Karma (or karman) is a concept that is central in Epic and Puranic mythology. The term itself comes from the verbal root, kri, meaning “to act, to do, to bring about.” In the Vedas, karma had referred to action performed in ritual and was associated with the logic of Vedic fire sacrifices and Brahmanical incantations (mantras). But through succeeding periods karma came to mean any correct ethical activity and was connected to dharma (righteousness, duty). So many myths explicitly connected rebirth, or transmigration (samsara), with karma and dharma that the three must be considered together. (See chapter 1 for more details.) If one’s karma, in the sense of action, is in accord with dharma, one will have “good karma” that will lead to a good rebirth. If one’s karma (action) is adharmic, against dharma, the “bad karma” that results may play out in lifetime after lifetime. A favorite saying used to explain karma to Westerners is “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”
Karma is discussed in chapter 1, “Mythic Themes: Specific” and in chapter 2. In fact, the entire second chapter is about the relationship of karma to kala- des’a-nimitta (the Hindu time-space-causality continuum). It is not the purpose of this study to prove that karma functions differently over the centuries of Hindu mythology, religion, and philosophy in Vedic rita (justice), Brahmanical ritualism (yajnas, yagas) with its ritual science (maya), Upanishadic jnana (knowledge), Epic and Puranic tapas and their derived siddhis, Yogic sadhanas, and devotional bhakti and prasada. It is the purpose of these chapters to alert the reader to Hindu mythology’s use of a more mechanical or hard karma than is taught by most Hindu philosophers and theologians.
The story of Kamsa, recounted in the entry of that name, illustrates well how later mythology understood the workings of karma. The fruits of his actions take effect over many lifetimes, flowing from one lifetime to the next. Not only are his rebirths affected, but others are reborn over and over with him in changing roles and genders to work out complicated causal chains of events.
One distinction might be of value: that between “hard” karma, a mechanical working out of karmic cause and effect, and “soft” karma, which allows for grace or purification rituals to remove the effects of karma without full recompense by the individual. Not that the situation is that simple; rather there is a continuum between these two extremes, with many cases falling somewhere in the middle. Grace gained from devotion (bhakti) that softened karma was the subject of many myths.