What Is Karma?

Karma is a key concept in some Eastern religions including Hinduism and Buddhism. (Image credit: javarman / Shutterstock.com)

Karma, a Sanskrit word that roughly translates to "action," is a core concept in some Eastern religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.

Though its specifics are different depending on the religion, karma generally denotes the cycle of cause and effect — each action a person takes will affect him or her at some time in the future. This rule also applies to a person's thoughts and words, and the actions other people take under that individual's instructions.

Today, people use the word karma in ways that are not wholly consistent with its traditional meaning. For example, karma is often misused to denote luck, destiny or fate. Karma is also misused as a way to explain sudden hardships.

With karma, like causes produce like effects; that is, a good deed will lead to a future beneficial effect, while a bad deed will lead to a future harmful effect.

Karma is concerned not only with the relationship between actions and consequences, but also the moral reasons or intentions behind actions, according to a 1988 article in the journal Philosophy East and West. So if someone commits a good deed for the wrong reasons — making a charitable donation to impress a potential love interest, for example — the action could still be immoral and produce bad karma.

Importantly, karma is wrapped up with the concept of reincarnation or rebirth, in which a person is born in a new human (or nonhuman) body after death. The effects of an action can therefore be visited upon a person in a future life, and the good or bad fortune someone experiences may be the result of actions performed in past lives.

What's more, a person's karmic sum will decide the form he or she takes in the next life.

There are a number of Western religious (and non-religious) phrases that are similar to karma, including "what goes around comes around" and "violence begets violence."

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Joseph Castro
Live Science Contributor
Joseph Bennington-Castro is a Hawaii-based contributing writer for Live Science and Space.com. He holds a master's degree in science journalism from New York University, and a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Hawaii. His work covers all areas of science, from the quirky mating behaviors of different animals, to the drug and alcohol habits of ancient cultures, to new advances in solar cell technology. On a more personal note, Joseph has had a near-obsession with video games for as long as he can remember, and is probably playing a game at this very moment.