Karma

Karma

JOHANNES BRONKHORST
Copyright Date: 2011
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wqm9z
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Karma
    Book Description:

    Karma has become a household word in the modern world, where it is associated with the belief in rebirth determined by one’s deeds in earlier lives. This belief was and is widespread in the Indian subcontinent as is the word “karma” itself. In lucid and accessible prose, this book presents karma in its historical, cultural, and religious context.

    Initially, karma manifested itself in a number of religious movements—most notably Jainism and Buddhism—and was subsequently absorbed into Brahmanism in spite of opposition until the end of the first millennium C.E. Philosophers of all three traditions were confronted with the challenge of explaining by what process rebirth and karmic retribution take place. Some took the drastic step of accepting the participation of a supreme god who acted as a cosmic accountant, others of opting for radical idealism. The doctrine of karma was confronted with alternative explanations of human destiny, among them the belief in the transfer of merit. It also had to accommodate itself to devotional movements that exerted a major influence on Indian religions.

    The book concludes with some general reflections on the significance of rebirth and karmic retribution, drawing attention to similarities between early Christian and Indian ascetical practices and philosophical notions that in India draw their inspiration from the doctrine of karma.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6015-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. Special Topics
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  4. Preface
    (pp. XV-XVIII)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. XIX-XXII)

    Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language has the following to say about karma:

    1. the force generated by a person’s actions that is held in Hinduism and Buddhism to be the motive power for the round of rebirths and deaths endured by him until he has achieved spiritual liberation and freed himself from the effects of such force;

    2. the sum total of the ethical consequences of a person’s good or bad actions comprising thoughts, words, and deeds that is held in Hinduism and Buddhism to determine his specific destiny in his next existence;

    3. a subtle...

  6. I. Orthodox Karma
    • CHAPTER 1 Origins and Religious Use
      (pp. 3-6)

      Vedic literature is not the place to look for the origins of the belief in karmic retribution (see below). Unfortunately there is no other literature to help us in this respect. The notion of karmic retribution pops up, so to say, in the literature of a region distinct from the homeland of Vedic literature: the earliest literature of Jainism and Buddhism. And it does not present itself, in that other literature, as a new notion, but as an old one, one that had become oppressive.

      The belief that death is not the end, that there will be new lives afterward,...

    • CHAPTER 2 Karma in and after Greater magadha
      (pp. 7-32)

      The region east of the Vedic homeland, that is, east of the confluence of the Ganges and the Jumna, in the eastern Ganges plane, may conveniently be called Greater Magadha. It saw the appearance of a number of religious currents during the centuries around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. We will consider—after some introductory remarks about Greater Magadha—Jainism, Ajivikism, those who saw in knowledge of the self the key to the highest goal, and Buddhism.

      Magadha was the name of a kingdom in the eastern Ganges valley. In the fourth century B.C.E. it became the center...

    • CHAPTER 3 Karma in Brahmanism
      (pp. 33-54)

      During the period in which Jainism, Buddhism, and Ajivikism arose, Brahmanism belonged primarily to a geographically limited area, with its heartland in the middle and western parts of the Ganges plain. It was in this region that Brahmanism had been the culture of a largely hereditary class of priests, the Brahmins, who derived their livelihood and special position in society from their close association with the local rulers. These same Brahmins memorized and preserved the Veda, a large corpus of literature concerned primarily with their sacrificial activities (see the boxed text below).

      This situation changed with the political unification of...

    • CHAPTER 4 Karma and Philosophy
      (pp. 55-88)

      Accepting the belief in rebirth and karmic retribution is one thing. Understanding how and why it works is another. This problem confronted all of those who accepted this belief and particularly those who thought these topics were open to rational inquiry. This covered most of the intellectual elite of Jainism, Buddhism, and Brahmanism, especially from the early centuries C.E. onward. From that date onward a philosophical tradition established itself in the subcontinent, which developed systems of thought meant to explain the world we live in and in particular those aspects that concern us humans.

      This philosophical tradition, in its various...

  7. II. Variants of Karma
    • CHAPTER 5 Transfer of Merit
      (pp. 91-96)

      Rebirth and karmic retribution are a private affair. Living beings reap the consequences of what they have themselves done, not of what others have done. Only in this way does it make sense to look for escape from rebirth and karmic retribution in a highly individualized fashion, for example, by practicing asceticism or by finding out the true nature of one’s self.

      Various texts give expression to the fundamentally individual nature of karmic retribution. The following passage is from a Brahmanical text, theBrahma Purana(217.1–16):

      The sages asked Vyasa: “Who is the companion of a dying man, his...

    • CHAPTER 6 Competitors of Karma
      (pp. 97-103)

      The importance of karma is emphasized in texts belonging to both Brahmanism and Buddhism. A chapter of thePadma Purana(2.94), to take an example from the Brahmanical tradition, claims that karma is the cause of everything that happens in the universe. And the BuddhistAbhidharmakosha Bhashyaof Vasubandhu states in so many words that “the diversity in the world is born from karma”; other passages add that this includes the very structure of the universe. This does not entitle us to conclude that everyone in the Brahmanical and Buddhist traditions attributed quite so much importance to karma (not everyone...

    • CHAPTER 7 From One Life to the Next
      (pp. 104-110)

      The mental state at the precise moment of death is often considered to be particularly important for determining the nature of the next existence. In a certain sense this is not in conflict with the belief in karmic retribution, because the state one is in at the moment of death might be thought of as the end result of a whole life, and therefore as representative of what this life had been like. However, this is not always the case: one’s final mental state may not be representative of the life it concludes, but rather may be exceptional and unforeseen....

    • CHAPTER 8 Devotion
      (pp. 111-116)

      Our discussion of the way philosophers found a place for God to account for karmic retribution has confronted us with the question of whether their God was really barely more than a karmic accountant, someone who strictly followed the rules of karmic retribution, rules that He had neither invented nor ordained. In one way the answer must be yes, for there was not much else for God to do in their depiction of the world. We may, however, suspect that these thinkers attributed more importance than that of a mere intellectual stopgap to God. And if they didn’t, others did....

  8. Concluding Comments
    (pp. 117-122)

    DEVELOPMENTS OUTSIDE THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT Belief in reincarnation was known in ancient Greece. Herodotus claimed that this belief originally came from Egypt, but in this he was no doubt mistaken. The belief is frequently ascribed to Pythagoras, while the Orphic traditions, too, were associated with it. Plato argues for the prior existence and immortality of the soul, and may have believed in reincarnation. The later Pythagorean tradition maintained that Pythagoras had been a recipient of Indian wisdom, but this may be a more recent invention. Pythagoras lived in the sixth century B.C.E., well before the Buddha and Mahavira (who appear...

  9. Further Reading
    (pp. 123-126)
  10. Index
    (pp. 127-129)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 130-130)