For most adherents of the major Eastern religions in Asia, karma is a spiritual, philosophical and ethical fact. It helps explain inequalities among animals, encourages virtue and allows people to make sense of life's ups and downs. However, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism have differing ideas about how karma works and its effect on one's existence in subsequent lives.
Hindus believe the soul is trapped in a circle of birth and rebirth called samsara. Until a person quells all desires and accepts that the individual soul is the same as the absolute soul, he or she must suffer in samsara and forgo moksha -- the goal of salvation. But because moksha is an ultimate goal, and one that can be achieved only after it is no longer desired, most Hindus attempt to generate good karma so that they can be born into a better life.
The law of karma controls samsara, with good actions engendering good karma and bad actions creating negative karma. For Hindus, good karma is usually produced by correctly performing the duties of one's caste, or social class. If a person lives admirably and fulfills the responsibilities of the caste, the soul can be reborn into a higher caste. Hindus also believe that because karma is its own law, it requires no divine interference.
While most Hindus believe that an unchanging soul is reincarnated until it achieves salvation, Buddhists believe that a soul's accumulated karma, rather than the soul itself, transmigrates between bodies. Buddhists don't believe in a soul in the Western sense; instead, they believe in a soul-like compilation of attributes. The soul, which consists of the five skandhas -- aggregates of body, sensations, perceptions, impulses and consciousness -- expires at death. However, the soul's accumulated karma becomes vijñana, or the "germ of consciousness," in a new life [source: Encyclopaedia Brittanica]. Like Hindus, Buddhists strive to escape the cycle of samsara by achieving a state of complete passiveness. Many Buddhists believe that an individual can end the cycle of reincarnation and achieve nirvana by passing through multiple lifetimes and following the tenets of the Eightfold Path or "middle way."
Sikhism also teaches karmic law and reincarnation. For Sikhs, karma affects the quality of life and of future lives. To exit the chain of reincarnation, Sikhs must understand God and ultimately become one with him.
Not all Eastern religions conceive of karma as law. Jainism teaches that karma is an atomic substance -- an actual particulate that attaches itself to the jiva, or soul. Jain followers believe that as long as a soul is burdened by karma it remains trapped in a cycle of birth and rebirth. Because negative qualities of the soul (like anger, greed or pride) make karma more inclined to stick, Jain believers try to minimize passions, live soberly and inflict harm on no living thing, except in self-defense.
While Eastern religions have upheld karma as a spiritual principle for millennia, it's still a newfangled idea to many Westerners. In the next section, we'll learn how the West won karma.