Karma

Most broadly, the consequences of action in Hinduism and Buddhism. The term is a Sanskrit one meaning works or deeds; Buddhists often use the Pali variation kamma. In both traditions the term refers to actions that are carried out intentionally rather than mistakenly. These actions are thought to have an influence on both one’s current life and future lives. Karma, to use a common metaphor, is what binds the soul to samsara, the wheel of birth and death. In general, it implies continued attachment to the things of this world, this attachment being the underlying motivation of many deeds. In Hinduism, understanding of karma takes several important forms. In many ancient texts such as the Puranas and Laws of Manu, karmic laws are described in cause and effect terms. Certain offenses, such as the killing of a brahmin priest, will result in specific karmic punishments, most vividly rebirth at a lower level (and a greater distance from ultimate release, or moksha). More commonly, karma is considered in a somewhat negative sense, as one accumulates bad karma by failing to fulfill one’s religious or social duties as circumscribed by caste or gender. This might also result in a lower reincarnation. Good karma, by contrast, is redundant, since one generally cannot pile it up by doing good works. Good works, or rather appropriate deeds, are simply expected as part of a person’s ordinary life; Hindu texts refer to this as right action. A person cannot, for example, make up for being an undutiful son or daughter by doing charity work. Those who suffer in this life might, however, blame their suffering on the accumulation of bad karma in earlier incarnations. Some acts of devout worship, such as pilgrimage or bathing in the waters of the Ganga River, are thought to have the effect of wiping away bad karma. In Buddhism, the understanding of karma is similar but generally more optimistic. The actions of past lives are thought to determine one’s fate in this life, but Buddhism offers many ways to either minimize or negate the effects of bad karma. Theravada Buddhism, in particular, features many opportunities for believers to make merit, or accumulate karma, by doing good deeds. Furthermore, bad karma is thought to generally derive from bad or inappropriate action alone, not by failing to fulfill one’s religious duties; in Buddhism, failing to follow the proper path is punishment enough, since it will result in no progress toward full awakening. SEE ALSO: dharma; moksha; reincarnation

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