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.

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