I have always loved this subject, so I thought I'd share what I consider to be a good summary and intro.....
Karma is the concept of "action" or "deed" in Dharmic religions understood as denoting the entire cycle of cause and effect described in Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist philosophies. Karma is about responsibility. It is a link between two or more souls from one or more lifetimes.
A karmic debt is something you supposedly owe another person, or they owe you form another time line. As all is parallel, the matter of karma, the wheel of karma, are soul connections in parallel realities. Now we get caught up in the games of emotions, family and friends and what are called soul groups who plays in different realities/games together as friends and lovers, soul mates. Here we find things owed and games played out that even we can not often make sense of.
The explanation of karma can differ per tradition. Usually it is believed to be a sum of all that an individual has done, is currently doing and will do. The results or "fruits" of actions are called karma-phala. Karma is not about retribution, vengeance, punishment or reward; karma simply deals with what is. The effects of all deeds actively create past, present and future experiences, thus making one responsible for one's own life, and the pain and joy it brings to others. In religions that incorporate reincarnation, karma extends through one's present life and all past and future lives as well. It is cumulative.
Throughout this process, many believe God plays some kind of role, for example, as the dispenser of the fruits of karma. Other Hindus consider the natural laws of causation sufficient to explain the effects of karma.Another view holds that a Sadguru, acting on God's behalf, can mitigate or work out some of the karma of the disciple.
Law of Karma The "Law of Karma" is central in Dharmic religions. All living creatures are responsible for their karma, their actions and the effects of their actions, and for their release from samsara. The concept can be traced back to the early Upanishads. The esoteric Christian tradition, Essenian and later Rosicrucian schools teach it as the "Law of Cause and Consequence/Effect" However, this western esoteric tradition adds that the essence of the teachings of Christ is that the law of sin and death may be overcome by Love, which will restore immortality.
Actions do not create karma (good or bad) when performed by an individual in the state of Moksha or liberation. Such a person is called "Stithaprajna". The monist, Adi Sankara taught "Akarmaiva Moksha," which means "Moksha can be attained only by doing, not by a process of effort". All actions performed by one in the state of Moksha are called Dharma.
Hindus believe that everything in the Universe is in a state of creation, maintenance or destruction. Similarly, the mind creates a thought, maintains (follows) it for some time and the thought ultimately dies down (perhaps to be replaced by another thought).
In addition to the three states of consciousness, Hinduism puts forward a fourth state of being called Turiya or pure consciousness, where the mind is not engaged in thinking but just observes the thoughts.
Actions in the Turiya state do not create karma. Meditation is a practice aimed at giving individuals the experience of being in this objective state. An individual who is constantly in the turiya state is said to have attained moksha where their actions happen as a response to events (and not because of thought process); such actions do not result in accumulation of karma as they have no karmic effect.
The process of release (moksha) from ego-consciousness (ahamkar) with its inherent karma can be compared with the doctrine of salvation in mainstream Christianity: Grace given by faith in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.
In the Dharmic Religions
Karma in Hinduism
One of the first and most dramatic illustrations of karma can be found in the epic Mahabharata. In this poem, Arjuna the protagonist is preparing for battle when he realizes that the enemy consists of members of his own family and decides not to fight. His charioteer, Krishna - one of the incarnations of God (Vishnu) - explains to Arjuna the concept of "duty" among other things and makes him see that it is his duty to fight.
The whole of the Bhagavad Gita within the Mahabharata, is a dialogue between these two on aspects of life including morality and a host of other philosophical themes. The original Hindu concept of karma was later enhanced by several other movements within the religion, most notably Vedanta, and Tantra.
Karma literally means "deed" or "act" and more broadly names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction that governs all life. Karma is not fate, for man acts with free will creating his own destiny. According to the Vedas, if we sow goodness, we will reap goodness; if we sow evil, we will reap evil. Karma refers to the totality of our actions and their concomitant reactions in this and previous lives, all of which determines our future. The conquest of karma lies in intelligent action and dispassionate response.
Karma is considered to be a spiritually originated law. Many Hindus see God's direct involvement in this process, while others consider the natural laws of causation sufficient to explain the effects of karma.
Karma is not punishment or retribution, but simply an extended expression or consequences, of natural acts.
The effects experienced are also able to be mitigated by actions and are not necessarily fated. That is to say, a particular action now is not binding to some particular, pre-determined future experience or reaction; it is not a simple, one-to-one correspondence of reward or punishment.
Hindu 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 cycle of birth and death. A jiva cannot attain moksha until the accumulated sanchita karmas are completely exhausted.
Karma in Buddhism
In Buddhism, karma (Pali kamma) is strictly distinguished from vipaka, meaning "fruit" or "result". Karma is categorized within the group or groups of cause (Pali hetu) in the chain of cause and effect, where it comprises the elements of "volitional activities" (Pali sankhara) and "action" (Pali bhava).
Any action is understood to create "seeds" in the mind that will sprout into the appropriate result (Pali vipaka) when they meet with the right conditions. Most types of karmas, with good or bad results, will keep one within the wheel of samsara; others will liberate one to nirvana.
Buddhism relates karma directly to motives behind an action. Motivation usually makes the difference between "good" and "bad", but included in the motivation is also the aspect of ignorance; so a well-intended action from a deluded mind can easily be "bad" in the sense that it creates unpleasant results for the "actor".
In Buddhism, karma is not the only cause of anything that happens. The following are the five "Niyama Dharma" that cause effects.
The last four cover "conditions" or "circumstances" in which karmic potential can ripen as result.
- Karma Niyama - Consequences of one's actions
- Dhamma Niyama - Laws of nature
- Irthu Niyama - Seasonal changes and climate
- Biija Niyama - Genetic inheritance
- Chitta Niyama - Will of mind
Karma in Jainism
Karma in Jainism conveys a totally different meaning as commonly understood in the Hindu philosophy and western civilization.
In Jainism, karma is referred to as karmic dirt, as it consists of very subtle and microscopic particles i.e. pudgala that pervade the entire universe. Karmas are attracted to the karmic field of a soul on account of vibrations created by activities of mind, speech and body as well as on account of various mental dispositions.
Hence the karmas are the subtle matter surrounding the consciousness of a soul. When these two components i.e. consciousness and karma interact, we experience the life as we know it at present. Herman Kuhn quoting from Tattvarthasutra describes karmas as * a mechanism that makes us thoroughly experience the themes of our life until we gained optimal knowledge from them and until our emotional attachment to these themes falls off.
According to Padmanabh Jaini "this emphasis on reaping the fruits only of onešs own karma was not restricted to the Jainas; both Hindus and Buddhist writers have produced doctrinal materials stressing the same point.
Each of the latter traditions, however, developed practices in basic contradiction to such belief. In addition to shrardha (the ritual Hindu offerings by the son of deceased), we find among Hindu s widespread adherence to the notion of divine intervention in ones fate, while Buddhists eventually came to propound such theories like boon-granting bodhisattvas, transfer of merit and like.
Only Jainas have been absolutely unwilling to allow such ideas to penetrate their community, despite the fact that there must have been tremendous amount of social pressure on them to do so."
The key points where the theory of Karma in Jainism differs from the other religions, could be stated as follows:
Analogs of Karma
- Karma in Jainism operates as a self-sustaining mechanism as natural universal law, without any need of an external entity to manage them. (absence of the exogenous "Divine Entity" in Jainism)
- Jainism advocates that a soul's karma changes even with the thoughts, and not just the actions. Thus, to even think evil of someone would endure a "karm-bandh" or an increment in bad karma. It is for this reason, that Jainism gives a very strong emphasis on "samyak dhyan" (Rationality in thoughts) and "samyak darshan" (Rationality in perception) and not just "samyak charitra" (rationality in conduct).
- Under Jain theology, a soul is released of worldly affairs as soon as it is able to emanicipate from the "karm-bandh". A famous illustration is that of Mata Marudevi, the mother of Shri Rishabh Dev, the first Tirthankar of present time cycle, who reached such emanicipation by elevating sequentially her thought processes, while she was visiting her Tirthankar son. This illustration explains how "Nirvana" and "Moksha" are different in Jainism, from other religions. In the presence of a Tirthankar, another soul achieved Keval Gyan and subsequently Nirvana, without any need of intervention by the Tirthankar.
- The karmic theory in Jainism operates endogenously. Tirthankars are not attributed "godhood" under Jainism. Thus, even the tirthankars themselves have to go through the stages of emanicipation, for attaining that state. While Buddhism does give a similar and to some extent a matching account for Shri Gautama Buddha, Hinduism maintains a totally different theory where "divine grace" is needed for emanicipation.
- Jainism treats all souls equally, in as much as it advocates that all souls have the same potential of attaining "nirvana". Only those who make effort, really attain it, but nonetheless, each soul is capable on its own to do so by gradually reducing its karma.
If we accept the basic ethical purpose of karma is to behave responsibly, and the tenet of karma is essentially "if you do good things, good things will happen to you - if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you," then it is possible to identify analogs with other religions that do not rely on karma as a metaphysical assertion or doctrine.
Karma does not specifically concern itself with salvation as it implies a basic socio-ethical dynamic. As a mechanism, karma in Hinduism is judge of one's actions, much as the concept of God as judge is in relation to "good works" in western religions.
Similarly, the Egyptian goddess Ma'at (the divine judge) played a similar and impartial role meting out justice in a manner very similar to karma; Ma'at could not be appeased by faith or regret - an action done was done, with no space for the more recent theistic concept of grace.
Parallels may also be found in the Greek goddess Ananke (Necessity, Inevitability, or Compulsion), who was the mother of the Moirae (Fates) and dealt out one's "heimarmene" (allotted portion) strictly according to one's actions both in this life and in previous incarnations, and in Germanic Wyrd.
The Apostle Paul similarly states: "man reaps what he sows"
An academic and religious definition was mentioned above. Millions of people believe in karma and it is a part of many cultures and the psyches of millions of people. Others without religious backgrounds, especially in western cultures or with Christian upbringings, become convinced of the existence of karma.
For some, karma is a more reasonable concept than eternal damnation for the wicked. Spirituality or a belief that virtue is rewarded and sin creates suffering might lead to a belief in karma.
According to karma, performing positive actions results in a good condition in one's experience, whereas a negative action results in a bad effect. The effects may be seen immediately or delayed. Delay can be until later in the present life or in the next. Thus, meritorious acts may mean rebirth into a higher station, such as a superior human or a godlike being, while evil acts result in rebirth as a human living in less desirable circumstances, or as a lower animal.
Some observers have compared the action of karma to Western notions of sin and judgment by God or gods, while others understand karma as an inherent principle of the universe without the intervention of any supernatural Being.
In Hinduism, God does play a role and is seen as a dispenser of karma; see Karma in Hinduism for more details. The latter understanding, without intervention is the view of Buddhism and Jainism.
Most teachings say that for common mortals, being involved with karma is an unavoidable part of daily living.
However, in light of the Hindu philosophical school of Vedanta, as well as Gautama Buddha's teachings, one is advised to either avoid, control or become mindful of the effects of desires and aversions as a way to moderate or change one's karma (or, more accurately, one's karmic results or destiny).
In Spiritism, karma known as "the law of cause and effect", plays a central role in determining how one's life needs to be. Spirits are encouraged to choose how (and when) to suffer retribution for the wrong they did in previous lives. Disabilities, physical or mental impairment or even an unlucky life are due to the choices a spirit makes before incarnating (that is, before being born to a new life).
What sets Spiritism apart from the more traditional religious views is that it understands karma as a condition inherent to the spirit, whether incarnated or not: the consequences of the crimes committed by the spirit last beyond the physical life and cause him (moral) pain in the afterlife. The choice of a life of hardships is, therefore, a way to get rid of the pain caused by moral guilt and to perfect qualities that are necessary for the spirit to progress to a higher form.
Because Spiritism always accepted the plurality of inhabited worlds, its concept of karma became considerably complex. There are worlds that are "primitive" (in the sense that they are home to spirits newly born and still very low on intellect and morals) and a succession of more and more advanced worlds to where spirits move as they are elevated. A spirit may choose to be born on a world inferior to his own as a penance or as a mission.
New Age and Theosophy
The idea of karma was popularized in the Western world through the work of the Theosophical Society.
Kardecist and Western New Age reinterpretations of karma frequently cast it as a sort of luck associated with virtue: if one does good or spiritually valuable acts, one deserves and can expect good luck; conversely, if one does harmful things, one can expect bad luck or unfortunate happenings.
In this conception, karma is affiliated with the Neopagan law of return or Threefold Law, the idea that the beneficial or harmful effects one has on the world will return to oneself. Colloquially this may be summed up as 'what goes around comes around.
There is also the metaphysical idea that, because karma is a force of nature and not a sentient creature capable of making value judgments, karma isn't about good and evil deeds, because applying those labels would be judgmental, but that it is about positive and negative energy, where negative energy can include things not seen as "being bad" like sadness and fear, and positive energy can be caused by being creative and solving problems as well as by exuding love and doing virtuous acts.
It is referred to as "omniverse karma" or "omni-karma" because it requires the existence of an omniverse, that space that contains all possible universes. The omniverse idea includes concepts such as souls, psychic energy, synchronicity (a concept originally from psychoanalyst Carl Jung, which says that things that happen at the same time are related), and ideas from quantum or theoretical physics.