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Karma: Its Origins in Indian Philosophy and its Effect on Existence

Karma: Its Origins in Indian Philosophy and its Effect on Existence

How many of us truly understand the depth and complexity of what Karma actually means? Originating from ancient Indian philosophies, the notion of Karma is far more intricate and profoundly tied to the way we understand existence itself. In this blog, we will learn about the origins of Karma within Indian philosophy and explore how this venerable concept continues to shape our perception of life, justice, and destiny.

From its initial mentions in the Vedas and Upanishads to its role in shaping moral compasses across cultures, the idea of Karma is a pervasive yet frequently misunderstood concept. Far from being a mere cause-and-effect principle, or a cosmic version of “what goes around comes around,” Karma serves as a crucial component in understanding the dynamics of life, reincarnation, and even the nature of the universe itself.

Historical Background of Karma

The concept of Karma has its roots deeply embedded in the ancient philosophies of the Indian subcontinent. To understand karma in its fullest sense, one must journey back in time, to scriptures that date as far back as 1500 BCE, if not earlier.

The Vedas

The term ‘Karma’ first appears in the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of India. Originally, the term was associated with ritual actions, specifically those detailed in the Rigveda and other Vedic texts. At this stage, Karma was more about conducting ritualistic practices correctly, ensuring that the natural order of things would be maintained.

The Upanishads

As philosophical thought advanced, the Upanishads, dated between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, extended the concept of Karma. Now, it wasn’t just about physical actions but also included thoughts and intentions. These texts are where we begin to see the kernel of the idea that Karma is not just about what you do, but also about why and how you do it.

The Epics: Mahabharata and Ramayana

The great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, provide a more detailed exploration of Karma through storytelling. Characters like Arjuna and Lord Rama are depicted grappling with questions of duty (Dharma), morality, and Karma, giving us complex and nuanced portrayals of how Karma operates in a human life.

Evolution in Philosophical Systems

From its early origins, the concept of Karma was refined further in various Indian philosophical systems:

  • Hinduism: In Hindu philosophy, Karma is tied closely with the cycle of birth and rebirth (Samsara) and the ultimate liberation from it (Moksha).
  • Buddhism: Buddha adapted and modified the concept of Karma, emphasizing ethical conduct and mental purity as pathways to Nirvana.
  • Jainism: The Jain understanding of Karma involves not just action but also the subtle particles of matter that cling to the soul as a result of certain actions, thus affecting its rebirth.

Philosophical Foundations

To truly grasp the essence of Karma, one needs to delve into its philosophical foundations. Different Indian philosophical systems have interpreted and emphasized Karma in varying capacities, yet there are underlying threads of similarity that resonate through each.


1. The Bhagavad Gita: One of the most revered texts in Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita offers profound insights into Karma. Lord Krishna advises Arjuna on the nature of ‘Nishkama Karma’ or selfless action: actions performed without attachment to the fruits.

2. Threefold Path: Hinduism divides Karma into three paths:

  • Karma Yoga: The path of selfless action.
  • Bhakti Yoga: The path of devotion.
  • Jnana Yoga: The path of knowledge.

3. Samsara and Moksha: Karma is intrinsically linked with the cycle of birth and rebirth (Samsara) in Hinduism. Every action has consequences that might affect current or future lives. The ultimate goal is Moksha, or liberation from this cycle, which can be achieved by resolving all binding Karma.


1. The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path: Karma in Buddhism is understood in light of suffering (Dukkha) and the path to its cessation. Right action (Samma Kammanta) is an essential part of the Eightfold Path.

2. Dependent Origination: Everything arises based on conditions, and Karma plays a significant role in this interdependent web of existence.

3. Anatta (No-Self): Unlike other systems that speak of a soul carrying Karma, Buddhism’s concept of Anatta suggests that there’s no permanent self that accrues Karma. Instead, it’s a stream of consciousness passing on karmic imprints.


1. Physical Nature of Karma: Jain philosophy uniquely portrays Karma as physical particles that attach to the soul because of one’s actions, thoughts, and emotions.

2. Eight Karmic Categories: Jains classify Karma into eight categories, each affecting various aspects of the soul and determining its fate in rebirth.

3. Path to Liberation: For Jains, shedding all Karmic matter through right knowledge, right faith, and right conduct leads to liberation (Kevala Jnana).

Connecting Threads

Despite the variations across these philosophies, there are shared tenets:

  1. Intention Matters: It’s not just the act, but the intent behind it that influences the karmic outcome.
  2. Karma is Neutral: Karma isn’t about reward or punishment; it’s an impartial law of cause and effect.
  3. Liberation is the End Goal: All systems emphasize breaking free from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth as the ultimate spiritual aim.

The Law of Karma

Often colloquially summarized as “what goes around comes around,” the Law of Karma is a guiding principle in several Indian philosophies. However, this simplification barely scratches the surface. The Law of Karma is a complex, nuanced theory that deals with action (karma), its consequences (phala), and the system that ties them together.

Three Types of Karma

The categorization of Karma varies slightly among different philosophies, but one common classification identifies three types:

  1. Sanchita (Accumulated Karma): This is the sum total of all karma amassed over your past lifetimes and the current one. It exists as a sort of ‘karmic storage’ that influences your current circumstances and future births.
  2. Prarabdha (Fruit-bearing Karma): Out of your Sanchita Karma, a portion becomes activated in your current life, shaping your destiny, including your opportunities, challenges, and situations you encounter.
  3. Kriyamana (Current Actions): These are actions you perform in the present moment, which will bear fruits in the future—either later in this life or in subsequent lives.

Universality and Impartiality

A key aspect of the Law of Karma is its universality and impartiality. It applies to everyone, regardless of their beliefs or status, and it operates without judgment, moral or otherwise. It functions as a natural law, like gravity, inexorable and non-negotiable.

Cause and Effect

Karma and its resulting effects are not always immediate. The consequences may manifest at any point in time—be it later in life or even in another life altogether. This delay can make the Law of Karma seem opaque and complex, but it adheres to a logical and consistent system, even if that system is not readily visible or understood.

Ethical Ramifications

The Law of Karma serves as an ethical framework by which individuals are encouraged to perform virtuous actions and deterred from harmful behaviors. The understanding that every action has a consequence creates a sense of moral responsibility and accountability.

Limitations and Free Will

While Karma plays a significant role in determining one’s circumstances, it’s essential to note that it doesn’t negate free will. You have the agency to shape your Kriyamana Karma, and thus, your future.

Karma: Its Origins in Indian Philosophy and its Effect on Existence
Karma: Its Origins in Indian Philosophy and its Effect on Existence

Karma and Morality

At its core, the concept of Karma is deeply intertwined with questions of morality and ethical conduct. This connection has profound implications not just for individual behavior, but also for societal norms, justice, and the human quest for meaning. Below, we explore how Karma serves as a moral compass in various dimensions of life.

The Moral Dimension of Intent

In the philosophical traditions that incorporate Karma, intent plays a pivotal role. Two individuals might perform the same action, but the karmic implications could differ based on the intentions behind those actions. This focus on intent elevates the moral discourse from mere rule-following to a more nuanced understanding of ethics.

The Principle of Responsibility

The Law of Karma instills a strong sense of personal responsibility. Each individual is considered the architect of their own destiny, responsible for their actions and the subsequent consequences. This fosters a proactive moral stance, where ethical living is seen as a pathway to better life conditions and ultimate liberation.

The Deterrence Factor

The karmic model serves as a natural deterrent against immoral actions. The understanding that negative actions will eventually lead to suffering encourages individuals to abide by ethical principles. This is not driven by fear of divine retribution but by a nuanced understanding of cause and effect at a cosmic level.

Virtue and Its Rewards

In the karmic framework, virtuous actions are not just ethical imperatives; they are investments in future well-being. Whether in this life or future lives, good deeds are believed to yield positive outcomes, enhancing the overall quality of existence.

Ethical Relativism and Karma

Karma also provides a rebuttal to ethical relativism, the idea that morality is subjective and culturally dependent. While cultural norms may differ, the Law of Karma implies a universal moral law, underlining the interconnectedness and collective responsibility of all beings.

Societal Implications

On a societal level, the concept of Karma can influence laws, social policies, and community behavior. The ethos of collective Karma—the idea that societal actions have collective consequences—can inspire communities to pursue justice, equality, and collective well-being.

Karma’s Influence Beyond Indian Philosophy

The concept of Karma, while rooted in Indian philosophical traditions, has found resonance across cultures, religions, and even in contemporary psychology and popular culture. This section explores how the age-old doctrine of Karma has impacted thought systems and practices beyond its Indian origins.

Western Philosophy and Theology

While not a direct analog, the notion of “as you sow, so shall you reap” resonates with many Western philosophies and religious doctrines, such as the concept of Divine Justice in Christianity and the idea of ethical reciprocity encapsulated in the Golden Rule.

New Age Spirituality

The New Age movement has wholeheartedly embraced the concept of Karma, albeit often in simplified or syncretic forms. It’s commonly cited in discussions about spiritual awakening, the Law of Attraction, and cosmic justice.

Psychological Frameworks

The psychological principles behind Karma find echoes in various therapeutic approaches. For instance, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) emphasizes how thoughts and actions generate consequences, similar to the karmic focus on intent and action.

Literature and Art

From Tolstoy to Orwell, many Western authors have explored themes that echo the karmic principle of cause and effect. The influence extends to other art forms like movies and music, where the narrative of action and consequence often plays out.

Popular Culture

“Karma” has become a buzzword in popular discourse, often used to describe a kind of poetic justice where actions have fitting consequences. Though this popular usage may lack the philosophical depth of the original concept, it points to a broad cultural acceptance of the idea.

Business Ethics

Even in the corporate world, principles resembling Karma find a place in corporate social responsibility initiatives. The idea that ethical business practices contribute to long-term success could be seen as a karmic principle applied to collective action.

Social Justice Movements

The ethos of Karma—that every action has a consequence—resonates with social justice movements advocating for fairness, equality, and reparation. While not explicitly karmic, these movements share the core belief in a just and ethical system of cause and effect.


The concept of Karma is a multifaceted tapestry, woven with threads of philosophy, morality, and existential questioning. It began as a cornerstone of Indian philosophies like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, each offering unique perspectives on this intricate law of moral cause and effect. Over time, the idea has transcended its cultural roots, influencing global paradigms of justice, spirituality, and ethical conduct.

From the historical texts of the Bhagavad Gita to modern-day interpretations in psychology and popular culture, the concept of Karma has remained enduringly relevant. Far from being a simplistic or fatalistic notion, Karma offers a complex and nuanced framework that honors human agency and ethical choice.

Also Read: 10 Important Moral Lessons from the Hindu Mythology

shashi shekhar

Completed my PGDM from IMS Ghaziabad, specialized in (Marketing and H.R) "I truly believe that continuous learning is key to success because of which I keep on adding to my skills and knowledge."

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