A Glossary of Karma and Related Words and Concepts



by Jayaram V

Synopsis: This brief treatise on karma explains the meaning, types, significance, and related words and concepts of Karma in Hinduism and Sanskrit language.

Hinduism recognizes that desire in various forms is the root cause of suffering. Desire-ridden actions involve humans in worldly life and bind them to the cycle of births and deaths. Actions produce consequences from which no one can escape. Those consequences may manifest at different times in the journey of a soul upon earth. Because of them a soul has to go through numerous births and deaths and become stuck in the mortal world.

Thus, actions play an important role in the life and liberation of living being upon earth. Action means karma, and karma as the cause is central to creation and existence. Literally speaking, they are the consequences of the actions or karma of God. The importance of karma, therefore, cannot be ignored. In the following discussion we will discuss the concept of Karma, its meaning, importance, and associated concepts, with particular reference to Hinduism.

Karma means

Karma is one of the most well known concepts of Hinduism. The following are a few important definitions and meanings of karma.

Literally speaking, karma means that which you perform with your kara, or hands. In a general sense, karma means all actions and functions of the mind and body. Karma is also used to denote moral or professional duty, sacrifice, religious rite, result, consequences, cause and effect, fate, and movement1 .

Significance of karma

Karma is so popular in Indian culture that it resurfaces in various forms in the Indian minds. A person may not be aware of the religious texts or the subtle nuances of the religion, but knows clearly what karma means and how it applies to him and his life. The idea of karma makes people dutiful and responsible. It enables them to adapt to their living conditions and accept their lot, as it makes them aware that each person is responsible for his or her life and the onus of shaping it is entirely upon him.

Helping others may seem to be good, but even that puts people in karmic debt and binds them to future obligations. Neither the one who helps nor the one who is helped is free from the consequences. Hence, virtue is a partial solution to the problem of karma, not a complete one. The concept of karma explains the diversity of creation, why there is inequality, injustice and suffering in society, and who is responsible for it.

Even catastrophes can be explained with the help of the concept of karma. In modern times, the concept of karma is somewhat explained with near approximation by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay, Compensation, in which he wrote, "Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed ; for the ef- fect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed."

Karma in different religious traditions

The concept of karma is common to all religions that originated in India, namely Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Variations of the idea are found in the sacred texts of other world religions also. Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism view karma both as the action and its effect or fruit. However, in Jainism karma is a fine substance of great impurity which accumulates on the body due to both pure and impure actions.

All the four traditions affirm that karma is regenerative, since it is responsible for rebirth and the continuation of a soul’s journey upon earth. It is also supportive because it establishes the conditions that are necessary for the fruition of past actions, and determines the fate of living beings in each birth. Karma also acts as suppresser, concealer, and destroyer. Depending upon the situation, certain actions can suppress, prevent, conceal, delay or destroy the consequences of previous actions. Thus, karma is a powerful force of change and manifestation. It is at the root of all the five supreme functions of God namely creation, preservation, concealment, revelation, and destruction.

The four traditions also recognize that to achieve liberation one has to cleanse all previous karmas and arrest its further formation. For that they prescribe various methods. Buddhism views karma as the source of all suffering. Existence itself is riddled with suffering, and karma makes it worse. From karma arises discernment (chetana), which is wholesome or unwholesome. The former arises from virtues such as unselfishness, nonviolence, or right awareness, and the latter from the three vices namely greed, hatred, and delusion.

In Vaisheshika, which is one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy, karma has a special meaning. According to this school karma means physical motion which is inherent to a substance and arises as a natural consequence either from conjunction or disjunction. That motion is of five kinds, upward (utksepana), downward (avaksepana), contraction (akunchana), expansion (prasarana), and going forth (gamana).

The concept of karma is inherent in the Vedas and in the idea of sacrifice, the result of sacrifice, the ascent of souls to the world of ancestors (pitrayana), and their return to the earth to take a new birth. Therefore, it is erroneous to believe that the Vedic people got the idea from elsewhere. However, it seems that as a particular philosophical concept and principle of existence it developed gradually in the Upanishadic thought.

Types of Karma

The following are important types of karma which are found in Hindu literature and sacred texts. They are used in different context, but suggest how deeply ingrained is the idea in the minds of Indian people for a long time, and how complex it is.

Nitya karma: It refers to daily duties or to moral, religious, or obligatory duties that are expected from each human being on daily basis. For example the following are a few important daily duties prescribed for the householders of Brahman caste, Pratah Sandhya Vandanam (Morning), Samitadanam (For Brahmachari), Aupasanam, Agnihotram (For Agnihotris), Agni Sandhanam, Deva-Rishi-Pitru Tarpanam, Brahma Yajnam, Vaisva Devam, Bhagavad Aradhanam, Madhyanikam (Afternoon), Sayam Sandhya Vandanam (Evening), Pratyabdika Sraddham (Yearly Ceremony), Amavasya, and Mahalayam. The five daily sacrifices to gods, humans, ancestors, saints, and animals also come under this category.

Naimittika karma: They are special duties that may arise on specific days in a week, month, or year or at specific times in the life of an individual. For example, the various Samskaras (sacraments or religious rites) which are meant to be performed at the time of conception, birth, naming ceremony, initiation into education, marriage, death, annual ritual offerings to ancestors, etc., fall under this category.

Kamya karma: They are actions which are performed to fulfill certain desires, and include Vedic sacrifices (Yagas and Yajnas) which are performed with the specific intention to obtain favors from gods or to fulfill one’s wishes such as Jyotistoma Yajna for reaching Heaven, or Prayaschitta Karma for expiation of sins.

Sakarma: All right actions constitute sakarma.

Akarma: Inaction or non-action is akarma. It is not a solution to the problem of karma because no one can remain inactive even for a moment.

Dushkarma. All evil actions are called dushkarma. They produce suffering and delay liberation.

Punya karma: This is the sum of meritorious actions and the fruit they bear. It may help a person to achieve a good birth in next life, but it does not lead to liberation.

Papa karma: It refers to sinful actions and the negative results they produce. It is the source of delusion, ignorance, and suffering.

Ghora karma: Terrible actions, such as rape, murder, etc., which leads to the downfall of the soul into the darkest and demonic worlds.

Nishiddha karma: Forbidden actions, such as eating forbidden food, or indulging in forbidden sex, which are listed in the Dharmashastras, and which result in the breach of Dharma or virtuous conduct. Some of these karmas can be neutralized through expiation ceremonies, but some cannot be.

Sva karma: This refers to the personal actions or duties which a person takes upon himself due to birth, moral obligation, desires, or by his own accord.

Sanchita Karma: This is the accumulated baggage of karma of all the past lives that is brought forward into the present life, including the karma that will fructify in this life.

Prarabdha karma: This is that part of Sanchita karma which will bear fruit in this life. Health, circumstances related to birth, body type, family background, caste identity, birth related qualities and problem, nature of death, marriage partner, children, etc., arise from prarabhda karma. It may bear fruit due to one’s desires (iccha), without any desire (aniccha), or others’ desires (parechha).

Kriyamana karma: It is the karma which arises from the current actions performed in this birth. Hence, it is also known as vartamana karma. Some of it may bear fruit in the current and some in the future lives. It may arise from the two types of karma mentioned above.

Agami karma: It is the karma that has not yet formed, but will arise in future from present actions. It may arise from all the three types of karma mentioned above. Those who want to achieve liberation have to arrest its formation, which is possible only when the mind stops creating latent impressions and when the existing ones are fully burnt through spiritual practice.

Mano karma: This refers to the actions performed in the mind, which may be due to thoughts, memories, emotions and intention. Even imagination can create mental karma. It has the same effect as that caused by similar physical actions.

Vacha karma: This is the karma which arises from the words spoken. Words can inspire people, and hurt them or harm them. It is therefore important what you speak when you speak and how you speak.

Deha karma: All bodily functions such as eating, walking, sleeping, physical actions performed with the organs of the body out of desire such as hurting or helping someone, natural functions of the various organs in the body, and the actions of the sense organs constitute deha karma or karma arising from the body.

Dharma karma: This refers to the body of actions, which are performed for the sake of Dharma, or which arise because of Dharma. Any mortal duty, virtuous action, or righteous conduct come under this category.

Pitrukarma: All the actions performed for the sake of pitrs (ancestors) to prolong their stay or make their stay comfortable in the world of ancestors constitute pitrukarma. It includes the funeral rites (antyeshti), the annual offerings (sraddha) made to the ancestors, and the rites, rituals and observances which are performed on specific occasions such as Kumbha or Pushkara to help the ancestors ascend to the higher world or safely return to the earth.

Satkarma: Actions that are rooted in truthfulness and lead to the predominance of sattva.

Rajokarma: Actions that are performed in self-interest or to benefit oneself, which will lead to the preponderance of rajas.

Tamokarma: Deluded, ignorant and cruel actions that hurt and harm others and will lead to the predominance of tamas

Associated concepts and meanings of karma

Because of its religious and spiritual importance, the word karma is used in conjunction with many other ideas, concepts, beliefs and practices. Some of the important ones are mentioned below.

Vishvakarma: The architect of the universe. It is a general reference to Brahman and a specific reference to the Vedic deity by that name, who according to Ramayana built the city of Lanka at the behest of Brahma.

Karma yoga: The state of yoga, in which actions do not produce results but lead to liberation. It also refers to the path, by which one may attain liberation.

Karma phala: The fruit, result or the sum of consequences, which may arise from an action. It determines the life and fate of an individual soul upon earth.

Karma Siddhanta: The theory, doctrine or philosophy of karma, which suggests the importance of karma in human life and in creation, and why human beings should perform their obligatory duties and responsibilities in the mortal world.

Karmendriya: The organs of action, which are five, namely the hands, the feet, the organ of speech, the genitals, and the organs of excretion.

Karmakanda: It refers to that part of the Vedas, namely the Samhitas and the Brahmanas, which deal with the rites, rituals and sacrificial ceremonies, and the actions that are performed in their practice.

Karma sanyasa: The state of renunciation of desire-ridden and selfish actions, in which one performs actions without attachment and without desire for their fruit, but as an offering to the Self or to God.

Karmanthika: The field worker, the manual laborer, or the last person in the command chain or line of hierarchy.

Karmatma: The embodied soul, the living entity (jivatma), or the soul that is caught in the cycle of births and deaths, which is subject to karma and which cannot live without perfuming actions.

Karma kara: A hired hand or worker who does manual work, who is a servant but not a slave.

Karma kshetra: Any sacred place where religious rites and rituals are practiced. In a general sense, it refers to Akhanda Bharat, the entire Indian subcontinent, which is also known as Karma Bhumi, the land of Vedic rites and rituals, and Veda Bhumi, the land of the Vedas. In a metaphorical sense it refers to the human body where sacrificial and spiritual actions are performed.

Karma chandala: According to Vasishta it refers to any person of any background who performs the most heinous deeds and accumulates the darkest of the mortal sins.

Karmachodana: Any desire, motivation, intention or aspiration that impels a person towards ritual or sacrificial actions.

Karmajna: An expert in ritual knowledge and techniques. It is usually a reference to a Vedic priest, or a Vedic scholar who is well-versed in the Samhitas and Brahmanas and knows the ins and outs of various rituals and sacrifices.

Karma thyagah: This refers to the practice of renunciation or giving up worldly actions, desire-ridden actions, or sacrificial and ritual actions. It is an important part of karma sanyasa yoga. However, a person can renounce actions for any number of reasons, including worldly reasons, in which case, it will produce consequences.

Karma dhrshta: A person who indulges in wicked, immoral and evil actions without worrying about their consequences.

Karma dhosha: It refers to the impurities (dhoshas) which arise from desire-ridden actions. Egoism, attachments and delusion are important among them. They cloud a person’s judgement and result in more negative consequences.

Karma nasah: The destroyer of sins. Liberation is the best destroyer of karma. In a liberated being (jivanmukta) the fruition of karma comes to an end. Some karmas can be destroyed through devotion, the grace of god, help of a guru, good deeds, virtuous conduct, and self-purification. Karmanasa is also the name two tributaries of Ganga in northern India, one that originates in Bihar and another that flows in the Garhwal Himalayas.

Karma nishta: It refers to a devotee of God who is resolute, strict and disciplined about his obligatory duties and moral commitment, and devotes himself to their performance. The host of sacrifice (yajamana) is expected to be a karmanishta before, during, and after the performance of a Vedic sacrifice. So are all those who participate in it. The efficacy of a sacrifice depends upon the seriousness with which it is performed.

Karma nirapeksha: Disinterestedness in doing work, or having no interest or desire in the actions that are performed. This is an important virtue which is vital to arrest the formation of future karma and work for liberation. It comes with detachment, dispassion and control over desires.

Karmapathah: The process, the direction or the way in which an action moves forward. More popularly it refers to the path of action, which is otherwise known as karma yoga. All living beings and the whole word travel by this path only. However, some remain stuck in it or move sideways, while a few manage to teach the immortal world of Brahman by the same path through liberation.

Karmapaka: The ripening of the fruit of action, which may manifest as a reward or a punishment, or as pleasure or pain, depending upon the nature of the action involved. Karma may fructify at different times in the journey of a soul, depending upon the nature of actions performed. Some may bear fruit immediately, some in future or in a future life, while some produce a series of consequences at different times and in different lives until they are fully exhausted.

Karmabandha: Attachments and the bondage which arise from the actions one performs. It leads to samsara, or bondage to the cycle of births and deaths. It is arrested by karma dhvansa, the destruction of karma, by various means which are suggested in the scriptures.

Karma Mimansa: This is another name for Purva Mimansa, the school of Hinduism which recognizes the Vedic ritual as the model of creation and source of all manifestation, rather than Brahman, and accepts the Vedas as eternal and indestructible.

Karma mula: It is another name of kusah grass, which is used in Vedic rituals and sacrificial ceremonies as an offering, ritual tool, and as a purifier.

Karma yuga: It is another name for Kaliyuga, the fourth epoch (maha yuga) in the Time cycle. It denotes the importance of actions and duties in the present day world.

Karmavasha: The state of bondage or helplessness which arises as fate from the actions of past lives. It refers to the state in which certain actions are inevitable and inescapable for the person involved due to fate or past karmas.

Karmashala: It is a reference to a factory, workshop, or place of manufacture. Metaphorically the minds and bodies of all living beings are but karmashalas.

Karmaseela: A person who is adept, duty bound and morally committed to actions. He knows the difference between right actions and wrong actions and how to perform actions. It arises from discernment (prajna) which in turn is caused by the predominance of sattva in intelligence.

Karma sakshi: A direct witness, or the one who has seen or heard the truth personally. It also refers to the nine deities who are present in the body in various organs and witness all human actions. Because of their presence in the body, the human body is considered karmakshetra, and no one can escape from the consequences of their evil and selfish actions. Hence, human beings who have been endowed with intelligence (buddhi) have to live virtuously and perform their actions without desires, as an offering to those deities or to the Self, who is the ultimate witness.

Karma siddhi: Perfection, excellence, or success in action. True karma siddhi is when actions cease to bear fruit, and yet contribute to the welfare and the order and regularity of the world.

Is all karma the same?

As described above, all actions produce results. However, since they produce different results they cannot be considered the same. Depending upon the consequences or results they produce, karma can be either good or bad or mixed. They can also be pleasant, painful, mild, severe, or terrible. All types of karma, whether they are good or bad, produce results and bind the beings to the mortal world. You cannot escape from the world without neutralizing your karma and arresting its further formation. Your karma is a type of account which you maintain with the Bank of Nature. However, unlike in case of bank accounts, your effort in this case should be to empty the account rather than keep depositing in it and accumulating it.

All types of Karma prevent human from achieving liberation. Performing righteous actions and accumulating good karma is not a bad option, although it certainly is not the best. It helps humans ascend to the ancestral world and return from there after completing their stay. The ancestral world is somewhat similar to a huge galactic prison, where souls enjoy temporary freedom and happiness, but remain under the whims and control of gods, just as on earth the cattle are subject to the command and control of their masters.

Good actions are certainly preferable to bad actions. Certain types of nishiddha karma, forbidden actions, which involve mortal sins and terrible actions, lead to severest punishment and prolonged damnation of sinful souls in the darkest of the hells. The record of karma is preserved in the mind as latent impressions, dominant desires and habitual thoughts. They constitute the casual body (karana chitta), which becomes the seed for the soul's next life.

How can karma be resolved?

Karma is central to life and existence. It is also necessary to support Dharma and continue the order and regularity of the world. Hindu scriptures affirm that God himself performs his duties without fail, although he is not interested in anything. He does is so dutifully to ensure that the process of creation runs its due course and the worlds are not thrown into chaos due to his negligence. The scriptures also affirm that a being cannot attain liberation until all karma is exhausted. Since karma accumulates continuously and cannot be arrested without due process, only a few souls succeed in that effort.

The Bhagavadgita states that by neither performing good actions nor indulging in non-action and in inaction nor avoiding evil actions one can escape from the cycle of births of deaths. Each of these strategies is impractical because it is not possible for humans to avoid actions or stay free from evil or impurity. Therefore, the best solution is to practice karmaphala sanyasa yoga, which is a combination of karma yoga and sanyasa yoga. According to it human beings should perform their actions without desire for their fruit, and offer them to God with the spirit of renunciation and devotion. When actions are performed with such an attitude karma will not accrue and the devotee who practices it with perfection will become liberated.

Not all schools, however, agree that God is the source of creation or all of actions, or God’s intervention is required to cleanse karmas. Hence, they differ in the methods they recommend to deal with the problem of karma. For example, according to the school of Mimansa the problem of karma can be neutralized by studying the Vedas and by performing the Vedic sacrifices strictly according to the procedure laid out in them. The Samkhya philosophy suggests that past karma should be neutralized by letting the effects hidden in the actions manifest themselves while accumulation of future karma should be neutralized by cultivating detachment and performing desireless actions. Saivism, on the other hand recommends that karma can be neutralized only through the grace of Siva or that of a guru, in whom Shiva is awake and active. Thus in brief we may conclude that karma can be resolved by spiritual effort, fate, or the grace of God, or a combination of these three.

Suggestions for Further Reading

1. These contradictory meanings make sense only if you are familiar with Sanskrit or the context in which they are used.

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