Karma – What is it all about?

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Karma – What is it all about?

The word karma comes from the ancient Indian language Sanskrit and means “deed” or “effect“. Karma is a spiritual concept of cause and effect. This means that every physical or spiritual action has a consequence. This consequence does not necessarily have to occur in this life, but can also manifest itself in a future life. Karma is closely related to the concept of rebirth.

The doctrine of karma is applied in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Karma denotes a universal lawfulness, which, however, is not judged by a god as a judge; it is not a matter of punishment.

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Karma in Hinduism

In Hinduism, karma is very closely connected with samsara, i.e. the cycle of rebirth. It forms the basis of Hinduism. According to this, the goal of life is to break the eternal cycle of rebirths and arrive in Nirvana. As long as a person has desires and cravings that automatically influence thought and action, karma is formed. This can be “good” karma, but also “bad” karma. Nirvana is reached by those who live a life free of desire and are thus not bound to the worldly, earthly existence. To reach Nirvana, a person must be free of karma.

Closely connected to karma in Hinduism is dharma, on the realisation of which karma depends/the realisation of which is a cornerstone of karma. Dharma could also be called guidelines or ethical and religious duties. It has a vast influence on the life of a Hindu. It determines not only personal habits and social and family relationships but also religious festivals and rituals. However, there are no universally valid rules. Hinduism understands every living being as an individual. This means that a human being has different duties and tasks than a tree or an elephant. Dharma also depends on age, gender, stage of life, caste and social status.

There are also sadharana dharmas, which are synonymous with universal virtues. These include, among others:

  • Truthfulness (satyam)
  • Non-violence (ahimsa)
  • Wrathlessness (akrodha)
  • Generosity (danam)
  • Ritual, Mental and Physical Purity (saucam)
  • Self-control (dama)
  • Compassion (daya)
  • Hospitality (atithi)

The fulfilment of the dharma is decisive for whether an action causes “good” or “bad” karma. The individual duties of a social class take precedence over the sadharana dharmas. This means that even if non-violence is strived for, it is still the duty of a warrior (caste) to kill in case of war. Killing in this case does not necessarily bring “bad” karma, as he is thereby fulfilling his dharma. However, if the same person kills for other reasons, it results in “bad” karma.

There is a belief in Hinduism that after death, the soul leaves the mortal body. It is then reborn in a new body. Which body that is depends on the karma. In the case of bad karma, rebirth in an animal body is possible. Karma can be reduced through religious merit (punya), such as religious fasting and rites or building temples. Each person is responsible for his or her own karma, with the aim of breaking the cycle of rebirth. This happens when the person has no more karma.

Karma in Buddhism

Buddhism distinguishes between 3 types of action, or 3 different types of karma:

  1. Action of the body
  2. Action of speech
  3. Action of the mind

In Buddhism, too, actions have an effect. These shape a person and are the basis for future actions. Just as in Hinduism, the doctrine of karma is closely linked to the cycle of rebirth. In Buddhism, actions can result in good, bad or neutral karma. The decisive factor is not necessarily the action itself, but the motivation for the action. Thus, even supposedly good deeds can lead to bad karma if they were performed out of a negative motivation. Consequently, the action of thinking is superior to the other two forms of action. This also means that an action with no or little ulterior motive generates no or little karma. Nevertheless, unintentional but unfortunate acts also result in bad karma. True to the motto: “Ignorance does not protect from punishment”.

In Buddhism, karma is defined according to the effect of actions:

  • Rebirth-generating karma, this influences the future life and the type of rebirth.
  • Supportive karma, which does not create karma but maintains an existing karma.
  • Suppressive karma, which suppresses the effects of karma.
  • Destructive karma, which outweighs other karmic effects and then takes effect on its own.

Good karma has positive effects on the current or next lives. Bad karma, on the other hand, has mainly negative effects on the next life, through rebirth in a lower caste or as an animal, for example.

In order to break the cycle of rebirth and reach nirvana, a person must neutralise their karma. This can be done through insight into emptiness. There are 6 paramitas, i.e. certain actions that promote this:

  • Generosity
  • Reasonable Behaviour
  • Patience
  • Joyful Effort
  • Meditation
  • Wisdom

The insight into emptiness is closely connected with letting go of worldly, earthly existence. This also includes the insight that everything is impermanent. For instance, there is a Buddhist ritual in which four monks create a mandala of several metres in size out of sand. This is ceremonially destroyed soon after completion to symbolise that excessive clinging to worldly or material things can lead to suffering. A clear connection to karma can be made here. The goal in this case is also to leave behind worldly things in their impermanence and to accept the laws of the universe that everything comes into being and passes away again. Ideally, all actions should take place without regard to worldly goods.

The 12 Laws of Karma

The 12 rules of karma represent an aware and thoughtful lifestyle. They are guidelines that provide a guide to morality and convey the concept of karma. There are no punishments involved.

  1. Law of Cause and Effect: Actions and thoughts bring consequences.
  2. Law of Creation: One is responsible for changes in one’s own life.
  3. Law of Modesty: Things can only be changed if you accept them. One’s own weaknesses must first be accepted and then changed.
  4. Law of Growth: In order to change one’s environment, one must first change oneself.
  5. Law of Responsibility: Every person should take responsibility for their good and bad actions.
  6. Law of Connection: Past, present and future are closely connected.
  7. Law of Focus: One should concentrate on one’s tasks in order to fulfil them in the best possible way.
  8. Law of Giving: Thinking and behaviour should match each other. Belief in hospitality is not enough, it should also be lived.
  9. Law of the Here and Now: To be present in the moment, one should not think too much about the past.
  10. Law of Change: In order for the future not to resemble the past, one must learn from one’s mistakes.
  11. Law of Patience and Reward: To be rewarded, you have to work at it permanently and have patience.
  12. Law of Meaning and Inspiration: The key to a happy life lies in the love and energy you put into it. The greater a person’s contribution, the greater their influence.

The idea of karma in the western world

“Karma will take care of it” – Probably everyone has heard or even used this saying/ – A saying that often comes to mind in the western world. But of course it is not that simple. Because this sentence often means that karma will punish bad behaviour. It is assumed that karma acts as a kind of judge. It is also assumed that karma “strikes back” directly. Traditional karma, however, has an impact on future lives. In the western world, karma is often not put in the context of rebirth.

The subject of karma also comes up frequently in the digital world. Unfortunately, it is rarely explained properly where the term comes from and what it means exactly. It is often only implied that deeds have a direct effect on the present life. People are therefore responsible for everything that happens to them. On the Internet, the term “instant karma” is also used more and more frequently. This means that one is punished immediately for bad actions. Again, it becomes clear that karma, when detached from religion, is often seen as a kind of punishment.


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