DOCTRINE OF KARMA (ACTION AND REACTION) IN HINDUISM
(I-DISCOURSE BY N. R. SRINIVASAN, MARCH 2013)
The fear of death occupied upper-most the minds of our sages. This anxiety is very well expressed in the two famous Vedic Mantras,”Mrityoer maa amritam gamaya”-(Lead us from death to Immortality) and “Mrityoe mooksheeya na amrutaat”--save us from death but not from immortality. Both are society oriented and not individual. Preoccupied with the fear of death they came out with the profound theories of “Karma” and “Punarjanama”—Action and Reaction, and Reincarnation. According to Hinduism, the body alone dies, but not the soul called Aaatman. The path the soul takes is decided upon by the past and present actions which are popularly and collectively known today to the world as Karma. The soul continues its journey after discarding the physical body with a heavy load of Karmas from one life to another until it is able to exhaust all Karmas by undergoing pain or pleasure sensations in the body on this Earth. In the process it adds some and deletes some knowingly or unknowingly. On God-realization the individual soul (called Jeevaatman which is Aatman in its mobile state) merges with the Infinite called Paramaatman or Supreme Principle. But the mystery is nobody remembers about his past deeds and it is only in the knowledge of the Supreme.
We often ask what Karma is and what are the various types of Karma? Karma is a unique feature of Hinduism and does not feature in most religions of the world. Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism also subscribe to this being influenced by Hinduism. Individuals perform countless actions from birth to death called Karma in Sanskrit or in philosophic sense. Karma in Sanskrit means action but in Hindu philosophic sense it is accepted as “action and reaction” or “cause and effect”. Karma is talked about and discussed in Bhagavadgeetaa elaborately. Each such action has its effect and produces results. Some institutionalized religions believe in Resurrection but not Reincarnation. It is one time reward or punishment as per their thinking which needs a forgiver and benefactor. Laws of Karma essentially follow Laws of Energy as both are action oriented.
In the grand scheme of Evolution, as far as our knowledge goes, human being is the most evolved in the act of creation of the Supreme Principle for that is endowed with the power of thinking and is responsible for the amazing discoveries and inventions. This evolution has not stopped at present level and is going on. In its upward trend metaphysically this trend will change human being after millions of years from material one to spiritual one, when the dignity of the being as one possessing divine spark will be more evident. We have seen ample evidences of this phenomenon as in the lives of great souls like, Ramanuja, Sankara, Meeraa, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Nanak, Jina, Buddha , Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and others of past and present, though they are few and far between. The one way we can explain the present population explosion metaphysically is that more and more low creatures are drawn into human fold by this process of evolution.
Our knowledge about the unknown and his creation is very limited living in a small planet called Earth. As we all know there are around 350 billion galaxies like the Milky-Way in which earth is a minute speck like planet. Brahman operates under His directive to create all things in the universe as we understand. Even though our ancient sages knew about some of the unknown to humans, their main focus had been on human beings on the earth planet being bogged down by the fear of death, shackles of Samsaara and the desire for liberation of the most evolved human beings living on this Mother earth. We hear in Puranas and Vedas about Saadhyas, Devas, Rakshasas, Gandharvas, Kinnaras, Kimpurushas and others and also about several Worlds (lokas) like seven upper worlds and seven lower worlds about which scriptures are silent but mention their existence. Science knows also very little of these. Our knowledge is thus limited. Purushasookta also says what we know is one fourth and what we don’t know is three fourths.
The divine spark in few is not due to the evolution that has taken place by divine will alone, but by a collaboration of both the Individual and the Supreme as the Theory of Karma predicts. Actions done by anyone therefore is not that done by God but by only by the will of the individual alone, which may be good or bad or passive. Therefore the responsibility lies solely in the individual alone. Thus every one of us is responsible for all our Karma or action which in turn produces reaction. The founded religions believe differently and do not contribute to collaborative theory.
No one can escape his or her Karma. Puraanas emphasize this fact even in the case of Gods. This fact is showed as examples to human beings to realize and obey the Laws of Karma. Lord Vishnu was cursed by Saraswati. On being cursed He came to this world as Rama and suffered the pangs of separation from Sita. Hinduism postulates that Laws of Karma are operative on this planet of Earth. Rama killed Vaali negating Kshatriya Dharma. So when born as Krishna in the next avatar Krishna allowed himself to be killed by hunter’s arrow. It is not that God is bound by the laws of Karma. Geeta says Laws of Karma do not affect Him. It shows his greatness how he obeys his own creation of Laws of Dharma and Karma. Law makers can’t be Law breakers, on which present day justice system also agrees.
Hindus believe Jesus was an incarnation of God on this earth. He absorbed all Karmas of all his disciples and thousands of devotes around him. He allowed himself to be crucified to fulfill the laws of Karma. Each time Jesus cured someone from deadly diseases or saved someone after physical death he was voluntarily accepting their Kaarmic load. But world today is not free from bondage of Karma, but on the other hand it is ever-increasing and waiting for his comeback. Then what? Here the theory of Incarnation of sages explains things better than of resurrection based on faith. If the sin or virtue is one time affair it will be logical to assume that God created everybody perfect! But it is not so. How do we explain so many defective births, status differences and talents differences?
The various actions according to Laws of Karma are categorized according to the result one gets from them at different time periods. They are called Aaagaami, Saanchita and Praarabhdaa in Sanskrit. The simple word meanings of these are: Aaagami means in the future; Saanchita comes from the Sanskrit verbal root “ci” which means collect. Sanchita therefore means that which is collected; Praarabhda consists of two Sanskrit words “pra” and “aarabhda” meaning that which has started well.
Sankara describes Aagaami Karma as follows:
“Jnaanoetpaty-antaram Jnaanidehakritam punya-paapa-roopam karma yad-asti tad-aagaami-ityeti abhideeyate”
Aagaami karma is the result of good or bad actions performed by the body of the realized soul after the dawn of knowledge.
As you sow so you reap is a famous proverb known to all humanity. What you do today may produce result the next instant, after few years, or in future life as we all believe in many lives. It is also true what may appear as Punya (noble deed) in one situation may be papa (sin) in another situation. A Jnaani or wise man though do not identifies with his body or has no sense of doer-ship, yet may appear to be performing actions through his body complex. All such actions are called Aagaami Karma which culminates in either as Punya or Paapa. There are many such examples in our Puraanas as we have learnt.
Aagaami Karama is sowing for reaping the fruit in the next life and is completely under one’s control. Thought, actions and desires if they are pure, unselfish and righteous will lead one on to the path of perfection. The opposite qualities—impure thoughts, actions, desires, selfishness and unrighteous conduct that load against one, all of these--rebound to cause sufferings to the individual in the next life, till retributive justice makes one’s senses aware of such things. This is likened to the lump of clay on the wheel to which any shape can be given.
Sankara describes Saanchita Karma as follows:
“Sanchitam Karma Kim? Anantakoti-janmaanaam beejabhootm sat yat-karma-jaatam poorv-aarjitam tishthati tat sanchitam jneyam”
The results of all actions from previous births which are in the seed form and which give rise to future countless births are called Accumulated actions (Sanchita Karma).
Jeevaatman (individual Self) takes innumerable births in various bodies from beginning-less time as we understand from Upanishads. It exhausts its stock of Karmas and does not create new karmas to itself. But in the human births it not only exhausts but also bound to create new karmas. Those actions done in the present which get accumulated to our account and are to be experienced in future births are called Sanchita Karma. Each one of us has already enough karma as capital and we are constantly adding to it good or bad. This capital is enough for endless births in various bodies.
Sanchita karma can be altered by the effort of individual towards the character-reformation and thus the tendency towards evil gets removed. Penance expiates it while Jnaana nullifies. This is compared to the unshapely mass of clay on the potter’s wheel which is taking shape—a certain shape. This shape is possible of alteration by an effort on the part of the operator, i.e. by the skill of the individual
Sankara says the following as to Praarabhda Karma:
Praarabhdam karma kim-iti chet| Idam sareeram-utpaadya iha loke eva sukhadukhaadi-pradam yat-karma tat-praarabhdam bhogena nashtam bhavati praarabhda-karmanaam bhogaadeva kshaya iti ||
Having given birth to this body, the actions which yield results in this life in this world in the form of joy as well as misery and which can be exhausted only by enjoying or suffering them is called Praarabhda Karma.
We often call as fate, destiny or luck, actions which are fructified from the capital karma to give us present birth, the surroundings in which we live, our life-span etc. All human beings are mortal. Whether one is wise or ignorant, everyone has to undergo various conducive and non-conducive situations in this present life based on karma. Those actions which have started fructifying have to be exhausted only by yielding appropriate results. Thus we see even Ramakrishna had to suffer from cancer. It is like a growing fruit reaches its full maturity and then disintegrates.
The individual’s Karma is usually compared to that of the clay on the potter’s wheel. In this instance the clay has already taken shape and is about to be lifted off the wheel. Hence it is not possible to alter its shape.
Some actions yield results later due to their inherent nature. They are like term deposits with late maturity dates. They may not come during one’s life time. They may be stored up until their date of maturity. Such Karmas are called Sanchita Karma. That is how in Hinduism Doctrine of Karma is also tied with the Doctrine of Reincarnation or Punarjanma.
Any action done in this life is called Kriayamaana Karma or Aaagaami Karma. We have heard the maxim in Hinduism “atyutkataih punya papaih ihaiva phalamasnute”- We reap the benefit of our deep good or bad actions in this very life. A person who has committed heinous crimes will suffer in this very life. Many trivial good or bad actions may not give immediate effects. These actions go on accumulating during our life-time and join the vast deposit of Sanchita Karma.
Sanchita Karma stays in a potential state like term deposits. But some on maturity like term deposits become kinetic karmic force which starts yielding results. This kinetic form from the stored up potential form is called Praarabhda Karma. When the Praarabhda Karma is exhausted, the aatman leaves which we call as death. All Hindus believe Praarabhda Karma causes a person’s birth and also determines how he lives and how long he lives.
Ramana Maharshi, a popular saint from south India said: “The Supreme Principle controls the fate of souls in accordance with their past deeds--praarabhda karma. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to stop it. The best course, therefore, is for one to be silent. What cannot be avoided should be endured.
HOW DID THE FIRST EVER SOUL GOT ITS KARMA?
To find an answer this question one may have to go through the three lectures, “Can scriptures and science co-exist in the theory of evolution?”, “Samsaara and Mukthi” and Trigunas.
“Creation came out of food, which came out of the rains, which came out of Yajna (sacrifice). Yajna came out of Karma (action), which came out of Nature, which finally came out of the Infinite” says Geetaa. This shows our birth is purely instrumental and our desire for salvation is also instrumental.
Vedanta accepts Sankhya Philosophy even though many feel it is atheistic in its thinking. Bhagavad Gita also describes Sankhya and Yoga philosophy in many of its chapters devoting one full chapter for it. Vedas and Upanishads talk about Creation as well as Puraanas. As long as we experience pain and pleasure as a consequence, we are impelled to correct our path we are travelling and go above those experiences. When that stage is reached the sole attains the state of realization and merges with its source and has no desire to come back.
In Sankhya philosophy what we call soul is identified with Purusha. Logically there are as many Purushas as there are beings in this Universe. Purusha is pure Consciousness. This multiplicity of Consciousness occupying the same space is seriously objected by Vedantins. Sankhya explains it away by comparing it to light, which can occupy same space from multiplicity of candles.
Prakriti according to Sankhya Philosophy is composed of three extremely subtle substances called Sattva, Rajas and Tamas as has been explained under Trigunas. Gita says that there is no such entity in this world, or in heaven where the Divines live, which can be free from these three Gunas.
The process of Creation starts when Prakriti borrows Consciousness from Purusha and starts acting like a Conscious entity. The first sign of Prakriti’s conscious activity is to change itself. It undergoes a process of gradual transformation resulting in manifold world as the final outcome--Prakriti, Mahat, Ahankara, mind, five sense organs, five motor organs, five Tanmatras, five Mahaabhootas, (all being product of Purusha). As soon as Gunas start intermingling Creation starts. In this process depending on time and type of instantaneous mix souls with different level of Karmas appear. The soul initially carries a load of Karma which can either exhaust itself or can carry over to the next birth if it can’t be exhausted. Then on Praarabhda Karma, Sanchita Karma and Aaagaami Karma come into operation for further births.
In another school of thinking God (Virat) has really become this manifold Universe just like the milk becomes yogurt. Virat’s wish to become this world is only a game or Lila. Here again the equilibrium of these strands of Gunas running independently gets disturbed resulting in a variety of souls with all permutations and combination of Gunas. His First ever Creation, Brahma though an ideal mix, obeys the Laws of Karma that is whatever is created has to die. Brahma’s life span is 100 Brahma days though very large compared to that of normal human being in the planet of earth. Even avatars in human birth honored Laws of Karma.
We learn in Physics about the Laws of Conservation of Energy. Energy is never destroyed according to this law. It can only be converted from one form to another—kinetic to potential and vice versa. Extending this concept to the Laws of Karma, it can be said any energy expended through any action of the doer changes its forms and becomes a Karmaphala or Kaarmic force. This force comes back to the doer like boomerang sooner or later. This kaarmic force starts acting on the mind and body causing pain or pleasure. After working on the body and mind of the doer the kaarmic force seems to be spent apparently It may be safely assumed that it only leaves the individual who does it and becomes a part of the storehouse of cosmic energy.
1) Swami Tejomayananda, Tattva-Bodha, Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Mumbai, India.
2) Mukundan T.K., A concept of Hinduism, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India.
3) Swami Bhaskaranda, Essentials of Hinduism, Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Chennai, India.
4) Ed Viswanathan, Am I a Hindu? Rupa & Co., New Delhi, India.
Heredity and Reincarnation from the Vedantic Perspective
Posted by Swami Abhedananda | Mar 24, 2014
hose who accept the theory of heredity deny the existence of the human soul as an entity separable from the gross physical organism. Consequently they do not discuss the question whether the individual soul existed in the past or will continue to exist after the death of the body. This kind of question does not disturb their minds. They generally maintain that the individual soul is inseparable from the body or the brain or nervous system; consequently what we call soul or the conscious entity or the thinker is produced along with the birth of the organism or brain, lasts as long as the body lasts and dies when the organism is dissolved into its elements. But those, on the other hand, who accept the theory of Reincarnation admit the existence of soul as a conscious entity which is independent of the physical organism, that it continues to live after death and that it existed before the birth of the body.
The theory of heredity has always been supported by the materialistic scientists, atheists and agnostics of all ages and also by those who believe in the special creation of the first man and woman at a certain definite time and that their qualities, character, life and soul have been transmitted to all humanity through successive generations. The commonly accepted meaning of the theory of heredity is that all the well-marked peculiarities, both physical and mental, in the parents are handed on to the children; or, in other words, heredity is that property of an organism by which its peculiar nature is transmitted to its descendants.
In the whole history of humanity there has never been a time when this question of heredity has been discussed so minutely and in so many different ways as it has been in the present century. Although this theory was known in the East by the ancient Vedanta philosophers, by the Buddhists of the pre-Christian era and by the Greek philosophers in the West, still it has received a new impetus and has grown with new strength since the introduction of the Darwinian theory of the evolution of species. Along with the latest discoveries in physiology, biology, embryology and other branches of modern science, the popular simple meaning of heredity—that the offspring not only resemble their parents among animals as well as among men, but inherit all the individual peculiarities, life and character of their parents—has taken the shape of the most complicated and difficult problem which it is almost impossible to solve. Our minds are no longer satisfied with Haeckel’s definition that heredity is simply an overgrowth of the individual, a simple continuity of growth; but we want to know the particular method by which hereditary transmission takes place. We ask, how can a single cell reproduce the whole body of the offspring, its mind, character and all the peculiarities of an organism? Out of the myriads of cells of which a body is composed, what kind of cell is that which possesses the power of reproducing the peculiarities, both mental and physical, which are to be found in the form of the new-born baby? This is the most puzzling of all the problems which the scientific mind has ever encountered. The fundamental question connected with the theory of heredity is: How can a single cell of the body contain within itself all the hereditary tendencies of the hypothesis of the continuity of the germ-plasm gives an identical starting-point to each successive generation, and thus explains how it is that an identical product arises from all of them. In other words, the hypothesis explains heredity as part of the underlying problems of assimilation and of the causes which act directly during ontogeny.
According to Weismann, all the peculiarities which we find in an organism are not inherited by the organism from that of the parents, but he says: “Nothing can arise in an organism unless the predisposition to it is pre-existent, for every acquired character is simply the reaction of the organism upon a certain stimulus.” (Vol. I, p. 172.) Therefore the germ-cells do not inherit all the peculiarities of the parents, but possess the predisposition or a potentiality of the tendencies which gradually develop into individual characters.
We will be able to understand his theory better from the following quotations, which give his own words. He says: “I have called this substance ‘germ-plasm,’ and have assumed that it possesses a highly complex structure, conferring upon it the power of developing into a complex organism.” (“Heredity,” Vol. I, p. 170.) Again he says: “There is, therefore, continuity of the germ-plasm from one generation to another. One might represent the germ-plasm by the metaphor of a long, creeping rootstock from which plants arise at intervals, these latter representing the individuals of successive generations. Hence it follows that the transmission of acquired characters is an impossibility, for if the germ-plasm is not formed anew in each individual, but is derived from that which preceded it, its structure, and, above all, its molecular constitution, cannot depend upon the individual in which it happens to occur, but such an individual only forms, as it were, the nutritive soil at the expense of which the germ-plasm grows, while the latter possessed its characteristic structure from the beginning, viz., before the commencement of growth. But the tendencies of heredity, of which the germ-plasm is the bearer, depend upon this very molecular structure, and hence only those characters can be transmitted through successive generations which have been previously inherited, viz., those characters which were potentially contained in the structure of the germ-plasm. It also follows that those other characters which have been acquired by the influence of special external conditions, during the lifetime of the parent, cannot be transmitted at all.” (Vol. I, p. 273.) In conclusion, Weismann writes: “But at all events we have gained this much, that the only facts which appear to directly prove a transmission of acquired characters have been refuted, and that the only firm foundation on which this hypothesis has been hitherto based has been destroyed.”(Vol. I, p. 461.)
Thus we see how far the theory of heredity has been pushed by the great scientific investigators of the present age. We have no longer any right to believe in the old oft-refuted hypothesis which assumes that each individual organism produces germ-cells afresh again and again and transmits all its powers developed and acquired by the parents; but, on the contrary, we have come to know to-day that parents are nothing but mere channels through which these germ-plasms or germ-cells manifest their peculiar tendencies and powers which existed in them from the very beginning. The main point is that the germs are not created by the parents, but that they existed in previous generations.
Now, what are those germs like? Wherefrom do they acquire these tendencies, these peculiarities? That is another very difficult problem. Dr. Weismann and his followers say that these peculiarities are gained or inherited “from the common stock,” but what that common stock is they do not explain. Where is that common stock and why will certain germs acquire certain tendencies and other germs retain other peculiarities? What regulates them? These questions are not solved. So far we have gathered from Dr. Weismann’s explanation that the parents are not the creators of the germs but, on the contrary that the germs existed before the birth of the body, before the growth of the body, in previous generations, or in the common stock of the universe. The previous generations are dead and gone, so we may say that they existed in the universe. We cannot now believe the old, crude, often-refuted idea that God creates the germ at the time of birth and puts into it all the powers and peculiarities of the parents. This theory makes God unjust and partial, so it does not appeal to us anymore. We need better and more rational explanations. The one-birth theory, which has been preached by Christian ministers and other religionists for so many years, does not remove the difficulties, does not explain the cause of the inequalities and diversities, does not answer the question whether we acquire all the tendencies and peculiarities of the parents or whether acquired characters cannot be transmitted. We have already seen that these questions are left unsolved by the one-birth theory of Christianity and of Judaism. But this theory of “continuity of the germ-plasm” pushes the question of heredity to the door of Reincarnation. If modern science can explain what that common stock is and why and how these germs retain those peculiarities and tendencies, then the answer will be complete and not until then. The Vedanta philosophy, however, has already explained the cause of the potentiality in the germ of life or “germ-plasm” or germ-cell.
Vedanta solves this difficulty by saying that each of these germ-plasms or germ-cells is nothing but the subtle form of a reincarnating individual, containing potentially all the experiences, characters, tendencies, and desires which one had in one’s previous life. It existed before the birth of the body and it will continue after the death of the body. This germ or subtle body is not the same as the astral body of the Theosophists, or the double of the metaphysical thinkers or the disembodied spirit of the Spiritualists; but it is an ethereal center of activity-physical, mental and organic. It is a center which possesses the tendency to manifest these powers on different planes of existence. It contains the minute particles of matter or ethereal substance and the life principle or vital energy by which we live and move. It also possesses the mental powers and sense powers; but all these remain latent, just as in a seed we see that the powers of growth, of assimilation and of producing flowers and fruits are latent.
At the time of death the individual soul contracts and remains in the form of a germ of life. It is for this reason, Vedanta teaches, that it is neither the will of God nor the fault of the parents that forms the characters of children, but each child is responsible for its tendencies, capacities, powers and character. It is its own “Karma” or past actions that make a child a murderer or a saint, virtuous or sinful. The stored-up potentialities in a subtle body manifest in the character of an individual.
The argument advanced by the supporters of the theory of hereditary transmission does not furnish a satisfactory explanation of the cause of the inequalities and diversities of the universe. Why is it that the children of the same parents show a marked dissimilarity to their parents and to each other?
Why do twins develop into dissimilar characters and possess opposite qualities, although they are born of the same parents at the same time and brought up under similar conditions and environments? How can heredity explain such cases? Suppose a man has five children; one is honest and saintly, another is an idiot, the third becomes a murderer, the fourth a genius or prodigy, and the fifth a cripple and diseased. Who made these dissimilarities? They cannot be accidents. There is no such thing as an accident. Every event of the universe is bound by the law of cause and effect. There must be some cause of these inequalities. Who made one honest and saintly, another an idiot, and so forth? Are they Parents? That cannot be. They never dreamed that they would beget a murderer or a villain or an idiot. On the contrary, all parents wish their children to be the best and happiest. But in spite of such desires they get such children. Why? What is the cause? Does the theory of heredity explain it? No, not at all. Suppose a man, twenty-four years old, who has certain traits, like musical or artistic talents, such as painting and so on, has a crooked nose and other peculiarities, like cross-eyes, which resemble those of his grandfather. Suppose his grandfather died six years before he was born. Now, those who believe in the theory of heredity will say that this young man inherited all these peculiarities from his grandfather. When did he inherit? His grandfather had died six years before he was born. He inherited, of course, in the form of that germ. What is that germ like? A minute protoplasm, a jelly-like substance, and if you examine it with a powerful microscope you will hardly find any difference between it and the proto-plastic germ of a dog, or of a cat, or of a tree. It is smaller than a pin’s head. And in that state this young man inherited all these peculiarities from his grandfather; or, in other words, before he had a nose, he got a crooked nose; before he had eyes, he inherited cross-eyes, and before he had any brain, he inherited all the wonderful powers-his musical and artistic talents. Does it not seem absurd to you? Even if we admit this theory of heredity, then what do we understand? We understand that the whole of this young man existed in the form of a protoplasm before he was born. His cross-eyes, his crooked nose, his artistic talents—all these pre-existed in the form of a protoplasmic cell. This leads up to the same thing which is taught by the theory of Reincarnation, or, in other words, if it be possible for this young man to remain in the form of a protoplasm and inherit all these things before his birth, why cannot we believe that the soul or the subtle body of this young man possessed them from the very beginning? According to Vedanta this young man was not the creature of his grandfather, but he had his own independent existence; only by coming through the channel of his parents he had received certain characteristic impressions, just as a tree in its process of growth will receive from the environments certain peculiarities when it assimilates those properties.
The doctrine of Reincarnation alone can explain satisfactorily and rationally the diversities among children and the reason of the many instances of uncommon powers and genius displayed in childhood. The theory of heredity has up to this time failed to give any good reason for them. Why is it that Pascal, when twelve years old, succeeded in discovering for himself the greater part of plane geometry. How could the shepherd Mangiamelo, when five years old, calculate like an arithmetical machine. Think of the child Zerah Colburn: when he was under eight years of age he could solve the most tremendous mathematical problems instantly and without using any figures. “In one instance he took the number 8 and raised it up progressively to the sixteenth power and instantly mentioned the result which contained 15 figures—28l,474,976,710,656.” Of course he was right in every figure. When asked the square root of numbers consisting of six figures, he would state the result instantly with perfect accuracy. He used to give the cube root of numbers in the hundreds of millions the very moment when it was asked. Somebody asked him once how many minutes there were in 48 years, he answered, 25,288,800.
Mozart, the great musician, wrote a sonata when he was four years old and an opera in his eighth year. Theresa Milanolla played the violin with such skill that many people thought that she must have played before her birth. There are many such instances of wonderful powers exhibited by artists and painters when they were quite young. Sankarâcharya, the great commentator of the Vedanta philosophy, finished his commentary when he was twelve years old. How can such cases be explained by the theory of hereditary transmission? Many of you have heard of the wonderful musical talents of Blind Tom. This blind Negro slave was born on his master’s plantation and was brought up as a typical Negro. He received no training in music or in any other line. One day when his master’s family was at dinner he happened to come into his master’s parlor and displayed his marvelous musical power for the first time by playing on his master’s piano. Afterwards he was exhibited in different states of this country. Physically he was nothing but a typical Negro. His intellect was very poor, but in music he was a master. His musical talents were so great that he composed music for himself and played his own compositions. Sometimes after hearing a new piece of rapid music once, he could reproduce it note for note. Where did he get all these powers? From whom did he inherit them? His parents perhaps never heard of a piano. He never had a lesson in his life, and he could not have understood even if he had had any. Not long ago I saw a girl of about six years, who played the piano most beautifully and who could reproduce the most difficult music after hearing it once. It seems to me that she must have played the piano in her previous incarnation. This is the only explanation that we can give.
Does heredity explain such cases? No. These illustrations are sufficient to disprove the theory of “cumulative heredity”. “Cumulative” means gradualness. The believers in this theory say that a genius is the result of cumulative heredity, that is, it presents itself by degrees from less genius to greater and still greater and so on. In the whole history of the genealogy of geniuses, like Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Goethe, Raphael, there never was in their families almost Plato, almost Shakespeare, or almost Goethe. Neither is it possible to trace the extraordinary powers of any of these back to any member of their ancestral line. Therefore we can say that no other theory than that of Reincarnation can explain satisfactorily the causes which produce geniuses and prodigies in this world.
Those who accept the truth of Reincarnation do not blame their parents for their poor talents, or for not possessing extraordinary powers, but they remain content with their own lot, knowing that they have made themselves as they are to-day by their own thoughts and deeds in their previous incarnations. They understand the meaning of the saying “what thou sowest thou must reap,” and always endeavor to mold their future by better thoughts and better deeds. They explain all the inequalities and diversities of life and character by the law of “Karma,” which governs the process of Reincarnation as well as the gradual evolution of the germs of life from lower to higher stages of existence.
The Psychology of Karma
Posted: 08/25/2015 12:08 pm EDT Updated: 5 hours ago
Research by psychologist Benjamin Converse at the University of Virginia finds that human beings tend believe in a kind of karma, namely our western skew on the spiritual axiom that good deeds result being treated well by fate; we believe we can influence uncontrollable outcomes by performing good deeds, with the often underlying expectation that the universe will pay us back in kind. Confronted with bad news, we may think "If I can get through this, I'll be a better person from here-on."
Karma is thus a kind of reciprocity: I'll buy this round, you'll buy the next, however the deal is made with the universe itself, rather than specific individuals. It's an attempt to steer life towards expected and advantageous directions. We hope our acts of kindness to pave the way for journeys through life that are safe and not too challenging; we hope our kind words inoculate us from pain and discomfort; alas, life doesn't comply with these demands.
Yet, as the Buddha taught in the first noble truth, aging, sickness and death are in store no matter how we behave, and so as to will we experience a wide array of setbacks, separations and frustrations, often on a daily basis. While skillful actions can sometimes bring about positive external situations; just as often our generosity is not rewarded with validation or financial rewards. Meanwhile, truly vile and harmful individuals often achieve notable successes in the world; Dick Chaney and Henry Kissingers, for example, are very rich, criminal assholes (which is an insult to anuses, frankly).
And so when our best efforts result in lemons we may react by losing conviction in our spiritual paths. We turn nihilistic, feeling duped by spirituality, as if we've purchased a product that doesn't act as advertised. "Why did I bother helping so and so when they now don't return my calls?" is an all too common refrain.
The Buddha's teaching on karma, however, is not a promise of pleasure, acclaim or financial rewards for our skillful deeds. It's not even a promise of a good rebirth, or even that rebirth actually happens. Note the Buddha's great teaching to a people known as the Kalamas:
What if there is no life after death, if our actions, both right and wrong, have no external benefits? Still, here in our present lives, if we act without harmfulness or ill will, we will live in a state that is easeful, serene. -- Kalamas Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya, 3.65
In other words, if we act from generosity, good will, gratitude, we'll experience whatever life brings us with greater peace of mind; if we act aggressively, our psyches become agitated as result: no matter how wealthy we become, we won’t truly enjoy it. Selfish and harmful acts result in feelings of lack of trust and connectedness with others, which is truly a dire state to find oneself in. I don't know how much misery Dick Chaney or Henry Kissinger experience, but I'm sure their internal realms would feel like hell to me.
Karma thus becomes intelligible and easy to understand once we understand that positive mind states, such as pride, confidence and inner esteem, arise from actions that connect us securely to others, whereas negative emotional states, such as shame, guilt, remorse and loneliness arise from actions that place us in competition with others. Happiness, in other words, arises less from accumulation or achievement, but from enacting a series of speech acts and behaviors that enhance our feelings of affinity and relatedness to others.
Human beings are pack animals; actions that benefit others, and integrate us into a community make us feel safe, and create what the psychologist Barbara Frederickson call "broaden and build" emotions: happiness, serenity, optimism. In Matthew Lieberman's clinical research, summarized in his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, it is clear that the area of the brain that highlights emotional pain -- the anterior cingulate cruciate -- is principally activated by how well allied we feel with other people. In Robin Dunbar's work in anthropology and evolutionary psychology, summarized in his landmark text How Many Friends Does One Person Need? show that we are built to connect, which provides the foundation for peace of mind. In "A General Theory of Love" by psychologists Thomas Lewis and Fari Amini, it is established that human beings require secure connections to establish emotional stability and any sense of tranquility, for we rely on others for limbic regulation.
So karma is a psychological teaching, not a mechanical, Newtonian view. It demands that we take responsibility for the decisions we make, becoming accountable to both the harm or ease to others than can result, understanding that it’s our emotional states, not external conditions, that can be influenced. It's one of the great teachings in spiritual life: karma doesn't change our universe as much as it changes how we interpret and experience life. And how we experience life determines our happiness and peace of mind.
So, how would you like to proceed?