Being philosophically-minded, I have always found the descriptions of the doctrine of karma by Eastern teachers to be frustratingly vague. So I set out to find out what, exactly, the doctrine of karma is, and why we should believe it. The resulting study is somewhat lengthy, so I have now broken it into small topics that you can read individually.
Readings in the Theory of Karma
A selection of quotations from mostly Hindu scriptures and teachers, explaining all the major aspects of the theory of karma.
Problems in the Theory of Karma
An examination of the many difficult philosophical questions raised by the traditional Hindu theory of karma.
Evaluating the Theory of Karma
An attempt to evaluate the accuracy of the doctrine of karma, bringing a variety of different perspectives to bear upon the problem.
Buddhist Views on Karma
Taoist Views on Karma
A Sufi View of Rebirth: Bawa Muhaiyaddeen
A short article on a view of rebirth taught by a Sheikh of Islamic or Sufi mysticism.
A listing of the works quoted and referenced in the previous sections.
The Hindu Theory of World Cycles
A systematic presentation of the theory of world ages described by Hindu scripture and its relationship to modern science. The system of ages described in the Puranas is described in detail, including kalpas, manvantaras, maha yugas, Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga, and Kali Yuga. Current scientific theories of evolution and periodic mass extinctions are also explored.
This vast universe is a wheel. Upon it are all creatures that are subject to birth, death, and rebirth. Round and round it turns, and never stops. It is the wheel of Brahman. As long as the individual self thinks it is separate from Brahman, it revolves upon the wheel in bondage to the laws of birth, death, and rebirth. But when through the grace of Brahma it realizes its identity with him, it revolves upon the wheel no longer. It achieves immortality.
Svetasvatara Upanishad (Prabhavananda), 118
Consider how it was with the forefathers; behold how it is with the later (men); a mortal ripens like corn, and like corn is born again.
Katha Upanishad (Radhakrishnan), I.1.6
15:7 An eternal portion of Myself, having become a living soul in a world of living beings, draws to itself the five senses, with the mind for the sixth, which abide in Prakriti.
15:8 When the lord acquires a body, and when he leaves it, he takes these with him and goes on his way, as the wind carries away the scents from their places.
15:9 Presiding over the ear and eye, the organs of touch, taste, and smell, and also over the mind, he experiences sense-objects.
15:10 The deluded do not perceive him when he departs from the body or dwells in it, when he experiences objects or is united with the gunas; but they who have the eye of wisdom perceive him.
The Law of Action
According to the doctrine of karma, for every morally determinate thought, word, or action, there will be corresponding karmic compensation, if not in this life, then in some future life. As a man sows, so shall he reap.
K. L. Sheshagiri Rao, in Pappu, 23
He, as the Self, resides in all forms, but is veiled by ignorance... At death he is born again, and the circumstances of his new life are determined by his past deeds and by the habits he has formed.
Kaivalya Upanishad (Prabhavananda), 115
2:14. Experiences of pleasure and of pain are the results of merit and demerit, respectively.
4:7. The karma of the yogi is neither white nor black. The karma of others is of three kinds: white, black, or mixed.
The Law of Desire
Others, however, say that a person consists of desires. As is his desire, so is his will; as is his will, so is the deed he does, whatever deed he does, that he attains.
Brhad-aranyaka Upanishad (Radhakrishnan), IV.4.5
The desires we get are actually samskaras. They are formed in this way:
1. Having union with an object, possessing it.
2. The object is not present, but stays in the mind.
3. A craving for the object is created.
4. The craving makes a print on the mind which remains after death (samskara).
Desire is the third stage. We don't feel the first two stages, they are too subtle. Samskaras recreate desires in the next birth automatically. A person can get the desire to steal though brought up in a good family. He himself can't understand why he desires it.
These desires develop more when they are fulfilled. Desires can be overcome by controlling them; we have to put a limit on desires.
Baba Hari Dass, 116
The karmic law requires that every human wish find ultimate fulfillment. Nonspiritual desires are thus the chain that binds man to the reincarnational wheel.
Paramahansa Yogananda, 360
...Vedanta says that at the root of the source of the desires is your own Atma which is Truth personified. As such, all desires, good or bad, have got to be materialized. They must be true, because they emanate from Atma, the Truth incarnate. This very Atma, which is the source of all Power, is called God or Ishwara. Therefore, all his desires must indubitably be fulfilled.
Well! The question is that, if in the opinion of Vedanta, all the desires are to be fulfilled, how is it that they are not seen being fulfilled? No body sees his desires materialize all the time. Therefore, it may appear that the assertion of Vedanta is wrong. But Vedanta clears this doubt as well... Some have too many and also big desires within them... It is no wonder, if the cases of such persons (men of desires) may take two, three or even more adjournments (lives and rebirths etc.) for the final judgment (fulfillment of desires)... But it must be remembered that all desires are bound to be fulfilled in course of time. There can be no doubt about it. Therefore, if the desires of any man are not fulfilled early, it means that it is due to his own faults. If, however, they want to see their desires fulfilled early, they should have only a few simple and selfless desires...
Vedanta says that the desires, being innumerable, are often left unfulfilled at the time of the death of a man. To desire is also a sort of action. He, therefore, takes other birth or births to see his desires fulfilled. And, the materialization of these unfulfilled desires may be called destiny. That is why, our scriptures have mentioned that it is because of our own desires, hopes and aspirations that we take other birth or births after death.
Swami Rama Tirtha, 263-265
...Rama will say that generally all the prayers are not accepted. But the prayers of some of the persons do materialize... they are accepted, only when the person praying is intensely merged in his prayer and, knowingly or unknowingly, has reached a stage where he has lost himself in his oneness with God... It is only under such circumstances that our prayers are accepted, because at that moment the person praying is established in his real Self which is Truth personified. As such, his prayers are bound to come true.
Swami Rama Tirtha, 272
Q. If a thing comes to me without any planning or working for it and I enjoy it, will there be no bad consequences from it?
A. It is not so. Every act must have its consequences. If anything comes your way by reason of prarabdha, you can't help it. If you take what comes, without any special attachment, and without any desire for more of it or for a repetition of it, it will not harm you by leading to further births. On the other hand, if you enjoy it with great attachment and naturally desire for more of it, it is bound to lead to more and more births.