Its meaning and consequences
by Ernest Valea
Reincarnation and cosmic justice
A more important argument for reincarnation is of a moral nature. It says that karma and reincarnation provide the perfect way to realize justice in our world, by rewarding all one’s deeds and thoughts in further lives. They will manifest as good or bad happenings and circumstances, with mathematical exactitude, so that everything one does will be justly punished or rewarded, at both a quantitative and a qualitative level. This would explain all inequalities we see among people, comfort those who cannot understand their present difficult condition and also give hope for a further better life. According to karma, there is no forgiveness for the "sins" of the past, but only accumulation of karmic debt, followed by paying the consequences in further lives. Swami Shivananda states:
Although it may seem that the mechanism of karma and reincarnation is the proper way to realize social justice, there are two main objections which contradict it:
1) As long as suffering (or the reward for good deeds) can be experienced only at a personal level (physical and psychical), and a human being ceases to exist as a person at physical death, it implies that another person will actually bear the consequences dictated by the karma of the deceased person. The impersonal self (atman or purusha) which reincarnates has nothing to do with suffering; it is a simple observer of the ongoing psycho-mental life. If, at the moment of death, there is no more karmic debt left, the separation of the self from the illusory involvement with the physical and psycho-mental world is permanent, and this represents liberation. If not, the self is forced to enter a new illusory association with personhood until all fruits of past lives are consumed. In order to realize this, a new person is born each time the self enters a new human body. The new person will bear the karma produced by the previous persons inhabited by the same self. This mechanism, of one person accumulating karma and another bearing the consequences, is rather unfair, fundamentally contradicting the idea of realizing perfect justice. Therefore natural disasters, plagues and accidents that affect innocent people cannot be explained away as being generated by karma.
For this reason, the saying "a man reaps what he sows" is falsely used as a way of expressing one’s reincarnationist ideas. (Actually this saying is taken from the New Testament, Galatians 6,7, but there it has a different meaning.) According to the reincarnation mechanism one person sows and another one reaps, since no personal characteristics can be preserved from one incarnation of the impersonal self to the next. In Buddhism, where the very idea of a self who transmigrates is rejected, the idea of sowing and reaping is even more absurd. See for instance the following text:
But who will actually work out the effects of one's past? A new distribution of the five aggregates? Or who will actually attain enlightenment? How could this process render perfect justice? Perfect justice for whom? For an illusory personhood that disappears at physical death?
2) A second objection concerns the actual possibility of attaining liberation from karma and reincarnation. Normally it is supposed that the person who is living out the consequences of karma should do it in a spirit of resignation and submission. But this ideal is far from reality. Instead of adopting a passive attitude when facing the hardships of life (the actual effect of past karma), humans almost always react with indignation, and so accumulate a constantly growing karmic debt. Common human experience proves that evil almost always generates evil and so it is more likely that one will accumulate new karma instead of getting rid of the karma of past lives. As a result, a vicious cycle is generated in which karmic debt is hopelessly growing. This happens with most people of our planet, as it is said that most of us live in ignorance (avidya). From one generation to the next, the sum of karmic debt is growing. Therefore, karmic justice starts more problems than it solves.
Let’s take an example and see how the two objections actually work in the case of a real person. If we take the case of Adolf Hitler, the results are astounding. (For a detailed study of this case and other important aspects of reincarnation see Mark Albrecht’s book Reincarnation - InterVarsity Press, 1982.) All adherents of reincarnation agree that many lives are needed for consuming his karmic debt. Hitler died in 1945 and had to reincarnate as a child in order to bear the consequences of his monstrous deeds. The two objections can be stated as following:
1) The person of Hitler ceased to exist at the moment of his physical death. Only the impersonal self will reincarnate, accompanied by its karmic deposit. However, there is no continuity between the person of Hitler and that of the individual who has to endure the hardships imposed by Hitler’s karma. The newborn person doesn’t know that he has to work out Hitler’s karma. After the cruel life and death of this person, other millions of reincarnations will succeed with the same tragic destiny. The most intriguing fact is that the person of Hitler, the only one who should have endured at physical and psychical level the results of his deeds, was dissolved at physical death, while other persons, totally unaware of this situation and innocent, have to work out his bad karma.
2) As a result of the hardships that have to be endured by the new incarnations of Hitler, it is almost certain that they will react with indignation instead of resignation to their situation, and thus will accumulate a growing karmic debt. Each new reincarnation of Hitler becomes a source of newly acquired karma, initiating a new chain of individuals who have to endure the consequences. Hitler himself was the one that had karmic debts to pay. Whoever he had been in a previous life, he made his karma a lot worse during the years of The Third Reich. Therefore, instead of solving the puzzle of global justice, the problem worsened. Starting with a single individual such as Hitler, we reach a huge number of persons who pay his karma and accumulate a new one. And this is just one case in human history. An attempt to imagine what happens at a larger human scale would reveal a catastrophe that could never be solved.
As a result, karma and reincarnation cannot provide real justice. Reincarnation cannot solve the problem of evil but only amplify it, leaving the original evil unpunished. If reincarnation were true, Hitler would never be punished for his deeds because he ceased to exist before any human person or circumstance of life could truly punish him.
Even if disagreement persists about the growth of evil as an effect of karma and reincarnation, at least its conservation should be admitted in human history. This results from analyzing the links that exist between people and their karma from a global perspective. There are two points to be made here.
First, there is a moral issue involved. As suffering is the result of one’s bad deeds performed in previous lives, reacting consistently with the law of karma might lead to a lack of compassion toward people who suffer. One might think that the person who suffers deserves to be justly punished for what he or she had done in previous lives.
Second, the person who is the instrument of karma’s punishment acquires more bad karma and therefore will have to be punished in turn, in a next life. Then the next person who acts as the instrument of karma will have to be punished in turn, etc. A possible solution to this endless cycle would be that one who acts as the instrument of karma in another one’s life should do it in a completely detached manner, without any interest in the results, according to the demand of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (2,47; 3,19; etc.). In this case it is considered that they wouldn’t acquire new karma. However, such a solution would be limited to the few "detached" people that actually follow this rule, and thus has no significance on the larger scale of human society. Most people are far from considering themselves as detached executioners of karma in their neighbor’s life.
Let’s examine how these two points apply in the case of the millions of Jews killed in gas chambers by the Nazis during World War II. First, it would seem absurd to have any feeling of compassion towards them, because they deserved to be killed like that, as a result of the alleged crimes they committed in previous lives. One could conclude that, after all, the Nazis did the right thing against the Jews. The dictates of karma were fulfilled. Following this reasoning, any conceivable crime of the past or present could be justified, which opens a horrifying perspective on the past and future of mankind, with implications difficult to grasp.
Second, the killing of millions of Jews requires that their executioners should be killed in their turn, in a similar way, in further lives. But this implies that the executioners of the reincarnated Nazis will be killed in their turn, etc., etc. The cycle would never end. The same reasoning could be used also back in time, which would require finding in each generation those millions of people executed and their executioners. An objection to this scenario could be that killers may be punished (killed) in turn by impersonal means, not necessarily by involving other new acquirers of karma. Natural calamities such as earthquakes could be the instrument of karma. This option sounds acceptable, but it would solve only a minor part of the problem. Therefore, if reincarnation were a logical concept, it would imply that it has neither a beginning nor an end. This cannot be a solution for justice, but only a kind of an eternally ongoing drama.
A further analysis of karmic justice proves that it undermines the basic principle of Hindu morality, that of non-killing (ahimsa). According to this principle we should not participate in the killing of a living being, or we will reincarnate in order to pay the consequences. (This is the basis of religious vegetarianism.) For instance, the butcher who slaughters a pig will have to reincarnate as a pig in order to be slaughtered in his turn. According to his karma (but contradicting ahimsa), the pig had to be slaughtered, because he probably was the reincarnation of another butcher, who had to be punished that way. The only way in which karma and ahimsa could be reconciled in this case would be that the butcher is totally detached in his act (according to the demand expressed in the Bhagavad Gita 2,47; 3,19; etc). But the butcher has a direct interest in killing the animal, as it will be his food or it is the way in which he earns his salary. Since karma must be at work in such a case, the infringement of the non-violence principle becomes a necessity in order to fulfill karmic justice. The butcher is at the same time the instrument of working out one’s karmic debt and the generator of a new one for himself. In a strange way, the fulfilling of karmic debt requires the punishment of those who fulfill it. In other words, karma paradoxically acts through condemning those who carry out its "justice."
A way to escape this difficulty would be for impersonal means to act as karma's executer. For instance, the pig could die of a disease. But as we know, most pigs do not die of natural causes, but are slaughtered. Therefore we'll always have the pig-butcher couple exchanging places from one side of the ax to the other.
In conclusion, the concept of reincarnation stands in contradiction with social justice. Looking beyond the apparent comfort it provides to this life by promising further lives in which perfection may be attained, belief in reincarnation cannot bring any beneficial result, but only resignation and despair in facing fate.