Category Archives: Karma, Samsara, and Reincarnation

The Concept of Brahman

The concept of Brahman is said to be one of the foundational features of the Hindu philosophical understanding of existence (Chaudhuri 47). The root of the word Brahman is the Sanskrit brh, which translates as “to grow, increase, expand, swell” (Bernard 123). The word “Brahman” itself translates into “the Great, the Supreme” (Chaudhuri 47). The essence of Brahman is said to be in everything, despite the apparent disparity between the perfection of Brahman and the deficiencies and variances of the material (Bernard 125). In Advaita Vedanta, though Brahman pervades all of material existence, it is not correct to describe Brahman as manifest reality, because manifest reality does not in turn pervade Brahman (Chaudhuri 53). Brahman is not only the source of everything in the universe (Prabhupada 204), but also upholds the creation (Singh 261). In the Upanisads, Brahman is described as “truth and knowledge besides infinity” (Singh 63). Though Brahman is considered to be responsible for the creation, maintenance and destruction of existence, it is not considered a god or goddess to be worshipped, but instead is a concept to be meditated upon in an individual’s quest for understanding the nature of reality (Bernard 163-164).

Though transcendental matters are generally beyond the scope of human understanding(Bernard 118), Brahman can be understood as a logical necessity (Chaudhuri 60). The Vedanta indicates that Brahman, as a logical necessity, is the underlying principle which is attained from a careful examination of knowledge brought about by experience (Chadhauri 60). The Chandogya Upanisad claims that nothing that exists can have been brought about by something non-existent, and, by extension, the denial of Brahman is the denial of the self, an obvious contradiction (Singh 260).

While Brahman is an indivisible whole (Chaudhuri 61), it has two conditions. These conditions are Sat and Asat, which translate into “being” and “non-being” respectively (Bernard 124). To describe Brahman as Asat is to refer to the state of the universe during the period of Pralaya, which refers to the period between manifestations of the cosmos (Bernard 124). When referring to Brahman as Sat, one refers to Brahman as the most fundamental aspect of existence, upon which existence is contingent (Bernard 124). While Brahman defies attributive definitions, if one were to attempt to describe it rationally, one would be inclined to define it as pure being/consciousness/joy, or sat-cit-ananda (Chaudhuri 48). Brahman is pure being in the sense that it is beyond life and death (Chaudhuri 48). As pure consciousness, Brahman is all-knowing, though not in the Western sense of knowing all facts, but rather, Brahman is the source of consciousness and knowledge, or that which makes consciousness possible (Chaudhuri 49). When referred to as pure joy, Brahman is not the bringer of joy, but rather is exempt from subjugation to both pain and pleasure (Chaudhuri 49). However, one would be remiss to think of these terms, Sat and Asat, as defining Brahman. Indeed, “to call it a ‘being’ is to call it a definite ‘being,’ which it is not, and to call it ‘non-being’ is to deny it, which is not true” (Seksena 19-20). Yajnavalkya indicates in the Brhadaranyakopanisad that Brahman can only be described negatively, as “neti, neti – not this, not this” (Isayeva 116).

Brahman is the embodiment of all fundamental polarities, but these polarities are inseparable aspects of the same Ultimate Reality. For instance, Brahman is said to constitute both the masculine and feminine archetypes (Chaudhuri 50). Brahman is thought to exist in two inextricable forms or modes (Chaudhuri 47), which again represent a polarity. One of these modes is devoid of qualities and is hence known as Nirguna. The other, with qualities, is known as Saguna (Bernard 125). Nirguna Brahman is “the great Silence” which defies logic and attributive description (Chaudhuri 48). In some descriptions, Nirguna Brahman is the greater of the two because it is eternally singular and of the same character (Isayeva 114). Saguna Brahman is the agent that “performs” the creation, maintenance and destruction of existence. Indeed, Saguna Brahman can be described as the great universal artist, who creates not for any purpose other than lila; “the self-expansive urge of delight, the outflow of creative joy, the spirit of playful self-expression” (Chaudhuri 49-50). While it is counterintuitive to regard these polarities as part of the same indivisible whole, it is essential to keep in mind that Brahman is infinite and can therefore exist in several forms at the same time (Chaudhuri 51).

The earliest Hindu inquiries into the nature of the universe were outgoing, that is to say, concerned with the material world and not directly with consciousness (Seksena 13-14). In this regard, the Rgvedic period is characterized by the realization that all plants, animals and materials are part of a singular all-encompassing cosmic whole (Seksena 13-14). The Rgveda itself contains little metaphysical inquiry apart from the establishment of the notion of an inherent and universal reality which is the fundamental principle of the cosmos. This concept would act as a seed for later Upanisadic inquiries. Indeed, the Rgvedic hymn of creation indicates only that the universe manifests itself out of a compulsion towards possibility (Seksena 17-18). A second stage of Hindu inquiry followed, in which the concept of Rta, or a cosmic “principle of law,” was established. This period made no special distinction between the essence of man and that of the other animals, though there were indications that the role of man with regards to Rta was knowledge (Seksena 15-16).

The Upanisads are credited with making a vital contribution to Hindu philosophy, characterized by two declarations. First, that the Ultimate Reality is a timeless consciousness made of undiluted intelligence and bliss and, second, that said ultimate reality is the same as the self, or Atman (Seksena 21-22). The Vedantasutra was composed between 500 BCE and 200 CE and is credited to Badarayana, though there is some speculation that this is a pseudonym for Vyasa (Bernard 116). The Vedanta views the world, which it deems to have been masterfully created, to have necessarily been constructed by an intelligent agent who directs the the intricate forces that govern the cosmos. This intelligent agent is Brahman, the fundamental principle of reality which can never be exceeded by the mind (Bernard 120). Brahman is differentiated from Purusa of Sankhya in the sense that Purusa lacks both power and influence, and could therefore not be the primal cause of the universe. Nor could it be Sankhya’s Prakrti, “for then it would be an effect; and and effect cannot affect itself” (Bernard 120-121). Both Purusa and Prakrti are understood in Vedanta to be alternate forms of a single reality (Tiwari 66). Vedanta is differentiated from Vaisesika on the grounds that the latter claims Adrsta, “unseen, invisible, unknown,” is the initial cause of existence, while the Vedantist argues that the initial cause of the universe cannot reside in the soul, as Adrsta does, because the souls are said to be dormant during Pralaya (Bernard 122). In this regard, the notion of Brahman is the exceptional contribution to Hindu philosophy made by Vedanta (Bernard 123).

Liberation, or moksa, is the realization of Brahman, an instantaneous awareness of the fundamental oneness of the universe (Chaudhuri 55). Indeed, the realization that Brahman and Atman are identical (Tiwari 206) offers the only path to liberation from samsara (Isayeva 114-115). Atman is not to be confused with the ego but is rather a localized aspect of Brahman, while at the same time Atman is wholly Brahman (Chaudhuri 51-52). Atman could be described as “the universal principle of subjective existence” while Brahman could be described as “the universal principle of objective existence” (Chaudhuri 52). Knowledge of Brahman can never be attained through any form of inquiry or examination, but instead can only be achieved directly through intuition (Bernard 118). However, while knowledge of Atman can never be taught directly, one can be set upon the correct path to this realization by carefully studying sruti in order to avoiding straying too far from the mental condition that is necessary for liberation (Isayeva 120). The reason Atman cannot be grasped is that consciousness can never be made its own object in exactly the same way as an physical object cannot collide with itself (Isayeva 126-127).

Atman, or the Self, is identical to the cosmic and universal (Seksena 24-25). It is helpful to think of individuals as unique microcosms of a single undivided reality (Chaudhuri 53). Some heterodox Hindu philosophical schools, including the materialist Lokayata, considered the physical body to be identical with Atman, while the orthodox schools, such as Advaita, refer to the body as nothing more than a temporary veil imposed on the unchanging Atman (Isayeva 107-108). According to Sankara, Atman is the pure consciousness that resides at the root of all souls, which is identical to Brahman (Isayeva 114).

 

 

 

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Bernard, Theos (1947) Hindu Philosophy. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Chaudhuri, Haridas (1954) “The Concept of Brahman in Hindu Philosophy” Philosophy East       and West. Vol.4, No.1 (April), 47-66.

Isayeva, Natalia (1993) Shankara and Indian Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York             Press.

Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1972) Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is. New York: Macmillan    Publishing Co., Inc.

Seksena, S.K. (1971) Nature of Consciousness in Hindu Philosophy. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass.

Singh, Satya Prakash (2004) History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization.      ed. D.P. Chattopadhyaya, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publisher Pvt. Ltd..

Tiwari, Satya Prakash (2009) An Insight in Hindu Philosophy – Life and Beyond. New Delhi:        Readworthy Publications (P) Ltd..

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Adrsta

Advaita

Atman

Guna

Maya

Moksa

Prakrti

Pramana

Purusa

Samsara

Sankhya

Upanisads

Vedas

Vedanta

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://hinduism.about.com/od/basics/a/brahman.htm

http://www.hinduwebsite.com/brahmanmain.asp

 

[Article written by Jason Schultchen (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.]

The Concept of Samsara

Samsara is a Sanskrit word meaning “to wander” or “to flow through,” and is recognized within the Hindu religion as the continuous cycle of death and rebirth. Samsara is the result of one’s karmic actions and thoughts throughout their present and pre-existing lifetimes. Samsara can also be seen as the ignorance of atman (true-self) and absolute reality (Brahman). When realizing atman one can then attain moksa (liberation). Moksa is seen as the highest achievement that any being can accomplish, and inevitably leads to ending samsara (Rodrigues 93-97). Samsara can also be tied to or known as worldly existence. It is the constant altering state on a continuous wheel which never ends nor begins, this is contradictory to the realization of atman, moksa or absolute reality which are eternal and infallible (Eliade 56-57).

 

The exact origins of samsara are unknown. There are several theories amongst scholars about the beginnings of the theory of rebirth amongst Asian traditions and ancient Indian civilizations. The concept does not appear in the Rg Veda but it does appear in the Upanisads (see Herman 70). There is a Vedic notion of re-death (punarmrtyu) in heaven which is viewed as a precursor to the notion of rebirth in the earthly realm. But these are simply theories; there is no historical evidence as to how and where the conception of samsara began (Eliade 56). However what is known is that by the time of early Buddhism and Jainism the concept of samsara was universal, and with each tradition particularly within Jainism and Buddhism samsara spread to consist of different views and beliefs from the Hindu religion. This article will focus on the Hindu Traditions view of Samsara. It should be noted that although samsara and other related religio-philosophical forms of worship are widely accepted within the Hindu tradition, scholars do not interpret these beliefs as fact.

The jiva or jivatman (soul) is that which travels continuously through birth, death, and rebirth carrying with it its karmic residue (Rodrigues 94). The jiva is reborn (punar janman) into various different realms and beings; three realms are widely accepted. One can be reborn into a heaven, hell, or earthly existence. Depending on the karmic nature of a jiva it can be reborn as an insect, animal, plant, human, or god in any of the three realms. The human form is one of the rarest that one can be reborn into and although it is one of the more desirable forms, it is moksa which is the ultimate attainment which stops the process of being reborn.

 

There are possibly three separate paths for the individual self to take once it has left its physical body at death. The “path of the gods” (deva yana) leads to the heavens where the jiva then becomes one with Brahman; this is reserved for those who have, through proper meditation and realization of atman, attained moksa. This is the end to samsara. The second is the “path of the ancestors” (pitr yana) which leads the soul to the moon, where they are led to the world of the ancestors and are fed upon by the gods; from there they are then moved into space and then finally move to the earthly realm to be reborn as a human or other creature. The third path involves travelling through the hellish realm and being reborn as a smaller life form such as an insect or rock (Mittal & Thursby 314).

There are two concepts commonly associated with samsara; the first is Karma and the second is Moksa. Karma is the cause to samsara’s effect; karma can generally be viewed as the law of action. However when studying the relationship between karma and samsara, dharma and kama must also be explored. According to Hindu tradition cause and effect are determined not by a supernatural force such as a deity or God. Instead it is determined by individual actions or thoughts. It is also believed that actions should be undertaken which uphold the cosmic order (dharma) as a part of cleansing ones karma. Karma and dharma are similarly tied to samsara: both directly influence the outcome of ones result after death depending on the jiva’s actions and behaviour in congruence with the cosmic order (Rodrigues 100). Kama deals with sensory pleasure; the pleasures of this world can sometimes corrupt ones jiva into ignoring their dharma or neglect the laws of karma. As such samsara would then have the offending jiva be reborn in hell, or as a lowly creature such as a plant.

 

The idea of karma suggests that a transcendent substance is generated and follows the soul based on one’s thoughts and actions. The Upanisads describe karma as being accumulated and even transferred from one life to the next; this cosmic “trail” influences one’s subsequent lifetime and form. Negative acts and thoughts are sometimes called bija (seeds) which can lay dormant for short or long periods of time, until the bija begin to bear fruit (phala)(Keys and Daniel 29).

 

The fruits of that karma can manifest in present or future lives. Depending on one’s actions and thoughts the bija can be good or bad. When the subtle body of the jiva dies, samsara then in accordance to the fruits of one’s karmic actions decides where that jiva will go. Hindus tend to see events, particularly hardships or tragedy, as karmic remnants manifested in present lifetimes; if a child should fall seriously ill and die, and the family is unable to find any bad karma in this life then it is likely they would blame fault on a former life, or that of an ancestor (Keys and Daniel 29). Wealth, long life, and prosperity are also viewed as karmic residue of former lives. Karma’s influence on samsara also includes dharma which appears in the RgVeda as dharman, signifying divine or natural law, dharman in particular characterizes personal action which maintains cosmic order. It is also in connection to rta which affirms orderly creation. Samsara is an eternal, never ending, never beginning cyclical event which can be argued as part of cosmic order (Eliade Vol.4 329).

 

One’s dharma is also interwoven with karma and subsequently entwined with samsara. A king’s dharmic action is in direct relation to the well-being of himself and his kingdom. If he performs the necessary rituals, samskaras (rites of passage) and sacrifices, then his kingdom will prosper and he himself has a chance to live a wealthy present and future life, or possibly even realize atman. However, if he were to neglect his dharmic duties then his next life may be lower in the caste system or even as a lower life form (Sharma 95). This is a very undesirable outcome as the act of re-death is on the opposite spectrum from moksa.

 

Kama (sensory pleasure) also plays an integral part in samsara as actions can be shaped by kama. Kama within the Hindu tradition is a part of human behavior; unlike Western notions, kama is a part of the mind which feeds the body. Kama can also be defined as “desire” desires born in the mind can influence the actions of the body. Although this notion is not seen as a “bad” thing, as in Western philosophy there is the idea of “too much of a good thing” which can affect karma and dharma. Karma can be argued as an effect of kama: action and thoughts caused by desire. When a jiva has been rid of desires and worldly pleasures it then has the ability to realize atman. One’s desire for life and worldly pleasures (bhukti) can also keep them within samsara, the Upanisads say one’s desire for life and its trivial matters can cause the soul to constantly be reborn again and again into the suffering world until its desire for life and the world ceases (Herman 71).

 

The Hindu view of life within samsara as a repetition of re-death and rebirth were present within the ancient Hindu traditions before samsara was named, and both are continuously associated with fear. The jiva is immortal; however its bodies must continuously die and be reborn into lives filled with the threat of fear or hunger, and the pain of sorrow and hardships, such as old age or disease in a seemingly endless cycle (Kaelber 76). The body and senses keep the soul tied to samsara until it can realize self.

The ignorance of atman is called avidya. Avidya could be equated to a veil; it is the jiva’s supposed perception of itself and its own limitations. Theory suggests that the true nature of ones soul is hidden from it, avidya is this force which hides atman from the jiva but can be removed though faithful meditation, ritual, and sacrifice (Rodrigues 96). Avidya is that which keeps the soul within the endless cycle of rebirth and re-death hiding the self’s true nature. Because of this the jiva is trapped in the bondage of karmic law and subject to samsara. Once that veil is removed it is possible for the jiva to realize Atman (Sharma 90-91).

 

Atman is absolute reality; when the jiva has lifted the veils such as karma (action), maya (Illusion), and anava (egotism) then they are able to realize their true nature. Once these veils are lifted “all” are then perceived or realized to be “one.” This realization is also associated with Brahman which is the knowledge and essence of all things, subsequently brahman is also one with atman. With the knowledge of atman and brahman comes the end to all ignorance such as ego, desire, illusion, and the jiva is then no longer subject to karma (Kaelber 76-77). From then one could be recognized as jivanmukti (liberated as a living being); these liberated beings are generally recognized as saints or sages and are highly sought after for knowledge and blessings (Rodrigues 96). It is in this state and through the realization of atman that one can attain moksa and stop the endless cycle of samsara.

 

Moksa is the highest attainment within the Hindu tradition generally referenced as liberation from samsara and derives from the Sanskrit root muc meaning “release.” The Bhagavad Gita states that liberation (moksa) can be attained through three paths of self discipline, action (karmayoga), knowledge (jnanayoga), and devotion (bhaktiyoga) (Sharma 114). Moksa, like samsara is not mentioned in early Vedic or traditional texts; however, following the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata the concept of moksa becomes more widely recognized. If samsara is associated with words such as ‘bondage’ or ‘pain’, then moksa is then associated with words such as ‘liberation’ or ‘freedom,’ it is a release from worldly pleasures as well as worldly existence. The two also contrast one another as samsara is seen as a never-ending cycle of pain, whereas moksa is recognized as a halt and a break from endless recurring pain to be replaced by redemption. Apart from samsara, moksa is always associated with three other traditionally recognized goals (vargas) of earthly living. These are dharma (moral value, duty or law), kama (sensory pleasure), and artha (material wealth); moksa (liberation) is widely accepted as the fourth goal within religious and philosophical texts. Philosophically the four goals can be recognized as a circle as well with moksa returning the jiva back to Brahman (Eliade Vol.10 28-29)

Samsara is viewed as an eternal wheel which continues without beginning or end, and though Moksa is seen as liberation from that eternal wheel, there are those who are seen to accept their position within the cyclical samsara. Though Samsara is viewed as a painful repetitious process, there are those who would aspire to gain the vargas without moksa. There are many devotees within Jainism and Buddhism as well as Hinduism that take on a “samsaric” form of worship or religion. In this case followers practice a more pious and charitable lifestyle seeking not to end samsara but instead to ensure a better birth in their next life following their present lifetime (Eliade Vol.13 57).

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Herman, A.L. (1991) A Brief Introduction to Hinduism. Colorado: Westview Press.

Eliade, Mircea (1987) The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Kaelber, Walter O. (1989) Tapta Marga: Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Delhi: SRI Satguru Publications.

Keys, Charles F. and Daniel, E. Valentine (1983) Karma An Anthropological Inquiry. London: University of California Press.

Mittal, Sushil and Thursby, Gene (2004) The Hindu World. New York: Routledge Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1980) Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions.Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2006) Hinduism the eBook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. New York: Routledge Press.

Sharma, Arvind (2000) Classical Hindu Thought. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

 

Related Topics For Further Investigation

Anava

Atman

Avidya

Bhagavad Gita

Bhaktiyoga

Bhukti

Brahman

Buddhism

Dharma

Jainism

Jiva

Jivanmukti

Jivatman

Jnanayoga

Kama

Karma

Karmayoga

Maya

Moksa

Reincarnation

Rg Veda

Upanisads

Vargas

 

[Article written by Deserae Yellow Horn (2013) who is solely responsible for its content]

Reincarnation and Karma

The belief in rebirth and various realms is a common ideology in Hinduism. According to Hinduism a soul is reincarnated again and again, undergoing many experiences, until it achieves perfection and unites as one with the divine. This idea of rebirth is referred to as reincarnation, that death relates only to the physical body but the soul continues on and is reborn into another body, human, animal or sometimes even a vegetable (Wadia 145). This continuing worldly existence is called samsara, which literally means “to wander” or “to flow together,” and thus refers to the cycle of repeated births (Rodrigues 94). Reincarnation is never a stand-alone doctrine; rather it is dictated by the law of karma. The word karma is derived from the ancient Sanskrit language of India, which literally means to “work” or “to act” (Garrett 37). Karma stands for all activity, motion or change which the world experiences, and thus the entire world is subject to the law of that which is karma (Singh 11). It is the law of the cosmos and the path leading to the absolute reality, Brahman. The idea that one’s actions have consequences in this life or the next and on subsequent rebirths, developed during the Upanisad period. It is in the Upanisad stories, for example that of the great sage Yajnavalkya, that the idea of reincarnation emerges (Wadia 146). Since then it has become a core ideology in the whole of India. Karma thus sets up a world of justice whereby every action has its outcome, whether good or bad. [For more interesting facts on karma and rebirth in classical Indian traditions see O’Flaherty (1980)]. It is difficult to write a paper on such a topic as reincarnation, as it takes on diverse meanings to individual Hindus. This paper attempts to only give a broad and general sense of the doctrine of reincarnation and karma.

In certain schools of Hindu metaphysics, the true identity of the self, the true Self, is not limited to the physical body; rather it is of a spiritual essence which is subject to rebirth when the current body possessed dies. This spiritual essence undergoes a chain of rebirths into many different bodies, forms, and personalities that are all just temporary vehicles of the true self, until one finally achieves liberation, moksa (Garrett 18). One can only achieve moksa through realizing this so called “true self” (or atman) and renouncing this worldly life. This would entail embodying the Dharma ideals of Hinduism so that you build good karma, and instead of coming back as say an animal or a lower class Hindu, you could become a god. [Singh (1981) explores more on the concept of Dharma]. It is important to note that Karma Yoga from the Bhagavad Gita takes a bit of a different stance then that of orthodox views on reincarnation and karma; in that it states that anyone, no matter what class, can be liberated. Even a householder can achieve liberation through self-realization. Moksa can be achieved simply by doing the right thing, in practicing your duties and with interaction in everyday societal life, as long as one avoids attachment to the fruits of the action; that is one should not be concerned with success or failure. Basically one should perform their duty while at the same time renouncing the world (Rodrigues 250). [For more on this topic of Karma yoga see Singh (1981)].

The idea of karma and reincarnation provides one with motivation to be better, or as some may say “fighting the good fight.” Being selfless in action, doing good to/for others, performing duties, practicing rituals, obeying class systems, is all a part in building good karma and seeking liberation in the Hinduism view. Karma can also present a solution to the everyday question of why good people sometimes suffer, or why bad people seem to get away with things (Wadia 145). Instead of feeling like the world is unfair and being confused as to why all this would happen, one need only to look at the ideas of reincarnation and karma, and see that life is everything but unfair. This allows people to view suffering, misfortune, their current position in society, or even the way they look (i.e. their appearance), as consequences to their actions. In this sense it promotes one to take responsibility for their action. But it is important to realize that samsara, karma and reincarnation are not to be viewed as a burden from which to flee. Rather these are doctrines that promote growth, education and opportunities to learn from mistakes (Neufeldt 16).

The idea of reincarnation is not limited to Hinduism, it can be found in other faiths (e.g. Buddhism) and it touches some who do not even relate to a specific religion. But it is important to note that reincarnation takes on different meanings in relation to different faiths and cultures. For example, Henry Ford spoke on the importance of reincarnation theory to his life by stating: “I adopted the theory of reincarnation when I was twenty-six…Religion offered nothing to the point…Even work could not give me complete satisfaction. Work is futile if we cannot utilize the experience collected in one life in the next. When I discovered Reincarnation …time was no longer limited. I was no longer a slave to the clock…the discovery of Reincarnation put my mind at ease…” (Garrett 22). In Henry Ford’s case the idea of reincarnation is not from a religious perspective, but more of an avoidance of the idea of death and an opportunity to continue in the enjoyment of this worldly life. He looks forward to being reincarnated again and again, not to reunite with any god or for liberation of any kind, like in the case of Hindus, but for the mere pleasure of continuing on in this world and basking in its enjoyment. This is the appeal of reincarnation to some, in that it is a kind of way to escape the fears of death in hopes of being reborn over and over again, providing a kind of immortality. This is one way to look at the doctrine. But for Hindus reincarnation as an escape from the reality of death tends to take away from the beauty of the doctrine to begin with. The doctrine, in Hinduism, was not build on such principles; to hope for an eternal worldly life is to never realize the true self.

The doctrine of reincarnation is not itself difficult to understand, but the way in which people believe it is what makes for a more challenging task. More often than not there are differing views, as with any faith, on how reincarnation works in Hinduism and in many other religions and cultures adopting the doctrine. There are typically two ways in which one understands concepts in religion, literally or metaphorically (Garrett 18). And the question becomes should reincarnation be taken literally? Or should it be taken in a more metaphorical sense? There may be some dangers to taking the concept of karma and reincarnation too literally. The idea of reincarnation has found expression in India not as a metaphor, but as a metaphysical certainty. Reincarnation has justified social disparities and misery as being due to bad karma (Garrett 20).

Some controversy has surrounded certain practices in India as being social consequences to the doctrine of reincarnation and karma. For example, the caste system, varna, in India is well known to be firmly established to this day as a possible by-product of karma and reincarnation. There are four classes within the caste system, with the priestly class (i.e. Brahmin class) at the high end of the scale, who would represent good karma in action. Then there are the lowest of all lows, those who do not even get grouped into the caste system, but rather are the outcastes of society. The untouchables (or Candalas) represent the lowest end of the scale in the caste system, and embody bad karma in action. Because karma states that one pays consequences for action from past lives, it has provided some with the mentality that the untouchables deserve everything they get. In this sense, some believe that reincarnation and karma have increased tensions in India between the different classes, and justified mistreatment of individuals. To illustrate the point, Tom O’Neil says (from an issue of National Geographic): “During the winter I spent in India, hardly a day passed that I didn’t hear or read of acid thrown in a boy’s face, or a wife raped in front of her husband, or some other act whose provocation was simply that an Untouchable didn’t know his or her place” (Garrett 71). Here it is evident that the cultural manifestation of karma in India is very different from the formal terms of the theory (Garrett 58). These tragic outcomes have been explained by some as simply a tragic misunderstanding of reincarnation and karma. Swami Shivananda tries to clear these misconceptions: “Caste is a question of character. Varna is not the color of the skin, but the color of one’s character or quality,” (Garrett 71). Reincarnation and karma need not necessarily be linked to the caste system, as stated previously; in karma yoga untouchables can seek moksa just like a Brahmin can. Hindu texts have offered different ways to looking at the concept of reincarnation and karma, leaving much room for different interpretations.

The doctrine of reincarnation and karma are a means to promote good behavior, morality and growth in Hinduism. Karma speaks not only of how things are, but also of how they ought to be, it points towards the goal of liberation and enlightenment (Garrett 37). It is not easy for one to say that tensions within the caste system in India exist because of reincarnation and karma, because they are not necessarily linked to one another. Hinduism is a religion of diverse thoughts and beliefs, and its followers carry differing views and ideas on religious concepts.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Ducasse, Curt John (1961) A critical examination of the belief in a life after death. Springfield, Illinois: C.C. Thomas.

Garrett, William (2005) Bad Karma: Thinking twice about the social consequences of reincarnation theory. Lanham: University Press of America.

Knapp, Stephen (2005) Reincarnation and Karma: How They Really Affect Us. New York: iUniverse.

Neufeldt, R. N. (1986) Karma and Rebirth: Post-Classical Developments. New York: State University of New York Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy (1980) Karma and rebirth in classical Indian traditions. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The E-book. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Singh, Balbir (1981) Karma-Yoga: The Discipline of Action. Delhi: Humanities Press.

Singh, Balbir (1981) Dharma: Man Religion and Society. Delhi: Humanities Press.

Wadia, A.R. (1965) Philosophical Implications of the Doctrine of Karma. University of Hawai’i Press.

Related topics for further investigation

Dharma

Moksa

Samsara

Brahman

Atman

Cosmology

Samskara

Laws of Manu

Noteworthy sites related to topic

http://www.shaivam.org/hipkarma.htm

http://www.hinduwebsite.com/reincarnation.asp

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Past_lives

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reincarnation_and_Hinduism

http://www.spiritual-wholeness.org/faqs/reincgen/hindrein.htm

http://www.himalayanacademy.com/resources/pamphlets/KarmaReincarnation.html

Article written by: Hala Higgy (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Karma and Reincarnation

History of Understanding Karma

The Antyesti (Final rite) of a person is a practice in which the body of the sacrificed, for example the deceased, is used as a material offering. It is a process in which the dead person is moved away from the living world into another life form. Karma, the doctrine which is now famously used to understand aspects of physical and spiritual life all over the world was introduced after the well-known Brahman sage Yajnavalka recited the formal Vedic doctrine for a dead person on their funeral pyre. In many scholarly texts, it is described that Karman was first recognized when Yajnavalka was asked by an associate, Artabhaga, “What becomes of a person who is dead?” Yajnavalka and Artabhaga had a long conversation in which Yajnavalka concluded with the doctrine of Karman (action) (Tull 2). He states clearly that a person’s actions are judged as good Karman when good deeds are performed and bad Karman when bad actions are performed. This, he said, is what determines a person’s afterlife. The first mention of the Karman principle according to scholars is generally agreed to be in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad which is an early Upanisad (Tull 28). The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad is acknowledged as belonging to the 600-500 BCE time period. In order to understand the principle of Karman, scholars initially had to separate the Brahamanas from Upanisads. They agreed that the Upanisads focused on the nature of reality in one’s life whereas Brahmanas focused more on proper ritual and sacrifices included in Hindu tradition such as the Antyesti ritual (Tull 3).

Earlier on there were many debates on the topic of Karman and on what Karman was primarily based.Yajnavalka had stated that good and proper performance of rites along with bad or incorrect performance of rites will determine what type of afterlife lies before a dead person. He was not referring to the funeral rite as people originally thought. He was actually referring to the acts performed by the individual in his lifetime before death took place. This is because a dead person cannot perform their own death rites once they are physically dead. Scholars concluded that Yajnavalka was referring to a lifetime of sacrificial performances and duties that are prescribed in Hindu texts and scriptures that are supposed to be followed by good Hindus (Tull 2).

In one explanation of Hindus’ views on Karman, it is represented through the cultivation of rice. Rice symbolizes the rebirths of people because rice is actually planted twice throughout its life span. First the seed is planted; then the seedling is planted again to be harvested over a year, repeatedly, as opposed to being harvested just once during one season. This symbolizes the passing of a person, who also goes through many lives if she or he has not freed themselves from the Karman chain or the cycles of rebirth (Tull 5). Scholars have used Yajnavalka’s statement to understand Karman and the conditions a person endures after physical life has passed. Conditions are determined and result from the actions that the individual had taken part in before death occurred. This is what is now labelled as the principle of Karman (Tull 28).

Purpose of Karma

The purpose of the Karma doctrine is to help people better judge actions they performed during their lifetime, and this, in return, made people want to perform better actions. A person can take on from a variety of different Rupas (Form) in their next life (Tull 31). [For further readings regarding different Rupas, see Wadia]. Sometimes people will endure pain, sorrow and death in a new life which is the result of something that happened in their previous life. This Prarabdhakarman (Result) follows a person into their new life, and as is said in Western terms, it haunts that person till they receive recognition for their actions (Neufeldt 62). In Hinduism it is also believed that in order to release the Jiva (Soul) from another sorrowful rebirth, the family can take the ill or dying person to the Ganga River, a known Hindu holy river and there perform a ritual bathing with the aid of a Brahman priest. Through this rite the participants can transfer some of their own good Karman to their dying relative (Neufeldt 62-63).

Karman entails that a person’s present state is not a consequence of present actions but is due to actions that have taken place during his or her previous state or of lives Also, Karman theorizes that one’s actions during the present life will determine the consequences one suffers or will face in the next life (Neufeldt 2). N.A. Nikam, a scholar, states: “The Law of Karma is based on the reality of human freedom, and it pre-supposes the notion of responsibility, and the Law does not state an unalterable necessity but a modal possibility or a conditional relativity” (Neufeldt 4). This statement implies that persons are capable of changing their fate which is pre-determined at birth or perhaps before birth in a possible positive way so that way they are free to do as they wish along with being able to shape their future according to what they want. [For further readings on scholarly discussions regarding Karma views, see Neufeldt].

Other scholars also have another view in which they agree that what is actually happening in the concept of Karma is all rooted from Avidya (Ignorance). “Your experiencing the fruits is not due to your Karma, but Avidya” (Neufeldt 8). Fruits, in this context are referring to consequences one may endure in their lifetime. This is also what the Upanisads state in their teachings of Karma; one’s ignorance can also decrease chances of attaining Moksa (Liberation). [For further readings regarding Avidya and Karma, see Anand 278-281].This explanation does make common sense because it has a part of our everyday lives. For example, if an aspect is ignored in our daily lives, there are more chances that we will not respond to that aspect and therefore, in the end, we must suffer the consequences of our chosen actions; in this case to ignore the aspect. An example to illustrate this is if one’s grandmother is really ill and the person doesn’t make an effort to stand by her and enjoy with their her the last few moments of her life; there will be consequences to suffer once the grandmother has passed away that cannot be taken back because when the grandmother was alive, the person didn’t make time (the aspect ignored) to be with her. Like this example, there are many examples in one’s life where aspects are simply ignored and dwelled upon later when nothing can be done to change it.

Ending the Cycles of Rebirth

In Hinduism, there are three yogas or theories that help many people lead good lives and therefore reinforcing good karmic acts. The three following concepts are mentioned in one of Hinduism’s widely read scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita or the “Song of the Lord.” The Karma-Marga is followed by many people and fairly common amongst Hindus. The Bhagavad Gita represents Karma-Marga as a path into liberation and self-realization. The Mimamsa School, which is very Orthodox in its views, suggests that Karman acts as a connecting bridge between the soul and any bondage it may acquire (Anand 278). In Karma-Marga, according to Mimamsa, sins can include Pratisidda (prohibited acts) along with Kamya Karmas (selfish acts). There is also the non-performing acts category in which one would not be performing the proper Nitya (obligatory) and Naimittika Karmas (occasional acts) of appropriate Hindu Dharma. A person who is trying to attain Moksa (liberation) from the endless cycles of rebirth should end all acts that would be categorized as Pratisidda and Kamya Karmas (Anand 278-279). This person must perform the proper acts which are Nitya and Naimittika Karmic acts as is recommended in Hindu scriptures. The purpose of this theory is that when the person’s physical body falls, the person would have already achieved Moksa therefore there are no Karmas left to be judged, in order to give him another birth cycle. Since Mimamsa is only one view of this concept and regarded as very proper and Orthodox in it’s interpretations, not all Hindus believe this view, as there are many others (Anand 278-279).

The second view is called Jnana-Marga. Jnanameaning “knowledge,” shows that this view is dominated by an outlook where having transcendental knowledge is a crucial aspect. Karma-Marga and Jnana-Marga are different from each other because in Karma-Marga, action and performing correct duties is important, whereas in Jnana-Marga, having intuitive knowledge is an important feature. Having knowledge would entail that one is to know Brahman or the Divine Being as believed by Hindus. According to the Mimamsa view, everything else is ignorance and foolish, consisting of people who think they are wise and have learned everything but yet still go from life to life, round and round without true meaning and suffer from misery. The basic statement is that true nature of the self is not different from Brahman but it is Brahman itself. Mimamsa states that a person who thinks otherwise is a fool and therefore goes from death to death and birth to birth. This ignorance can only be removed by knowledge and not only good Karma can remove a person from the re-birth cycle. A person wishing to attain this state obtains this by practicing the Patanjala Yoga in which his intellectual side is the greatest self. The Patanjala Yoga can be summarized in the following hierarchy order. One’s speech derives from the mind (before speaking, one thinks about it in their mind); his mind is due to his intellect (what the mind contains is due to certain knowledge or experience one has) and therefore raising intellect (what one knows) to the greatest level in order to achieve this goal (Anand, 279-280).

The Astangika-Yogais used to help control outwards thoughts of the mind. This yoga removes all illusions from the mind allowing the individual to focus on what actually exists, which is known as absolute reality. As soon as this knowledge is understood there is no more bondage to the soul. Spiritual knowledge is emphasized in Jnana-Yoga to help a person realize the true nature of Brahman that is equated to knowing himself better (Anand, 278). This theory states that everyone has this knowledge, but it is hidden within people. An example to illustrate this knowledge is that this knowledge was also hidden in Newton’s mind, till he came to understand that absolute knowledge better (Anand 279-281).

The final way in which one may escape reoccurring cycles of birth is through the Bhakti-Marga. This is a path in which devotion or pure faith in a deity is placed. According to the Mimamsa view, the devotee (person who is worshipping the deity) believes that they have a part in his or her Lord’s world. An example to better demonstrate Bhakti-Marga is to imagine the devotee as an instrument placed in the hands of his Lord. Through worshipping, along with encompassing chaste faith, the devotee becomes an aspirant for deserving liberation. These devotees believe that there is no such thing as difference in caste, beauty, wealth, creed or occupation. Everyone is alike to them and therefore all these proper actions of devotion according to Orthodox Mimamsa views, will help end the cycles of rebirth for the devotee (Anand 281).

Through these various views or theories in accordance to the Mimamsa School, one can perform proper daily tasks and duties to escape from sin and wrong doings or in other words staying away from Pratisidda and Kamya Karmas, one can escape from the cycles of rebirth (Anand 281-289).

Karma has transformed from being an ancient belief explaining to Hindus, along with many others in the world, where people go after they die into a more sophisticated belief about what people can do to gain liberation and end the cycles of rebirth. Karma and reincarnation interactively play a role in helping people determine spiritual beliefs on what may happen to them in their next birth or aid in explaining metaphysical matters which cannot be explained by the world of science.


REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Anand, Kewal Krishna (1982) Indian Philosophy. Jawahanagar: Bharatiya Vidya Prakashan.

Kenoyer, Jonathan M. (2003) “A Peaceful Realm: The Rise and Fall of the Indus Civilization.” Asian Perspectives 42, no.2:376-380.

Neufeldt, Ronald W. (1986) Karma and Rebirth. New York: State University of New York Press.

Tull, Herman W. (1989) The Vedic Origins of Karma. New York: State University of New York Press.

Wadia, A. R. (1965) “Philosophical Implications of the Doctrine of Karma.” Philosophy East and West 15, no.2: 145-152.

RELATED TOPICS FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Antyesti

Brahman

Yajnavalka

Brhadaranyaka Upanisad

Brahmanas

Upanisads

Indus Valley Civilization

Rupas

Jiva

Prarabdhakarman

Priesthood in Hinduism

Avidya

Moksa

Bhagavad-Gita

Karma-Marga

Mimamsa School

Dharma

Jnana-Marga

Patanjala Yoga

Astangika-Yoga

Bhakti-Marga

NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES RELATED TO THE TOPIC

http://www.himalayanacademy.com/resources/pamphlets/KarmaReincarnation.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karma#Law_of_Karma

http://www.hinduwebsite.com/conceptofkarma.asp

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karma#Hinduism

http://www.himalayanacademy.com/basics/fourf/

http://www.indianchild.com/karma.htm

http://www.experiencefestival.com/a/Karma_in_Hinduism/id/51473

http://www.lotussculpture.com/bronze_sculpture_karma.htm

Written by Aman Dhasi (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.