Ideas on Reincarnation and Karma


Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

12 Jun 2017 – All living beings — humans, animals, fish, flora and fauna have finite lives. In other words, they are born (or grow from an egg or a seed) , live for some duration and then die. Animals and especially human beings have a sense of their identity and know that they are alive. Human beings generally would like to remain alive for as long as possible; they fear death and would like to postpone it for as long as possible.

People may be living comfortable and meaningful lives, or they may be poor and destitute, living wretched lives under horrible conditions. In all such cases, people generally would like to prolong their lives. There are exceptions of course to this situation. Due to indebtedness or a serious ailment, an acute sense of loneliness or some form of depression, some people are unable to survive under their horrible conditions and commit suicide to end their suffering.

However, there are occasionally other reasons for giving up one’s life. There is a sect of the Jain religion in India that permits people to give up their lives under some special conditions such as advanced age. Here  a person who wants to stop living, stops eating any food or drinking any juice or milk and slowly becomes weak and after a time, dies. This practice is known as Santhara. Under law, committing suicide or aiding someone to commit suicide is a crime and there are specified punishments for this illegal action which is considered a criminal offense.

But the Supreme Court of India has ruled that practice of Santhara being a religious ritual of fasting unto death will not invite this punishment in India.

Religious luminaries and philosophers, both Western and Indian have considered the concepts of life and death since prehistoric times. They have spoken and written extensively on these subjects. Due to my own limited knowledge I will try to discuss these questions only briefly.

According to the Upanishads and Hindu tradition, we have lived a countless number of lives before our current one and will be born (reincarnated) again to live in the future also.  When one dies, only the body dies; but being a soul, we live on to enter a new body. This is akin to changing one’s dirty clothes and putting on new and clean ones. Thus the soul remains intact and changes its residence in new bodies.

According to this concept, there is a continuity in our lives; this idea overcomes the finiteness of our lives — of birth and death. If we have lived in the past and will live in the future also there is continuity in our lives and we have a sense of always being part of the Universe.

John Hick a well-known UK-US philosopher who died a few years ago (in 2012) has pointed out some inconsistencies in this concept of reincarnation; however I will not go into his arguments here. There are also many rationalists in the world and in India who do not agree with the idea of rebirth.

Another interesting justification for the idea of reincarnation is the following. We see disparities and inequalities in the world around us. These are social, economic, religious in nature. Due to this fact, there are some people who are leading comfortable, luxurious and meaningful lives, whereas a large number of people are living in horrible conditions — they are poor and deprived,  do not have enough to eat and face all sorts of injustice and humiliation.

Economists have their own theories explaining these disparities. Politicians have other theories and promise various schemes that would reduce if not eliminate the gross inequalities that these poor deprived people face. They also target the opposing parties for this patent injustice.

Religious leaders argue differently. They say to these deprived people, “Do not lose heart; if your present life is horrible and full of suffering, do not despair. Your next life will be better and more just.” This is how the concept of reincarnation gains currency among followers of Hinduism.

Another rationale offered for poverty, injustice and inequality faced by a person is the idea of Karma. According to this concept,  the injustice and suffering faced by a person is due to his past actions and unjust behaviour. If in the past life a person’s behavior was moral and just, if he was kind and honest, the present life of that person will also be good and comfortable. On the other hand, if he was cruel and tormented others in the past life, the present life will also be full of suffering and humiliation for the person.

This idea exhorts people to be kind, good and upright so that the future will be humane and good. The idea recommends that goodness will be rewarded with goodness. “Do good to reap goodness in future. This in simple words is a cause and effect argument.

In the Mahabharata it is stated:

As a man himself sows, so he himself reaps; no man inherits the good or evil act of another man. The fruit is of the same quality as the action.

It is also written  that:

Happiness comes due to good actions, suffering results from evil actions,
By actions, all things are obtained; by inaction, nothing whatsoever is enjoyed.

In the words of John Hick:

Our essential self continues from life to life, being repeatedly reborn or reincarnated, the state of Karma determining the circumstances of its next life.

The idea of Karma has been extended from an individual to that of a community or society. This suggests that if an individual is living in a healthy and harmonious community, the person will also tend to become good and upright and will behave kindly with others.

The opposite would also be true. A person living in dirt, in a cruel circumstance will also tend to be evil and cruel to others. A person imbibes qualities and behaviour from the community of which he is a part.

This attitude is explained by social scientists also. They argue that a person is not born bad, but the circumstances or the society where he lives will tend to make him cruel and evil.

However we may argue, the idea of reincarnation and Karma is an ancient one and many people live and die for this concept.


Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, an educationist and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Jun 2017.

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