Many people associate reincarnation with karma, but there is no necessary linkage between these ideas, and many reincarnation belief systems do not include the juridical karma we know from Hinduism, Buddhism and other Indic religions and from Theosophy. In earlier posts I wrote about animistic ideas about reincarnation found in tribal societies and about the reincarnation beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Karma is not a feature of reincarnation in the Jewish Kabbalah, either, and it does not appear in heterodox Shia Islamic sects such as the Druze of Lebanon, Syria and Israel.
Since many religions and belief systems acknowledge reincarnation without karma, it is clear that karma is not a necessary corollary of reincarnation. But we can take the further step of asking whether we see evidence for karma operating in reincarnation cases. Can the cases help us decide between these radically different religious positions? The only reincarnation belief system that starts with cases is the animistic one, and it does not include karma. That tells us that maybe karma is a philosophical or religious idea without any empirical foundation, but let’s look at the matter more closely.
As I have studied this problem, I have come to recognize two broad ways in which “karma” is talked about and believed to be reflected in life. One I call juridical karma and the other dispositional karma. Juridical karma is the traditional, popular Indic view that the way we conduct ourselves in one life has effects on us in that life or later lives. It judges the way we behave and shapes our lives accordingly, which is why I call it juridical karma. This type of karma operates externally to ourselves, like a law of nature, although it is directly connected to what we choose to do and we therefore have some control over how it goes. Dispositional karma is quite different. Rather than being a natural law external to ourselves, it is an internal psychological law. There is no external judgment, only the judgment we pass on ourselves. Dispositional karma is manifested in a variety of dispositions to think, feel and behave in certain ways—our personality traits—and is what gives us continuity from one life to the next. Dispositional karma is not really karma in the classic sense, but the idea is so often referred to as karma that I think it is better to call it a type of karma than to try to come up with a completely different term for it.
Many times when Westerners talk about karma it seems to me that they are thinking of it in the dispositional rather than juridical sense. The notion of dispositional karma—though not the term—is found in all the reincarnation belief systems that lack the concept of juridical karma. It is also found in the Indic systems, however. In Hinduism, dispositional traits are called “samskars,” deep psychic traces that pass from one life to the next. In Buddhism, these traits also carried forward—they are about the only thing that does carry forward—though they are bound up with the concept of juridical karma. Unlike juridical karma, dispositional karma is a common part of all reincarnation belief systems, and it may be then that dispositional karma is basic to the reincarnation process, whereas juridical karma is not. Indeed, I think many things that are attributed to juridical karma can be interpreted in terms of dispositional karma just as well—meaning that what some think of as forces external to themselves are really internal and governed by their own psychology.
It is very hard to test ideas of juridical karma against cases, because they do not lend themselves to that sort of scientific scrutiny. For instance, if a person acts in an evil way in one life, juridical karma should make him pay some sort of penalty. If he kills someone, perhaps he will be killed in his next birth, or worse, if he was really, really bad, he might be not be reborn as a human being at all. There should be some sort of just reaction, though, unless—and here is the out very often taken—the penalty is withheld until some future life or there have been equally positive things in earlier lives about which we know nothing that serve to balance out the bad things. For us to be able to test ideas, we must be able to formulate them in appropriate ways, and we cannot do that with juridical karma, because we never have all the data about all lives available. That means that the operation of juridical karma must be taken on faith and science really cannot say much of anything in response to those who choose to believe in it.
But I think it is a useful exercise to see if we can see evidence of juridical karma in reincarnation cases, or if we see only dispositional karma. Of the more than 2500 cases he studied, Ian Stevenson learned of only four with congenital physical abnormalities in which karma was even thought to be involved. He gave no details of two of these cases, both from Burma, so we know nothing more about them, but I think the other two cases can be interpreted in terms of dispositional karma just well. A Burmese girl said that defects of her arm and leg were due to her having hunted and mistreated animals in her previous life. If the previous person had felt guilty about this behavior, could her reincarnating mind have created the defects in the belief that they were the appropriate karmic payback? The fourth case is the Sri Lankan case of Wijeratne, who attributed the stunted arm with which he has born to the action of karma, a response to his having used that arm to kill a woman who tried to back out of her betrothal to him in his previous life, but could it be that the defect was stimulated by his mind instead?
I know of two similar cases without physical signs. At 22, Ma Tin Aung Myo surmised that she was reborn as a woman because she had misbehaved as a Japanese soldier killed in Burma. This is the standard Burmese interpretation for what are considered karmic demotions. When she was a child, though, she answered that it was because the soldier had been shot in the groin. Rani Saxena, who recalled the life of a male lawyer who had “selfishly exploited women,” said that God had put her in a female body so that she could experience what it was like to be a woman. In both of these cases, though, it is possible that the reincarnating spirit itself brought about the change of sex, perhaps unconsciously.
There are many other cases in which people are killed, and they suffer the consequences, in terms of bearing birthmarks or deformities, or carrying phobias that they must deal with in their next lives. It is not the murderers who are punished, it is the victims. And we see very little room for juridical karma to operate in determining where we are reborn—all the evidence points to us having control over where we go in many cases, and help from discarnate spirits or perhaps God in others, leaving no room for an external force such as juridical karma in the determination. That gets into another subject, though, and since we have had many discussions of it in this group already, I’ll end this long post at this point, and see what you have to say in response.
This post originally appeared in my Signs of Reincarnation group on Facebook,