An introduction to theosophical concepts, such as karma and reincarnation by Harvey Tordoff.
The concept of karma is fundamental to many schools of thought, although this name is usually associated with what appears to be fatalism by Hindus. It is often misunderstood, both in the east and in the west.
Most Westerners are familiar with the saying: “As a man sows, so shall he reap.” In extreme cases we all know that there is a good statistical chance of this being true. The man who drinks a bottle of whiskey a day will probably have serious health problems. The man who exceeds the speed limit every time he drives will probably, eventually, lose his licence. This is a crude working of the law of karma.
Yet we stop short of embracing the concept wholeheartedly. Sometimes, the villain does not appear to get his just desserts. Often, the less extreme actions seem to have no effect at all. So we sometimes accept the inevitability of certain results consequent upon certain actions, but in general we do not believe that the old biblical quotation applies to every single seed sown by man.
But karma is a natural law, just like gravity, and cannot be applied selectively. In essence it can be stated thus: “Every action has a reaction”, or consequence. It is, of course, far more complex, and we should not expect a single consequence (reward, punishment) to match a single action. Nevertheless, no action is self-contained, and the rationale behind karma is difficult to refute.
Studying a subject usually involves digging down through layers of meaning, and a full understanding of karma only comes with such persistence. A man kicks a dog, an action; the dog feels pain, a consequence. But the exchange functions on many levels. In future, the dog is likely to be more wary of this man, or even of men in general. The dog's pain might have increased his chances of survival. And what of the kicker? By inflicting pain he has hardened his heart a little. In future, he is less likely to feel the affection of this dog, or even of dogs in general. Far worse than that, however, a series of heart-hardening actions is likely to result in fewer heartwarming experiences. Perhaps the man’s survival chances are increased, but his joy of living might be reduced.
Accepting the working of karma allows us to recognise the consequences of our actions, and act accordingly. We recognise that what is happening to us today is a result of actions (ours, and those of others) in the past. Our interest in karma should be directed at the future rather than the past. We can learn from the past, but we can't change it. But we can create for ourselves, our friends, our society, our world, the kind of reactions we would wish for. Karma can be good as well as bad. The gift of karma is a state of awareness producing right results for the future.
Belief in reincarnation is not common in the west, although the concept is embodied in Christianity. Fundamental to Christianity is the belief that each of us has a soul that moves beyond this earthly existence to heaven, hell or purgatory. From time immemorial mankind has believed in some kind of afterlife, and many cultures around the world buried artifacts with the dead that might prove useful in the continuing journey. A stage of the journey in another physical body is an eastern concept, although the spirit of Jesus chose to incarnate in the baby growing in the womb of Mary.
Unfortunately, the essence of reincarnation is embodied in colourful folklore and myth used to convey the message amongst illiterate people, and so westerners can smile indulgently at the superstitious man who thinks he might be reborn as an insect. But whilst discarding the packaging we should take care not to throw away the teaching inside.
Every atom in nature is reborn again and again. The leaf falls from the tree, decays, the nutrients are absorbed into the soil, gases are released, and the atoms that were part of the leaf become part of new molecules in some new life form. Matter becomes energy, and energy becomes matter. Natural laws are not selective. Everything is reborn. The part of us that is energy or spirit will also be reborn. The question is, will it be reborn as the same identifiable spirit or as an entirely new form of energy?
As it is common to most myths and religions let us assume that spirit is reborn in some identifiable way.
There are two possibilities:
- Spirit enters the human body, lives a single life, and then goes straight to some nonphysical afterlife;
- Spirit enters the human body, lives a life, enters more bodies to live more lives, and eventually moves on to some nonphysical afterlife.
Rather than go down the metaphysical route it might be more productive to take a common sense approach. Because of the nature of spirit we should not expect physical proof. There are reported cases of other life memories, but these are supportive in an anecdotal way rather than as hard evidence.
Everything in nature evolves, and it is in the nature of spirit to evolve. Some of us show more sign of evolving in a single life than others, but would it be logical for that single life to provide all the evolution necessary for each spirit? When a baby dies within a few hours of birth, has the baby spirit evolved fully, and is some decision on heaven or hell now appropriate? Far more sense for the baby spirit to come again, so that over many life times we will all experience short lives, long lives, sad lives, happy lives.
A belief in some greater purpose will encourage us to be more selfless; without that belief we can justify our lives by animal standards. But adding the logic of reincarnation gives a more complete explanation of apparent injustice, and provides a greater framework for karma to unfold from every minute action.
The human condition is greater than the sum of the parts identified by science. We talk about the human spirit rising above adversity. There is something in us that aspires to justice and fairness. There is a strong desire to help others. We respond to art and beauty. In other words, we possess noble qualities.
There are two possibilities:
- There is a spirit, cohabiting the same space as the physical body, and in some way connected;
- There is no spirit, and all our responses are instinctive animal reactions designed to ensure the survival of the species.
As these noble qualities are largely absent in animals it seems unlikely that they can be explained by instinct or conditioning. When faced with two possibilities it would be perverse to go with the least likely. Let us assume, then, that the world’s great store of spirit myths has a basis in fact, and that there is an inner essence that is pure spirit.
Science has a problem with spirit: it cannot be extracted in a post mortem to be weighed and analysed. Unable to measure something, science traditionally rejects it. Perhaps science should also reject the possibility of a sense of humour. And yet in recent years much scientific learning has stemmed from a more open approach. When the behaviour of certain phenomena cannot be explained by known factors there must be an unknown factor. Having worked out the need for a black hole, or a quark, or whatever, to make sense of observations, scientists then set out to understand it. But although the existence of spirit makes sense of human phenomena science continues to turn a blind eye.
If we adopt the more open scientific approach, spirit explains much about the human condition. All matter is energy, resonating on different wavelengths. There is no requirement to invent a new kind of energy; perhaps spirit simply vibrates on a higher level. And if spirit and matter vibrate at different frequencies there is no reason why they should not occupy the same space. Of course, whilst overlapping in this way they need not share the same boundaries, and spirit might extend beyond the physical body. This could explain why it is possible to sense someone's presence without any physical contact.
It is this spirit, or soul, that is reborn in a succession of bodies. The immature soul will be dominated by physical and emotional needs and urges, but these become less important as the soul evolves, learning the lessons of karma, moving eventually towards an end to the cycle of incarnations.
The most difficult of the basic theosophical concepts is the one that is most simply expressed: we are all part of a greater unity. The cause and effect of karma can be understood, if not accepted in totality; people talk of human spirit without necessarily believing in anything greater; and rebirth in natural phenomena can be witnessed every day.
But we are so steeped in our own personality, individuality, separateness, that we shy away from the idea of merging with some amorphous collective. The Christian Heaven is for individual souls, and strong western egos want nothing less. Of course, a unity of souls is not less; it offers far, far more.
It is a concept that is best approached indirectly. Imagine listening to a powerful piece of music by yourself. Then listen to the same music in the company of others who are likely to respond in a similar way. Your personal experience is heightened by the sharing. Imagine going through a trauma with other people: being held hostage, making a dangerous journey. You might even find yourself putting personal issues on one side whilst making decisions for the common good. The people sharing danger will be brought closer, and this will remain long after the danger has passed. Even in these physical bodies that cannot be merged in any way we can feel and enjoy a sense of unity with others.
We know that the universe was created in a single explosive moment from what must have been a single unified entity ~ or nonentity! The resulting creation consists of many elements that make up a single universe. One day the universe will cease to expand, might contract, and return to total unity similar to that existing pre-big bang. On this time scale whatever elements exist in our present being (physical and spiritual) started unified and will finish unified. It does not seem improbable that there will be many minor comings together along the way. And no doubt our identities will survive in some form, for nothing disappears without trace.
The concepts of karma, reincarnation, spirit and unity form the framework of theosophy, and run through the book O Lanoo! Whether you want to ascribe the name God to the model is a personal choice, but whatever you call it this bigger picture can help to make sense of life. Extrapolating from these fundamentals can provide direction when faced with difficult choices, for it can be seen that we are part of evolution; that we are not judged arbitrarily by some external force; that we move forward by our own efforts; that we are impeded by our own mistakes; that we are not slaves to pre-destiny; that there is no force of evil. And if we all share a spiritual bond there can be no justification for violence or oppression, for all such abuses are directed ultimately at our own souls.
Copyright © 2002 Harvey Tordoff. Harvey Tordoff is the author of the highly acclaimed book O Lanoo! - The Secret Doctrine Unveiled.