What is Karma?

By Michael Quesada October 02, 2018

What is Karma?

Understanding Karma

Nearly everyone has heard of the concept of “karma”, regardless where they live.  However, it is often used in a negative sense, but karma is much deeper than that.

This concept primarily comes from South Asia (the Indian subcontinent), and they attach deep spiritual significance to the role of karma in their lives.  Karma is shared primarily through four religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. 

Between these religions, there is a shared understanding that one’s actions accumulate in either a positive or negative fashion.  This has an impact on the quality of their present lives, as well as their future lives. 

So what really is karma and how does it work?

What is Karma?

Karma defined

The first documented people in this region are known as the Indo-Aryans who settled in India in the Vedic period - around 1500 BCE.  This is when the first instances of the concept of karma appears.  It roughly translates as “action” and was spread around the regions through religious leaders, such as the Buddha.

Most understood as the Law of Cause and Effect, karma is generally interpreted as “you reap what you sow” philosophy.  Acts do have consequences, and this law of karma means that people truly never “get away with” anything.  Every action, may it be good or bad, always leaves an imprint and this has tremendous repercussions to one’s present and future life.

“You are what your deep, driving desire is.  As your desire is, so is your will.  As your will is, so is your Karma.  As your Karma is, so is your destiny”.

- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Most people understand karma as “you reap what you sow”.  This is true, but the different religions interpret this slightly differently, as we will now see.

What is karma?

Karma in Buddhism

Buddhists divide this law of karma into two concepts, namely: Karma and Karmaphala, which basically stands for the “act” and the “fruit of the act” respectively.  These two concepts are also responsible for “samsara,” or which is sometimes referred to with terms or phrases such as transmigration, karmic cycle, reincarnation, and the “cycle of aimless drifting, wandering or mundane existence.”

In Buddhism, karma is divided into two separate concepts: Karma and Karmaphala.  The former can be thought of as the “act”, and the latter as the “fruit of the act”, respectively.    These are directly related to the Buddhist concept of “Samsara”, which is the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.  Only through the Noble Eightfold Path, can one break free from samsara.

  1. Right understanding 
  2. Right thought 
  3. Right speech 
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood 
  6. Right effort 
  7. Right mindfulness 
  8. Right concentration 

Karma in Buddhism

Karma in Hinduism

One could argue that karma is most pronounced in Hinduism.  Hindus see karma through the lens of cause and effect.  This primarily happens through an individuals conscious efforts.  This happens in one of four ways.

  1. Through thoughts
  2. Through words
  3. Through actions
  4. Through actions that others perform under your instruction.

What separates Hinduism from Buddhism though, is that Hindu’s believe that karma can be granted from the creator god Isvara (Shiva), who distributes karma as either a reward or a punishment.

 Karma in Hinduism

Karma in Jainism and Sikhism

Those who follow Jainism, whose religion was propagated by 24 Tirthankaras (spiritual teachers), also hold a slightly different interpretation of karma.

While karma is indeed a law of cause and effect, Jains see this belief as subject to a person’s willful act and discipline.  Good actions reap good results, and evil actions reap bad results.  Nonetheless, taking up suffering can cut down bad karmas, and lighten up the soul. 

Unlike the other religions, it is also worth mentioning here that Jains do not believe in God as a creator, survivor, and destroyer of the universe.  Therefore it could be said that Jains believe in a more secular version of karma.

Sikh people see their karma as either bringing them closer or further away from “Pure Being”, the ultimate goal in Sikhism.

Karma in Sikhism

Karma in Christianity

Surprisingly, the idea of karma is not only present in Indian religions, but also in Christianity, albeit very discreetly.  Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount talked about karma too, or the essence of personal accountability.

In the Bible, the apostle Paul said:

"Every man shall bear his own burden....Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap....Every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.”

The big difference is that Christians do not believe in re-incarnation, and karma is more of a rule to living a good life, not a tool of cosmic justice.

Karma in Christianity

Karma in Science

Since karma is not observable or testable, traditional science does not support its existence.  However, the field of psychoanalysis can shed some light on details related to karma. 

For instance, Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung once opined on unresolved emotions and the synchronicity of karma.  In his words:

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate.”

More specifically, Jung’s theory on synchronicity expresses the relationship between “acausal connection of two or more psychic and physical phenomena.” 

In other words, synchronicity states that many of the experience we perceive of as coincidence, may not simply be a product of chance.

Rather, this “meaningful coincidence” can be a manifestation of parallel events and circumstances that happened at some time in our lives. 

In his book Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, Jung wrote: 

  "...it is impossible, with our present resources, to explain ESP, or the fact of meaningful coincidence, as a phenomenon of energy.  This makes an end of the causal explanation as well, for "effect" cannot be understood as anything except a phenomenon of energy.  Therefore it cannot be a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity.  Because of this quality of simultaneity, I have picked on the term "synchronicity" to designate a hypothetical factor equal in rank to causality as a principle of explanation."

In conclusion

Karma is a concept originating in the Indian subcontinent with the Indo-Aryans.  The word roughly translates to “action”, and that’s essentially the meaning as well.  Good actions on your part lead to good karma, and likewise with bad actions.  Karma is primarily found in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism, with each having a slightly different take on the concept.  Even if karma isn’t backed by science, society would be better off if everyone adopted this ancient concept.  

What about you though, do you believe in karma?

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What is Karma? 


Michael Quesada

Founder of this website; currently living vicariously through himself.


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