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Johannes Bronkhorst

Publication Year: 2011

Karma has become a household word in the modern world, where it is associated with the belief in rebirth determined by one’s deeds in earlier lives. This belief was and is widespread in the Indian subcontinent as is the word “karma” itself. In lucid and accessible prose, this book presents karma in its historical, cultural, and religious context.

Initially, karma manifested itself in a number of religious movements—most notably Jainism and Buddhism—and was subsequently absorbed into Brahmanism in spite of opposition until the end of the first millennium C.E. Philosophers of all three traditions were confronted with the challenge of explaining by what process rebirth and karmic retribution take place. Some took the drastic step of accepting the participation of a supreme god who acted as a cosmic accountant, others of opting for radical idealism. The doctrine of karma was confronted with alternative explanations of human destiny, among them the belief in the transfer of merit. It also had to accommodate itself to devotional movements that exerted a major influence on Indian religions.

The book concludes with some general reflections on the significance of rebirth and karmic retribution, drawing attention to similarities between early Christian and Indian ascetical practices and philosophical notions that in India draw their inspiration from the doctrine of karma.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Series: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality

Special Topics

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p. vii-vii

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Editor’s Preface

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pp. ix-xiv

The University of Hawai‘i Press has long been noted for its scholarly publications in, and commitment to, the field of Asian studies. This series, Dimensions of Asian Spirituality, is in keeping with that commitment. It is a most appropriate time for such a series to appear. A number of the world’s religions—major and minor—originated in...

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pp. xv-xvii

This book deals with a belief that was current in a culture different from the one of its intended readers. It is not about karma in modern Western culture, but about karma in ancient and classical Indian culture. This book is therefore about aspects of a different culture, and I, as author, have the task of presenting a bridge between these two ...

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pp. xix-xxi

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language has the following to say about karma...

Part I: Orthodox Karma

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p. 1-1

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Chapter 1: Origins and Religious Use

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pp. 3-6

Vedic literature is not the place to look for the origins of the belief in karmic retribution (see below). Unfortunately there is no other literature to help us in this respect. The notion of karmic retribution pops up, so to say, in the literature of a region distinct from the homeland of Vedic literature: the earliest literature of Jainism and Buddhism...

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Chapter 2: Karma in and after Greater Magadha Jainism - Ajivikism - Knowledge of the Self - Buddhism

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pp. 7-32

The region east of the Vedic homeland, that is, east of the confluence of the Ganges and the Jumna, in the eastern Ganges plane, may conveniently be called Greater Magadha. It saw the appearance of a number of religious currents during the centuries around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. We will consider—after some introductory...

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Chapter 3: Karma in Brahmanism Absence in Vedic Literature - Brahmanical Resistance - Absorption into Brahmanism

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pp. 33-54

During the period in which Jainism, Buddhism, and Ajivikism arose, Brahmanism belonged primarily to a geographically limited area, with its heartland in the middle and western parts of the Ganges plain. It was in this region that Brahmanism had been the culture of a largely hereditary class of priests, the Brahmins, who derived...

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Chapter 4: Karma and Philosophy Karma and Buddhist Philosophy - Karma and the Brahmanical Philosophies - The Theoretical Appropriation of Karma in Jainism - Theoretical Difficulties and Their Solutions

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pp. 55-88

Accepting the belief in rebirth and karmic retribution is one thing. Understanding how and why it works is another. This problem confronted all of those who accepted this belief and particularly those who thought these topics were open to rational inquiry. This covered most of the intellectual elite of Jainism, Buddhism, and Brahmanism...

Part II: Variants of Karma

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p. 89-89

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Chapter 5: Transfer of Merit

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pp. 91-96

Rebirth and karmic retribution are a private affair. Living beings reap the consequences of what they have themselves done, not of what others have done. Only in this way does it make sense to look for escape from rebirth and karmic retribution in a highly individualized fashion, for example, by practicing asceticism or by finding...

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Chapter 6: Competitors of Karma

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pp. 97-103

The importance of karma is emphasized in texts belonging to both karma is the cause of everything that happens in the universe. And the Buddhist Abhidharmakosha Bhashya of Vasubandhu states in so many words that “the diversity in the world is born from karma”; other passages add that this includes the very structure...

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Chapter 7: From One Life to the Next Jainism - Buddhism - The Brahmanical Tradition

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pp. 104-110

The mental state at the precise moment of death is often considered to be particularly important for determining the nature of the next existence. In a certain sense this is not in conflict with the belief in karmic retribution, because the state one is in at the moment of death might be thought of as the end result of a whole life, and therefore as...

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Chapter 8: Devotion

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pp. 111-116

Our discussion of the way philosophers found a place for God to account for karmic retribution has confronted us with the question of whether their God was really barely more than a karmic accountant, someone who strictly followed the rules of karmic retribution, rules that He had neither invented nor ordained. In one way the answer...

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Concluding Comments Developments Outside the Indian Subcontinent - What Does It All Mean?

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pp. 117-122

Developments Outside the Indian Subcontinent Belief in reincarnation was known in ancient Greece. Herodotus claimed that this belief originally came from Egypt, but in this he was no doubt mistaken. The belief is frequently ascribed to Pythagoras, while the Orphic traditions...

Further Reading

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pp. 123-126


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pp. 127-129

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860158
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824835705

Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality