Article: Karma

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

Non-destructive karmas

Of the eight main types of karma – mūla-prakṛtis – four sorts influence the body within which the soul exists for a lifetime. They are called non-destructive – aghātiyā – karmas because they do not hinder the acquisition of:

These 'three jewels' of Jain doctrine can be reached and practised while the soul remains within the cycle of rebirth.

Because these types of karma affect the embodied soul, they are active while the soul is within a body, even if the soul becomes enlightened. When the body dies, these karmas fall away from the omniscient soul, thus allowing it to attain liberation.

Non-destructive karmas

Sanskrit term

Details

āyu-karma

Sets the body's:

  1. a human being – manuṣya-gati
  2. a heavenly being, living in the heavensdeva-gati
  3. an infernal being, living in the hellsnāraka-gati
  4. an animal or a plant – tiryag-gati.

nāma-karma

Forms the body and physical attributes

gotra-karma

Determines the status of the body, for example high or low social status in the case of human beings

vedanīya-karma

Causes pleasant and unpleasant feelings

Karma and the soul

This 19th-century manuscript painting shows the parable of the tree. Six hungry men suggest ways of reaching the fruit, ranging from chopping down the jambū tree to picking up windfalls. The colours of the men reflect their souls' colours – leśyās.

Parable of the tree
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

One of the most significant and unique Jain beliefs, the notion of karma must be understood alongside another of the principal Jain concepts – that of the soul or self. In Jain cosmology karma is a very fine physical substance that becomes firmly attached to the soul – jīva. The various karmas permeate or 'bind to' the soul. Karmic contact with the soul can be divided into six stages. The different karmas corrode the soul or shape the physical body in which the soul is embodied and its circumstances. The soul's spiritual development is affected by its karma, which can be evaluated by its colour. The pure soul is colourless, but when it is pervaded with karma it is coloured or stained. This leśyā can be used to assess its spiritual level.

In Jain thought the soul or self is a type of sentient, non-material matter – dravya – unlike other substances in the universe. Jains believe that karma is pudgala, which is an insentient, physical substance. The question of how a physical substance can attach to a non-material thing is not explained in Jain writings.

The table presents the stages of karma's relationship with the soul.

Stages of karma's contact with the soul

Sanskrit term

English rendering

Details

āsrava

influx, entry

karma enters the soul

bandha

bondage

the period after the karma enters the soul, during which it remains dormant

udaya

maturity, fruition, ripening

when the karma comes into effect

sattā

existence

the total length of time the karma is bound to the soul

saṃvara

stopping the influx

stopping the entry of karma to the soul

nirjarā

separation, falling away

the separation of existing karma from the soul

Karma can be bound to the soul for a long time before it ripens, even lasting several lifetimes. Once it has come to fruition, karmic effects last for a certain time period. Following this, the karma falls away from the soul of its own accord.

In Jain belief karma obscures or covers the four essential qualities of the soul – guṇas – hampering their realisation. These innate attributes of perception, knowledge, energy and bliss each has a particular karma that affects it. These 'destructive' karmas – ghātiyā-karmas – are all negative because they cloud a particular soul quality and make it extremely difficult to make spiritual progress.

The karma stuck to the soul produces a karmic body – kārmaṇa-śarīra – that remains with the soul throughout its experiences in the cycle of births. The various karmas have fixed powers, dormancy and duration, and may mature many lifetimes after they were generated.

Leśyā

A soul's level of spiritual development can be gauged by its leśyā. Produced by the interaction between karma and soul, leśyā is a staining of the soul, making it certain colours. These six colours indicate spiritual level and have no bearing on the colour of the body.

A perfect soul – siddha – has no karmas, so its inherent purity and clarity can be seen. As a soul develops spiritually, it gets lighter and brighter.

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