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The Sanskrit word 'karma' literally means work or action. Karma is one among the six fundamental substances (padartha). Thus, karma is subject of knowledge and is the cause of all universe. [Cha.Sa.Sutra Sthana 1/29] Philosophical and practical approach of karma is described in classics of Ayurveda. In medical science, it can be understood that inappropriate karma is a cause of diseases. The signs and symptoms of a disease are represented by the action of vitiated doshas (karma). Appropriate karma in the form of medical therapies, surgical procedures, etc. forms the treatment protocols. So, karma symbolises tri-aphorism (Trisutra) in Ayurveda viz. etiology (hetu), clinical features (linga) and medicines (aushadha). [Cha.Sa.Sutra Sthana 1/24] Karma denotes a broad spectrum including action of drugs, or the functions of body systems, dosha or body tissues, treatment procedures, the outcomes of the previous birth, etc. This article described concept of karma in detail with its practical applications.

Section/Chapter/topic Concepts / Karma
Authors Bhojani M.K.1, Rahul Anand1
Reviewer Basisht G.2
Editor Deole Y.S.3

1 Department of Kriya Sharira, A.I.I.A., New Delhi, India,

2 Rheumatologist, Orlando, Florida, U.S.A.,

3 Department of Kayachikitsa, G.J. Patel Institute of Ayurvedic Studies and Research, New Vallabh Vidyanagar, Anand, Gujarat, India
Correspondence email meera.samhita@aiia.gov.in, carakasamhita@gmail.com
Publisher Charak Samhita Research, Training and Development Centre, I.T.R.A., Jamnagar, India
Date of first publication: February 23, 2022
DOI 10.47468/CSNE.2022.e01.s09.090

Etymology and derivation

The word ‘karman’ is formed by applying suffix ‘manin’ to the Sanskrit verb ‘kri’. It means the thing that is done. Karma is the dynamic trade that moves substances from one place to the other. So, karma can be considered ‘activation’ or ‘movement’ or ‘tendency’ (pravritti) or ‘work’.


Karma is also known by synonyms like kriya (actions), yatna (efforts) and kaarya samarambha (initiation of work). The effort done to perform the action is known as ‘pravritti’.[Cha.Sa.Vimana Sthana 8/77] So, pravritti is also called the synonym of karma.

Definition and interpretation

Karma is a dynamic movement of substances from one place to the other. It brings about changes in the substances. Karma includes simultaneous process of combination (samyoga) and separation (vibhaga).

Karma is defined as ‘action present in the matter, devoid of any quality (guna)’. It is regarded as an independent cause of conjunction and disjunction of things. [Cha.Sa.Sutra Sthana 1/52] All actions and movements (karma) are limited to corporeal substances (murta dravya) such as earth, water, light, air and mind (panchamahabhuta except ether or akasha); and there is no action on pervading substances like directions (disha), time (kala) and soul (atma).

The effect of drugs (aushadhi) is ‘karma’. Thus the pharmacological activities like emetic, purgative, cleansing, pacifying, astringent, appetizer, pressing, lowering body weight, raising body weight, drug or food that prevent ageing (rasayana), aphrodisiac, inflammatory, dissolving oedema, burning, tearing, intoxicating, causing death, counteracting poison, etc. actions are listed under karma. [Cha.Sa.Sutra Sthana 40/5] The qualities (guna) are identified by their respective karmas like anulomana karma (restoring and facilitating physiological direction of various flows within the body) of sara guna (mobility); brimhana karma (promoting tissue growth) of guru guna (heaviness); stambhana karma (checking any flow through or out of the body) of sheeta guna (coldness), etc.


Karma is broadly classified in two types:

  1. Adhyatmika denoting those deeds having metaphysical or invisible effect.
  2. Laukika denoting the deeds having a physical or visible effect.

Adhyatmik karma

Adhyatmika karma is actions or deeds providing auspicious outcomes. These actions (karma) are beneficial in preservation of health and management of disease. According to the holy manuscript, Bhagvad Gita, there are five tools by which the body, mind and speech of a person does some appropriate or inappropriate work. These are the seat of action (body), performer (karta), various types of resources (saadhana), various types of efforts (cheshtaaye) and divine actions.[Gita 18/14-15][1] Gita has divided the karma in three types – sattva dominant, rajasa dominant and tamasa dominant.[Gita 18/23-25][1] According to Gita, person achieves completeness by karma. So, person must never abandon his karma.[Gita 18/45][1]

Laukika karma

These are physical activities. It includes various types of efforts like sitting, standing, etc.

Karma is of five types according to Vaisheshika Darshana.[Vaishesika Darshan 1/1/7][2] All other types of movements are included in any of five of these.

a) Upward movement (utkshepana): Utkshepana means going upward or moving upward. Utakshepana separates the substance from lower zone and unites it to upper zone. It is also known as ‘unnamana’. Example: Lifting a substance from ground or propelling upwards.

b) Downward movement (avakshepana): Avakshepana means going downwards or moving downwards. Avakshepana separates the substance from upper zone and unites it to lower zone. It is also known as ‘vinamana’. Example: Falling of a ball.

c) Contraction (aakunchana): Aakunchana means shrinking. It is the action by which substances comes closer to body. Example: Flexion or contraction of muscles.

d) Expansion (prasarana): Prasarana means the action of becoming larger or more extensive. Prasarana is the action by which substances move away from body. Example: Extension or relaxation of muscles.

e) Locomotion (gamana): It means motion. All the actions other than above four come under this category. The body tissues (rasa, rakta, etc.) circulate in body by this mechanism. It is movement in oblique direction [tiryakagamana].

Karma can also be divided into ihalaukika (existing life) karma and paralaukika (in life after death of physical body) karma.


The actions carried out by the person throughout his life are ihalaukika karma.

It is further classified into three categories.

  1. Satpratyaya: The actions done voluntarily are ‘satpratyaya’. For example: The action of voluntarily to and fro movements of the hands.
  2. Asatpratyaya: The actions which occur by itself or automatic reactions. For example: When a rubber ball falls on ground from a height, then it automatically moves up after rebounding from the ground.
  3. Apratyaya: These actions occur only in non-living objects. It is further of three types-

a) Nodana: Movement of water on inserting legs in it.

b) Gurutva: Falling of a substance downward when its base is removed.

c) Vega or Sanskar: Arrow released from a bow.

Characteristic features of karma

Features of karma are mentioned in following manuscripts of Ayurveda

  • Vaisheshika darshana: Karma is one (ek dravyam). It means though, combination and separation are two actions, but karma responsible for this combination and separation is one. Karma is devoid of qualities (agunam). It is not dependent on any other factor for its occurrence (sanyogavibhageshwanapekshakaranam).[Vaisheshik Darshan 1/1/17][2]
  • Prashastapaada: Nine features of karma are mentioned [Prashastapaada 3/1/1][3] as follows-
  1. Karma is found only in tangible substances (moortadravyavrittitva).
  2. Karma is momentary (kshanik) and resides for short time.
  3. Karma evolves from heaviness (gurutva), fluidity (dravatva), attempt (prayatna) and combination (sanyoga). The action of mind (mana) prior to the action demonstrated by karmendriya (locomotor organs like hands, legs, speech, genitals and anus) is called ‘prayatna’ or ‘cheshta’.
  4. Karma destroys the past combination and originates new combinations. The way a seed vanishes after originating a tree, karma vanishes after showing effect (kaarya)(swakaryasanyogavirodhitva).
  5. Karma is the cause of origin of combinations and separations. Thus karma is called the ‘cause’ (kaarana). Karma is the cause of combinations. This combination is dependent on the substance on which the karma is carried on, and also on the substances through which the karma is carried by (swaparashrayasamvetakaaryarambhakatwa).
  6. One substance can give rise to the other, one quality to other quality, but one karma cannot give rise to other karma (samanajatiyanarambhakatwa).
  7. Karma cannot give rise to a substance (dravyanarambhakatwa).
  8. Like substance (dravya) and quality (guna), karma too can be classified into classes (pratiniyatajatiyogitwa).

All these features indicate that the combination or separation of a substance with the other is not possible without karma. Like quality (guna) is inseparable with the substance (samavayasambandh), there is no existence of karma without the basis of substance. Karma, the cause of combination and separation, is different from these two. Combination and separation are the results of karma.

Applied aspect

Karma as treatment

The treatment (chikitsa karma) is commonly called ‘karma’. As the human body is the base of treatment, it is called ‘karma-purusha’. Purification therapies (samshodhana karma) are applied to expel out the aggravated dosha from the body. These are based upon the five utkshepana like actions discussed above. In this context Panchakarma (group of five karmas) namely vamana (therapeutic emesis), virechana (therapeutic purgation), niruha basti (therapeutic enema with decoction), anuvasana basti (therapeutic enema with unctuous substance) and nasya/shirovirechana (nasal instillation) are described.

  • Vamana (therapeutic emesis) is utkshepana karma in which the aggravated doshas are expelled through mouth by upward movement.
  • Virechana (therapeutic purgation) is avakshepana karma in which the aggravated doshas are expelled out through anus by downward movement.
  • Niruha basti (therapeutic enema with decoction) is both the utkshepana karma and the avakshepana karma. Initially the drug is inserted in anus through enema and it is then made to move up to large intestine by utkshepana karma, then both the drug and the doshas come down by avakshepana karma to be expelled out through anus.
  • Anuvasana basti (therapeutic enema with unctuous substance) includes utkshepana, avakshepana, prasarana and akunchana karma. First the drug is inserted in anus through enema and it is then made to move up to large intestine by utkshepana karma, then the drug spreads throughout large intestine by prasarana, then the drug and the doshas gather at the root of large intestine by akunchana, and then both the drug and doshas come down to anus by avakshepana karma to be expelled out.
  • Nasya/Shirovirechana is an utkshepana process in which the drug moves upward in head region and the motion of doshas is also in the same direction.

Panchakarma are called the main karma. Certain procedures are carried out prior to panchakarma depending on the condition of the person and the disease. These karmas are called poorvakarma (poorva denoting to prior) and mainly include oleation (snehana) and sweating (swedana). In snehana, oleation is done both internally and externally. The oil (sneha) spreads in the body by prasarana. Exercise (vyayama) is a type of swedana in which sweating is done without the use of fire (niragni swedana) [Cha.Sa.Sutra Sthana 14/64] in which both akunchana and prasarana is carried out.

Various surgical procedures are based on karmas. Example: Incision (bhedana) and puncturing (vedhana) are motion (gamana) karma. Pus of abscess is expelled out by contraction (akunchana) process. In excision (chhedana), body tissues (dhatu) are settled down by avakshepana. In healing procedure (ropana), body tissues move upwards by utkshepana.

Vata is responsible for all the activities in the outside world and inside the body. Enthusiasm, inspiration, expiration movements, metabolic transformations of tissues and proper elimination of excreta etc. are the actions performed by vata dosha. [Cha.Sa.Sutra Sthana 18/49]

After consumption of any drug or food, the karma of that substance brings about appropriate or inappropriate changes in the body. The pharmacological actions of drugs in Ayurveda are also ascertained as karma. The karma of the drug is observed before its application in treatment of disease. These actions are denoted by ‘vipaka’. The influential invisible or metaphysical effect of drugs is known as ‘prabhava’. The herbs having similar activity profiles are categorized and listed as jwarahara (cures the fever), stanyashodhana (purifies breast milk), etc.[Cha.Sa.Sutra Sthana 4]

Karma as cause of diseases

Diseases can be managed by avoiding the causes (nidanaparivarjanam).[Su.Sa. Uttar Tantra 1/25][4] The root cause of the diseases is less or improper or excess interaction of sense organs with their respective objects and time. These are termed as physical (kayika), vocal (vachika) and psychological (manasika) activities.[Cha.Sa.Sutra Sthana 7/26] The balance or correction of these karmas brings about the health. Intellectual defects (prajnaparadha) is described as impairment of intellect (dhee), patience (dhriti) and memory (smriti).[Cha.Sa.Sharira Sthana 1/102] Such a person indulges in inauspicious action, ultimately making him prey to various disorders.

Destiny (daiva) are the deeds of the previous life. These are responsible for the causes of diseases. Karma or Pravritti is responsible for the origin of virtuous duties (dharma) and unvirtuous duties (adharma). Adharma is root cause of various diseases.[Cha.Sa.Vimana Sthana 3/20]

Contemporary approach

Every element has its certain specific attributes or gunas. These attributes are like potential energy stored in that element. This potential energy can neither be created, nor destroyed, but can be converted in to other forms of energy, for instance kinetic energy. Since kinetic energy is the energy that an element possesses due to its motion, this kinetic energy is relevant to karma.

Karma has an inseparable relationship with the associated substance. The atoms that are the principal constituents of an element also represent an inseparable component of that element. All atoms contain electron moving around the nucleus with constant circular acceleration. This motion can be related to karma and symbolises the inseparable relationship of karma with elements.

Action is a numerical value describing how a physical system has changed over time. Continuous breakdown of old bonds and formation of new bonds occurs in all substances all the time. This breakdown and formation of old and new bonds respectively is an action that can be related to karma. Infact, all actions, in one form or the other, portrays karma. As it brings about changes in the characteristics of the element

The pharmacological actions of drugs are understood as karma. The physiological and pathological actions of the dosha, dhatu and mala including metabolic byproduct (upadhatu) and ojas are also karma.

Current researches

1. The Applied Aspect of Karma in Ayurveda – by Sonam Jain and Rani Singh in IJRAR: This article depicts the following:

  • Samanya, vishesha, dravya, guna, karma and samavaya are the causative factors (karana) for the whole universe and are responsible for action and reaction and various phenomena in this universe. Thus karma acts as cause.
  • Cause of disease (hetu), sign and symptoms of disease (linga) and medicine (aushadha) are known as trisutra. Article explains how karma portrays Trisutra.
  • The determination of good life (hitayu) and comfortable life (sukhayu) is based on their characteristic features expressed in the form of Karma.
  • Karma helps in attaining the goals of Ayurveda i.e. equilibrium state of all components.
  • Assessment of body constitution (prakruti) can be done on the basis of karma.
  • All the six therapies (shadopakrama) are named based on their karma (effect).
  • Drug identification and selection are done on the basis of karma.

2. The doctrine of Karma and Ayurveda –by Y Krishan in Bulletin of the Indian Institute of History of Medicine (Hyderabad): –

This article described effect of karma on prognosis. Some diseases are cured even by slightest effort, while in some cases, similar diseases in similar type of persons are not healed even by putting all efforts. The deeds of the person (karma) decide whether he gets cured with difficulty or with ease. Most of the innate and genetic disorders whose cause cannot be understood can be explained on the basis of karma.

3. Karma and Ayurveda – by Mitchell G Weiss in Anc Sci Life

This article elaborates the practical utility of karma.

  • Karma may be a critical factor in determining the sex, character, and health of a child at birth.
  • Determinism, death and medical efficacy are dependent on karma.
  • Ayurveda infers that karma plays a critical role from the special features of an atypical illness or the course of an illness that is resistant to treatment.
  • Karma can explain the cases that do not respond and end in fatality, like Epidemics and Castrophe.

Related Chapters

Deerghanjiviteeya Adhyaya, Ayurveda, Kaarya Kaarana Siddhanta, Samanya Vishesha Siddhanta, Dravya, Padartha, Guna, Disha,Samavaya,Abhava

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