Dharma, Karma, and Samsara – Essay on Religion in India

Indian religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) are united by the concept of Moksha – the idea of liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. Moksha includes other important concepts: Dharma, Karma, and Samsara. What is the relationship between these ideas? This essay on religion in India aims to answer the question.


Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world and is the predominant one in India. Though its concepts of God and gods widely vary, its followers a uniform reference to Sanatama Dharma or eternal law to refer to the religion. The religion’s prominent characteristics include a belief in karma, dharma, and reincarnation with its most popular divine characters or deities being Shiva and Vishnu. (Heehs 2002) Unlike Christianity or Islam, Hinduism does not have a single founder and is also considered to be the oldest religious tradition. Buddhism on the other hand is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. It consists of a family or a set of beliefs mainly derived from the teachings of the Awakened one of the Buddha. Their notable beliefs include the yearning of sentient beings to end suffering through understanding phenomena, samsara, and achieving Nirvana. It has two major branches namely Theravada and Mahayana while in some cases Vajrayana is taken as a third branch. Like Hinduism, Jainism traces its roots in India and its practitioners believe that all souls are divine and can attain God-consciousness. (Heehs 2002) A Jina is a defeater or a conqueror in form of a soul. He or she is considered to achieve victory by defeating inner foes hence achieving the status of Supreme Being. Jainism has over ten million followers in the Indian subcontinent and successful immigrant societies in the rest of the world. These three religions have a wide range of similarities in their beliefs, worship, and rituals partly because they originated from the same area. (Heehs 2002)

Karma in Indian Religions

Karma is a term used to refer to action or performance in Indian beliefs and religions namely Sikh, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. It can be simply defined as acting or as a deed. (Flood 1996) On the philosophical level, different beliefs or religions such as Hindu or Jain give slightly different explanations on Karma though the underlying concept is fundamentally the same. According to Karma law, the effect of all actions makes the past, present, and future experiences. This makes a person directly responsible for his own life and the ups and downs in it and others around you. In religions that believe in reincarnation, karma transcends through a person’s past, present as well as future. (Flood 1996) God (Ishvara) is considered to be actively participating or playing a role in Karma. This is a belief held by the Vedanta followers. They consider Ishvara to be their personal supreme God. This view or belief is not held by other sections of Hindu and other religions such as Buddha and Jain. They don’t share the view that God is involved in Karma but take it as merely a law of cause and effect. Hindus consider Karma to be a broadened expression of natural acts and therefore not punishment or a form of punishment. In the cause and effect law, effects experienced can be countered or lessened by other actions and not necessarily fated. There is a consensus across all these religions that Karma is not fate and that people have a free will to carry out deeds and to determine their destiny and all actions and deeds that one does determine his or her future. In Hinduism, Karma is divided into three kinds namely kriyanama, prarabdha, and Sanchita. (Flood 1996) The three terms can be translated to current, fruit-bearing, and accumulated respectively. All current Karmas become accumulated ones after completion. The Buddhists take a slightly different approach. They relate Karma directly to the motives behind a certain deed and also distinguish it from fruits or results. All deeds are believed to create seeds in the human mind which then grow to give rise to the appropriate fruit. The suitable result or fruit referred to as pali vipaka is obtained when the seeds meet the right conditions. A deed or an action is considered to be good or bad about the motivation behind it. Whereas Hindus emphasize the action itself, the Buddhists on the other hand emphasize motivation. The Vedanta Hindus believe that God is playing a role in Karma but Buddhists attribute other factors to Karma such as consequences of one’s actions, laws of nature, will of mind, climate and seasonal changes, and finally genetic inheritance. The Buddhists seem to open their mind on the issue of action and why it takes place and its likely consequences. In Jainism, Karma assumes a different meaning altogether whereby it is referred to as Karmic dirt. Therefore the interaction between Karma and consciousness gives rise to the present life that we experience. There is a strong belief among Jainas that one reaps what he or she sows and one’s Karma results in certain fruits. This emphasis is not only in Jainism but is also present among Hindus and Buddhists. However, it is emphasized much among Jainas. Those who adhere to Jainism have refused to allow certain traditions done by Buddhists and Hindus such as ritual offerings by the son of the deceased, divine intervention of one’s fate, and transfer of merit. No external factor or divine entity such as the personal God plays a role in someone’s Karma. (Flood 1996) According to Jainas, the soul’s Karma does not only change through actions but thoughts as well. Whereas Hindus believe that divine grace is needed for emancipation, Jain scriptures show that when the soul can emancipate itself from karm bandh it is released from worldly affairs. Jainism in conclusion treats all souls equally.

Dharma in Indian Religions

Dharma in Hindi is taken to mean a righteous duty or a moral and honorable path. It is used to explain the universe’s final truth or the higher truth. In Hinduism, there is a belief that natural justice spreads through the world and is evident in the concept of rta. The power referred to in rta keeps everything in the world in balance. The failure to heed dharma as Satya or the truth according to Hindus fails. Going against Dharma leads to self-destruction. (Krishna 1966) Dharma as a human goal is taken to be apparatus through which people plan and carry out their communication with the world. Dharma in Buddhism is used to refer to the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama or the Buddha. Dharma is, therefore, the unquestionable universal law, testable through practice; those enlightened in supreme wisdom can realize Dharma, and finally, there is the denial of a separate self-existing entity. In Jainism dharma is considered natural and there are two dharmas, that of the monks and the other for the householder. The householder’s dharma is further divided into two between the ordinary and the special. (Krishna 1966)

Samsara in Indian Religions

Samsara is a Hindu term used to refer to the sequence of being born again or coming back to the world as a live being. It is a belief present in Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism. A person’s Karma account balance is when one dies is passed over to a person during rebirth. Therefore one’s actions in the world determine the future destiny of every person. If one leads a life considered to be evil, he or she is likely to be reborn as some unfortunate being or an animal. Hindus consider ignorance of one’s self as the major factor that leads to consciousness of the world or the human body. As a person’s ego and desire increase, there is a creation of a cause to have a future. (Werner 1989) Using ascetic practice a person ultimately achieves liberation or Moksha. In Jainism, it is considered mundane existence accompanied by a lot of suffering, and therefore renunciation is not worth it. Again Mokshi is considered to be the only salvation from samsara. (Werner 1989)

According to Piya Tan, there were four reasons that led to the growth and spread of Buddhism namely

  • People seen as holy freely traveled throughout the East as missionaries with the sole aim of spreading the teachings of Buddha.
  • The sacred relics used by monks attracted considerable attention and were seen to impart power. In Korea for instance they were used as a form of tribal worship.
  • The Buddhist teachings even after their translation maintained their importance. Some Chinese cultures had undergone what is referred to as Indianization due to foreign rule and it was therefore relatively easier to spread Buddhism among them.
  • The images of Buddha could be easily moved from place to place. (Tan)


In the era of globalization, Indian Religions have attracted followers not only in the east but also in western countries as well. As indicated earlier Jainism has a sizeable number of people in countries like Australia, Canada, and the United States.


Gavin D. Flood (1996), An Introduction to Hinduism: The origin and doctrine of Karma. Cambridge University – Press: UK. Pp 57-89

Karel Werner. 1989. The Longhaired Sage in The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press, page 34

Murthy, K. 1966. “Dharma-Its Etymology.” The Tibet Journal, Vol. XXI, No. 1. Pp. 84-87.

Heehs, P (2002), Indian Religions: A Historical Reader of Spiritual Expression and Experience, New York University Press.

Tan, Piya. The spread of Buddhism. Web.

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