This is part of an ongoing series of posts regarding specific concepts related to theosophy.

Other Resources: Evolution, Reincarnation, Souls

The intention of these posts are to create a resource for inquiring students, so we'll approach it a little differently than we would a normal discussion.

Here's how we'll do this:

  • Members are invited and encouraged to post their favorite quotes along with links to websites for further reading. If the quote is long (i.e. an entire chapter of a book), please select a couple sentences that stand out and then provide a link to the full chapter online (or if the book is not available online, please provide the title and author name). Anonymous quotes will be deleted, so be sure to source your info...
  • Members are also invited and encouraged to share their own thoughts/interpretations on the concept. However, no rebuttals or counter arguments are to be made in regards to any member posts. As this will be a resource for students interested in learning about a topic, we're not looking for debates on its validity, but instead are looking for sincere attempts at interpretation of its meaning (whether by Plato, Buddha, Blavatsky or Mr. Average Joe Smith!).
  • Each member will be allowed only ONE post of their own interpretation, but are encouraged to post as many quotes and links to other sources as they wish. So think carefully and take your time composing your own thoughts on the subject - there's no rush and no deadlines!
  • Let's also set a 500 word maximum for any post (whether of a quote or member interpretation).


The main idea here is that when you come across something while reading and think to yourself: "wow, what a beautiful description of such and such!", you can come here and post the quote and/or link so that we may all share in the discovery! As this resource builds, when we say to ourselves: "Oh, now where did I hear that quote again? I know it was somewhere!?", we can come to Theosophy.Net, run a quick search, and viola! find the quote/link we were looking for!


Here we will post quotes, thoughts and links on the much popularized concept of Karma.

I hope everyone will feel free to add to this ongoing resource. Don't be shy... share away! This is a "no debate zone". :)

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Of the three spiritual traditions of ancient India, sources on the unique teaching on karma found in Jainism have been posted, and also sources representing the more well-known teaching on karma found in Hinduism have been posted. It remains to post sources on the teaching of karma found in Buddhism. These sources are more numerous, because the Buddhists had a harder task of explaining how karma works in the absence of a transmigrating soul.
While the basic idea that karma is an action and also the future result of, or recompense for, that action is the same in all three traditions, how it works is explained widely differently in the three traditions. Within Buddhism, how it works is again explained widely differently from school to school. They had to explain how karmic results could follow a momentary and ever-changing stream of consciousness, which constitutes a person in Buddhism, from rebirth to rebirth.
Here are three articles on karma in early Buddhism. The first gives a translation of a short and simple sutra on good and bad karma. The second gives a comprehensive survey of the various teachings on how karma works given by the various early schools of Buddhism. It is a summary of James McDermott's 1984 book titled, Development in the Early Buddhist Concept of Kamma/Karma (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1984), which in turn is a revision of his 1971 Princeton University Ph.D. thesis. The third is a study of the debates on kamma given in the Kathavatthu, perhaps our earliest record of the various teachings on karma given by the various early schools of Buddhism. 
"Discourse on the Four Kinds of Karma," by Peter Skilling. Journal of Religious Studies, Punjabi University (Patiala), vol. 7, no. 1, Spring 1979, pp. 86-91.
"Karma and Rebirth in Early Buddhism," by James P. McDermott. In Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions, pp. 165-192. University of California Press, 1980.
"The Kathavatthu Kamma Debates," by James P. McDermott. Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 95, no. 3, July-September 1975, pp. 424-433.
"What is the earliest recorded writing on karma, from any tradition?"
Perhaps the Jaina Satkhandagama and Kasyaprabhrta. These texts, along with their extensive commentaries, were recovered and published in 39 volumes between 1939 and 1988. They had been preserved inaccessibly in a temple in south India on palm-leaves, and for centuries had only been used there for worship. They are on the Jaina karma doctrine, and are thought to descend directly from the lost Purvas, the ancient scriptures of Jainism. The Purvas preceded Mahavira, the last of the 24 Tirthankaras or great Jaina teachers, who lived around the time of Gautama Buddha.
Until their recovery and publication, it was thought by the Digambara branch of Jainas that all the primary Jaina scriptures had been lost, both Angas and Purvas. The Angas are the teachings of Mahavira. Digambaras do not accept the authenticity of the eleven Angas used by the Svetambara branch of Jainas, holding these to be substitutes for the lost original Angas. All agreed that the twelfth Anga was lost. This Anga contained the teachings of the lost Purvas, taught by the previous or 23rd Tirthankara, named Parsvanatha. The recovered texts are from this twelfth Anga, giving the teachings of the Purvas. Bibliographic information on these books can be found at:, pp. 3-9.
"Where does the word first appear in recognizable form?"
This is usually regarded to be in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (reference: The Vedic Origins of Karma, by Herman W. Tull, p. 28). Thank you to Jon for adding to my previous post a link to this book, where parts of it can be seen on Google Books.
Karma in Buddhism means an action resulting from volition (as cetanā is usually translated), or will or intention (as cetanā is also sometimes translated). If you accidentally or unknowingly step on an ant and kill it, this is not a karmic act, and it does not produce a karmic effect. It only does so if the killing is done consciously and on purpose. This is accepted universally in Buddhism. What is explained widely differently by the various Buddhist schools is the connection (sambandha) between a volitional or willful or intentional action (karma) and its future result (phala), i.e., how karma works.
Among Buddhist texts, the explanations of this by the various schools are given in chapter 4 of the Abhidharma-kosa by Vasubandhu. Vasubandhu also wrote a small separate treatise on this, the Karma-siddhi-prakarana. Explanations of this by the various schools are also given in chapter 17 of the Mula-madhyamaka-karika by Nagarjuna, and its commentaries thereon. Vasubandhu's small treatise and Nagarjuna's chapter with Candrakirti's commentary were translated into French by Etienne Lamotte and published in Melanges chinois et bouddhiques, vol. 4, 1936. This French translation was translated into English by Leo Pruden and published in 1988 as Karmasiddhiprakarana: The Treatise on Action by Vasubandhu (Asian Humanities Press, now Jain Publishing Company), and is still in print. The late Etienne Lamotte (1903-1983) was one of the very best translators of modern times.
The explanations by the various earlier Buddhist schools of how karma works were given by Nagarjuna in the first 20 of the 33 verses of his chapter 17. These 20 verses, along with the commentary by Candrakirti, form the basis of a detailed study by Ulrich Timme Kragh, titled Early Buddhist Theories of Action and Result. It was published in 2006 in the Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde, no. 64. Books like this are not found on, but can be ordered directly from: It includes critical editions of the Sanskrit and Tibetan texts, and a highly accurate and reliable English translation. Until this publication, the pioneering translation by a young Lamotte was the only translation of Candrakirti's commentary on this chapter, and remained quite the most reliable and accurate translation of Nagarjuna's chapter itself, despite the existence of other later ones including one published by Oxford University Press.
The Mahayana schools of Buddhism, rejecting the early Buddhist explanations of how karma works, gave their own explanations of how karma works. For the Madhyamaka school, Nagarjuna said it works like magic, since nothing has a svabhava, an inherent nature or inherent existence. The Yogacara school explained its working by way of the alaya-vijnana, the universal foundation consciousness. Tsongkhapa rejected the alaya-vijnana, and taught that it works by way of something called a zhig pa, literally a "destruction" or "disintegration" after the act is completed and has "perished," that carries the result of the act to its future fruition.
This latter idea and some of the earlier Buddhist ideas are discussed in the following articles, including avijnapti, an action that no one can see, avipranasa, something that does not perish when the action is completed, and bija, a seed that makes possible the later fruition of an action.
"Tsong-Kha-Pa's Concept of Karma," by Lobsang Dargyay. In Karma and Rebirth: Post Classical Developments, ed. Ronald W. Neufeldt, pp. 169-178. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.
"The Concept of Avipranasa in Nagarjuna," by Bhikkhu Pasadika. In Recent Researches in Buddhist Studies: Essays in Honour of Professor Y. Karunadasa, pp. 516-523. Colombo, 1997.
"What is Avijnaptirupa (Concealed form of Activity)," by V. V. Gokhale. New Indian Antiquary (Bombay), vol. 1, 1938-39, pp. 69-73.
"The Sautrantika Theory of Bija," by Padmanabh S. Jaini. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 22, 1959, pp. 236-249.

Here is another excellent article by Alexis Sanderson on the Buddhist view of no-self and the theory of karma.

Lastly, here is something lighter, for those whose brains are fried trying the read some of the articles posted above.
"Walt Whitman and the Doctrine of Karma," by Om Prakash Sharma. Philosophy East and West, vol. 20, no. 2, April 1970, pp. 169-174.
In the 1965 article, "Philosophical Implications of the Doctrine of Karma," A. R. Wadia writes about us (Philosophy East and West, vol. 15, pp. 145-146):
"A sizable number of European and American theosophists have come to accept karma and reincarnation as basic to their life and thought. But their treatment of it is shrouded so much in mystic references to Tibetan mahatmas that is has failed to appeal to the philosophical and logical mind of the West. Theosophy, born out of Indian beliefs, has become markedly theological without any claim to being considered philosophical."
We can do better now.


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