Origin & Development Of Karma Doctrine In Hinduism

Karma in Hinduism

by Jayaram V

Why You should Read This Essay: The purpose of this essays is to explain you some of the earliest Vedic beliefs and concepts associated with the doctrine of karma and how they developed into our current knowledge of the law of karma in Hinduism.

One of the distinguishing features of Hinduism is the law of karma. It is central to our beliefs, according to which all actions and inactions will have consequences, and your life and destiny are shaped by them. In this essay we will discuss the meaning of karma, and how the current doctrine of karma in Hinduism emerged from the earlier days of the Vedas and Vedic civilization. The following discussion is based mostly upon the knowledge contained in the Upanishads, especially the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which is considered one of the most ancient and largest of all the Upanishads. The translations of the verses that are quoted here are taken from my book, "Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, A New Translation With Explanatory Notes."

No study of the Upanishads or the Vedanta is complete unless one studies the Chandogya and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads, which between them contain nearly 60%-70% of all the Upanishadic knowledge. If you are interested in knowing the antecedents of Hinduism and Upanishadic philosophy, you should study them. Many verses and long passages in them may not make sense today because they deal with esoteric rituals which we have lost due to the secrecy that was originally associated with them. However, hidden among them are gems of wisdom which are worth the effort.

The Meaning of karma

Literally speaking, karma means any actions which you perform with your hands (kara). The action itself is called kriya or charya, and the performer of actions is known as karta, the doer. Karta, Karma and Kriya also come up in Sanskrit and vernacular grammar as the subject or noun, the verb and the action performed by the verb respectively. In the ritual parlance, karta is the host of sacrifice, karma is the fruit, result, or remains of the sacrifice, and kriya is the sacrificial action itself. In the early Vedic times karma was originally used to refer to all ritual actions (karma kanda), in contrast to austerities, spiritual actions, and actions such as yoga, recitation of scriptures, or meditation that were related to the knowledge of Self (jnana kanda).

Gradually karma came to mean all actions, both good and bad, as people internalized the rituals and perceived the life a human being as a sacrifice in itself, in which one offered thoughts and actions as offerings to gods for preservation, procreation, continuity, order and regularity, rebirth and liberation. In the macrocosm, they perceived Creation itself as an act of sacrifice by God, with God becoming all the three, namely karta, karma and kriya. The analogy brought karma onto the center stage of Vedic thought and made God as the source of all karma (actions) and their consequences. In the process, the word karma acquired many secular and spiritual meanings. Currently, we understand karma as the source or cause of actions, as moral duty, and as the fate or destiny arising from one's past lives. The consequences of karma are considered the fruit of karma (karmaphalam) which accrue to the doer either as the merit (punyam) or the demerit (papam).

Karma as the cause of suffering

In the Vedic scriptures you will find a direct correlation between karma and suffering. Karma is the main source of suffering, but it is not the only cause. The very existence of beings in the mortal world, as they are bound to ignorance, delusion, and the cycle of births and deaths, is in itself a major source of suffering, which the consequences of bad actions further intensify or prolong. Karma is a product of our deluded acts in an illusory world because of the impurities that clog our minds and bodies as egoism, attachments and delusion. They are produced by our actions and in turn create consequences. Since, karma is both the result and the cause of suffering, the Bhagavadgita explains why suffering cannot be mitigated merely by actions or inactions. A still wider and more comprehensive approach is required to address the problem.

Karma and afterlife

In the Upanishads we find a gradual development of the doctrine of karma into its current form, starting with the earliest notion that ritual and sacrificial actions produced both positive and negative results for those who performed them or were opposed to them. With ritual actions one could not only invoke gods, achieve peace and happiness, seek protection from illness and adversity, and enjoy name and fame but also coerce unwilling partners into relationships, destroy one's enemies, or secure victory against them in wars. With the development of Upanishadic beliefs, the Karma doctrine was further refined to include the notion that ritual actions not only produced consequences in the current life, but also shaped the destiny of souls that departed from here. Those who regularly and sincerely performed their sacrificial duties ascended from here to the ancestral heaven in the moon by the path of ancestors, while those who meditated upon Brahman, renouncing everything achieved liberation and reached the highest heaven in the Sun through the sunlit path. This led to the belief that ritual actions were inferior to spiritual practices and constituted lower knowledge or even ignorance (avidya), while purification actions and austerities that led to the transformation of the mind and the body and the pursuit of Brahman constituted superior knowledge (vidya).

Karma and desires

In the Upanishads like the Katha Upanishad and Isa Upanishad, we find a clear note of disdain for vanity and superficial rituality and the development of a new idea (which was further elucidated in the Bhagavadgita) that it was not actions, but desire-ridden actions and desire for the fruit of actions which produced consequences, bondage, and suffering. The justification for it is also explained in them. Since God inhabits everything in the universe, only He can claim ownership and doership of everything. Our duty is to acknowledge His universality and live here as his devotees. Since he inhabits our bodies also as our very selves, all our actions, awareness and dynamism arise from Him only and should be offered to him only. Therefore, one should wish to live here by performing actions for Him with detachment and as a sacrifice only, but not otherwise.

With that, the idea of renunciation also acquired a new meaning. True renunciation is not renunciation of actions or worldly life, but renunciation of the fruit of one's actions. Since a householder has an opportunity to step into the shoes of God to perform His duties upon earth as his representative, with the spirit of detachment, from the perspective of creation and for the order and regularity of the worlds, his life and actions assume a greater significance than that of a renunciant who lives a secluded life, shuns society and contributes nothing much to it. One may follow the renunciant tradition in the pursuit of liberation through self-denial, while a householder has better opportunities not only to enjoy life here but also achieve the same end as the renunciant hereafter without putting himself through painful ordeals and austerities.

Karma as the source of diversity

As stated earlier, the Vedas recognize divine karma (the action of God) as the source of all creation, preservation and destruction. However, since God performs them without desires, unlike human beings he is not bound by them. From the first chapter of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.6.1) we learn that karma is one of the triple causes of diversity, the other two being name and form. The diversity in names arises from speech, and the diversity in forms comes from the eye, whereas the (mind and) body is the sources for the diversity in actions. For all actions, the body is the source, the controller, or the lord.

Within the body, the mind, the speech, breath, the organs of action, and the organs of perception are considered the main deities who receive their share of food from the body and perform their actions. However, you cannot fully rely upon them to fight the impurities and the evil that can infest your body, since they are all vulnerable to evil and demonic actions, thoughts, desires, temptations, and intentions (Brihad. 1.3).

Of them, only the breath is reliable because breath is autonomous and is not guided by our desires or thoughts. In other words, symbolically the verse suggests that rituals and sacrifices in which you make offerings to gods and invoke them cannot guarantee you protection from evil or from the consequences of sinful karma as the gods themselves are vulnerable to hunger, temptations, and desire. You can achieve that only by recoursing to breathing and taking refuge in the Self, neither of which can be penetrated by evil.

Surely, rudimentary ideas such as these must have led to the belief that the mind and the body must be restrained and purified through the practice of breath control (pranayama), withdrawal of senses (pratyahara), and righteous conduct (yamas and niyamas) to stabilize the mind in the contemplation of the Self. Subsequently, they might have led to the development of classical Yoga as detailed in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as a system of spiritual discipline and school of philosophy. Those who keep arguing that yoga was not part of Hindu tradition, may please pay attention to this.

Karma and Dharma

In the Vedic theology karma means actions and dharma means obligatory actions. Whatever that you are expected to perform as a human being, as an aspect of God, as a householder, as a member of family, and as a member of your caste, community, society and the world, constitute your obligatory duty (dharma). It means that they are the actions that you cannot simply avoid, without incurring sin, unless you choose to renounce worldly life altogether and go through an even more painful process of inner transformation.

While karma may produce positive or negative consequences, obligatory actions produce only good karma and ensure a better life here and hereafter. Those who perform them without desire for fruit of such actions achieve liberation, whereas those who perform t hem with a desire to enjoy good life here attain rebirth. However, those who do not perform them at all or ignore them incur terrible sin and fall down into darkest hells. Therefore, it is the obligatory duty of every human being upon earth is to uphold dharma, play his or her dutiful role in life as expected and as an aspect of God, and thereby ensure the order regularity of the worlds and beings. Those who neglect their duties, denigrate them with evil desires, or oppose them like the demons do would suffer from the negative consequences. The Upanishads go a step further and suggest that even obligatory duties should be performed with an attitude of detachment, renunciation, devotion and sacrifice. Actions performed with such an attitude lead to liberation, whereas those performed with a selfish intent result in karma and rebirth.

Karma and self-knowledge

The Upanishads draw a clear distinction between the higher knowledge and the lower knowledge or between knowledge and ignorance. The knowledge of Brahman or Atman (Self) is true knowledge, while the knowledge of the world arising from our perceptions and mental actions constitute lower knowledge. They even include rituals in the latter category and suggest that it is not advisable to perform any rituals without self-awareness. For example, in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.4.15) we find the following declaration, "If a man performs many great meritorious deeds without knowing (his Self) in the end, his actions are bound to diminish (in power). One should meditate upon oneself as one’s world. He who meditates upon his Self as his world, his actions do not diminish because whatever he desires, he creates out of himself."

Karma as the Secret Knowledge

Traditionally in Hinduism all spiritual knowledge is considered a secret, which is not meant to be taught to everyone. Two thousand years ago, if someone would have revealed whatever that is stated in this essay, he would have been excommunicated by the community. The practice of keeping the sacred knowledge secret began from the earliest days in Vedic culture and continued for a long time until the British scholars began taking interest in Hinduism. Even the Bhagavadgita is considered a book of secret knowledge and Lord Krishna even states that he is imparting to Arjuna the utmost secret knowledge.

While the Vedic rituals had a social dimension in the ancient times and were publicly performed in the presence of many, the knowledge of the Upanishads was a closely guarded secret which was confined to a few teacher traditions. We learn from them that the knowledge of karma was also kept secret for sometime before they became known to the common people. It appears that in the early stages, even many Brahmana scholars were unaware of it.

For example, in a conversation between Jaratkarava Artabhagah and Yajnavalkya, which is mentioned in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, when Jaratkarava asks him which part of a person survives his death, Yajnavalkya responds by saying, "Give me your hand, Artabhaga, my dear. We will know this between our two, but not in the presence of these people. Then the two went out and talked about it. What they discussed was about actions and what they praised was actions. Truly, one becomes virtuous by virtuous actions and sinful by sinful actions. After that, Jaratkarava Artabhagah kept silent."

Certainly, Yajnavalkya was not willing to discuss the law of karma in front of everyone, or the consequences of actions that led people on the divergent paths of liberation and rebirth. Similarly, in the sixth chapter we find that Pravahana Jaivali knew how the souls departed from here according to their karmas, whereas Gautama and his son Svetaketu, who were great scholars in their times, were not aware of it. When Svetaketu returns after a conversation with Pravahana and expresses his disappointment before his father for their lack of knowledge, they both return to Pravahana and request him to accept them as his disciples and teach both of them the doctrine.


From the above we can conclude that the doctrine of karma in Hinduism as we understand it today developed in phases during the Vedic period, starting from the earliest notion that ritual actions and sacrificial ceremonies produced positive and negative consequences depending upon the intent and purpose for which they were performed. Since these developments happened long before the birth of the Buddha, we cannot accept any argument that alludes to the possibility that Hinduism derived its doctrine of Karma from the Buddha. If any, the opposite must be true. However, it is possible that the knowledge originally rested with the warrior/philosopher kings and from them was passed to the priestly families.

At some point, the early ideas regarding ritual and spiritual actions and knowledge, must have culminated in the belief that actions alone determined the fate of beings upon earth and so also what happened to them after death. Good actions led them to heaven and beyond, whereas bad actions caused them to fall into sinful worlds.

One of the earliest references to the well developed doctrine of karma can be found in the following verse from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.5), "He consists of this and he consists of that. As he acts and as he behaves, so does he become. The doer of good becomes good. The doer of sinful actions become sinful. By virtuous actions, he becomes virtuous; and by evil actions evil.' Others, however, say, 'This person consists of desires only. As he desires, so is his will. As is his will so does he act. Whatever actions he performs, that he attains.'"

The next verse reads, "Of this, there is this verse, 'That one who performs actions with desires in his mind, his subtle body goes together with the deed, being attached to it alone. Having exhausted the results of whatever actions he performed in this life, he returns from that world to this world for doing (more) actions.' This is with regard to a man whose mind is filled with desires. Now, regarding the one who is free from desires. He who is without desires, who is freed from desires, whose desire is satisfied, who desires only the Self, his breaths do not depart. Being Brahman only, he goes to Brahman."

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