A Comparison of the Early Buddhist, Jain and Vedic Understandings of Karma & Transmigration


Early Buddhist, Jain and Vedic traditions shared a common understanding of rebirth that proposed a cyclical theory of continuity, meaning death is purely a temporary state in a continuous process of births and rebirths. Through a shared conception of causality, it was accepted that the nature of one’s karma (actions) determined one’s future, whether in this life or the next. This essay will begin by looking at the potential origins of these shared beliefs and track some of the divergent developments between them. The essay will go on to look at the ideological variations surrounding the interpretation of the nature of karma and the process of transmigration. It is due to these contrasting hypotheses that the solutions to, or liberation from, karma and transmigration are so distinct from one another.


Understood as the theory of applied causality, karma and rebirth is a basic factor in Indian spiritual culture (Walli, 1977, p.1). Karmic Law is the law of action and reaction, implying that each action has a corresponding reaction in exact proportion to it (Walli, 1977, p.1). Gananath Obseyesekere, postulates a shared rebirth theory of a “primitive kind” in ancient India which served as a primitive base for the later development of the karmic eschatology (Obseyesekere, 1980 p.140). Buddhism and Jainism are grounded on the premises of transmigration and the search for liberation from rebirth, yet this was not true for the early Vedic religion (Bronkhorst, 2009, p.22). The Upanisadic notions of karma and transmigration, Johannes Bronkhorst argues, were influenced by these non-Vedic ideas (Bronkhorst, 2009, p.22). However, the fact that both Jainism and Buddhism accepted karma and rebirth as basic facets of human experience, without any felt need to justify these notions, goes to show that this conceptualisation of existence already ran deep within society (Dundas, 1992, p.5).


The Vedic tradition used the term karman to depict the “doings” of the sacrificial ritual (Tull 1989, p.5). Salvation was sought through sacrifice, as it constituted the means through which one could breakthrough the human planes to the divine dimensions (Panikkar, 1977, p.254). The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa X.4.3.10 is explicit in asserting that it is only through this holy work that immortality is attained (Krishan, 1977, p.7). Through the performance of rite, there is a production of merit and through the ritual there is a transmigration of the soul to heaven where it may enjoy this stored up merit (Krishan, 1977, p.29). Herman Tull explains that nineteenth century Indologists viewed the Vedic statement that ‘one becomes good by good action, bad by bad [action]’, as referring to the ethicised karma doctrine as seen in the Upanisads however, what is being referred to as “good” is ritual exactitude, rather than the ethical quality actions (Tull, 1989, p.2).


The emphasis on ritual interdictions as determining the nature of a man at death leads scholars to argue for the absence of moral principles in the Vedas (Krishan, 1977, p.6). However, performance of sacrifice was performance of man’s duty in continuing the existence of the universe itself, and maintaining the harmony of the Cosmic Order (ta) (Panikkar, 1977, p.322). Jeanine Miller explains the moral order of the universe was the ‘law of harmony’, which was to be manifested at every level of existence (Miller, 1985, p,109). That which is congruous with the overall harmony of the Cosmic Order (ta), will in the human sphere, be determined as moral, hence there is a definite social and personal ethic within the Vedas (Miller, 1985, p,109). Miller argues that the ritual work (karman), the bringing back to equilibrium of anything that has become discordant, heralded the doctrine of karma in its ethical sense (Miller, 1985, p,110). In contrast to Bronkhorst’s reasoning that notions of karmic retribution are absent from the Vedas, those who disturbed the ta were punished by the gods (Bronkhorst, 2011, p.3; Miller, 1985, p.151). Morality was different in that to perform the rite was not to do good to the gods, oneself, or mankind but to literally continue the existence of the universe itself, to not do so would be to disrupt the functioning of the cosmos effecting each and every being due to the interdependent nature of existence. This notion of duty is one of both necessity and moral obligation. These nebulous Vedic theories of transmigration and karma flourished among the “heterodox” religions (Obseyesekere, 1980, p.138). Obeyesekere argues that the Jains and Buddhists transformed “rebirth eschatology” into “karmic eschatology” through “ethicization” (Obseyesekere, 1980, p.138). The moral quality of one’s actions throughout life became the pivotal factor in determining the nature of one’s rebirth.


The Upanisads, whilst belonging to the Vedic tradition, were greatly influenced by the heterodox movements of Buddhism and Jainism. (Obseyesekere, 1980, p.157) Ritual purification of the Vedas was not dismissed altogether, however increasingly emphasis was placed on wisdom as the source of purification of Man from negative tendencies and accumulated karman (Panikkar, 1977, p.471). The Upanisads make two significant contributions to the concept of rebirth. Firstly, transmigration progressively shifts from spatially different worlds (world of the gods, manes or men), to rebirth in different forms of life on earth (Krishan, 1977, p.20). Secondly, the ethical nature of the karmas becomes the governing factor of the rebirth, rather than ritual exactitude or violations (Krishan, 1977, p.20). Even Mahanarayana, the most ritually orientated Upanisad, ends with the intuition that complete purification is solely achieved through the discovery of the light core of Man (Panikkar, 1977, p.474). Knowledge of ātman, the eternal self, became the principal means to liberation because it was considered beyond action, and thus beyond karman (Bronkhorst, 2009, p.25).


The Jains were unique in seeing karma unequivocally as matter (Humprey, 1994, p.19). According to Jain tradition delusion, causing passions in the soul such as anger and greed, endows the soul with the capacity to absorb karmic matter through vibrations which are created by physical and mental activities, leading to bondage of the soul to matter (Krishan, 1977, p.40). This bondage prevents the soul from rising to the summit of the universe to experience eternal bliss and omniscience (H19). According to Jain transmigration theory the whole universe teems with embodied souls even within plants, insects, and tiny single-sensed beings in the air, fire, water and earth (Humprey, 1994, p.19). The ethical principle of not causing harm within Jain ideology is all-embracing. Jainism was especially uncompromising in its insistence that intent is not an essential prerequisite of sin as wrongdoing can be committed by accident and still attracts bad karma (Krishan, 1977, p.49). Any harm to one of these infinitesimal souls possessing the capacity of perfection and release will cause one’s own soul to accumulate karma, thus rendering any worldly activity as incompatible with the realization of ‘non-violence’, the bedrock of Jainism and fundamental principle in avoiding accumulating karma (Humprey, 1994, p.19). Similarly to the Upanisads, emphasis is placed on realization of one’s inner nature: perfect knowledge and illumination. Once karma is eliminated omniscient knowledge arises. This omniscience is unique, for the knowledge that Buddhists originally attributed to the Buddha was related specially to knowledge conducive to spiritual advancement (Dundas, 1992, p.88).


In contrast to Jain notions of karma, the Buddha did not perceive physical activity as being the cause of transmigration, but rather the intention behind it (Bronkhorst, 2009, p.11).  The Buddha avers, ‘It is "intention'' that I call karma; having formed the intention, one acts (karma) by body, speech and mind’ (Gethin, 1998, p.120). Contrary to his contemporaries, the Buddha’s problem and the solution were psychological. The Buddha explained that the mind is the forerunner of all states. If one acts or speaks with evil mind, suffering will follow ‘in the same way as the wheel follows the hoofs of an ox pulling the cart’ (Krishan, 1977, p.63). The Jains greatly disapproved of the Buddhist notion that a person is not guilty of murder if it is committed through accident (Krishan, 1977, p.64). James McDermott argues that the Buddhist understanding of karma and rebirth ultimately derives from Buddha’s denial of an eternal personal entity (McDermott, 1980, p.192).  It is erroneous to posit any lasting unity behind the five aggregates that make up an individual; this is the doctrine of anattā, non-self (McDermott, 1980, p.166). In contrast with his contemporaries, there was no enduring substantial self to transmigrate. Personal continuity in transmigration was explained through dependent origination, the doctrine of causal connectedness. Death is not a cessation of the causal continuity of phenomena, but the reconfiguration of events into a new pattern in dependence upon the old (Gethin, 1998, p.153).


Whilst Jain, Buddhist and Vedic doctrine established a powerful moral law of karma, they simultaneously discounted the advantage of good karmas. Ultimately karma, whether good or bad, is bondage leading to rebirth and the concomitant suffering intrinsic in existence (Krishan, 1977, p.17). Although sharing the aim of liberation from the endless cycle of rebirths, their methods by which such liberation could be attained contrasted greatly due to differing understandings of the nature of karma itself. The Upanisads expounded that the ātman, as distinct from the body and the mind, is inactive and thus unaffected by the deeds of body and mind that perpetuate the cyclical process of rebirth and karmic retribution (Bronkhorst, 2011, p.19). The knower of the Self is freed ‘from the consequences of the deeds that he has in reality never carried out’ (Bronkhorst, 2011, p.19). The Chāndogya Upanisad 4.14.3 states, ‘just as water does not cling to the lotus leaf so also sin does not cling to hum who knows Brahman’ (Krishan, 1977, p.24) The Upanisads take their doctrine to the logical, yet extreme conclusion, that once liberation is attained, man is free from good and evil, his existing karmas are destroyed whilst new karmas are abortive, thus he is free to act as he likes (Krishan, 1977, p.24). The knower of the Self is beyond good and evil because he is beyond karma and its laws, therefore he cannot be the source of immoral acts on the basis of his enlightened conscience (475 PR).


Jainism expounds that freedom from the bondage of karmas, and thus transmigration, is firstly achieved through the cessation of inflowing new karmas, and secondly by liquidating the existing karmic stock. To attain spiritual liberation the aspirant must cultivate morally positive attitudes, practice austerity, gradually suppress negative mental process and uproot ignorance, which is then followed by the liberation of the innate qualities such as omniscience (Dundas, 1992, p.104). Paul Dundas explains that ascetic practices were perceived in positive terms, ‘it is a cool house for those burnt by the fire of transmigration, a refuge for those afflicted in mind and body and a city with walls in the form of restrain which the passions cannot storm’ (Dundas, 1992, p.165). If deeds lead to rebirth, the logical conclusion was to abstain from all activity. Like Buddhism, not only physical deeds but also thoughts and feelings have karmic consequences and so the mind must come to complete standstill also (Bronkhorst, 2011, p.14). The culmination of a life of training is the process known as sallekhanā, the central austerity of fasting until death, in a state of complete restraint (Bronkhorst, 2011, p.10). The embodied soul is then freed and rises in one instant to the top of the universe where it will exist eternally without any further rebirth in a state of pure joy, knowledge and consciousness (Dundas, 1992, p.105) 


Early Buddhism rejected the Jain notion of immobility asceticism and the Upanisadic teaching of knowledge of the nature of the true self as the means to liberation. The Buddha’s path to liberation was different because his conceptualization of karma was different (Bronkhorst, 2011, p.13).  Dependent arising not only explains accumulation of karma, transmigration and our enmeshment in suffering, but also points to how we may liberate our selves (Gethin, 1988, p.157). Precisely because everything occurs in line with dependent arising, transforming the links of the chain produce profound effects. Not only is karma conceptualized as psychological bit also causal conditioning (Gethin, 1988, p.153). Therefore, liberation is achieved through the cultivation of conditions that bring about the cessation of ignorance, the leading cause of dependent origination and thus transmigration (Gethin, 1988, p.157). Wholesome action is characterized by generosity, ethical conduct and meditation. The first two embrace conduct, whilst the last refers to elimination of ignorance, and concomitantly desire, through cultivation of insight through contemplation (Gethin, 1988, p.121).


To conclude, there were many areas of convergence in the early Vedic, Buddhist and Jain conceptualization of karma and transmigration. This stems from the constant interaction between the developing religions and the fact ‘they lived in one another’s pockets’ (O’Flaherty, 1980, p.xvii). Although the actual mechanisms of transmigration and the nature of karma differed they shared the common belief that these two concepts determined existence. As thought developed from the Vedas to the Upanisads, Brahmanical understanding came into accord with Jain and Buddhist conviction that transmigration is a source of distress and constitutes an endless repetition of suffering. Although they agreed on this, the paths to liberation from karma and thus rebirth differed greatly. Buddhists enumerated a path leading to cessation based on a psychological understanding of karma, whereas Jainism offered a path based on the understanding that karma is in direct relation to physical activity. Seeing the Self as beyond karma, the Upanisads advanced a method leading to the realization of the ātman. However, regardless of the different soteriological methods all traditions aimed for liberation from rebirth and karmic retribution.






Bronkhorst, Johannes. Buddhist Teaching in India (Boston, 2009).


Bronkhorst, Johannes. ‘Did the Buddha Believe in Karma and Rebirth?’ Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies (1998), pp. 1-19.


Bronkhorst, Johannes. Karma (Hawaii, 2011).


Dundas, Paul. The Jains (London, 1992).


Gethin. Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford, 1998).


Humphrey, Caroline & Laidlaw, James. The Archetypal Actions of Ritual: A theory of Ritual Illustrated by the Jain Rite of Worship (Oxford, 1994).


Krishan, Yuvraj. The Doctrine of Karma: Its Orign and Development in Brāhmanical, Buddhist and Jaina Traditions (Delhi, 1997).


McDermott, James. ‘Karma and Rebirth In Early Buddhism’, in Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s (ed.), Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions (London, 1980), pp. 165-192.


Miller, Jeanine. The Vision of Cosmic Order in the Vedas (London, 1985). 


O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions (London, 1980).


Obseyesekere, Gananath. ‘The Rebirth Eschatology and Its Transformations: A Conrtibution to the Sociology of Early Buddhism,’ in O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. ‘Introduction in Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s (ed.), Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions (London, 1980), pp. ix-xxv. 


Panikkar, Raimundo. The Vedic Experience: Anthology of Hinduism’s Sacred and Revealed Scriptures (Delhi, 1977).


Tull, Herman. The Vedic Origins of Karma: Cosmos as Man in Ancient Indian Myth & Ritual (New York, 1989).


Walli, Koshelva. Theory of Karman in Indian Thought (Varanasi, 1977).