Popular Conceptions of Reincarnation and Karma

“Reincarnation is commonly supposed to have two aspects, metaphysical and moral, an aspect of spiritual necessity, an aspect of cosmic justice and ethical discipline. The soul,–in this view or for this purpose supposed to have a real individual existence,–is on earth as a result of desire and ignorance; it has to remain on earth or return to it always so long as it has not wearied of desire and awakened to the fact of its ignorance and to the true knowledge. This desire compels it to return always to a new body; it must follow always the revolving wheel of birth till it is enlightened and liberated. It does not, however, remain always on earth, but alternates between earth and other worlds, celestial and infernal, where it exhausts its accumulated store of merit or demerit due to the enactment of sin or virtue and then returns to the earth and to some kind of terrestrial body, sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes even vegetable. The nature of this new incarnation and its fortunes are determined automatically by the soul’s past actions, Karma; if the sum of past actions was good, the birth is in the higher form, the life happy or successful or unaccountably fortunate; if bad, a lower form of Nature may house us or the life, if human, will be unhappy, unsuccessful, full of suffering and misfortune. If our past actions and character were mixed, then Nature, like a good accountant, gives us, according to the pitch and values of our former conduct, a well-assorted payment of mixed happiness and suffering, success and failure, the rarest good luck and the severest ill-fortune.”

Sri Aurobindo has succinctly summarized the essence of the most popular beliefs about reincarnation and karma in this brief exposition. He further points out that there is actually a double penalty or double reward because not only does the soul ostensibly suffer or enjoy the worlds it inhabits between births based on this karmic system, but then it also takes a new human birth to further be afflicted or rewarded on earth for the same past deeds.

Obviously this view of things is overly simplistic and dramatised and may be more the result of perceived needs within the social order than an expression of any ultimate metaphysical truth. We shall explore the concept of karma in relation to rebirth and other worlds in subsequent posts.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality