(‘that which is done’)

‘Karma’ is one of the most widely used words in Hinduism. Derived from the root-verb ‘kṛ’ (= to do), its general meaning is anything that is done. In this sense, it means: work; profession; and, duty.

However, more often than not, it is used in a technical sense, as an action that binds one to saṁsāra or transmigratory existence. This type of karma can be accomplished either by the body or by speech or by the mind. The respective names for these are: kāyika, vācika and mānasa karmas.

Again, this karma with the potential to produce its fruits, can be classified as sañcita (accumulated over several lives), prārabdha (begun to bear fruit in this life) and āgāmī (being performed now and in future).

All the darśanas or philosophies that accept this theory of karma also concede that:

  1. The effects of karmas done in one life cannot be expected to be exhausted in that life itself. Hence punarjanma or rebirth has to be accepted.
  2. Jñāna or spiritual wisdom resulting in the realisation of one’s nature as the immortal soul, destroys sañcitakarma completely and makes āgāmī incapable of producing its results even as a burnt seed cannot sprout. However, prārabdhakarma, since it has already started giving its results, has got to be exhausted only through experiencing it.

From another standpoint, karma is of two types: niṣiddhakarma or prohibited or sinful actions that must be avoided; vihita-karma or actions ordained by the scriptures as duty, to be performed.

The latter again, is of three types: kāmyakarma (desire-motivated actions); nityakarma (daily duties); naimittika-karma (occasional duties).

Kāmyakarma is performed to fulfil a desire that cannot, otherwise, be fulfilled by normal human efforts. For instance, the Putrakāmeṣṭi rite said to have been performed by the king Daśaratha to get worthy sons, belongs to this category. So also the several vratas (religious vows and rites) like the Satyanārāyaṇa vrata which are common even now.

Ordained daily duties like sandhyā-vandana, repetition of the Gāyatrī mantra and Agnihotra belong to the nityakarma group.

Naimittikakarmas have to be performed due to certain nimittas or the presence of special causes. For instance, during an eclipse, śrāddhas (obsequial rites) have to be done.

Sometimes, karmas or actions are classified according to their nature, good or bad. Actions done without being tainted by likes and dislikes or selfish motives, (but with noble intent) are called sāttvika (good). If done with these, they become rājasika (mixed). If they are motivated by evil designs, to harm others, they are dubbed as tāmasika (dark or evil).

Occasionally the word ‘karma’ is also used to indicate the saṁskāras or sacraments.