What is Karma?
Karma is a cosmic retribution derived from individual action. According to Indian-Asian religious beliefs, the term is used to describe is the cause and effect relationship between the actions of an individual and the resultant conditions of existence as experienced in present or future lives. It is generally associated with the concepts of rebirth and liberation (moksha or nirvana).
The term “Karma” is derived from the Sanskrit word “karman” the literal meaning of which is “act”. This was used to describe a ritual or sacrificial action in the Vedic traditions of 1000 to 700 BCE. While the word itself had no deeper definition in its initial stages, its inculcation in theology evolved its meaning from simple action to the effect itself, functioning in autonomy to any Godly intervention and according to the laws of the cosmos.
Over time, Karma has come into the bracket of theodicy, or the concept of providing an excuse for Godly beings who allow the existence of evil. Karma is a course of events or conditions of existence that will come to be despite any prophetic intervention. The theory of this effect is explained differently by different religions.
Karma in Hinduism
The aim of karma, according to Hinduism, is to direct behavior in a certain direction in order to achieve oneness with the supreme being, that is “Brahman”. An individual passes through successive cycles of life (known as “Samsara”), the conditions of their reincarnated forms being determined by their actions in their previous lives through. This occurs until the being achieves enlightenment and identifies their “atman” as an image of the cosmos “Brahman”.
Hindu beliefs show that there are three through which moksha can be achieved. This includes the path of following duties and performing rituals (“karma-marga”), the path of meditation, contemplation and yogic training (“jnana-marga”) and through the love and devotion to a personal God (“bhakti-marga”).
Karma in Buddhism
Similar to Hindu beliefs, Buddhism suggests that karma is the result of good or bad deeds done by the individual in a past life. They believe that the dispositional traits (samsara) and the psychological tendencies (vasanas) of an individual produced due to certain actions are carried forward to the next life to determine the personality traits and living conditions.
Unlike Hindu beliefs, however, Buddhist concepts are autonomous to Godly intervention and the ultimate goal is release from the eternal cycle of suffering. Even enlightened beings like Gautama Buddha himself cannot avoid the karmic effect. Buddhists try to avoid reacting to karmic conditions to break the chain of effect. This is a way to condition their behavior to follow a more moral path with the aim to achieve nirvana.
Karma in Jainism
Jainism teaches that Karma is not merely a cosmic effect but has a material presence. They are said to be in the form of fine particles which settle on an individual’s soul (jiva) which are attracted through passionate action. The effect of these particles weighs heavily on a person, affecting their emotions, personality, behavior, thoughts, channeling further vices and even hindering their ability to practice good deeds.
Here too, karma is a concept used to condition behavior on moralistic grounds. An individual can get rid of karma by channeling his or her actions do not attract karma or through the correct mental conditioning. Early Jain practices also suggested that people act in ways to let the karma wear away on its own (nirjara).
In the current day and age, there are also many who believe that the effects of karma occur within the same lifetime itself. It can be found to be described in western cultures as “luck”, though in Asian cultures it is understood to be a universal system of justice as uncontrollable as gravity. In all cases, the theory of Karma as a cosmic effect is accepted and inculcated within cultures, herding people away from the temptations of what are considered bad deeds.