Karma and Reincarnation
If each of us is a quantum of consciousness inside a steadily changing physical body, a spiritual passenger in a DNA-engineered vehicle, what exactly determines our personal rollercoaster ride along the way? The materialistic worldview would have it that we are all helpless victims of some inherited biological coding, and that everything else is random coincidence. But perhaps the karma of life is simply a science waiting to be discovered.
The word karma means ‘action.’ Everything we do, for any reason, is known as karma. Every action creates a reaction known as karma-phala or ‘the result of action.’ When we experience the results of our actions it creates further desires, which makes us act again. So there is an endless chain of action-result-desire-action. This chain of karmas and karma-phalas can be either helpful or a hindrance, according to whether our actions are good or bad.
If our words or actions give anxiety, pain, fear or misery to others; or if we take something that doesn’t belong to us, that’s bad action. It affects our present, because doing bad things to others lowers our spiritual focus, and it affects our future, too, because all our actions – both bad and good – come back to us sooner or later and we’ll have to deal with the consequences. Bad action is also when we act in any other way that spoils our chances of transforming our consciousness and achieving higher, spiritual happiness.
Both good actions and bad actions – good or bad karma – will come back to us in the form of karmic reactions. Good deeds come back to us as good reactions, and when that happens we’ll experience pleasure. Bad reactions come back to us as anxiety or pain. The long chain of good and bad reactions is known as samsara.
There are variations of good and bad, for sure. Driving on the left-hand side of the road is certainly a bad deed in the USA and will get you arrested, while over here it won’t. It’s not a matter of opinion. Similarly, having several wives is considered a crime in Great Britain, while in other countries it’s not.
But there is a universal right and wrong, good and bad, that is understood the world over. That is because the laws of karma are universal and don’t always resemble man-made laws or popular opinions of what is good and bad. Like the law of gravity, these laws of karma are universally applicable.
They are listed everywhere in the Vedas. For instance, a short list is given by the sage Manu: Perseverance (dhriti), forgiveness (kshama), self control (dama), sanctity or purity (saucam), control of senses (indriya-nigrah), reason (dhi), knowledge or learning (vidya), truthfulness (satya) and non-violence (ahimsa). Lord Shiva echoes these and also adds the cultivation of compassion (daya), generosity (dana), and austerity (tapasya).
Another great yogi, Patanjali Muni, adds: ‘do not covet what others have’ (aparigraha), ‘do not steal anything’ (asteya), ‘cultivate satisfaction with what you have’ (santosh), ‘serve a teacher of sacred lore’ (guru-sevanam), and ‘surrender to God’ (ishvara-pranidhan). In the Bhagavad-gita Sri Krishna further explains that intense desire, greed and anger are the three gates that lead to darkness.
To understand what a bad action is, you just imagine the exact opposite of any of the good actions. For instance, the opposite of forgiveness is vengeance, and the opposite of self-control is self-indulgence and so on. Good deeds are collectively known as dharma and bad deeds as adharma.
Bad actions begin with bad thoughts and feelings, and good actions begin with good thoughts and feelings, so it all begins with cultivating good thoughts and avoiding the bad ones. And holding on to good thoughts throughout the day means that you have to begin the day with good thoughts. That’s why people start the day with meditation.
If you meditate before breakfast, and before you start work, you’ll have a very good chance of thinking, feeling, willing and acting good all day. It is said: ‘The mind is a very good servant, but a very bad master,’ so being in control of your mind, and not allowing it to wander as it tends to do, is essential.
Yes. If we have not exhausted our stock of karmic reaction before the end of one life, we take birth again and continue in another life. This is sometimes known as transmigration of the soul, or reincarnation. So the soul passes through one life after another. The soul is the passenger in the body, and the body is the vehicle. The soul remains the same but the bodies change.
In each life the soul passes through successive stages of birth, youth, old age, dwindling and death, and each time the soul mistakenly identifies with the body. In one life the soul thinks: “I am a man” or “I’m quite rich,” and in the next “I am a woman and a mother, and this is my husband.” In yet another, the soul thinks: “I am a horse,” and “I quite like this grass.” The soul may go down through many species of life before coming up again to the human body. It is like being pinned to a wheel, a wheel of changing bodies – a revolving wheel of reincarnation.
A soul can enter into the body of any species of life, according to the activities of his previous life. It is not that a man becomes a horse, merely that the soul temporarily inhabits the body of a horse. The soul never becomes a horse – the soul remains the same in every life. If the soul has performed a lot of good karma, then that soul may even take his next birth as a god in a heavenly region. But the human life is the crossroads where you decide where you want to go – and you must choose to act accordingly.
You’re still you! In every lifetime you’re always you. You never change, and you’ll never be anyone else apart from you. Think of it this way: you wear a suit to work, and then you come home and change into something casual. You are not your clothes, you’re the person inside. In spite of having changed your appearance you remain the same.
Or another example: You drive an old, cheap car, and then you sell it and buy a new and more expensive model. You were the driver of the old vehicle, and now you drive the new one – but you remain the same person. Similarly you, the soul, is inside a vehicle made of flesh and blood. It lasts for some time, then you get a new one – but you always remain the same person.
Sometimes it’s difficult to remember what we were doing yesterday, what to speak of many years ago. But the trauma of being squeezed through a birth canal has an effect on us, as does the identities provided by those around us, such as parents, siblings, relatives, teachers and other adults. Forgetfulness is relatively easy in such conditions, and our identification with our new body, and the drives to experience pleasure and avoid pain, all conspire to lock us in tight to this new physical and mental package.
Sometimes children do remember their past life, usually before the age of eight, but if the parents don’t accept the reality of a previous existence the child also rejects its memories as nothing more than a dream.
We may not always have recollections of specific incidents, but the aggregate of all previous experiences is accumulated in the form of impressions. This is known as samskara and creates strong tendencies in our present life. There are abilities passed from life to life, such as an aptitude for an area of knowledge or a particular physical skill.
Then there are irrational fears that get transmitted due to previous life trauma. Thus one person appears wonderfully blessed as a child prodigy while another is crippled by an unexplained phobia. So although the learning does not come in the form of individual lessons learned from recollected incidents, they do come as unconscious internalised learning.
These days there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that consciousness can exist outside the brain. People are regularly reporting out-of-body experiences while under anaesthetic or at times of physical trauma. Experiments conducted at research laboratories suggest that ‘remote viewing’ – the ability to view detailed information at a distance of many miles – is a scientific fact. Other researchers have delved into accounts of ‘past lives’ from around the world.
People have been sharing clear memories from their previous life, then having those facts checked – even in other countries. Most of these people did not believe in reincarnation, and had no religious affiliation. If consciousness can exist outside the brain, it can survive the ‘death’ .
Each life is like a classroom in a long learning experience. Ultimately, the soul must learn all the lessons from an almost limitless number of experiences over thousands of lifetimes. The cumulative effect of this is that the soul becomes exasperated with repeated attempts to find lasting happiness in the world of matter. Only when this material exhaustion takes place does the soul begin to explore an alternative method of achieving a deep and lasting satisfaction.
This gradual search for moksha, or freedom, is known as yoga.. The philosophy taught by Sri K Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita recommends path dedicating all one’s actions to the supreme as the most efficient means of speedily perfecting the human form of life.
The Sanskrit word yoga means ‘to link’ and describes activities by which someone can awaken perception of their spiritual nature, and through that, bring about their gradual awareness of God. Since everyone has different inclinations and abilities, there are several kinds of yoga. Action-yoga is for the physically active; knowledge-yoga is for the scholarly; meditation-yoga is for the mystical.
The Sanskrit terms for these are karma-yoga, jnana-yoga and dhyana-yoga. The physical postures and breathing exercises taught as Yoga in many modern cities is a part of Dhyana-yoga.
In the Bhagavad-gita the different forms of yoga are all described, compared and contrasted. Ultimately, Krishna sums everything up by describing a form of yoga that delivers the best results of all three. It is known as the ‘most secret of all secrets’ and ‘the perfection of yoga’ and is known as Bhakti-yoga. Bhakti means a life where the practitioner orients life so that the Absolute Truth is in the centre. A gradual awareness of one’s relationship with the supreme is achieved at the same time as self-realisation takes place.
The liberated soul is one who has reawakened the original love of the soul and this journey culminates in a deep feeling of being loved in return This perfection of yogic practise is cultivated by the different aspects of mantra meditation, pure habits, study, ritual and personal disciplines Bhakti-yoga thus means linking with God through all actions, gradually leading on to an uninterrupted consciousness of Krishna, or God.
The soul has an eternal form and identity, and a relationship with Krishna, but in the conditioned state the soul forgets this identity. Sometimes it is said that the soul in this forgetful period is only present in a ‘seed form’ and as it progresses it regains its identity. Other saints have explained that the individual soul in this forgetful stage has none of its eternal characteristics, and that they must again be given by Krishna in response to the devotion of the soul.
Souls possess free will, and that means they can decide to love God or to turn away from Him. God never forces the souls to love Him, for to do so would nullify their free will and render the love null and void. It is a fact that the souls within this world are in a state of rebellion against God, having used their minute free will to reject His company. Becoming enamoured with this world, they are born again and again until they realise that their true home lies elsewhere.
In modern western philosophy, betting that God actually exists because it involves less risk is called Pascal’s Wager. The argument is named after the seventeenth century French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62) who said that every one of us is in fact betting that either God exists or that He doesn’t. He urges us to bet that He does, since if we do, and He does exist, it will lead to eternal life. We will have led a good life and only have lost a little income or perhaps some personal pleasure along the way.
But if we use our life in denial of Him – in effect betting that He doesn’t exist – we may lose everything in the life after this .