Chapter 8. Karma and Reincarnation

What Can We Learn from Hinduism : Recovering the Mystical
by Marcus Braybrooke

Chapter 8. Karma and Reincarnation

There may be parallels between Jesus Christ and Krishna and Rama, but is there any place for forgiveness in Hinduism? It is a question that Christians sometimes ask. The cross speaks to Christians of a God who takes the initiative in forgiving sinners, but in the basic Buddhist and Hindu cosmology, there seems to be no place for human repentance and divine forgiveness. This at least is the opinion of my good friend Joe Elder. Writing in the book Exploring Forgiveness, he says, ‘Central to the Buddhist-Hindu cosmology is the law of karma. According to the law of karma, every virtuous act is rewarded and every sinful act is punished in an inexorable manner similar to the laws of physics. The punishments and rewards might happen in this life or in subsequent lives but they will happen. There is no process of repentance or forgiveness that can affect the inevitability of the punishments and rewards.’

The belief that we have all lived before and that the conditions of our present life are a direct consequence of our previous lives is widespread amongst Hindus. Karma and rebirth are said to solve one of the great problems of life. The question, writes R K Tripathi, who taught at Banaras Hindu University, is ‘How is it that different persons are born with an infinite diversity regarding their fortunes in spite of the fact that God is equally good to all? It would be nothing short of denying God to say that he is whimsical. If God is all-goodness and also all-powerful, how is it that there is so much evil and inequality in the world? Indian religions relieve God of this responsibility and make our karmas responsible.’

Does this mean that our present life is pre-determined by our past? At one conference of the World Congress of Faiths someone told us of a boy in India who was very ill and who needed to be flown to London for very special treatment. We were asked to contribute to the cost of his fare. I recall one Sikh suggesting that perhaps his illness was his karma and it was not for us to interfere. Some sociological studies of how the doctrine of karma is actually used in daily life suggest, however, that it does not inhibit a parent seeking a cure for a child who is ill. If that child were to die, then at that point the idea of karma might be introduced to try to ease the sense of loss, just as someone in the West might say ‘the child was spared further suffering’. Karma like the Christian doctrine of original sin seems to me not so much to explain the inequalities of life as to acknowledge them. To blame karma is to blame one’s own past actions and this should encourage a person not to act badly again. In the same way, Christian teaching about sin is intended to lead to repentance and a change of behavior.

Usually the doctrine is interpreted to leave some place for personal freedom and responsibility. The philosopher Dr S Radhakrishnan wrote ‘The cards in the game of life are given to us. We do not select them. They are traced to our past karma, but we can call as we please, lead what suit we will, and as we play we gain or lose. And there is freedom.’ Gandhi used the doctrine of karma to suggest that people could help to shape the future by their present behavior. Rather than being backward looking, karma should encourage us to take care about how we shape our future.

Even in the Hindu scriptures the law of karma is not in full control. According to the strict law of karma, there is no scope for expiation or repentance, as everyone has to experience the consequences of their sinful actions for the sin to be destroyed. Yet the attainment of moksa or realization takes a person out of samsara, the cycle of rebirth, and beyond the realm where karma operates. Further, the scriptures also provide for rituals to expiate wrong-doing. Many of the Dharma-Sastras written during the classical period of Hinduism discuss various sins and moral transgressions along with their respective atonements. The many penance’s said to have been enumerated by the ancient lawgiver Manu form the core of the ancient Indian criminal code. The Manu-Samhita says that ‘An evil-doer is freed from his evil by declaring (the act), by remorse, by inner heat, by recitation (of the Veda) and, in extremity, by giving gifts. The more a man of his own accord declares the wrong that he has done, the more he is freed from that wrong like a snake from his skin.’ (11, 228-231).

In the devotional bhakti traditions, the repetition of the divine name, often on a rosary (japa), was the most popular way of wiping out wrong-doing and its effects. In several theistic traditions karma is God’s instrument and subject to God’s control, rather than an inexorable law. In several traditions there is reference to God’s mercy. In the Gita, repentance born of love and faith wipes away all sin and no one who comes to God with a humble heart fails to win salvation. ‘No one who worships me with loyalty-and-love is lost to Me’, says Lord Krishna, ‘For whosoever makes me his haven, base-born though he may be, yes women too and artisans, even serfs, theirs is to tread the highest way.’ (9, 31-34). Krishna is the Good Herdsman in quest of the worst sinner who has not repented: ‘However evil a man’s livelihood may be, let him but worship Me and serve no other, then he shall be reckoned among the good indeed, for his resolve is right’ (9, 30). Faith in Lord Krishna, transcends the normal requirements of dharma. ‘For knowledge of the Veda, for sacrifice, for grim austerities, for gifts of alms a need of merit is laid down: all this the athlete of the spirit leaves behind’ (8, 28). Right at the end of the Gita, Krishna reassured Arjuna that he need not worry about the law but should trust Krishna’s love and grace, ‘Give up all things of law, turn to Me, your only refuge, [for] I will deliver you from all evils; have no care.’ (18, 66).

In the hymns of the Tamil saints, both Saivite and Vaishnavite, there are many appeals to God for mercy and expressions of gratitude to God for forgiveness. The great South Indian saint Yamunacarya (918-1040), who was a devotee of the God Vishnu, cried out, ‘I have committed thousands of sins. I am helpless and come for refuge to your sacred feet. By your grace, make me yours.’ The great Saivite poet Manikkavacakar (5th century) sang of God’s love for humankind and rejoiced in God’s mercy:

'You bestowed on me a grace undeserved by me

and enabled this slave’s body and soul

to joyfully thaw and melt with love.

For this I have nothing to give in requital to You,

O Emancipator pervading the past,

the future and every thing!

O infinite primal Being . . .!’

There is even a debate between those who think the devotee depends entirely on God’s grace, like a kitten picked up by its mother, and those who think some human effort is also required like a baby monkey who has to cling on to its mother.

Even if the law of karma does not have the iron grip sometimes assumed by outsiders, it does emphasize moral responsibility and that every action has its effect. Jesus said a person will reap what they sow. Sadhu Sundar Singh, who converted to Christianity from his childhood Sikhism, gave an internalized explanation of the law of karma. He believed firmly in retribution, but regarded this as brought about by an internal necessity or inevitable degeneration of the personality which brings its own punishment and renders a person incapable of attaining the life of heaven. It is not a punishment by God, for, as the Sadhu said, ‘Jesus Christ is never annoyed with anybody.’ Bad actions corrupt the personality. There is an echo here of passages in John’s Gospel where it is said that God does not judge anyone but that people judge themselves by refusing to come to the Light. Sundar Singh affirms that the Love of God is always available to intervene and correct the retributory process of karma, but not by an ‘external’ forgiveness or mere remission of the penalty. God works by changing the heart and thereby curing the moral disease which is the root of sin.

I think it can be seen that bad actions corrupt the character and that people bring judgement upon themselves. People who tell a lie often have to tell more lies to cover up the original untruth. Tragically too, evil behavior can inflict lasting damage on other people’s personalities -- as for example in the loss of self-respect in those who are the victims of violence and sexual abuse. Our behavior has moral consequences both for others and for ourselves. This does not, however, explain the unfairness of life.

That requires a belief in rebirth. Although the Lingayats and some other Hindu groups reject this belief, it is widespread in Indian thought. Philosophical and empirical reasons are given for this belief. It is assumed that the soul by its nature is eternal, which was also the view of the third century Christian thinker Origen (c. 185-c.254) although in Advaita philosophy from the standpoint of realization the individual soul is not other than the Universal Soul. It is further argued, as we have seen, that the unfairness of life can only be explained if there are many lives. The person born handicapped or destitute is paying the price for the sins of a past life. In some teaching this rebirth may be in other worlds or it may be as an animal. The doctrine may be given a future reference. The great twentieth century Hindu thinker Sri Aurobindo, in his Life Divine has an evolutionary framework and sees the whole process leading the soul to full awareness. ‘The true foundation of the theory of rebirth’, he wrote, ‘is the evolution of the soul, or rather its efflorescence out of the veil of Matter and its gradual self-finding.’ Other modern Hindu writers also have a forward-looking emphasis. The Saiva Siddhantin scholar Dr. Devasenapathi wrote, ‘ ‘From a savage to a saint’, is not that a perfect description of the increasing purpose in all history and the meaning of it all?’ Dr. T. M. P. Mahadevan, a distinguished Advaitin philosopher at Madras University, also insisted that the belief that the universe goes through a recurring pattern of four ages or yugas, does not imply that history just repeats itself. The theory of four ages, he said, ‘does not mean that the time process is cyclical but rather it is like a spiral.’

I have found this concept helpful in my own thinking. Recently, when we were staying at the Brahma Kumaris Spiritual University at Mt. Abu, Dadi Prakashmani, the Administrative head, invited our group for a conversation. During this she asked us whether we believed in reincarnation. My answer was that I pictured every soul on a journey towards God, but I did not know whether that journey involved more than one life in this world. Various beliefs were combined in this statement. The first is my belief that God’s love for every person is unending -- that God will never rest until every soul responds to that divine love. This is in Christian terms the doctrine of ‘Universalism’ -- that in the end every soul will be saved and come into the full presence of God. I do not believe in hell -- other than in the sense of the misery human beings inflict on themselves and each other by their cruel and selfish behavior. I am aware that very few people are ready for the vision of God at the end of this life and I have never been at ease with the Protestant view that our eternal destiny is determined by life in this world alone. The Catholic doctrine of Purgatory allows for progress beyond death towards God, but has often been seen as a punishment. It should be understood in terms of the word ‘purge’. It is, in my thought, part of the process by which we move from our self-centerdness to becoming centered on God. The disciplines and trials of this and other lives are remedial. They prepare us for full communion with God.

Such an approach gives us a picture of all human beings moving towards God, but the Love of God has to be freely accepted. As Paramahansa Yogananda, the founder of the Self-Realization/Yogoda Satsanga of India said, ‘God will not tell you that you should desire Him above all else, because he wants your love to be freely given, without "prompting". That is the whole secret in the game of this universe. He who created us yearns for our love. He wants us to give it spontaneously, without His asking. Our love is the one thing God does not possess, unless we choose to bestow it. So, you see, the Lord has something to attain: our love. And we shall never be happy until we give it.’ There is no compulsion, only an eternal yearning in the heart of God. Such pictures of progress are inevitably time-bound. All time is present to God. But some pictures of God are more fitting than others and they can color our behavior towards other people. Even if in traditional thinking it is God who sends people to hell, God’s faithful have been tempted to anticipate God’s judgement! Too often those with different beliefs have been demonized. A belief that all people will be saved encourages a remedial or restorative approach to the treatment of criminals rather than one which stresses punishment and retribution.

In our journey towards God, do we visit planet Earth more than once? I do not know -- certainly there are many experiences which I would like to have had, but many I am glad to have been spared. The empirical arguments for rebirth include the newly born infant’s instinct to suck which, it is said, must have been learned in a previous life. Infant geniuses, it is claimed, remember skills learned in an earlier incarnation. There are those who claim to recall incidents from a previous life. Many people have a sense of déjà vue, of going to a place for the first time but finding it is already familiar.

There may be other explanations for these experiences. One difficulty with the theory of reincarnation is that most of us do not remember our previous lives. Is it moral for us to be punished in this life for a wrong-doing which we cannot recollect? Yet our adult character and behaviour are shaped by childhood happenings which we do not recall -- other perhaps than during psycho-analysis. The question of personal identity is far from simple.

My picture of our future destiny does not entirely fit with either traditional Christian nor Hindu teaching, but draws on insights from both -- and from other religions. This is perhaps an example of the possibility, suggested at the end of the last chapter, of what, W. Cantwell Smith calls a ‘Global theology’ or Keith Ward has spoken of as ‘Comparative theology’. In our thinking about the most profound existential and theological issues we can draw on insights of the great traditions. This, however, implies a new perspective, whereby we see theological thinking not as reflection on intellectual propositions once and for all revealed by God, but as a never ending quest for a fuller understanding of the Divine Mystery that we never fully apprehend. As Jesus said, ‘the Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth.’