Karma Doctrine Of Jainism (1/2)

Posted: 22.09.2008
Updated on: 30.07.2015

1.0 The Karma Doctrine

The word karma has many meanings namely to act, activity, and special types of matter particles which get bound with soul.

The doctrine of Karma is the central dogma of the Indian religions. It means: every action, every word, every thought produces, besides its visible, an invisible a transcendental effect called as vāsanā (trace) or seeds left behind. Further every action produces certain potential energies which, under given conditions, are changing themselves into actual energies, forces which, either as rewarded or punished, enter sooner or later into appearance. As in the case of a bond which, although the amount borrowed may long ago have been spent, continues to exist and only loses its validity on the repayment of the capital sum, so also the invisible effect of an action remains in existence long after the visible one has disappeared.[1] This effect does not confine itself to the present life, but continues beyond it; it destines qualitatively and quantitatively the state after death. Actions performed during the present existence are the causes of the future existence, and the present life is, in its condition and duration, the result of the actions of the preceding one. The picture at Annex I describes beautifully this doctrine of karma.

Thus the natural difference between individuals, one finds, are explanation that is so plausible that inversely it is adduced as a proof of the truth of the Karman theory. The idea of the eternity of the transmigration (saṅsāra), as soon as life was contemplated pessimistically, necessarily led to the endeavor to bring the painful re-incarnation to an end and eradicate the power of the Karman. To this longing after salvation from the painful cycle of re-births a great number of religious and philosophical systems owe their origin, including Jains.

Jains are the most realistic of all that have had their origin in India. Their fundamental idea of karma as a complexity of material particles infecting the sinful souls is indeed unique. The fine matter called pudgala (as known in Jainism) particles, which can become karma, fills the entire cosmos. An empirical soul does some activity, as a result of its energy (vīrya) quality through the faculties of mind, speech and body. All these activities are karma and mind, speech and body are the media through which it acts. This is okay. But with these activities, called bhāva karma or psychic activities affect subtle matter particles and they get attracted towards the space points of the soul and then form unison with them. However it is to be noted that all matter particles attracted towards souls are not bounded with it. Bonding of these particles depends on the state of the soul at that time i.e. state of attachment, aversion and passions affecting it at that time. If the soul is free of these impurities (i.e. in vitrāga or detachment) the attracted particles fall of like dust particles from a shining and polished surface. These subtle particles when bound with soul are called matter or dravya karma and they are concrete and have taste, touch, odour etc. As the empirical soul keeps on performing psychic activities, these material karmas keep on getting bonded with the soul depending on the state of the soul at that time.

That the soul, pure in itself, is polluted through its actions and, in order to regain its natural state, must be freed from its stain has been adopted by the Jains in the real sense of the word, and has been worked up into an original system, which even now is the foundation of the belief of over five million people.

The matter that entered into union with soul separates itself into a greater number of particles, the karma prakṛtis with varying effects. Their number and character are conditional upon the conduct of soul; if it is good, the jīva assimilates good karma species, he binds good karmas; when bad, he binds bad karma. The karma may stay latent for a long time but may appear after a long time or quickly when the right moment arises. The duration and intensity of the effect of karma depends upon the state of mind (adhyavasāya) at the moment of assimilation. When its efficacy expires it becomes extinguished.

Matter eternally infects the soul; soul’s union with the karma has no beginning and, at every moment it is gathering new matter and in natural course of things has no ending. The deliverance of soul from the karman is, therefore, only possible through a series of special processes by the jīva to first eliminate the absorption of new karman and to eliminate the karma already bound with it and before they come into active period.

This doctrine of karma has been remarkably described by Jains in a systematic manner. Texts like Saṭkhaṅdāgama, Paṅcasaṅgraha, Karamgraṅthas, Gomaṭṭasāra etc give detailed explanations of this doctrine. Salient feature of Jain karma doctrine can thus be listed as follows:

  • Karmas are material aggregates of extremely fine or subatomic wavelets pervading entire cosmos like sunlight. They are sense imperceptible having 4-touch types with virtually zero mass.
  • Not all the above particles are karmas. It is only those particles, which are capable of associating with jīvas, are karmas.
  • The nature of karmas can be understood through many similes like king, enemy, mountain, sand particles, seed, forest, fuel, wheel, excreta, waste slag, poison, electricity, chain, unrefined petrol, treasury, virus, magnet, creepers, flowing stream and a seasons etc.
  • Karma influences the physical and spiritual properties of jīva by
    • Obscuring
    • Defilements
    • Counteracting
    • Chaining with attachment and aversion
    • Linking with past and future
    • Making jīva dependent and
    • Creating sufferings for him.
  • Their existence is conformed by difference in physical and spiritual conditions of jīvas.
  • The karmas may be
    • Sacred or profane,
    • General or quasi- physical
    • Volitional or destructive.
  • The materiality of karmas is confirmed due to
    • Color etc. in them,
    • Origination of volitions and feelings of pleasure and pain etc.
  • The size of karma particles is very small and it conforms to its wavy nature.
  • The karma undergoes bonding and de-bonding.
  • The karma doctrine is not applicable to
    • Liberated souls,
    • Permanent nigodas or micro organism and
    • Non-liberation-ables.

The Jains have followed the four-foldness of Buddhists path in many of their concepts. The karma is no exception. They have been dealt under four heads namely:

  • Name and kind of karmas
  • Definition, causes and mechanism of bonding
  • Possibility of shedding of karmas
  • Methods of shedding

The atoms, which have become karma in the soul can be contemplated from 4 points of view. These are:

  1. According to the manner of their effect (prakṛti)
  2. According to the duration of their effect (sthiti)
  3. According to the intensity of their effect (rasa)
  4. According to their quantity, i.e. according to the number of their pradeśa

2.0 Name and Kinds of Karmas 

2.1 Names, their Effects (prakṛti)

As indicated earlier, the soul’s state and its activities in that state transform simple karmik matte into appropriate ‘specific function karmas’ which they interact with soul in their own ways. There are 8 chief or fundamental species (mūla-prakṛti) of the karman, namely:

  1. Jṅānāvaraṇa, which obscures knowledge, i.e. Affect the perception and knowledge qualities of the soul.
  2. Dārśanāvaraṇa, which obscures undifferentiated cognition,
  3. Vedanīya, which produces the feeling of joy and grief,
  4. Mohanīya, which obstructs belief and conduct, i.e. Cause the soul become confused and desirous
  5. Āyus, which determines the duration of life for the next birth,
  6. Nāma, which gives the various factors of individuality through body features i.e.numerous aspect like destiny, body, etc in the new incarnation.,
  7. Gotra, which destines family and surroundings,
  8. Antarāya, which hinders the jīva in his capability of resolution and enjoyment, limit the energy (vīrya) attribute of the soul to weaken every aspect of the soul.

Each of these mūla-prakṛtis is divided into a number of uttaraprakṛtis, sub-species. The latter can, on their part, be separated into yet smaller sub-divisions, so that the entire number of the karmas is exceedingly large as are given in Annex II. Thus we see there are a total of 148, which can exist (sattā). Similarly in realization (udaya) state of Karman, these prakṛtis number only 122 as those associated with bondage are not included and the 20 of taste, touch, odour and colour are taken as just 4 instead of 20. Similarly in Bandha state the number goes down to 120 as two prakṛtis of mohanīya i.e. samyagmithyātva and samyaktva cannot be bound by jīva.

The karman prakṛtis can be grouped in two classifications namely ghātiā i.e. obscuring or which to some extent affect the nature of the soul and agāhtiā or non obscuring which do not affect the nature of the soul but are to be enjoyed by it. Further ghātiā karman are further sub classified as sarvaghāti which obscure the nature of soul completely (20 including 5 knowledge obscuring type, 5 types of sleeps of dārśanāvaraṇa, 12 types of passions and nonbelief).

These distinctions of the karmas are important for Jains mainly to defend their acts on the basis of morality. For example it is said that Lord Rṣabha in his previous birth put a mouth band on a cow so that the cow does not eat; as a result of which during his ascetic life he had to go without food for six months; charities or service of monks result in nice births in heavens etc or not sharing or imparting knowledge to others may result in knowledge obscuring karmas affect that individual later in the present or future lives.


2.2 Duration of Karma Effect (sthiti):

The time that karma remains bonded with the soul is called duration (sthiti) of the karman. Sthiti literally means existence of karma with the soul. The maximum duration of all karmas whether good or bad is considered inauspicious and the minimum duration is considered good. Duration of karma of a living being is dependent on his psychic state (adhyavasāya) and therefore on the strength of passions (kaṣāyas). The more sinful a being is, the more is the duration of the karman bonded while the purer the psychic state the shorter is the duration of bondage.

The duration is of two stages i.e. state called abādhā of karma is when the karma just exists and the other when the karman is active. Duration of different karma is different and expressed in the units of time from smallest being samaya and the largest being utsarpiṇī. For details please see Doctrine of Karma by Glasenapp.


2.3 The Strength of Karma Effect (rasa or anubhāga)

The karma shows its effect, according to circumstances, in a more or less intense manner. The intensity of this effect corresponds to weakness or otherwise of the four kaṣāyas / passions (anger, deceit, greed and pride). According to the four-degrees (anantānubandhi, pratyakhāna, apratyakhāna and saṅjavallan) of passions, four degrees of strength are recognized.

With the bad prakṛtis the strongest, the 4th degree of the rasa is produced by the most violent passions, those of life long duration. Similarly the decreasing intensities are produced by pratyakhāna, apratyakhāna and saṅjavallan states of passions with the last one being the weakest. With the good karma species, reverse is the case. However a rasa of first degree i.e. anantānubandhi does not exist with the good prakṛtis which are discussed in gūṅasthāna or mysticism doctrine in the karmagraṅthas and such texts.


2.4 The Quantity of Space Points (pradeśas) of Karman.

The jīva assimilates karma matter,which is within his own space points, called pradeśas, (infinitely small space of the jīva which can be compared to a pixel in a photo) and not matter lying outside of them, just as fire only seizes inflammable material which is lying within its reach. Therefore every part of the soul is filled with karma particles, which if the necessary conditions are fulfilled, adhere to the jīva just like dust to a body besmeared with oil. The jīva seizes a karma particle simultaneously with all his parts, because an exceedingly close connection exists between all the pradeśas of a jīva, as with he links of a chain.

The karman particles absorbed by the jiva develops into the 8 species of the karman, as food consumed at a meal changes itself into blood and other constituents of the body. The shares, which fall to the 8 mūla-prakṛtis differ from one another; their measure corresponds to their sthiti. The part following to mūla-prakṛtis is then further divided among the uttara prakṛtis. Thus the greatness or smallness of the pradeśabandha of the different prakṛtis does not depend on ethical factors, as with sthiti and rasa bandhas but upon mechanical ones.


3.0 Concept of Bandha (bondage), Saṅvara (stopping influx) and Nirjarā (dissociation)of Karmas 

3.1 Karmic Bonding [2]

Karmic bonding may be described under four heads:

      1. Bonds (nature and definition)
      2. Kinds of Bonds
      3. Bondable (Aggregates) and
      4. Bonder jīvas

Bonding requires association of at least two entities. The bonders must have the necessary properties for bonding. Bhagavati indicates presence of an adhesive (sneha) between the jīva and karma particles to lead to bonding. However, material karmas and non-material soul cannot have bonding together.

In current science, the atoms bind together due to opposite charges with necessary internal and external energy for bonding. They have been called as ‘smooth and rough’ in scriptures with lightning as their example. The material karmas and worldly jīvas should also have these properties. The free karma particles are very powerful, but a large amount of their energy is spent during their conversation into bondable karmas. Still, they have sufficient energy to cause continuous jīva -karma bonding. The worldly jīva’s association with karmas is already charged. These karmas particles are charged as described in scriptures:


3.1.1 Theories of Bonding

Currently, there are many theories regarding karmic bonding, some traditional and some recent based on scientific experimentations. The first one has developed from time to time based on factors of bonding and nature of karma and jīva. The latter are the results of current supra atomic development.
In the first instance, Jainism was taken as an ascetic religion. All its theories were based on their spiritual progress. Accordingly, the first theory involved bonding due to activities emerged from physical and social possessions. The theory postulates that


  1. All activities are sinful and they bind karmas. Activities and Karmas are synonyms.
  2. The physical activities emerged from passions, possessions and aversion etc.
  3. The control on activities leads to better mind and, therefore, lesser bonding.
  4. It is only actual actions, which leads to bonding other factors are just instrumental.
  5. The activities if ascetics are vigilantly performed, hence, they do not lead to rebirth.
  6. All activities of laity are long-time bonding ones.

The scriptures mention 25 kinds of activities, which may be incidental, natural, induced, due to ignorance or thought that may bind karmas.

The second theory is based on passions. It states:


  1. All activities are not physical, but they are mental or vocal also.
  2. The activities may be bonding or non-bonding or auspicious or reverse.
  3. The activities may be due to passions. Passions the householders are always passionate and have bonding activities. The case of ascetics is reverse. Thānama and Tattvārathasutra support this fact.

Similarly there is theory of functional consciousness, which states ‘When entities or sensual perceptions are in proximity, they create passions, which are a form of consciousness and which, then, lead to bondage’. Recently Kaccara, Nahata and Mardia have developed bonding theories based on formation of molecules and chemical compounds.


3.1.2 Nature of Karmic Bond

There are different opinions about factors in karmic influx and bonding, which are simultaneous processes. Their description is scattered in many places under different contexts and, hence, they vary from 1 to 28. Dhavalā favors four causes with 57 sub-varieties. Some other texts like Tattvārthasutra follow five causes with 72 varieties. In fact, ignorance, different kinds of volitions and wrongness are the basic causes. On detailed analysis we find that almost all kinds of internal and external activities lead to bondage. The degree of bondage depends upon their nature and intensity. The scriptures give specific details under spiritual stages. One must see that all the causes are extensions of only one causes or wrongness. The jīva or empirical soul is taken as karma bonded since beginningless time. However, if the concept of the pure souls is also admitted, how and when could it first come into contact with the karmas? Does it mean that this concept is an atheist response to Brāhmanism or just an ideal in itself? This appears to be one of the weakest points of karma theory in Jainism.

According to the moral value of their activity - and corresponding also to the kind of karma, which they bind - the jīvas can be divided into six categories. The first is characterized by the possession of the greatest sinful, while each following one improves and the last is finally standing in the state of highest attainable purity. The attainment to one of these six classes shows itself in the soul externally; the soul, which is free by nature from all distinctions perceptible by the senses, receives colour, taste, smell and touch. In short it becomes a defined type, which distinguishes from the other souls although not recognizable by the senses. This type of soul is called leśyā. The different leśyās are distinguished according to different colours, which they give to the soul namely black, dark blue, gray, fiery red, lotus pink and white. Leśyā is considered to be a product of passions (kaṣāyas) or activity called yoga in the Jain texts or a product (pariṇāma) of 8 karmas by different authors. Kinds of Bondage

Dhavalā and other karma texts have classified karma bonds in many ways including the four major divisions under different heads namely:

Space point bond


Species bond


Intensity bond

rasa or anubhāgabandha

Duration bond

sthiti bandha

The nature of these bonds has been discussed earlier in section 2.0. The spiritual stages of purification, the different species of karma and their cause and effect are detailed in Dhavalā and other karma texts.


3.1.3 The Causes of Bonding

The penetration of matter particle into the soul and its transformation into karma proceeds through the activity (yoga) of the jīva. The species of the karma into which the matter can be transformed is, in addition to yoga, conditional upon 3 other causes of which each as long as it operates, affords the bandha of a certain number of karmaprakṛtis. The four causes of bondage are:



Wrong belief. (5)



Lack of self-discipline or lack of interest in observance of the vows. (12)



Passions. (25)



Activities. (15)


ach of these chief causes (mūla hetu) is subdivided into a number of subdivisions, the secondary causes (uttara-hetu) as shown in () against each. Each mūla hetu causes the binding certain types of karma species. For example hostility against knowledge and undifferentiated cognition (i.e. samyag jṅāna and darśana), against those who know and the mean of cognition, disregard of the doctrine and it commandments, lack of discipline towards teachers and masters, destruction of books, tearing out of eyes are the causes of bondage of knowledge obscuring (jṅānāvaraṇa) and undifferentiated cognition (darśanāvaraṇa) prakṛtis.

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