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Karma (n., Sanskrit : stem: कर्मन् karman , nominative: कर्म karma , Pali : kamma “work, deed”) describes a spiritual concept according to which every action - physical as well as mental - inevitably has a consequence. This consequence does not necessarily have to take effect in the present life; it may only manifest itself in a future life.

In the Indian religions , the doctrine of karma is closely connected with the belief in samsara , the cycle of rebirths , and thus with the validity of the cause-and-effect principle on a spiritual level over several lifetimes. In Hinduism , Buddhism and Jainism , the term denotes the consequence of every act, the effects of actions and thoughts in every respect, especially the repercussions on the actor himself. Karma therefore arises through a law and not because of an assessment by a world judge or God : It is not about "Divine Grace" or "Punishment". Karma and rebirth are linked differently in different teachings. Contrary to popular belief, the goal of all of these teachings is not not to accumulate karma.

In Central European spiritual teachings, the term occurs in Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy , there also in connection with reincarnation .


Free will and destiny

One of the major controversies of the karma doctrine is whether it always implies fate and what effects that has on free will. This controversy is also known as the moral decision problem. The controversy concerns not only the karma doctrine, but is also found in monotheistic religions.

The free will controversy can be outlined in three parts: (1) A person who kills, rapes, or commits other crimes can claim that all of their bad actions were a product of their karma: they have no free will, they can make no choice, she is an agent of karma, and she merely carries out the necessary punishments that her "bad" sacrifices for her own karma have earned in previous lives. Are crimes and unjust acts caused by free will or by forces of karma? (2) Does a person suffering from the unnatural death of a loved one or from rape or other unjust act assume that a moral agent is responsible and therefore seeks justice? Or should one blame oneself for bad karma in past lives and assume that unjust suffering is destiny? (3) Does the karma doctrine undermine the incentive to moral education - because all suffering is earned and is a consequence of past lives?

Blavatzky writes in "The Secret Doctrine": "Only karma can explain the mysterious problem of good and evil to us and reconcile people with the terrible apparent injustice of life. For when someone who does not know the noble doctrine looks around and the Observed inequalities of birth and ability, of intellect and ability, [...] then deprives him of all that blessed knowledge of the karma from curse life and people as well as their presumed creator.


The ideas of karma and samsara were introduced around the 6th century BC. Proven in the scriptures and form the basis for Hinduism . The idea is to overcome the eternal cycle of rebirth, samsara. In the Upanishads this is achieved through the spiritual knowledge that the individual soul Atman is identical with Brahman (world soul) in its essence.

Every person has their own Dharma (on the one hand cosmic, on the other hand social law) that must be fulfilled, and the fulfillment is decisive for whether actions result in good or bad karma. In Hinduism there is on the one hand the generally valid sadharanadharma , which includes the duties of each individual such as non-violence ( ahimsa ), truthfulness ( satya ), patience ( ksanti ), self-control ( dama ), charity ( danam ), hospitality ( ahithi ). These virtues apply equally to all people, but there is no single code for them. The svahdharma, on the other hand, which prescribes the duties of the various social classes, is relevant for a specific group. Accordingly, the dharma of a warrior ( Kshatriya caste) is to show war if necessary and, if necessary, to kill. If a warrior has to kill an enemy, it may not cause bad karma because he has fulfilled his dharma, the task assigned to him. However, if someone kills for other, selfish reasons, this can very well result in bad karma. The connection of the karma with the dharma conception has a very strong ethical and moral component. The theory of karma offers i.a. a. also an explanation for the riddle of apparently through no fault of its own suffering and social inequality.

There are several explanations in the Mahabharata about the relationship between action and effect . A popular belief is that the works automatically create their impact. However, there are also differentiated explanations: Two causes for the attachment of the soul, namely ignorance ( avidya ) and desire ( lobha ), cause the activity of the sense organs to cause restlessness and clouding of knowledge. This prevents the redeeming insight. The works attach themselves to the organ of thought ( manas ), disturb the redeeming knowledge and condition the nature of the embodiments (Mbh. 12).

There are several views on the question of how the fruits of deeds are realized: (1) the soul leaves the body after death and is reborn in a new body conditioned by karma. (2) The retribution takes place partly in the hereafter, partly in the new existence. (3) Good karma can bring about temporary bliss in “heaven”, while bad karma can bring about a stay in “ hell ”, but not as a final state, but z. B. alternating with the animal birth. All good works can create religious merits ( punya ) that reduce karma. Believers expect such special merits from religious rites, fasts, pilgrimages or gifts to Brahmins as well as general charity ( danam ) and temple building.

The person is free and absolutely responsible for his karma himself. But although karma means a law of “cause and effect”, believers of the bhakti schools in particular also trust in the unconditional grace of God, which can destroy the effect of karma and save people.

It is important that even a superficially "bad" act can have a good effect if the motives were pure and without self-interest. The approaches described belong to the point of view of “work activity ” ( pravritti ): One does something to achieve a good effect. The opposite tendency is “inactivity” ( nivritti ). Here the way is to withdraw from the world. The thirst for life is considered to be the cause of the painful state. H. the will to live, to be born again only brings a new perishable existence. One would be bound by work, but redeemed by knowledge ( vidya ) and inactivity ( nivritti ). The ideal of equanimity rests on renouncing all actions aimed at success.

Both currents, pravritti (work activity ) and nivritti (inactivity), are represented in the Mahabharata and are mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita . Krishna in the Gita gives preference to yoga of action. So is Krishna's answer to Arjuna's question :

Do the necessary work, because doing is better than doing nothing; even the functions of the body are based on an activity.
Every action that does not occur out of the obligation to make sacrifices is bound to existence; therefore accomplish a work, but do not depend on it.

(Bhagavad Gita 3. 8 - 9)


The terms “not-self” ( p .: Anatta , skt .: Anātman ) and “ dependent arising ” (p. Paṭiccasamuppāda , skt. Pratītyasamutpāda ) are important for understanding Buddhist karma teaching . According to Buddhist teaching ( Dharma ), the idea that there is an “I”, a demarcated person, i.e. a self or a soul , is already a fundamental delusion about the nature of reality. What people call their self or their soul is rather a constantly changing interplay of the five existence or appropriation groups ( skandhas ): the material body with its sense organs, the sensations, the perception of the world, the mental formations (interests, impulses of will, Desires and intentions to act) and ultimately the consciousness. This constant change gives rise to the law of “dependent arising”: every action accordingly shapes the world anew, on the material as well as on the spiritual level.

Karma, instead of which Buddhist authors also use the terms “imprints” or “seeds”, refers in this sense to sensual desire and clinging to the phenomena of the world and the thoughts and deeds that follow from them. All acting and thinking causes karma and thus leads to further entanglements in the world. The aim of Buddhist practice is to no longer generate karma and thus to leave this cycle (cf. Samsara ) behind (cf. Nirvana ). The first step is to recognize that the cause of this attachment lies in the three poisons of the spirit : attachment or greed ( lobha ), anger or hatred ( dosa ) and ignorance or confusion ( moha ). The three paths to positive karma, then, are humility (non-attachment), goodness, and discernment.

The decisive factor for the karmic imprinting produced by an action is the intention on which the action is based ( cetana ). According to Buddhist teaching, thinking as a form of action takes precedence over physical actions and speech. With regard to the time of the onset of the effect ( vipaka ), three different types of karma can be differentiated:

  • Karma ripening in lifetime (Pali: Ditthadhamma-vedaniya-kamma )
  • Karma ripening in the next life (Pali: Upapajja-vedaniya-kamma )
  • Karma maturing in later life (Pali: Aparapariya-vedaniya-kamma )

Some actions or attitudes can also remain without karma effect if the circumstances necessary for the effect to occur are absent or if they cannot produce an effect due to insufficient intensity due to the preponderance of counteracting tendencies (e.g. if positive intention outweighs negative effect). In this case one speaks of ineffective karma (Pali: Ahosi-kamma ).

A distinction is made between the effects:

  • Karma that creates rebirth (Pali: Janaka-kamma) , which determines the groups of existence during rebirth (see reincarnation ) and during the progress of life,
  • supporting karma (Pali: Upatthambhaka) , which does not produce any karma effect, but just keeps it going,
  • suppressive karma (Pali: Upapilaka) , which suppresses the effects of karma, as well as
  • destructive karma (Pali: Upaghataka ) that surpasses other karma effects and only comes into effect itself.

“Unintentional action” takes place without planning: the fewer ulterior motives underlying an action, the less karma is accumulated. Suffering that is produced without intent does not remain entirely without karmic consequences, because here the mental poison of ignorance or indifference is the basis.

Anyone who torments other beings who also strive for well-being, like himself, has no luck in the next life.
Whoever spares other beings who also strive for well-being, like himself, will find happiness in the next life.
Dhammapada , 3rd century BC Chr.
One does not find the “perpetrator” of the deeds, no “being” that hits the effect. Only empty things pass by: Those who recognize this way have the right view. And while the action and effect are in progress, due to the roots, as with the seed and the tree, one can never see a beginning.
(Vis. XIX) Culakammavibhanga Sutta.


The Karma doctrine of Jainism has a peculiarity compared to other religions of Indian origin: Karma is not only understood here as an action-based law of cause and effect, but also as something substantial . In this context, Jains speak of subtle, imperceptible "karma particles" ( karma vargana ) or "karmic matter" ( karma pudgala ), and differentiate between a total of 148 types, which are assigned to two main categories. This comprehensive typology is dealt with in particular in the central teaching of the "Nine Realities" ( nava tattvani ), a guideline whose purpose is to provide the student with a theoretical understanding that is a necessary prerequisite for successfully following the Jainist path of practice . In successive steps, the practitioner is informed about how the karma influence that leads to the bond comes about and what means are available to him to stop this karma influence and to reduce the existing karma in order to achieve the final liberation from the cycle of rebirths ( moksha ) .

The starting point of the "Nine Realities" is the representation of the two fundamental substances ( dravya ) that make up the entire cosmos in Jainist thinking :

  1. Consciousness (jiva), which is composed of an infinite number of individual souls , and
  2. Unconscious (ajiva), which is fanned out into five categories: (1) matter ( pudgala ), which also includes karma, (2) space ( akasha ), (3) movement medium ( dharmastikaya ), (4) rest medium ( adharmastikaya ), and (5) time ( kala ).

According to this representation, a tension between karmic matter and souls keeps the cycle of rebirths ( samsara ) going. Countless karma particles, which have permeated the universe since beginningless time, are attracted to the souls through actions that they commit out of ignorance. As a result, the karma accumulates in the causal body of each individual soul - a subtle shell that encloses them and is bound into two other shells with a gradually increasing degree of density. The term “ignorance” ( mithyatva ) in this context refers to the fact that the individual soul has forgotten its true identity through the entanglement in samsara to which it has always been subject. The identification with the unconscious, especially with the body and its functions, resulting from the karma bond, obscures its inherent properties: unlimited perception ( anant darshan ), omniscience ( ananta jnana ), infinite energy ( ananta virya ) and eternal bliss ( ananta sukha ). When these attributes are released, this leads to a gradual disappearance of ignorance and ultimately to a detachment from the bonds of karma.

In order to distinguish the two possible modes of appearance of the soul from one another, Jainism distinguishes between the characteristics “bound” ( samsari ) and “liberated” ( mukta ) in this regard . In their bound state, the souls are forced to continually return to the four realms of being (gatis): the realm of humans ( manushya ), the realm of plants and animals ( tiryancha ), the heavenly abode of the gods ( devaloka ) and the seven hells ( naraki ). Even mountains, rocks, hills, rivers, meadows, grasses, gusts of wind and storms are populated by innumerable souls who, according to the Jainist view, can only end their wandering through samsara in human form, since the human being is the only being with the prerequisites for complete salvation brings itself. The liberated souls who have got rid of all karmas are called "siddhas". They have completely regained their natural properties and remain in eternal, perfect harmony in "Siddhashila", the highest area of ​​the cosmos, which lies beyond samsara and is unaffected by the power of karma. In this formless existence, the souls consist of pure awareness and are free of any thought activity, sensation, physicality or impulses of will.

It is important for the practicing Jain to learn to distinguish the substances from which world events are composed in order to initiate a turning away from all unconscious and to approach the purified, natural state, which in the final analysis is complete independence ( kaivalya ) from all material means. To do this, it is necessary to recognize the causes of the karma bond in order to be able to avoid it in the future. In addition to ignorance, these causes include a lack of self-control ( avirati ), inattention ( pramada ), passions ( kasaya ) such as greed, anger and pride, as well as the activities of body, speech and mind ( yoga ).

It is also important to distinguish between the various types of karma in order to counteract them in a targeted manner. The two main groups are

  • Harmful karma ( ghati karma ), including Jnana-varaniya karma , which tarnishes the omniscience of the soul, Darshana-varaniya karma , which obscures the unlimited perception of the soul, Mohniya karma , which reduces and leads to the ability to right perception and right behavior that the soul identifies with other substances, as well as antaraya karma , which weakens the infinite energy of the soul and also prevents the accomplishment of good deeds.
  • Harmless karma ( ahgati karma ), including Vedniya karma , which creates joy and suffering and thereby darkens the eternal bliss of the soul, Nama karma , which creates physicality and thereby veils the formless existence of the soul, Gotra karma , which tarnishes the equanimity of the soul and caste affiliation, family, social position and personality determines, as well as Ayu karma , which determines the lifetime and thus veils the immortality of the soul.

Only the harmful karma that only affects the soul can be reduced during lifetime. If this succeeds, the practitioner attains "Kevala jnana" (omniscience). In this state he is called "Kevali" (omniscient), "Arihanta" (saint) or "Jaina" (victor). The harmless karma maintains the functions of the body and is therefore still needed until physical death. It is not completely thrown off until the "Kevali" dies. This is the phase in which the soul is completely detached from reincarnation and becomes "Siddha".

When the karmic matter has been attracted to the unredeemed soul, it takes a certain period of time for the action that was responsible for this process to have an effect. As long as the karma particles remain attached to the soul and only then fall off again when the action reaches maturity and produces a corresponding effect. This can happen after a short time, or well into the future in a later rebirth. The process of exchange, in which fresh particles constantly flow in and particles that have reached maturity fall off again, takes place in the unredeemed soul in a permanent change and thereby further entangles it in worldly affairs. How long the karmic matter adheres to the soul and how many karma particles flow into its causal body depends on the intention behind the respective action. The more angry, the more greedy the motivation, the more karma the soul attracts. On the other hand, if the soul develops equanimity ( madhyastha ) and compassion ( karuna ) with regard to its actions, fewer particles are attracted to it accordingly. So the first aim is to stop the influence of new karmas by purifying the actions. For this purpose, Jainism provides for the observance of various ethical rules of conduct and meditative practices. This includes

  • the “five mindfulnesses” ( samiti ), which instruct the student to be careful when walking, speaking, collecting alms, handling any object and disposing of rubbish so as not to harm any being.
  • the "three restrictions" ( gupti ) associated with the control of body, speech and mind,
  • the "Ten Virtues" ( yati dharma ): Forbearance, humility, righteousness, frugality, truthfulness, self-control, asceticism, renunciation, equanimity and abstinence,
  • the "Twelve Contemplations" ( bhavna ): impermanence, defenselessness, rebirth, the loneliness of the soul, separation of the conscious and the unconscious, the impurity of the body, karma influence, stopping the karma influence, karma reduction, transience of the world, the difficulty in realizing the Three jewels (the rarity of enlightenment ), the difficulty in finding the right teaching.

If the influence of new karma has been halted, the karma already accumulated must also be removed. This is done by observing strict asceticism ( tapas ). There are two types of asceticism in Jainism:

  • The outward asceticism ( bahya tapas ) disciplined the body against the emergence of desires. Appropriate practices include: regular fasting, total abstinence from eating and drinking for a prescribed period of time ( anashana ), eating less than you feel hungry ( unodari ), restricting food intake and the use of material things ( vrtti-parisankhyana ), total Abstinence from butter, milk, tea, desserts, fried foods, spicy foods and juices ( rasa-parityaga ), intentional endurance of physical pain, e.g. B. barefoot walking around in extreme heat or cold, or pulling hair with the bare hand ( kaya-klesha ), sitting in a lonely place in a calm posture, the senses turned inward ( sanlinata ).
  • The inner asceticism ( abhyantara tapas ) purifies the soul. These include: repenting of bad deeds ( prayashchitta ), humility towards monks, nuns, teachers and the elderly ( vinaya ), selfless service to monks, nuns, elderly and sufferers ( vaiyavrata ), study of the scriptures and attentive listening to lectures ( svadhyaya ), Meditation (dhyana), taking back the activities of body, speech, mind ( kayotsarga ).

Once the four harmful types of karma have been eliminated through continuous practice, the practitioner enters the state of omniscience ( kevala jnana ). If at the time of death the four harmless types of karma also fall away from the soul, then it reaches “ moksha ” (“nirvana”), the final liberation from new rebirth. It rises to the topmost area at the apex of the cosmos to remain there forever in calm bliss and never returns to the cycle of samsara.

See also


Individual evidence

  1. Kaufman, WR (2005), Karma, rebirth, and the problem of evil, Philosophy East and West, pp. 15–32
  2. ^ [Moral responsibility] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University (2009); Quote - "Can a person be morally responsible for her behavior if that behavior can be explained solely by reference to physical states of the universe and the laws governing changes in those physical states, or solely by reference to the existence of a sovereign God who guides the world along a divinely ordained path? "
  3. ^ Herman, Arthur (1976), The Problem of Evil in Indian Thought, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas
  4. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, p. 57

Web links

Wiktionary: Karma  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations