What is karma? Hinduism – India

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Examples of karma: King Siva offers his body to save a dove from a hawk, and King Candraprabha is so generous that he gives away his own head (Mogao Caves, China, about 500 AD)

What is karma? Jataka Tales about karma: King Siva offers his body to save a dove from a hawk, and King Candraprabha is so generous that he gives away his own head (Mogao Caves, China, about 500 AD)

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”.

More about Indo-European languages

Hinduism and karma

Karma was a central idea in the Indian religion of Hinduism. People thought that whenever you did anything, it affected your future life, and especially your reincarnation. (Compare this to Taoist or Zen Buddhist ideas in China.)

More about Hinduism
Ancient India articles

How did karma work?

Arjuna fighting Karna, with Krishna as his charioteer (Duttapara Temple, ca. 1500s AD)

A scene from the Bhagavad Gita: Arjuna fighting Karna, with Krishna as his charioteer (Duttapara Temple, ca. 1500s AD)

According to Hindu ideas of karma, if you did something good for other living creatures, you got good karma. 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. Maybe when you fell down you would scrape your knee. Americans sometimes say, “What goes around comes around.”

Buddhism and karma

In Hinduism, people saw your karma as something given to you by the gods. The gods 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. It might have come from Chinese Taoists or Buddhists. They were beginning to visit India at this time as the Silk Road got started.

More about Taoism
More about Buddhism
Buddhism in China
What is the Silk Road?

Karma in the Bhagavad Gita

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

What’s the Bhagavad Gita?
What is dharma?

So what is karma? Did this article answer your questions? Let us know in the comments!

More about Hinduism
Learn by Doing – a project on Hinduism

Bibliography and further reading about Hinduism:

   

Need a second source? Check out this article from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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Vishnu
Krishna
Buddhism
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By |2018-09-24T07:45:54+00:00July 21st, 2017|India, Religion|2 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is karma? Hinduism – India. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 21, 2017. Web. October 23, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. 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, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

2 Comments

  1. bib September 24, 2018 at 7:22 am - Reply

    Noice

    • Karen Carr September 24, 2018 at 7:31 am

      Thanks!

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