Wednesday, April 13, 2005

What goes around comes around and around and around

So I've just got back from Wales where I've spent the last four days half way up a mountain in an isolated farm house training in all things Yoga. We're currently trawling through the Vedanta section of the yogic philosophical cannon and one of the topics we've been covering is Karma and re-incarnation. Some of the others on the course did a set of presentations to the rest of us, this and the subsequent discussions got me thinking.

Re-incarnation is a thread that runs through most Indian philosophical thought and is linked in with the concept of karma. The general concept is that Karma is generated by our actions (both in this life and in our previous lives) and we are bound to this Earth to be born again and again until we reduce that Karma to zero, when that happens the next time we die we either transcend this material plane or we become one with it (depending on which strand of Indian philosophy you believe in).

Karma is generated by all action, not just bad action. Good karma is useful because it negates and reduces bad Karma (which still being on this plane, we are assumed to have a surfeit of) but at the end of the day any action (good or bad) indicates an attachment and so is something that will bind us here.

Now I've always been in two minds regarding the Karma/re-incarnation issue and after giving it some thought and study I've began to notice some seeming inconsistencies and holes.

Firstly there is the obvious and most uncomfortable one, if you are born into a life due to the karma you've carried over from previous your lives, then are those who are born into abusive families, disabled or in some other disadvantaged state somehow deserving of their fate?

This is something I have no truck with personally but the concept of Karma certainly allows for this interpretation.

Another problem with the idea that, essentially, we are all recycled is that it implies that the number of souls available for this process is finite. I've yet to come across a reference where souls are created anew so according to Karmic theory we are all essentially old souls who have under-gone many lifetimes. This becomes a problem however when you consider that the worlds population is increasing, if there are now more people than there were a thousand years ago then where are these new souls coming from?

This leads into my third philosophical conundrum. If the number of souls is finite, then was there then a point when they were all created? If so wouldn't there then have been a time when they had very little or no karmic baggage? So why are there so many of us about now? Surely back in the day people would have been shuffling off the karmic wheel by the dozen?

You could argue that there may have been many more of us then and those of us left now are the real dregs, the right bastards who have been going round in the spiritual washing machine for millennia until we're bleached white. But this doesn't hold up if you go back to point two, the worlds population is increasing, if new souls are coming into being then these new souls would have considerably less karma than the older souls who have been around longer.

My own opinion? Well I have two; the cynical and the spiritual. The cynical is that the idea of Karma and re-incarnation have an obvious use for social and political control. Everyone gets what they deserve from a previous life, so be happy with what you've got and be good so you can hopefully come back higher up the ladder. Those at the bottom have something to hope for and those at the top can feel satisfied that they deserve to be there. Like the Christian concept of Heaven, Karma works on the carrot principle; things will be better after you're dead so don't moan while your here.

Also re-incarnation makes the selling of enlightenment easier, the object of the Indian spiritual traditions (in fact almost all esoteric traditions) is to transcend the illusion of reality and peek below the surface, well how gutted would you be if you didn't quite make it? There you are sitting under your bohdi tree contemplating your navel for years on end, you're just about to glimpse the ultimate when your heart packs up and you shuffle off the mortal coil. You've just completely blown your only chance at enlightenment and wasted all that (non) effort. Not really going to bring in the devotees is it? If however you can come back and try again and again and again until you get it right, well that's like finding the infinite lives cheat on a computer game isn't it?

The spiritual opinion? Well the Vedantic view point, as stated earlier, is that we are all part of the same whole and that our eternal self or Atman is really one with Brahman (the infinite), therefore the concept of a single individual soul is irrelevant because we are all effectively small parts of one higher entity. Enlightenment comes from realising we are not separate from anything else and that we are all one 'I am That'.

While I personally find the inclusive approach of Vedanta appealing and the idea of one ultimate soul or Self does cover some of the problems mentioned above, it still leaves some problems. For instance if we are all part of one greater whole why do we need to keep coming back until we realise it? If there is in reality no individual self, just the illusion of separation, what part of us actually comes back when reincarnated?

At the end of the day it is important to remember that these are the maps and not the territory, all these concepts come from the experience of some vast and numinous 'something' that appears to have been occurring to mystics in all cultures throughout history. The seeds of our religions have grown from various attempts to explain that experience and attempting to work it out intellectually is like reading the car manual without ever having driving the car, it's up to us to walk the path and find it for ourselves not sit around passively waiting for redemption to be handed to us on a plate.

7 Comments:

Anonymous paul said...

Nice post. I found the karma balance thing interesting, not heard it explained like that before. I had the impression that to achieve nirvana you had to be predominantly 'good', but seems that's incorrect as you actually need to be in karmic balance & therefore completely 'neutral' or perhaps even 'indifferent'...

For me this raises the question of how do I know which way my karmic-ometer is swinging in this particular incarnation? Should I be doing good or bad karmic acts to balance myself out? is there any way one can divine what is necessarry or is a life in deep meditation & contemplation enough to balance any prior inbalance?

These questions, along with the whole souls thing makes me query the validity of re-incarnation and any other after-life beliefs. so you could say I'm in the super-cynic camp!

Speaking of souls, IMHO, this subject is very similar to the mind/body philosophical debate, just substitute soul for mind. i.e. is your mind/soul part of, yet separate from, your body and where does it 'go' when your body dies? I'm sure there's more to it than that but my detailed knowledge of philosophy is pretty sketchy at best....

The whole finite/infinite 'pool' of souls ties into that and you make a load of good points. i don't know about you, but I can in no way begin to imagine something that's infinite even though I understand completely the definition of it. Could be something to do with my brain having a finite number of neurons with which to do the imagining!

Albert Einstein once said "Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler." This is usually the case when you look at nature and science. Given a pair of theorums, once more complicated than the other, which one is likely to be correct? yep, the simpler one! there's something elegant about simple things.

So surely the simplest (and bleakest) answer is that we're incredibly evolved biological beings that can perceive the universe, communicate and share ideas, feel emotions, have beliefs and all the rest of that stuff, but ultimately, there is no separate mind, there is no separate soul, just each one of us wrapped up in a tidy & complete package and when our time is up we're worm food.

So in a way, the Vedantic POV is correct, in that we do all eventually become one with the Earth, which in turn is part of the universe. Parts of us may well even come back as part of some other being, on a biological/chemical/atomic level.

Sounds much more palatable when given names like re-incarnation, Atman and Brahman however!

12:43 am, May 05, 2005  
Blogger Adam said...

Detached as opposed to indifferent. If you are detatched from the results of your actions then (according to the Baghvad Gita) nothing you do acquires Karma.

As for your position in life, you can get a general idea from what you're born as. Those with more good Karma will return into high caste good families, those with lot's of bad karma will come back lower down the social/evolutionary scale as an animal or worse an outcaste (no joke, check the Baghvad Gita again).

The important thing that's stressed in most of the texts is that you shouldn't strive to break off the wheel because wanting enlightenment is a desire and desire brings karma (I'm starting to sound like Yoda now).

The whole mind body thing is something I think I'm going to do a more in depth post on (when I get round to it) so I'll reserve my comments till then.

3:32 am, May 05, 2005  
Anonymous paul said...

Aha, more good stuff mr yoda-in-training.

On the detached bit, if you do good/bad things but are personally detached from the experience would your karmic levels remain constant, even though external to yourself good/bad things have occured due to your actions?

Good point on the "you know roughly where you are on your karmic journey due to your situation at birth". If I'd remembered anything at all to do with re-incarnation it should have been that high levels of bad karma = re-incarnated as a dung beetle (or politician, take yer pick) and high levels of good karma = re-incarnated as a dolphin. doh!

So in a nutshell and to quote the little green fella (and no, I don't mean kermit!):

"do, or do not, there is no try"

as in my mind doing as opposed to trying implies action without thought and without thought there can be no desire, and with no desire, no karma. sorted.

I look forward to your mind/body thesis whenever you get round to it!

11:11 am, May 05, 2005  
Anonymous jan-o-wales said...

to throw a spanner in the theory of detachment from results of actions to lighten the load of karma, i say this... every action requires thought at some level, an intention, a reason why. the moment we commit to activation there is an effect, that effect stays with us forever whether or not we deside to think of said action again. Therfor it is, in my opinion, impossible to detach from our actions. This theory means we have to go back to the start and look at the intention behind action, the intention behind each thought even, as thought is indeed an action in its own right. so karma is much more than a tick or a cross for behaviour, it is a reflection of our conscious self, pliable. According to earlier upanisads its the shape of these thoughts at time of death that determins our next life, so it could be interpretated that even if you live a life of crime,sin,desire etc, as long as you are able to accord to the key note when you pop your clogs you'll be fine! Oh shit,look at the time, i've waffled on again,missed eastenders now, gutted.

11:58 am, August 09, 2005  
Blogger Adam said...

I can see your point there Jan. Like patanjali's idea of peeling away the onion layers of the mind, following the trail of vritti's (thought waves) back to find the root of our actions and then transcending them.

It does however raise an interesting question. If we look at karma as deriving from our thoughts not just our actions, then how does that relate to our dreams?

Apparently this was a big concern to some early Christians (there's a bit on it in that book on sleep I'm reading). If I'm a Monk and I dream carnal thoughts am I committing a sin? Their answer was that dreaming bad things was OK as long as you didn't act on it, so only a concrete action was a sin not the thought of it.

Of course this answer is a bit of a theological cop out, anything else as far as I can see would lead to the madness of trying to police your own dreams or to questioning the fundamental assumptions of sin (and we wouldn't want that now would we).

IMHO I think that introspection is fine as long as it doesn't become compulsive. If I start going around worrying that every time I curse the bastard that cuts me up on the motorway I'm further dooming myself to rebirth, well I'd never leave the house. :-)

5:35 am, August 11, 2005  
Anonymous jan-o-wales said...

Hey,I'm loving this internet stuff, don't need to leave my living room for hearty debate.like being in the hills of wales still. well i am still in the hills of wales but thats besides the point. Anyway,the 3 states of consciousness Adam, according to Upanisads there is: 1) the waking state (conscious mind)which represents present time, that which we have control over, 2) the dreaming state (sub-conscious mind)which represents the past, that which we have no control over, 3) deep sleep (unconscious mind) which represents the future, which we can only control if we work on our present state of consciousness.
This theory allows the Monk to have as many wet dreams as anyone else, its not his fault if he's had to endure babe station or men & motors in the vestry all evening, this is just his mind processing the input he's recieved, however, if he continues to consciously ponder said babes he's not going to get to see those pearly gates!
And as for cursing those bastards that cut you up on the motorway, thats actually very good for the soul, so is Jack Daniels. I haven't yet uncovered the upanisadic thumbs up for this but i'm on my third translation now so it's bound to reveal itself to me soon.
Keep shining Adam, like the stars above the welsh mountain you are :-)

11:05 am, August 12, 2005  
Blogger Adam said...

Ah OK that begins to make more sense, I need to go and re-read my upanishads. That links nicely into Patanjali as well, it also reminds me of Gurdjieff's maxim that we're all walking around asleep and need to wake up.

I also found this about sin on a Gnostic website, I thought it links nicely to this discussion:

The Gnostic understanding of sin is similar to the original Greek idea, which is that sin is a kind of distraction. I want to be a certain kind of person, I want to live my life a certain way, but I'm constantly distracted from this ideal. Things get in the way, energy and moment go sideways. The Sacrament of Penance is about letting go of that distraction; addressing it, fixing it, and surrendering it to the Divine so you can get back to what it was you were doing. Everybody makes mistakes. The responsible acknowledge it, correct it, and get on with their lives – forgiveness of sins is a mechanism for living responsibly, and deliberately.

http://egina.blogspot.com

12:07 am, August 13, 2005  

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