Reincarnation and Karma

SOME SCHOLARS DISTINGUISH between the concepts of reincarnation and rebirth. Reincarnation is more closely associated with Hindu tradition and suggests a retention of an individualized soul from one life to the next, although the former life is not usually remembered. Rebirth, on the other hand, is more congenial to Buddhism, with its emphasis on the transfer of an impersonal life force, much as one candle is lit from the flame of another. In any event, I will use the terms interchangeably both for the sake of convenience and also because almost all the secondary doctrines and semantic subtleties surrounding reincarnationist thought are subject to contradiction, debate and confusion.

The Movement of the Soul

Most traditions hold to a basic scenario which may be summarized thus: The "soul" enters the physical realm as a mineral or unicellular organism and then evolves upward through plant and animal lives until it reaches the ultimate physical state as a human being. Although there are exceptions,

Page 18

it is generally held that once a soul becomes human it cannot regress to a lower state. Despite the many variations in reincarnation philosophy, the following definition formulated by Theosophist Anna Winner, would find almost universal acceptance:

The belief in reincarnation which is held by occultists is the belief that an individual human soul passes through a great number (many hundreds or thousands) of successive incarnations as a human being, with alternating periods in subtle worlds . . . . The individual is not specifically "created," but derives from the group soul by a natural process of "budding off."1

The "subtle worlds" to which Winner refers are the spirit realm in which the soul may spend time before its next arduous descent into the physical world. Theories vary widely on how long the stay in the spirit world is; some schools insist that reincarnation occurs within days or hours, while others say that it may delay for thousands of years. The Rosicrucians have concluded that "each Ego or personality reincarnates again on earth approximately every 144th year."2 However, Dr. Ian Stevenson, who has researched hundreds of "spontaneous past-life recall" cases, reports that the time lapse between incarnations of subjects he has observed in India is five to ten years. Helen Wambach reports from her studies of over one thousand subjects an average time of fifty-one years between death and rebirth.

   According to classical thought, the soul endures thousands of lives as a human being. Some of the soul's incarnations may even occur on other planets or in other solar systems. Certain schools even specify the number of years a soul must remain on earth; the well-known guru Parmhansa Yogananda cited an average of one million years. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, an expert on death and dying who in recent years has devoted her attention to spiritualism, claims that her spirit guides divulged the following information

Page 19

to her: "God creates everybody to fulfill his destiny in one life time, but very few make it, perhaps one in a billion. The shortest time between the creation of a human being and his return to God was 43 years. The longest has been 2,000,000 years and he is still in this universe and has not made it yet. Just to give you some idea what the options are."3

   Hinduism and Buddhism teach that final liberation from the round of rebirths can only be achieved by humans. Only through the pitfalls and travails of the human condition can a soul earn sufficient merit to warrant its release or liberation (Sanskrit moksha or samadhi). Thus a soul must evolve through various life forms to the human state, the evolutionary plateau where moral lessons are learned through multitudes of reincarnations.

   The big picture. On a macrocosmic scale, Hindus believe that the universe itself reincarnates in multibillion-year cycles. The universe begins as a state of pure "Unmanifest Absolute," that is, an incomprehensibly large vacuum which contains all the potential for creation. Within the vacuum an undefined imbalance, impulse or irrepressible desire to create and manifest causes the creation cycle to start, thus beginning "The Day of Brahm," in which the creative activity of the universe continues for billions of years. Finally all souls complete their multitudinous incarnations, attaining "enlightenment," and all is merged back into the primordial, universal vacuum state called "The Night of Brahm." This period also lasts billions of years. It should also be noted that all things in nature are subject to this cosmic recycling and evolution. As Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, says, "The law of cause and effect applies to all depths of nature."4

Karma. The law of cause and effect to which Madame Blavatsky refers is called karma. She defines it in this way: "It is the power that controls all things," and "Deity is law and vice-versa." She then elaborates:

Page 20

Karma simply means that there remains nought after each personality but the causes produced by it. No "personality" a mere bunch of material atoms and of instinctual mental characteristics can of course continue as such, in the world of pure Spirit.5

The fundamental idea behind karma is that of action followed by reaction. The Bhagavad-Gita, one of the best-known Hindu scriptures, defines it quite simply as "the name given to the creative force that brings beings into existence" (8:3). Thus, it may be viewed as the fundamental creative action which is perpetuated in each individual soul. Practically, karma is somewhat like Isaac Newton's law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It could be pictured as a set of moral scales; all the bad deeds piled up on one side must be balanced by good deeds on the other.

   Yet it is more complicated than that. Perhaps the best way of picturing karma and its relationship to rebirth is something like this: Each person is a sort of electronic sensor or microphone with a wire hooked up to a great computer in the heavens; the computer is "God." Each thought, motive and act, as well as all the things that happen to us, are relayed back to the computer and filed away. Upon death the data bank in the computer is activated, and the "readout" of our next life, based on how we have balanced our karma in the preceding life or lives, is cranked out and handed to us. If our negative karma (deeds, thoughts, motives, circumstances, and so on) outweigh our positive karmic pattern, we are assigned a more miserable existence in the next round, and vice versa. We have nothing to say about it. There is no mercy, forgiveness or court of appeals.6

   Admittedly, the computer story is my invention, but it is a substantially accurate analogy. Madame Blavatsky uses a similar idea:

Whenever and wherever imbalance is produced, the self-adjusting "mechanism"

Page 21

comes into play to restore equilibrium . . . .The karmic connection between lives is made by skandhas, bundles of attributes. They are psychomental link mechanisms by which characteristics are passed from one personality to its successors. They correspond to the DNA, gene, and chromosome arrangement of inherited qualities in the physical bodies.7

I have used Blavatsky (1831-91) as a source for definitions because the comparatively recent vintage of her writings reflects the refinement of Western expression and metaphors, and because she holds a dominant influence in contemporary metaphysical speculation. However, her interpretation of the finer details and convolutions of reincarnation doctrine and oriental philosophy is an eclectic blending of her own idiosyncrasies with Eastern sources, and many serious oriental scholars consider her a somewhat misguided charlatan. Many Buddhists, by contrast, hold that the karmic connection between incarnations is not specific; they use alternative conceptions, such as "thought forces" or "impersonal character," to account for karma and reincarnation.

Gnostic Philosophy and Mystical Experience

Whatever the ins and outs of the reincarnation cycles may be, the goal and purpose is to merge with God or the Cosmos or, more precisely, to become God, so as to put an end to the painful cycle of rebirths. To this end Blavatsky comments, "It is owing to this law of spiritual development that mankind will become freed from its false gods and find itself finally SELF REDEEMED" (emphasis hers).8

   This sentiment of cosmic humanism, which places the autonomy of the human being at the center of things, is really the distilled essence of the philosophical system that undergirds all reincarnation teachings. Understanding this world view, which may be called "gnostic philosophy and mystical experience," is essential if we want to comprehend

Page 22

the doctrine of reincarnation. "Gnostic" comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge." This knowing is not necessarily knowledge in the scholarly sense; the heart of gnosis is an intuitive and existential apprehension of the Cosmos and the Divine, which are one and the same, for the universe is God. This knowledge can only be attained through mystical experience, that is, an altered state of consciousness wherein the person feels that he or she is one with, or joined to, the entire universe, or God.

   Primarily then, gnosticism asserts the centrality, power, and inherent divinity of humanity, denies the idea of a sovereign personal God and condemns as obsolete any final statement of moral values.9

   The four main points of gnostic doctrine (or "occult science" as it is sometimes called) taken in logical order fall in this sequence:

1. All is One. This is the proposition that all existence is of one basic essence which finds its lowest common denominator in the Eastern conception of Deity, the impersonal Absolute which is called Brahman in Sanskrit. Brahman is the metaphysical substratum of the universe, the cosmic field from which all possibilities arise. The unity of all things is the subjective revelation most commonly encountered in mystical experience. In common parlance, it is usually called pantheism (pan, "all"; theos, "God") or monism (mono, "one"). Fundamentally, the unity of all things means that God is not separate from creation.

2. Humanity is essentially divine. This is a logical inference from the first statement. If the universe is divine and human beings are a conscious part of that universe, they must also be divine, at least at their very core.

3. Therefore, the purpose of life is to become experientially aware of our divine nature. Salvation thus becomes the attainment of this reality through union with the Divine Absolute.

4. Mastery of "spiritual technology" and mystical experience

Page 23

(for example, Yoga, meditation, magic ritual) leads to the attainment of spiritual power. Thus, the adept literally become the Creator, not merely by merging with God, but by creating their own reality through the power of a controlled mind. This state is "enlightenment," or salvation, and results in the cessation of the wheel of death and rebirth, or reincarnation.10

   Whether or not they would verbalize it so systematically, all who are serious believers in reincarnation ultimately hold some form of this basic gnostic creed. It is the foundation on which the concept of reincarnation rests. If any Hindu or Buddhist ascetic who has renounced the world to sit in a cold Himalayan monastery for years on end is asked, "Why do you do it?" his predictable reply would be quickly forthcoming: "Because I'm tired of the pointless misery of suffering and rebirth, and I want to be released from the bondage of karma through mastery of spiritual techniques, austerities and meditation. I want this to be my last life."

Chapter Three  ||  Table of Contents


1. Anna K. Winner, The Basic Ideas of Occult Wisdom (Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publ. House, n.d.), p. 57.

2. H. Spencer Lewis, Mansions of the Soul (San Jose, Calif.: Rosicrucian Library, 1930), p. 199.

Page 132

3. Interview in Playboy magazine, May 1981, p. 94.

4. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, "Karma the Womb of Time," The Theosophist, vol. 5, no. 9 (Adyar, India, June 1884), p. 223.

5. Quoted in Hanson, Karma, pp. 2, 27, 2.

6. Some traditions speak of "the lords of karma" or the Lipika, as some Hindus call the "spiritual judge and jury." However, this notion seems to be held by a distinct minority, and most reincarnationists opt for the impersonal view, more on the order of Newton's law or the computer analogy.

7. Quoted in Hanson, Karma, pp. 27, 32.

8. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 2 vols. (Pasadena, Calif.: Theosophical University Press, 1977), 2:420.

9. Gnosticism is often thought of as a particular religion, namely, the Hellenistic Gnosticism that flourished in the second and third centuries and which was one of the principal heresies that confronted the early church. In this book, gnostic and gnosticism will be employed as generic terms as defined in the text and applied to the philosophy that undergirds reincarnation.

10. Adapted from Brooks Alexander, "Occult Philosophy and Mystical Experience," (Berkeley, Calif.: Spiritual Counterfeits Project, 1975), one of the best short explanations of this world view. (Many Buddhists would say that "All is suffering"  the fundamental tenet of Buddhism  and balk at the idea of union with God or the universe, since the existence of God is inconsequential in much of Buddhism, and the goal is to cease suffering by the attainment of non-existence.)

Chapter Three  ||  Table of Contents