Karma is an important concept in a range of Vedic religions and cultures, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, all stemming from Indian beliefs. Karma is a universal principal and cosmic law, like the Tao of Taoism1. Unlike Taoism, individual beings (and the entire universe) go through a large number of incarnations. It is closely linked to the concept of continual rebirth (reincarnation)2. Original Jain beliefs had it that all actions had negative karma and only complete serenity and detachment could help the situation3. Later Jain beliefs came closer Hindu and Buddhist ideas: Acts of merit such as pilgrimages and worship can improve your next fate4. Eventually, beings can break free from the cycle. In Hinduism and Jainism this liberation is called moksha and in Buddhism the result is the attainment of enlightenment and nirvana. Western New Age movements have also taken on the concept "though sometimes with a degree of misunderstanding"4. All in all, more people on Earth believe in Karma through a series of rebirths than in any other religious principle.2,3,4,5,6
“The Vedic traditions include Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, linked by a common root in the Vedic culture of ancient India and by a belief that all existence is cyclical: Universes arise, exist, decline, and fade to be replaced by other universes, just as every being in these universes passes through many existences of reincarnations.”
"Religions of the World" by Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer (1997)7
“Buddhism['s beliefs...] such as the law of Karma and the goal of liberation (Moksha) from the round of rebirth (Samsara), are held in common with Hinduism and other Indian religions such as Jainism.”
“Buddhism, Jainism, and the Ajivika religion... while there are important differences in theology among these three traditions, they share a common and essential belief in karma, which is literally defined as 'actions' or 'deeds'. One's actions through the course of a lifetime are believed to affect the outcome of the next life. The concept of reincarnation is closely linked to karma, with the belief that one will be continually reborn until attaining enlightenment (Buddhism) or moksha (Jainism), thereby liberating the soul from the cycle of rebirth.”
“Whatever suffering falls to a person is the result of past actions by that person. The law of karma in Hinduism and Buddhism is a law of cause and effect. [...] With the concept of reincarnation or rebirth, 'the past' includes past lives.”
“Hindus believe that very action, good or bad, hurtful or compassionate, has an effect on this life and on future lives. This is called karma. By accumulating positive karma Hindus can eventually break free from the cycles of birth and death to achieve liberation or moksha, which is complete union with God.”
"Religions of the World" by Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer (1997)5
Some held that karma was so strict a scorecard that all action caused accumulation that had to be overcome and then removing all desire was the only recourse. Some believe that beings undergoing the cycle of rebirth make automatic progress (more or less) towards Moksha (liberation) but that this is a very, very slow process.
“[Often] there is a belief that the incarnated being automatically makes progress towards liberati(Moksha) through learning the lessons of rebirth in different bodies. Indian thinkers either reject this idea, or regard such a process as impossibly slow: the way to liberation for them involves swimming upstream, against the current of karma. [...] Although Hindu texts such as the Puranas seem to describe the law of karma in terms of strict cause and effect [...] in practice their views are less fatalistic. [...] Acts of merit, such as pilgrimages (Tirtha-Yatra) or acts of worship (Puja), [can] wipe out the effects of bad karma.”
Over time, opinions changed. Hindu scribes told stories of Krishna lightening the mood, and arguing that in order to progress, ...
“... it is the results of actions that have to be renounced, not action itself - one should not desire particular rewards, nor think proudly of oneself as the doer of great deeds. One should be satisfied in the self, offering action and its fruits as a sacrifice... [t]his is the discipline of karma yoga. Krishna goes on to explain other worthy paths which, pursued steadfastly, will bring a seeker to equanimity and, finally, liberation. Jnana yoga, the path of knowledge, and bhakti yoga, the way of devotion. [...] The Bhagavad-gita transforms the earlier pessimistic notion - that the results of action lead to continual rebirth and transmigration of the self - into a positive discipline for personal transformation.”
More modern Hindu philosophers have argued for a clearer way of understanding karma:
“Arvind Sharma's contemporary solution goes as follows. To think fatalistically about karma is unhelpful when, in fact, as human beings we have the power at any moment co change our own behaviour, and thus its consequences for our future. Free will rather than fatalism characterizes the operation of karma.”
“Karma. A volitional action which is either wholesome or unwholesome, and in consequence either rewarded or punished.”
In Buddhism, karma is not simple12. There are many streams of cause and effect (niamas). Ken Jones in "The Social Face of Buddhism" writes "all, however, are also expressions of a Universal Consciousness, alayavijnana. The 'law' of kamma and the 'law' of cause and effect are thus not synonymous in Buddhism. Kammaic 'law' is simply one kind of cause and effect relationship"12. Buddhism "rejects a fatalstic view of karma"4 which means that individuals can do something about it, by changing their behaviour, improving their outlook, avoiding bad deeds, and engaging in ethical behaviour12. Karma isn't just about actions: a lot of it is about internal state of mind, internal desire and internal psychology12. When it comes to Buddhism's multistreamed laws of cause and effect, thought crime has ramifications across multiple lifetimes.
“Buddhists believe that we are tied to the cycles of death and birth through desire and can be born again in many different forms. But they believe they can find a way to escape this cycle, to be finally released from reincarnation to reach nirvana.”
"Religions of the World" by Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer (1997)5
“Traditional and canonical Buddhism extends the span of kamma through successive rebirths. The succession, however, is that of a vital energy, not of a reincarnated personality.”
“Karma was a pivotal concept in Indian thinking, around which turned the whole question of why life is as it is. ... It can act as an explanation of why misfortune happens when it is not recognisably the result of particular actions. [...] The importance of karma is that i[t] demonstrates the practicality of Buddhist teachings. Ethical considerations become paramount, because liberating oneself from the dis-ease of samsaric existence is a karmic matter.”
Bad karma resulting from previous bad decisions, in this life or in former lives, can cause suffering in the current incarnation. The Buddha said:
“Evil in the future is the fruit of bodily offence. Evil is the fruit of offence by word, by thought, in the future life. If I offend in deed, in word, in thought, should not I, when the body breaks up, after death be reborn in the Waste, the Way of Woe, the Downfall, the Purgatory?”
In Anguttara Nikaya Part 2, Chapter 1:113
“In its very earliest phase, Jainism took a rigorous attitude towards karma, claiming that all actions of body, speech and mind, spontaneous or otherwise, set up negative consequences, with the task of the committed ascetic being to mute the physical and psychological behaviour as much as possible. However, this approach gradually became modified to take into account the influence of the intention laying behind any action.”
Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer
(1997) Religions of the World. Hardback book. Subtitled: "The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, & Festivals". Published by Lionheart Books. By Elizabeth Breuilly, Joanne O'Brien & Martin Palmer. Published for Transedition Limited and Fernleigh Books.
(1959) Buddhist Scriptures. Paperback book. Published by Penguin Books.
(1995) Buddhism. Paperback book. Part of the TeachYourself Books series.
Hinnells, John R.. Currently professor of theology at Liverpool Hope University.
(1997, Ed.) The Penguin Dictionary of Religions. Paperback book. Originally published 1984. Current version published by Penguin Books, London, UK. References to this book simply state the title of the entry used.
(1998) Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction. Paperback book. 2000 reissue. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Part of the Very Short Introductions series.
Murray et al.
(2009) Hammond Atlas of World Religions. Hardback book. Published by Hammond World Atlas Corporation, Langenscheidt Publishing Group, New York, USA. Contributing authors: Stuart A.P. Murray; Robert Huber; Elizabeth Mechem; Sarah Novak; Devid West Reynolds, PhD; Tricia Wright; Thomas Cussans.