The law of karma underpins the process of transmigration of the soul. Karma literally means “action,” but more often refers to the accumulated reactions to activities. Thus we talk of “good karma” and “bad karma,” which are stored reactions that gradually unfold to determine our unique destiny.

The self-determination and accountability of the individual soul rests on its capacity for free choice. This is exercised only in the human form. Whilst in lower species, the atman takes no moral decisions but is instead bound by instinct. Therefore, although all species of life are subject to the reactions of past activities, such karma is generated only while in the human form. Human life alone is a life of responsibility.

The Bhagavad-gita categorises karma, listing three kinds of human actions: (1) Karma: those which elevate, (2) Vikarma: those which degrade and (3) Akarma: those which create neither good nor bad reactions and thus lead to liberation.

Key Points

  • The universal law of karma (action and reaction) determines each soul’s unique destiny.
  • Karma is generated only in human life.
  • The lower species are burning up “bad karma,” and gradually rising towards a human birth.
  • The residents of the heavenly planets are using up “good karma,” before falling again to human life on earth.

Useful Analogies

Going on holiday/Going to prison

Attaining a heavenly destination is like going on holiday; a lower birth like going to prison.

  • By performing pious activities, one accrues good karmic credits and attains a higher birth in which one can enjoy without any difficulties. However, when one’s pious credits are exhausted, one falls again to earth, just as one must return from holidays to the regular routine of work when one’s well-earned funds are exhausted.
  • The residents of heaven can perform sinful actions, but generally do not, as they have all facilities of life.
  • For transgressing universal and God-given laws the soul is degraded to the lower species.Then, through gradual purification (by suffering), he rises again to the human platform. Once in the lower species the soul cannot exercise free will and is more or less condemned to a “sentence.” This is very much like a criminal who illegally tries to enjoy life by circumventing the law rather than following it.

Related Stories

The Sadhu’s Blessings (STO-105)

A story illustrating karma.
Death in Baghdad (STO-106)

Trying to avoid our destiny.

“Only the actions of the just smell sweet and blossom in the dust.”

James Shirley

Related Practices

Pious activities such as charity, penance and pilgrimage, especially when performed in anticipation of material benefits, such as a higher standard of living on earth or an elevated birth on the heavenly planets.

Avoidance of impious acts, considered to bring misfortune and degradation. These includes the neglect or abuse of five sections of society, namely women, children, animals (especially cows), saintly people, and the elderly

Personal Reflection

  • Explore common notions of karma, for example, sayings such as, “He had it coming to him!” and “What goes around comes around.”
  • How much free will do we feel we have in life? What should we strive to change and what should we be content to accept?

Common Misunderstandings

Hindus don’t eat meat because they think that they will then be reborn as an animal.

This statement suggests that Hindus perform pious activities largely out of fear and selfishness. It neglects the finer sentiments behind vegetarianism, such as empathy for fellow living beings.

A good dog may become a human in the next life, whereas a bad dog may become a bird or insect.

The soul passing through lower species doesn’t create any new karma. He only works off the karmic reactions generated whilst in the human form and gradually rises towards another human birth.

Hindus blame suffering on karma.

Not usually. Blame and responsibility are different. Karma entails understanding that we are all ultimately responsible for our own lives. Belief in karma does not automatically create indifference to the suffering of ourselves or others (as the above statement may imply), but underpins sentiments of “helping others to help themselves.
Scriptural Passages

“In proportion to the extent of one’s religious or irreligious actions in this life, one must enjoy or suffer the corresponding reactions of his karma in the next.”

Bhagavat Purana 6.1.45

Meaning and Purpose

  • Why is there suffering if God is all good and all powerful?
  • Why do bad things happen to apparently good people?
  • Why are there inequalities at birth?
  • Free will and determinism: how much free will do we actually exercise?

Glossary Terms

  • Punya – pious activities.
  • Papa – sinful activities.