Reincarnation and Karma

By Eloise Hart

When Earth and all within her perimeters came into being, they came bearing the potentials they had acquired during previous existences, which they would express during this great cycle of life in manifold forms and activities. This idea has been expressed by many cultures in their teachings of karma and reimbodiment: two interesting and important "laws" of nature. Interesting, in the illuminating ways these ideas have been presented; and important, because through an understanding of their operations we can both free ourselves from suffering and accelerate growth and evolution.

Most of us are familiar with biblical references to reincarnation. When Jesus asked his disciples: "Whom say the people that I am?" they answered, "John the Baptist; but some say, Elias; and others say, that one of the old prophets is risen again" (Luke 9:18-19). Again, when Jesus and his disciples came upon a blind man they asked him: "Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" On this occasion, Jesus enlarged upon the usual "as ye sow so shall ye reap" explanation by replying that "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him" (John 9:2-3). In this, he alluded to a type of karma in which one's inner god or higher self bestows upon the lower human ego conflicts and afflictions so that it may gain patience, sympathy, wisdom, and perhaps compassion.

That karma is nature's way of maintaining harmony and promoting growth is cleverly dramatized in the Buddhist Jataka Tales, which follow the sequential cause and effect workings through innumerable incarnations of the buddha-to-be from the time he first determined to live to benefit others. Appealing stories describe how, in life after life, this noble soul saved others from pain, suffering, hunger, and peril, often giving his own life to save theirs. In doing so, his heart and mind grew great beyond measure and nirvana beckoned. But such escape had no pull for him: he remained to help and teach his fellows and to show mankind the path that leads to truth and peace.

Some of Buddha's teachings were brought to the West by Sir Edwin Arnold in his inspired poem, The Light of Asia. Those portions regarding karma and reincarnation are particularly telling:

The Books say well, my Brothers! each man's life
The outcome of his former living is:
The bygone wrongs bring forth sorrows and woes,
The bygone right breeds bliss.
That which ye sow ye reap. See yonder fields!
The sesamum was sesamum, the corn
Was corn. The Silence and the Darkness knew!
So is a man's fate born.
He cometh, reaper of the things he sowed,
Sesamum, corn, so much cast in past birth;
And so much weed and poison-stuff, which mar
Him and the aching earth.
If he shall labour rightly, rooting these,
And planting wholesome seedlings where they grew,
Fruitful and fair and clean the ground shall be,
And rich the harvest due. -- Book 8

These same concepts were expressed in the Bhagavad-Gita in Krishna's conversation with his pupil, Arjuna:

As a man throweth away old garments and putteth on new, even so the dweller in the body, having quitted its old mortal frames, entereth into others which are new. . . .
Both I and thou have passed through many births. Mine are known unto me, but thou knowest not of thine. -- ch.2, 4

This "dweller in the body," our higher self, was represented by the Egyptians as a phoenix, that fabled bird of great beauty that lives 500 years, periodically rising rejuvenated from the ashes of its past to wing its way through progressive stages of evolution. With the Greeks it was the butterfly that, transforming itself from egg to caterpillar to winged wonder, suggested the soul's transmigration from body to body, which they called metensomatosis.

The great German thinker, Goethe, summed up these thoughts: "I am certain that I have been here as I am now a thousand times before, and I hope to return a thousand times" (quoted in Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery by Joseph Head and Sylvia L. Cranston, p. 281). In this he took the fear out of death and gave us hope for greater lives ahead.

But if this is true, why don't we remember our past lives? We do remember! The recognition of friends and familiar places, our particular interests, talents, convictions, and prejudices, are our soul's remembrance. Details of the past slip away, fortunately, as they do in this life. Platonists assure us, however, that through discipline and persistence we can develop our higher faculties and attain that "mystical insight" that enables us to see what was and what will be. It is simply a matter of "recollection":

The soul, then, as being immortal, and having been born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all; and it is no wonder that she should be able to call to remembrance all that she ever knew about virtue, and about everything; for as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no difficulty in her eliciting or as men say learning, out of a single recollection all the rest, if a man is strenuous and does not faint; for all inquiry and all learning is but recollection. -- Plato, Meno §81

Today there are numerous books on these and related subjects and a plethora of information on the Internet. Reading them, we can discover fascinating details of how these ideas were viewed in the past. The early Church Father Origen, for instance, wrote extensively on these themes. He declared that souls were not newly created at birth, but pre-existed, and that, being immaterial, they have neither beginning of days nor end of life. He taught also that there is a constant upward progress, with each world-order better than the last, and that the education of souls is continued in successive worlds. Unfortunately his ideas were later anathemized and dropped from Church teachings.

Medieval Sufi and Qabbalistic philosophers talked about metempsychosis, "the monad's insouling after insouling" through its progressive expressions in various physical forms, a process described by the Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi:

I died as mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angelhood
I must pass on . . . -- Mathnawi

Various aspects of these subjects have lead to misunderstandings; for example, that karma is fatalistic, something that can only be endured. The word karma -- derived from the Sanskrit verb kri, which means "to do, to act, to make" -- indicates instead that every situation and condition is an opportunity for change and improvement. Again, many people feel that they might return in their next life as an animal. Apparently they do not understand that having attained humanhood we cannot go backwards. Life is progressive: once a man always a man, or something nobler. In each life we gain more skills, resolve conflicts, and become, hopefully, more humane. Thus it is obvious that one whose life is plagued with troubles is, could he realize it, blessed with opportunities for growth, for helping others, and for attaining qualities that will make him greater.

An interesting aspect of rebirth was brought to popular attention in Bernardo Bertolucci's film, Little Buddha. Superimposed on a beautiful portrayal of the Buddha's life is the story of an old lama's search for the reincarnation of his teacher. According to Tibetan tradition, when an advanced teacher dies, his soul returns to incarnate in the normal way, to overshadow a living person, or to enter the body of a child who died at childbirth or soon after. The validity of such an incarnation is determined by the child's recognition of objects formerly used or treasured by the deceased. Of course such a rebirth, referred to as tulku or the incarnation of a "living buddha," is possible only for those who are spiritually advanced.

The return of souls is also mentioned in the final verses of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. About to depart in his birch canoe, Hiawatha, the beloved friend of all, turned and promised:

I am going, O my people,
On a long and distant journey;
Many moons and many winters
Will have come, and will have vanished,
Ere I come again to see you . . .

Kahlil Gibran expressed the same conviction:

Brief were my days among you, and briefer still the words I have spoken. But should my voice fade in your ears, and my love vanish in your memory, then I will come again, and with a richer heart and lips more yielding to the spirit will I speak. Yes, I shall return with the tide, and though death may hide me and the greater silence enfold me, yet again will I seek your understanding. . . . A little while, a moment of rest upon the wind, and another woman shall bear me. -- The Prophet, pp. 83-4, 94-5

Instinctively many today understand what Benjamin Franklin expressed:

I believe I shall, in some shape or other, always exist; and, with all the inconveniences human life is liable to, I shall not object to a new edition of mine, hoping, however, that the errata of the last may be corrected. -- Letter to George Whatley, May 23, 1785; quoted in Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery, p. 271

Indeed, as children of Earth we, along with the trees and flowers, insects and animals, shall return, periodically rising from our long night's sleep to continue our journey -- forever.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Theosophical University Press.)

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