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Karma in Hinduism: Definition & Law

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Many people have heard of karma, but how well do you understand it? In this lesson, we'll look at karma as it's used in Hinduism and see how it can impact a person's life.

Hinduism and Karma

Did you know that Hinduism is the third most practiced religion in the world? It is the largest of the non-Abrahamic religions and has followers all over the world.

Hinduism is often misunderstood outside of Asian cultures, but one thing that everyone seems to catch on is the concept of karma, the cosmic scale that determines reincarnation in the Hindu cycle of rebirth. But how well do you really understand karma? If it's a concept that you believe in, even a little, then it's one you want to fully understand. After all, being wrong about karma is pretty bad karma.

The Law of Karma

For people in the Western world, karma is often seen as the principle of ''what goes around, comes around.'' While that's not exactly incorrect, a more appropriate axiom may come from the realm of physics. According to the third law of Sir Isaac Newton, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That's karma.

In Hinduism, karma is not simply some passive wisdom; it's an active law of existence, one that describes the spiritual cosmos much as Newton's law describes the physical world. Thus, we generally refer to the governing rules of karma as laws. Karma has many laws, but if you hear someone talking about the law, it's generally the law of cause and effect, also known as the Great Law or the Law of Karma. Basically, the Law of Karma states that every action you take will have an equal reaction. In Hinduism, this concept is explained through a garden metaphor: if you plant wholesome seeds, you will grow wholesome fruit.

So what does this mean? Basically, your actions can be categorized in two ways. Either they are wholesome, or they are unwholesome. Try not to conflate these terms with ''good'' and ''evil''; that sort of dichotomy doesn't hold up as well in Hinduism. An action is wholesome if it has positive effects in the world, while it is unwholesome if it they are negative.

Wholesome actions produce wholesome karma
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Unwholesome Karma

Here's where the karma comes in. If you commit an unwholesome action, you have generated unwholesome karma. This means that you are likely to experience negative consequences for your actions. In some cases, this could simply mean that your life will become less wholesome and you'll be less happy.

For instance, if you start stealing, then you become dishonest, your neighbors will stop trusting you, friends will abandon you, and you could end up alone and miserable. In this case, your unwholesome action had an unwholesome reaction. If you build up enough unwholesome karma, it will impact you beyond this lifetime. Too much unwholesome karma can result in rebirth in your next life as an animal, spirit, or other non-human and restless entity.

Wholesome Karma

At this point, you're probably trying to tally up your negative karma, but don't panic: there's wholesome karma too. When you resist the temptation to take an unwholesome action, when you act in kindness and honesty and when you preach Dharma (the moral law of the cosmos), you increase your wholesome karma. Again, in general, this is expected to create a reaction within your own lifetime.

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