Karma Doctrine in Hinduism and Buddhism

Buddha and Shiva

by Jayaram V

Summary: The essay is a comparative study of the similarities and differences in the karma doctrine of Hinduism and Buddhism


"A person endowed with three things is to be recognized as a fool. Which three? Bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, mental misconduct... A person endowed with three things is to be recognized as a wise person. Which three? Good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, good mental conduct...” Anguttara Nikaya 3.2.


Both Hinduism and Buddhism believe in the doctrine of karma, according to which actions have consequences, and beings are bound by their desire-ridden actions to the cycle of births and deaths. Both religions share common beliefs about karma and its mechanism. At the same time, they also fundamentally differ in some respects. Such differences are mainly due to the differences in their understanding and interpretation of the nature of world, creation, God, soul, reality, etc.

In Hinduism, the concept of karma grew gradually along with the Upanishadic thought. Early Vedic people seem to have possessed limited knowledge of karma. The Vedas contain rudimentary aspects of Karma only. One even gains the impression from the early Upanishads that the doctrine was not even openly discussed but kept as a secret among a few teachers and their disciples.

By the time the Buddha was born, the doctrine of karma gained popularity and formed an integral part of many religious and ascetic traditions of the Indian subcontinent. They stood in stark contrast to the fatalistic traditions of the times, which believed that everything was predetermined and the actions and choices of individuals made no difference to their fate or their existence. They believed in living as passive witnesses to the happenings and enjoying their lives to the extent possible, since they held that the consequences arising from their actions made no difference to their lives or fate which was already preordained.

The schools of both Hinduism and Buddhism differed from the fatalistic traditions. Both of them have many similarities and differences, since they originated in the Indian subcontinent and for a long time shared same social, political and geographical influences. Over a long time, they also influenced each other. The following are a few important similarities and differences between Hinduism and Buddhism regarding karma and its influence upon mortal beings who are caught in Samsara or the cycle of transmigration.

Similarities

While Hinduism derives its knowledge of karma from scriptures, the Buddha provided insight into it from  his own experience and observation. In the higher states of consciousness (Jhanas) under the Bodhi tree he personally witnessed the working of karma and how it produced suffering through rebirth. The Four Noble Truths derive their justification mainly in the context of karma and rebirth. The purpose of the Eightfold Path or Right Living is also principally to reduce or remove the consequences of wrong doings and sinful actions. The following are a few important similarities between the two regarding the doctrine of karma.

1. Suffering: Both Hinduism and Buddhism believe that karma is responsible for existential suffering and rebirth. Karma arises from craving or desire-ridden actions, which are in turn caused by attraction and aversion and attachment or clinging. Those who engage in meritorious actions ascend to the brighter worlds, and those who commit sinful actions descend into the darker ones. Beings upon earth keep returning to the mortal world of decay and impermanence and take rebirth according to their past karma. If human beings (and beings of other worlds) do not practice Dharma and remove the hindrances or impurities, which they accumulate due to sinful actions, they may devolve into lower life forms.

2. Desires: Both religions agree that desires arise from the activity of the senses as they repeatedly come into to contact with the sense objects, which in turn leads to attraction and aversion to the pairs of opposites such as heat and cold or pain and pleasure. Therefore, they both emphasize the importance of practicing detachment and renunciation to cultivate equanimity, discernment, sameness and indifference to worldly pleasures and enjoyments. By understanding the causes of suffering with the help of Dharma, one can overcome the problem of karma and achieve liberation.

3. Liberation: Both Hinduism and Buddhism hold that the resolution of karma is vital to achieving liberation (moksha or nirvana). As long as beings accumulate karma, they have no respite from suffering and no hope to escape from birth and death. Meritorious karma is also a hindrance because it is also the cause of impermanence, duality, bondage and suffering. With meritorious karma, one may ascend to the higher worlds, but it does not free them from further modifications, instability or suffering. For liberation, the beingness or the aggregates of the mind and body must be fully dissolved, and along with it, all the formations of past and present karma, latent impressions, predominant nature and fruit of karma.

4. Purification: Both agree that past life impressions remain stored in the causative body (karana or karma sareera) as a formation of subtle impressions. They form a part of the being’s consciousness in the next birth, but remain latent, hidden or suppressed. By purifying the mind and body with spiritual effort and cultivating equanimity and discernment, one can recollect them to gain insight into the nature of suffering or to resolve persistent mental or physical problems which are caused by the karma of past lives.

5. Ethical living: Both Hinduism and Buddhism believe in the possibility of resolving karma, fully or partially, through self-effort. By practising Dharma, cultivating virtues such as nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-possessiveness, compassion, friendliness, etc., seeking the guidance the beings of heaven, and by engaging in righteous actions such as right living, charity, selfless service, helping the poor and needy, etc., one can reduce or balance the consequences of sinful actions.

6. Transference and healing: Some sects or schools of Hinduism as well as Buddhism believe that good karma can be transferred by one individual to another for healing purposes or to resolve suffering. It is one of the highest acts of sacrifice, charity and selfless-service, which benefits the giver as well as the receiver.

7. Dying moments: Both religions believe that the predominant thoughts, memories and desires play an important role in influencing the course of next birth. Whatever thoughts and desires a person may hold at the time of his or her death also influence it. Accordingly, they may also have an impact on the working of karma in future lives for better or worse. Hence, they both acknowledge the need to suppress the modifications of the mind with spiritual practices such as withdrawal of the mind and senses, breath control, concentration, meditation and complete absorption into silence (samadhi) so that a person remains in a tranquil state at the time of death and limit the future impact of karma.

8. Karma as an effect: In both traditions, karma is an effect rather than a substance. The effects of karma (actions) are stored in the consciousness (karana chitta) as latent impressions or subtle formations. Thus, they both envision karma as an impure phenomenon or hidden effect, without any physical or material basis. This is in contrast to the Jain belief that karma is an impure material or substance, which accumulates in the body and around the soul as an impurity according to one’s actions. To be free from karma, Jains believe that one has to physically remove that impurity through righteous actions, rigorous austerities and self-purification. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the effects of karma have to be resolved by addressing their causes.

9. Fructification: Both religions believe that the causes of karma are desires and contact with sense objects. The effects of karma caused by them may manifest immediately, sometime later in the current life or in a future life. Some karma may take much longer time to fructify, after several births. Karma may also act as a cause to produce further karma. Both also believe in the accumulation of karma and its continuation into future lives. The effects of such accumulated karma may be experienced in the body or in the mind or in other realms (heavens or hells) or upon earth. According to both religions, the name and form (nama rupa), which constitute the physical self or beingness, are products of karma only. A person becomes by what he does or thinks, and he is born again by what he does or thinks. This is the inescapable law of karma.

Differences

1. Importance of rituals: In Hinduism, the rituals are synonymous with good karma. Rituals, prayers, chanting of sacred names, pilgrimages, visiting temples and shrines, domestic worship, etc., constitute good karma, which help people earn good merit (punyam) and resolve the consequences of negligence, mistakes and sinful actions. The Buddha did not believe in the beneficent nature of rituals, but in righteous actions. He taught that karma could be resolved by practising Dharma and following the Eightfold Path with intelligence or discrimination, and by engaging in ethical living with right speech, right thoughts, right perceptions, right discernment, etc. However, some schools of Buddhism do believe that prayers, chanting, pilgrimages, meditation and contemplation on sacred teachings, recitation of scriptures and worshipping the Buddhas, the Bodhisattvas and the gods in heaven can lead to accumulation of good karma and resolution of past suffering.

2. Applicability: Karma in Hinduism is confined to mortal beings. The gods who are immortal are not bound by karma. Their actions may produce consequences, and at times they may suffer from them. However, it is not because of karma but due to other causes, some of which are a part of God’s will and design and some precipitated by Time. In Buddhism, the gods in heavens are also mortals, who may live for eons. However, they too may descend into lower planes when they exhaust their karma or fall down. According to Buddhism, even Brahma and Indra, although higher gods, cannot escape from karma, impermanence or the cycle of births and deaths.

3. Self and Not-self: According to Hinduism although the beings (jivas) are bound by karma, the soul is eternally free and untouched by karma. Even though it is bound the cycle of births by karma, and karma may prolong its existence in the mortal world, the soul remains impervious to the happenings in the mortal world. It remains forever blissful, resplendent, pure, omniscient, omnipresent and infinite. Buddhism does not believe in the existence of eternal souls. Hence, according to it, there is no part in the being which is eternally pure or impervious to karma. The effects of karma pervade as well envelop the whole being who is their source from all sides and keep it bound to the cycle of births and deaths until the beingness is fully deconstructed by dissolving all the formations and aggregates that are part of it.

4. Divine intervention: Hinduism believes that karma can be resolved by individual actions as well as by divine grace. Through devotion, selfless service and righteous living, one can please the God, who out of his boundless love and compassion for his devotees may instantaneously free them from all impurities, including the impurity of karma, and grant them liberation. Buddhism does not believe in God. Therefore, the question of earning God’s grace to resolve karma is ruled out. According to Buddhism, “bodily kamma, verbal kamma and mental kamma” can be resolved by individual effort only, by practising the Eightfold Path. By abstaining from evil thoughts, words and deeds and by performing righteous actions, one can overcome the problem of suffering caused by karma. However, some schools of Buddhism believe that by worshipping the Buddhas and the deities of the higher world, one may resolve suffering to some extent and overcome deep-seated problems of karma such as bodily ailments or mental afflictions. Yet, none of them can fully exonerate a being from the consequences of karma.

5. Karma yoga: Hinduism offers several alternatives or approaches called yogas to resolve the problem of karma and achieve liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. Of them, of particular interest is jnana karma sanyasa yoga, according to which a person is not bound by his actions or karma if he acquires right knowledge (jnana) about oneself and the causes of bondage and dutifully engages in actions as an offering or service to God without desiring their fruit. By sincerely offering all actions to God and their fruit, even if they are performed for a reason or purpose, one is not bound. In Buddhism, the equivalent of karma yoga consists of practising the Right Living on the Eightfold Path with detachment, renunciation and discernment. In Buddhism, there is no savior other than the Dhamma. One must be careful about how one lives, what one does or which actions one chooses, since there is no one who can rescue a person from Samsara other than his own effort, his intelligence (buddhi) and his commitment to Dharma.

6. Acts of God: According to Hinduism, whatever a person experiences, is due to present or past karma arising from desire-ridden actions, the actions of others, or divine causes such as acts of God or the intervention of gods. In Hinduism, fate is a combination of all these. Hinduism is fatalistic in a limited sense. Buddhism recognizes only two causes, past and present karma, caused by unwholesome thoughts and desires. It firmly believes that God, soul or any divine cause does not play any role at all in the existence of beings or their suffering. Karma arises from the not-self and subsides in the not-self. In other words, while Hinduism believes in free will and divine will as the source of karma and suffering, Buddhism believes in free will and impure actions only. However, both radically differ from fatalistic traditions such as the now extinct Ajivika sect, which held that no evil or merit could arise from actions, but only from fate or divine will.

7.  Free will: Buddhism does not believe that humans are helpless or lack skillfulness in avoiding evil actions. With discernment, they can avoid unskillful actions. Those who engage in evil thoughts turn to evil and those who engage in righteous thoughts turn to righteousness. A person thus becomes by his thought and actions alone, and by them only he can improve and reform himself. By practising Right Living on the Eightfold Path and by practicing concentration, contemplation and reflection he can cultivate discernment and become skillful in actions, and thereby resolve karma. However, as stated in the Bhagavadgita, Hinduism believes that humans are mere players in the divine play of God, and they are helplessly driven to their destinies by his will. They may have free will and freedom to make choices or choose their actions, but it is a burden rather than a blessing because it binds them. They are supposed to use their free will to serve God and uphold Dharma. Instead, they use it under the influence of delusion and ignorance to fulfill their selfish desires and for worldly ends, whereby they become bound. Only by performing actions as part of their duty and obligation to God, they can become free from suffering and the effects of karma.

8. Obligation to God: Hinduism believes that certain obligatory duties, whose source is God, are eternal and important to the order and regularity of the world. By performing them, one earns good merit (punyam) and even qualifies to enter the highest world of Brahman. Buddhism believes that all actions arise from intentions, and the beings are their source. Beings may practice moral duties and obligations to attain Nirvana, but it is not because they have an obligation to a creator God. Our duties and obligations are neither eternal nor divine in origin. Actions by themselves are neither pure nor impure. The distinction between right and wrong actions arises from intentions only. If the intentions are wholesome, actions will be wholesome and lead to peace and happiness. Otherwise, they produce suffering. People should not attribute their suffering to God or to an unknown cause. They should take full responsibility for their actions and lives, and practice the Eightfold Path to cultivate discernment to know that all actions as well as their consequences belong to the Not-self only.

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