The three main religions generally considered of Easter origin, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism have a common doctrine of the concept of Karma-theory and subsequent infinite rebirth of the soul (jiva), in essence which is as thou sow so shall you reap.

A brief recapitulation maybe read here - https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karma

I want to have an account of the critique and criticism of this theory of karma and re-birth. Which scholars have done that, and have there been counter arguments or counter-critique to those criticisms of karma theory.

In gist, what are some well known criticism of the karma theory amongst scholars of religious study and also religious practioners of other religions too.

What are the Critiques and criticism, and counter to those critiques and criticisms, of the Karma and rebirth doctrine of Indian religions?

  • 3
    Perhaps the most obvious criticism: is there any physical evidence whatsoever for the Karma theory? If there isn’t, what justifies it any more than Scientology? Apr 26 at 5:26
  • @Draupadi I have the same question like you. I never got an answer from adherents of the Karma-hypothesis which convinced me. I recommend to pose your question also at hinduism.stackexchange.com/questions
    – Jo Wehler
    Apr 26 at 7:36
  • @Draupadi " 3 The three main religions generally considered of Easter origin, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism have a common doctrine of the concept of Karma-theory and subsequent infinite rebirth of the soul (jiva), in essence which is as thou sow so shall you reap" .
    – Ben
    Aug 2 at 18:42
  • @Draupadi Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your reliogous books- GAUTAMA BUDDHA (Kalama Sutta in Anguttara Nikaya). The essence of message of Buddha is Rationalism. So, Buddhism has no karma theory and no belief in soul. So, I suggest you remove buddhism from this or supply a proof of the statement.
    – Ben
    Aug 2 at 18:46

3 Answers 3


Kamma, as deed, is central to Buddhism in regard to the ending of deed and subsequently the ending of suffering, (see quote below). Notionally, as deed , it can be decoupled from the doctrine of reincarnation, which was part of the established Hindu culture for at least a thousand years before Buddhism arose, and which Buddhism naturally operated within. However, the ending of karma, as deed, fulfils its purpose without the necessity for involvement with reincarnation, or its popular idea as retributive justice. This simpler view of the ending of deed is the counter-view to the more complex "theory of karma and re-birth" as requested by the OP.

The Buddha says that there are four kinds of deeds, the black deed with black result (vipaka), the white deed with white result, the black and white deed with black and white result, and the neither black nor white deed with neither black nor white result, it has no result (Skt. a-vipaka). The first three are the same as those of the preceding text; the fourth and last (which is, though this is left implicit, neither harmful nor harmless, and therefore not deed at all, and which will not lead to any re-arisal in any world, harmful or harmless) is the volition (cetana) to cut all three other kinds of deed, leading to the ending of deed (kamma-kkhaya, Skt. karma-ksaya). AN, II, 230-231

... "By the cutting of craving, deed is cut; by the cutting of deed, suffering is cut." SN, V, 86 (46, 26).

Re: Tang for Dummies, talk.religion.buddhism

Kamma - A Study Guide


Honestly, there's not much point in a comprehensive overview of the critique of karma because there are as many different conceptions of karma and its mechanics as there are gurus in India and elsewhere.

HOWEVER - one point of criticism is that the concept of karma is often used to justify victim blaming. The system of karma and reincarnation implies that bad things happen to seemingly good people because they did something in a past life to 'deserve it'. The victim has accrued a karmic debt in past lives and is paying for it in the present one. If I punch you in the face, you must have deserved it, else the universe would have prevented me from doing it. I may be adding on to my own karmic debt by hitting you, but still, you must have deserved it.

For example, take the following passage from 'Aghori: The left hand of god', in which a guru is justifying the rape of a young girl, even though rape is, according to him, one of the 'three unforgivable sins'.

"there must have been some karmic connection there, otherwise there never would have been an opportunity for him to be alone with her long enough to rape her."

The girl was raped only because she must have done something in her past life to deserve getting raped. Notably, the man doing the raping was the guru's own guru! Both the victim and the aggressor are at fault:

Had this old man been in his senses he could have postponed the repayment of this karmic debt for some future lifetime, but because his balance of mind was lost, his natural underlying lust which had been suppressed all those years suddenly spurted out. It is a fine thing to collect great spiritual power, but you are headed for trouble if you ever lose control over it.

This sense of karmic justice is also used to justify theft. Here the guru is talking about concept he calls 'rnanubandhana', which is a kind of karmic debt which exists between individuals. He is saying here that he only has the opportunity to steal from you in the present because in some past life you must have stolen from him. Thus he is justified in stealing from you to even the balance.

For example, if I steal something from you in this lifetime the opportunity for me to steal from you can arise only if a debt exists between you and me; only if you owe me something. If there is no bondage, I will not be able to locate your home, or will not find what I want even if I do burgle it. And if I steal from you, instead of receiving from you as a gift the thing I want, of your own free will, it is highly likely that you must have stolen from me in the past. Your past action creates a like attitude in me.

To western eyes, this is a disgusting bit of self-serving logic, but nonetheless it is sensible within the karmic view. If you did not have a karmic debt, then the universe would not have allowed you to be burgled. In the west we think you shouldn't be blamed for the actions of someone else. How can you build a fair society if everyone blames the victim equally for crimes?

Note that this is an Aghori teaching, and likely a teaching that was specific to this guru and his lineage. More mainstream Hindu sects might disagree with this understanding of how karma works. They might call this a distortion of the karmic system, and that all we should know about karma is that we should help others and avoid hurting them. Or they might defend it, by denouncing my presumption that I know more about what the rape victim deserves than an infinite God. However, it is undeniable that the doctrine of karma has been used to justify present suffering, especially in India. To this effect, there has been some scholarly effort to rehabilitate the concept of karma. For example, this article by Madhuri M. Yadlapati.

There was also a thread of articles relating to this karmic 'problem of evil' that I've roughly outlined here. You'll have to request the full text from the author or from a library.


It is easy to dismiss rebirth as a physicalist-materialist literalist, just as it is heaven and hell. But that shows a failure of imagination about why they have been such powerful psychotechnologies for millennia. And a failure to engage with the details of doctrine in their own terms, within a context of their function within the teaching.

"Intention (cetana) I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect." - The Nibbedhika Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 6.63

Karma is about psychological cause and effect, not the allotment of good and bad results, but about how they are experienced - because our intentions are above all, attachments towards what we wish to experience.

"1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

  1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow

  2. "He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me." Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

  3. "He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me." Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

  4. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

  5. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels"

-opening verses of The Dhammapada, an ancient collection of sayings of the Buddha, widely considered to represent the core of Buddhist thought

Buddhism can be understood as fundamentally a critique and reassessment of rebirth. One which reconciles that one of the three marks of existence is 'anatta', not-self, with the actions we take having consequences beyond our own lifespan - consequences not simply on the world outside of minds, but on other subjectivities. It takes the middle path between transmigration of an unchanging inner essence, and materialism that says death is the complete cessation of a person's life:

The king asked: "Venerable Nagasena, is it so that one does not transmigrate and one is reborn?"

"Yes, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn."

"How, venerable Nagasena, is it that one does not transmigrate and one is reborn? Give me an analogy."

"Just as, your majesty, if someone kindled one lamp from another, is it indeed so, your majesty, that the lamp would transmigrate from the other lamp?"

"Certainly not, venerable sir."

"Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn."

"Give me another analogy."

"Do you remember, your majesty, when you were a boy learning some verse from a teacher?"

"Yes, venerable sir."

"Your majesty, did this verse transmigrate from the teacher?"

"Certainly not, venerable sir."

"Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn."

"You are clever, venerable Nagasena."

-from The Questions Of King Melinda, Miln III.5.5. Canonical in Burmese Buddhism, a shortened version in some Mahayana cannon, and widely translated and read in the Buddhist world. Dates to 100-200AD, & said to be about events 200 years before

The details of the working of karma are listed in the Sabbasava Sutta as topics of 'unwise reflection'. Buddha states clearly that attachment to a self or to non-self, are both wrong views. I see this as drawing attention to understanding karma not as a machinery for how to get ahead, but as a way to understand that our actions have consequences, and how we use our minds can have lasting impacts on the minds of others.

In general Therevada Buddhist thought takes quite a literal view of the suttas. In Mahayana thought they have developed the psychological model of the arising of consciousness at the sense-gates, up to 'Alaya Vijnana' or Eighth-Consciousness or Storehouse-Consciousness, which I think can be meaningfully and useful related to the idea of the Noosphere, or Memesphere.

In Hindu thought there is far more diversity than we generally appreciate from the West, at least historically. Most positions of Western philosophy have been taken up by some school at some point, and the traditions that have survived generally have sophisticated answers on points of contention.

Advaita Vedanta, the oldest school of orthodox Hinduism, arose in large part as a counterpoint to Buddhist thought, focusing on the non-dualism of personal self called atman, with cosmic self Brahman. I see this as integrating the idea of the 'mani' or jewel-self in Indra's Net, the net of jewel-selfs reflecting each other and constituting reality, and Buddha-nature, the intrinsic capacity for freedom and attainment of a liberated mind. But, while juggling the language to keep respect for the Vedas, and securing continuity with wider Hindu thought and culture. The focus on sakshi, witness-consciousness, is distinct from Buddhist thought. But I would understand it as drawing a similar focus to attending to the possibilities of right now, which has a universal quality for all beings.

Of course many practicioners within traditions take a simplistic view of teachings about rebirth. And I would say that is exactly the point - rather than rewriting culture, using what is already there, to understand how to live better together, with an accessible form, and a deeper doctrine for those with more difficult questions. The fine details of doctrine are not for everyone. Buddhism in China has seen a pendulum swing between ascetic demanding Zen with few accessible doctrines, and extremely accepting easy to engage with Pureland Buddhism - to the extent most Zen schools honour Buddha Amithaba, who offers rebirth in a realm guaranteeing awakening in return for simply chanting his name; very like the promise of Heaven for the righteous. But the existence of a complex understanding that challenges ideas about the self, can allow problem solving by relating to the big picture, of what kind of world we are building, and what kind of minds within it. I go in to more details about the afterlife as being about what concepts or stories we grant symbolic immortality to, here: What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view?

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is described as 'the thousand hands and eyes of compassionate action'. So we can understand at least for Bodhisattvas, that the self and rebirth is not limited to being in one place at one time.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .