindrances (nīvaraṇa) to the clear understanding of Truth and to spiritual progress (or for that matter to any progress). Doubt, however, is not a ‘sin’, because there are no articles of faith in Buddhism. In fact there is no ‘sin’ in Buddhism, as sin is understood in some religions. The root of all evil is ignorance (avijjā) and false views (micchā diṭṭhi). It is an undeniable fact that as long as there is doubt, perplexity, wavering, no progress is possible. It is also equally undeniable that there must be doubt as long as one does not understand or see clearly. But in order to progress further it is absolutely necessary to get rid of doubt. To get rid of doubt one has to see clearly.


Other points that can be clarified are --

 Rebirth theory is the fundamental theory around which Hinduism survives. See the elaborate funeral ceremony, Karumathi ceremony (Hindi -Chautha) (14th day ceremony after death), annual ceremony (Thithi)(Hindi -Shrartha). Originally Buddha negated the concept of Soul itself. But, unfortunately later Buddhist accepted this soul and rebirth theory , which ultimately destroyed Buddhism.

1) Rebirth theory is one of the main theory for decline of Buddhism ---later Shankaracharya (from Kerala) argued and defeated Buddhist that there are no differences between Hinduism and Buddhism. This concept was like a "Trojan Horse" (or) modern day version "Trojan Virus" , which destroyed Buddhism.

2) Acceptance of rebirth theory indirectly admits the existence of soul ---which is totally incorrect --- Both these theories adapted from Hinduism have practically destroyed Buddhism.


Forgiveness linked:
(Reference ) --- https://sites.google.com/site/rahulawhatthebuddha/the-second-noble-truth
Now, the Pali word kamma or the Sankrit word karma (from the root kṛ to do) literally means ‘action’, ‘doing’. But in the Buddhist theory of karma it has a specific meaning: it means only ‘volitional action’, not all action. Nor does it mean the result of karma as many people wrongly and loosely use it. In Buddhist terminology karma never means its effect; its effect is known as the ‘fruit’ or the ‘result’ or karma (kamma-phala or kamma-vipāka).

Volition may relatively be good or bad, just as a desire may relatively be good or bad. So karma may be good or bad relatively. Good karma (kusala) produces good effects, and bad karma (akusala) produces bad effects. ‘Thirst’, volition, karma, whether good or bad, has one force as its effect: force to continue – to continue in a good or bad direction. Whether good or bad it is relative, and is within the cycle of continuity (saṃsāra). An Arahant, though he acts, does not accumulate karma, because he is free from the false idea of self, free from the ‘thirst’ for continuity and becoming, free from all other defilements and impurities (kilesā, sāsavā dhammā). For him there is no rebirth.

The theory of karma should not be confused with so-called ‘moral justice’ or ‘reward and punishment’. The idea of moral justice, or reward and punishment, arises out of the conception of a supreme being, a God, who sits in judgment, who is a law-giver and who decides what is right and wrong. The term ‘justice’ is ambiguous and dangerous, and in its name more harm than good is done to humanity. The theory of karma is the theory of cause and effect, of action and reaction; it is a natural law, which has nothing to do with the idea of justice or reward and punishment. Every volitional action produces its effects or results. If a good action produces good effects and a bad action bad effects, it is not justice, or reward, or punishment meted out by anybody or any power sitting in judgment on your action, but this is in virtue of its own nature, its own law. This is not difficult to understand. But what is difficult is that, according to the karma theory, the effects of a volitional action may continue to manifest themselves even in a life after death. Here we have to explain what death is according to Buddhism.