Article: Karma

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

One of the most important concepts of the Jain religion, karma is closely connected to the other principal Jain theories of the soul – jīva – and the cycle of birth – saṃsāra.

Jain cosmology describes karma as a category of material – dravya – in the universe. It is a pudgala, which is an insentient, extremely fine physical matter. Characteristically, the Jains organise karma into numerous classes, mainly sorted according to their effects. The 148 types of karma may be negative or positive and may obscure the soul's innate attributes or influence the body in which the soul is embodied.

All the karmas 'bind to' or infuse the soul. Once attached, karma's relation to the soul is divided into six steps. The various karmas obscure the soul's true nature or affect its embodiment. The impure, embodied soul takes on one of six colours or stains, depending on its karmas. The soul's leśyā reflects spiritual purity, but does not affect the physical body or the soul itself.

Karma is both cause and effect of the soul's embodiment. Karmas are generated by any activity, whether mental or physical, which are driven by feelings and responses to worldly concerns. Attachment and actions may be positive or negative, producing positive or negative karmas. The motive behind an action is also significant in creating positive or negative karma. Positive karmas result in rebirth as a god or human being whereas negative karmas cause rebirth as a being in hell or a being with limited reason, such as an insect or plant. Only human beings are able to reach salvation or liberationmokṣa – but few humans achieve this incredibly difficult goal.

The karmas accrued over a lifetime trap the soul in the cycle of births. The karmas mature by affecting the soul or the physical body of its next lifetime or birth. When the body dies, the soul is born in a different body, which is shaped by karmas from the previous birth and the ones before that. The condition of the soul in that lifetime is also influenced by karmas from previous incarnations. This cycle of birth, death and life repeats endlessly while the soul has karmas attached to it.

The soul yearns to fulfil its true nature, which it cannot do while it is imprisoned within the cycle of rebirth. Only a soul without karma can be liberated from the cycle of birth, reaching self-realisation. Following the teachings of the Jinas and developing spiritually lead to the prevention of new karmas entering the soul – saṃvara – and the removal of existing karmas. Avoiding the creation of new karmas entails practising detachment from the world to a high level, which is extremely hard. Jains believe that only people who become mendicants can reach and maintain total detachment. Destroying karmas that are attached to the soul requires ascetic practices such as fasting, meditation and denying bodily needs and comforts. Observing such austerities needs self-control and self-awareness, which are instrumental to attaining complete detachment.

Jainism shares some features with other religions that developed in India, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. However, the concept of karma has been developed to the most detailed degree in the Jain faith.

This piece is a summary of the article "Karma". The full article will be available soon.


The Western game of snakes and ladders is probably based on a Jain visualisation of the unsteady progress of the soul through the cycle of rebirth. This 19th-century chart shows the uncertain path of spiritual development, involving many ups and downs.

Snakes and ladders
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

To Jains karma is a type of pudgala, which is an insentient, highly subtle matter that affects the soul. The concept of karma is very detailed and complex, with 148 types distinguished in Jain thought, based on their various effects. Some karmas are classed as destructive because of their deleterious effect on the soul's essential attributes. Other karmas are considered non-destructive because they affect the physical body in which the soul is embodied and do not inhibit spiritual development. All karmas have levels of intensity, depending on its cause and the other types of karmas present.

Karma has contact with the soul in six principal ways. When it matures or comes into effect, its influence lasts for a specific period of time. After this it falls away from the soul.

Types of karma

Jains organise karma into 148 distinct types, which are divided into eight main groups – mūla-prakṛtis. Each group produces different effects on fruition and is classed into the uttara-prakṛtis. Each type of karma is characterised by various elements, such as duration, intensity and quantity. Each sort of karma presents different aspects.

Destructive karmas

Of the eight main types of karma – mūla-prakṛtis – four types affect the innate qualities of the soulguṇas – and are called 'destructive' – ghātiyā – karmas. A soul that has achieved omnisciencekevala-jñāna – is free of these four karmas.

Destructive karmas

Sanskrit term



Obscures the soul's perception – darśana


Obscures the soul's knowledgejñāna


Dampens the soul's energy – vīrya – and:

  • hampers giving to others
  • hinders receiving things from others
  • reduces enjoyment of food and material items


Clouds the soul's bliss – sukha – and:

  • deludes the soul into accepting the wrong view of reality
  • produces passions – kaṣāyas – and emotions – no-kaṣāyas

  • prevents proper behavioursamyak-cāritra
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