Reincarnation and Karma
Questions by various friends, and Answers by Swami Nirmalananda, abbot of Atma Jyoti Ashram
When I listen to people on TV that talk to spirits that have passed on, they say that we chose to come back as who we are in this life, so that almost sounds like it was a script we chose to live out. That seems to be that it was all written and what happens is predisposed.
We do indeed determine what each life is going to be in a general way. For reincarnation does not stand alone. In fact, it is not an entity unto itself, but is the result of karma, the law that "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Galatians 6:7). So every time we are about to reincarnate we look at our karmic balance sheet and decide just what karmas-good and bad-shall be reaped in the next life. It is rather like plotting a drama in which we are going to be the star. Having outlined the play, we then work on our costume-the kind of body we are going to have-and the sets-the kind of place we are going to live in, who our families are going to be, and what kind of people will surround us. But all this is just the framework. Within that framework our free will, and that of those involved in our life, determines most of what goes on with us-especially inside us. And since even the framework is of our own construction, that too is completely a matter of free will, actually. Destiny is simply the free will we have already set in motion.
The famous French playwright, Moliere, did not write out the dialogue of his plays. Instead he wrote the plot-divided into scenes and acts-on a big blackboard which the actors read and then went out and improvised. After each performance they discussed how it had gone and made changes in the plot outline and refined the dialogue. When they felt it was as good as it could be, it was all written down with stage directions and printed for others to act from. This is very much like our life as we live out performance after performance through reincarnation.
Let me give some examples of karma. If we are meant to be the renowned leader of a great army, it is a pretty safe bet that we will have to choose to be a man. And our male body will have to be healthy. If we are meant to fight on the side of good, then we will have to be born in a country whose policies are for the right things. And we will have to be born in a country that has a large army. And it have to be that country's karma to engage in warfare. We will have to find the place to be born that can supply us with all this.
Now where does free will come in? Everywhere. Because what I have outlined is just the skeleton of a life. Each person has to fill in the spaces, and they usually are far more than the simple karmic bones.
Another thing about free will and destiny. We may be destined to go to Chicago, but we will choose how we go: bus, train, plane, car, or hitchhike, and if we hitchhike or drive we will decide what route we want to take. The road of karma has many (very many) branches, and we decide when we come to them which one to take. So we move freely within a predetermined framework. If we want to build a fence it can only be within the boundaries of the land we own. If we live on an island we can only travel within its boundaries. So we do have freedom, but it is not unlimited.
It also happens very often that our karma is not to do something, but to have the chance to do it. In some lives we may have the possibility to take up several professions, and we are completely free to choose from those. So we do a lot of "I will" and "I won't" within the framework of our karma. Those choices in their own turn create karma which will manifest in the future. When we look at it, we see ourselves as both caught in the machine of karma and at the same time as the free owner and operator of the karma. Ultimately, it is freedom that is the truth of the whole thing.
Yes, it is all predisposed-by us. Yet, as I have said, the predisposition is only a general outline. At every moment we fill in the details, choosing right then.
If that is the case, then we are automatically going to learn what we chose (unbeknownst to us at the time) to learn in this lifetime.
Unfortunately, learning what we should learn from life as it manifests our karma is not at all a guaranteed matter. That is where not only free will comes in, but also the ability to understand the lesson and the desire to get the right answer. Our karma gives us the chance to learn. It does not force us to learn.
Often we lose our free will and understanding as a result of spiritual ignorance-the state of darkened heart and mind. Lots of labels are put on this state such as "sin," "negativity," "challenges," and such like. But we do not need to know what to call it, we need to know how to get rid of it. And how do we do that? By the learning that comes from reincarnation!
Does this sound like chasing our own tail? It is. That is exactly what reincarnation is for us. The moment we wise up...reincarnation stops.
If we are choosing to come back and live this life to learn something, how do we know what it is?
How right you are! You have understood what nearly everybody misses: We have to figure out what we have come here to learn. Otherwise we fritter away life after life, meandering along getting nowhere.
You see, all that we need to know-why and how we got here and what do do now-is clearly known to the mind of our soul (spirit). But we are out of touch with our soul (a lot of people do not even know they have one) and consequently have not a clue. So we must awaken our soul consciousness. We have to know who and what we are before we can begin to have a glimmering about the who and what of God. When we really enter into the full awareness of our soul the awareness and knowledge of God will start coming about automatically. When we shut the doors of our mind and senses and turn deep within we will find the Great Secret: God.
I understand that it all works together for spiritual enlightenment, but how does the day-to-day process such as what type of job we have or our financial situation or our relationships with our friends and family come to play in the spiritual journey?
The day-to-day things are a result of karma-opportunities to work it out and learn from it. They are the classroom in which we learn (or flunk) the karmic lessons.
There is an important word that rhymes with karma: Dharma. Dharma is often mistranslated as "religion" or "righteousness." There really is no way to translate it; for dharma means that way of life in which we shall most quickly come to the realization of our true self and God. Dharma, like karma, is an individual matter, tailored for each one of us. It is the way by which we make sure that our karma moves us along in our growth into God. Dharma is the way of life (and thought) that takes us to the realization of our full spiritual potential.
With this perspective we can see that some jobs, people, situations, environment, and suchlike are in tune with dharma (dharmic), and some are against dharma (adharmic), and we have to use our free will to affirm the one and eliminate the other.
Do you think that souls that have warlike and violent tendencies reincarnate over and over because they are locked into a negative cycle?
The fact is, those who have any habitual patterns of behavior which they indulge will be dragged by them from incarnation to incarnation. Those who perceive the tendencies to those behavior patterns within themselves but refuse to indulge them, and work to eliminate them from their inner minds, will in time succeed and break the bondage they impose.
The only "habit" we should cultivate is that of lifting our consciousness to God in japa and meditation, for that frees us-not only from this world but ultimately from all "worlds" so we may reenter the transcendent Absolute from which we originally came.
What good does it do for us to reap karma if we are not aware what it is we are suffering for? For example, what help can an infant who is abused receive from reaping such negative karma if it does not realize what is going on?
Certainly, there is a point in our evolution where it is good to consciously understand what has caused the present sufferings-that is, if such understanding will truly facilitate our learning. (The reaping of karma is always for learning and growth-never for punishment or even reward.) Those who have a conscious spiritual life-a life of intentional spiritual discipline-will be shown such things when they need them. There will be no need to poke around on our own to discover the roots of the karma. Sometimes it is better that we not know on the conscious level. However, our true self, the immortal spirit, the higher self, is always aware of what is going on. Therefore every unit of karmic return is of ultimate benefit. Our job is to keep on treading the path and get beyond karma.
What effect does "repenting" have upon our karmic debts?
None whatsoever. True repentance, which is a definite and lasting reformation of life and thought, is necessary to ensure that we do not repeat the same mistaken action that produced the present karma. Feeling sorrow for a wrong action is beneficial only if it produces this reformation. Just being sad and depressed means nothing. In fact it is spiritually harmful. Nor is there any need to ask God for forgiveness. That is as silly as asking our parents to forgive us if we get burnt when we touch something hot, assuming that the pain will cease upon being told we are forgiven. Saying "forgive me" has value when it indicates that we are aware of our wrong and are determined not to repeat it. So it is good to tell both God and man that we are sorry and acknowledge our wrong-and set our will not to repeat it. Thus, while repenting does not affect our karmic debts incurred in the past, it can be a preventive measure for the future. And in the metaphysical realm an ounce of prevention is also worth more than a pound of cure.
You seem to accept that the Hindu/Buddhist concept of reincarnation is compatible with Christianity. How is this, and how is it that the Chritian churches are apparently ignorant of this dramatic data?
Reincarnation is not an exclusively Hindu-Buddhist teaching, but has from the beginning been an integral part of Orthodox Judaism. Because this fact would imply that Christ and the Apostles would have held the belief in rebirth as Orthodox Jews, it has become a policy to toss around the red herring of "Hindu-Buddhist" whenever the ignorant have wished to combat the truth of reincarnation. (We met one bishop who thought Edgar Cayce had originated the concept of rebirth and so called all who believed in it "Cayce-ites." It seems that ignorance compounds itself.)
If you are interested in a historical study of reincarnation in both Judaism and Christianity, I recommend May A Christian Believe In Reincarnation? The British Methodist minister Leslie Weatherhead has also written an article on the subject, but I do not know if it is still in print. I am sure that you could track it down through Interlibrary Loan. There is another book entitled Reincarnation For Christians that you might find significant as well. The three Weatherhead-Cranston anthologies on reincarnation also contain material from Christian writers. Another book is Reincarnation In Christianity by Dr. Geddes MacGregor, who I believe is a Presbyterian.
There is a great difference between what some Christians know and what they say they knows. Some knowledge is simply swept under the convenient carpet of cowardly silence and some is outright denied.
One leading archpriest within a major "canonical" Byzantine Orthodox jurisdiction within this country not only believes in reincarnation, but has engaged for years in research into methods of past-life recall. Our monastery has done research for him on the subject of reincarnation in early Christianity, and that research has been embodied in May A Christian Believe In Reincarnation? I am sorry to tell you that this very priest also publicly denounces reincarnation as incompatible with Orthodox Christianity! This is because of the vicious fear and ignorance which was sanctified and canonized by the Emperor Justinian through his falsification of the decrees of the so-called Fifth Ecumenical Council. (Both Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars have written on the subject of the falsification of the decree, among them being the eminent Catholic-and later Old Catholic-theologian Von Dollinger. A brief discussion is also included in the Nicene Fathers series.)
I well remember discussions with a very learned Greek Orthodox theologian on the subject of reincarnation. Although he knew the truth of the matter, he continually took refuge in the assertion that "at this late date" it would be impossible to speak the truth since it was commonly held that an "infallible" Council had declared the beliefs in pre-existence of the soul and rebirth to be false. (The fact is, reincarnation was not at all mentioned in the interpolated decrees, though pre-existence was.)
Another ploy besides attributing the concept of reincarnation to Hinduism and Buddhism is to attribute it to "the heretic" Origen. This is also quite convenient, as it draws attention from the fact that other Church Fathers also openly taught it.
My favorite comment on the subject of reincarnation is that given by the holy Roman Catholic Capuchin stigmatist-saint, Padre Pio. When one of his spiritual daughters was "told on" for believing in reincarnation, he told her accusers very firmly: "It does not matter what you believe about reincarnation. The only thing that matters is this: Are you seeking for God now?"
I read in a Christian magazine that reincarnation denies our individuality, and also that if we lived many times it would be impossible for us to know which body to resurrect in at the end of time. What is your response to this?
Nothing either you or I could ever say will change the opinion of those whose minds are so coarsened that they would put forth such objections. But if you want a verbal response I will give it.
The true individual is the immortal spirit that is inhabiting the body, which is nothing more than the vehicle or the clothing of that spirit. The objectors to reincarnation do not believe that when the body dies and turns to dust the individual has ceased to exist-their theology affirms that it indeed does continue its existence. How, then, can they say that the body is a determinant of individuality? Even they will admit that every seven years the body of each of us is totally replaced, that not a cell remains of the previous body. Therefore in the span of a single lifetime we live in several bodies and do not lose our individuality.
It is of course true that from life to life we differ in our personalities, but so do we differ within a single life as we move from infancy to childhood, to adulthood and onward. It is to be hoped that the individual continues to evolve-and therefore to change in outlook and thought-throughout the entire lifespan. That which holds all this together like the string within a strand of beads is the principle of pure consciousness-the spirit which, as has been said, is the only element of individuality, the body being only an expression of that individuality.
A perusalof the earliest Christian writings reveals that Christians originally believed that creation has never begun nor will ever cease to be, but goes on in continuous cycles. This creation is not the first, nor is it the last. This was Christian teaching from the beginning. Those who believe otherwise have deviated from original Christianity. Does the fact of many creations deny the individuality of God? For creation is the body of God. Being made in the image of God, we, too, take on many bodies until we return into His infinite Bosom. But the individuality both of God and of His images never loses its integrity.
As far as the resurrection of the body is concerned-whether there is reincarnation or not, as Saint Paul declared: "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (I Corinthians 15:50). Therefore the concept of the resurrection of the body into an eternal state is alien to genuine Christian teaching, and the question of "which body?" is not a problem.
Have you ever heard of anyone refusing to reincarnate–and succeeding? If we have free will we must surely be able to make such a decision. Otherwise, in my opinion, we are nothing but slaves.
First we must realize that reincarnation is determined exclusively by the individual spirit, or atman. God has nothing to do with it, although God has manifested the worlds in which reincarnation can occur. Nor are there any "Lords of Karma" that decide when spirits reincarnate. Even more important, we must understand that karma is not some blind, omnipotent and inescapable force that drags or impels us into incarnation after incarnation. The belief in these three "causes" of reincarnation arises from a miscomprehension of what karma actually is, and an ignorance of the sole purpose of rebirth.
Karma is not some kind of subtle energy accumulation of merit ("good karma") or demerit ("bad karma"), but rather is the psychic conditioning resulting from the states of mind and will that produced our past actions. Karma is a kind of kink in the mind and the other subtle energy bodies which at present make us "human." The atman is consciously–and intelligently–working its way toward the state of perfection we call Liberation. It is the atman alone that determines when and where we shall reincarnate and exactly which kinks we will be working on in each life. If the will of the atman is not carried out then evolution stops and we stagnate.
The spiritual intelligence of the atman is often called the "higher mind." In contrast to this is the "lower mind" that is the egocentric bundle of attraction/aversion impulses that are rooted in complete ignorance and selfishness. This lower mind is always in conflict with the higher mind, for its basis is ignorance and distortion of perception. This mind is indeed a slave, and has no possibility of free will, for it not only functions only in the world of bondage, it has no existence independent of the Self. It is a mirage, an illusion. It does not really "exist" in the ultimate sense. Naturally, it claims to be the only mind we have, and insists that it possesses and exercises free will.
Although the lower mind is not a conscious entity unto itself, nevertheless it is energy-force and therefore can produce effects, including influencing our incarnate and discarnate states.
On occasion the higher mind stands aside and lets the lower mind have its way so the folly and impotence of the lower mind can be revealed–even to itself. This results in suffering, as the only possible consequence, something the lower mind–being psychopathic–insists comes from God, the Lords of Karma, or even karma itself. Rarely does it admit the truth of its own responsibility, and when it does we know that its dissolution is beginning and freedom is dawning.
Deluded people often refuse to incarnate. Usually this results in nothing more than their being rebellious and embittered for the entire time of a particular birth. But it can also be the cause of continual bouts of life-threatening illnesses. The individual bounces between nearly dying and being suddenly cured. The lower mind is trying to escape through death, but it also possesses a clinging to life that militates against its attempts. This moral schizophrenia grips a lot of human beings.
On occasion the individual tries to avoid rebirth by preventing the subtle bodies from entering the physical body at birth (for there is a separation during the mother's labor). If he succeeds, then the body remains inert, often paralyzed, and observers assume the person is a hopeless idiot. At other times the refusal results in the production of a horribly defective body–oftentimes not even of human configuration. Whichever occurs, the foolish person has to spend the span of an entire incarnation standing next to the body it has refused to incarnate–a hardly enjoyable consequence.
Other deluded people refuse to die and remain earthbound, attached to their physical body. This awful bondage can last for hundreds and even thousands of years. This is real slavery!
Nevertheless, in time the futility of such pain-bearing refusals become evident to even the most stubborn individuals and they stop such stupid attempts at thwarting the true free will, the free will of the divine Self. Then evolution proceeds, and in time they are free from the necessity for rebirth. This alone is freedom.