what is karma

What Is Karma? [is karma real]

Ever heard the phrase, “Karma, what goes around comes around”? Or have you ever seen someone in a bad situation and another person responds, “Karma, they just got what was coming to them”?

Both of these sayings suggest that there is a reason behind the things that happen to us as if we should expect the world to turn out a certain way. For those who believe in karma, the explanation is clear: we get back what we put out.

Karma Definition

The word “karma” itself is of ancient Eastern origin, and it means “action,” “word,” or “deed.” Karma is “cause” and “effect”. The original definition of karma refers to the act as well as the thought or intention behind the act. Ancient cultures believed that the intent behind everything we say or do carries out into the action itself. Carrying some form of spiritual energy can cause either good or evil. Karma, then, has come to be defined by the “energy” created by our actions.

Karma Definition
Karma Definition

Karma Meaning

For example, if we act out of love and generosity, those actions carry with them positive energy and are believed to create good karma. On the other hand, bad karma can be created when we speak selfishly or harshly toward others, or act in a way that seeks to slight or hurt others.

There are numerous other definitions of karma, based mostly on the various belief systems that hold to this belief in some form or fashion. These belief systems include Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and more. However, there are several basic tenets that are common among all these philosophies.

Karma Principle

The three main principles of karma are the notion of cause and effect, the ethical plane, and rebirth (or reincarnation).

Law of Cause and Effect Karma

The first principle of karma is cause and effect, which is perhaps best understood as a scientific principle. In its simplest form, this concept states that every effect has a cause that brought it about, and every action performed by a cause will necessarily have some kind of effect.

In most cases, the cause and effect are one and the same. A person’s words or actions, and the resulting spiritual energies they create, can have a direct effect on the person who performed them.

Another saying that summarizes this concept is, “You reap what you sow.” Whatever energy a person puts out into the universe is returned to them in some manner or form.

The intention behind the action is usually key here. Some belief systems hold that only actions with clear, specific motivations will have an effect on the person doing them, and it will always be either good or bad depending on the intention of the person.

Law of Cause and Effect Karma
Law of Cause and Effect Karma

If you do good deeds, you will have good deeds returned to you, and vice versa. Such results may not be immediately apparent, but they will have their effect nonetheless.

Good Karma Meaning

The second basic principle of karma is an ethical one. There is always a consideration of good and evil when thinking about the karmic energy presented by a person’s actions. Most belief systems that incorporate karma also hold some moral standard by which actions are weighed and measured.

This then determines the type of energy a person creates. As a continuation of the first thought, morally good actions will create positive karma, whereas morally bad actions will create negative karma. The goal of this element of belief is to encourage a moral life and to discourage an immoral life.

Karma and Reincarnation

The third principle concept behind karma is that it is part of the common concept of rebirth and reincarnation. Karmic energy is said to transcend a person’s life and that it has the ability to carry over into that person’s “next” life or state of being. 

This can mean that a person’s karma may not have any visible effect in the present time but that as the person’s spirit is reincarnated and begins a new life that energy will be rolled over and take effect during that lifetime. 

Karma can also affect the type of life a person is reborn into. If they possess good karma, they will enter a more improved state in their next life. While negative karma can have negative side effects on the reincarnation process.

Karma Symbol

The common symbol for karma is that of a pattern depicting an endless knot. With many turns and overlaps, the endless knot displays the recursive and interwoven nature of karmic energy. 

Every cause has an effect, which then is the cause of its own effect, and so on until it returns to the beginning of the cycle. The endlessly repeating pattern of rebirth and interconnectedness is a visual representation of the basic elements of the belief.

Karma Symbol
Karma Symbol

Religion Karma

Numerous religions use karma as part of their teachings. In most cases, these are Eastern religious systems that subscribe to universal energies instead of formal deities. However, comparable concepts are present in monotheistic religions like Christianity and other philosophical platforms. 

Here is a brief explanation of how each major world religion uses karma as part of its belief system.

Karma Hinduism Definition

Hinduism is the first major modern religion to incorporate karma into its teachings. The hallmark of Hindu karma is the distinction between three different types of karmic energy:

Sanchita karma

  • Sanchita karma is the sum total of the karmic energy a person has accumulated over their collective lifetimes. Since the total energy cannot be exerted all at once, portions of it are expelled over time, and our present actions continually act or detract from it.

Prarabda karma

  • Prarabda karma is that energy that appears in a given moment. It is said to have “ripened” and become ready for dispersal in present circumstances, as a portion of the sanchita karma.

Agami karma

  • Agami karma, or Kriyamana karma, is the energy that is created by our present actions. It cannot be used or felt in this lifetime, but instead is added to the Sanchita karma for our future selves.

Even within Hinduism, there are a vast array of interpretations and applications for the concept of karma. Some schools of thought believe that a supreme deity controls the karmic energy of the universe, while others believe that the energy itself is a deity of sorts.

That being said, most agree that a person can change their karma through a changed lifestyle. If a person has bad karma, their positive and morally right actions can tip the scale in a more favorable direction. Karma is almost seen by some as a scientific principle.

Buddhism Karma

Buddhism Karma
Buddhism Karma

In Buddhism, karma has many similar features, including the notion of cause and effect, and the creation of positive or negative energy depending on your thoughts or actions.

Mindfulness, which is another central tenet of Buddhism, is especially key with karma since only intentional and focused action creates karmic energy.

The key difference is in the rebirth and reincarnation process. For some Buddhists, reincarnation is a sign that they have not ascended to a higher plane of existence, and the lack of positive karma is the cause. If a person can create enough positive energy in their life, they can be liberated from the cycle of rebirth, which is called “samsara.”

Karma itself, sometimes spelled “kamma,” is one of the four subjects that many Buddhists have identified as “imponderables.” These concepts are so far beyond human comprehension that to dwell on them is to be removed from the more important state of mind that Buddhism attempts to create. 

It seems counterintuitive, then, that attention on karma should be avoided even though dedicated effort is required to create karmic energy as a pathway out of a reincarnation cycle. 


Jainism is another belief system that utilizes karma, but it does so in a completely different way from other religions.

What is Jainism?

Jainism is another Indian religion that teaches purity and learnedness via a disciplined approach.

Jainism Karma

Here, there are multiple karmas that are either created by a person’s consciousness, a person’s body, and the interactions of the two, plus the various positive and negative reactions that may occur. 

Karma also exists independently of any other energy or being. The push and pull of karmic energies in Jainism is key to the cycle of rebirth. By exerting effort in one lifetime, a person’s karma can be purified and refined for future lifetimes.

Karma and Christianity

While not strictly identical to Eastern doctrines, some Judeo-Christian belief systems have concepts that may be compared to karma.

Karma and Christianity
Karma and Christianity

Christianity, in particular, teaches that a person’s sin will lead to eternal punishment. The very phrase, “you reap what you sow,” is taken from New Testament doctrine.

In Judaism, much of the Old Testament legal system for the Hebrews was based on divine retribution, which was also commanded to be practiced by the people. Another common biblical phrase, “An eye for an eye,” demands comparable compensation for an injury or crime. 

Judaism even holds the belief that the effects of a person’s actions will come back to them in ways they will not expect.

Where Christianity and Judaism differ from Eastern religions is the belief that the retribution or return for a person’s actions is not due to some unknowable cosmic force, but will be deliberately given back to them by God.

In most cases, this is seen as divine punishment for crimes against God’s law and blessings for actions in keeping with His loving and generous character. God’s final judgment at the end of the world is the final end to the system, whereas karma is believed to be a continual cycle.

What Does the Bible Say About Karma?

As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.

Job 4:8

Despite the fact that Christianity does not definitively speak of a belief in karma, it is easy for many followers to fall into the thinking that a person’s deeds will have certain effects on their lives. There are many scriptures in the Bible that discuss what some could say is karma.

Many have taken concepts from the Bible to say that living within the favor of God will lead to prosperity in this life. On the other hand, those same people may be quick to curse the actions of others as deserving of divine punishment. 

Stories portrayed in the Scripture can lead a person to this assumption upon a surface-level reading of the text in some cases.

Karma and Other Religions

Other Eastern religions include some concept of karma as well.

For example, Sikh believers focus solely on the cause and effect and believe that a person’s “harvest” is exactly what they “plant” by their actions.

On the other hand, Taoists hold that divine beings keep track of a person’s every word or action, and rewards or punishments are given based on those actions, including upward or downward progression in the reincarnation cycle.

The 12 Laws of Karma

Sometimes called the “12 Rules of Karma”

The 12 Laws of Karma
The 12 Laws of Karma
  1. The Great Law – “The Law of Cause & Effect”
  2. The Law of Creation – “Go Create Something Good”
  3. The Law of Humility – “Accepting Certain Things as they are is the First Step to Change”
  4. The Law of Growth – “Growth Never Ends, Change and Evolve”
  5. The Law of Responsibility – “You are Responsible for the Good and Bad in Your Life”
  6. The Law of Connection – “You are Connected to Everyone and Everything”
  7. The Law of Force – “Focusing Your Force of Energy on One Thing, Not Many, is Key”
  8. The Law of Giving and Hospitality – “Be Selfless, Give to Others, Do, Don’t Just Preach”
  9. The Law of Here and Now – “Live for the Moment as that is Truly What You Have”
  10. The Law of Change – “Learn from Your Past Experiences and Make Changes Accordingly”
  11. The Law of Patience and Reward – “Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Do the Work and be Patient”
  12. The Law of Significance and Inspiration – “You are a Gift to World, Share Your Positive Influence”

Is Karma Real?

Whether we will admit it or not, many of us today believe in karma even if it is only a mild superstition. We will condemn a person’s crimes or abuses of others and say they will soon bear the consequences of their actions. 

Similarly, many of us believe that a person will receive blessings in their life if they do so to others first. Furthermore, since cause and effect are such a basic scientific principle, we are naturally inclined to see these patterns in the moral and ethical realm as well.

However, have you ever been able to “see” or observe karma, and such spiritual energies? Basically, such things cannot be discretely measured. It is also very easy to modify or even change how the idea of karma can be applied to a belief system as you see happen across all major religions.

It is also very easy to fold a basic cause and effect system into any mode of thought. Psychoanalysis and New Age spirituality frequently make use of ideas like karma to explain how a person’s actions can affect themselves and others. It is probably true that the idea of retribution for hurtful actions is comforting to those that have suffered from them.

is karma real
Is Karma Real?

Does Karma Work?

Whatever a person’s religion or belief system, karma undoubtedly comes into play for many in one form or another. It fits neatly within our preconceived ideas about how things should work and is flexible enough to be molded into virtually any framework of thought.

Does karma actually work? So is karma real? Is there good karma and bad karma? Well, just as the question, “What is the meaning of life?”, the answer depends on the individual you ask and their perception of reality.

does karma work

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