Karma and Reincarnation – How Does Karma Impact Reincarnation?
Karma and reincarnation are conjoined twins.
All religions believe in some kind of karma, a moral cause and effect, or reward and retribution, for good and bad deeds. But how does it work and what’s behind it?
Karma, meaning act or deed, comes from Sanskrit, the ancient Aryan language of Hindu scripture and source (or sister language) of much Buddhist terminology. In Asia, where the idea has been refined by over 2000 years of Hindu and Buddhist practice, karma is understood as an impersonal force. Think of it as moral gravity. We may seem to avoid it for a time, as when flying in an airplane, but even then it constantly pulls us back to earth. Leaving the earth only allows other celestial bodies to act more strongly upon us. There’s no getting away from gravity, and no getting away from Hindu and Buddhist karma.
Karma can foster solace, especially among the poor, as cosmic justice will ensure punishment for their oppressors. In practice, however, the idea of karma has often been destructive to individuals, society, and even national economies. Why? Because its pronouncements are secret. We only see the results. The West imagines that karma steps into life, returning evil for evil and good for good. As a self-congratulating Maria in The Sound of Music puts it, “Nothing comes from nothing. Nothing ever could. So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.”
But in the East, where the word was born and the idea has been believed for millennia, karma enacts its judgments between reincarnations. It hides its unbiased decrees in the turn of the cycle, somewhere between one life and the next. A person’s family, status, sex, health, intelligence, society, and nationality -- one’s status and prospects in life -- are believed to have been determined by karma before birth. All we see is the outcome, and even its significance is obscure.
Under karma, one can be assured that “I am because of what I did.” But what did you do in your past life? Dreamy assertions aside, no one knows. Was it good? Mixed? Bad? How bad? No one knows. How do you correct it? You cannot. You can only accept your fate…
Karma and Reincarnation - The Dance of the Twins
Most South Asians believe that high caste is the sign of good karma. Conversely, low caste is the sign of bad karma. The idea is simple. The implications are profound.
Belief in reincarnation tends to promote pride in the high-born, but passivity, inadequacy, or anger in the low-born. It often generates neglect and even mistreatment of the underprivileged. People’s bad karma gives them birth to the misery of low status. Interfering with their lot in life is therefore to violate a basic principle of the universe.
Reincarnation thus serves as the cornerstone of social rigidity and immobility, opposing the foundational principles upon which Western democracy was founded: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (second sentence of the U.S. Declaration of Independence).
Belief in reincarnation and its conjoined twin, karma, stunts human potential, harming individuals, communities, and the countries of their birth. Of the relatively few Westerners who move to South Asia, many represent wealthy organizations and prosperous countries. Others seek meaning in Eastern religion. To learn what they ought, the latter need only to look at the inequalities of the society around them. Larger numbers of South Asians who move to the West happily do so for a better life. For that opportunity they can thank the Judeo-Christian heritage expressed in the idea that all people are created equal in the sight of God.
(Of course the West, like the rest of the world, builds its own caste structures -- often financial. But monetary castes are notoriously fluid, and religious beliefs that promote them are justly condemned.)
Furthermore, reincarnation and karma encompass the entire biological world, so that no inherent distinction exists between humans on the one hand, and animals or even plants on the other.
Suppose you were born into a low caste South Asian family. You are one of tens of millions constrained by fate and society. You might well wonder why, and would most naturally believe the cause to be misdeeds -- whether real evil or simply an irreligious heart -- in your former life. In fact, you ought to consider the possibility that you advanced from a lower level. You might previously have been a frog, crow, or dog, and should thank your karma for the promotion. If so, all the more reason to perform your dharma (Sanskrit for duty) so as to move up the next time.
Whatever your previous existence, a society built upon karma wants you content. Cynicism may scowl, “The mighty need your humble service.” But when laden by the burden and bitterness of your life, you might rightfully wonder whether most animals are better off than you. Karma gives no satisfying answer to the fact that an ignorant, fly-eating frog might be happier than a self-conscious human, sweeping for a lifetime fly-breeding garbage from South Asian streets.
Karma and Reincarnation – What is your trajectory?
When you believe in karma and reincarnation, you never really know what to think. If you are of a high caste, you’ll be tempted with pride. But it’s quite possible that you were actually demoted from a still higher position. Maybe you were an unjust king or greedy Brahmin priest. If so, you should be meek and show pity rather than scorn to the poor. Otherwise, you might move down further, even beneath those currently below you.
Trajectory, not position, is all that matters. But how do you know your trajectory if you don’t get a report from karma? At least a person rightly imprisoned by a human court knows what they did wrong and why they were punished.
Back to the frog. What makes a frog good? One that eats lots of flies, and by that cuts down on human disease and suffering? Or is eating flies wrong? After all, flies are alive too. Or consider a snail. How does it move up the chain of existence? Does it do so as a matter of course? A snail can’t be evil, can it? What about a wolf that kills to feed its pups? Does that make a bad wolf or a good one? A karmic-minded wolf would starve in the wild. Is that their means of advancement? Or are they free to snarl at Buddhist morality in lieu of the wolfish?
What about the situation of women? Not so good. A woman of any Hindu caste is invariably lower than males in her family. Buddhism, though formally rejecting the Hindu caste system, created its own. Males rank above females. Monks are above non-monks and even nuns. What evil did nuns commit to sink to their state? No one knows. Or did they in fact move up from a lower form of male?
Again, you never know.
Western Buddhists often claim that reincarnation provides time for improvement through right action. But the opposite is also true. Multiple reincarnations haven’t improved murderous rulers. Though granted the power of good karma, they turned it to evil. Bad leaders, big and small, do the same all the time. Is modern morality really an improvement on the past? How have terrible criminals advanced from their previous lives? Where is the solace for those they harmed?
And what of human will? Suppose someone no longer wants to do right. How is it that the apparently karmic privileged so frequently defy, through debauchery and crime, all their previous promotions? What prompts them to waste hard won status?
Reincarnation and karma create so many problems. According to Hindu and Buddhist teaching, karma may be the most basic force of all, predating -- for those who believe in them -- even the gods. Though a force, karma is much more. Gravity doesn’t remember; karma does. Surpassing the greatest of all super-computers karma sees, ranks, and keeps account of all the actions and reactions of all life forms for all of history. The number of its entries can be estimated to far exceed the number of particles in the universe. But karma doesn’t just keep myriad accounts. It also deals out justice, handing its prisoners over to the bailiff of reincarnation.
Karma even crawls into our heads. It knows when we are sincerely good or merely hypocritical. It judges intents. To despise the poor but give money for the sake of praise is a far cry from true love and concern. So the karmic computer sees and ranks motives.
Karma, when fully acknowledged, towers over us as an almighty but one-sided God. Ironically, many Westerners are fond of Eastern thought as an alternative to God. They don’t like divine intrusion in their lives. What they get is a karmic God of justice only -- one that has no room for mercy, no ability to love, no time for kindness, and no place for intimacy. Karma -- the universal gouging of an eye for an eye, the unstoppable extraction of a tooth for a tooth.