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 saṃsāra 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 Saṃkha 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”).