The Origins of the Concept of Karma
by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche
The literal meaning of “KARMA” is action — simply that, action; but to trace the origins of the concept is no easy task. Many Western scholars have grappled long and hard with this for some time, and there are many opinions. One school of thought suggests the notion of karma came with the arrival of the Aryans in India, who established the Sanskrit-speaking Indus Valley civilisation. Others contest this, believing that the idea predates the Aryans and goes back to the so-called tribal people of India, the pre-Vedic tribal societies. But as one scholar has cynically remarked, the terminology of “tribal peoples” merely points to how elusive any real identification has proven to be. Despite the difficulties though, a considerable amount of scholarship points to the concept’s being conceived by Indians already living in India, as opposed to its being brought in from without. It seems that the teachings of the Vedas were not responsible for encouraging Indians to think about karma, but rather the native Indians already had the basic idea, which was subsequently incorporated into the Vedas. Naturally, the idea developed further with the Vedas themselves, but early on, and even in the Vedas, there was no strict association made between karmic action and reincarnation. Not much was said about reincarnation at this stage at all in fact, but the idea gradually evolved as karma assumed more of a moral dimension.
In its early phase, karma referenced a fixed universal order, similar to the Western idea of natural law, and it contained ideas of divine sanction and governance, and following on from that, ideas about one’s proper position and duty within that order. Straying from this structure was considered an abrogation of duty, one’s karmic duty, and such a deviation from one’s proper station and role was duly punished. This understanding of it is still prevalent today. Also, the early ideas of karma addressed the human fear of chaos, the sort of chaos that may ensue from disorder, permissiveness, and confusion — upheavals on a small and grand scale, calamities, and misery of all kinds. Humankind, regarding itself as part of nature and part of the creative world, looks to the idea of a world ordered by a great mind, the mind of a creator, such as God, for instance. Far from possessing a chaotic, disorganised mind, this creator has a profoundly orderly mind and thereby creation also, or the manifest world, comes to be seen as underpinned with intelligence. To this grand design, the individual owes a compliance of sorts. We are not discussing Hindu belief at this point, but the period prior to the consolidated religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, as we know them now. In non-Buddhist traditions of this age, karmic theory and the notion of a creator god are almost synonymous.
We can categorise this period as belonging to a Brahmanical belief system, the fulcrum from which later ideas of karma emerged. These early variants of karmic theory emphatically do not emphasise the individual, least of all those doctrines that featured conformity to an orderly universe. There is no notion of free will here, or choice. One has a duty to perform in accordance with one’s place in the cosmic order. Of course, karma applies to the individual in these systems, but the real import of individual acts is the impact on family, the community, and the external world. It is essentially concerned with the concept of deviancy, not so much in a modern sociological sense, but in a pre-modern sense of deviating from a particular fixed code of behaving and living in relation to the external world, or in reference to an otherworldly concept, an “up there” above us, with an equally fixed scale of judgement.
The meaning of “karma” (that is, action) in this early period was quite literal, referring to the performance of sacrifices by the Vedic priests — horses being their chosen sacrificial animal. They would chant incantations and mantras and so forth during the rite, presumably to entice or supplicate something benign and to dispel evil. At the dawn of the Brahmanical tradition of India, performing karma was a way of putting things in order. If there was disharmony or conflict or something of that kind, either at the individual or collective level, one went to find a priest to perform these sacrificial acts in order to put things back in order. Harmony was restored this way, and so there was no real moral connotation or dimension attached to it. Gradually though, people came to think more morally about things, and to distinguish between good karma and bad karma, and in this way “karma” lost its neutrality as a word. Karma would evolve into a weighty and complex concept concerned with the moral dimensions of one’s own life and the good of society. A word that had simply meant “action” settled into notions of good karma, bad karma, neutral karma, and so forth, and continued to develop along these lines.
Even so, at this stage, despite its continuing evolution, karmic theory was still somewhat unsophisticated, and quite different from the current Buddhist view. The transference of karma, for instance, was thought of in a very direct and uncompromising fashion, and quite materialistically in fact, as we can see in the following passage from the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa:
A demon carried off a Brahmin’s wife and abandoned her in the forest. The Brahmin approached the king and said that someone had carried off his wife while he slept. The king asked him to describe her, and the Brahmin replied, “Well, she has piercing eyes and is very tall, with short arms and a thin face. She has a sagging belly and short buttocks and small breasts; she is really very ugly — I’m not blaming her. And she is very harsh in speech, and not gentle in nature; this is how I would describe my wife. She is awful to look at with a big mouth; and she has passed her prime. This is my wife’s appearance, honestly.” The king replied, “Enough of her; I will give you another wife.” But the Brahmin insisted that he needed to protect his own wife. “For if she is not protected, confusion of castes will arise, and that will cause my ancestors to fall from heaven.” So the king set out to find her.
The king came upon her in the forest and asked her how she got there; she told him her story, concluding, “I don’t know why he did it, as he neither enjoys me carnally nor eats me.” The king found the demon and questioned him about his behaviour: “Why did you bring the Brahmin’s wife here, night-wanderer? For she is certainly no beauty; you could find many better wives, if you brought her here to be your wife; and if you took her to eat her, then why haven’t you eaten her?”
The demon replied, “We do not eat men; those are other demons. But we eat the fruit of a good deed. (And I can tell you all about the fruit of a bad deed, for I have been born as a cruel demon.) Being dishonoured, we consume the very nature of men and women; we do not eat meat or devour living creatures. When we eat the patience of men, they become furious; and when we have eaten their evil nature, they become virtuous. We have female demons who are as fascinating and beautiful as the nymphs in heaven; so why would we seek sexual pleasure among human women?”
The king said, “If she is to serve neither your bed nor your table, then why did you enter the Brahmin’s house and take her away?” The demon said, “He is a very good Brahmin and knows the spells. He used to expel me from sacrifice after sacrifice by reciting a spell that destroys demons. Because of this, we became hungry, so we inflicted this defect upon him, for without a wife a man is not qualified to perform the ritual of sacrifice.”
The king said, “Since you happen to mention that you eat the very nature of a person, let me ask you to do something. Eat the evil disposition of this Brahmin’s wife right away, and when you have eaten her evil disposition, she may become well behaved. Then take her to the house of her husband. By doing this you will have done everything for me who have come to your house.” Then the demon entered inside her by his own māyā and ate her evil disposition by his own power, at the king’s command. When the Brahmin’s wife was entirely free of that fiercely evil disposition, she said to the king, “Because of the ripening of fruits of my own karma, I was separated from my noble husband. This night-wanderer was (merely the proximate) cause. The fault is not his, nor is it the fault of my noble husband; the fault was mine alone and no one else’s. The demon has done a good deed, for in another birth I caused someone to become separated from another, and this (separation from my husband) has now fallen upon me. What fault is there in the noble one?” And the demon took the Brahmin’s wife, whose evil disposition had been purified, and led her to the house of her husband, and then he went away.
Here karma is not thought of as an individual’s actions, as it is generally in Buddhism, but in relation to one’s family — one’s husband, wife, children, and parents, and even deceased relatives. The narrative suggests that if an individual brings about a bad event, it causes great pain and suffering not only for the living but even for ancestors residing in heaven — they may be tumbled out of their heavenly abode. There is definitely the idea here of both good and bad deeds being literally transferred between people. A whole community could be seen as a single agent, so there was a strong corporate aspect to the idea. Through such examples, we can see the roots of the array of ideas embedded in the general notion of karma. Some might appear quite alien, such as the transference of karma across generations, but we need to be cautious in our evaluations of such things, as even today in the West we can see the descendants of colonialists in Africa or India being blamed for their ancestor’s misdeeds. The idea of the son’s carrying the sins of the father is not in fact that strange for modern people, and indeed, is well within the traditional Western way of thinking. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise how very different the thinking was then, in comparison to today. The identity of the modern person is not nearly so entwined with others, with one’s family, clan, and so forth. In the ancient accounts, all are affected in exactly the same way because the individual is so bound to his or her genetic family; one cannot disentangle oneself from these ties.
The early conceptions of karma were almost materialistic, with their emphasis mainly on physical interaction. The transference of karma was envisaged in a material rather than a spiritual sense. In fact, it was barely spiritual at all, translating into matters of longevity or wealth, and so forth. If the son does his duty, then blessings will come to his father, mother, family, and ancestors; but if not, and he behaves badly, then everything will come crumbling down at some stage, for all his relations. Interestingly, in this understanding, one individual can create karma that undoes the karma of other individuals, for good or ill. This is directly related to its materialist underpinnings, which in turn leads to emphasis on matters of purity and impurity, contamination and pollution. One might fastidiously watch what one eats, or bathe many times, as this type of cleansing becomes vitally important. One’s actions could, quite literally, contaminate other people, causing them to lose their property and possessions. Even personal virtues and qualities can be stolen; this is something akin to the idea of the “evil eye.” Again, we ought not to be entirely dismissive of such ideas, as it is quite likely a lot of Westerners still believe in such things in some way. The idea certainly remains strong in India, where all kinds of charms and amulets are sold for protection against such threats. If one is at the receiving end of the evil eye, or something similar, one can lose one’s job, husband or wife, fortune, and so forth.
In this conception of karma, the effect of action obviously has important consequences for the agent, but what is foreign to us is the relative strength of the secondary effects on others, which are extraordinarily strong, to the point where an individual’s own actions may almost not count; they are capable of being nullified. And the other way around holds as well; one’s actions can actually transform other peoples’ lives directly, both the living and the dead. The interactions between gods and demons are also presented this way.
As karmic theory developed further, a theory of rebirth began to emerge and become more important in Indian thought. This seems fairly logical as people tried to explain things through a karmic paradigm. Why is it, for instance, that some are born into a wealthy family and others a poor family? Why are some attractive, even as a baby, very cuddly and so on, and others less so? So the tendency is, once the karmic idea of reaping the result of our actions is established, to extend this principle of responsibility into previous lifetimes. This development would not have emerged among a people who thought extinction awaited them at death. Some may have thought this way, but most of the early Vedic people are likely to have considered living on after death in some fashion. The idea of being reborn again and again, though, was not established. As we have discussed, the karmic idea at this point was embedded in the clan and family context. Parents suffered the misfortunes caused by their sons and daughters, or the father and the family suffered misfortune from not being able to produce a son. Such events were basically thought to be bad karma; but the notion of rebirth, of being reborn again and again was yet to come, as was the attached idea of moksha, or liberation.
Two forms of immortality were eventually advanced: a physical and a spiritual immortality. Physical immortality is gained through one’s progeny, one’s children, to put it simply. Spiritual immortality is achieved purely through having that nature within oneself, through having a soul. One may reincarnate many times, but the soul does not change. It always remains the same. Whether the soul is liberated or not, whether moksha is attained or not, it remains the same soul. If one has not attained moksha, it remains the same soul as when one attains moksha. There is an analogy in the Bhagavad Gita, the most famous Hindu text, which describes the body itself as being like the clothes one wears, or the costume one puts on. We, in essence, remain the same, the same actor on the stage of samsara, but we change costumes. It is only the form that changes, but the substance, which is the soul, does not. We should clarify though, from what we know of the early Indian tradition, that the literal idea that we ourselves are reborn again and again is impossible. We are the same, but the form is different. There is no exact blue-print of us that is being reborn. It is more akin to going from one place to another, or changing our physical appearance — we feel “new,” but underneath, we are still the same person.
Following on from the Vedas, we shall turn to two of the great Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Again, we must remember that no single theory of karma and rebirth existed in Indian thought at this time, but rather there were many different strands. The discourse and definitions were comparatively loose, and nothing resembled a singular, clearly defined notion of karma. It took a long time for the idea of karma to acquire a moral connotation, and even longer to be connected to the notion of rebirth, and survival beyond mortal death, and descriptions of prenatal and postnatal existence.
Even so, the Mahabharata definitely offers a clearer explanation of karma and rebirth than was previously available. It has strong connections to the broader cosmology of the Indian creation stories. The gist of these mythologies goes something as follows: at the very beginning of creation, there was not chaos, but energy, a whirlpool of energy, alive and vibrant, and from that energy arises the mahapurusha, meaning “primal man,” or something of that kind. This story is told with two different emphases, a personal and an impersonal mode. In the former, arising from this original cosmic soup, a soup of electrical energy or something similar, appears primal man. The less personal version presents this primal material differently, but the essential idea is that in the beginning there was a type of energy, an energy that runs through the explanation of all things thereafter, including rebirth. Primal man injects this energy into all other living beings coming into existence, human beings included, and thus all beings are thereby also interconnected, each endowed with what is called jiva, or life essence. Jiva is also directly connected “back” to the primal man. We might call it the animating principle of living beings.
Jiva, vital energy, needs to be distinguished from the mind though, as it is not the same. In fact, the body and mind, or the body-mind complex of a living organism, is dependent on the principle of jiva. And jiva is connected to mahapurusha, the cosmic principle itself. In this particular context, we are not meant to link this creation story to a male-female relationship. It is very different than the Adam and Eve idea, for instance. There is no “fall from grace” or anything similar. The Indian story relates a neutral process, akin to a scientific or empirical explanation, on a descriptive level at least. There is no actual science to it though, and no judgement involved either. The main point here is that the cosmic principle, and how the whole creation process takes place, is not explained in an exclusively spiritual fashion. Again, one might say it is a quasi-materialistic tale or conception.
Everything follows along from this creation principle. When human beings subsequently engage in acts of creation, the generative process occurs along similar lines, whereby a clear transmission of energy takes place. The influence of this idea extends well beyond the Mahabharata and can be found, for instance, in traditional Indian accounts of how conception occurs — the coming together of male fluid, which is white, and female fluid, which is red, causes conception. These fluids are likewise thought of as animated with something other than mere procreative potential, or the capacity to bring new life into existence. Even the capacity to conceive new life flows from the distribution of energy that originates from the principle itself. The principle applies in death as well. When we die, the Ramayana states, in brief, that our wind energy becomes disturbed. For example, a thought of death may occur, and we start to think, “I am going to die.” That kind of thought disturbs the wind energy, or prana, which in turn disturbs the other two elements we require to be in equilibrium, which are phlegm and bile. When our wind is disturbed, we don’t eat properly, or we eat irregularly, and because of that we grow weaker and weaker, our anxiety level goes up, and death becomes imminent.
This is how death is explained in a nutshell. It begins with the loss of energy and the body’s becoming weak. However, even in a terribly weakened body, the jiva is not affected at all. It remains unaffected by anything that goes on in the mind or body. The jiva actually exits the mind-body at a certain point, leaves the host accommodation so to speak, and “we” exit. But the story doesn’t end there, as there is an afterlife, and in the afterlife, we must face all our deeds — whatever it is we have done in our previous life. We have to go through the post-death process. The Ramayana seems to state that we must process everything in a specified time, which is not the case in the Buddhist account of karma and rebirth, as we shall see, where residual karmas can last, or ripen, over many of our lifetimes. The general analogy of a business ledger, of going into a kind of karmic debt, and of replenishing our karmic bank account, is in all the Indian literature because of their common ancient roots, and so it arises even in the Buddhist literature.
We come now to the Dharmashastras, regarded as important texts of the Brahmanical tradition, where karma is discussed in relation to a voluminous series of instructions on how to live and behave according to one’s caste (varna) — one’s station in life. Manu, in Manusmṛti, states, “Action . . . springs from the mind, from speech, and the body.” In regard to the type of mental action that would cause karma to arise, he lists: “Coveting the property of others, thinking in one’s heart of what is undesirable, adherence to false (doctrines).” He then lists four types of verbal action that cause karma: “abusing (others), (speaking) untruth, detracting from the merit of all men, talking idly.” Finally, he lists three types of bodily actions that cause karma: “taking what has not been given, injuring (creatures) without the sanction of the law, holding criminal intercourse with another man’s wife.” Manu is very graphic about what the outcomes of such actions might be in terms of rebirth and karmic consequences. For instance, through mental action, one would be born as a low-caste person, through verbal action as a bird or beast, through wicked bodily action something inanimate. In certain respects, his ideas resemble Buddhist views of karma, especially in the emphasis on mental activity’s being a primary vehicle of its causation, and even in the idea of being reborn as an animal, or in different realms of existence. Such ideas are not alien to Buddhism, yet the literalness and directness of Manu’s type of consequence is far more overpowering, and being born as an inanimate thing, like a plant, is not possible within Buddhist theory.
The Dharmashastras state that living beings are governed by three principles, called the gunas. Gunas are like qualities in fact and are individually named sattva, rajas, and tamas. Sattva means goodness, rajas means passion, and tamas means darkness. Our way of being is governed by these three principles. Approximately speaking, the sattva principle represents something like a god, rajas a human being, and tamas an animal or beast. For example, Manu states:
In consequence of attachment to (the object) of the senses, and in consequence of the non-performance of their duties, fools, the lowest of men, reach the vilest births.
What wombs this individual soul enters in this world, and in consequence of what actions — learn the particulars of that at large and in due order.
So, for example, if one is living one’s life governed by goodness, or sattva, then one can be reborn as three different kinds of being, each a slightly higher rebirth. One could be reborn as an ascetic, for example, or as a ritual practitioner, or as a Brahmin. There are other possibilities too, which we need not go into.
With passion, the rajas, the lowest being one can be born as is to be born human, which is subdivided further — the lowest level a prize fighter, the second level a king, and the highest level a celestial musician. And, again, from within this human category, we find another category, where one can be born a dancer on the lowest rung, or as a preceptor of kings on the mid-level, or as a spirit of fertility at the highest level. One of the lowest births one can take is to be born addicted to gambling. There are many typologies and categories of this nature in the Dharmashastra. It is very specific and particular in this regard. In the realm of darkness, tamas, one of the lowest kinds of birth is to be born an immovable being, ranging from being barely being alive in nonhuman form to being born an elephant. The highest kind of birth in this category of darkness is to be born an actor and one of the lowest a domestic beast, or slightly above that, a tiger.
The worst deeds one can perform, or the worst kind of karma one can create, according to Manu, is to kill a Brahmin, steal gold or something valuable from a Brahmin, drink intoxicating liquor called sura, or engage in adultery with a guru’s wife. In this context, guru refers to a teacher generally, the teacher of a traditional trade or craft, for instance. Theft is seen to be particularly abhorrent, and the consequences for such acts are itemised in great detail according to the particularity of the offence. For stealing a cow, for instance, one might be reborn as an iguana; for stealing molasses, one might be born as a flying fox; for stealing grain, one might be born as a rat; or for stealing meat, one might be born as a vulture, and so on. From our point of view, we should appreciate that there is some degree of correspondence in this elaborate schema: for stealing meat, one is born a carnivore; for killing a Brahmin, one may be reborn a dog, a pig, or a donkey; for drinking wine, one might come back as an insect such as a moth. The above is just a small taste of the detail in Manu’s work.
The ancient texts emphasise fate, which is why, as we have discussed, individual action can carry a seemingly disproportionate power in the way it can affect others far removed from the actor and the act. Lives can be completely altered, by death or loss of fortune, for example, without any notion of the people affected having deserved such a fate. They are also at variance with Buddhism in the way the processing of karma is explained. The Mahabharata states that we process our karma within a limited time period, and there is no real discussion of working through things, nor any indication of the possibility of addressing remaining karmic residues at a later stage, when appropriate circumstances and situations arise. The Mahabharata also states that if we have been blessed and lead a fortunate life but fail to undertake any sacrifice and do not engage in any dharmic activity, things will be good in this life but will be bad in the next, and if we are an ascetic in this life, suffering hardship and deprivation of pleasure, we will be rewarded in the next life. While there are parallels to the Buddhist understanding here, it still remains far more clear-cut in the Mahabharata. Buddhism, by contrast, strongly stresses the fact that we carry mixed karma and that we process our karma gradually and incrementally. We shall explore this further in the next chapter in which specifically Buddhist views of karma are discussed, including the early Sutra view, and the later Mahayana view. Up to this point, we have attempted to provide a very basic context and outline of the range of views on karma from which to approach the Buddhist perspective. In summary, the classical Indian texts share with Buddhism common ideas, and similar debates and tensions in regard to karma and rebirth, but there are also great differences.