Karma and rebirth, Indian conceptions of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F069-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

The combined beliefs in karma and rebirth, that is, the retributive power of actions and decisions and a beginningless, though not necessarily endless, succession of births and deaths for living beings, constitute a fundamental premise of the great majority of India’s religious and philosophical traditions. The suggestion first made by the great Muslim scholar al-Biruni (973–1048) that they are the fundamental creed of Indian religious thought in general may be questionable, but it is certainly understandable. Although such notions are by no means exclusively Indian, they have played a far more central and pervasive role in India than in any other cultural domain.

In a sense, the idea of karmic retribution postulates that the act itself will hold its originator responsible and accountable. Acts of moral or ritual significance will bring about their own reward or punishment, that is, favourable or unfavourable experiences. On the other hand, favourable or unfavourable experiences and conditions are forms of reward or punishment for past actions and decisions. Karmic retribution takes place through a sequence of countless existences and may involve a movement through a vast variety of forms of life. More specifically, this implies that birth into a particular species, physiological and psychological features, sex, social status, life span, exposure to pleasant or unpleasant experiences, and so on, appear as results of previous actions (usually acts committed in previous lives), and that current actions are expected to have a corresponding influence on future existences. In Sanskrit, the realm of rebirth and karmic retribution is known as saṃsāra. Its precise scope has been subject to some debate. The most common assumption is that it coincides with sentient existence and includes the entire hierarchy of living organisms from the gods down to the plants. While later Buddhism tends to exclude the plants from this domain, Jainism finds forms of life and sentience even in the elements water, earth, and so forth. Most schools of philosophy view being in saṃsāra as a condition of bondage, suffering and alienation; even karmic ascent is ultimately undesirable. The ability to transcend this condition by transforming and eventually eliminating the power of karma is often associated with human existence and considered a rare privilege. Most forms of life are just forms of karmic retribution, without any capacity for karmic initiative.

The historical origins of the doctrine of karma and rebirth cannot be determined with certainty and precision. While the Vedas and Brāhmaṇas provide significant antecedents, they do not show any clear recognition of the doctrine as such. Even in the older Upaniṣads (prior to 500 bc), its formulations are still tentative, partial and more or less isolated. It seems that the teachings of the Buddha added a new and stricter notion of causality and a far more explicit sense of moral responsibility and universal applicability to the older versions. The other important reform movement of this period, Jainism, showed an early commitment to a systematic elaboration of karmic factors and processes. Unlike the Buddhists, the Jainas developed a reified, even substantialist notion of karma. In Hindu literature, such texts as the great epic the Mahābhārata (beginning around 400 bc) give clear evidence of a fully developed and generally recognized doctrine of karma and rebirth. Subsequently, the doctrine was adopted and variously interpreted by most schools of philosophical and religious thought. It served, moreover, as a basic premise of law texts, popular narratives and mythologies, and a wide array of traditional ‘sciences’, such as medicine, embryology and astrology. Significant disagreements and debates occurred with regard to the status and character of the karmic agent and the subject of transmigration and rebirth (most conspicuously in connection with the Buddhist denial of a durable ‘self’ or ātman). The moral relevance and metaphysical qualities of acts and decisions, the nature of karmic causality and the mechanism of rebirth, the possibility of a transfer of karma, the compatibility of knowledge and action, and the prospects of and problems concerning the elimination of karma and the ultimate transcendence of rebirth provided further topics of debate.

In its various contexts and applications, the doctrine of karma and saṃsāra has at least three different yet interrelated functions and dimensions: it is used to provide causal explanations (especially in the realm of life); it serves as a framework for ethical discipline and religious orientation; and it provides the rationale for a fundamental dissatisfaction with worldly existence and a commitment to final liberation from such existence. The ways in which these functions have been balanced or correlated with one another reflect fundamental trends and tensions in the Indian tradition in general.

    Citing this article:
    Halbfass, Wilhelm. Karma and rebirth, Indian conceptions of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F069-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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