Lexical Investigations: Karma


Karma entered English as a religious concept in the nineteenth century, but as it gained popularity, it took on additional meanings, that while still spiritual, are not loaded with the same religious connotations as the original sense.

English speaker’s first introduction to karma was in the context of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Originally coming from the Sanskrit term for “action” or “fate,” karma is the belief that all actions lead to inevitable results, both good and bad, that people experience in either this life or in a reincarnation. This sense is still widely used in the Hindu and Buddhist religions.

Today non-religious speakers use karma in a few different ways. They might use it interchangeably with the terms “fate” and “destiny.” They might also use it to describe spiritual auras they feel about a person, place, or situation. Sometimes karma is used by this population to mean “luck,” both good and bad, and acts as a sort of moral compass. Reincarnation—a foundational principal in the more religious senses of karma—does not enter into these senses. Perhaps in another life, karma will have gained even more meaning.

Popular References

“Karma Police”: a song by English band Radiohead from their album OK Computer.

Karma: a 1999 Rick Springfield album.

Karma: a Marvel Comics superheroine created by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller.

“Karma Chameleon”: a 1984 song by the British New Wave group, Culture Club, sung by Boy George.


“Ramanuja holds that Bhakthi (contemplative devotion) combined with karma (acts) and Gyana (knowledge) is the real means to Salvation.”

M. Rangacharulu, Life and Teachings of Ramaniya or The Spirit of Visistadivitism (1895)

“We can do good karma to lessen the effect of the past bad karma and to improve the future for this life and for the next lives.”

Vinod Verma, Ayurveda: A Way of Life (1995)

“You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever — because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart[.]”

Steve Jobs, Commencement Address at Stanford University (delivered June 12, 2005)

“To some extent [your relationship karma is] influenced by your individual karma, as well as the collective karma of the time and place in which you live.”

Joan Duncan Oliver, Good Karma: How to Find It and Keep It (2006)

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.)Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.

Read our previous post in this series about the word aesthetician.


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  2. Kathy Robertson -  April 25, 2013 - 11:09 am

    What goes around, comes around.

    Around here we had the perfect example of instant karma. At an empty house the guy was stealing the copper from the wiring. Unknown to him, the electricity was still on. Then came a rain storm. BBZZZZTTTTT. Too bad all criminals can’t be served that kind of instant justice.

  3. K'sii -  April 15, 2013 - 9:23 pm

    Instant karma rebate!

  4. petergiroux -  April 15, 2013 - 7:47 pm

    It’s fairly simple, I would say all existence in the material world is simple. It only get’s complicated when and up to the point humans get involved. The physical universe was not created by God but actually is God…it could be roughly considered similar to a cell in your body. Is that cell you…of course, does it or is it aware of that fact ? No it isn’t. The known material universe is made up of equal positive and negative forces with you humans being centered between the two and the one reason there is two equal sides to every discussion. What is isn’t, and what isn’t is ! Everything is connected never to have one without the other. If one exists without an other then it doesn’t exist to the point it would never even be known or fathomed to exist or not. This is the way, abstract or not. This is where all religions make their first fatal mistake ! You can not pick and choose what you like about this existence make a religion out of it and discard the rest when it’s all connected and in dire need. Anything and everything in whatever form has and must as a requirement for existence posses an equal opposite. The known universe consists of 50% positive and 5o% negative force to be as simple as hot or cold mountain or valley matter or anti-matter. I must go for the moment next weeks ramble infinity and why it’s all about you. Everything said is based on physics as only blind faith is for blind fools…I’ll discuss where religion and it’s foolishness walk hand in hand with science(ph6^ysics)…Eternity after all is all about you. Without realization you unconsciously made it this far, your are the vessel and already have all the answers to any questions you might have, it’s not about learning anything so much as it is remembering through awareness what is already known. Any questions you perceive you’ll achieve a gentle nudge is all that’s needed. A seed planted…

  5. Binu -  April 15, 2013 - 7:36 pm

    Every mental and physical blow that is given to the soul,
    by which, as it were, fire is struck from it, and by which its own
    power and knowledge are discovered, is Karma, this word being
    used in its widest sense. Thus we are all doing Karma all the time.
    I am talking to you: that is Karma. You are listening: that is
    Karma. We breathe: that is Karma. We walk: Karma. Everything
    we do, physical or mental, is Karma, and it leaves its marks on us.
    Taken from Vivekananda/BooksBySwami/KarmaYoga/KarmaYogaPDF

  6. shyam -  April 15, 2013 - 12:50 pm

    I can’t believe, dictionary.com is giving such misleading info. the main passage says tat ‘karma’ in Sanskrit even means “fate”, which is not true !!

  7. yuliya -  April 15, 2013 - 11:44 am

    Because Karma IS of Hinduism and Buddhism I find it wrong to use the word if you are a Christian… because of the connotation (of reincarnation) included when using the word.

    The Bible does talk about sowing and reaping in Galatians 6:7 where it says “do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” NIV. The whole “what goes around comes around” theme is clearly talked about in the Bible in the terms that you reap what you sow.

    Within the beliefs of karma… “Everything we say and do determines what’s going to happen to us in the future. Whether we act honestly, dishonestly, help or hurt others, it all gets recorded and manifests as a karmic reaction either in this life or a future life. All karmic records are carried with the soul into the next life and body” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gadadhara-pandit-dasa/karma-what-goes-around-comes-around_b_1081057.html)

    …As Christians we believe that the things we do on earth WILL affect our eternal life and where we spend that. The way you act now whether good or bad is what you are sowing. You will reap or harvest your reward in Heaven. But you will NOT reap it in the form of another human or animal which is part of karma thinking. Reincarnation is not a belief that Christians follow.

    “Karma is a Sanskrit word that literally means “action”. The word is used to refer to volitional acts as well as the fruits or consequences that arise from these acts.” (http://www.thebigview.com/buddhism/karma.html).

    …The Bible addresses this in many different places. Galations 5:22-23 lists the Fruit of the Spirit, Matthew 7:16 says that “You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act…” NLT. Also in John 15:5 it says “”Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” NIV. The Bible clearly talks about how God is that vine from which we, the branches, stem off of. If you are truly a branch of God’s vine, you can’t help but produce good fruit therefore reaping eternal life in God’s Kingdom.

    For all you Christians out there… please do not use the word “karma” which supports the belief that after a human dies they will come back to life in the possible form of an animal, because your beliefs ARE different. The basics understanding of karma’s “what goes around, comes around is clearly in the Bible so USE THAT as your resources and don’t conform to the beliefs of other religions.

    If you are NOT a Christian… you are free to think as you please and I am not trying to be offending in any way. I apologize if it comes off that way; that is not my intention. I am just simply trying to educate others in the similarities and differences of karma and biblical thinking.

  8. Slurpidog -  April 15, 2013 - 11:34 am

    The full meaning of karma is: Cause, Condition and Result.

    ‘Condition’ is important because it accounts for the delay between an action and its result. Conditions, of course, are all the other karmas accumulated over countless lives. It is said, for example, that every colored scale in a peacock’s tail has its karmic origin; as does the experience of perceiving it.

    Like gravity, it is a very simple principle but with almost inconceivably complex implications. Though it is correctly pointed out in the given explanation that it is rarely possible to connect a result to its precise cause, in a general way we can know that, for example, a short life troubled by illness is the result of previous disrespect for the life of others. Or, another example, poverty indicates previous lack of generosity and stealing.

    The main thing about karma, from a practical point of view, is that it is not fixed or preordained. It is entirely within our power to modify and shape it as we choose the actions we engage in. Thus an understanding of karma is extremely helpful in creating the causes of future happiness and eventual Enlightenment.

  9. AN -  April 15, 2013 - 8:13 am

    All of this is an illusion – even karma. Your evolved perceptions necessary for survival has led you to often perceive patterns and associations that are questionable. Your instinct is great for your survival and your feelings are nice for your experience but we are quivering masses of atoms playing only by the laws of physics (some known – most not known).

  10. Diego DC -  April 15, 2013 - 6:44 am

    I definitely love Radiohead’s “Karma Police” (big fan of OK Computer album here), however, I can’t believe that John Lennon’s “Instant Karma!” was not listed in the Popular References section… It’s a classic! Thank you for the article!

  11. C. -  April 14, 2013 - 3:37 pm

    The best way to translate karma, in my opinion, is through the word “responsibility”. To be aware of your karma is to be aware of your actions and to be responsible for them.

    This “what goes around comes around” meaning to the term often carries a connotation that vases fall on the head of murders, a notion that is far off from its original meaning. Karma, traditionally, speaks of the individual and the individual alone, it is about one’s relationship with one’s actions. It serves those who are willing to act consciously and to ponder on what it means to do good and to do bad.

    I mention “responsibility” exactly because that word carries a very similar “come back” meaning, much closer to the one karma expresses. It’s a response. To kiss makes you a kisser, to kill makes you a killer. Who you are is defined by what you do and what you do has an effect on all else. That’s the kind of awareness that the term karma evokes.

  12. enchantress -  April 14, 2013 - 3:30 pm

    Okay. So we’ve been using the word Karma entirely wrong?! I never knew… And dude…. if your cat just barked… What the crap have you been feeding that little sucker?!

  13. Melissa -  April 14, 2013 - 3:29 pm

    “Karmic consciousness is psychological patterning” ~Senior Dharma teacher Tensin Roshi

  14. Isha&uma;) -  April 14, 2013 - 12:09 pm

    I thought karma ment good things will happen to u

  15. Howard S. Dunn -  April 14, 2013 - 10:59 am

    If you read Siddhartha, the man who would become the original ‘Buddha’, you discover that karma is yet another form of imbuing the universe with some innate, teleological justice – just as the Abrahamic religions of the West proclaim something is ‘God’s Will.’ Ultimately, both are a way to divorce ourselves from our collective responsibility and to either blame the victim or honor the lucky. With Karma, this is a slightly lesser flaw except in two ways.

    The first is as what feral_shade points out: that an act not causally tied to another event is said to be such. In this way, a good deed one day can be said to result in good fortune years later. Chaos theory may support this vaguely, but to make a direct causal tie between the two is ridiculous. Kind, compassionate people have terrible things happen to them all the time. And often narcissistic, cruel behavior is a hallmark of people with much wealth and power.

    The second idea is that karma crosses lifetimes such that the acts in a previous life have consequences in this one and so on. Even if you ignore the obvious fallacies in ideas about the possibilities of reincarnation, it is heinous to imagine that a starving child with flies crawling on her eyeballs somehow ‘deserves’ her fate because of some ‘previous lifetime.’ This is just a rationalization to not end world hunger. And, before people attempt to say the ‘child is outside these laws’, this is not what Siddhartha said, and where is the ‘line?’ Also, if there is a line, that does not square with the idea of a continuum of self that bridges the death of one body to another.

    The only version of karma – the most useful – is akin to the golden rule and only works if seen as a set of collective consequences. If we do something kind, then the recipient of that kindness will receive a kindness. If we do something cruel, then the object of that cruelty will be injured. If, on balance, our actions are more kind than cruel, then we will, as a whole, live in a kinder, less cruel world.

  16. Jack -  April 14, 2013 - 3:51 am

    In Buddhism at least Karma (Kamma in Pali) is not the “result” of something it litterally means “Action”
    Vipaka is the result of Kamma.

    So if I put my hand in a fire that act is Kamma, the Vipaka is a burnt hand.

    Most people confuse the two terms and use Kamma to mean Vipaka

  17. awesomeness -  April 13, 2013 - 8:36 pm

    UUUUUUUM. Wait, what?

  18. Wanda -  April 13, 2013 - 2:30 pm

    what does karma evan mean

  19. Teenager -  April 13, 2013 - 9:32 am

    Man I’m so bummed. My mom sent me to my room because I mouthed back at her she said. I want to go to a party at Kyles but Kyla is gonna be there with Kylie and Kaitlynn so my mom said I can’t go. She said I had to look at her when I was talking to her but I was on the phone texting with Kyler. Keve and Kave are coming over to talk about Kyrla and Krayon behind their backs so I’m gonna sneak out my window. I came here to find out if my Karma was gonna be bad in my next life or if I’m coming back as a worm. My mom said I’m coming back as a worm if I don’t mind her.


  20. Willy -  April 13, 2013 - 7:30 am

    I have learn samething new and from now onward i guess one gat to stay on alart

  21. Debbie -  April 13, 2013 - 7:17 am

    What about “instant Karma” That like instant coffee?
    I like that idea whether good or bad, get it over with!

  22. Ankit -  April 13, 2013 - 6:11 am

    wow great post. Great work :)

  23. Justin Page -  April 12, 2013 - 6:33 pm

    Let us not forget Reddit’s point system, Karma.

  24. Egdar -  April 12, 2013 - 5:51 pm

    What’s wrong with ‘luck’?. I’m sticking to that…

  25. kverm -  April 12, 2013 - 2:01 pm

    ” what goes around comes back around “

  26. feral_shade -  April 12, 2013 - 12:15 pm

    DSR Murphy,

    I appreciate your analysis of the bridge between science and religion with this term…but I believe you are mistaken in your interpretation of karma. Though I’m no expert in the tradition meaning or context, from I’ve been able to glean about the modern connotation, karma elicits a reaction that, by nature, is opposite in its emotional impact, but may not be necessarily practically equivalent.

    For example, you plagiarize someone’s work and someone else gets expelled…the next day, you’re speeding to class and hit a pot hole in the road which subsequently causes a crash…and you end up in the hospital for a month.
    …although each instance is similarly devastating in its impact, the actions are entirely different…not equivalent, as you surmised.

  27. bb -  April 12, 2013 - 10:42 am


  28. Huh -  April 12, 2013 - 9:05 am

    ok so what is the difference between Karma and Dharma??

  29. MR.Mckenzie -  April 12, 2013 - 7:29 am

    sir i feel as if ur cat barked a vet would be a very ideal place to take the infected little fella

  30. mr Baer -  April 12, 2013 - 7:15 am

    i feel as if we can argue all day about this and that but dose it really matter shes going to do what shes going to do and hes going to do what hes going to do so just live and be care free

  31. mr Baer -  April 12, 2013 - 7:13 am


  32. tehya kiche -  April 12, 2013 - 6:45 am

    Chris D, in the life of a buddhist it does make sense that there would be an end to karma. According to the teachings, if they adhere to principles of buddhism then this is what will happen. I can’t see it being any other way if they are true to the teachings and live by them.

  33. Chip E. -  April 12, 2013 - 6:40 am

    Karma means you can’t get away with anything!

  34. shantha -  April 12, 2013 - 2:12 am

    karma is the duty one must fulfill on the earth.many wokk allottedto people all cannot perform the same work, it is destined when you are born what you must do and how to shape your future.individuals differ .concentration on the job you do is what is required in life.

  35. mindhunter -  April 11, 2013 - 10:43 pm

    a new word useful especially in the context of a Boss. lol

  36. French Derp -  April 11, 2013 - 3:36 pm

    I thought karma was a name.

  37. carlos -  April 11, 2013 - 3:34 pm

    Karma is indeed a term to which people has been giving their own meanings. And I will appreciate getting a clarification in this forum. I understood karma to mean that we get what we get as a result of our actions, good or bad. However, I am not clear if karma = fate. In other words, does karma mean we fabricate our own fate as we take actions in our life, good or bad. Or does it mean “fate”, meaning, it does not matter what actions we take, good or bad, what we get has been predetermined…in other words, those good and bad actions are pretermined and so the results we get from them come from fate (pre-determination, not free will). Can somebody clarify which of these two meaning is karma?

  38. Trinity -  April 11, 2013 - 12:44 pm

    I agree with marth, do good, good things happen, do bad, bad things happen…at least thats how i’ve used it.

  39. iamccrider -  April 11, 2013 - 11:21 am

    Can Karma really run over a Dogma?

  40. marth -  April 11, 2013 - 10:20 am

    1. When you do something good or bad, something good or bad will happen to you

  41. alba -  April 11, 2013 - 5:40 am

    1. to DSR MURTY…check your spelling …equivalEnt
    2. karma…hmm…could also be a mum who drives lots of
    school kids around !

  42. zed -  April 11, 2013 - 4:54 am

    I respectfully disagree: “Reincarnation—a foundational principal in the more religious senses of karma—does not enter into these senses”.

    Karma is just the summation of someone action, and it may manifest even in the present reincarnation. Or, for example, bad Karma is “burnt” with positive actions.

  43. Bradford -  April 11, 2013 - 4:03 am

    …”or feel, that she rides on the edge of Karma’s cold wheel…”
    Is a line from a poem I wrote…
    As a practicing Buddhist, raised Protestant Christian, I’m struck by the
    sameness between “karma”, and Biblical concepts such as the Golden Rule…
    I think Jesus must have been converted to Buddhism, when he went on
    Caravan to India along the “Silk Route” as a young man, after his Bar mitzvah,
    and that’s why Karma is so well and widely accepted in the “West”…
    I’ve also often the variation “kamma”…

  44. RY Deshpande -  April 11, 2013 - 2:53 am

    Altered must be Nature’s harsh economy;
    Acquittance she must win from her past’s bond,
    An old account of suffering exhaust,
    Strike out from Time the soul’s long compound debt
    And the heavy servitudes of the Karmic Gods,
    The slow revenge of unforgiving Law
    And the deep need of universal pain
    And hard sacrifice and tragic consequence. ||3.14||

    Savitri by Sri Aurobindo

  45. cathy -  April 10, 2013 - 4:58 pm

    I love all of this information. Thank you, whoever writes all of this interesting information and thank you Jade.

  46. krissy2112 -  April 10, 2013 - 11:42 am

    KARMA… all i can say is i mustve been a realllll bad person in my past life…smh cause i do my best to do right and live life positively and not lie and much more great things but seem to always fall short … not to mention in the past yr the hardship of having my face cut open like a can on a can opener… but still i choose to live positively and not dwell on the hardships … for i truly believe tht KARMA is a real factor … and maybe one day in my next life things will all be right… no matter how many ppl tell me to get her back .. the lord has a plan for us all…

  47. Jade -  April 10, 2013 - 10:33 am

    Actually, the word “karma” is wrong – one should use the word “karman” instead. This is because in Sanskrit “karma” is in Nominative, while “karman” is the uninflected dictionary form.
    Just saying^^ I’m a student of Buddhism and I do care about linguistic accuracy. And this is a dictionary, after all…

  48. KM -  April 10, 2013 - 9:43 am

    I have to agree with Christina on this one.

  49. Andrea L. -  April 10, 2013 - 9:32 am

    Well a lot of people don’t know that karma means good and bad so it’s cool to lean that and spread the word.

  50. sir_banana_pants -  April 10, 2013 - 8:23 am

    Karma mother #$%@^& lol
    Thats what people really use it for.

  51. Dean -  April 10, 2013 - 7:57 am

    When the American culture waters down the meanings of such terms it may anger the cultures associated with them. When You use the term Karma, please be aware that it is still associated with belief systems, and you might not intend disrespect, but any time we gray over a cultures identity it creates stress.

  52. steve -  April 10, 2013 - 6:52 am

    Karma means action and also the reaction from the action. Cause and effect. It is not fate in the sense of no logical reason. It is a name for the immutable law of nature: action and reaction. It expresses the same underlying principle as the Christian saying: “As you sow, so shall you reap”.

  53. Chris D -  April 10, 2013 - 2:02 am

    Buddha taught the karma of non-action: “There is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.” – (Ariyamagga Sutta, tinyurl.com/ariyamagga )

  54. Gustavo -  April 10, 2013 - 12:25 am

    “Reincarnation—a foundational principal in the more religious senses of karma” – I’m not a native English speaker, but shouldn’t it be “principle”?

  55. oddislag -  April 9, 2013 - 9:56 pm

    @Kooladi_Addict: That should be proper.
    Karma = “You reap what you sow” basically.

  56. Melena -  April 9, 2013 - 4:02 pm

    could you just get to the point faster please.

  57. Koolaid_Addict -  April 9, 2013 - 12:56 pm

    I’ve been heard to say, “Karma’s gonna bite you in the butt if you keep that up.”

    Probably not proper but … eh!

  58. Christina -  April 9, 2013 - 12:46 pm

    Thankfully, I’ve never heard karma used in these erroneous ways, even with all the idiocy I’ve witnessed both on the internet and in the real world; every time I’ve encountered the word in use, it’s been to denote payback for one’s past actions. Either I’m extremely fortunate, or this article has no basis in reality.

  59. katarina -  April 9, 2013 - 8:24 am

    I now know what Karma means :)

  60. sana -  April 9, 2013 - 7:47 am

    K-armageddon :O

  61. Cyberquill -  April 9, 2013 - 7:25 am

    I love karma. Sounds like caramel.

  62. KARMA | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  April 9, 2013 - 6:19 am

    [...] ‘Karma’ philosophically with Society tweaking — Though the Rain falls on the Just as well as the unjust with Jesus speaking — The Chameleon ALMOST always has its day — One or another some way. –>>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged LT, LTRhyme, the HOT WORD on April 9, 2013 by LTRhyme. [...]

  63. goat -  April 9, 2013 - 6:16 am

    i like goats

  64. Rajendra Rijal -  April 9, 2013 - 6:14 am

    Whenever I start any action Gita tells us to offer To The Lord of my heart that is Shree Krishna me.Every Action or Karma should be inspired by him coz I believe and trust he is our Charioteer to protect us from bad Karma and provide us us wisdom to to good karma.
    If we trust our beloved Lord we will always to good karma
    Jai Shree Krishna

  65. DSR MURTY -  April 9, 2013 - 3:02 am


    KARMA in Hinduism (which was probably older than the above statement of Science) says the same, referring to any action of a Human Being results in equivalent Reaction known as KARMA. The time of getting the Reaction is not known, similar to the science defining varying intervals between the Action and Reaction.When a reaction (Karma) is experienced, the corresponding earlier action may not be known, if it happened long long ago or even in the previous birth (if one believes in it) Hence Karma may be referred to as FATE or LUCK (good or bad) Thus the usage of the word Karma in English language is very appropriate,


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