The Law of Karma

We will continue our study of Indian religious thought with a fundamental problem. The problem of reincarnation. It’s fundamental. It’s burdensom. What can we do about it? What do we do to lift this burden?

Karma = Action

The answer to that question in India comes from considering something that we call the law of Karma. It is the law of retribution that governs and drives the cycle of transmigration.

The word Karma is a word that is pretty common in our world. I haven’t looked it up in the dictionary recently to see wether it made its way into the discourse of the dictionary, but certainly is in the discourse of our culture. You know what it means to say that somebody has bad karma. It means something like bad luck, that probably springs from something they have done in the past, either in this life or in a previous life.

In India, the word Karma simply means “action”. So bad karma is a bad action. Good karma a good action. So the cycle of death and rebirth, the cycle of samsara, is driven by an inexorable law: What you do now, will produce some result in a future life. You have to find some way to work with this law in order to permit some positive solution to the problem of Samsara.

The Realms of Rebirth

You may ask, as we talk about the law of karma: Where Karma can lead you? That’s a perfect legitimate question to ask about India. What are the possible realms of rebirth? There are somewhat different pictures of this in different aspects of the Indian tradition, but generally six realms are considered into which you can be born. You can be born as a god, as a demigod or a lesser category of gods sometimes referred as demons, as a human being, as a ghost, as an animal, or as a spirit in hell.

Sometimes people are surprised when they hear that hell is an important concept in Buddhism or Indian religion more generally. But it is. It is very traditional, very important in the overall structure of Indian religious life, to realize that there are places where you can go, where you can really be punished (this is quite elaborately described in some literature), so if you perform bad actions in this life there are some important ways in which you will suffer for it in some future life.

The Possible Solution to the Problem

The law of Karma allows two strategies, to possible ways to deal with the problem of Samsara. You might almost be able to think of it by yourself if you begin to work theoretically with the law of retribution that I just laid out for us.

One of this I call the ordinary norm. Just the ordinary way of doing things. It is followed by most Indian people and it’s the most obvious way of responding to the challenge we are talking about. If you are an ordinary Indian person, what you try to do is to perform good actions to get a good rebirth. What can be more simple than that? Do your duty, do the things that are specified for you as a member of Indian society.

As a member of the Brahmin cast, the princely cast, as a father or a mother, as a son or daughter. Whatever that is, there are special duties that are assigned to you in that part of the world. You should make sure you are doing them right. If you do, then good things will happen to you in a future life.

The best thing that you can get in a future life is to be reborn in heaven. That is as high as you can go. You can be up there with Indra as one of the gods in Heaven.

But as in the story of Indra and the Brahmin boy, the problem with this approach to the law of karma, is that it is impermanent, it slips away. If you go and live with the gods in heaven, you will be like the other gods. Eventually you’ll begin to loose your luster, the impact of your karma begins to wither and fade, and you begin to fall down into the cycle of transmigration all over again.

It is possible to be reborn on a high level and live a pleasurable life as the result of your past karma, but it’s impermanent, and it slips away, it is not something you can hold on to forever.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

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