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Karma (devanāgarī: कर्म) is a Sanskrit term that "action" or "deed." In in Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh religions karma refers to a law that regulates causes and effects.

"Karma is the restoration of a primordial equilibrium disturbed by the action of personal free-will."[1]

In Theosophy

H. P. Blavatsky defined it as follows:

Karma (Sk.). Physically, action: metaphysically, the LAW OF RETRIBUTION, the Law of cause and effect or Ethical Causation. Nemesis, only in one sense, that of bad Karma. It is the eleventh Nidana in the concatenation of causes and effects in orthodox Buddhism; yet it is the power that controls all things, the resultant of moral action, the meta physical Samskâra, or the moral effect of an act committed for the attainment of something which gratifies a personal desire. There is the Karma of merit and the Karma of demerit. Karma neither punishes nor rewards, it is simply the one Universal LAW which guides unerringly, and, so to say, blindly, all other laws productive of certain effects along the grooves of their respective causations. When Buddhism teaches that "Karma is that moral kernel (of any being) which alone survives death and continues in transmigration" or reincarnation, it simply means that there remains nought after each Personality but the causes produced by it; causes which are undying, i.e., which cannot be eliminated from the Universe until replaced by their legitimate effects, and wiped out by them, so to speak, and such causes—unless compensated during the life of the person who produced them with adequate effects, will follow the reincarnated Ego, and reach it in its subsequent reincarnation until a harmony between effects and causes is fully reestablished. No “personality”—a mere bundle of material atoms and of instinctual and mental characteristics—can of course continue, as such, in the world of pure Spirit. Only that which is immortal in its very nature and divine in its essence, namely, the Ego, can exist for ever. And as it is that Ego which chooses the personality it will inform, after each Devachan, and which receives through these personalities the effects of the Karmic causes produced, it is therefore the Ego, that self which is the “moral kernel” referred to and embodied karma, “which alone survives death.”[2]

Karma being a universal law, its effects cannot be erased by rituals, meditations, or spiritual beings. Mme. Blavatsky wrote:

No Adept of the Right Path will interfere with the just workings of Karma. Not even the greatest of Yogis can divert the progress of Karma or arrest the natural results of actions for more than a short period, and even in that case, these results will only reassert themselves later with even tenfold force, for such is the occult law of Karma and the Nidânas.[3]

Its workings are not mechanistic, and are difficult to predict even by Initiates. In one of his letters, Mahatma K.H. wrote to Mr. Sinnett, "you know nothing of the ins and outs of the work of karma — of the "side-blows" of this terrible Law",[4] and later added, "have another look at Karma . . . and remember that it ever works in the most unexpected ways".[5]

Accumulation of merits

The idea of performing good actions to accumulate merits is not encouraged by Theosophy, since in this case the motive of the action is still self-centered. Mme. Blavatsky quotes "from letters written by the Masters":

Let not the fruit of good Karma be your motive; for your Karma, good or bad, being one and the common property of all mankind, nothing good or bad can happen to you that is not shared by many others. Hence your motive, being selfish, can only generate a double effect, good and bad, and will either nullify your good action, or turn it to another man’s profit.[6]

Collective karma (distributive karma)

In her book The Key to Theosophy, H. P. Blavatsky wrote the following dialogue on the subject:

THEOSOPHIST. According to our teaching all these great social evils, the distinction of classes in Society, and of the sexes in the affairs of life, the unequal distribution of capital and of labour—all are due to what we tersely but truly denominate KARMA.

ENQUIRER. But, surely, all these evils which seem to fall upon the masses somewhat indiscriminately are not actual merited and INDIVIDUAL Karma?

THEOSOPHIST. No, they cannot be so strictly defined in their effects as to show that each individual environment, and the particular conditions of life in which each person finds himself, are nothing more than the retributive Karma which the individual generated in a previous life. We must not lose sight of the fact that every atom is subject to the general law governing the whole body to which it belongs, and here we come upon the wider track of the Karmic law. Do you not perceive that the aggregate of individual Karma becomes that of the nation to which those individuals belong, and further, that the sum total of National Karma is that of the World? The evils that you speak of are not peculiar to the individual or even to the Nation, they are more or less universal; and it is upon this broad line of Human interdependence that the law of Karma finds its legitimate and equable issue.

ENQUIRER. Do I, then, understand that the law of Karma is not necessarily an individual law?

THEOSOPHIST. That is just what I mean. It is impossible that Karma could readjust the balance of power in the world's life and progress, unless it had a broad and general line of action. It is held as a truth among Theosophists that the interdependence of Humanity is the cause of what is called Distributive Karma, and it is this law which affords the solution to the great question of collective suffering and its relief. It is an occult law, moreover, that no man can rise superior to his individual failings, without lifting, be it ever so little, the whole body of which he is an integral part. In the same way, no one can sin, nor suffer the effects of sin, alone. In reality, there is no such thing as "Separateness"; and the nearest approach to that selfish state, which the laws of life permit, is in the intent or motive.[7]

We also find Master K.H. referring to collective karma in one of his letters to A. P. Sinnett:

It is but a truism, yet I say it, that in adversity alone can we discover the real man. It is a true manhood when one boldly accepts one's share of the collective Karma of the group one works with, and does not permit oneself to be embittered, and to see others in blacker colours than reality, or to throw all blame upon some one "black sheep", a victim, specially selected. Such a true man as that we will ever protect and despite his shortcomings, assist to develop the good he has in him.[8]

No interference with Karma

A common question is, since all suffering comes from karma, whether a person should try to help others in the relief of it. Annie Besant wrote:

You need not be troubled about Karma any more than by the law of gravitation. You cannot interfere with it. That is a point that all who are beginning to read theosophical books ought to realize very clearly. Sometimes you find an ill-trained Theosophist who says, "I must not help so and so; it is his Karma to suffer." You might as well say you will not pick up a child that has fallen, because by the law of gravitation it has fallen and must be left under its law to take care of itself. Your duty is to do all you can to help others. If you cannot help them, their Karma will take you out of their road. Do not take Karma as an excuse for indolence, as I am sorry to say many people do.[9]

Lords of Karma

See Lipika.

In Hinduism

In Hinduism there are three kinds of karma: Sanchita karma (accumulated past karma), Prarabdha karma (the one ready to be experienced through the present incarnation), and Kriyamana karma (the karma being created in the present incarnation, the fruits of which will be experienced in the future).

Popular usage of term

The term karma, like guru, has been merged into everyday parlance of English and other modern languages. It is often used in a broadly correct fashion to mean "what goes around comes around" or "reaping what you sow." References to karma have become commonplace in literature, films, television programs, and games. "Credit Karma" is the name of a credit-monitoring business. John Lennon's song "Instant Karma!" posits a viewpoint that reactions to one's actions can occur immediately rather than playing out over a lifetime. A "naturally derived" glass cleaner has a notation on its bottle: "designed + sourced responsibly from beginning to end to beginning again. that's good karma. this bottle is made of 100% recycled plastic (PCR)."[10]

When the word is misused, the speaker is usually implying a fatalism that is inconsistent with the law of cause and effect:

The term "karma" is often used with great casualness, with little understanding of its profundity. People dismissively say "it's my karma," suggesting that their destiny or fate is merely the luck or bad fortune of the draw. This use of the term suggests a lack of personal power or responsibility for being at both the cause and the effect of what occurs in one's life. Using the phrase "it's my karma" suggests victimhood, and karma is anything but victimhood.[11]

Additional resources








  1. Claude Bragdon, "Karma Defined" The American Theosophist 65.9 (September 1977), 258. Bragdon noted that he had heard this definition from a young Hindu who had learned it from his master.
  2. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Theosophical Glossary (Krotona, CA: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 173-174.
  3. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. XII (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1980), 160-161.
  4. Hao Chin, Vic., Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett No. 126 (Quezon City, Manila: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 423.
  5. Hao Chin, Vic., Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett No. 126 (Quezon City, Manila: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 425.
  6. See H. P. Blavatsky to the American Conventions
  7. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy (London: Theosophical Publishing House, [1987]), ??.
  8. Hao Chin, Vic., Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett No. 131 (Quezon City, Manila: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 437.
  9. Annie Besant, Theosophical Lectures, (Chicago: The Rajput Press, 1907), 136.
  10. Method Glass + Surface naturally derived glass cleaner. methodhome.com.
  11. Judith Johnson, "What Is Karma and How Does It Work?" Huffington Post 03/26/2012. www.huffpost.com.