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Psychology and Hinduism · Hindu
Hindu psychology ·
Hindu philosophy
Reincarnation · Moksha
Karma · Puja · Maya
Samsara · Dharma
Vedanta ·
Yoga · Ayurveda
Yuga · Vegetarianism
Bhakti · Hindu Idealism
Upanishads · Vedas
Brahmana · Bhagavad Gita
Ramayana · Mahabharata
Purana · Aranyaka
Shikshapatri · Vachanamrut
Related topics
Dharmic Religions ·
Caste system · Mantra
Glossary ·
Vigraha ·


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 person's reincarnated lives.

The doctrine of transmigration of the soul, or fateful retribution for acts committed, does not appear in the Rig Veda.[1] The concept of karma appeared in Hindu thought during the period 500-200 BC and became widespread during the period considered as "Classical Hinduism" 200 BC - 1100 AD.[2]

Axel Michaels explains that codification of these ideas appeared only in late texts, and then as only one of many explanations for why things happen as they do:

With the early Upaniṣads, diverse and incoherent speculations about the transmigration of the soul appeared, which were expanded into a ramified system in the legal texts and Purāṇas. Only with these texts do we find the concept of the repeated transmigration linked with desires for deliverance from the eternal cycle of rebirth... and a continuous ethicization of retribution for acts in the form of catalogues of new existences. Thus, the doctrine of Karma is a theodicy, and explanation of the suffering and unjust earthly world as a result of previous acts, and an eschatology, a doctrine of liberation. Both doctrines do not belong together in every case, and countless other explanations for fate exist alongside them.[3]

Parts of the Mahabharata are sometimes anaylzed as a Karma story (the other parts being related to Moksha), a story where people received the reward of their actions, good and bad.[How to reference and link to summary or text]


"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 life. It is believed that only beings that can distinguish right from wrong, such as adult humans, who can accumulate Karma. Animals and young children are not considered to accumulate Karma as they are incapable of discriminating between right and wrong. However, all sentient beings can feel the effects of Karma, which are pleasure and pain.[4] Karma is not fate; humans are believed to act with free will, creating their own destinies. According to the Vedas, if an individual sows goodness, he or she will reap goodness; if one sows evil, he or she will reap evil. Karma refers to the totality of mankind's actions and their concommitant reactions in current and previous lives, all of which determine the future. However, many karmas do not have an immediate effect; some accumulate and return unexpectedly in an individual's later lives. The conquest of karma is believed to lie in intelligent action and dispassionate reaction.

Unkindness yields spoiled fruits, called papa, and good deeds bring forth sweet fruits, called punya. As one acts, so does he become: one becomes virtuous by virtuous action, and evil by evil action.[5]

There are three types of karma in Hinduism:

  1. sanchita karma, the sum total of past karmas yet to be resolved;
  2. prarabdha karma, that portion of sanchita karma that is to be experienced in this life; and
  3. kriyamana karma, the karma that humans are currently creating, which will bear fruit in future.

The role of divine forces[]

Several different views exist in Hinduism regarding the role of divine beings. In Hinduism, many see the devas as playing some kind of role. Other Hindus,such as the Mimamsakas, reject such notions and see karma as acting independently, considering the natural laws of causation sufficient to explain the effects of karma.[6][7][8]

These differing views are explicitly noted in a series of passes in the Brahma Sutras (III.2.38-40), which endorse the concept of Īśvara 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 Īśvara (the Lord) as the dispenser of the fruits of karma.[9] 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 Īśvara, gives the fruits of one's actions. According to the Mimamsakas it is useless to set up an Īśvara for that purpose, since Karma itself can give the result at a future time.[10]

Some interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita[11] suggest an intermediate view, that karma is a law of cause and effect yet God can mitigate karma for His devotees.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Another view holds that a Sadguru, acting on God's behalf, can mitigate or work out some of the karma of the disciple.[12][13][14]

Two examples from the Puranas[]

The story of Markandeya, who was saved from death by Siva, illustrates that God's grace can overcome Karma and death for His beloved devotee.[2]

The story of Ajamila in the Bhagavata Purana [3] [4],[5] also illustrates the same point. Ajamila had committed many evil deeds during his life such as stealing, abandoning his wife and children, and marrying a prostitute. But at the moment of death, he involuntarily chanted the name of Narayana and therefore received Moksha or union with God, and was saved from the messengers of Yama. Ajamila was actually thinking of his youngest son, whose name was also Narayana. But the name of God has powerful effects, and Ajamila was forgiven for his great sins and attained salvation, despite his bad Karma.

Views of Hindu traditions on karma[]

Scriptures divide Karma into three kinds: Sanchita (accumulated), Prarabdha (fruit-bearing) and Kriyamana (current) karma. All kriyamana karmas become sanchita karma upon completion. From this stock of sanchita karma, a handful is taken out to serve one lifetime and this handful of actions which has begun to bear fruit and which will be exhausted only on their fruit being enjoyed and not otherwise, is known as prarabdha karma. In this way, so 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 cycles of birth and death. A jiva cannot attain Moksha until the accumulated sanchita karmas are completely exhausted.[15]

Advaita Vedanta[]

Swami Sivananda, an Advaita scholar, reiterates the same views in his commentary synthesising Vedanta views on the Brahma Sutras, a Vedantic text. In his commentary on Chapter 3 of the Brahma Sutras, Sivananda notes that karma is insentient and short-lived, and ceases to exist as soon as a deed is executed. Hence, karma cannot bestow the fruits of actions at a future date according to one's merit. Furthermore, one cannot argue that karma generates apurva or punya, which gives fruit. Since apurva is non-sentient, it cannot act unless moved by an intelligent being such as God. It cannot independently bestow reward or punishment.[16]

There is a passage from Swami Sivananda's translation of the Svetasvatara Upanishad (4:6) illustrating this concept:

Two birds of beautiful plumage — inseparable friends — live on the same tree. Of these two one eats the sweet fruit while the other looks on without eating.

In his commentary, the first bird represents the individual soul, while the second represents Brahman or God. The soul is essentially a reflection of Brahman. The tree represents the body. The soul identifies itself with the body, reaps the fruits of its actions, and undergoes rebirth. The Lord alone stands as an eternal witness, ever contented, and does not eat, for he is the director of both the eater and the eaten.

Swami Sivananda also notes that God is free from charges of partiality and cruelty which are brought against him because of social inequality, fate, and universal suffering in the world. According to the Brahma Sutras, individual souls are responsible for their own fate; God is merely the dispenser and witness with reference to the merit and demerit of souls.

In his commentary on Chapter 2 of the Brahma Sutras, Sivananda further notes that the position of God with respect to karma can be explained through the analogy of rain. Although rain can be said to bring about the growth of rice, barley and other plants, the differences in various species is due to the diverse potentalities lying hidden in the respective seeds. Thus, Sivananda explains that differences between classes of beings are due to different merits belonging to individual souls. He concludes that God metes rewards and punishments only in consideration of the specific actions of beings.[17]


The Nyaya school, one of six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, states that one of the proofs of the existence of God is karma: Adŗişhţāt (lit., from the unforeseen): It is seen that some people in this world are happy, some are in misery. Some are rich and some poor. The Naiyanikas explain this by the concept of Karma and reincarnation. The fruit of an individual's actions does not always lie within the reach of the individual who is the agent. There ought to be, therefore, a dispenser of the fruits of actions, and this supreme dispenser is God. This belief of Nyaya, accordingly, is the same as that of Vedanta.


Karma as action and reaction: if we sow goodness, we will reap goodness.

Thirugnana Sambanthar writes about karma in his outline of Saivism. He explains the concept of karma in Hinduism by distinguishing it from that of Buddhism and Jainism, which do not require the existence of an external being like God. In their beliefs, just as a calf among a large number of cows can find its mother at suckling time, so also does karma find the specific individual it needs to attach to and come to fruition. However Hindus posit that karma, unlike the calf, is an unintelligent entity. Hence, karma cannot locate the appropriate person by itself. Shri Sambantha concludes that an intelligent Supreme Being with perfect wisdom and power (Shiva, for example) is necessary to make karma attach to the appropriate individual. In such sense, God is the Divine Accountant.[18]

Appaya Dikshita, a Saivite theologian and proponent of Siva Advaita, states that Siva (God) only awards happiness and misery in accordance with the law of karma.[19] Thus persons themselves perform good or evil actions according to their own inclinations as acquired in past creations, and in accordance with those deeds, a new creation is made for the fulfilment of the law of karma. Shaivas believe that there are cycles of creations in which souls gravitate to specific bodies in accordance with karma, which as an unintelligent object depends on the will of Siva alone. Thus, many interpret the caste system in accordance with karma, as those with good deeds are born into a highly spiritual family (probably the brahmana caste).

Srikantha, another Saivite theologian, believes that individual souls themselves do things which may be regarded as the cause of their particular actions, or desisting from particular actions, in accordance with the nature of the fruition of their past deeds.[20] Srikantha further believes that Siva only helps a person when he wishes to act in a particular way or to desist from a particular action.

Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami explains in the lexicon section of his book, Dancing with Siva, that karma literally means "deed or act" and more broadly names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction which governs all life. As he explains it, karma is not fate, for man acts with free will creating his own destiny. The Vedas tell us that if we sow goodness, we will reap goodness; if we sow evil, we will reap evil. Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami further notes that 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 births.


Ramanuja addresses the problem of evil by attributing all evil things in life to the accumulation of evil karma of jivas (human souls) and maintains that God is amala, or without any stain of evil.

Madhva, the founder of the Dvaita school, on the other hand, believes that there must be a root cause for variations in karma even if karma is accepted as having no beginning and being the cause of the problem of evil. Since jivas have different kinds of karma, from good to bad, all must not have started with same type of karma from the beginning of time. Thus, Madhva concludes that the jivas are not God's creation as in the Christian doctrine, but are rather entities co-existent with Vishnu, although under His absolute control. Souls are thus dependent on Him in their pristine nature and in all transformations that they may undergo.

According to Madhva, God, although He has control, does not interfere with Man's free will; although He is omnipotent, that does not mean that He engages in extraordinary feats. Rather, God enforces a rule of law and, in accordance with the just deserts of jivas, gives them freedom to follow their own nature. Thus, God functions as the sanctioner or as the divine accountant, and accordingly jivas are free to work according to their innate nature and their accumulated karma, good and bad. Since God acts as the sanctioner, the ultimate power for everything comes from God and the jiva only utilizes that power, according to his/her innate nature.

Swami Tapasyananda further explains the Madhva view by illustrating the doctrine with this analogy: the power in a factory comes from the powerhouse (God), but the various cogs (jivas) move in a direction in which they are set. Thus he concludes that no charge of partiality and cruelty can be brought against God. The jiva is the actor and also the enjoyer of the fruits of his/her own actions.[21]

Madhva differed significantly from traditional Hindu beliefs, owing to his concept of eternal damnation. For example, he divides souls into three classes: one class of souls which qualify for liberation (Mukti-yogyas), another subject to eternal rebirth or eternal transmigration (Nitya-samsarins), and a third class that is eventually condemned to eternal hell or Andhatamas (Tamo-yogyas). No other Hindu philosopher or school of Hinduism holds such beliefs. In contrast, most Hindus believe in universal salvation: that all souls will eventually obtain moksha, even if it is after millions of rebirths.

Gita interpretations and role of Guru[]

Some interpretations of certain verses in the Bhagavad Gita[22] suggests an intermediate view, that karma is a law of cause and effect yet God can mitigate karma for His devotees. Another view holds that a Sadguru, acting on God's behalf, can mitigate or work out some of the karma of the disciple.[23][24][25]

Caste and karma[]

As stated earlier, there are cycles of creations in which souls gravitate to specific bodies in accordance with karma, which as an unintelligent object depends on the will of God alone. Thus, many interpret the caste system in accordance with karma, as those with good deeds are born into a spiritual family, which is synonymous with the brahmana caste. However, Krishna said in the Gita that characteristics of a brahmin are determined by behavior, not by birth. A verse from the Gita illustrates this point: "The duties of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas as also of Sudras, O scorcher of foes, are distributed according to the gunas (behavior) born of their own nature." (Chapter 18, verse 41)

See also[]



  1. Michaels, p. 156.
  2. Michaels, p. 110.
  3. Michaels, p. 156.
  4. Chandrasekhara Bharathi Mahaswamigal, Dialogues with the Guru.
  5. Subramuniyaswami, Satguru Sivaya. Dancing with Siva.
  6. Pratima Bowes, The Hindu Religious Tradition 54-80 (Allied Pub. 1976) ISBN 0710086687
  7. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. II, at 217-225 (18th reprint 1995) ISBN 81-85301-75-1
  8. Alex Michaels, Hinduism: Past and Present 154-56 (Princeton 1998) ISBN 0-691-08953-1
  9. Brahma Sutras III.2.38 Phalamata upapatteh translated by Sivananda as "From Him (the Lord) are the fruits of actions, for that is reasonable.) [1] Web site checked 13 April 2005.
  10. Commentary on Brahma Sutras III.2.38. Vireswarananda, p. 312.
  11. Verses 4:14, 9.22 and 18.61
  12. Yogananda, Paramahansa, Autobiography of a Yogi, Chapter 21 ISBN 1-56589-212-7
  13. Swami Krishnananda on the Guru mitigating the karma of the disciple
  14. Swami B. V. Tripurari on grace of the Guru destroying karma
  15. Goyandaka J, The Secret of Karmayoga, Gita Press, Gorakhpur
  16. Sivananda, Swami. Phaladhikaranam, Topic 8, Sutras 38-41.
  17. Sivananda, Swami. Adhikarana XII, Sutras 34-36.
  18. Sambantha, Shri K. Thirugnana. Explanation of God's role and Karma. See Outline of Saivism, section on Karma.
  19. Dasgupta, Surendranath, A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume V, The Southern Schools of Saivism, p. 87
  20. Dasgupta, Surendranath. A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume V: The Southern Schools of Saivism, pp. 87-89.
  21. Tapasyananda, Swami. Bhakti Schools of Vedanta.
  22. Verses 4:14, 9.22 and 18.61
  23. Yogananda, Paramahansa, Autobiography of a Yogi, Chapter 21 ISBN 1-56589-212-7
  24. Swami Krishnananda on the Guru mitigating the karma of the disciple
  25. Swami B. V. Tripurari on grace of the Guru destroying karma


  • Michaels, Axel (2004). Hinduism: Past and Present, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. (English translation of Her Hinduismus: Geschichte und Gegenwart, Verlag C. H. Beck, 1998).
  • Vireswarananda, Swami (1996). Brahma Sūtras, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama Publication Department.

External links[]

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