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According to Jainism, Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म, kär'mə, kär'mən, Prakrit: कम्म, kä'mmə) means that every action, every word, every thought produces, besides its visible, an invisible, transcendental effect. The word karma is commonly understood to mean "action," but implies both action and reaction. However, Karma in Jainism conveys a totally different meaning as commonly understood in the Hindu philosophy and western civilisation. [1] It is not the so called inaccessible mystic force that controls the fate of living beings in some inexplicable way. It does not mean "deed", "work", nor invisible, mystical force (adrsta), but a complexes of very fine matter, imperceptible to the senses, which interacts with the soul and causes great changes in it. The karma, then, is something material (karmapaudgalam), which produces in the soul certain conditions, even as a medical pill which, when introduced into the body, produces therein manifold effects.[2] Hermann Kuhn, quoting from Umasvati's Tattvartha Sutra, describes karma as "…a mechanism that makes us thoroughly experience the themes of our life until we gained optimal knowledge from them and until our emotional attachment to these themes falls off." [1]

According to Robert J. Zydenbos, Jainism can be considered a kind of system of laws, but natural rather than moral laws. In Jainism, actions that carry moral significance are considered to cause certain consequences in just the same way as, for instance, physical actions that do not carry any special moral significance. When one holds an apple in one's hand and then lets go of the apple, the apple will fall: this is only natural. There is no judge, and no moral judgment involved, since this is a mechanical consequence of the physical action. [3]

According to Jainism, consequences occur when one does something that is harmful. Rather than assume that moral rewards and retribution are the work of a divine judge, the Jains believe that there is an innate moral order to the cosmos, self-regulating through the workings of karma. Morality and ethics are important not because of a god, but because a life that is led in agreement with moral and ethical principles is considered beneficial; it leads to a decrease and finally to the total loss of karma, which in turns leads to ever increasing happiness.[3] In these ways it is similar to some other Dharmic religions, especially Buddhism.

As all actions have consequences, some immediate, some delayed, others in future incarnations, the doctrine of karma must be considered not in relation to one life only, but with an understanding of reincarnation. In fact, it forms a central and fundamental part of Jain faith and is intricately connected to other concepts like transmigration, reincarnation, liberation, ahimsa, and non-attachment to name a few. Hence it is not surprising that since ages Jains have produced abundant of doctrinal material dealing with the karmic mechanism, causes of karmas, types of karmas, nature and duration of karmas, liberation from karmas and like.

The Concept: Material Karmic Particles

In Jainism, karma is referred to as karmic dirt, as it consists of very subtle and microscopic particles that cannot be perceived by our senses i.e. pudgala that pervade the entire universe. [4] They are so small that one space-point (smallest possible extent of space) contains infinite times infinite karmic particles. These material Karmas are called dravya karma and the resultant emotions of pleasure, pain, love, hatred etc are called bhaav karma i.e. psychic karmas. The relationship between the material karmas and psychic karmas is that of cause and effect. The material karmas give rise to the feelings and emotions in the worldly souls, which, in turn, cause the influx and bondage of fresh material karmas.

Karmic matter is actually the agent that enables us (our consciousness) to act within the material context of this universe. When attracted to our consciousness, they are stored in our interactive karmic field i.e. karmic sharira. They are attracted to the soul on account of vibrations created by activities of mind, speech and body and stick to the soul due to various mental dispositions. Thus the karmas are the subtle matter surrounding the consciousness of a soul. When these two components i.e. consciousness and karma interact, we experience the life as we know it at present.

Mechanism of Karma

Karmas are often wrongly interpreted as a method for reward and punishment of a soul for its good and bad deeds. In Jainism, there is no question of there being any reward or punishment, as each soul is the master of its own destiny. The karmas can be said to represent a sum total of all unfulfilled desires of a soul. They enable the soul to experience the various themes of the lives that it desires to experience.[1] They ultimately mature when the necessary supportive conditions required for maturity are fulfilled.[4] Hence a soul may transmigrate from one life form to another for countless of years, taking with it the karmas that it has earned, until it finds conditions that bring about the fruits. Similarly, heavens and hells are often viewed as places for eternal happiness or eternal damnation for good and bad deeds. But according to Jainism and some other Dharmic religions, they, including earth, are simply the places which allow the soul to temporarily experience its unfulfilled desires.

For example, a person who is good and virtuous all his life indicates a latent desire to experience good and virtuous themes of life. Therefore, he attracts karmas that will ensure that his future births allow him to experience and manifest his virtues and good feelings unhindered. In this case, he may take birth in heaven or in a prosperous and virtuous human family. A person who has always indulged in immoral deeds with a cruel disposition indicates a latent desire to experience cruel themes of life. As a natural consequence, he will attract karmas which will ensure that he is reincarnated in hell to enable him to experience the cruel themes of life unhindered, as the environment in hell is conducive of such life. There is no retribution, judgment or reward involved.

Hence whatever suffering or pleasure that a soul may be experiencing now is on account of choices that it has made in past. That is why Jainism stresses pure thinking and moral behaviour. Apart from Buddhism, Jainism may be the only religion that does not invoke the fear of God as a reason for moral behaviour.

Karmic process

A soul is in bondage with karma since beginning-less time. It is not thought that soul was originally pure and that at certain point of time it lost purity by attracting karma. As such Jainism is not concerned with the fall of man. The soul is in association with the karmas by continuous attraction and disintegration of karmic particles. The entire karmic process can be understood by understanding as to what causes the karmic bondage, what is the nature and duration of karmic bonds, how the karmas bear fruit, how the karmas can be modified and how one can attain release from the karmas.

Causes of karmic bondage

Karmas are attracted by the activity of mind, speech and body influenced by various passions.

Irrationality (mithyatva), non-restraint (avirati), carelessness (pramada), passions (kashaya) and activities of mind, speech and body (yoga) result in karmic bondage.[4] The influx of karmas is called asrava and the resultant bondage is called bandha. According to Jainism, even the mental disposition of a person results in the karmic bondage. For example, an intense desire to kill also attracts the karmic particles and results in the karmic bondage even if no one is actually killed. Hence, Jains attach a lot of importance to purity of thought.

The Tattvartha Sutra identifies the following elements in the process of attachment of karmas:

  • Activity (yoga) attracts the karmic matter to our consciousness[5]
  • Negative emotions like anger, pride, greed and deceit cause the bondage between the karma and our consciousness.[4]
  • The nature and intensity of our emotions determine the strength of these bonds i.e. nature, duration and quantity of the karmas so attracted.[4]

The karmas are attracted to the consciousness of the soul by combination of the following four factors[4]:

  1. The instrumentality of our actions. We act by either through
    • body i.e. physical action,
    • speech i.e. verbal action, or
    • mind i.e. thoughts
  2. The process of action. This includes whether we
    • only decide or plan to act,
    • make preparations for the act e.g. like collecting necessary materials, or
    • actually begin the action
  3. The modality of our action, including if we
    • we ourselves carry out the act,
    • we instigate others to carry out the act, or
    • we give our silent approval for the act
  4. The motivation for action. This includes which of the following negative emotions that actions is motivated by.
    • Anger
    • Greed
    • Pride
    • Manipulation or deceit

Thus a karma is attached to a soul in a combination of any one element of the above four factors. Due to this, there are 108 ways with which the karmas are attracted.

Experiencing the effects of the karmas

How one experiences the effects of the karma depends on [4]:

  • Prikriti - The nature or type of karma.
  • Stithi - The duration of the karmic bond. Up to the time it does not activate, the karmic bond remains latent and bounded to our consciousness. Although latent karma does not affect the soul directly, its existence alone limits spiritual growth.
  • Anubhava – Intensity of karmas. This determines the power of karmas and its effect on the soul.
  • Pradesha – Quantity of karmic matter that gets activated.

Duration, intensity and quantity are determined by the intensity of our emotional engagement at the time of the binding of the karmas. The type or nature of the karmas bound depends on the nature of the activity that bound the karma in first place.

How the karmas bear results

The consequences of karma are inevitable. The consequences may take some time to take effect but the karma is never fruitless. To explain this, a Jain monk, Ratnaprabhacharya once said, "The prosperity of a vicious man and misery of a virtuous man are respectively but the effects of good deeds and bad deeds done previously. The vice and virtue will have their effects in their next lives. In this way the law of causality is not infringed here."[6]

The latent karma becomes active and bears fruit when the supportive conditions arise.[4] A great part of attracted karma bears its consequences with minor fleeting effects, as generally most of our activities are influenced by mild negative emotions. However, those actions that are influenced by intense negative emotions cause an equally strong karmic attachment which usually does not bear fruit immediately. It takes on an inactive state and waits for the supportive conditions as to time, place, and environment to arise for it to manifest and produce effects. If the supportive conditions do not arise, the respective karmas will manifest at the end of maximum period for which it can remain bound to the soul. There are certain laws of precedent among the karmas according to which the fruition of some of the karmas may be deferred but not absolutely barred.

Modifications of karma

While Jainas hold the karmic concequences as inevitable, Jain texts also hold that it is possible to transform and modify the effects of the karmas. The following are the states and transformation of karmas as described in Pancha Sangrah by 9th Century Jain Acharya Chandrsi Mahattar[7]:

  1. Udaya - operation of karmas, or the state of fruition of karmas and the state where the karmic effects are felt.
  2. Udirana - premature operation, such as when certain karmas become operative before their predetermined time. When a certain karma is already operative, similar type of karma can be made operative.
  3. Utkarshan - augmentation, or subsequent increase in duration and intensity of the karmas due to additional negative emotions and feelings.
  4. Apkarshan - diminution, or subsequent decrease in duration and intensity of the karmas due to positive emotions and feelings.
  5. Sankraman - mutation, or conversion of one sub-type of karmas into another sub-type. Mutation does not occur between types. For example, pap (bad karma) can be converted into punya (good karma), both being of same sub-type.
  6. Upashaman - state of subsidence. During this state the operation of karma does not occur. The karma becomes operative only when the duration of subsidence ceases.
  7. Nidhatti - prevention, or state where premature operation and mutation is not possible but augmentation and diminution is possible.
  8. Nikaachana - invariance. For some sub-types, no transformation or modifications are possible, the consequences are the same as were established at the time of bonding.

It is evident that according to Jain karma theory, our thoughts and feelings are quite important, not only at the time of binding the karmas, but also for its operation and modifications.

Release from karmas

The shedding or Nirjara of karmic dust or karmas is possible by austerities, detachment, repentance and devotion to Arihants and Siddhas.

Once attached to the karmic field, the karmas drop off only after they bear the necessary fruits or results for the soul (Udaya). It is possible to stop the influx of karmas (samvara) as well as shed the karmas (nirjara) by maintaining equanimity and detachment and by practicing penance and repentance for various deeds.[8] This leads to liberation and this is the basis of Jain philosophy. According to Jainism, the influx, bondage, stoppage, and shedding of karmas and salvation are solely functions of the soul. Unlike in Hinduism, God has no role to play in Jainism as a dispenser of karmas.

According to Jainism, karmic consequences are unerringly certain and inescapable. No divine grace can save a person from experiencing its consequences. Only practice of complete equanimity and detachment and practice of austerities can modify or alleviate the consequences of the karmas. In some cases there is no option but to accept the karmas with equanimity. Some Jain stories show how even Mahavira had to bear the brunt of his previous karmas before attaining enlightenment.

Types of Karmas

There are eight types of karmas, categorized into four Ghatiya and four Aghatiya karmas.[4]

Ghatiya karmas

These directly affect the attributes of the soul. These are:

  1. Knowledge-obscuring karma (Jnanavarniya karma) – These karmas obscure the knowledge attribute of the soul.
  2. Perception-obscuring karma (Darshanavarniya karma) – These karmas diminish the powers of Perception of a soul.
  3. Deluding karma (Mohaniya karma) - These karmas are an instrumental cause of destruction the soul's right belief and right conduct. Of all karmas, deluding karma is the most difficult to overcome. Once this is eradicated, liberation is ensured.
  4. Obstructing karma (Antaraya karma) - The fruition of these karmas creates obstructions to giving donations, obtaining gains, and enjoying things.

When Ghatiya karmas are totally destroyed, the soul attains kevaljnana or omniscience. Liberation is guaranteed for such souls in the same lifetime as soon it burns off the Aghatiya karmas also.

Aghatiya karmas

These do not affect the soul directly; rather, they have an effect on the body that houses the soul.

These are:

  1. Lifespan-determining karma (Ayu karma) – These karmas determine the subsequent states of existence and lifespan therein after death. The soul gets locked either into subhuman (Tiryanch), infernal (Naraki), human (Manushya), or celestial (Dev) bodies for its next birth.
  2. Body-determining karma (Nama karma) – These karmas determine the type of body occupied by the soul.
  3. Status-determining karma (Gotra karma) - The fruition of these karmas gives one high status or low status in society.
  4. Feeling-producing karma (Vedaniya karma) - These karmas become an instrumental cause of the interruption of the soul's uninterrupted happiness (Avyabadh sukha). As a result of this, the soul remains agitated.

As soon as the soul releases Aghatiya karmas, it attains moksha or liberation.

Each of these types has various sub-types. The Tattvartha Sutra generally speaks of 148 types and sub-types of karmas.

Duration of Karmas

The maximum duration of attachment of karma is 70 kotakoti[9] sagaropama[10] and minimum time is less than one muharta[11].The maximum and minimum time for which the karmas remain bound to our consciousness depends on the type of karma which is as follows :-

Type of Karma Maximum duration Minimum duration
Jnanvarniya Karma 30 Kotakoti Sagaropama (3000 trillion sagaropama years) <1muhurta (less than 48 minutes)
Darsanavarniya Karma 30 Kotakoti Sagaropama (3000 trillion sagaropama years) <1muhurta (less than 48 minutes)
Mohaniya Karma 70 Kotakoti Sagaropama (7000 trillion sagaropama years) <1muhurta (less than 48 minutes)
Antraya Karma 30 Kotakoti Sagaropama (3000 trillion sagaropama years) <1muhurta (less than 48 minutes)
Ayu Karma 33 Sagaropama (33 sagaropama years) <1muhurta (less than 48 minutes)
Nama Karma 20 Kotakoti Sagaropama (2000 trillion sagaropama years) 8 Muhurta (6 hrs and 24 min)
Gotra Karma 20 Kotakoti Sagaropama (2000 trillion sagaropama years) 8 Muhurta (6 hrs and 24 min)
Vedniya Karma 30 Kotakoti Sagaropama (3000 trillion sagaropama years) 12 Muhurta (9 hrs and 36 min)

Rationale of karmic theory

Jains cite inequalities, sufferings, and pain as evidence for the existence of Karma. The theory of karma is able to explain day-to-day observable phenomena such as inequality between the rich and the poor, luck, differences in lifespan, and the ability to enjoy life despite being immoral. These disparities and sufferings can be explained as being on account of previously accumulated karmas.

Jains believe that they never have to be apologetic about sufferings, pain and unhappiness as God's creations, nor do they need to believe in Satan as a creator of evil. Instead, they believe each individual is empowered by making himself responsible for his own happiness as well as salvation.

Relationship of karma with other concepts

The Jain theory of karma is consistent with other concepts like soul, reincarnation, Ahimsa, God, and moksha. Reincarnation and transmigration of the soul ensures that the karmas are carried forward to the next lives to bear fruits when conditions are right. The concept of ahimsa or non-violence is also consistent with karmic theory. As the doctrine of transmigration of souls includes rebirth in animal as well as human form, it creates a humanitarian sentiment amongst all life forms.[12] The law of karma also effectively precludes God as creator and operator of universe.

Scientific interpretation of karma

Jainism postulated the existence of karmic matter as extremely subtle and microscopic particles that cannot be perceived by senses or measurements some two millennia before modern science proved the existence of atoms and subatomic particles. However, these elementary particles, or at least those that have been discovered, certainly cannot be equated with karmic particles. Some authors have sought to explain the concept of karmic particles in the context of modern science and physics. Hermann Kuhn points out that while the idea that "karmic molecules" exists may not yet be proven, we only need to recall that science found proof of the existence of molecules in 1906 and atoms in 1920. Anyone who would have suggested that these "indivisible" particles were made up of even subtler units like quarks and leptons only a hundred years ago may have been dismissed, though such theories were in existence. With regards to interaction of consciousness and karmic matter, he states that it can be easily understood considering that ideas like the mind fundamentally affecting matter are now accepted in scientific circles. He further states, "…that science has not discovered karmic matter yet does not state anything against its existence." K. V. Mardia, in his book The Scientific Foundations of Jainism, has interpreted karma in terms of modern physics, suggesting that the particles are made of karmons, dynamic high energy particles which permeate the universe.[27] However, most scientists do not consider karma theory to be within the bounds of science, as many believe it is a non-testable idea and so cannot be considered science.[28]

Further reading

Ancient Jain Texts

  1. Tattvartha Sutra, Chapter VI, VIII and IX, Acharya Umasvati
  2. The Karmagranthas, Six Volumes, Devendrasuri
  3. The Pancasamgraha, Candrarsi Candramahattara
  4. The Karmaprakti, Sivasarmasuri
  5. Satkhandagama, Six Volumes, Acharya Pushpadanta and Bhutabali
  6. Kasayaprabhrta, Acharya Gunabhadra

Other Reference material

  1. Dr. H. V. Glasenapp, Doctrine of Karman in Jain Philosophy
  2. Karma, the Mechanism – Hermann Kuhn
  3. Jain World
  4. Jaina Path to Purification – Dr. Padmanabh Jaini
  5. Collected Papers on Jaina Studies, Ch. VII Karma and problem of re-birth – Dr. Padmanabh Jaini


  1. ^ a b c Kuhn, Hermann (2001). In: Karma, The Mechanism : Create Your Own Fate. Nevada: Crosswind Publishing.
  2. ^ Dr. H. V. Glasenapp, Doctrine of Karman in Jain Philosophy, Pg 2
  3. ^ a b Robert J. Zydenbos. Jainism: Today & Its Future. Manya Verlag, Munchen: 2006
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Acharya Umasvati, Tattvartha Sutra, Ch VIII
  5. ^ Acharya Umasvati, Tattvartha Sutra, Ch VI
  6. ^ Hari Satya Bhattacharya, Reals in the Jaina Metaphysics, page 197
  7. ^ Jain Study Circle, Studies in Jainism: Reader 2, Ch. 35
  8. ^ Acharya Umasvati, Tattvartha Sutra, Ch IX, Sutra 1, 2 and 3
  9. ^ 100 trillion years
  10. ^ Sagaropama refers to a unit of time with such a large magnitude that it cannot be measured with conventional numbers. Here it is taken as innumerable years
  11. ^ 1 muharta = 48 minutes
  12. ^ Bal Patil, Jaya Gommetasa, Hindi Granth Karyalaya, 2006
  13. ^ Axel Michaels, Hinduism Past and Present, Page 156
  14. ^ a b Padmanabh Jaini, Collected papers on Jaina Studies, Chapter 7, Pg 122
  15. ^ Dr. H. V. Glasenapp, Doctrine of Karman in Jain Philosophy, Pg 15
  16. ^ Dr. T. G. Kalghatgi, Study of Jainism, Pg 177
  17. ^ Ninian Smart, Doctrine and Argument in Indian Philosophy, 1964, Pg 163
  18. ^ Sancheti Asoo Lal, Bhandari Manak Mal, First Steps to Jainism (Part Two): Doctrine Of Karma, Doctrine of Anekant and other articles with Appendices, Catalogued by Library of U.S. Congress, Washington, Card No. 90-232383)
  19. ^ Stevenson, Sinclair. The Heart of Jainism. (1915) p. 289
  20. ^ Samyutta Nikāya (iv.312ff)
  21. ^ Majjhima Nikaya 1. 93, PTS [VRI 1. 179]
  22. ^ Padmanabh Jaini, Collected papers on Jaina Studies, Chapter 7, Page 124
  23. ^ Padmanabh Jaini, Collected papers on Jaina Studies, Chapter 7, Page 128
  24. ^ T.G. Kalghati, The Study of Jainism, Page 184
  25. ^ Kuhn, Harmann. Karma, the Mechanism. 2004, pp. 10-11
  26. ^ Dundas, Paul, The Jains, 2002, Page 101
  27. ^ Natubhai Shah, Jainism, The World of Conquerers, page 64
  28. ^ Greenberg, Jon. BSCS Biology: A Molecular Approach. Columbus: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2001

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