Article: Karma

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

Causes of karma

The various kinds of karma are produced by activities. Karma is generated constantly, as long as any kind of activity is undertaken, including thought, because activity stems from the passions and emotions created by attachment to the world. Good actions bind beneficial types of karma – puṇya-prakṛtis – to the soul whereas bad actions bind negative karmas – pāpa-prakṛtis.

Activities, whether mental, emotional or physical, are motivated by passions – kaṣāyas – and emotions – no-kaṣāyas – which derive from attachment to worldly concerns. This includes affection for family and friends, interest in personal appearance and status, and concern for warmth, comfort and tasty food.

Intention is important in creating karma. Activity may be deliberate or inadvertent. Choosing to do something that accords with Jain principles is positive. Doing the right thing by mistake or out of habit is also positive but less so. Doing something against Jain principles because of absent-mindedness, accident or to protect or help others is negative but not as bad as deciding to do it. All these karmas are bound to the soul and usually take effect in later lives.

Effects of karma

The four types of existences for beings trapped in the world of rebirths, with the white crescent representing final liberation. From the 2004 'Illustrated Sthanang Sutra', in the Illustrated Agam series, overseen by Pravartak Shri Amar Muni.

Four types of existence
Image by Diwakar Prakashan / Padma Prakashan © Diwakar Prakashan / Padma Prakashan

The concept of the cycle of birth – saṃsāra – helps to explain the importance of karma in Jain doctrine. The various karmas created in one birth or lifetime influence different elements of the soul's later embodiments. They may affect the soul itself or the body it has during that lifetime and in future births. As they are created by activities carried out during embodiment, karmas can therefore be understood as both cause and effect of the soul's entrapment within the cycle of births.

In Jain belief the soul is embodied because it is bound with karmas and is impure. When the body dies, the soul is reborn into another body, according to the karmas it has produced. A soul is reborn many many times, over aeons, and cannot stop this repeating process of rebirth, which is the cycle of birth. Only a soul that has no karmas can be liberated from flesh, and can then realise its own perfection, which is called liberation – mokṣa. Over its numerous lifetimes in the cycle of birth the soul can make spiritual progress towards enlightenment, which is the step before liberation. However, it is an extremely long and difficult journey, with many pitfalls and setbacks.

The non-destructive – aghātiyā – karmas affect the physical body, its attributes, lifespan and general experiences. The destructive – ghātiyā – karmas alter the soul by hiding or hindering its essential qualities.

Broadly speaking, the bad activities generate negative karmas – pāpa-prakṛtis – while good activities produce positive karmas – puṇya-prakṛtis. 'Bad' behaviour goes against Jain doctrine, while 'good' conduct follows Jain principles.

Negative karmas, which include destructive karmas, lead to birth as spiritually devoid beings. These range from infernal creatures, animals and beings that lack the capacity for reason, such as less intelligent animals, plants or nigodas. Once embodied in such conditions, the soul finds it difficult to make spiritual progress and accrue positive karmas.

Positive karmas effect birth as an intelligent animal, god or human being. Although deities may have superhuman powers and have enjoyable lives free of care in the heavens, they are still souls caught in the cycle of rebirth. As beings with high intelligence and insight, they can develop spiritually quite far but cannot be liberated. Jains believe that only souls embodied in human beings are capable of reaching emancipation. Being human is therefore considered a rare and fortunate birth and is why human beings should do their best to work towards liberation, even if not all souls can achieve it within their first human incarnation.

Getting rid of karma

Removing karma from the soul is vital for reaching liberation – mokṣa. Exemplary Jain behaviour, such as avoiding violence and practising austerities, is therefore undertaken to stop karma forming or to eliminate it. New karma can be prevented from forming and entering the soul while existing karma can be annihilated. The 24 Jinas left guidance on how to do both, found in the Jain scriptures.

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