Karma is a central element of South Asian thought, and, as such, it has deeply influenced South Asian religious and social practices. Although at its base karma means simply “act” or “action” (and in some contexts it continues to mean nothing more than this), for at least the past two thousand years, the term generally has been used to refer to acts or actions that necessarily produce broadly predictable future results: good acts produce good results, while bad acts produce bad results. Moreover, because the results of one’s acts may remain unrealized in a single lifetime, karma is tied inextricably to the notion of future births (punar-janman or “rebirth”). Given karma’s deep history in India, and the many contexts in which it occurs (for example, religious, social, philosophical), its implications frequently extend beyond this basic meaning. Accordingly, the study of karma requires a careful sifting of the Indian texts (generally studied in terms of specific textual epochs: Vedic, epic, and puranic, to name the best known strata). However, it must also be remembered that karma is not merely a textual relic, for it also occurs as a category of everyday experience, used in particular to explain an individual’s existential circumstances. On this level of the “lived-in” world, karma is frequently intermixed with other existential notions, such as fate and the will of the gods. Here, too, depending on any number of contextual factors, the implications of karma may vary considerably in meaning. Through Buddhism, karma became a foundational element in Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese religious thought. In the late 19th century, the theosophical movement brought karma to the West, though in a highly idiosyncratic fashion.
Until the 1970s, analytic studies of karma were essentially nonexistent. However, nonanalytic (and decidedly idiosyncratic) studies from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were abundant, though these were nearly always terribly misguided. Farqhar 1921 is a good example of this (see also the entries under Theosophy). A series of conferences held in the United States beginning in 1976 led to the publication of two important volumes of collected studies: Doniger O’Flaherty 1980, which emphasizes the study of karma through textual sources, and Keyes and Daniel 1983, which emphasizes the anthropological dimension. Another volume of collected essays, Neufeldt 1986, builds on Doniger O’Flaherty 1980 but moves outside “classical” Indian textual categories and even places some emphasis on the employment of the concept of karma in the West. Pappu 1987, an uneven collection, brings together essays that explore the philosophical side of karma (see The Indian Philosophical Traditions). Chapple 1986 treads lightly through a number of texts and contexts, focusing on notions of how karma and its apparent polar opposite, liberation, are ultimately conjoined at some of the deepest levels of Indian thought. Krishan 1997 emphasizes the textual appearances of the karma doctrine and presents the only full scholarly treatment of the doctrine by a single author. Obeyesekere 2002, in a wide-ranging exploration of karma, boldly looks at the appearance of karmalike conceptualizations in the afterlife beliefs in non-Indic societies and elicits a developmental model for the Indian karma doctrine. Tull 2004 presents a brief yet comprehensive overview of karma as it appears in a number of different milieus, both textual and nontextual.
Chapple, Christopher. Karma and Creativity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.
In this brief yet comprehensive study, Chapple considers a range of texts but centers on a careful analysis two short texts from the Mahābhārata and the Yogavāsiṣṭha (included in two appendices). Chapple explains these texts with great clarity and puts forward a compelling argument that ultimately the Indian tradition posits a world in which action is not dissonant with liberation.
Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy, ed. Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Sets the standard for scholarship on this subject. Brings together a series of in-depth examinations of karma in India’s best-known textual milieus. Contains contributions from many of the most influential scholars working in Indian studies in the latter part of the 20th century.
Farqhar, J. N. “Karma: Its Value as a Doctrine of Life.” Hibbert Journal XX (1921): 20–34.
Writing in this popular, liberal Christian journal, Farqhar praised the karma doctrine for maintaining moral boundaries among the Indian people, but derided the doctrine for providing Hindus with a justification for not treating their fellow men with compassion. Farqhar believed that karma, similar to the other fundamental doctrines of Hinduism, would disappear in the face of India’s encounter with the “evolved” morality of Christianity.
Keyes, Charles F., and E. Valentine Daniel, eds. Karma: An Anthropological Inquiry. Berkeley: University of California, 1983.
A follow-up to Doniger O’Flaherty 1980 that moves outside textual representations of karma to seek the doctrine in practice. Similar to Doniger O’Flaherty, the authors reach a high academic standard, with contributions by a number of influential contemporary scholars of India (in this case, nearly all anthropologists). They examine karma not only as an independent doctrine but also as one idea among a complex of ideas (fate, witchcraft, etc.) that serve to explain the human condition.
Krishan, Yuvraj. The Doctrine of Karma: Its Origin and Development in Brāhmaṇical, Buddhist, and Jaina Traditions. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997.
Reprising a series of articles published over a twenty-year period, Krishan’s study presents a largely historical overview of karma in nearly all the major Indian textual milieus. Contains a number of key passages from Indian texts and presupposes a firm grasp of the Indian tradition.
Neufeldt, Ronald W., ed. Karma and Rebirth: Post Classical Developments. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.
Examines modernist notions of karma in India and in West, and includes several studies that look broadly at the way in which karma was transformed in its adoption in China, Japan, and Tibet. Contributors to this volume are nearly all scholars in religious studies.
Obeyesekere, Gananath. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
An ambitious work that examines karma as a fundamental category of thought, thereby locating it (or karmalike doctrines) in both Indic and non-Indic cultures. This is a work of superb scholarship; as Obeyesekere moves nimbly through a range of contexts and tackles a number of difficult theoretical issues. Obeyesekere formulates the critically important notion for karma studies that the karma doctrine arises through the “ethicization” of action.
Pappu, S. S. Rama Rao, ed. Dimensions of Karma. Delhi: Chanakya, 1987.
Explores karma in Indian thought through the lens of traditional Western philosophic categories (for example, religion, metaphysics, and morality). Additionally, several of the essays in this volume view karma through a comparativist lens. Unfortunately, the value of this volume is compromised by a number of weak essays.
Tull, Herman. “Karma.” In The Hindu World. Edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 309–331. New York: Routledge, 2004.
A brief essay, but comprehensive in scope. Examines karma’s origins but also considers the representation of karma in the epics, Hindu lawbooks, and puranas, as well as the intersection of karma with other fundamental elements of Indian thought, such as duty, fate, and divine intervention.
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