Karma is a central concept in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religions of India, and its meaning differs somewhat in each of these traditions. Although Indian philosophy does not generally describe karma in terms of debt, Tibetan Buddhism follows a a concept called lenchak, which is usually expressed in English as "karmic debt."
Karma in Indian Philosophy
In classical Indian philosophy, karma is the force that causes living beings to reincarnate again and again. Morally wrong actions are believed to result in undesirable reincarnations, and morally right actions result in more pleasant reincarnations -- but all actions, whether good or evil, create karma. Indian philosophy does not treat karma as a debt owed by one person to another. Instead, the karma of any action is a force that continues to have an effect until it is used up, or "exhausted." People continue to create new karma on an ongoing basis, so by the time you exhaust the karma of one action, you will have already created much more karma.
When Buddhism reached Tibet, many of the original Indian concepts had evolved. According to Tibetan spiritual teacher Dzigar Kongtrul in his book "Light Comes Through," the Tibetan concept of lenchak can be translated to mean karmic debt," although more literal translations would be "occurrence attraction" or "time attachment." Lenchak is an emotional compulsion to engage in an unhealthy or self-destructive relationship with another person because of the karmic effects of a relationship with the same person in a previous lifetime. Although Tibetan Buddhists see karma as the driving force behind unhealthy lenchak relationships, they don't actually see these relationships as paying off any sort of debt. According to Kongtrul, the feeling that you are emotionally responsible for another person because you owe them something is an illusion, not a reality.
Pop Culture Karma
The notion of karma in popular culture is a mixture of Hindu, Buddhist and New Age concepts. According to an article in "The Guardian," pop singer George Michael described his prison sentence for driving under the influence as a payment of his karmic debt. By making an irresponsible decision, he incurred a debt; by going to prison, he paid it off. This version of karma can be controversial, because some people believe that a person who is victimized in this life is paying off the karmic debt for victimizing someone in a past life. In a 2013 interview British actor William Roache, from the TV show "Coronation Street," asserted that child abuse victims were paying the karmic price for having abused others in past lives. Many viewers were outraged by these comments.
Good Karma and Bad Karma
Many people use phrases like "good karma" and "bad karma," but in a sense, karma is not good or bad. Even the most fortunate and morally upright person in the world will grow old and die, so all reincarnations result in suffering. The only way to escape the suffering of existence is to stop reincarnating. Spiritual liberation is not gained by accumulating good karma but by finding a way to stop creating karma at all. Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all have different ideas about how to achieve this, but none of these religions treats karma as a simple system of exchange. The notion of karmic debt is a modern reinterpretation of the original Indian philosophy.
- Miljan Mladenovic/iStock/Getty Images