Karma is a central theme in eastern religions, namely Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. In these religions, karma can be defined as “the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences.”
According to Steven Vose Ph.D., a visiting assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Denver and religious studies expert, karma begins to appear in religious text as early as the Upanishads, a foundational text that laid the groundwork for Hinduism around 800–200 B.C.
He adds that the text makes it clear that humans act in accordance with their desires, and these actions are our karma. In other words, karma is action—for better or worse. So for those who believe in karma in this sense, he explains, “it’s a matter of learning how to sever one’s connection with one’s desires—partly through renunciation, through self-control through the body, with meditative and ascetic practices that we might call yoga. Ultimately, that was a way to short circuit the cycle of karma.”
And in the cycle of reincarnation, he adds, it’s even believed karma can transcend lifetimes, theoretically explaining why bad things happen to good people—and vice versa.
The idea that our actions have consequences can be seen throughout western religion as well, though the word “karma” may not necessarily be used. The notion of heaven and hell in Christianity, for example, can be thought of as another explanation for how karma is at play in our lives.