What is Karma in Hinduism?

Karma action

by Jayaram V

The law of karma is a simple and straightforward concept according to which beings, not just men, are rewarded or punished according to their own actions and intentions. Thus good actions and intentions reap good rewards and bad actions and intentions result in suffering and pain. With some minor variations this concept is common to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. In Islam we find some echoes of it in such declarations of Quran as "Whoever does a good deed he shall be repaid ten fold and whoever does evil, he shall be repaid with evil."

We have every reason to believe that Jesus was aware of the law of karma. He willingly agreed to take over the karma of all his followers and free them from sin as long as they acknowledged him as their savior, repented for their actions and made a true confession of their actions before God. He suffered on the cross because he took over the karma of many people during his lifetime upon earth and he continues to do so even after his departure.

In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna makes a similar promise. He promises salvation for all those who willingly offer all their actions to Him, accepting Him as the real doer, with a sense of detachment, and without desiring the fruit of their actions. The main difference between the eastern and western religions is that in Islam and Christianity you commit sin against the law of God, where as in Hinduism and related religions, you commit sin against yourself by your own actions.

The Meaning of Karma

In simple terms, the law of karma suggests that a person's mental and physical actions are binding. Through our actions or inactions and our intention behind them we bind ourselves to Prakriti and cycle of births and deaths. Broadly speaking, karma means not only actions, but also the intentions and consequences associated with each action. In ancient times, karma originally meant sacrificial or ritual acts. Karmakanda meant body of rituals and sacrificial ceremonies we were expected to perform as a part of our moral and social responsibility. However as the time went by it came to be associated with all intentions and actions that had consequences and were binding in nature. The Bhagavadgita went a step ahead and included the desire for fruit of one's action also as binding.

The law of karma has its echoes in the scientific world also. We find it in Newton's law motion, according to which every actions has an equal and opposite reaction. The law of karma is very much verifiable in real life. We all have seen in our own lives, and in nature too, that we reap what we sow. Our successes and failures are mostly products of our own thoughts and actions. If we think positively and act positively, very likely we will succeed. On the contrary if we think and act negatively, very likely we will bring negativity and suffering upon ourselves. Sometimes inspite of all the good work and sincere intentions, we may reap negative consequences. A student may prepare well for his exam, but may fail. A very evil and wicked person may earn the jackpot or become owner of a successful business venture. The theory of karma has a convincing explanation such situations. The current events in our lives need not necessarily be determined by our previous actions in this very life, but also by the actions we did in our previous lives. This explains why sometimes there is a disconnect between our actions and consequences, why bad people often seem to enjoy success and prosperity, while good people seem to suffer despite their best actions and intentions.

Some Beliefs About Karma

Some of the beliefs associated with karma are well known: that it is a self-correcting mechanism, that it binds beings to the cycle of births and deaths, that it is caused by desires and the activities of the senses, that it is responsible for the evolution of beings from one stage to another and that it is possible to reverse the bondage caused by law of karma through various means.

It is also believed that just as each person incurs karma through his or her actions, actions performed as groups also give rise to collective karma that would impact their collective future. According to this belief, nations, organizations and associations also incur karma because of the collective actions and decisions of the people who are part of them. If a nation is oppressed by another, people belonging to the nation that is acting as the oppressor incur bad karma and have to repay for the actions of their country through their own lives. Same is the case with groups and nations that follow a policy of religious intolerance or economic exploitation. We should realize that environmental pollution and degradation is a direct result of our indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources and the mass annihilation of millions of innocent animals, whose consequences we suffer in the form of natural disasters, greenhouse effects, new diseases and scarcity of raw materials.

According to Hindu scriptures, the law of karma is universal. Even gods are subject to it. Some Puranas declare that the trinity of gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, have attained their current positions of divine responsibilities because of their meritorious actions in the previous cycles of creation. Lord Krishna himself said to have died because of the unintentional action of a hunter, who stuck an arrow in his toe, mistaking it to be a rabbit, as a consequences of his own act of killing Bali from behind a tree in a deceptive manner in his previous incarnation as Lord Rama.

The Types of Karma

To explain situations like the one mentioned above, Hinduism recognizes four types of karma operating in our lives simultaneously. They are:

  • Sanchita Karma. It is sum total of the accumulated karma of previous lives. It is the burden of your past, which is in your account and which needs to be exhausted at some stage in your existence.
  • Prarabdha Karma. It is that part of your sanchita karma which is currently activated in your present life and which influences the course of your present life. Depending upon the nature of your actions, you are either exhausting it or creating more karmic burden for yourself.
  • Agami Karma. It is the karma that arises out of your current life activities, whose consequences will be experienced by you in the coming lives. It is usually added to the account of your sanchita karma.
  • Kriyamana Karma. This is the karma whose consequences are experienced right now or in the near future or distant future, but in any case in this very life.

If something happens unexpectedly against our intentions and despite our good efforts, Hindus believe it be the Prarabdha or the consequence of actions performed in their previous lives. There is nothing much we can do about it, except seeking divine intervention and exhaust it through our current actions. Such is said to be the power of prarabdha karma that only the serious minded devotees and servants of God are freed from it by His grace.

The traditional view of Hinduism has been that karma is a body of obligatory duties, rites and rituals, we are expected to perform as a part of our social, moral, family and personal responsibilities. Same is the approach of the Mimansa (ritual) schools of Hinduism. Hindu scriptures classify such duties into the following three categories:

  • Nitya karma. These are the daily sacrifices, such as the morning, afternoon and evening prayers and the five kinds of sacrificial offering of food (ahuta, huta, prahuta, bali, brahmayuta, prasita). Technically, whatever duties that we are supposed to perform as human beings, come under this category such as bathing, eating, praying, sleeping and so on.
  • Naimittika karma. These are the duties that are to be performed on specific occasions, such as festivals, solar and lunar eclipses, the various samskaras such as upanayana, marriage, funeral rites and so on.
  • Kamyakarma. These are the optional duties that we perform in order to realize a particular goal or wish, such as going to a pilgrimage, educating one's children, buying some property, performing a sacrificial rite wishing to attain heavenly life and so on.

Of these, the first two are obligatory in the sense that if we do not perform them we will incur sin. The third one is optional, that is there is no harm in neglecting them, but there can be some merit if we decide to pursue them in a right manner. We have to remember that in the very concept of karma is implied the importance of means. Whatever may be the end, if the means are not good, we will incur sin. By studying the scriptures, by practicing morality and by the use of buddhi (intelligence), we develop the sense of right and wrong. However since our knowledge of right and wrong is never perfect, there is no guarantee that by performing these duties and actions in a right way we will always incur merit. Hence the need to neutralize our karma in more effective ways, through spiritual means, which are discussed below.

The Solutions To the Problem of Karma

Since no human being can escape the law of karma, it leaves us with anxiety, especially when we know that we cannot live without performing actions and our actions would result in consequences for ourselves and our future. When we know that the consequences of our actions may go beyond this life, we become even more concerned as we are not even sure how they are going to effect our future. Because we do not have the all round vision of the divinities, we cannot see into the future and know what is going to happen or how we are going to live. In these circumstances, how are we supposed to conduct ourselves? Should we stop all action, because every action will have some negative impact at some level? These questions are answered in our scriptures in great detail. For the purpose of our essay, we deal with the solutions suggested in Vaishnavism and Saivism, the two dominant traditions of Hinduism. Both of them agree on the point that we can reverse the consequences of our actions through the grace and intervention of God. However they differ with regard to the means we can employ to achieve it. More or less, we find similar approaches in other traditions of Hinduism also.


According to Vaishnava tradition1, kaivalya or happiness of one's true state comes only after the experience of true self (atmanubhava). The individual jiva is truly a servant of God, but because of ignorance and attachment, he becomes a slave of his senses and mind and forgets his connection with God and the true nature of himself. At some stage in his existence, after going through several lives, he experiences despondency (nirveda) and non-attachment (vairagya) and becomes a seeker of liberation (mumukshu). He realizes the futility of performing meritorious acts to attain the pleasures of heaven or success upon earth, because he finds them to be displeasing, uninteresting and impermanent. He therefore yearns for permanent liberation from the travails of his earthly existence, through various means (upayas), which are especially meant to neutralize his ongoing karma and also exhaust his previous or prarabdha karma. These means are discussed below.

1. Jnana yoga. The first step in the path of self-realization is to become aware that there is something more than what we see and what we know about ourselves and our existence. Such a realization begins to dawn upon us, as we begin to suffer from the limitations of our existence and our own mental and physical activities. From the study of scriptures or through a guru, we come to the realization that we are not mere body or the mind or the senses, but the inner self, which is permanent, eternal and infinite and shares the same consciousness as that of the Divine. We learn how our actions have consequences, how our desires and senses bind us to our actions, how we are subjected to the pairs of opposites and how all this results in the delusion of our minds. From this awareness springs forth a genuine determination (samkalpa) to find release or freedom from the impermanence and the limitations and the curiosity to search for effective solutions. The purpose of jnana yoga is to develop wisdom, so that we know who we are and what we can do to achieve freedom from the cycle of births and deaths. This is the first stage in our quest for God realization.

2. Karma yoga. If karma means performing our obligatory religious, social, moral, personal and professional duties, karma yoga means performing them with a certain attitude, in which the desire for the fruit of action or the result and the feelings of egoism are absent. A karma yogi performs desireless actions (nishkama karma), with detachment, as sacrificial offerings to God, without an eye for their results. He realizes that it is not possible for any one to live without performing actions and since actions create karmic consequences, he should save himself from their impact by developing detachment from the consequences of his actions. A karmayogi is duty bound, not desire bound. He renounces the fruit of his actions (karmaphala sanyas), not the action itself (karma-sanyas). Since he has no interest in the consequences (results) of his actions, they do not bind him. He also sacrifices his egoistic feelings in performing his duties by acknowledging God, as his real self, doing the works through him as His instrument. Karma yoga is considered to be easier to practice and especially meant for people who are teachers, scientists, artists, writers, kings, scholars and men of knowledge, who can help others and spread the knowledge of God with detachment. King Janaka was one notable example of a karmayogi we find in our scriptures.

3. Jnana Karma Sanyasa Yoga. If action is the main focus in karma yoga, it is knowledge in jnana yoga. Jnana yoga is living with an attitude and knowledge that the inner self (atman) is the real self. It is considered to be more difficult to practice than karma yoga. In this yoga, one's life and actions are illuminated by the knowledge of self. A jnana yogi also, like a karma yogi, does not renounce actions. He performs his actions just like a karmayogi, without seeking the fruit of his actions. But he goes one step further and performs them with the awareness that he is indeed neither the body nor the mind nor the senses, but the illuminated self itself. This is called Jnana Karma Sanyasa Yoga or renunciation of the fruit of action through knowledge of self. It is said that a person becomes a true jnana yogi on this path only after years of practice as a karma yogi. By withdrawing his senses, contemplating upon his self, controlling his thoughts, he develops equanimity towards the pairs of opposites, such as pain and pleasure, happiness and sorrow, cold and heat, comforts and discomforts and so on. When a person practices jnana yoga by renouncing the fruit of his actions, he goes through several stages of development which culminate in his self-realization, in which he experiences the taste of his self or the state of his self. This is called kaivalya or the joy of the realization of the self.

4. Bhakti yoga. This is the practice of intense devotion to God. It is considered to be the most difficult of all yogas, because only those who had a taste of their real selves (atmanubhava) are qualified to practice it. It is believed that a person is fit for the yoga of devotion, though not necessarily but usually, when one has achieved stability in karmayoga and jnanayoga after years of practice. According to the Sri Bhasya of Ramanuja, a person who wants to practice bhakti yoga should have the following seven qualities: discrimination of purity and impurity (viveka), freedom from desires (vimoka), repeated worship of God (abhyasa), performing daily duties (kriya), practice of godly virtues (kalyana), living in the present without brooding about the past (anavasada) and not feeling too elated (anuddharsa). If the practice of jnana yoga results in self-realization, the practice of bhakti yoga results in God realization.2 God can be realized only through devotion, not by any other means. When a person becomes a true devotee, he experiences intense devotion and longing for God, in which God becomes everything for him. He see God in himself, everywhere, and himself in God. He cannot stand any notion of separation from God and becomes the very soul of God.

5. Sarangathi. Sarangathi is Complete and unconditional Self Surrender to God. It is also known as nikshepa, nyasa, sanyasa, tyaga and prapatti. It is prescribed for those who find the path of devotion difficult to practice. However only those persons are qualified to practice it, who do not have any desire other than the desire for liberation (moksha) and who are not able to find any means for salvation except this only. It can be practiced in six ways, known as sadangayoga3. They are: doing whatever that is pleasing to God, not doing whatever this displeasing to God, having abiding faith (mahavisvasa) in God that He would do whatever that is appropriate, intense and desperate yearning for God's protection, surrender of the self (atmanikshepa) and feeling helplessness (karpanya). It also consists of surrendering the thought that "I am the doer", surrendering the thought that "this is mine", surrendering the fruit of one's actions and surrendering the very notion that "I can enjoy the fruit of my action by doing works." These four forms of surrender would make a mumukshu feel that he is completely dependent upon God and that God is the cause of all his actions, where by he becomes immune to the working of karma.

In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna describes these paths more or less in the same sequence and explains the importance of each. He teaches bhakti yoga to Arjuna only after the latter is filled with devotion, after showing him His cosmic from. The first chapter is about suffering. The second one is about jnana yoga, the third one is about karma yoga and the fourth one is about the practice of jnana yoga with renunciation of action. It is only in the twelfth chapter, after more discussion and a chapter on divine manifestation, that we find the discourse on bhakti yoga. Many people now a days believe that bhakti yoga is easy to practice. They confuse ordinary devotion or superficial display of bhakti as bhakti yoga. They go to temples, perform pooja at home or participate in some devotional bhajans and believe it to be bhakti yoga. This is like trying to get admission into a university, without even learning the alphabet! Bhakti yoga is not for people, who have not conquered their attachments, desires and ambition, who have not learned enough about themselves or learned to live their lives selflessly with a sense of duty. In bhakti yoga you do not pray to God to seek material favors for yourself or your family members only. You seek God Himself out of your intense yearning for God, without interest in anything else. You genuine feel that your life is futile without God and you will not rest till you find. This is the hallmark of a true bhakti yogi. We have seen that even in the practice of sarangathi, which is a lesser kind of bhaktiyoga, the quality of mumukshu is a prerequisite. The ordinary bhakti that most people practice is part of karma yoga and should be treated as such.


Saivism, like Vaishnavism, is more like a religion rather than a sect, with a mass following of itself. It is perhaps the oldest of the Hindu sects. In Saivism, there are many sub sects like Siddha Saivism, Kashmiri Saivism, Veera Saivism, Pasupatha Saivism and so on, besides some tantric sects. It is difficult to detail the variations and the different approaches followed by each of the sects in this essay. So we limit our discussion to the broader aspects of Saivism in dealing with the subject of karma.

In Saivism, the absolute highest lord of the universe is identified as Siva or Pati (Lord), who is eternal and unbound, in contrast to jivas (beings) or pasus (animals), who are bound to Prakriti, or the dynamic energy of Siva, through the three pasas (bonds) or malas (impurities), namley, anava or egoism, karma or actions with consequences and maya or delusion. Because of these three bonds, a jiva undergoes repeated births and deaths, till it is liberated. Pati, pasu and pasas are thus the three most important concepts of Saivism.

Since Saivism recognizes all the three malas as responsible for the bondage of the beings, the emphasis is not on just karma but on how to achieve salvation by severing all the three bonds. Different solutions are suggested for this purpose. The Tantric texts of Saivism prescribe four methods, or padas, namely scriptural knowledge (vidya pada or jnana pada), practice of rituals and pooja (kriya pada or mantra pada or karma pada), practice of yoga and meditation such as kundalini yoga (yoga pada) and right conduct (charya pada).

The Pasupatha sect suggests four means for liberation: moral conduct (vasacharya), prayers (japa), meditation (dhyana) and remembering Siva (rudra smriti). Followers of Pasupatha Saivism are usually initiated into the path by a guru. It is believed that when a seeker is initiated into the path by a guru, the latter frees the former from all his previous karmas. At some stage in their development, they engage in anti social behavior in public, as a part of their spiritual practice, in order to attract public criticism with the belief that when they are criticized, there will be an exchange of karmas, so that all the good karma of those who criticize them would be transferred to the ascetics and whatever bad karma that is left in the ascetics would be passed on to their critics.

Followers or Saiva Siddhanta school of Saivism recognize three types of souls: those who are bound by only one fetter only, namely anava or egoism, those who are bound by two fetter only, namely egoism and karma, and those who are bound by all the fetters namely, egoism, karma and maya. This school accepts all the four padas, jnana, kriya, yoga and charya, as the means of liberation. Diksha or initiation into the path by a guru is considered the first and most important step. Depending upon the caliber of his followers, a guru prescribes one of the our margas or methods: dasa marga (path of servant), which consists of the practice of charya (right conduct) , satpura marga (path of son), which consists of the practice of kriya (rituals), saha marga (path of friend), which consists of the practice of yoga (meditation) and san marga (true path), which consists of the practice of jnana (knowledge). As can be seen, jnana or knowledge is considered more important than bhakti as the means of salvation.

Whatever may be the path, the main emphasis in Saivism is on the liberation of the soul, by making the jiva realize their Siva tattva ( or nature of Siva) through initiation into the path by a guru, performance of certain rituals in a dispassionate way and acquiring the right knowledge by serving the guru and earning the grace of Siva through him. The rituals are usually either simple such as temple rituals or body rituals or mental rituals or rituals of service to God, or complex rituals such as the ones practiced by the followers of tantricism.


Awareness of the law of karma is an important step in the religious life of any individual. Karma is responsible for our becoming and being. Our problems of existence and the laws of karma become active only when we enter into the state of beingness. Through karma we perpetuate this state of beingness and create our own future existence. Karma is supposed to be a corrective mechanism, meant to gradually  refine us through our own actions. However, since we are not perfect masters, we do it rather clumsily, just as blind people trying to carve a statue out of a stone. When we realize that our thoughts, intentions and actions cause our bondage and suffering, we become more responsible for what we do and how we live. Then, we aim to lead divine centered lives, in which our main objective will be to be free from the consequences of our own actions, without escaping from our duties and responsibilities. The marma (secret) of karma (action) is to consecrate our actions and their fruit to our personal God and cultivate purity (sattva), devotion (bhakti), equanimity and other divine qualities which are enumerated in the Bhagavadgita so that we become qualified for liberation. The law of karma makes it abundantly clear that the solution to our liberation is in our hands, and how we go about it is left to our discernment.

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. For the purpose of this discussion these concepts are taken mostly from the Vishishtadvaita school of Sri Ramanuja, also known as Sri Vaishnavism and the terminology and the concept may slightly differ from what is taught or practiced in other schools such as Dvaita and Advaita.

2. Schools that follow monism or advaita do not see any distinction between self-realization and God realization. For them the practice of jnanayoga and bhaktiyoga lead to the same experience.

3. These six angas of sarangathi are described in the Ahirabudhanya Samhita.

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