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Karma in Thai Language & Culture

Previously, I talked about how Thai language and culture is intertwined with the “dharma” or teachings of Buddhism — the word “tham” (ธรรม) being the Thai word for “dharma,” as well as a root word for many other Thai words. Today, we will discuss how the Buddhist belief in “karma” is also woven into the language and culture of Thailand.

At its core, karma refers to the law of cause and effect, where actions, intentions, and deeds have consequences that shape one’s present and future experiences. Karma underscores the unity of all beings and the moral responsibility individuals hold for their actions.

In Thai culture, the concept of karma is not merely a philosophical abstraction but a guiding principle that informs daily life, social interactions, and even the language itself.

In the Thai language karma is known as “gam” (กรรม). The Thai word “gam” also means sin or wrong-doing, and because of this negative connotation, “gam” often is colloquially used to mean “bad karma,” while “boon” (บุญ), which means “merit,” is used to mean good karma.

However, the Thai word “gam” formally means all karma, good and bad — as often is seen in the talks and works of Thai monks, artists, and scholars.

Like the Thai word for dharma (ธรรม), the word for karma (กรรม) is a root word in the Thai language — that is, it is used as a prefix or suffix to form other words. The reason that “ธรรม” and “กรรม” look so similar, and quite different from the similar sounding Thai words “ทำ” (meaning do/make) and “กำ” (meaning grasp/hold) is that they have their origins in the Pali language in which Buddhism’s most sacred texts were written.

Two examples of commonly used Thai words that incorporate karma or “gam” are “gìt-jà-gam” (กิจกรรม), meaning “activity,” and “gam-má-gaan” (กรรมการ), meaning “committee”.

The inclusion of “karma” in both of these words has a profound meaning. The word “gìt-jà-gam” (กิจกรรม) suggests that every activity, no matter how big or small, has moral significance — that even the smallest actions contribute to the accumulation of your karma, and the shaping one’s destiny. This encourages Thais to approach their daily activities with mindfulness, cognizant of the ethical implications and the karmic repercussions of their daily actions.

Similarly, the Thai word for committee, “gam-má-gaan” (กรรมการ), denotes a sense of ethical governance and moral responsibility inherent in collective decision-making processes. Just as individuals are accountable for their actions, so too are committees and governing bodies expected to uphold principles of fairness, justice, and ethical conduct. The inclusion of “gam” serves as a constant reminder of the karmic implications of decisions made collectively, emphasizing the interconnectedness of individuals within society.

 

หลวงปู่สอน ปภสฺสโร
A statue of meditation master Luang Pu Sorn Paphassaro (หลวงปู่สอน ปภสฺสโร) of Sakon Nakhon, who was Thailand’s only long-haired monk.

Karma in Thai Meditation & Literature

Karmic awareness in Thailand extends into many other words of the Thai language, such as “gam-má-tăan (กรรมฐาน), meaning “meditation,” and “wan-ná-gam” (วรรณกรรม), meaning “literature.”

By incorporating “karma” into “gam-má-tăan (กรรมฐาน), Thais are called on to recognize the connection between meditation practice and moral grounding. Meditation isn’t just a pathway to self-awareness and spiritual insight. It is deeply intertwined with ethical considerations (right vs. wrong behavior).

Thai monks teach that we should use meditation to cultivate a deeper understanding of our karmic predispositions, while we strive toward the attainment of virtuous qualities, aligning our thoughts and actions with the Buddha’s principles of righteousness (especially the 8 fold path of conduct).

Similarly, the incorporation of “karma” into “wan-ná-gam” (วรรณกรรม) emphasizes the moral dimensions inherent in storytelling and literary expression. Historically, Thai literature hasn’t been created merely as a medium for entertainment or artistic expression but a vehicle for conveying ethical teachings, moral dilemmas, and insights into the human condition.

Through narratives, such as the famous Ramakien legend, characters grapple with the consequences of their actions (not only upon themselves, but others), illustrating the intricacies of karma and the interconnectedness of human beings.

Thus, whether engaged in introspective practices like meditation, exploring the realms of imagination through literature, serving on a governing committee, or being engaged in one of the many mundane activities of daily life, Thais are continually reminded of the omnipresence of karma and its role in shaping their destiny, and the fate of those around them.

To learn more about the Thai people’s belief in karma, read my post about “Karmic Cleansing in Thailand,” which involves a mock funeral and rebirth of an individual who has been suffering under the bad karma of their past actions.

David Alan