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Jain Karma Theory explains how we are the makers of our destiny

by Dr Patricia de Souza & Dr Sulekh Jain
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Karma Ceiling Sculpture
The Karma Theory in Jainism provides a roadmap for ethical living while laying out the intricacies of the karmic cycle and the path to liberation, independent of the judgment of gods.

From birth, we all have heard the aphorism, ‘As you sow, so shall you reap’. Here sowing means action (Indic traditions call it karma) and reaping means reactions or the resultant consequences and fruits of karma.

The Jain Karma Theory offers intricate details of how each action begets a reaction. It asserts that each soul and no one else on one’s behalf is the doer of its karma.

The call for individual responsibility for one’s destiny of well-being or pain is not only present in many religions in different ways, but it also pervades many secular philosophical and psychological approaches. Although explanations of karma (as related to reincarnation) and as it is used in secular systems differ, both sides agree that there is freedom of action but one must always bear the consequences of one’s choices.

The concepts of karma and reincarnation have even influenced religions that in their original doctrines had nothing of the sort. Brazilian Kardecist Christianity is a good example – it absorbed the ideas of karma and reincarnation.

Existentially speaking, reincarnation and karma make a lot of sense in explaining the nature of painful events in our lives. Maybe that is why they get accepted, assuming different configurations and characteristics according to local culture and religion.

According to scholars of the history of religions, the most ancient traditions to talk about reincarnation and karma came from India, Jainism to be specific.  

In Jainism, karma is the minutest particle imaginable that binds to the soul. Karmic dust triggers some vibrations in the soul, causing it to acquire certain characteristics, which determine whether it will reincarnate, where, in which conditions, and the events it will go through.

Who keeps track of the karma of all souls?

Many religious traditions the world over talk about karma in some fashion but differ on who keeps an account of the karma or actions of each soul and who determines the resultant fruits.

The God-centered (theistic) religions that believe in an omnipotent and omnipresent creator, preserver, and destroyer of this universe profess that the same Supreme Power determines the punishment and rewards (timing, frequency, and degree) for the karma of all souls.

To seek mercy and ask for favors from God, believers do rituals, poojas, prayers, atonement, and penance, etc.

But a non-theistic religion like Jainism cannot leave everything to God.

Jainism is non-theistic

Jainism is an ancient religion originating in India, as is Hinduism. It is known for its profound philosophical principles and ethical teachings. Along with Buddhism, it belongs to the Sramanic, non-Vedic tradition. ‘Sraman’ means self-effort, implying that every soul, not God or gods, is responsible for its salvation. Each soul must take responsibility for their choices and actions. Central to Jain philosophy is the karma theory, which is also a key concept in Hinduism even though the two diverge.

The Jain Karma Theory encompasses a rational understanding of the nature of karma, its implications on the individual soul (Jiva), and the path to liberation (moksha), which does not depend on the judgment of gods. Karma here is a self-regulated mechanism.

The foundation of Jain Karma Theory 

The parable of the tree is meant to illustrate the six colors of the soul – leśyā – it takes depending on one’s karma.

According to Jain philosophy, every living being, from the smallest micro-organisms to the most complex life forms, possesses a soul (Jiva). The interactions of these souls with the external world create karma, which in Jainism is a subtle, invisible substance that binds to the soul. Karmic dust triggers some kind of vibrations in the soul, causing it to acquire particular colors (leshya) and shapes (auras, halos, etc). Each soul’s characteristics determine whether it will reincarnate, where, in which conditions, and the events it will go through.

The painting (inset) is based on the parable of the tree in a 17th-century Jain Svetambara scripture. This parable is meant to illustrate the six colors of the soul – leśyā – it takes depending on one’s behavior. In this parable, the six men are said to be in a jungle, thirsty and hungry when they come across the fruit-laden jambū tree. They do different things to get the fruits. The illustration should be ‘read’ clockwise starting from bottom left where the man has an axe to cut the tree, The man on bottom right has nothing. It is a metaphoric scale of nonviolence determining each soul’s place according to their karmic characteristic and situation. Nonviolence is, of course, a central tenet of Jainism.  

The Jain concept of inflow (asrava) and bondage (bandha) explains how karma accumulates in the soul. The process of inflow occurs when the soul interacts with the external world through thoughts, words, and actions. This interaction leads to the influx of karma onto the soul, binding it in a subtle but powerful manner.

The intention behind your actions is also important. This adds a nuanced layer to the Jain understanding of karma, setting it apart from other philosophical traditions. The purity of intent plays a crucial role in determining the nature and intensity of the karmic consequences.

Karma are of two types, meritorious (Punya Karma) and de-meritorious (Papa Karmas). As one gets karma-bound, one suffers its reactions at the time of its fruition. Once karma particles stick to the soul, it takes a certain time for them to dissolve even if the soul repents and changes its attitude. Corrected behavior will attract good karma or prevent the soul from getting karma bondage.

The amount of karmic dust, or karmic load, depends upon your choices, intentions and attitudes. It can be relieved as you strive for non-violence, the annihilation of your passions and attachments, with pure heart without looking to benefit.

The gist of Jain Karma Theory

  • Every action has a reaction.
  • The laws of karma are universal, do not change with time and place, and apply to everyone without exceptions.
  • Karma is described as the minutest dust particle that binds to the soul.
  • One is free to reduce or increase one’s karmic load and thus decide one’s destiny.
  • Karmic load is the cause of birth and death and resultant suffering and dukkha.
  • When the karmic load becomes zero, one attains the state of perfect bliss, happiness, and freedom from the cycle of birth and death. This is permanent and is called moksha.
  • No external body or power keeps track of karma or can deliver its resultant reactions.
  • One has to go through the consequences of karma from this life or previous lives.
  • Only the doer gets the fruits. If I am sick, I have to take the medicine, not anyone else on my behalf.
  • The quantity and intensity of karma can be increased or decreased based on the passion and the intention of the doer.
Gomateshwara statue 

Jainism is a non-theistic religion, so there is no higher power or outside agency to appease. Only the doer gets the fruits of his actions. If I am sick, I have to take the medicine, not anyone else on my behalf.

Jain figure Bahubali’s statue in Karntaka.

The Hindu approach to karma philosophy

Jains and Hindus hold distinct beliefs about reincarnation and karma. In Hinduism, karma is an invisible force, an essence of transgressions to atone for or blessings to receive in the next life. On the other hand, Jains perceive karma as a very fine particulate matter that attaches to the soul during each life.

Unlike the Hindu view of karma, which is purely seen as the law of nature, Jains believe that deeds and thoughts attract karma, and a person’s actions from the past decide the quality of life they have now.

In Hinduism, there is no consensus on which agency keeps an account and decides the phala (reward and punishment) of karma. Several views exist, both historical and contemporary, regarding the role of divine beings in controlling the effects of karma.

In Jainism, there is no Isvara (God), but in Hinduism, Isvara plays a central role in its Karma philosophy. In Vedanta, the most influential school of Hindu philosophy, Iswara, the sentient theistic administrator or supervisor, is the dispenser of the fruits of action.


The Jain Karma Theory stands out as a unique and intricate philosophical framework that sets Jainism apart from other religious and philosophical traditions. Its emphasis on non-violence, meticulous classification of karma, focus on intentionality, and balanced approach to liberation make it a profound and comprehensive system.

This theory not only provides a roadmap for ethical living but also offers a profound understanding of the intricacies of the karmic cycle and the path to ultimate liberation. As a cornerstone of Jain philosophy, this theory continues to inspire individuals on their spiritual journeys, inviting them to reflect on the consequences of their actions and the profound impact they have on their journey toward self-realization and liberation.

Photos Courtesy: Wikipedia

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