Evaluating the Theory of Karma

"This is only a matter of belief. Can it be proved?" declared the barrister. "Yes, by the oral and written testimony of those who have acquired the eye to see what is happening in the astral planes above," the Great Master replied.

"Has any disciple here got that eye, so that he could tell us any of his experiences?" asked the barrister.

"There are a number of such people here," the Great Master said, "but they would not like to be brought into the limelight."

"There is no question of their gaining fame. It would just satisfy my curiosity about the subject," the barrister persisted.

"They would simply relate their experiences and tell what they have seen. How would that satisfy you that they are telling the truth?" asked the Great Master.

"I would be satisfied by their testimony," the barrister replied.

"Then why not believe my testimony," the Great Master asked, smiling.

At this everyone laughed.

"All right," the Great Master continued, "Daryai Lal will take you to a lady who has recently had such experiences."

...Bibi Rakhi then described her experiences, which I translated into English for the benefit of those who did not fully understand her language. After her narrative they were thoroughly convinced.

Great Master, 100-101

To the clairvoyant eye this astral body, which has the exact likeness of the physical body from which it has departed, is visible.

San Keshavadas, 27

How do we know whether or not the doctrine of karma and reincarnation is correct? Is it a matter of faith, of paranormal perception, or of reason? Opinions on this topic vary. In the book of essays Dimensions in Karma, Pratima Bowes concludes that "Rebirth then remains a matter of belief and its factuality cannot be proved" (p. 186). In the same volume, Karl H. Potter argues that in the Hindu classics, rebirth and karma "are understood in very much the sprit in which a scientific theory is understood" (p. 134).

Following are some factors that might bear upon our acceptance of this doctrine.

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Paranormal Knowledge

To begin with, it is important to recognize that knowledge through paranormal sources is a recognized part of the traditional theory of yoga. Thus, Patanjali says:

The knowledge which is gained from inference and the study of scriptures is knowledge of one kind. But the knowledge which is gained from samadhi is of a much higher order. It goes beyond inferences and scriptures.
Patanjali I:49

Patanjali gives a long list of the types of knowledge that a yogi can gain through meditation on particular objects.

The knowledge-status of such paranormal perceptions is slightly different from those experiences we call "divine revelations" in the West. Revelations seem to be given at unpredictable intervals to people whom God has chosen for His own inscrutable reasons. In yoga, by contrast, psychic powers are considered a normal side-effect of advanced states of meditation, and at least in principle, are attainable by anyone.

Whether they are attainable by everyone in practice is another question. People who attempt meditation and other spiritual disciplines experience varying degrees of progress and success. Patanjali attributes the speed of progress to the intensity of effort that the student puts forth. However, karma from past lives and the effects of divine grace are often also cited as factors affecting the student's progress. One thing that all teachers seem to agree on is that very few people reach enlightenment quickly.

As a result, we cannot expect to experience truly advanced states of meditation ourselves unless we are unusually fortunate or willing to dedicate years or decades of our lives to fairly intense disciplines. Even then, there is no guarantee of success in a single lifetime. So it would be difficult to make that commitment unless you were fairly confident that the result would, in the end, be worth the trouble.

The Perception of Karma

Having established that psychic perceptions are an accepted means of attaining knowledge in Hindu tradition, we may ask whether such perceptions are in fact the basis of the theory or doctrine of karma.

It is certainly true that various modern Hindu sages have had experiences which, for them, confirmed the doctrine of rebirth. Swami Muktananda, in his autobiography Play of Consciousness, describes visions in which he visited several of the heavens and hells that are described by Hindu scriptures. Similarly, Mother Meera has painted a number of pictures of the after-life journey of her late friend Mr. Reddy. In her book Answers, Meera says "I simply paint what I see."

The Role of Scripture

Yet it is also true that the Hindu tradition seems to regard its oldest scriptures with greatest reverence, with successively less authority being ascribed to more and more modern writings. It is curious, for example, on reading Sankaracarya's commentary on the Brahma-Sutras, to discover how he makes himself subservient to the Upanisads and Vedas. Since Sankaracarya is one of the most prominent thinkers in the history of Hindu religion, and many of his own writings are viewed by devotees as scriptures themselves, you might think he would have recourse to some of his own perceptions when he interprets older scriptures. But he makes at least a pretense of regarding the authority of those scriptures as absolute, and he justifies his views strictly by citing appropriate scriptural references.

What are we supposed to make of this? That Sankaracarya was less enlightened or less psychically powerful than the authors of the Upanisads? He may have conceived himself to be so. However, his writing is filled with such elaborate rhetorical devices that this subservience could also be a pretense, assumed for the role of convincing readers who have more faith in the scriptures than they do in him. Others who have studied the rest of Sankaracarya's writings could comment on this issue more effectively. But the point remains that the old scriptures seem to be regarded more highly than the revelations of living masters.

Second-Hand Knowledge

The upshot is that, for ordinary people, the belief in reincarnation is based on trust in others who are thought to have superior access to spiritual knowledge. Those others might be ancient authors of the scriptures or the modern sages whose experiences confirm the scriptures.

For most ordinary people, then, the question becomes one of: Why should I trust the assertions made by these gurus? What reason do I have to believe that their teachings are correct? Following are some of the criteria we can apply when evaluating the doctrines of those who speak from revelation or psychic perception:

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Consistency and Explanatory Power

Internal Consistency

So far as I have been able to determine, the doctrine of karma is expounded by Hindu sources in a very incomplete manner. "Mysterious are the ways of karma" is one of the frequent refrains in writings upon this subject. The various "problems" I have addressed in this work arise precisely because of the incomplete manner in which the theory is described. Before I could reach any conclusions on the consistency of the theory, I had to infer a more complete version of the theory.

The good news is that fundamental contradictions seem to be lacking, though some Hindu teachers differ in their interpretation of the details. Even when you infer a more complete theory to fill in the gaps, no irreconcilable contradictions come to light.

Consistency with Other Teachers

What I mean by this heading is, "Consistency with other teachers who base their teachings on divine revelations or psychic experiences." If this means of knowledge is reliable, then seemingly it should produce consistent results among people around the world.

Joseph Head and S. L. Cranston, in their book Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology, cite examples of reincarnational belief from around the world. Still, there is no disguising the fact that not everyone believes in reincarnation and not all religions teach it. It is possible that the enlightened souls within each religious tradition have realized the truth of reincarnation. If this is so, then they apparently have not publicized this truth for some reason. Such a hidden unity of belief among religious masters is quite possible, but so far as I know, there is no objective evidence for it. For example, the biblical passages sometimes cited as referring to reincarnation can all be interpreted in other ways.

Another possibility is the One True Religion theory; the notion that one religion is correct, while all others are false. You could pick Hinduism as the correct religion and reject all the others; or you could say that Hinduism is more correct than other religions, which are partially correct to whatever extent they resemble Hinduism. However, it would be difficult to do this since Hinduism itself contains a number of problematical features.

Explanatory Power

What does the doctrine of karma and rebirth explain? Some of the candidates are:

However, all of these items are explainable in other ways, viz.:

Therefore, there is nothing explained by the doctrine of karma and rebirth that cannot be explained by other means. Nevertheless, this doctrine might be preferable if it has advantages compared to those other explanations. For example, you might find some cases of past-life recollections to be so remarkable and compelling as to demand belief. In any case, let us postpone that question for the moment and return to it later.

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Correctness of Related Teachings

The problematical features of Hinduism could be said to fall into two categories: instances of dubious values, and instances of incorrect knowledge claims.

Note: This section could be offensive to Hindus or others strongly sympathetic to this religion. Please understand that it is not my aim to devalue the religion as a whole, but merely to show that reasonable doubt attaches to some particular doctrines advocated by Hindu scriptures. This doubt has bearing on the question of whether the theory of karma is itself a reliable one.

Dubious Values

In one sense, values might seem to be beyond criticism, because values are statements of preference rather than of fact. However, values can work at cross purposes to each other. If you value the happiness of humanity in general, then some specific elements of Hinduism are of concern as they seem to militate against human happiness. Following are some examples:

Knowledge Claims

Much of Hindu metaphysics deals with issues that are not easily proven or disproven. However, like the Judeo-Christian scriptures, the Hindu scriptures do contain some theories about the physical universe that we can compare with our current knowledge. The topics we can examine in this way include:

Liberal and Fundamentalist Views

Faced with apparent discrepancies in scripture, the devotee often retreats either to a liberal or a fundamentalist position, as described under:

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Caste System

The first sticking point for a Westerner studying Hinduism is generally the caste system. Thus, in one of the most famous of the Vedic hymns, we read:

When they divided the Purusa, into how many parts did they arrange him? What was his mouth? What his two arms? What are his thighs and feet called? The brahmin was his mouth, his two arms were made the rajanya (warrior), his two thighs the vaisya (trader and agriculturalist), from his feet the sudra (servile class) was born.
— Purusa Suktam, quoted in Radhakrishan and Moore, A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy

The Bhagavad Gita goes further to say:

Better is one's own dharma, though imperfectly performed, than the dharma of another well performed. Better is death in the doing of one's own dharma: the dharma of another is fraught with peril.
— Bhagavad Gita 3:35

The above is in the context of Krishna urging Arjuna to do battle because it is his duty as a kshatriya (member of the warrior caste). A remarkable point is that Krishna appears to acknowledge that one's innate talents can differ from one's caste, but that being true to one's caste is nevertheless more important. Surely such values would lead to a fantastic waste of talent.

The following quote perhaps gives us an idea of what Krishna meant by "fraught with peril." This passage from the Laws of Manu gives the karmic punishments of those who stray from the duties of each of the four castes: priest, ruler (or warrior), commoner, and servant.

But those classes who slip away from their own innate activities when they are not in extremity pass through evil transmigrations and then become the menial servants of aliens. A priest who has slipped from his own duty becomes a "comet-mouth" ghost who eats vomit; a ruler becomes a "false-stinking" ghost who eats impure things and corpses. A commoner who has slipped from his duty becomes a ghost "who sees by an eye in his anus", eating pus; a servant becomes a "moth-eater" ghost.
— The Laws of Manu, 12:70-72

The Laws of Manu also states that sudras must not read the Vedas. On the other hand, a correspondent of mine named Vishal Agarwal informs me that the Yajurveda, White or Vajasneyi Samhita, contains the following verse, which clearly mentions instructing sudras about the Word:

I do hereby address this salutary speech for the benefit of humanity—for the Brahmanas, the Kshatriyas, the Shudras, the Vaishyas, for them who are your own and the foreignor alike.
—Yajurveda XXVI.2

Vishal mentions as well the Hindu dictum that "A smriti opposed to shruti is invalid." In other words, in Hinduism the Vedas, which are the oldest scriptures, are also regarded as the highest ones, the ones most directly revealed by God. Other scriptures are considered valid only insofar as they are consistent with the Vedas.

Some modern Hindu teachers assert that the caste system, in its original form, was not hereditary. Thus, Paramahansa Yogananda says:

"Inclusion in one of the four castes originally depended not on a man's birth but on his natural capabilities as demonstrated the by goal in life he elected to achieve," an article in East-West for January, 1935 tells us. "This goal could be (1) kama, desire, activity of the life of the senses (Sudra stage), (2) artha, gain, fulfilling but controlling the desires (Vaisya stage), (3) dharma, self-discipline, the life of responsibility and right action (Kshatriya stage), (4) moksha, liberation, the life of spirituality and religious teaching (Brahmin stage). These four castes render service to humanity by (1) body, (2) mind, (3) will power, (4) Spirit.

"These four stages have their correspondence in the eternal gunas or qualities of nature, tamas, rajas, and sattwa: obstruction, activity, and expansion... Thus has nature marked every man with his caste, by the predominance in himself of one, or the mixture of two, of the gunas. Of course every human being has all three gunas in varying proportions. The guru will be able rightly to determine a man's caste or evolutionary status."...

Serious evils arose when the caste system became hardened through the centuries into a hereditary halter. India, self-governing since 1947, is making slow but sure progress in restoring the ancient values of caste, based solely on natural qualification and not on birth.
— Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi

Another kindly correspondent, named Michael Kagan, has drawn my attention to the statements of the modern Hindu philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan about the caste system, such as the following:

The fourfold order is the caste system. The emphasis is on guna (aptitude) and karma (function), and not jati (birth). The varna, or the order to which we belong, is independent of sex, birth, and breeding. — A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy

Radhakrishnan cites a number of scriptural references to support this viewpoint. Thus, he mentions the story of Satyakama Jabala. In the story, a young man of uncertain caste goes to ask a guru for instruction. The guru asks of what family the young man is.

"I do not know this, Sir, of what family I am. I asked my mother. She answered me: 'In my youth, when I went about a great deal serving as a maid, I got you. So I do not know this, of what family you are. However, I am Jabala by name; you are Satyakama by name.' So I am Satyakama Jabala, sir."

To him he then said: "A non-brahmin would not be able to explain thus. Bring the fuel, my dear. I will receive you as a pupil. You have not deviated from the truth."
— Chandogya Upanisad, IV.iv.1-5; from A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy

In another Upanisad, we find

Then, who, verily is the Brahmana? He who, after directly perceiving, like the amalaka fruit in the palm of one's hand, the Self, without a second, devoid of distinctions of birth, attribute, and action, devoid of all faults... who functions as the indwelling spirit of all beings... and through the fulfilment of his nature, becomes rid of the faults of desire, attachment, etc., and endowed with qualities of tranquility... He alone who is possessed of these qualities is the Brahmana. This is the view of the Vedic texts and tradition, ancient lore and history.
— Vajrasucika Upanisad, in The Principal Upanisads

In his notes to this Upanisad, Radhakrishnan also quotes similar sentiments from various portions of the Mahabharata:

Listen about caste, Yaksa dear, not study, not learning is the cause of rebornness. Conduct is the basis, there is no doubt about it.
— Mahabharata, Aranya-parva 312.106

O King of serpents, he in whom are manifest truthfulness, charity, forbearance, good conduct, non-injury, austerity and compassion is a Brahmana according to the sacred tradition.
— Mahabharata, Aranya-parva 180.20

O serpent he in whom this conduct is manifest is a Brahmana, he in whom this is absent treat all such as Sudra.
— Mahabharata, Aranya-parva 180.27

The gods consider him a Brahmana (a knower of Brahman) who has no desires, who undertakes no work, who does not salute or praise anybody, whose work has been exhausted by who himself is unchanged.
— Mahabharata, XII.269.34

Similarly, he quotes

I am a poet, my father is a doctor, my mother a grinder of corn.
— Rg-Veda, ix.112.3, in Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosphy, Volume 1

On the other hand, in the Laws of Manu we find statements that seem to explicitly link caste to heredity.

In all castes those (children) only which are begotten in the direct order on wedded wives, equal (in caste and married as) virgins, are to be considered as belonging to the same caste (as their fathers).

Men who commit adultery with the wives of others, the king shall cause to be marked by punishments which cause terror, and afterwards banish. For by (adultery) is caused a mixture of the castes among men; thence (follows) sin, which cuts up even the roots and causes the destruction of everything.
— The Laws of Manu, X.5 and VIII.352-3

How do we reconcile these conflicting impressions? Radhakrishan says:

The original Aryans all belonged to one class, every one being priest and soldier, trader and tiller of the soil. There was no privileged order of priests. The complexity of life led to a division of classes among the Aryans... As we shall see, when sacrifices assume an important role, when the increasing complexity of life rendered necessary division of life, certain families, distinguished for learning, wisdom, poetic and speculative gifts, became representatives in worship... When the Vedic religion developed into a regulated ceremonialism, these families formed themselves into a class... The rest were classed as the people or the Vaisyas. Originally occupational, the division soon became hereditary... Those who followed the learned professions, those who fought, those who traded all belonged to one whole, which was separated by a wider gulf from the conquered races... It is sometimes said that the aborigines converted and accepted by the Aryans are the Sudras, while those excluded by them are the Panchamas. It is maintained by others that the Aryans had in their own communities Sudras even before they came to the southern part of India. It is not easy to decide between these rival hypotheses.
Indian Philosophy, Volume 1

And, again

Though originally framed on the basis of qualities, caste very soon became a matter of birth. It is hard to know who has which qualities. The only available test is birth. The confusion of birth and qualities has led to an undermining of the spiritual foundation of caste. There is no necessity why men of a particular birth should always possess the character expected of them. Since the facts of life do not answer to the logical ideal, the whole institution of caste is breaking down.
Indian Philosophy, Volume 1

These attempts to posit a "kinder, gentler" caste system tend to leave me a bit confused. If a caste is not hereditary, then in what sense is it a caste? By the time of the Bhagavad-Gita, at least, there is evidently considerable tension related to the caste structure, since Krishna says "Better is one's own dharma, though imperfectly performed, than the dharma of another well performed." Compare this with Yogananda's "Inclusion in one of the four castes originally depended not on a man's birth but on his natural capabilities as demonstrated by the goal in life he elected to achieve." On the contrary, Krishna seems to say that you should not elect your own goals in life, but follow those that have been determined for you.

If the earlier forms of Hinduism are indeed the purest, then it would be especially interesting to determine whether the Vedas discuss the doctrine of karma and reincarnation. Unfortunately, this is a topic that apparently is interpreted differently by different scholars. I will add further information as it becomes available to me.

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Sacred Animals

The Hindu attitude of reverence toward cows is of course well known. In this connection we find:

He should never emit excrement or urine while facing the wind or looking at fire, a priest, the sun, water, or cows.
The Laws of Manu, 4:48

The punishment in hell for those who break this rule is picturesque:

Crows rip out the intestines through the anus of men who urinate in front of cows, brahmins, the sun or fire.
Vamana Purana, in Classical Hindu Mythology, p. 51

The Hindu regard for cobras is a little less well-known. In this regard, we find

The cobra is responsible for many deaths each year in India, where it is regarded with religious awe and seldom killed. (Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia)

There is nothing logically inconsistent with supposing cows or cobras to be sacred. Hinduism is far from being the only religion to regard selected animals as specially sacred or specially unclean. However, when you compare various religions, you find that they do not agree about which animals are special. A Hindu incurs sin by eating beef, because cows are divine. Meanwhile, a Jew or Moslem can eat cows because they're really nothing special, but eating pork is bad because pigs are unclean. In Ancient Egypt, each county regarded a different animal as sacred, and one easy way to insult your neighbors was to eat their sacred animal. In other words, if there is any objective truth underlying most world religions, the rules about sacred and unclean animals are not part of that truth.

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Status of Widows

Like the caste system, the status of widows in Hinduism is an element that seems at first to be morally indefensible, but which becomes more complicated and difficult to define when you pursue it further. To begin with some of the worst examples, we find the following in The Laws of Manu:

A virtuous wife should never do anything displeasing to the husband who took her hand in marriage, when he is alive or dead, if she longs for her husband's world (after death) . . . She should be long-suffering until death, self-restrained, and chaste, striving (to fulfill) the unsurpassed duty of women who have one husband . . . But a woman who violates her (vow to her dead) husband because she is greedy for progeny is the object of reproach here on earth and loses the world beyond.
The Laws of Manu, 5:156,158,161

The policy with regard to widowers, however, is quite different:

When he has given the (sacrificial) fires in the final ritual to the wife who has died before him, he may marry again and kindle the fires again. He must never neglect the five (great) sacrifices, but should take a wife and live in his house, in accordance with this rule, for the second part of his life.
The Laws of Manu, 5:168-169

In discussing the punishments meted out in hell for various crimes, the Puranas yield the following insight:

Also those who remarry widows... must eat ants and worms.
Vamana Purana, in Classical Hindu Mythology, p. 51

So unfortunate was the fate of widows considered to be that we find the following cited as a benefit of chanting the Guru Gita:

It averts women's widowhood... If a widow repeats it without desire, she attains salvation. (If she repeats it) with desire, she will not become a widow in her next lifetime.
Guru Gita, v. 145-147

In addition, of course, one has heard the stories of women who were praised for their devotion because they flung themselves on their late husband's funeral pyre to burn up along with him. This practice is known as sati. A correspondent named Vishal Agarwal has provided me with the following quotes that advocate this practice or at least mention it without disapproval:

On the other hand, Vishal informs me that more liberal attitudes toward widowhood are expressed in some other scriptures, including the Vedas, which Hindus consider to be the most authoritative of their scriptures. I haven't yet had a chance to find copies of the quotations he cites. Until I do so, the following references might be of some use to serious students. According to Vishal,

To summarize, it appears that various Hindu scriptures give conflicting viewpoints on the status and proper conduct of widows. Vishal says

What then to do with these conflicting opinions, especially since there are literally 100's of verses in the Hindu literature forbidding widow remarriage? I feel that the Vedas, which are of paramount authority for Hindus, do not forbid remarriage of widows anywhere but rather advocate. They therefore automatically abrogate all contrary injunctions of other religious literature. The Poorva Meemamsa rules for the interpretation of scripture clearly state that if two smritis clash, the two conflicting viewpoints indicate alternative practices, both being equally valid. Even according to this rule, widow remarriage is offered as an alternative to the lifelong celibacy of widows in the Smritis.

My thanks to Vishal and to anyone with further references to share on this subject.

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World Cycles

Refer to The Hindu Theory of World Cycles elsewhere in this study.

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The Puranic description of the geography of Earth is full of fabulous elements. For example,

Earth, composed of seven continents, together with the oceans extends 500,000,000 leagues across. Holy Jambudvipa lies in the middle of all the continents; in its center is said to be lofty Mt. Meru, bright as gold. Its height is 84,000 leagues, and it extends 16,000 leagues below the earth; its width at the top is 32,000 leagues, and its diameter at the base is 16,000 leagues.
Kurma Purana, in Classical Hindu Mythology, p. 52

In this quote, "league" is presumably a translation of a Sanskrit term at least loosely approximating the usual English meaning of "league" (about three miles). At this rate, Mt. Meru is something like 252,000 miles high. The tallest actual mountain on Earth is Mt. Everest, at about 29,000 ft, or less than six miles.

In the next quote we see that the impossibly high Mt. Meru is held to be the source of really existing rivers in India such as the Sita:

Ganga, the heavenly river flowing from the feet of Visnu and inundating the orb of the moon, falls all around the city of Brahma. Falling on the four regions, O twice-born ones, she subdivides into four rivers, namely Sita, Alakananda, Sucaksus and Bhadra. The river Sita flows from the atmosphere east of Mt. Meru and then through the eastern range called Bhadrasva to the sea. And each of the others does likewise: Alakananda to the South enters Bharatavarsa; Sucaksus to the West falls on Ketumala, and Bhadra to the North falls through Uttarakuru...
Kurma Purana, in Classical Hindu Mythology, p. 54

The scripture then describes nine different subcontinents, of which one (Bharatavarsa) includes or is the same as India. Eight of the subcontinents are populated by people who live paradisial lives. Their lifespans are 10,000 years apiece or more and their diet consists of sweet foods like bread-fruit and sugarcane. By contrast,

In Bharatavarsa women and men display diverse colors, worship various gods and perform many different duties. The full length of their lives is said to be a hundred years, O virtuous ones. They consume all kinds of food and live their lives according to virtue or vice... In these eight subcontinents, Kimpurusa and the others, O great sears, there is neither sorrow nor weariness, and no anxiety, hunger, or fear. And the people, healthy, unoppressed, free from all cares, ever youthful, all enjoy themselves in various ways. Only in Bharatavarsa, the wise say, and nowhere else, occur the four Ages: Krta, Treta, Dvapara and Kali.
Kurma Purana, in Classical Hindu Mythology, p. 54

Of these nine [lands], it is in Bharat-varsha only that there are sorrow, weariness, and hunger; the inhabitants of other varshas are exempt from all distress and pain, and there is in them no distinction of yugas. Bharata is the land of works, where men perform actions, winning either a place in Heaven, or release; or, it may be, rebirth in Hell, according to their merit. Bharata is, therefore, the best of Varshas; other varshas are for enjoyment alone. Happy are those who are reborn, even were they gods, as men in Bharat-varsha, for that is the way to the Supreme.
Coomaraswamy and Nivedita, 396

In this theory of geography, it is only on one subcontinent that people experience what we think of as normal human life, with its usual span of years and usual mixture of pleasure and pain. Most of the subcontinents are earthly paradises. Yet paradise is always somewhere else, on another continent far away (as proposed by Hindu geography) or in the far distant past (as proposed by the Hindu theory of world cycles).

Today the entire planet is explored, mapped, and surveyed by satellites, and no earthly paradises have come to light. You can still imagine that some hidden Shangri-La is tucked away somewhere, but it would have to be pretty small. The paradisial subcontinents proposed by Hindu geography would have been easy to imagine thousands or even hundreds of years ago, when every world map had blank stretches labeled "Terra Incognita." However, today we know that these places simply don't exist.

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Astronomy and the Heavens

The Hindu concepts of astronomy and of the celestial heavens are inextricably bound together, as we see in the following:

This earth, which is the object of the physical senses and of the knowledge based thereon, is but one of fourteen worlds or regions placed "above" and "below" it... The sphere of earth (Bhurloka), with its continents, their mountains and rivers, and with its oceans, is the seventh and lowest of the upper worlds. Beneath it are the Hells and Nether Worlds, the names of which are given below. Above the terrestrial sphere is Bhuvarloka, or the atmospheric sphere known as the antariksha, extending "from the earth to the sun," in which the Siddhas and other celestial beings (devayoni) of the upper air dwell. "From the sun to the pole star" (dhruva) is svarloka, or the heavenly sphere.
--John Woodroffe (1), 24

Note that Bhuvarloka and Svarloka are two of the heavenly realms in which we may experience the rewards of good deeds in between earthly lives. Here they are given a physical location as concentric spheres grouped around the earth like layers of an onion. The same type of image is picked up in the following text:

Bhurloka, Bhuvarloka, Svarloka, Maharloka, Janaloka, Taparloka and Satyaloka are the worlds thought to have their origin in the egg. In the old stories Bhurloka is said to stretch out as far as sun and moon radiate their beams of light, O bulls of the twice-born. As far as Bhurloka extends in width and circumference, so does Bhuvarloka spread out from the sphere of the sun, from which sphere the firmament extends upward as far as Dhruva* is located. This region is called Svarloka... The sphere of the sun lies 100,000 leagues from earth. The orb of the moon is also said to be 100,000 leagues from the sun. The whole circle of naksatras** appears the same distance from the moon. Twice this distance beyond the naksatras, O wise ones, is the planet Budha (Mercury), and Usanas (Venus) dwells the same distance from Budha. Angaraka (Mars) too is the same distance from Sukra (Venus). The priest of the gods (Brhaspati/Jupiter) resides 200,000 leagues from Bhauma (Mars), while Sauri (Saturn) is the same distance from the guru (Jupiter). This is the sphere of the planets. The sphere of the Seven Seers*** shines 100,000 leagues' distance from that. Dhruva* dwells the same number of leagues above the sphere of the seers. Dhruva is the central point of this entire wheel of luminaries in which resides the lord Dharma, Visnu Narayana.
--Kurma Purana, in Classical Hindu Mythology, pp. 46-47.

* The pole star
** The stellar constellations through which the moon appears to pass in the course of its orbit
*** The Little Dipper

There are a number of inaccuracies in this account, including:

In addition to the inaccuracies, there is the strange omission of all mention of the outer planets (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto). This omission is easy to understand if you suppose the Hindu astronomy was based on naked-eye observations; much more difficult if you suppose that such knowledge come from the infallible psychic insight of great rishis.

Note that both the descriptions above link Bhurloka and Bhuvarloka to the (inaccurate) conceptions of the physical solar system. This being the case, what confidence can we have in other scriptural statements about these lokas, or about the cycle of reincarnation that takes souls to and from these lokas?

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Symbolic, Figurative, or Metaphorical Interpretations

Faced with scriptural inaccuracies such as these, it is common for the theologian (of whatever religion) to either take a fundamentalist hard line or to suggest that certain doctrines were always intended figuratively rather than literally.

The fundamentalist hard line simply denies the truth of any scientific findings that contradict scripture. In the West, the whole controversy about teaching evolution in classrooms stems from this fundamentalist hard line, but there are fundamentalists in the East as well, as we see in the following anecdote:

When I was in India in the winter of 1954, in conversation with an Indian gentleman of just about my own age, he asked with a certain air of distance, after we had exchanged formalities, "What are you Western scholars now saying about the dating of the Vedas?"

The Vedas, you must know, are the counterparts for the Hindu of the Torah for the Jew. They are his scriptures of the most ancient date and therefore of the highest revelation.

"Well," I answered, "the dating of the Vedas has lately been reduced and is being assigned, I believe, to something like 1500 to 1000 B.C. As you probably know," I added, "there have been found in India itself the remains of an earlier civilization than the Vedic."

"Yes," said the Indian gentleman, not testily but firmly, with an air of untroubled assurance, "I know; but as an orthodox Hindu I cannot believe that there is anything in the universe earlier than the Vedas."

"Okay," said I. "Then why did you ask?"

--Joseph Campbell, p. 17

The liberal line, which interprets things figuratively, seems at first more attractive. It does not require you to believe anything known to be untrue, and it finds a residual value in those cherished teachings that are not literally true. However, there are two problems with this approach:

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Intuitive "Rightness"

Although we have been speaking in a fairly analytical way up to this point, it is well to bear in mind that, in daily life, most of our knowledge is not arrived at through analysis. It is thought by many that the intuitive faculties of the human mind can draw on much more information than we can assess analytically, and certainly there are a lot of remarkable anecdotes about the power of dreams and intuition in problem-solving. Thus, it seems worthwhile to take a look at the intuitive appeal of karma.

The Moral Order

In the first place, we have probably all had the experience of doing something we believed to be wrong, and experiencing a certain twinge. Remorse is certainly part of it, but there seems also to be a definite component of fear. On some level, we must expect to be punished, even if there is no rational reason to believe such a punishment will occur.

Hopefully we have also each had the experience of doing something unusually decent for another human being, and feeling warmed by the experience, almost as if we had earned the approval of a loving parent.

So the intuition of a moral order, somehow more definite and objective than mere social convention, is a common one in humanity. Yet in daily life we seem often to see examples of bad things happening to good people, and good things happening to bad people.

The theory of karma has a definite appeal in this area, as it proposes that we really will be rewarded or punished for our good and bad actions. In fact, in this area the theory of karma has an advantage even over Western religious ideas of an eternal Heaven and eternal Hell; because any reward or punishment of infinite duration is clearly not in proportion to one's original acts.

I once saw a show in which Bill Moyers interviewed the scholar Elaine Pagels. She made the point that guilt can, in a perverse way, be comforting. For if you suppose that the suffering in your life is a punishment for past misdeeds, then it follows that you can amend your life and thus avoid future punishments. But if you suppose that suffering is meted out by chance, then the whole system is out of your control. The theory of karma provides a reassurance of this moral order and makes the world a less frightening place.

Continuing Existence

Although there is much to indicate that we each exist only for a short lifespan, humans have long denied that this is so. Intellectually one can grasp the fact that we are bound to die; but the idea remains an abstraction, hard to relate to in a personal sense. It seems that some part of us does not really expect to die and does not really believe that we can simply cease to be.

Similarly, for some the experiences of deja vu can be very strong. People visiting regions far from home may have a sudden sense of "homecoming" or some other intense emotional response that has no obvious cause. Even when simply reading of ancient cultures, one may feel an abiding sympathy with some and an instant antipathy to others, as if we have been biased by previous experiences long lost to conscious memory.

Related to deja vu is the sense of predestination and hidden causalities in life. When we reflect on the little incidents that first bring us into contact with the person we wind up marrying, we may find it hard to believe that it all happened by chance. When we go on a trek to the Gobi desert and unexpectedly run into an old friend from high school, we are surprised by the coincidence, and understandably curious to know what hidden force has brought us back together.

All these feelings accord well with the doctrine of karma and reincarnation.


Symmetry in general also has a powerful aesthetic appeal, and when described in simplistic terms, the theory of karma sounds nicely symmetrical. Thus, karma is sometimes summarized by the statement that "every action has an equal and opposite reaction," just as in Newtonian physics.

Unfortunately, this perception of symmetry is based largely on an incomplete knowledge of karma theory. The fact that people have differing natures makes it unlikely that people will return to you exactly the deeds that you did to them. Thus you are faced with reprisals that come through other people or that take a form quite different from the original act (for example, your repayment might be a bodily disease).


A striking feature of the theory of karma is that it seems to become more complex and baroque the more closely you look at it, with areas that are obscure and mechanisms that in some cases seem redundant. Our discussion of Problems in the Theory of Karma yielded many examples of these complexities and obscurities, such as :

Ideally, a theory should be simpler than the phenomena it seeks to explain. It is not clear that the theory of karma really achieves this goal.

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The Divine Imperative

In reading statements made by Christian fundamentalists, I was greatly surprised to discover that some, at least, feel that their belief was thrust upon them against their will. The notion is that "God awakened me and made me to believe; I had no choice but to obey."

I have to confess to a little skepticism in this regard, since I find myself so well able to doubt almost anything that I think about too much. My suspicion is that people adopt this attitude to avoid having to examine beliefs that are basically indefensible. In other words, one's own fears could cause one to cling to one's beliefs, even without the direct intervention of God.

However, from a strictly logical point of view we cannot deny the possibility of an omnipotent God who chooses to make certain people believe certain things. Perhaps this God even forces some people to believe in the doctrine of karma. Even if this is so, however, we can hardly be sure that the beliefs he forces on people are correct beliefs.

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Scientific Study

And as far as the plausibility of rebirth is concerned, physical sciences and their theories are irrelevant. The methodology of physical sciences is made to measure for the investigation of physical energy. If there is more to a human being than physical energy as the philosophy of rebirth certainly believes there is, science cannot be the last word on what is or is not possible where human beings are concerned.
--Pratima Bowes, in Pappu, 186

Does the doctrine of karma assert that there is "more to a human being than physical energy"? At first glance, it would certainly appear so. After all, after death the physical body remains inert and eventually decomposes, while according to karma theory, the individual person has left the body and moved on to other realms.

However, what we are dealing with here is not simply a distinction between two realms of existence, material and spiritual, or between a body and a soul. The situation is more complex than that, for Hinduism recognizes several different layers or envelopes in the human constitution. There is the gross physical body, the subtle body, the causal body, and according to some teachers, the supracausal body as well. (Riviere 28-32; Muktananda (2), 86; Woodroffe (2), 54-58). Each of these bodies is more subtle than the preceding one. We experience the waking state in the gross body, the dream state in the subtle body, the dreamless sleep state in the causal body, and the turiya (enlightened) state in the supracausal body. The latter three (subtle, causal, and supracausal) all survive bodily death.

Now, the important point is that these various layers of the human constitution apparently all interact. Thus, physical disciplines such as yoga postures can be undertaken to purify channels and chakras that really are components of the subtle body; and meditation which is a subtle practice is nevertheless supposed to be good for physical health. So what you have is a more complex form of the traditional mind-body problem of Western philosophy: if the mind is not physical, how does it interact with the physical brain and body? Or if the subtle, causal, and supracausal bodies are not physical, how can they interact with the physical body?

Indeed, it is not really clear what it would mean to say that something exists and yet is not physical. One thinks of Bertrand Russell's "universals," but these don't seem to correspond well to the notion of an individual soul. Russell's universals are qualities that inhere in specific physical things, such as quantity, color, number, etc. but which can be treated of almost as if they had a quasi-independent, non-physical existence. Still, it seems awkward to say that a particular person's soul is an abstract quality like a number. Personalities seem to be more particular than that.

It is well to understand that the physical realm could contain many aspects that have not been discovered yet. Currently scientists are speculating that space may contain several higher dimensions that we cannot observe directly. The subtle, causal, and supracausal bodies might in fact reflect such dimensions. Thus, it would be premature to assume that these subtle aspects of the human constitution are not physical.

It is also worth pointing out that the scope of science is not limited to those things that we can observe directly. Many of the things that science studies (quarks, for example) are originally not seen directly, but instead are postulated to explain the behavior of other things. Some things, such as black holes, are postulated only because they follow as a consequence of the mathematics that describes other things.

Further, it should be noted that scientific instruments are now able to detect many things that are not apparent to our physical senses. X-ray film, optical telescopes and radio telescopes, microscopes, radar, and sonar are just some of the techniques by which science has transcended the limits of our own senses. You could look at them as examples of a type of extrasensory perception. Although these tools of perception are external to ourselves, the types of information they perceive could in principle be the same as psychics perceive with their psychic faculties.

There does not seem to be anything logically incoherent in supposing that, at some future date, we might develop an instrument that can detect the subtle body. Such an instrument might even be able to view the subtle body as it leaves the physical body at the time of death. Perhaps we could even attach the equivalent of a radio tracking collar to the soul, so that we could monitor the progress of the soul until its next rebirth. Similarly, a new type of X-ray device could perhaps photograph the samskaras in our bodies, and diagnose the fruits that each are destined to bear.

Thus, I cannot see any a priori reason for supposing that the theory of karma cannot be studied by science. However, the practical situation at the moment is quite different. We don't appear to have the tools at present to measure the existence of a soul, assuming that such a thing really exists.

It is still possible that science could postulate a soul to explain the order underlying various experimental results. In fact, a few neuroscientists (notably Sir John Eccles) believe that brain studies support the probability that there is more to the "self" than our physical brain. Such appears to be a minority viewpoint among neuroscientists, however.

Yet as long as the mind/body problem has not been definitively solved, and as long as the functions of the brain are not understood in exact detail, there is going to be room for the concept of a soul. It does not follow from this that the soul is a truly scientific hypothesis, however. In order to be a scientific hypothesis, an idea has to have explanatory power; it has to find order in existing observations, and make distinctive and testable predictions about the results of future observations. We seem to be very far from developing any such scientific concept of the soul, much less of karma.

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My study of karma and rebirth has yielded no certain results. However, in general the more closely I have looked into the topic, the less satisfied I have become with the whole theory. I have found that:

Nevertheless, I do not mean to imply that the doctrine has no value. Nor do I doubt that many who created this belief system or teach it today are beings of great spiritual advancement; saints, if you will. The remarkable thing is that the state of enlightenment does not appear to give any particular privileged status with regard to knowledge. But that is a larger subject to be explored in a different paper.

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Copyright 1996-2001 by Joseph F. Morales