The simple definition of karma that is given is: If you do good then you will get good in return and vice-versa. I'm not able to understand where would the effect come back from? Some says other people but who would be those other people? Is there a simple understandable logical explanation to this? I feel totally confused with understanding this which may sound simple.


7 Answers 7


The simple definition of karma that is given is: If you do good then you will get good in return and vice-versa.

That is not a Buddhist definition of karma. The Buddhist definition, put into similar terms, would be: you will reap the results of your actions, in this life or your next rebirth.

To give a detailed explanation would require pulling in a lot of other Buddhist concepts and terminology; if you are actually interested in Buddhism, I would strongly recommend you check out a good introductory textbooks, like Rupert Gethin's Foundations of Buddhism or Peter Harvey's An Introduction To Buddhism, both of which are available in paperback and ebook form.

If you are not interested in Buddhism, and want a superficial answer, I suppose the easiest way to understand karma is to view it as an extension of cause and effect. Buddhism has a particular notion of cause and effect known as "dependent origination" or "dependent co-arising"; karma is the dependent co-arising of doer and deed.

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    I think that Gethin and Harvey explain things in a much more condensed and pedagogic manner than the sutras, yes. Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 12:20
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    I'm with RParadox here. Many a Buddhist has been known to get all excited reading about the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, only to have the crap confused out of them when they read the Heart Sutra. For someone seeking a purely academic understanding, millennia-old texts from long-past cultures are often less than clarifying.
    – wmjbyatt
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 20:04
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    @wmjbyatt: I think that means you are with me, and against RParadox here. Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 8:30
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    @MichaelDorfman, you're quite right. I mistyped. And I agree with you top to bottom given the nature of the context, which is this Stack Exchange site.
    – wmjbyatt
    Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 16:42
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    @RParadox: You'd be right if this were TheSangha.stackexchange.com. But it's not. It's philosophy.stackexchange.com. Two-truths, my friend.
    – wmjbyatt
    Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 16:43

The simple definition of karma that is given is: If you do good then you will get good in return and vice-versa. I'm not able to understand where would the effect come back from? Some says other people but who would be those other people? Is there a simple understandable logical explanation to this? I feel totally confused with understanding this which may sound simple.

First, I want to point out that there are very sectarian views on Karma. There are Buddhists who are of the opinion that "karma" is a mystical merit-system that accrues as one acts, and when one dies, their karma determines the circumstances of their rebirth.

On the other hand, some Buddhists have very little tolerance for any notion of reincarnation in the traditional sense.

In the most general sense, Michael Dorfman presented an excellent summary above. The word "karma" literally means "causality" or "the law of cause-and-effect." It is simply the recognition that our actions have consequences, and it is deeply related to the law of dependent origination.

To give a particular view that I know to be common among Zen Buddhists and others, "karma" can be thought of as a symbol which captures a particular fact of psychology: that we often experience the world as a reflection of the way in which we treat the world (and vice-versa). It is a common (nearly to the point of vulgarity) truism that happy and kind people both experience the world as a happier and kinder place (for they are more likely to see happiness and kindness around them) and genuinely receive more happiness and kindness because others are infected by their goodness--and the reverse holds for anger and meanness. Many of us would label this phenomenon, in all its generality, "karma."

EDIT: To specifically state where the effects would come from: the mind of the person who acts is the "source" of "karmic retribution/reward" in the particular view I've given.


In Buddhism Karma is the result of Intention (Chethana). Every thought we think intentionally - and every action as well, since intentional actions are necessarily preceded by thoughts - will lead to good or bad results in the future (unless the person is an Enlightened being (Arhat)). Every thought has forms like Lobha (greed), Dosa (hate), Moha (delution), Alobha (non-greed), Adosa (non-hate), Amoha (non-delusion), or a mixture of them. The first three forms will give us bad results (Akusala Vipaka) and the latter three will give us good results (Kusala Vipaka).

As I see it, this is a form of energy in the mind. Good thoughts will generate positive energy which will lead to good results in the future, and bad thoughts will generate negative energy. Result wills be varied according to the strength of the thought and the mixture of forms in it. (Maybe it will not give any result in some cases, you may need to read further to understand the different types of karma and their Vipakas.)

As we are not Enlightened, we can get only very rough idea about karma. We can not explain how it really works. As suggested in some other answers you can read the original Buddhist scripture to get a better understanding.


"Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect."

-- (AN6.63.5, translated from the pali by Thanissaro Bikkhu)

The verb root of (pali: kamma, skt: karma) is kr: do, make. As a noun: act, deed. Kamma is not the result, but kamma is an action that causes a result. In the suttas, the Buddha uses the term specifically to refer to actions that return results (fruit) to the doer. In the Buddhist context then, only by intending a result does one identify with and own kamma.

This is a major distinction between Buddhist understanding of kamma versus Jainist in particular and most other religions (such as theistic speculations including soul and judgement). A Jain who steps on an ant, even if unintentionally, will expect negative karmic result, a burden upon his soul.

The Buddha on the other hand denies the existence of a permanent continuous self/soul. A continuous self is an illusion created by ourselves by way of identifying with (sankhara, own-making) and linking various input (senses) and output (kamma). Only the intending creator receives the result of his intentional creation.

Events occur without any need for a self to unify or identify with them. However, when we intend to unify and identify events (reinforcing a sense of self) the self image receives the result of the creation. If we step on an ant without intending harm, no harm will result. If we throw a ball of fire we burn our hand. If we become angry we are angry.

  • From your quote it seems that root of kamma is actually intention, and then action follows.
    – catpnosis
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 14:16
  • I mean to refer to the linguistic root of the word not its causal predecessor. I'll clear that up. Thanks. The quote is accurate (Cetanaaha.m bhikkhave kamma.m vadaami||cetayitvaa kamma.m karoti kaayena vaacaaya manasaa).
    – alex
    Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 5:05

In Buddhism it's simply when you sway from the four noble truths. This will lead to suffering. Karma is not do good -- get good and vice versa as people here have suggested. The Pali Canon also never suggest that it's something you bring with you after death. All of these things are superstitions from the west in attempts to explain it. E.g., if you are anxious you will suffer because being anxious is breaking one of the noble truths, i.e., accumulating karma. Now this is maybe more the teachings of the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) then what modern Buddhism is about.


"If you do good then you will get good in return and vice-versa"

Important note is that not just any (subjective) good, but actions that Buddha teach as good actions. These proper (or skillful) actions will give pleasant fruit. (Such as wholesome birth.)

I'm not able to understand where would the effect come back from?

Easy. More good actions you do, more good you are (for everybody who know you) and more good is around you. (1) Such that it's narutally more probably that you receive more positive feedback. (2) Good actions develop your mind qualities and skills, more developed your mind, better you at avoiding bad consequences. For example, wise you would not gamble, so no being upset from unfair losses. No dealing with criminals or bad "friends" - no woes from betrayal, etc. Not performing crime - no fears, no punishment. (3) More generally - good qualities is compatible with other good qualities and non-compatible with bad qualities (including bad karma results). (4) Good actions lead you into appropriate enviroment which "remembers" (in a sense) quality of your action. (5) It is also said that body with its sense organs is 'old karma'. And we know that mind is formative for body. So bad actions will modify mind in a way that it will modify the body. And wrong body (as sense-organs, and mind skills) is definitely suffering or will lead to it. (For exampel fool is almost certainly will create suffering for herself than wise.)


I do not know How Karma is perceived in Buddhism. But In Hinduism, the karma literally means action that one perfoms in all levels of mind,body and energy. To simply put it, it is like a software we write for ourselves. A wise man named sadhguru clearly says like this

The word Karma literally means action. There are a variety of actions – physical actions, mental actions, emotional actions and energy actions. You may not have experienced energy actions, but you will know physical, mental and emotional actions. The residue or the impression of every action that you have performed, from the moment of birth to now, is within you. It is from these impressions that you have made yourself the kind of person you are now.

These impressions are there at the level of your memory, your physiology, your chemistry and on the level of your energy. These are all the backup systems to make sure that you don’t lose your karma. Even if you lose your mind, you will not lose it. If you lose your body, you will not lose it because its impressed on your very life energies. You will see that the very way in which energy functions differs from person to person. The very way everybody thinks and feels Is different. This is because the kind of impressions they have decides this. Or, in other words, karma means the unconscious software that you wrote for yourself. How you are or what you are is based on the software you wrote for yourself.

Your karmic substance controls the very way you think, feel, understand and perceive life. This doesn’t mean you are stuck. If you functions consciously in this moment, you can change the next moment’s karma for yourself. What you did in the previous moment is this moment’s karma. What you did yesterday you cannot change but what you do now you can always change. What you do this moment is in your hands. This moment’s karma is the most important thing. People are always talking about the previous karma. But you must understand that the kind of action – physical, mental and emotional – you perform this moment will decide the quality of your life.

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    Nice, but not an answer to the question... This should be a comment (with a link to the text).
    – stoicfury
    Commented Jan 5, 2013 at 20:32
  • Still, too many downvotes ("anonymous cowards" :) for a first answer IMHO ...
    – Drux
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 0:14

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