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What Is Karma

What is Karma

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]aybe you know what Karma is already, maybe you don’t. Maybe you just think you know what Karma is, but are not really sure. Maybe you have never even heard of Karma before and just clicked through here by mistake looking for a funny Darwin award story to post on Facebook and proclaim, “Karma, lol”? Who knows, I do not know only you, my lovely readers will know what you know about Karma. [footnote]I am going somewhere with this so bare with me and find out[/footnote]


So I will first describe where we think Karma was derived, and then move onto the question, “what is karma?” I will then discuss some things that link everything together. However, of you are an impatient type of human being, you can jump straight the end of the post to read a TL;DR summary.

Where did Karma originate from?

What is Karma
Monks giving alms

The earliest known occurrence of karma, is in ancient Indian literature or the Rigveda. In it, it means work or deed, and the context is ritual or sacrificial acts. However, the earliest unambiguous idea of karma appears in the Upanishads:

Truly, one becomes good through good action, and evil through evil action

It could be that the idea of Karma originates from the most basic of human desires, namely to eat. It could be that as a result of the move from hunter gather type people to agrarian style communities; Karma could have developed into something with very deep roots.

For example, farming is a practice whereby you get out what you out in. Those who put in a lot of effort get rewarded with plentiful food for themselves and their families. Those who lazed around and did not make hay whilst the sun shone, got nothing and their families starved. Or even those who were lazy still had to feed themselves and so did a bad deed such as stealing or killing to get food. This would ultimately backfire on them though, as a result of very small and tight knit villages.

From this one can see how a concept of causality can arise. What is interesting though, is that it seems to be most prominent in Asia and more specifically India. [footnote]India brought Hinduism and Buddhism very far eastwards and is a rare example of another culture influencing China rather that the other way around. It is actually a very interesting story and I will try to write about it when I have time. However please don’t expect soon because it will take a lot of research and many hours of furious typing![/footnote] A possible explanation for this could be that Hinduism and Buddhism are very much deterministic religions, whilst western, Abrahamic religions are generally based on free will: you can do this or you can do that… but you might go to hell.

What is Karma?

I will begin by giving a brief explanation about what many people believe karma to be:

What goes around, comes around

To be fair it is very close, but as with everything, there are subtle nuances that need to be understood to get a fuller more rounded realization of what something is.

Alms giving bowels
Alms giving bowels

Karma literally means: action, work or deed in Sanskrit (कर्म;). However, the action or deed it talks about is actually involved and connected with causality or the relation between one event and a second event, where the second event is understood as a physical consequence of the first. This is important because this is the very basic understanding as mentioned above, what goes around comes around. To see why this is not a great way of explaining Karma, we can put it into some kind of visual sense:

Imagine Socrates. [footnote]Great guy, but not a lot known about him. What we do know has been written almost exclusively by his student, Plato. I may get into some philosophical stuff later on down the line, but for now I will just stick to Karma for the time being.[/footnote] He wants to move a big rock to another location, but it is too heavy. So he creates a pulley system and ties it to the rock. He pulls the rope at one end (the cause) and the rock gets lifted up (the effect).

Now this does relate to Karma, but it in a very myopic and unemotional manner. Karma really refers to the principle of causality where intent and actions of an individual can influence the future of that individual, either directly or indirectly. Good intent and good deeds contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad karma and future suffering.

Karma has a bigger emotional attachment to it than just moving rocks or other sorts of objects.

To see Karma in a long distance sort of view and also how seemingly unconnected things are intertwined, imagine this story:

A man kills a child’s parents and gets away free and is never found or arrested. The child is put into care and never

Time and space
Photo by Jimmy Baikovicius

finds out who his parents murderer is. Later on in life, this child takes over a construction company owned by his parents, but goes about making dangerous decisions stemming from his fragile mental nature, such as buying cheap scaffolding. One day one of the builders working for him falls to his death because of some faulty scaffolding. The man that died also happened to be the murderer of the boys parents.

OK, so that is not a very good and quite a blunt way of describing Karma, but it was just really meant to show how things that you might not think are connected can turn out to be the things that are holding together reality. I also just made it up very quickly which is why it is a bit rough around the edges.

Karma is a very deterministic way of thinking, but with flecks of free will involved. One could say that if the man had never killed that boys parents, the boys parents would still be in charge of the construction company and therefore may have bought expensive and safe scaffolding. This in turn means that perhaps the man would not have died.

Of course one could just put this down to coincidence, and perhaps it really is just that? We can never really know. But we can make sure not to find out by being nice people and good to those around us. We could all follow the golden rule of not doing things to other that we would not want done to us.

As the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of Hinduism states:

Now as a man is like this or like that,
according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be;
a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad;
he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds;

And here they say that a person consists of desires,
and as is his desire, so is his will;
and as is his will, so is his deed;
and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.

What we could take away from this are several points to answer the question, “what is Karma?”:

  • Deterministic in nature
  • Heavily interconnected with many seemingly unrelated things
  • Idea was formed perhaps around 3,500 years ago
  • It is more complex than just: what goes around comes around
  • Very prominent in Eastern religions, more so than Western ones
  • What you do right now can affect you or someone you love far into the futue
  • It is impossible to really understand how it works.

Summing it all up

Karma then is a vast unknowable force, that controls our pasts, presents and futures simultaneously, whilst also connecting this information to billions of other people and non human animals.

The concept of Karma could actually be linked with Laplace’s demon; [footnote]Laplace was a French mathematician and astronomer whose work was pivotal to the development of mathematical astronomy and statistics. This is significant because Buddhism and Hinduism, along with most religions actually, place a great emphasis on prediction and astronomical models. There is a reason why they say that to find science is to find religion.[/footnote] Karma being the demon:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

– Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

Basically, we do not know how Karma is going to affect us, or even if it exists. The main point to take away from this article would be to live your life full of happiness and when you can, pass on some of your happiness onto others.


Karma is a connected web of occurrences outside our realm of consciousnesses that are linked together and effect each other.

Seemingly unconnected things are more connected that we can ever comprehend and that hit us when we do something bad, but lift us when we do something good.

However this can be over the course of a lifetime, and you may not get punished for wrongdoings until all the connections have converged, which could be a lifetime or even effect your future generations when you are long gone.


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