Indian Sources on Karma from the Sanskrit Traditions


Karma is a prominent topic discussed throughout the history of Indian thought, with several different explanations found in the varied schools of Indian philosophy, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. Even within the Buddhist fold, there are several different presentations in the tenet systems (grub-mtha’, Skt. siddhānta) that evolved. For many students of Buddhism, both Western and traditional, this broad array of assertions can be quite bewildering. There is much confusion and misunderstanding. The only way to resolve that confusion is through learning what the Buddhist teachings say, thinking about their meanings so that we correctly understand them, and then meditating on them to accustom our minds to the principles of karma so that we can integrate them into our lives.

Among the different Buddhist tenet systems, the Sarvastivada and Mahayana ones were studied extensively on the basis of logic and debate at the great monastic universities of India, such as Nalanda. Many of the great Nalanda masters wrote extensive commentaries on karma and other topics, in Sanskrit, from the points of view of these various systems. This method of study of the tenet systems, based on reason, was transmitted from India to Tibet, and most of these commentaries were translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan. 

The various Tibetan traditions have followed an eclectic approach to the study of karma based solely on the Sanskrit texts of the Nalanda masters that were translated into Tibetan. They study its presentation in the texts of the different Indian tenet systems, accept the basics that are shared in common in all of them, and incorporate distinctive elements from different ones into an eclectic system that they all accept. 

Here, we shall focus on the Indian commentarial tradition, with occasional reference to sub-commentaries by Tibetan masters. We shall offer, individually, the presentations by the main Indian tenet systems that treat the topic of karma and primarily let the Nalanda masters speak for themselves. When available, we shall translate from the original Sanskrit; otherwise, we shall do so from the Tibetan translations from Sanskrit. 

The Theravada tradition has its own unique presentation of karma delineated in its Pali canon and commentarial literature. It is unclear whether this system was ever studied at Nalanda, but it is clear that it was not translated or transmitted to Tibet. Except for occasional reference to some relevant points from it, we shall not explain this system. 

Sanskrit grammar is one of the five major secular fields of knowledge studied at the great Indian monastic universities. Therefore, to understand the classical Indian literature on karma correctly, we need to base our study on translating the texts strictly in accord with Sanskrit grammar, even when its grammatical constructions do not accord with those in the language into which we are translating. Doing otherwise often obscures or sometimes may even misrepresent the nuances and intent of the original. One of the major examples of this is the popular translation of karma as “action,” which is in accord with the Tibetan translation, las. Las is the Tibetan colloquial word for “action,” but “action,” as in the “ten destructive actions,” refers primarily to a pathway of karma (las-kyi lam, Skt. karmapatha). A pathway of karma includes a basis for an action, a motivating framework of an intention, a distinguishing and an emotion, the implementation of a method for committing the action, and a finale. 

The Sanskrit word “karma” is an agent noun, made from the strengthened verb root kṛ (to do, to act) plus the suffix ma.  Thus, karma is “something that does something,” “something that acts.” This is analogous to the agent noun “dharma,” something that holds one back (from suffering), which derives from the strengthened verb root dhṛ (to hold, to hold back, to safeguard) plus the suffix ma.   

It is important to bear in mind that, within Buddha’s teachings, karma is considered the most complex and difficult topic to comprehend. Only a fully enlightened Buddha can understand it in all its details. Nevertheless, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama repeatedly emphasizes, we can gradually approach that full understanding by studying the texts of the great Nalanda masters. Therefore, this is the approach that we shall follow here.

The Three Baskets (the Tripitaka)

Buddha spoke of karma, as recorded in his sutras, while his disciples and later generations elaborated his teachings on karma in their abhidharma compilations and analyses of karmic cause and effect. Originally, however, Buddha’s teachings were transmitted purely orally, with successive generations of monastics memorizing and reciting them as the method for passing them on to the next generation. Because of discrepancies in what was remembered and large distances between groups of monastics, 18 early traditions of the teachings developed. 

These are sometimes called the 18 “Nikaya” traditions (“the traditions of the monastic groups”), and, to differentiate them from the Mahayana tradition, the Prajnaparamita Sutras labeled them the 18 “Hinayana” traditions. Although “Hinayana” and “Mahayana” are pejorative names on the one hand and self-aggrandizing on the other, we shall use them for ease of recognition, without intending these connotations.

Several of these 18 schools split apart from each other at councils that were held to confirm the authenticity of the teachings. The Sarvastivada school, for example, split from the Theravada one at the Third Buddhist Council, held under the patronage of King Ashoka. According to the Sarvastivada account, this took place in 237 BCE. A few decades later, in 190 BCE, the Dharmaguptaka school also split from the Theravada one.

Each of these 18 traditions classified Buddha’s teachings into three groups, which they referred to as “Baskets”:  a Vinaya Basket, a Sutra Basket, and an Abhidharma Basket. Each of these 18 sets of Three Baskets (sDe-snod gsum, Skt. Tripiṭaka) preserved both different versions of some of the same texts as well as some completely different texts.

Of these 18 traditions, the Theravada Three Baskets are fully extant, the Sarvastivada collection is mostly extant and many of the Dharmaguptaka texts as well as fragments of texts from the other “Hinayana” schools are extant in Chinese translation. The Sarvastivada Three Baskets were written in Sanskrit and the Dharmaguptaka in the Gandhari language. Both schools were prevalent in present-day Kashmir, Indian and Pakistani Punjab and Afghanistan. The Dharmaguptaka school had Mahayana influence, as seen with its canon containing an additional Bodhisattva Basket and a Dharani Basket. The Theravada Three Baskets were written down in the Pali language in Sri Lanka. 

Although sometimes the name “Three Baskets” is applied to the later Tibetan and Chinese Mahayana canons of the Buddha’s teachings, this division scheme does not actually match the Hinayana schemes. The Chinese canon preserves many texts from many of the various Hinayana Three Basket collections, especially the Sarvastivada and Dharmaguptaka ones, as well as a collection of Mahayana texts. The Tibetan canon preserves some of the Sarvastivada texts as well as a different collection of Mahayana texts, with only some appearing also in the Chinese canon.

The Sarvastivada Sutra and Abhidharma Baskets 

The Sarvastivada Sutra Basket – or at least what is extant of it – contained three collections, each including different texts from those in the Theravada Sutta Basket. These collections of sutras have the same names as their Theravada equivalents, but with Āgama (Discourse) substituted for Nikāya (Collection):

  • Long Discourses (Dīrgha Āgama), two-thirds of which is preserved in Sanskrit
  • Middle-Length Discourses (Madhyama Āgama), preserved in its Chinese translation
  • Connected Discourses (Saṃyukta Āgama), also preserved in its Chinese translation.

The Abhidharma Basket (Skt. Abhidharma Piṭaka; The Basket of [Texts on] Special Topics of Knowledge) of the Sarvastivada School contains seven main texts. Four are attributed to three authors who lived before the split from Theravada:  

  • An Aggregate of Phenomena (Skt. Dharmaskandha), by Shariputra (Shā-ri’i bu, Skt. Śāriputra) according to Sanskrit and Tibetan traditions, and by Maudgalyayana (Mau-gal-gyi bu, Skt. Maudgalyāyana) according to Chinese sources, both direct disciples of the Buddha
  • Setting Forth in a Chorus (Skt. Saṅgitiprayāya), by Maudgalyayana 
  • A Treatise of Revealings (Skt. Prajñaptiśāstra), also by Maudgalyayana. Its third chapter, Revealing Karma (Las gdags-pa, Skt. Karmaprajñapti) deals with karma.
  • A Corpus of (Types of) Consciousness (Skt. Vijñānakāya), by Devakshema (Skt. Devakṣema), about one century after the passing of the Buddha, so some time in the fourth century BCE.

The fifth text of the seven was added some time in the century that followed the split: 

  • The Establishment of Deep Awareness (Skt. Jñānaprasthāna), originally known as The Eight Chapters (Skt. Aṣṭagrantha) by Katyayaniputra (Kā-ta’i bu-mo’i bu, Skt. Kātyāyanīputra), compiled sometime in the second century BCE.

These five Sarvastivada abhidharma texts present karma, “something that does something,” as an impulse. For the sake of clarity, let’s refer to karma as a “karmic impulse.” There are body karmic impulses (lus-kyi las, Skt. kāyakarma), speech karmic impulses (ngag-gi las, Skt. vākkarma) and mind karmic impulses (yid-kyi las, manaskarma). According to Sanskrit grammar, these terms are tatpuruṣa compounds; and the two words of such compounds can be connected with each other in several grammatical ways. These abhidharma texts interpret the two words in each compound as being connected with each other in a locative sense and take the words “body,” “speech” and “mind” as being short for actions of body, speech and mind, Thus, there are the karmic impulses “in” actions of the body, the karmic impulses “in” actions of the speech and the karmic impulses “in” the actions of the mind. 

  • The karmic impulses in actions of the mind are the mental factor of an urge (sems-pa, Skt. cetanā) – the urges that are simultaneous with the actions of the mind and that draw the consciousness and its other accompanying mental factors along with it to an object to initiate, sustain and end the actions of thinking about that object. 
  • The karmic impulses in the actions of the body or the speech are forms of physical phenomena – namely, revealing forms (rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs, Skt. vijñaptirūpa) and nonrevealing forms (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs, Skt. avijñaptirūpa). Revealing forms are simultaneous with the actions of the body and speech and, as a part of the actions, are the forms that the body and speech take to implement a method for committing the action. They reveal the ethical status of the consciousness that causes them to occur. Nonrevealing forms are invisible forms that do not impede the presence or motion of material phenomena, that arise simultaneously with the revealing forms, that last after the action has ceased until they are relinquished, and that, while present, build up further positive karmic force (bsod-nams, Skt. puṇya; merit) or negative karmic force (sdig-pa, Skt. papa). They do not reveal the ethical status of the consciousness that causes them to occur. 

The Emergence of the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika Schools

Purportedly in the late first century CE, Kumaralata (Skt. Kumāralāta) (aka Kumaralabdha, Skt. Kumāralabdha) rejected these abhidharma sources in favor of relying exclusively on the Sarvastivada sutras. The Sautrantika school that followed is attributed to him as its founder. Thus, the Sautrantikas rejected the Sarvastivada abhidharma texts as their main source of the Buddha’s teachings and turned instead to its sutras. They said that this is because only Buddha is a valid source of information, given that only Buddha is omniscient. 

The Sautrantika masters understood the two words of each of the Sanskrit compounds kāyakarma, vākkarma and manaskarma as being connected with each other in a dative sense. Thus, there are karmic impulses “for” actions of the body, “for” actions of the speech and “for” actions of the mind. According to the Sautrantika tenets, then, the karmic impulses for actions of the body, speech and mind are all the mental factor of an urge. They are the mental urges that arise for the sake of initiating, sustaining and ending the action. Although the discourses included in the Sarvastivada Sutra Basket – and perhaps in portions not preserved – undoubtedly contain presentations of karma in accord with this interpretation, I have been unable to locate the references.

The Theravada Three Baskets, however, do contain the assertion that all karmic impulses involved with actions of body, speech and mind are clusters of mental factors that include mental urges. It is found, for instance, in the Seed Sutta (Pali: Bījasuttam), the third sutta in the eleventh section, Groups Distinguished for Mendicants (Samaṇasaññāvaggo) of the Chapter of Tens (Pali: Dasakanipātapãli) section of the Collection (of Numbered Items) Increasing Incrementally (Pali: Anguttaranikāya) (104):

O monks, for a person with right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, right understanding, and right liberation, whatever karmic impulse for (an action of) the body that has been carried through to the end, having been taken up in accord with their view, and whatever karmic impulse for (an action of) the speech that has been carried through to the end, having been taken up in accord with their view, and whatever karmic impulse for (an actions of) the mind that has been carried through to the end, having been taken up in accord with their view – (all of) which are also mental urges, wishes, aspirations and affecting variables – all of those things will evolve into enjoyable, pleasurable, pleasing, agreeable happiness. What is its cause? It is their view, O monks, which is excellent. 
(Pali) sammādiṭṭhikassa, bhikkhave, purisapuggalassa sammāsaṅkappassa sammāvācassa sammākammantassa sammāājīvassa sammāvāyāmassa sammāsatissa sammāsamādhissa sammāñāṇissa sammāvimuttissa yañceva kāyakammaṃ yathādiṭṭhi samattaṃ samādinnaṃ yañca vacīkammaṃ yathādiṭṭhi samattaṃ samādinnaṃ yañca manokammaṃ yathādiṭṭhi samattaṃ samādinnaṃ yā ca cetanā yā ca patthanā yo ca paṇidhi ye ca saṅkhārā, sabbe te dhammā iṭṭhāya kantāya manāpāya hitāya sukhāya saṃvattanti. Taṃ kissa hetu? Diṭṭhi hissa, bhikkhave, bhaddikā.

In the early second century CE, the Kushan King Kanishka convened a Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir. The participants of this council rejected the Sautrantika assertion and compiled a commentary to The Establishment of Deep Awareness, called The Great Extensive Commentarial Treatise on Special Topics of Knowledge (Skt. Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣa-śāstra). It is said to have many Mahayana influences. The Mahayana sutras confirm the earlier Sarvastivada abhidharma assertions that the karmic impulses of the body and speech are revealing and nonrevealing forms of physical phenomena. The Great Extensive Commentarial Treatise became the source of the Vaibhashika tenet system. It is preserved only in Chinese translation.

One of the compilers of this Great Extensive Commentarial Treatise was purportedly Vasumitra (dByigs-bshes, Skt. Vasumitra). He is credited as having authored the remaining two of the seven main Sarvastivadin abhidharma texts:

  • A Corpus of Cognitive Sources (Skt. Dhātukāya), credited to Vasumitra according to the Chinese translation or to Purna (Skt. Pūrṇa) according to the Tibetan versions, both of whom lived in the early second century CE
  • Verses on Topics (Skt. Prakaraṇapāda), with the first four chapters credited to Vasumitra and the last four to Kashmiri arhats. 

The Development of the Interpretations of Karma in the Indian Tenet Systems

The late second-century CE founder of the Madhyamaka school, Nagarjuna, in his presentation of karma in the seventeenth chapter of Root Verses on Madhyamaka, Called Discriminating Awareness (dBu-ma rtsa-ba’i tshig-le’ur byas-pa shes-rab ces bya-ba, Skt. Prajñā-nāma-mūlamadhyama-kārikā), followed the assertions in the Mahayana sutras and in Revealing Karma that the karmic impulses involved with actions of body and speech are forms of physical phenomena. Without specifically mentioning the Vaibhashikas or the Sautrantikas, however, he refuted their shared interpretation of the substantially established existence (rdzas-su grub-pa) of karma with his assertions concerning the voidness (emptiness) of arising and perishing and of karmic cause and effect. 

Vasubandhu, in his root text, A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge, Put in Verses (Chos mngon-pa’i mdzod-kyi tshig-le’ur byas-pa, Skt. Abhidharmakośa-kārikā), compiled toward the end of the fourth century CE, systematized the Vaibhashika presentation of karma, which had first been formulated in The Great Extensive Commentarial Treatise

In his (Auto)commentary on “A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge” (Chos mngon-pa’i mdzod-kyi rang-’grel, Skt. Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya) and A Discussion for the Establishment of Karma (Las-grub-pa’i rab-tu byed-pa, Skt. Karmasiddhi-prakaraṇa), Vasubandhu presented the Sautrantika refutations of some of the Vaibhashika assertions. These two texts by Vasubandhu are the main early sources for the details of the Sautrantika presentation. 

Vasubandhu’s brother, Asanga (Thogs-med, Skt. Asanga), in An Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa kun-las btus-pa, Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya), accepted the Sautrantika assertion that all karmic impulses are the mental factor of an urge, but explained this within the context of the other assertions of the Chittamatra school, which he propounded. He wrote further about karma in some of his other Chittamatra texts, such as:

  • The Subject Matter of the Many Levels of Mind (of the Levels of Mind for Integrated Behavior) (Sa-yi dngos-gzhi, Skt. Yogācārabhūmi Bāhubhūmikavastu, or simply Yogācārabhūmi)
  • An All-Inclusive Text for Ascertainments (rNam-pa gtan-la dbab-pa bsdu-pa, Skt. Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī)
  • An All-Inclusive Text for Levels of Mind (gZhi bsdu-pa, Skt. Vastusaṃgrahaṇī). 

Vasubandhu himself also wrote A Discussion of the Five Aggregate Factors (Phung-po lnga’i rab-tu byed-pa, Skt. Pañcaskandhaka-prakaraṇa), a short text that presented variants of the Chittamatra assertions of karma found in his brother’s texts.

In the centuries that followed, various Indian and then later Tibetan masters wrote commentaries to many of these texts. Within the Madhyamaka fold, the Nalanda masters of the Sautrantika-Svatantrika and Prasangika schools followed Nagarjuna’s presentation, while the Nalanda masters of the Yogachara-Svatantrika school presumably followed the Chittamatra presentation, although I have not found textual evidence to support this claim. Each of these Nalanda masters, however, accepted karma within the context of their own assertions of the voidness of cause and effect. 

All the Tibetan traditions, as explained above, have an eclectic approach to karma, and each has its own presentation of the voidness of karmic cause and effect. Among them, the Gelug tradition accepts as the ultimate view Nagarjuna’s presentation of karma as entailing revealing and nonrevealing forms. I do not have enough information to state the same with the other Tibetan traditions.

It is important to bear in mind that all the diverse explanations of karma found in the Buddhist tenet systems are merely different conceptual frameworks that present mechanisms for explaining the same, universally experienced phenomena, namely, compulsive behavior and its effects as a driving force for perpetuating uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara). All these systems are explanations of the second noble truth, true origins of suffering. By studying these various systems in detail, we will gain, from different angles, deeper insight into how samsara works.