Definition of Karma - Hinduism - Indian Religion
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What is Karma?

Karma is the Sanskrit word for "action" or "doing something." It comes from an earlier Indo-European word meaning "to make" or "to do". The idea of karma in the Indian religion of Hinduism was that whenever you did anything, it affected your future life (Compare this to Taoist or Zen Buddhist ideas in China), and especially your reincarnation.

According to Hindu ideas of karma, if you did something good, especially something for other people, you got good karma and this would help you in the future. For instance, if you helped a friend to understand the assignment, you would pile up some good karma that might make sure the teacher asked you only questions to which you knew the answers. On the other hand, if you did something bad, like killing a spider, you would get bad karma, and maybe when you fell down you would scrape your knee. Americans sometimes say, "What goes around comes around."

In Hinduism, people saw your karma as something given to you by the gods, who decided everything that happened. In Buddhism, though, the gods were left out of it, and karma just happened naturally: good deeds lead to good results, just as apple seeds lead to apple trees. In fact, the whole idea of karma - that it matters whether you are good or bad - may not go back much before the beginnings of Buddhism, maybe about 500 BC. Karma may be an idea that came to India from other cultures, maybe from Chinese Taoists or Buddhists, who were beginning to visit India at this time as the Silk Road got started.

The Bhagavad Gita, probably written sometime around 300 BC, is mostly a long discussion of dharma and karma between Krishna and the prince Arjuna.

More about Hinduism
Learn by Doing - a project on Hinduism

Bibliography and further reading about Hinduism:

Shiva
Vishnu
Krishna
Buddhism
More about India
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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