Q: What is the Difference in the Idea of Karma between Hinduism and Buddhism?
A: As is usually the case in identifying differences, we have to begin with similarities. First of all, there is no question that karma is a crucial idea for both religions. In Buddhism as well as in Hinduism, it is the negative effects of karma that keep a person bound in the cycle of reincarnations, and the goal of both religions is to escape from this cycle. Obviously, in the final analysis, they are going to try to do so in radically distinctive ways, but at that, there are still many similarities before we get to that point. (Please note that in answering this question I am basically confining myself to the more traditional forms of Buddhism, as practiced in, say, Sri Lanka or Thailand, rather the more complex Chinese and Japanese versions.)
“Karma” has several levels of meaning, the most fundamental one simply being “duty,” “action,” or “obligation.” In this very generic sense, clearly both religions teach that individual people have specific karmas, that is duties that they ought to perform in their lives. In Hinduism, these are the requirements that come with the Hindu dharma as a whole and the functions of the castes more specifically (as outlined, for example, in the Law of Manu). In Buddhism, these obligations include the different duties incumbent on lay people and monks (bikhus), where, for example, lay persons must obey a set of rules called the “five precepts,” while monks must follow a more rigorous set of “ten precepts.”
However, karma is also invoked as an answer to the question of how a person came to arrive at their specific station in life, e.g. as a member of a specific caste for Hinduism or as a layperson rather than a monk in Buddhism. The explanation is that one’s present life was shaped by the person’s actions in his or her previous existences. Thus, for example, if a man is currently an agricultural worker of low social stature, this is the case because it is the outcome of his actions in his previous incarnations. This principle also applies to a being that presently exists as a non-human life form, say a monkey or a demon. What someone is now was determined by their karma, accumulated in former lives. Again, this is a belief that both Hinduism and Buddhism share.
Furthermore, Hinduism and Buddhism both agree that the accumulation of karma, and thus its effects, is an automatic process, something which, once in place, cannot be changed. As the colloquial saying goes, “you do the crime, you do the time.” Karma is based entirely on one’s actions, without any further judgments or courts of appeals. Please note that this conceptual structure presupposes that there are actions that are intrinsically detrimental or helpful as one engenders one’s karma, a point to which I would like to return at the end.
So far, so similar. We see that on the practical level, Hinduism and Buddhism take pretty much the same line: good actions produce good karma for a better rebirth, and bad actions the opposite. But the difference comes into play in attempting to conceptualize how this whole process works. In Hinduism, the understanding is fairly straight-forward, but Buddhism appears to find itself in a conceptual pickle! Please recognize that this statement is not intended as a negative critique of Buddhism, but as setting the stage for a most intriguing puzzle, to which Buddhist thinkers, beginning with the Buddha himself, have responded in somewhat provocative ways.
So, when you think of someone reincarnating, which part of the person is it that moves from life to life? Is it the body? Surely not. Most people would say that it is the soul, the permanent and immaterial part of the person, which is the true self of the person. The soul, then, resides in the body for a time, but leaves the body upon its physical death and moves on, taking up a new existence within a new body. Thus, it is also the soul that carries the karma of the person from one life to the next, and the chain of cause and effect remains unbroken. Most of schools of Hinduism have taken this view, namely that the soul (under various descriptions) is reincarnated and is the bearer of a person’s karma.
But what if you have a religion that does not believe in souls? What if you have a religion that teaches that one of the central errors people make is to think of themselves as permanent souls that persist from reincarnation to reincarnation? Then you would, in fact, be a Buddhist, and now you can see why Buddhism’s belief in karma seems to create a gigantic problem for the religion. If there is no entity that transports karma from life to life, how can the religion still maintain belief in karma?
As already signalled above, this is not a criticism of Buddhism from outsiders, but it is a puzzle that Buddhists themselves raise and address. In the process, some of the presuppositions of Buddhist philosophy become clear. Of course, there are some Buddhists who will simply declare that Buddhism has no doctrine of karma or reincarnation because they restrict the definition of those terms to the Hindu-like model of an actual soul that moves through the cycle of lives bearing the reality of karma. Under that definition, such Buddhists are certainly correct, but they do not solve the problem that Buddhism is still left with, namely the belief that as persons move from life to life, they maintain their identity, and they bear the fruit of their karma even though there is no substance that actually moves from life to life. How is karma possible without a soul that slides from one life through death to another life? (We might also want to acknowledge here that on many popular levels, such as when Buddhism became integrated into popular Chinese religion, the philosophical puzzles surrounding the Buddhist version simply vanished, and people followed a version that is very much like the Hindu one in that it stipulates a genuine soul that transfers between existences.)
The Buddha took a completely pragmatic approach to this matter and stated that one ought not to even ask such a question. A contemporary illustration of what he was saying might be that you don’t need to know how an automobile engine works in order to drive a car, and if one were to be caught in a burning house, it would be completely insane to pause and reflect on the mysterious nature of fire before rushing out of harm’s way. In the same way, the Buddha maintained that the important matter is to identify the cause of suffering (attachment) and the means to escape suffering (the eightfold path), while concentrating on the abstract concepts of karma and reincarnation will only distract a person from attaining liberation.
If such a dismissal of the issue is too frustrating for you, consider the following illustration sometimes used by Buddhists. Imagine a signet ring, used to make a wax seal. The ring presses the imprint on the wax; the pattern passes from the ring to the wax, but no part of the ring itself passes to the wax. The point of this illustration is to show that a significant imprint of a person’s life (the karma) can pass to the person’s next life without anything substantial actually ever being transferred.
Thus we see that in both Buddhism and Hinduism there is a strong concept of karma. The difference comes up primarily in the way in which the concept is explained, or, in the case of Buddhism, is intentionally not explained. Still, the belief that one’s deeds in one lifetime will determine one’s state in the next lifetime, is very similar in both religions.
Please let me return to the point to which I alluded earlier. The concept of karma is not possible by itself unless there are specific actions that will produce either good or bad results. Thus, there must be an objective standard of good and evil, right and wrong, and one’s compliance will engender certain karmic fruit. And if this is the case, then simply trying to abolish one’s karma may not be sufficient in order to remove the guilt of having broken the rules in the first place. Please consider not only what different religions teach about karma, but also whether a religion addresses the more profound truth that as human beings we are perpetually guilty of violating the standard of right and wrong.