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Karma vs. Retribution — What's the Difference?

By Fiza Rafique & Urooj Arif — Updated on May 6, 2024
Karma is a spiritual concept of cause and effect where one's actions determine future outcomes, while retribution is a punitive response aimed at achieving justice or vengeance for wrongdoing.
Karma vs. Retribution — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Karma and Retribution


Key Differences

Karma is rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism, emphasizing that individual actions, whether good or bad, inevitably lead to corresponding positive or negative experiences. Retribution, on the other hand, is a concept commonly found in legal and moral systems, where punitive measures are taken to balance out the harm caused by an offender.
The workings of karma involve a self-regulating mechanism affecting one's future lives or circumstances in life, based on past and present actions. Conversely, retribution typically involves an external force or authority that imposes punishment to correct or avenge wrongs, often focusing on proportionality and fairness.
Karma is inherently neutral and is seen as a natural law of the spiritual world that promotes moral behavior through the promise of future consequences. Retribution, however, often carries a negative connotation as it focuses on punishment and the infliction of suffering as a response to injustice or wrongdoing.
In the context of karma, the effects of one’s actions might manifest over a long period, potentially spanning multiple lifetimes in belief systems that include reincarnation. In contrast, retribution is usually more immediate, enacted within the lifetime of the individual and often by societal institutions like the judiciary.
Karma encourages personal reflection and self-improvement, fostering a holistic view of morality and ethics. Retribution, while it can deter crime and maintain social order, is reactive and focuses primarily on addressing specific acts of wrongdoing.

Comparison Chart


Spiritual (Hinduism, Buddhism)
Legal and moral systems


Natural law of cause and effect
Punishment imposed by others


Moral self-regulation
Justice or vengeance


Long-term, across lifetimes
Immediate, within a lifetime


Neutral, ethical guidance
Often negative, punitive

Compare with Definitions


The ongoing cycle of actions and consequences.
He believed that breaking his karmic cycle required genuine repentance and change in behavior.


Punishment imposed by law for crimes committed.
The judge imposed a harsh sentence as retribution for his crimes.


The negative effects resulting from harmful actions.
His deceitful behavior eventually led to his social isolation, a case of negative karma.


Punishment believed to be inflicted by a higher power.
The ancient texts often speak of divine retribution falling upon those who defy the gods.


The shared karma of a group or community.
The community's collective effort to clean up their neighborhood improved their collective karma.


Reactions by individuals or society in response to perceived wrongs.
The public's backlash against the company was a form of social retribution for its unethical practices.


Immediate effects of one's actions observed directly.
She helped the lost child find his parents, and minutes later found her lost wallet being returned by a stranger.


An individual’s act of revenge against someone who has wronged them.
His sabotage of his rival’s project was driven by a desire for personal retribution.


The sum of a person's actions and their ethical consequences.
His acts of kindness brought him good karma and positive experiences later in life.


The formal punishment handed down by the courts.
Judicial retribution for her involvement in the scheme was inevitable.


Karma (; Sanskrit: कर्म, IPA: [ˈkɐɽmɐ] (listen); Pali: kamma) means action, work, or deed. The term also refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect, often descriptively called the principle of karma, wherein intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect): good intent and good deeds contribute to good karma and happier rebirths, while bad intent and bad deeds contribute to bad karma and bad rebirths.The philosophy of karma is closely associated with the idea of rebirth in many schools of Indian religions (particularly Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism), as well as Taoism.


Punishment administered in return for a wrong committed.


(in Hinduism and Buddhism) the sum of a person's actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences.


(Theology) Punishment or reward distributed in a future life based on performance in this one.


The totality of a person's actions and conduct during successive incarnations, regarded as causally influencing that person's destiny.


Punishment inflicted in the spirit of moral outrage or personal vengeance.


The law or principle through which such influence is believed to operate.


The act of retributing; repayment.
In good offices and due retributions, we may not be pinching and niggardly.


Fate or destiny resulting from one's previous actions
“[The pitcher] had mostly avoided damage through the first four innings despite putting at least two runners on base three times, but he could not hold back the bad karma any longer” (Ben Shpigel).


That which is given in repayment or compensation; return suitable to the merits or deserts of, as an action; commonly, condign punishment for evil or wrong.
All who have their reward on earth, . . . Naught seeking but the praise of men, here findFit retribution, empty as their deeds.


(Informal) A distinctive aura, atmosphere, or feeling
There's bad karma around the house today.


Specifically, reward and punishment, as distributed at the general judgment.
It is a strong argument for a state of retribution hereafter, that in this world virtuous persons are very often unfortunate, and vicious persons prosperous.


The sum total of a person's actions, which determine the person's next incarnation in samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.


A justly deserved penalty


A force or law of nature which causes one to reap what one sows; destiny; fate.


The act of correcting for your wrongdoing


(uncommon) A distinctive feeling, aura, or atmosphere.


The act of taking revenge (harming someone in retaliation for something harmful that they have done) especially in the next life;
Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord
For vengeance I would do nothing. This nation is too great to look for mere revenge
He swore vengeance on the man who betrayed him
The swiftness of divine retribution


(internet) A score assigned to a user or post on some discussion forums, indicating popularity or perceived value.


One's acts considered as fixing one's lot in the future existence.


The doctrine of fate as the inflexible result of cause and effect, especially the principle by which a person is rewarded or punished in a subsequent incarnation for deeds in the previous incarnation; the theory of inevitable consequence.


One's destiny; fate.


The supposed non-physical emanations that a person gives off, which may affect other people; vibrations.


(Hinduism and Buddhism) the effects of a person's actions that determine his destiny in his next incarnation

Common Curiosities

What role does retribution play in society?

Retribution serves to maintain justice and social order by punishing wrongdoing and deterring potential offenders.

What is the key difference between karma and retribution?

Karma is a spiritual belief in cause and effect that influences future experiences, while retribution is a punitive response aimed at correcting or avenging wrongdoing.

How does karma affect an individual’s life?

Karma affects life by ensuring that actions, good or bad, return to the individual with corresponding consequences.

Is retribution always legal?

While retribution is often associated with legal penalties, it can also manifest through personal or social actions outside the legal framework.

What are the ethical implications of retribution?

Retribution raises ethical questions about fairness, proportionality, and the potential perpetuation of cycles of violence.

What justifies retribution?

Retribution is often justified by the need to restore moral balance and ensure that justice is seen to be done.

Can karma be changed?

Yes, in many belief systems, karma can be influenced by current actions; good deeds can mitigate the effects of past negative actions.

How is karma related to reincarnation?

In belief systems that accept reincarnation, karma from one’s past lives affects their present life and can continue to do so in future reincarnations.

What are the consequences of negative karma?

Negative karma can lead to hardships, challenges, or negative life events as a result of one's past actions.

Can someone influence their karma?

Yes, actions taken in the present can positively or negatively affect one's future karma.

Does everyone believe in karma?

Belief in karma is specific to certain religions and philosophical systems and is not universally accepted.

Can retribution be seen as ethical?

The ethics of retribution can be contentious, depending on views about justice, punishment, and morality.

How do different cultures view karma?

Cultural perceptions of karma vary, but it is generally seen as a guiding principle that encourages ethical behavior.

Is retribution effective in deterring crime?

The effectiveness of retribution as a deterrent is debated, with some arguing it prevents future crimes and others suggesting it has limited impact.

What are examples of retribution in history?

Throughout history, retribution has been evident in legal codes like Hammurabi’s Code, which prescribed "an eye for an eye" as a form of justice.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Fiza Rafique
Fiza Rafique is a skilled content writer at, where she meticulously refines and enhances written pieces. Drawing from her vast editorial expertise, Fiza ensures clarity, accuracy, and precision in every article. Passionate about language, she continually seeks to elevate the quality of content for readers worldwide.
Co-written by
Urooj Arif
Urooj is a skilled content writer at Ask Difference, known for her exceptional ability to simplify complex topics into engaging and informative content. With a passion for research and a flair for clear, concise writing, she consistently delivers articles that resonate with our diverse audience.

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