In Greater Magadha, Johannes Bronkhorst (2007: 133) asserts, “It is unlikely that Vedic
scholars will stop looking for ‘earlier forms’ of the doctrine of rebirth and karmic retribution in Vedic literature.” But he argues that the doctrine of karmic retribution in the Veda is a “foreign intrusion” that was “borrowed by the Upaniṣadic sages” (120, 134; cf. 176 and chapter III.4). In his eyes, not only did the doctrine of karma spring from the culture of Greater Magadha, but also, he is convinced, “The most orthodox representatives of Vedic religion ignored it for some thousand years, counting from the moment these ideas found their way into the oldest Upaniṣads” (142).
What if, however, a mechanism of cause and effect is already found in the Veda before the
Upaniṣads? Bronkhorst covers a lot of ground textually in his book, with many of his sources
post-dating Gotama Buddha. Perhaps there is more to the story when it comes to middle and late Vedic texts. Looking from the perspective of philosophy, where philosophical concepts must be enlivened or reinvented from time to time to keep the tradition alive, the precursor to karma may be couched in different concepts, and for this reason, different language.
This paper investigates the Vedic understanding of cause and effect in the later Saṃhitās and Brāhmaṇas, which, if accepted, suggests that the Upaniṣads did not borrow the doctrine of karmic retribution from a separate culture of Greater Magadha, but restyled its own concepts in a longstanding paramparā grounded in Vedic ritual. The paper is divided into three parts. First, I will summarize previous scholarship on the origins of the karma doctrine. Second, I will outline a few philosophical assumptions underlying the worldview of the Brāhmaṇa texts and the yajña (ritual offering). Third, I will present a core pre-Upaniṣadic Vedic philosophy of causality and its corresponding ritual practice.