Consider a situation (just a silly example) like this:

Suppose I'm walking on a road or grass field, and I know there are living beings like ants and other insects lying down on the surface, but I don't have any intention to kill any being while I walk there to reach my destination.

But, as I'm walking, consequently, many little beings are killed by me by stomping on them, though I don't have intention to do so.

Buddhism says that only an action done with intention will account as a Karma that will affect us accordingly..

Referring to this and the situation I gave for example, does it mean that the killing of insects without intention (though I know I'm going to kill them) isn't a bad Karma?

Will I not face any effect due to that action I did unintentionally, but KNOWINGLY?

If that's the case, why can't I rob a house and say that I just did it to quench my starving stomach, not to hurt anyone?

Isn't the consequence of doing an unintentional action considered as a seed that can affect oneself? Why?

If you say I'm wrong, then how is Karma in Buddhism different from that of Jainism, where every action is a Karma?

  • 2
    I'd be glad if the down-voter could be able to leave a comment :)
    – Gokul NC
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 14:50
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    I agree it is a very bad practice to misuse votes.
    – Theravada
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 20:20
  • Another similar question I just ran through: Karma: Intention vs knowing result of an action
    – Gokul NC
    Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 8:15
  • When your state of knowledge, awareness and ability to act reach the point where you could do differently (have choice in a matter) then there is karma. So ignorance is not perfect protection because we have the responsibility to become informed.
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 17:01
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    I conclude that becoming over-focused on thinking about such questions tends to lead one down a blind alley. Do the best you can, and you will keep improving, and everything will resolve itself in time. Your are making yourself and your role too large to have a proper view. You are one of many.
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 13:00

3 Answers 3


What you say or justify do not count. What counts is your volition.

For volition to give result the volition should have any of the 6 roots (3 wholesome - alob, adosa & amoha + 3 un wholesome - lob, dosa & moha ). When you accidentally step on an insect you do not know of its existance non of these roots arise in your mind, as you do not have any intention to kill. You know you are steeping on insects but as iterated before you do not have the intention to step on them, hence there is no un wholesome roots in your mind to create the Karma.

When you do rob someone what ever the justification you are motivated by one of the roots (loba). Even satisfying your hunger is due to loba. What ever the justification there you know and have the intention. Hence there are Karmic results. Every wilful action need intention, even an action which might not generate any karma like lifting your hand. Your body will not sleep walk you into robbing without any intention or thoughts.

Also I asked this related question which might complement the above question: Where in the Tripitaka completion of the formation of Karmic result is mentioned?

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    "When you accidentally step on an insect you do not know of its existance so you cannot experience any of the roots" But obviously, you know that there are insects in the way you go.. You know you're going to do harm, but without intention, ie, without any lobha, dhosha and moha veiling your mind. My question is "Why will I not face any effect due to that action I did unintentionally, but KNOWINGLY?"
    – Gokul NC
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 13:43
  • Updated. See if it is more clear now? Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 14:01
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    "You know you are steeping on insects but you do not have the intention to step on them, hence there is not un wholesome root." Then, doesn't that mean we have forgotten about compassion?? I'm sorry that I'm asking too many questions.
    – Gokul NC
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 14:23
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    Compassion creates good mental Karma but absence of this does not necessarily create bad Karma unless to you intentionally do bad acts. Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 14:47
  • lifting the hand generates karma unless you are an Arahant Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 16:19

Here is the answer given by Lord Buddha to a similar matter...

There were many religious groups and cults in India at Lord Buddha's time and almost each had their own signature practices, Some were naked,Some were living like animals (Cows,Dogs) and many more.All of them had one purpose, Finding the end.

There was a group who said to their followers

"You must boil the water you drink because if you drink it any other way those very small beings in water would die" (An amazing early reference to Micro organisms).

When people asked for Lord Buddha's take on this Lord Buddha's reply was....

Yes there are beings in water and yes there is a chance they might die, but if you boil the water you are obviously going to kill them as an effect of boiling. But what can you do? you must drink water.As you have no intention to kill those beings you are not responsible for the deaths that might occur from consuming water.

Here's the answer to your last analogy....

What kinds of circumstances come in this category an what does not?

  • What is an accident and what is compassion?

An accident is the correct set of circumstances.And you are correct with your first example.Here you see the ants after the action really happen.

If we add another element....

  • What if you knew about ants before running on the grass?

Now you know there are ants and you are in a hurry.You have stepped on the grass and suddenly you remember about the ants.You see some dead because of your running.

Here it does not generate bad karma because even though you knew about the ants you still did not had any idea or a plan to kill the ants by stepping on them.

  • What if you saw the ants and still went on anyway?

Here you have lost Compassion and you show no regard to the lives of these ants, now this is bad. This kind of action will generate bad karma.

But there's a catch....

Say you knew about the ants and walked on the grass thinking "Hopefully there won't be any now". And you did not saw any for a moment and suddenly you see that you have stepped on some.Now you panic and try to walk away from the ants but you are surrounded.So you quickly step away trying your best to not to harm any ants.

Here when you try to walk away you might increase the amount of dead ants but you still have no idea of a killing or hurting.Strangely even after many dead ants you are still clean.

So where does the compassion comes to play?

Say you are hungry and you can hunt.

If you go hunting it is bad Karma. If you let an animal die so you can eat later it is bad Karma.

Say you are poor

If you steal that is bad karma. But if you take someone's pen thinking it is yours (given that both pens look alike) you do not gain bad karma because you had no idea.

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    Thank you, but that didn't answer my question "Why?". Why is only intentional action considered Karma? Is it just because one is not intentionally responsible for an intention-less action? Any theory behind it? Or can only an Enlightened one answer this?
    – Gokul NC
    Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 6:04
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    Karma arises from the ability to know that things could be different. You must have the choice to do differently, the knowledge of what is happening, and the awareness to form a thought about what is happening. This is why animals (and lower) do not have karma. Similar with children and others who cannot govern their actions. Opposite with Arahants, who are wise enough to only do what is needed. Spock's father said, "What is necessary is never unwise." The Buddha was concerned with us modifying our thoughts, not with what happens as we carry out bodily functions (like drinking water).
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 16:56
  • @nocomprende , The drinking water part of my answer was a true story. the reason i added that part was that it was somewhat similar to the example in the question.
    – Theravada
    Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 17:06
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    I don't think I was disagreeing with you... I wrote in support of your Answer. The thought "I should kill whatever is in the water" could be a problem, or not. It is not a problem if it is the only water available, and you need to drink it. It has been said that a human life is more important than lower forms, as only a human can become realized, so killing some bacteria in order to remain in the body can't really be an error. If you felt fear about the bacteria, that would be karmic. Yes? I think that a kid could understand, and adults make things needlessly complex, because they are afraid.
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 22:35
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    @Theravada So, suppose you're boiling water to drink it.. Someone comes to you and asks "Why do you boil it? Why not drink it without boiling?" What answer could you say? The only reason you could say is to kill bacteria. So, with regard to the comment you've given (above previous comment), the only intention one could have to boil water is to kill whatever is present in it. I guess we won't say something like "I'm trying to warm the shivering bacteria". Without intention of killing bacteria, one would not boil water. So, why don't you say it's intentional? How can it be done unintentionally?
    – Gokul NC
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 7:00

The Buddha and an important disciple of Mahavira, the leader of the Jains, had a debate on just this topic. Mahavira held that the body is the essential karmic factor, but the Buddha showed that intention or will is the karmic principle, because it underlies words and actions and because even in the absence of negative words and actions, karma due to wrong intention or will is effective. The classical Indian view is expressed by Jainism, but if karma operates on the level of actions, no emancipation is possible because abstinence from action is not possible. It is this view that leads to the excesses of asceticism, whcih the Buddha derided as mere mechanical practices that anyone can do and that cause harm.

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