10 February 2012

Possible History for the Buddhist Idea of Karma

IN THIS ESSAY I am going to present a speculative theory about where the Buddhist idea of karma comes from. It is backed up by some circumstantial evidence, and fits into a larger argument, but on its own might seem a little flimsy. More background can be found in my essay Possible Iranian Origins of Śākyas and Aspects of Buddhism (a draft can be found on academia.edu). As I say in the conclusion of that essay: "Ideas have histories". Buddhists like to maintain the story that both the Buddha and his ideas were entirely historically unique, but I think this is unlikely.

I also think current attempts to put the Buddha's ideas in context are quite limited. The only well attested tradition of the time is the late Vedic tradition, and almost inevitably scholars try to relate Buddhism to Brahmanism. This leads to an overemphasis on this aspect of Buddhism. Here I present an outline of a possible history for the Buddhist version of karma which aims to look beyond the Buddha's Vedic contemporaries. However it is worth looking briefly at his Vedic predecessors first.

In the early and middle period Vedic literature (ca. 1500-800 BCE) the word karma had ritual rather than ethical significance. In the late Vedic literature, dating from probably 2-3 centuries before the Buddha, we begin to find references to one's afterlife destination being dependent on one's actions (karma) in life. BU 4.4.5 explicitly states:
yathākārī yathācārī tathā bhavati| sādhukārī sādhur bhavati| pāpakārī pāpo bhavati| puṇyaḥ puṇyena karmaṇā pāpaḥ pāpena||
However he acts or behaves, he becomes that. Acting right (sādhu) he is right, acting harmfully (pāpa) he is harmful. He is good (puṇya) by doing good actions, and evil by doing evil actions.[1]
These terms—sādhu/puṇya and pāpa—still seem to be related to correct participation in Vedic ritual life rather than ethics. However even at this level the very fact of a right way to behave and wrong way results in different afterlife destinations.

A development within the BU is that a man's actions based on desire (kāma) causes him to cycle between this world and the next world (BU 4.4.6). In the next world the results of actions are exhausted, and it is only in this world that actions are performed. However a man freed from desire has a different fate: brahmaiva sanbrahmāpyeti 'he is only brahman, he goes to brahman'. [2] CU 8.1-2 also appears to list a number of alternative post-mortem destinations based on desires. Giving up desire is part of a renunciate lifestyle in this context, so again this is not quite ethics.

Also both Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and Chāndogya Upaniṣad propose different post-mortem destinations for those who know about the five fires (pañcāgni-vidyā), those who only practice the ordinary Brahmanical rituals, and those who do neither (BU 6.2, CU 5.2-10). Richard Gombrich (2009) has suggested that certain Pāli texts, particularly the Tevijja Sutta, make allusions to the five fires. He says that this can be interpreted as the Buddha having knowledge of the Upaniṣads. I'm not sure about this any longer, but that is a topic for another essay.

So here are three distinct versions of how behaviour in life affects one's afterlife: right actions (sādhukārin), renunciation of desire (kāma), and special knowledge (vidyā). There are some similarities with Buddhist karma and rebirth here, but only in the sense that all cyclic rebirth eschatologies will seem similar. We should not be surprised to find that Brahmanism has influenced Buddhism. Though it is interesting to note that Michael Witzel has shown that BU and CU were probably composed in different parts of North India, and Signe Cohen highlights the different contexts: BU to some extent represents a challenge to orthodoxy vested in the Ṛgveda, whereas CU is more conservative. However to me (and Richard Gombrich) the CU version of the pañcāgni-vidyā looks like an elaboration of BU.

Another possible source for Buddhist views is Jainism, and Richard Gombrich (2009), citing work by Will Johnson, has explored this connection. The Jain version of karma is in fact closer to the Buddhist version than the Brahmanical is, however it does not distinguish between good and bad actions, but says that all action is harmful. This may suggest that Jainism influenced Buddhism, though Jainism per se is only likely to have been a generation of two earlier. However we need to be cautious about opinions on ancient Jainism. The Jains, according to their own traditions, which are confirmed by modern scholarship, lost the texts that might parallel the Pāli suttas. Our idea about early Jainism are a reconstruction, partly based on the Pāli suttas which contain glimpses of the Jains. Early Jainism, then, is far more doubtful that early Buddhism, and we should know by now that early Buddhism is quite uncertain. Even if we accept the reconstructed versions this only tells us about the situation contemporary with the Buddha, or perhaps a generation earlier.

I want to suggest that both Jainism and Buddhism have roots that go considerably deeper and the emergence of both, and other groups like the Ājivakas, represents the end of a process rather than the beginning of one. Aspects of the Buddhist teachings on morality and karma resemble Zoroastrian concepts. According to leading scholar on the Zoroastrians, the late Mary Boyce, the Zoroastrians defined themselves this way:
“We are those who welcome the good thoughts, good words, and good acts which, here and elsewhere, are and have been realized. We are not those who denigrate good (things).” (Boyce 2004)
Note that they are good in thought, word, and action, and this is very similar to the Buddhist conception of ethics pertaining to actions of body, speech and mind. This connection seems to have been first noticed by Caroline Rhys Davids in the 1920s. [3] Likewise in Zoroastrianism after you die you are judged on your actions. Mary Boyce puts it this way:
"the soul’s fate depends solely on the sum of the individual’s thoughts, words, and acts, the good being weighed against the bad, so that no observances should avail it in any way." (Boyce 1994)
The idea of weighing the heart/soul of the deceased occurs in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and this seems to have been an influence on the development of Zoroastrianism. Soul weighing is a little different to Buddhist doctrine, but consider what is actually achieved by the two processes: one's afterlife destination is determined by adherence to the law in Egypt, and by to the Dharma in India. Just as for the Brahmins the afterlife becomes divided. Gananath Obeyesekere observes that this seems to happen quite universally. Once right and wrong ways of living have been enunciated:
"There can no longer be a single place for those who have done good and those who have done bad. The otherworld [i.e. the afterlife] must minimally split into two, a world of retribution ('hell') and a world of reward ('heaven')." (Obeyesekere 2002: 79).
The connection may be even stronger than it first appears. Consider the Devadūta Sutta (MN 130, M iii.178) which explains how after death a being who has behaved badly might be reborn in hell (niraya); there they will be seized by the guardians of hell (nirayapālā), dragged before King Yāma and cross-examined about their evil conduct of body, speech and mind. Unable to account for themselves, they are then condemned to horrific tortures which are graphically described. It is emphasised that:
na ca tāva kālaṅkaroti yāva na taṃ pāpakammaṃ byantīhoti.
as long as that evil action is not destroyed, he does not die.
And until he dies he cannot be reborn in another realm. Read in light of a possible connection to Zoroastrianism, this text seems to take on a new significance. There is no Indian precedent for such an idea. Some scholars have pointed to possible precursors to the idea of Hell in the Vedic tradition, but even in the Late Vedic texts the idea is barely formed, and nothing like the elaborations we find in the Pāli texts. In fact the Buddhist idea of being reborn in a place of extreme torture as a way of extirpating evil karma appears as if from nowhere. However like the world of the Vedic fathers it is not a place where karma consequences can be created. Hell, like Heaven is a place of passivity rather than activity.

How could Zoroastrian ideas get all the way to North-East India, without having an impact on the intervening culture, i.e. the orthodox Kuru-Pañcāla Brahmins? I believe that Harvard Indologist Michael Witzel (1997, 2002, 2010) has the answer to this. As I wrote earlier this year the idea that the Śākyas were in fact Scythians (Skt. Śaka), that is steppe dwelling nomads, is usually given short shrift because despite the similarities in the names, the Scythians arrived in India much later ca. 150 BCE. But Witzel has showed, and these similarities with Zoroastrianism themselves form part of the evidence, that the Śākyas probably were related to the Śakas. The Śākyas are not mentioned in the Vedas, or in the Brāhmaṇa and Āraṇyaka literature, which suggests that they arrived in India (via Iran) after about 1000 BCE when the Ṛgveda reached its final form, and before the lifetime of the Buddha (ca. 500 BCE). See Witzel (1997).

Climate change evidence suggests 850 BCE as a pivotal date because it marks the beginning of an abrupt arid period in Western India, and a great westward expansion of the Scythians of the Asian Steppes (van Geel et. al. 2004a, 2004b). The Śākyas were just one of many non-Vedic tribes, who spoke Indo-Aryan dialects, who made the journey east. Alongside them were the Malla, Vajji, Licchavi, Naya, Kālāma, Buli, Moriya, and Vesali. They slotted in around the previous inhabitants from tribes such as Kosala, Kāśi and Videha who migrated somewhat earlier due to the rise of the Kuru tribe in the Northwest (ca. 1200-1000 BCE) and dominated the region. It's quite likely the early migrants interacted with, and ultimately displaced an Austro-Asiatic speaking culture, from which we get the animistic cults (e.g. yakṣas). The Kosala-Videha region was, broadly speaking, Indo-Aryan culturally and linguistically by the Buddha's day. Brahmanism with its Vedic language texts was largely a product of the Kuru-Pañcāla tribes, but Brahmins had begun to have an influence in the region by the 5th century BCE.

So my suggestion is that we see Buddhist (and Jain) karma as part of the culmination of a process of assimilation of Iranian and/or Zoroastrian ideas by the Kosala-Videha tribes in the Central Ganges Plain region, introduced by the Śākyas. The process probably started soon after 850 BCE when climate change affected the environment and set in process a series of migrations across Eurasia and the sub-continent. The emergence of Buddhism and Jainism marks a mature phase of this culture that was soon to be taken over and co-opted by the militaristic Magadhans and their eventual successors the Mauryans. In particular karma may well emerge from the application of the Zoroastrian ideas about morality and the afterlife, to a widespread belief in cyclic rebirth. I suppose cyclic rebirth to be an Indian regional belief since it is almost unknown amongst Indo-European speakers outside India. The simple cycle between this world and the next, becomes differentiated first into good and bad destinations because of ideas of right & wrong; and later into a more possibilities depending on how one lived. Hell is a novel idea in India. Buddhist texts, just like the Upaniṣads, consider escaping from the rounds of rebirth to be the point of religious practices. If this idea were already developing in the Kosala-Videha region when the Upaniṣads were being written then we could see the emergence in Vedic texts as a parallel development.


  1. The Vedic texts, including the Upaniṣads discuss this process in masculine terms, and it is uncertain as to whether women were included.
  2. Following Olivelle. A literal reading would be "only brahman goes to brahman" - which seems to rely on the notion that "I am brahman" (ahaṃ brahmāsmi). Also note that it is doubtful whether women where included in this scheme, so I have not corrected the gender specific language of the texts.
  3. The earliest mention of the idea I have found is in Rhys Davids (1926) where it is cited as though it is a well established fact. Rhys Davids mentions the idea in several subsequent publications as well. Sangharakshita mentions the body, speech and mind connection in The Ten Pillars (1984), p.34. Thanks to Ratnaprabha for drawing my attention to this in a comment on Persian Influences on Buddhism (20 June 2008). Sangharakshita says that the connection occured to him while reading the Zoroastrian Gathas (personal communication 19.1.2012).
  • Boyce, Mary. 1994. 'Death. 1.' Encyclopædia Iranica. Online version.
  • Boyce, Mary. 2004. ‘Humata Hūxta Huvaršta.’ Encyclopædia Iranica. Online version.
  • Gombrich, Richard. 2009. What the Buddha Thought. London, Equinox.
  • Obeyesekere, Gananath. 2002. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. University of California Press.
  • Rhys Davids, C. A. F. 1926. ‘Man as Willer.’ Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 4: 29-44. doi: 10.1017/S0041977X00102551
  • van Geel, B. et. al. 2004a. ‘Climate change and the expansion of the Scythian culture after 850 BC: a hypothesis.’ Journal of Archaeological Science. 31 (12) December: 1735-1742. Online pdf. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2004.05.00
  • van Geel, B., Shinde, V. and Yasuda, Y., 2004b. 'Solar forcing of climate change and a monsoon-related cultural shift in western India around 800 cal. yrs. BC.' Chapter 17 in: Y. Yasuda and V. Shinde (eds) Monsoon and Civilization. Roli Books, New Delhi, p. 275-279.
  • Witzel, Michael. 1997. ‘The Development of the Vedic Canon and its Schools: The Social and Political Milieu.’ (Materials on Vedic Śākhās, 8) in Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts. New Approaches to the Study of the Vedas. (Harvard Oriental Series. Opera Minora, vol. 2.) Cambridge 1997, 257-345. Online.
  • Witzel, Michael. 2002. INDOLOGY@liverpool.ac.uk, Nov. 5 and 7, 2002
  • Witzel, Michael. 2010. Indo-Eurasian_research. [Online forum.]

Note (7.7.13) I recently found this in a paper by Michael Witzel.
"Fortunately, the passage contains another clue, the frequently met with concepts of "thought-speech-action" (manas- vāc -karman), a collocation that is found not only in the Veda but also in the closely related Old Iranian texts (manah- vacas - šiiaoθna, Y 34.1-2).

- How To Enter The Vedic Mind? Strategies In Translating A Brāhma (1996) by Michael Witzel
This surely resembles body, speech and mind
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