In Sanskrit, „karma“ originally means just „action“. Since about 2.500 years it is understood in a much larger scale, as the law of cause and effect. According to this law, actions in this life (and in former lives) have an immediate effect on this life.

The term „karma“ – just as „yoga“ – has become a real buzzword. Today, you will find more or less intelligent quotes from unexpected karma experts from all walks of life, from Kurt Cobain ““If you’re really a mean person you’re going to come back as a fly and eat poop.” to Sylvester Stallone “There’s a natural law of karma that vindictive people, who go out of their way to hurt others, will end up broke and alone.” Should these gems of wisdom be sufficient for you concerning „karma“, save time and stop reading here ?. The book by Bronkhorst will then probably be uninteresting for you.

From action to the law of cause and effect

In contrast to Kurt Cobain and Sylvester Stallone Johannes Bronkhorst does not belong to the VIPs. He taught Sanskrit and Indology at the University of Lausanne until 2011, and he still publishes regularly. Originally from Holland, he completed an undergraduate degree in natural sciences. Then he went to India where he did his Ph.D. in Sanskrit and on his return to Europe did another Ph.D. in Holland. His research focus was quite broad. In general, he looked at the dynamics between Brahmanism (the precursor to Hinduism, based on the Vedas) and Buddhism and Jainism.

His book is handy from the physical size (130 pages, small format), but written more in a scientific way than for a general public. I am grateful to Greg Nardi who pointed this book out to me.

Bronkhorst is looking for the origin of the belief in reincarnation and the law of karmic retribution, which are not necessarily linked to one another. According to him, these concepts were virtually nonexistent during Vedic times (3.000 to 4.000 years ago) to the appear as firmly established and broadly accepted at the time of the appearance of Jainism and Buddhism (about 2.500 years ago).

According to Bronkhorst, the laws of karma and the approaches to liberate oneself from the cycle of rebirth (samsara, in transliteration sasāra and in devanāgarī  संसार) were created originally outside of the orthodox (e.g. based on the vedas) Brahmanism. Only later they were adopted and integrated into Brahmanism (and hence today’s Hinduism).

How to escape from cyclic existence?

Bronkhorst also discusses the different approaches how these belief systems or religions handled the concept of karma.

For the Jains, the solution (e.g. the exit from the wheel of rebirth) could only be found in stopping any actions, leading to a self-determined end of material being, for instance through prolonged fasting. Other groups saw the emergency exit in the postulation of an unchanging inner self („ātman“) that does not act and therefore is not touched by karma. For the Buddhists the exit was giving up desire, not stopping to act.

As a consequence, the Jain’s approach is a more ascetic one, whilst in principle the Buddhist approach is more based on deep psychology. The postulation of an unchanging „inner self“ laid the ground for both the Sakha philosophy and Vedānta.

Bronkhorst discusses at length how the brahmins reacted to this “new” concept: from absolute opposition (“we shall not even ignore such a thing”) up to an enthusiastic embrace (“this can clearly be derived from the vedas”).

To be honest, the book is written in a quite dry style – the scientific approach.

Nevertheless, fascinating reading, because he analyses with the logic of a scientist the consequences of the different approaches. Reading this, you will also learn quite a bit about the exchange and the interaction between the competing (but also complementary) belief systems in old India. For instance, I did not know that after Buddhism’s initial success 2,500 years ago, many brahmins took up Buddhism – but without giving up their position of power as a brahmin. The best of all worlds.

Bronkhorst is quoting only a few original texts, but the texts that he quotes are very interesting. For instance, he quotes from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad which is the oldest upaniṣad, a very explicit verse which explains that through sexual intercourse karma can be exchanged between lovers. As for „inequality between the sexes“ also 2.500 years ago: when a man is aware of this possibility, he can use the woman’s positive karma for his own benefit – whereas the woman will use his good karma for her benefit if he is not aware of it. Well….

Should you have an in-depth interest in the concepts of yoga philosophy, for instance in Patañjali‘s Yoga Sūtra, I can highly recommend the book. It is not “dogmatic”, and Bronkhorst does seem to be objective, as a good scientist should be.

Belief in reincarnation by the Pythagoreans and by some of the Gnostics

It was also fascinating for me to read towards the end of his book that also the old Greeks believed in some form of reincarnation (especially the Pythagorean school), probably independent from the Indian thoughts. Also some of the early Christian gnostics believed in it. In their case, Bronkhorst does not exclude the idea that the concepts from India influenced early Christianity via Manichaeism (a religion founded by the Persian Mani in the 3rd century C.E.).

Bronkhorst is also drawing parallels between the Christian belief in salvation and the thoughts from India. Also in the Christian belief system, there have always been ascetic directions and also the conviction that we are not identical with our physical body.

Based on this, Bronkhorst leaves the reader with the thought provoking question whether human beings may have hard-wired tendencies towards asceticism and a belief in an immortal inner something. Based on this hypothesis, karma might be just one form of providing some conceptional form to this inner impulse.