Kamma before the Buddha

Contrary to popular opinion, the notion of kamma is not a timeless, universal feature of Indian religions. It is a specific doctrine that explains ethical action and its consequences, and appears at a specific time and place. That time was a few generations before the Buddha; the place was the region of Mithila, in between the Sakyan republic and Vesali.

This was when the great Upanishadic sage Vajnavalkya flourished. Among many other crucial innovations in the Brahmanical teachings, he is responsible for the earliest clear statements on kamma. At that time, this teaching was an esoteric doctrine. In later years, of course, this compelling doctrine became firmly established in both Buddhism and Jainism, and due in part to their influence, became known throughout Hinduism.

The following is part of a dialogue in the Brihadarannyaka Upanishad between Vajnavalkya and King Janaka of Mithila, who is also mentioned in the Jatakas. In the opening of this dialogue (at BU 4.3.1; scroll down to ‘third brahmana’), Yajnavalkya shows his reluctance to debate the king, a sign of the esoteric nature of the teachings, as opposed to the many other public debates in this text.

FOURTH BRAHMANA

1. Yagnavalkya continued: ‘Now when that Self, having sunk into weakness, sinks, as it were, into unconsciousness, then gather those senses (pranas) around him, and he, taking with him those elements of light, descends into the heart. When that person in the eye turns away, then he ceases to know any forms.

2. ‘”He has become one,” they say, ” he does not see.” “He has become one,” they say, “he does not smell.” “He has become one,” they say, “he does not taste.” “He has become one,” they say, “he does not speak.” “He has become one,” they say, “he does not hear.” “He has become one,” they say, “he does not think.” “He has become one,” they say,” he does not touch.” “He has become one,” they say, “he does not know.” The point of his heart becomes lighted up, and by that light the Self departs, either through the eye, or through the skull, or through other places of the body. And when he thus departs, life (the chief prana) departs after him, and when life thus departs, all the other vital spirits (pranas) depart after it. He is conscious, and being conscious he follows and departs.

‘Then both his knowledge and his kamma take hold of him, and his acquaintance with former things.’

3. ‘And as a caterpillar, after having reached the end of a blade of grass, and after having made another approach (to another blade), draws itself together towards it, thus does this Self, after having thrown off this body and dispelled all ignorance, and after making another approach (to another body), draw himself together towards it.

4. ‘And as a goldsmith, taking a piece of gold, turns it into another, newer and more beautiful shape, so does this Self, after having thrown off this body and dispelled all ignorance, make unto himself another, newer and more beautiful shape, whether it be like the Fathers, or like the Gandharvas, or like the Devas, or like Pragapati, or like Brahman, or like other beings.

5. ‘That Self is indeed Brahman, consisting of knowledge, mind, life, sight, hearing, earth, water, wind, ether, light and no light, desire and no desire, anger and no anger, right or wrong, and all things. Now as a man is like this or like that, according as his kamma and according as he behaves, so will he be: a man of good kammas will become good, a man of bad kammas, bad. He becomes pure by pure kammas, bad by bad kammas.

‘And here they say that a person consists of desires. And as is his desire, so is his will; and as is his will, so is his kamma; and whatever kamma he does, that he will reap.

6. ‘And here there is this verse: “To whatever object a man’s own mind is attached, to that he goes strenuously together with his kamma; and having obtained the end (the last results) of whatever kamma he does here on earth, he returns again from that world (which is the temporary reward of his deed) to this world of kamma.”

‘So much for the man who desires. But as to the man who does not desire, who, not desiring, freed from desires, is satisfied in his desires, or desires the Self only, his vital spirits do not depart elsewhere,- being Brahman, he goes to Brahman.

7. ‘On this there is this verse:

“When all desires which once entered his heart are undone,
then does the mortal become immortal,
then he obtains Brahman.

“And as the slough of a snake lies on an ant-hill,
dead and cast away, thus lies this body;
but that disembodied immortal spirit (prana = life)
is Brahman only, is only light.”

14 thoughts on “Kamma before the Buddha

  1. Wow! A great read, Bhante!

    I’m surprised Gombrich did not mention this in his “What the Buddha Thought”. He did mention a recent new reading of the Vedic literature that has changed the traditional scholarly opinion that, in the Vedas, pitas (forefathers) are not reborn. I would have thought that Gombrich should have picked this up as well; maybe in an earlier publication?

  2. Dear Ajahn Sujato,

    Ajahn Sujato wrote: ” In later years, of course, this compelling doctrine became firmly established in both Buddhism and Jainism, and due in part to their influence, became known throughout Hinduism.”
    In the pre-Buddhist theory of karma, the deeds or actions referred to was mainly related to either religious rituals or the social functions and duties of human. In the latter sense the Īṣa Upaniṣad says: “Let a man aspire to live a hundred years, performing his social duties” (kurvanneveḥa karmaṇi jijīviṣecchataṃ samāḥ) . Also, according to one Brahmanical text, nature (prakṛti) compels a person to act as he/she does, while nature itself is under the control or will of God.

    In the Jain theory of karma human could not develop morally and spiritually without undergoing all the consequences of one’s previous evil karma. The Jains hoped to achieve this by indulging in ascetic practices, which they believed helped to wear away the evil effects of past karma.

    The deeds or actions mentioned in Brahmanical text is more likely to be related to social duties that a person perform , rather than relating to ethical conduct as in Buddhism. Various scholars also indicated that Buddhist teachings carry a different meaning than pre-Buddhist conception of karma.

    If the deeds or actions referred to in the Brahmanical text is related to ethical conduct then we should see more emphasis on sila or not harming others . Sir Charles Eliot wrote that there is little emphasis on moral conduct in its conception. For example, mass slaughtering of animals offered in sacrifice encouraged on a regular basis. There are also records of human sacrifice. I guess it is okay to kill if it is for god. Also actions of inflicting physical harm on another human being was mentioned in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

    “if a man sees himself (his reflection) in water, he should recite the following mantra:
    “May the gods bestow on me vigour, manhood, fame, wealth and merit.”
    In praise of the wife who will bear him a son:
    She (his wife) has put on the soiled clothes of impurity; she is, verily, loveliness among women. Therefore when she has removed the clothes of impurity and appears beautiful, he should approach her and speak to her.

    “If she does not willingly yield her body to him, he should buy her with presents. If she is still unyielding, he should strike her with a stick or with his hand and overcome her, repeating the following mantra:
    “With power and glory I take away your glory.”
    Thus she becomes discredited.”

    Wouldn’t the action of inflicting physical harm on another person lead to a negative effect . Why is it encouraged here. Perhaps if a physically harmful action doesn’t lead to negative effect if the person is a close relation ? Is this the same kamma theory that the Buddha taught? It doesn’t fit in with the whole picture when claiming that this concept of karma relating to sila already existed in Brahminism because the actions undertaken during rituals and actions performed in social duties was emphasized rather than sila.

    Even if we assume that the concept of karma as it relates to sila existed in Brahmanical texts, it still doesn’t necessary mean that the Buddha derived his concept from there. This idea might hold if there is no possible way for a person to gain knowledge or insight except through previous conditioning/learning from an external source. Buddhist texts indicates that it is possible for insight to arise from within. If we look at the Buddha’s night of enlightenment various insight arise within the Buddha. That includes the direct experience of his past lives and cause and effects of people’s action.

  3. Hi Sylvester and iMeditation,

    This is indeed a great read. It’s a well known passage, and Gombrich would not have omitted it through ignorance; probably he was focussing on pointing out some previously overlooked connections.

    Now, re iMeditations comments.

    It is not merely the fact that the word kamma is used, but that there is a complex of ideas that is identical to the Buddhist. The passage speaks of doing “punya” and “papa” (good and bad) deeds (kammas), which lead to corresponding good and bad results in the next life. This is precisiely the Buddhist teaching on kamma. The only substantive difference is that Yajnavalkya explains rebirth in terms of the atman, on which point the Buddha, of course, disagreed.

    Now, as you say, most of the pre-Buddhist uses of kamma relate to other meanings – duty, ritual, work. There is a clear evolution of ideas from these uses to the specific ethical use of kamma. The question is whether this evolution should be attributed to the Buddha or not. And the evidence of the Brihadaranyaka is that it was around before the Buddha, albeit as a somewhat obscure doctrine.

    The question as to whether the Brihadaranyaka teaches the same ethics as the Buddha is irrelavant. All that matters is that they have an ethical conception of kamma, and the use of the terms “punya” and “papa” make this certain.

    In fact, the Brihadaranyaka is a large and diverse compilation, and there is no reason why it should be consistent. The Brahmanic tradition struggled, as do all ancient religions, to reconcile its archaic, ritual/sacrifical heritage with an emerging compassion-based ethic. Typically this is negotiated by either developing a substitute or symbolic sacrifice, or developing a theology to justify religious killing. Both of these are found in the Brahmanic tradition. This does not mean that the tradition did not have a compassionate ethic of kamma, just that it struggled to reconcile different aspects of its heritage.

    The Buddha, of course, did not have this problem, as he rejected Brahmanic authority in toto.

    Obviously I do not think that the Buddha blindly adopted “Hindu” beliefs. This slander has been put about so many times it’s really annoying. It’s lazy and unhistorical. The most cursory reading of the Suttas shows that the Buddha was highly critical of the Brahmans and carefully selected which of their idea he adopted. In the case of the kamma/rebirth complex, he said again and again that he taught these things from his own direct knowledge, and there is no reason to doubt this.

    When I say that he adopted this from the Brahmans, then, I mean that, after his own investigation and realization, he used the same words and ideas that were current to express his own teaching. In this case, it seems that Yajnavalkya got it pretty much right, and this may well also be due to personal experience of sages before the Buddha, as suggested in the Brahmajala, Mahakammavibhanga, etc. The Buddha continued the usage, correcting some errors, and changing certain philosophical and cosmological aspects.

    Re the date of the Brihadaranyaka and other early Upanishads, their pre-Buddhist provenance is a long-established conclusion in Indic studies. It is true, a few scholars have recently challenged this. I have reviewed their arguments and found them to be very thin. This was some time ago, so I can’t recall the details off the top of my head. If there are any specifics, bring them to the table and we can have a look. But there are so many aspects of the Brihadaranyaka that seem early – doctrinal development, social/political conditions, settings, language – that I would need some very good reasons for changing my mind.

    • Dear Ajahn Sujato,

      Ajahn Sujato wrote: “It is not merely the fact that the word kamma is used, but that there is a complex of ideas that is identical to the Buddhist. The passage speaks of doing “punya” and “papa” (good and bad) deeds (kammas), which lead to corresponding good and bad results in the next life. ”
      There are variations of karma and rebirth theory in pre-buddhist text. It might be a good idea to examine what they mean by good deeds in relation to good rebirth. And their stance on rebirth and after death. Are there differences between the two. Yajnavalkya affirms a transcendent Self, the Atman ( as you have noticed) . Yajnavalkya has tried to show that the soul is ” neither conscious nor unconscious after death and has no form” . In the Brahmajala Sutta , the Buddha also listed it among the net of wrong views.

      When it comes to deeds or action :

      - teaching people to inflict physical harm to intimate close relations that one lives with in daily life. The option of dominating someone with physical strength and violence to make them have sex can be considered a mild form rape or sexual misconduct.

      - Animal ( human killing) as an offering/ bribe to god for merit and offset negative deeds is not considered as a negative action. Here we can see that karma is connect with god.

      According to the Buddha’s teaching of karma, these deeds might lead to hell rather than rebirth in heaven or good destination. If we say that both teachings on karma are the same, then perhaps we should follow the adhere to these practices to have have fortunate rebirth.

      In the Kosala Samyutta ( Sacrifice) , the Buddha said about the good deeds of bloody sacrifices involving slaughter and violence as a bribe for good merit or reverting bad result from negative actions:

      ” The horse sacriice, the human sacrifice,
      These great sacrifices, fraught with violence, do not bring great fruit. ”

      Ajahn Sujato wrote: “The Buddha, of course, did not have this problem, as he rejected Brahmanic authority in toto. Obviously I do not think that the Buddha blindly adopted “Hindu” beliefs. This slander has been put about so many times it’s really annoying. It’s lazy and unhistorical. The most cursory reading of the Suttas shows that the Buddha was highly critical of the Brahmans and carefully selected which of their idea he adopted. In the case of the kamma/rebirth complex, he said again and again that he taught these things from his own direct knowledge, and there is no reason to doubt this. ”

      I also wouldn’t say that the buddha’s theory of karma originated from there or that his theory and application of karma is the same as pre-buddhist theory. The Buddhist theory of karma has its origin in the Enlightenment of the Buddha and not in any traditional Indian belief. It is an unsubstantial support for saying the Buddha belongs to Brahminism.

      Ajahn Sujato wrote: “When I say that he adopted this from the Brahmans, then, I mean that, after his own investigation and realization, he used the same words and ideas that were current to express his own teaching. ”
      The use of terms and language that people are familiar with is simply his style of teaching . For example, to a group of 1000 fire worshiping ascetics, the words he would apply in his discourse would be about fire. However it doesn’t have anything to do with fire as a worshiping object. Instead, the word fire takes on a new meaning in his teaching. It is associated with Passion, Aversion, and Dellusion, which needs to be extinguished ( nibbana) , instead of worship. He starts with what they are familiar with ( fire) , but takes them to totally different concept of his own using the same term ( fire) .

    • Hi iMeditation,

      You raise the interesting point, “There are variations of karma and rebirth theory in pre-buddhist text. It might be a good idea to examine what they mean by good deeds in relation to good rebirth. And their stance on rebirth and after death. Are there differences between the two.” Some of their teachings, as you have pointed out, are clearly unethical from a Buddhist point of view, while in other places the ethics are similar to Buddhism. Here’s a great example: BU5.2.1-3.

      V-ii-1: Three classes of Prajapati’s sons lived a life of continence with their father, Prajapati (Viraj) – the gods, men and Asuras. The gods, on the completion of their term, said, ‘Please instruct us’. He told them the syllable ‘Da’ (and asked), ‘have you understood ?’ (They) said, ‘We have. You tell us: Control yourselves’. (He) said, ‘Yes, you have understood’.
      V-ii-2: Then the men said to him, ‘Please instruct us’. He told them the same syllable ‘Da’ (and asked), ‘Have you understood ?’ (They) said, ‘We have. You tell us: Give’. (He) said, ‘Yes, you have understood’.
      V-ii-3: Then the Asuras said to him, ‘Please instruct us’. He told them the same syllable ‘Da’ (and asked), ‘Have you understood ?’ (They) said, ‘We have. You tell us: Have compassion’. (He) said, ‘Yes, you have understood’. That very thing is repeated by the heavenly voice, the cloud, as ‘Da’, ‘Da’, ‘Da’: ‘Control yourselves’, ‘Give’, and ‘have compassion’. Therefore one should learn these three – self-control, charity and compassion.

    • Dear Ajahn Sujato,

      It is interesting that there are some mention of this yet the emphasis is on rituals and sacrifice, duty, rather than ethical conduct. Early society believed that its welfare derived from the brahmins’ correct performance of the offering ritual. And the belief that the making of offerings as a debt owed to the gods gave rise to the Brahmanic concept of positive acts being the per­formance of one’s duty.  I wouldn’t say that positive acts refer to purity in words , thoughts, and action such as non-killing, non sexual misconduct , and the like when it comes to ‘karma’ in the early Upanishad. The conception of duty in the Upanishad does not appear in the elaborate form, but later the Bhagavadgita assigned restricted duty to each caste . Perhaps, this is the reason why various scholars do not consider “karma” before the Buddha to be the same one that he taught based on the verse in Brihadarannyaka Upanishad. The Buddha rejected these beliefs and taught karma according to what he directly experienced during the night of enlightenment. Having realized the effect one’s positive or negative words, thought, and action , naturally the emphasis of his teaching relating to karma would be on self-discipline, doing good, and compassion. The need to derive this from the Upanishad verse above is not necessary since he didn’t depend on the concept of karma before him ( relating to good or bad action performed in ones duty, rituals, and the like) .

  4. “Contrary to popular opinion, the notion of kamma is not a timeless” but is karma timeless? In my opinion a basic understanding of karma is hardwired into the human brain.

    Is’s a bit like gravity. Gravity was there before Newton and humans also would have had an instinctual and workable understanding of it.

    It’s interesting that the Buddha pointed to the imponderable nature of the details of Karma, which to my mind moves it away from ritual/moral code.

    • Interesting point, Peter. i think you’re probably right, a basic sense of ethical responsibility is deeply hard-wired; it could be explained in darwinian terms. But the principles of the Buddhist kamma ‘theory’ are of course not so universal, especially the connection with rebirth.

    • Ajahn Sujato do you feel rebirth is relevant and something that needs to be considered in relation to morality?

      Would karma in relation to rebirth not be an “imponderable”? I see some teachings such as rebirth more as a structural element to the religion which is Buddhism.

    • Rebirth is relevant but not essential for morality in Buddhism. The Buddha would normally mention several benefits of keeping morality, such as it leads to confidence, you are respected in society, and so on, as well as the higher spiritual dimension – it is a part of the Path – and he included a good rebirth as one of the benefits. So if you believe in rebirth it connects with your morality, however if you don’t believe in rebirth there are plenty of other reasons for being good.

      I think the ‘impornderable’ is working out all the details and implications. There’s nothing complex about the basic principle – do good, get good, do bad, get bad.

      I’m not sure what you mean by a ‘structural element?’

    • “There’s nothing complex about the basic principle – do good, get good, do bad, get bad.” Yes but good and bad are relative, not fixed (it would seem that often the weight of karmic retribution is determined by the mind of the action doer rather than by the actual action).

      What I mean by structural is something that is there to give the teaching a shape and flavour which allows us to hold on and enter into to it but which is not of the essence.

      The structure would possibly be heavily influenced by time and place (?).

    • In that sense kamma certainly operates in that manner. The idea of kamma is an emotional support, giving people a sense of meaning and order to their lives in the face of seemingly random events, especially traumatic ones. But this relates to how the notion is used in the community, as opposed to what it is actually about. Compare, for example, the theory of evolution, whose purpose was to explain diversity, relationship, and change in living beings, but which has become the frontline in the battle between atheists and theists.

  5. Bhante, the name Vajnavalkya (occurs twice in the post) is the same as Yajnavalkya (different rendering in the Upanishads or simply a typo) or these are two different masters?

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