World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology Of Sacred Texts

Editor, Andrew Wilson


Karma And Inherited Sin

Many religions explain differences in people's fortunes and native endowments as a consequence of some inheritance from the past. This inheritance is conceived in two ways, either as karma from past lives or as the inherited sins of the fathers. These doctrines encourage us to accept our lot in life and to suffer it patiently, in order to work out the residue of past deeds and earn merit. Furthermore, they teach that the individual is not an island unto himself or herself. Rather, we each stand in solidarity with the larger community of the human race and necessarily partake of its good and evil within ourselves.

Karma means action, and all actions have consequences for good or ill. In accordance with the theory of reincarnation, which is common to the religions born in India, differences in fortune, social position, and endowment are the inherited consequences of actions done in previous lifetimes. In Hinduism this doctrine affirms the absolute justice of the universe with its many inequalities; for who is man to try and change what has been fated by his own past deeds?

The doctrine of karma has been criticized for fostering the fatalistic and complacent acceptance of the caste system, poverty, and social injustice. But with careful understanding, we may regard karma as explaining the inequalities in human life without justifying them. After all, if a person escapes from his caste, or a caste is given preferential favors by government decree, or the caste system is dissolved altogether, may not such also be seen as the fruit of previous good deeds?

On the other hand, Buddhism cautions against interpreting karma as a deterministic principle.1 In Theravada Buddhism, karma is but one among twenty-four factors (paccaya) that condition a person's life, and a particular tendency due to past karma may be actualized only when other circumstances, some under the volitional control of the individual, are conducive to its expression. Some Hindu scriptures teach that divine grace can annul and supersede the effects of past deeds.2

In religions which do not accept the doctrine of reincarnation, the individual's connectedness to the larger humanity through time may be understood through lineage and family rather than through the continuity of a single soul inhabiting many past lives. The sins of the fathers, when they have not been properly expiated, are passed on and lead to evil consequences for subsequent generations. Likewise, an ancestor's merits and good works, when they are not reaped as blessings in his own life, will accrue as blessings for his descendants. Inherited sin, like karma, is passed on from birth, but its transmission is analogous to the transmission of the parents' biological endowment rather than through the entry into the womb of a previously incarnate soul.

Individuals are also connected to the larger humanity through space; they are a part of the collectives of nation, race, tribe, religion, and suffer or prosper with the fortunes of those collectives. When a community or a nation sins and faces punishment--war, famine, disease, or an epidemic of drugs and crime, each of its members suffer as a consequence of belonging to that community even though their personal lives may be blameless. We may call this collective sin, and it also helps to explain people's unequal fortunes. Inherited sin, karma, and collective sin each give a partial explanation for the inequalities of the world within which the individual must find his way.

1See, for example, Anguttara Nikaya i.173-74, p. 682. 2See Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.9, p. 518; Bhagavad Gita 9.30, p. 519; and Srimad Bhagavatam 11.2, p. 507.

Like the waves in great rivers, there is no turning back of that which has previously been done.... [The soul is] like a lame man--bound with the fetters made of the fruit of good and evil.

Hinduism. Maitri Upanishad 4.2

By the delusions of imagination, touch and sight, And by eating, drinking, and impregnation there is a birth and development of the self. According to his deeds (karma)) the embodied one successively Assumes forms in various conditions. Coarse and fine, many in number, The embodied one chooses forms according to his own qualities. Each subsequent cause of his union with them is seen to be Because of the quality of his acts and of himself.

Hinduism. Svetasvatara Upanishad 5.11-12

If it be that good men and good women, who receive and retain this discourse, are downtrodden, their evil destiny is the inevitable retributive result of sins committed in their past mortal lives. By virtue of their present misfortunes the reacting effects of their past will be thereby worked out, and they will be in a position to attain the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment.

Buddhism. Diamond Sutra 16

Maitri Upanishad 4.2: Cf. Sutta Nipata 654, pp. 153f.; Dhammapada 127, p. 187. Svetasvatara Upanishad 5.11-12: Cf. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5-6, pp. 187f.

The wise priest knows he now must reap The fruits of deeds of former births. For be they many or but few, Deeds done in covetousness or hate, Or through infatuation's power, Must bear their needful consequence. Hence not to covetousness, nor hate, Nor to infatuation's power The wise priest yields, but knowledge seeks And leaves the way to punishment.

Buddhism. Anguttara Nikaya iii.33

"Frequently I have been born in a high family, frequently in a low one; I am not mean, nor noble, nor do I desire social preferment." Thus reflecting, who would brag about his family or about his glory, or for what should he long? Therefore a wise man should neither be glad nor angry about his lot: he should know and consider about the happiness of all living creatures. Carefully conducting himself, he should mind this: "I will always experience blindness, deafness, dumbness, be one-eyed, hunchbacked, black, white, and every color; because of my carelessness I am born in many births, experience many feelings."

Jainism. Acarangasutra 2.50-55

Subha, the son of Toddeya, asked the Exalted One, "What is the cause and what is the reason, O Gotama, for which among men and the beings who have been born as men there is found to be lowness and excellence? For some people are of short life span and some of long life span; some suffer from many illnesses and some are free from illness; some are ugly and some beautiful; some are of little account and some have great power; some are poor and some are wealthy; some are born into lowly families and others into high families; some are devoid of intelligence and some possess great wisdom. What is the cause, what the reason for which among men and the beings who have been born as men there is to be found lowness and excellence?"

"Men have, O young man, deeds as their very own, they are inheritors of deeds, deeds are their matrix, deeds are their kith and kin, and deeds are their support. It is deeds that classify men into high or low status.

"Here, O young man, some woman or man is a taker of life, fierce, with hands stained by blood, engaged in killing and beating, without mercy for living creatures. As a result of deeds thus accomplished, thus undertaken, he is reborn on the breakup of the body, after death, into a state of woe, of ill plight, of purgatory or hell, or if he comes to be born as a man, wherever he may be reborn he is of a short life span. This course--that he is a taker of life, fierce, with hands stained by blood, engaged in killing and beating, without mercy for living creatures, leads to shortness of life.

"Here, on the other hand, O young man, some woman or man gives up killing, totally refraining from taking life and abides laying down the rod, laying down the weapon, conscientious, endowed with mercy and sensitive to the weal of all living beings. As a result of the deeds thus accomplished, thus undertaken, he is reborn on the breakup of the body, after death, into a happy state, into a heavenly world, or if he comes to be born as a man, wherever he is reborn he has a long life span. This course--that one gives up taking life and abides laying down the rod, laying down the weapon, conscientious, endowed with mercy for living creatures, leads to longevity.

"Here some woman or man is by nature a tormentor of living creatures.... As a result of the deeds thus accomplished... wherever he is reborn he suffers much from sickness.... But here some woman or man is not by nature a tormentor of living beings.... he is free from sickness.

"Here some woman or man is wrathful.... wherever he is reborn he is ugly.... But here some woman or man is not wrathful.... he is handsome.

"Here some woman or man is jealous-minded.... wherever he is born he is of little account.... But here some woman or man is not jealous-minded.... he has great power.

"Here some woman or man is not a giver to ascetic or brahmin.... wherever he is born he is poor.... Here some woman or man is a giver.... he is wealthy.

"Thus men have, O young man, deeds as their very own, they are inheritors of their deeds, their deeds are their kith and kin, and their deeds their support. It is their deeds that classify men into this low or high status."

Buddhism. Majjhima Nikaya iii.202-206, Culakammavibhanga Sutta

Anguttara Nikaya iii.33: Cf. Garland Sutra 10, p. 188.

The murderer of a brahmin becomes consumptive, the killer of a cow becomes hump-backed and imbecile, the murderer of a virgin becomes leprous--all three born as outcastes. The slayer of a woman and the destroyer of embryos becomes a savage full of diseases; who commits illicit intercourse, a eunuch; who goes with his teacher's wife, disease-skinned. The eater of flesh becomes very red; the drinker of intoxicants, one with discolored teeth.... Who steals food becomes a rat; who steals grain becomes a locust... perfumes, a muskrat; honey, a gadfly; flesh, a vulture; and salt, an ant.... Who commits unnatural vice becomes a village pig; who consorts with a Sudra woman becomes a bull; who is passionate becomes a lustful horse.... These and other signs and births are seen to be the karma of the embodied, made by themselves in this world. Thus the makers of bad karma, having experienced the tortures of hell, are reborn with the residues of their sins, in these stated forms.

Hinduism. Garuda Purana 5

In the flower-named city, Pataliputta, in the best part of the earth, were two bhikkhunis, members of the Shakya clan, possessed of good qualities, one of them called Isidasi, the second called Bodhi, both possessed of virtue, delighting in meditation and study, having great learning, with defilements shaken off. Seated happily in a lonely place, Bodhi asked, "You are lovely, noble Isidasi, your youth has not yet faded. Having seen what fault [in household life] are you then intent on renunciation?"...

"Hear, Bodhi, how I went forth. My father was a merchant in Ujjeni, and I was his only daughter, dear, charming and beloved. Then a wealthy merchant from Saketa sent men to woo me; to him my father gave me as a daughter-in-law....

"I myself adorned my Lord, like a servant-girl. I myself prepared the rice gruel; I myself washed the bowl; as a mother to her only son, so I looked after my husband. Yet my husband was offended by me, who in this way had shown him devotion, an affectionate servant, with humbled pride, an early riser, not lazy, virtuous. He said to his parents, 'I shall not be able to live together with Isidasi in one house.... She does me no harm, but to me she is odious. I have had enough; I am leaving her.' Hearing this utterance my father-in-law and mother-in-law asked me, 'What offense has been committed by you? Speak confidently how it really was.' 'I have not offended at all; I have not harmed; I have not said any evil utterance; what can be done when my husband hates me?' I said. Downcast, overcome by pain, they led me back to my father's house, saying, 'While keeping our son safe, we have lost the goddess of beauty incarnate.'

"Then my father gave me to the household of a second rich man for half the bride price for which the merchant had taken me. In his house too I lived a month, then he too rejected me, although I served him like a slave girl, virtuously. Then my father spoke to one wandering for alms, a tamer of others and self-tamed, 'Be my son-in-law; throw down your cloth and pot.' He too, having lived with me for a fortnight, returned me to my father, saying, 'Give me my cloth and pot and cup; I shall beg for alms again.'...

"When he departed, I thought, 'I shall ask leave and go to die, or else I shall go forth.' Then the noble lady Jinadatta, expert in the discipline, having great learning, possessed of virtue, on her begging round came to my father's house. Seeing her in our house, rising up from my seat, I offered it to her; having paid homage to her feet when she had sat down, I gave her food. Having completely satisfied her with food and drink, I said, 'Noble lady, I wish to go forth.' My father implored me, 'Stay home and practice the doctrine, child; and with food and drink satisfy ascetics and brahmins who come here.' But lamenting, I begged my father, 'Evil indeed was the action done by me [the karma leading to my misfortune]; I shall destroy it.' Then my father said, 'Attain enlightenment and the foremost doctrine and obtain quenching, which the best of men have realized.' Saluting my parents and relatives, I went forth. In seven days I attained the three knowledges.

"I know now my own last seven births; I shall relate to you the actions of which this misfortune is the fruit and result; listen to it attentively. In the city of Erakaccha I was a wealthy goldsmith. Intoxicated by pride in my youth, I had sexual intercourse with another's wife. Having fallen from there, I was cooked in hell; I cooked for a long time; and rising up from there I entered the womb of a female monkey. A great monkey, leader of the herd, castrated me when I was seven days old; this was the fruit of the action of having seduced another's wife. I died in the Sindhava forest and entered the womb of a one-eyed, lame she-goat. As a goat I was castrated, worm-eaten, tail-less, unfit, because of having seduced another's wife. Next I was born of a cow belonging to a cattle-dealer; a lac-red calf. I was castrated after twelve months and drew the plough, pulled the cart, and became blind, tail-less, unfit, because of having seduced another's wife. Then I was born of a household slave in the street, neither as a woman or a man, because of having seduced another's wife. In my thirtieth year I died; I was born as a girl in a carter's family which was poor and much in debt. To satisfy the creditors, I was sold to a caravan leader and dragged off, wailing, from my home. Then in my sixteenth year when I had arrived at marriageable age, his son, Giridasa by name, took me as a wife. But he had another wife, virtuous and possessed of good qualities, who was affectionate towards her husband; with her I stirred up enmity. This [my misfortunes] were fruit of that last action, that men rejected me though I served like a slave girl. Even of that I have now made an end."

Buddhism. Therigatha 400-447, Isidasi Sutta

Majjhima Nikaya iii.202-206: Cf. Majjhima Nikaya i.389-90, p. 345.

If the punishment does not fall on the offender himself, it falls on his sons; if not on the sons, on his grandsons.

Hinduism. Laws of Manu 4.173

For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Judaism and Christianity. Exodus 20.5-6

Loose us from the yoke of the sins of our fathers and also of those which we ourselves have committed.

Hinduism. Rig Veda 7.86.5

In this world the fate of every posterity is similar to that of its ancestors. Neither death leaves of the work of destruction, nor the survivors give up their sinful activities. Human beings follow in each others' footsteps; groups after groups and nations after nations end their days without mending their ways.

Islam (Shiite). Nahjul Balagha, Sermon 86

If at death there remains guilt unpunished, judgment extends to the posterity.... When parties by wrong and violence take the money of others, an account is taken, and set against its amount, of their wives and children and all the members of their families, when these gradually die. If they do not die, there are disasters from water, fire, thieves, and robbers, from losses of property, illnesses, and evil tongues to balance the value of their wicked appropriations.

Taoism. Treatise on Response and Retribution 4-5

Exodus 20.5-6: But compare Ezekiel 18, pp. 681f.

You who are so powerful as to enter inside the small medicine gourd to shelter yourself from danger, Have you forgotten your children? Have you forgotten your wife? The evil seeds a man sows Shall be reaped by his offspring. Cruelty, like adie irana, is never without repayment. However late it is, The repayment will come when it will.

African Traditional Religions. Yoruba Song (Nigeria)

Happy are the righteous! Not only do they acquire merit, but they bestow merit upon their children and children's children to the end of all generations, for Aaron had several sons who deserved to be burned like Nadab and Abihu, but the merit of their father helped them. Woe unto the wicked! Not alone that they render themselves guilty, but they bestow guilt upon their children and children's children unto the end of all generations. Many sons did Canaan have, who were worthy to be ordained like Tabi, the slave of Rabbi Gamaliel, but the guilt of their ancestor caused them [to lose their chance].

Judaism. Talmud, Yoma 87a

Rabbi Phinehas the Priest said in reference to Proverbs 11.21, "If you have fulfilled a command, do not seek its reward from God straightaway, lest you not be acquitted of sin, but be regarded as wicked because you have not sought to cause your children to inherit anything. For if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had sought the reward of the good deeds which they performed, how could the seed of these righteous men [e.g., Israel] have been delivered?"

Judaism. Midrash, Exodus Rabbah 44.3

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him".... As he said this, he spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man's eyes with the clay, saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam." So he went and washed and came back seeing.

Christianity. John 9.1-7

Even those who are pious and innocent suffer for the misdeeds of others through their contact, as fish in a snake-infested lake.

Hinduism. Ramayana, Aranya Kanda 38

John 9.1-7: Jesus is not denying that there might be inherited sin, but that it serves any positive purpose. Our burdens of sin are only the contexts in which we may establish faith, that God's grace may shine forth.

All of you are pledges for the other: all of you, aye the world, exist through the merit of a single righteous man among you, and if but one man sin, the whole generation suffers.

Judaism. Midrash, Tanhuma

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off; for truth has fallen in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.

Judaism and Christianity. Isaiah 59.14-15

Ibn `Umar reported God's Messenger as saying, "When God causes punishment to descend on a people, those righteous ones among them will be smitten by the punishment, but afterwards they will be resurrected according to their deeds."

Islam. Hadith of Bukhari and Muslim

Tanhuma: See Genesis 18.20-33, p. 785, where God destroys the people of Sodom and Gomorrah for want of ten righteous men. Cf. Hullin 92a, p. 1033. Isaiah 59.14-15: Cf. Asa, M.1, pp. 1087f.


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