Category Archives: Belief, Culture & Experience

Reincarnation without Karma

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,
https://www.facebook.com/groups/965923533422836/permalink/1072515669430288/

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Classical Greek Reincarnation and Karma

In another post I described the animistic reincarnation beliefs characteristic of tribal societies around the world and some of the ways they differ from other reincarnation beliefs. The feature that received the most attention in comments was the absence of juridical karma in animism. Animism is not alone in not including karma, though, and in this post I want to describe another belief system in which juridical karma doesn’t appear: the ancient Greek and Roman.

It is sometimes assumed that Greek reincarnation beliefs were borrowed from the Indian, but the absence of juridical karma in their system makes me doubt this. There are other differences from Hindu (and Buddhist) ideas also. Although reincarnation is associated with Greeks before Pythagoras, it was a major teaching of the school he founded. Pythagoras believed he remembered his last life as a Trojan warrior and claimed to have recognized his shield when he saw it in a temple, the earliest examples of the reincarnation signs we study today known from Western cultural sources. Pythagoras’s follower Empedocles believed that he had previously been had been a boy and a girl, a laurel bush, a bird, and a fish, but that as a philosopher, he was no longer subject to the reincarnation cycle, and could return to earth in human form if he wished.

These ideas later influenced Plato, who took up reincarnation in the middle of his career. Plato never systematically stated a theory of reincarnation, but his characters in several dialogues talk about it. In the Phaedrus, one says that souls that are close to God have wings, but if they lose their wings, they fall into a reincarnation cycle on earth. It takes 10,000 years for them to regain their wings, ten lives with 1,000 years between them, during which time they do penance for their earthly sins. This idea that sins are worked off during the period between lives appears in Plato’s later dialogues as well, as in the famous Myth of Er in The Republic, where we are told that after their penances were done, souls are allowed to select their next lives from an array of possibilities presented to them.

The idea that penance is paid in the afterlife (or interlife) may be the reason why the Greeks never adopted the idea of juridical karma, although they would have been acquainted with Indian ideas at least from the point that Alexander the Great reached India and set up a colony there in the 300s BCE, effectively opening a branch of the Silk Road from India to the Mediterranean. The later Neoplatonists, like Plotinus, held to similar views, even as late as the 300s CE. Thus, although we tend to associate reincarnation with juridical karma today, there is no logical necessity of this connection, and many people have believed in reincarnation without believing in this type of karma.

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Reincarnation Beliefs and Cases of Animistic Tribal Peoples

I’d like to say something about the reincarnation beliefs and cases of animistic tribal peoples and how these differ from those found elsewhere.

Not many people realize how widespread animistic beliefs are—cross-cultural studies have found them in between one third and one half of tribal peoples living today (or at least when they were studied, usually sometime in the 20th century). The beliefs are found on every inhabited continent and in most culture areas of all continents except Europe.

There is every reason to think these beliefs are quite ancient and they have been the original reincarnation beliefs. They are different in some respects from other beliefs, and some of the patterns of tribal cases are also different, although interestingly, they are associated with the very same signs—announcing dreams, birthmarks, phobias, peculiar behaviors, memories of previous lives, etc. This makes sense to me, if the cases reflect something fundamental about human biology and psychology (reincarnation), but the beliefs regarding the process are the products of philosophical and religious thinking and theorizing.

One of the biggest ways animistic ideas differ from other ideas is in the absence of any notion of juridical karma, by which I mean the Indic idea that what we do or think determines the circumstances under which we are reborn and can impact us in various ways in this life or our next lives as a sort of natural law external to ourselves. Juridical karma is associated by many Westerners with reincarnation, but actually, there are other beliefs systems—the ancient Greek and Roman, for instance, and those of heterodox Shia sects like the Druze—that do not include this idea of karma either.

Animistic peoples also have a somewhat different idea of the spirit or soul. They do not think of the soul as something unitary and eternal, but rather changeable and potentially duplicatable or divisible. Typically, the spirit may also continue in the afterlife at the same time it—or an emanation from it—has been reincarnated in one or more children.

Their reincarnation cases closely resemble those found elsewhere, but some of the case patterns are different—an usually high percentage are in the lineage are clan and are classified as “family” or “same-family” cases. The cases may fall predominately on one side of the family or the other, however, depending on a society’s kinship structure—almost all cases from the patrilineal Igbo of Nigeria occur on the father’s side, but almost all those of the matrilineal Tlingit of Alaska occur on the mother’s side.

Reincarnation is very closely associated with lineal structures and with certain associated practices, such as cross-cousin marriage, and it is also tightly linked with naming practices and inheritance patterns. Why should that be? I argued in a journal paper that it is because these societies are set up to take advantage of reincarnation and the best way to assure that someone will have again what he had before is for him to reincarnate in the same clan and receive the same name, because names are considered clan property and are linked to property, rights and privileges. I found further support for this idea in my M.A. thesis, which tested various hypotheses about reincarnation in relation to social practices against a sample of 30 tribal societies.

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