The Problem of Desires

What Causes a Desire to Be Fulfilled?

In the first place, desires determine our actions; as shown by:

As is his desire, so is his will; as is his will, so is the deed he does, whatever deed he does, that he attains. --Brhad-aranyaka Upanisad (Radhakrishnan), IV.4.5

On another level, desires are themselves a form of actions. There are two components:

Ramana Maharshi compares samskaras to slides in a projector. Brahma would be the light the shines through the slides and causes that image to be actualized in the world.

Why Are Desires Not Fulfilled Immediately?

Rama Tirtha says that desires are fulfilled sooner if they are few and small in number; and that prayers come true if the person is merged in God-consciousness while they pray.

We infer that desires vary in force. Further, they vary in terms of the difficulty of what they ask for. Although infinite Brahma is latent in each of us, the desires of many people are creating the state of the cosmos at any given time. In order to make it possible for all desires to come true, people often have to take turns.

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What Aspect of an Action is Returned to You?

The subtle effect of an action (karma) is to reflect the action back to you. But what aspect of the action?

For example, suppose you hire a singer to play at your wedding. Then you pay the singer less than you had agreed to. Are we to infer that, in future, your roles will exactly reverse? (That is, you sing at his wedding and he pays you less than promised.) No, because he has strong desires toward singing, whereas you have strong desires toward listening.

Therefore, possibly, in a future birth, you pay a singer in advance to sing at your wedding, and the singer never shows up. Then you experience the pain of having someone break their agreement to you; this is the pain you caused the singer in the first life.

The karmic principle seems to be that you are repaid by the same amount of pleasure or pain that you caused others with your original action.

Sometimes there is an additional symmetry, in which the circumstances that cause you the pleasure or pain also resemble your original action. But this symmetry does not always apply. For example, a disease might be caused by bad karma, but the original action might have had nothing to do with disease.

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Doesn't this Contradict the Law of Desire?

Now we see that the law of actions seems to run contrary to the law of desire. For example, when I steal, it is because I desire to get something for nothing. If in a future life, I am stolen from in turn, this can hardly said to be a fulfillment of my desire.

So how can the law of action and the law of desire coexist? Further, how can these laws be seen as expressions of a single underlying world-order?

Hindu philosophy speaks of the world as manifesting through a creative impulse (Brahma), and being destroyed through a transcendent impulse (Shiva). In between, the existing world is sustained by Vishnu, who is a sort of balancing point between the tendencies of creation and dissolution. After the dissolution, the world is chaos and is again at a balancing point between creation and dissolution; and the governing impulse here is Narayana. Narayana is identified with Vishnu. They are each a point of balance, but experienced at opposite ends of the circle.

In Native American thought this circle becomes the Medicine Wheel, and the four points the four directions or four seasons. In Egyptian thought a similar idea seems to be symbolized by the cycle of the sun through day and night. Khepera, the sun at dawn, is like Brahma; Aten, the sun at noon, is like Vishnu; Atum, the sun at dusk, is like Shiva; and Auf-Ra, the sun hidden by its passage through the underworld at night, is like Narayana.

In Hindu thought, each human is a universe in miniature, so these four tendencies are present in each human being as well; but they are spoken of as three, since Narayana and Vishnu are lumped together. Now, these three tendencies manifest on several levels, from more subtle or spiritual levels, down to gross physical levels.

At the level of mental faculties, these principles are spoken of as iccha (desire or will), jnana (knowledge) and kriya (action). These are evolutes of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva respectively.

At the level of mental and emotional tendencies, these principles are spoken of as the gunas, which are rajas (passion), sattva (purity), and tamas (darkness).

So if you think about it, a desire involves the faculty of iccha and the guna of rajas. Both are evolutes of Brahma, the creative impulse. From this you can naturally derive the law of desire, that is, the nature of desires to become fulfilled.

The situation with actions is more complex. All action requires the faculty of action, kriya, which is an evolute of Shiva. In an ordinary person, this kriya is prompted by iccha, volition. Depending on the type of volition, the action has the character of rajas, sattva, or tamas. It seems that

Beyond these three is the mysterious type of action that the Bhagavad Gita refers to as "action without attachment" and the Taoist tradition refers to as "non-doing." This would seem to be a type of action in which the kriya faculty is present, but iccha is either missing or somehow purified so as to lack its normal effect. This is the type of action that produces no karma at all.

To return to the original question: why do actions have this boomerang effect of coming back to hit you in the face? We can infer that the "creative" effects of iccha are being modified by the "destructive" aspects of kriya (an evolute of Shiva the destroyer). The combination apparently creates a samskara that is in some sense an inverted image of your action: an image of it being done to you instead of to someone else.

So our hypothesis is that the iccha faculty (desire/volition) creates those things called samskaras, which we carry with us from birth to birth. In the case of actions, the samskaras are created in an "inverted" form due to the influence of kriya. All desires tend to manifest/actualize themselves eventually, due to the power of our own inner Brahma shining through them.

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Whose Samskaras?

Both Ramana Maharshi and Swami Muktananda refer to prarabdha karma (that karma that reaches fruition in our current life) as being of three types: iccha (desired), aniccha (undesired), and pariccha (desired by others). Unfortunately, I haven't found the scriptural source for this doctrine, but we'll take it as a given.

If you relate these categories to samskaras, my guess would be that

This list raises the interesting question: In actions involving two or more people, is the later repayment caused by the samskaras of the person who committed the original action, by those of the person who received the action, or by neither? The following examples explore this question.

Example 1: Action Returned by the Recipient

Suppose I get angry and hit Ralph on the nose. Suppose that Ralph is a vengeful person, but for some reason he isn't able to hit me back right away; perhaps I knocked him out, and I'm gone when he wakes up. In this case, I have a samskara that requires punishment for having hit him; he has a samskara from his desire to hit me back. So in a future life, we probably meet up again, and he finds some pretext to hit me on the nose. This aspect of my prarabdha would seemingly be classified as both aniccha and pariccha. This is probably okay as neither Ramana nor Muktananda said that the categories were mutually exclusive.

Example 2: Action Not Returned by the Recipient

Suppose I didn't hit Ralph. Instead, I hit some sincere pacifist on the nose. Call him Gandhi. Now, Gandhi might be angry at me, but he's committed to nonviolence. No matter how many times I'm born, he's not going to hit me back. In this case, something different must happen. In this case, I might simply slip up sometime and hit myself in the nose with a hammer. This might be considered an instance of aniccha (undesired) prarabdha.

Example 3: Actions Committed Against an Unknowing Recipient

Suppose that I kill Ralph by sneaking up and shooting him in the back. He never saw me. In this case, no matter how vengeful Ralph might normally be, he simply doesn't know who killed him.

The question is whether this example most resembles Example 1 or Example 2. If you suppose the Ralph's knowledge is limited, then the situation is like Example 2, where Ralph would never be inclined to return the action to me. But if you suppose that something in Ralph's subconscious is omniscient, this subconscious mechanism could form a samskara that would affect his behavior toward me in future lives. In this case the recompense is more like Example 1.

Example 4: Actions Returned by Other Than the Recipient

Suppose I hit Gandhi on the nose as in Example 2. We have already considered the possibility that this karma might express itself as accidental self-injury. Another possibility is that someone other than Gandhi might return the action.

Can an action be returned by someone other than the original recipient? There are some contrary indications in the sources we have consulted. Thus, the Great Master seems to imply that the action must be repaid by its original recipient:

"Suppose a man is fond of game shooting and kills one hundred animals in his life," said the Great Master. "This heavy debt can only be cleared by all those animals taking the life of the hunter in their turn. So he will require one hundred lives to adjust this account created by one bad habit only."
--Great Master, 99

On the other hand, Swami Sivananda speaks of a Law of Coincidence:

Suppose there is a poor intelligent boy in India. He has an intense desire to go to England for his I.C.S. examination... Suppose also that there is a rich lady in England who has no son and has intense desire to get an intelligent one. The poor boy may get his next birth in London as the son of the rich lady according to the law of coincidence.
--Swami Sivananda (1), 84-85

Is it possible to reconcile these points of view? The following factors might bear on this issue:

From a philosophic standpoint, Sivananda's view is preferable because it allows for more flexibility, and makes it easier to believe that some combination can always be found that will fulfill one's karma. If you take the Great Master literally, you cannot explain how the assailant of Gandhi will ever get repaid. You also cannot explain how a person's actions can be repaid if their recipient has since become enlightened and left this world permanently.

Example 5: Actions Completely Due to Others' Karma

Can we be affected by pariccha karma that has no corresponding iccha or aniccha karma on our side?

For example, imagine a beautiful actress named Roxanne. Some crazy fan fancies himself in love with Roxanne and decides to kidnap her. Can this happen because of the fan's karma alone, or must Roxanne have some past karma that contributes to her situation?

If you admit that someone else's desires can affect you in ways that you haven't earned by your own karma, then the system allows whimsical and undeserved punishments. But the doctrine of karma, above all else, claims to show that the circumstances of our lives are fair because suffering is always a punishment for past misdeeds. Therefore, we must deny that pariccha can operate upon us unless it matches our own iccha or aniccha karma.

In this example, we have to suppose that Roxanne's plight results from her own karma, whereas the kidnapper's actions arise from his own karma. How these two happen to coincide is discussed next in "The Problem of Complexity."

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The Problem of Complexity

The problem of complexity is the logistical problem involved in coordinating the lives of billions of people so that each will have the opportunity to repay karmic debts. What determines the order in which these effects are experienced? How does it happen that the people relevant to my karma should always happen to be around when I need to undergo the fruits of some karma?

Ramana Maharshi credits God with personally picking and choosing the karmas that will bear fruit it each person's life:

Q. Who is the projectionist? What is the mechanism that selects a small portion of the sanchita karma and then decides that it shall be experienced as prarabdha karma?

A. Individuals have to suffer their karma but Iswara manages to make the best of their karmas for his purpose. God manipulates the fruits of karma but he does not add or take away from it. The subconscious of man is a warehouse of good and bad karma. Iswara chooses from this warehouse what he sees will best suit the spiritual evolution at the time of each man, whether pleasant or painful. Thus there is nothing arbitrary.
--Ramana Maharshi, 218-219

Sri Sankaracarya apparently has a more mechanistic conception of the process, as described below:

Which karmic residues work themselves out sooner? And which ones constitute the prarabdhakarman for a given lifetime as opposed to others which are sancita -- stored up for later fruition? Sankara seems to think that in general the more intense and proximate residues, whether sinful or meritorious, tend to mature first, but that the general rule here is subject to many exceptions because there are incompatibilities among several residues which have equal claim but only one of which can mature at a time.
--Karl H. Potter, in O'Flaherty, 258

I haven't located all the statements by Sankaracarya that Potter is apparently summarizing above. However, the following statements, made in passing during a discussion of the fruition of karmas in heaven and hell, do seem consistent with Potter's description:

...If the dormant karma cannot function before death, it being obstructed by the active karma, then since on the same ground the conflicting results of diverse works cannot fructify simultaneously at the time of death, the weaker karma cannot reasonably become active then, it being obstructed by the stronger one...

Smrti also shows that a karma can remain dormant for a long time when it is obstructed by some other karma having a contrary result; for instance, there are texts of the following class: "Sometimes it so happens that for a man sunk in this world, a virtuous work remains dormant here till he becomes free from sorrow (through suffering)."
--Sri Sankaracarya, Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya, III.i.8

So, while Ramana describes the process of selection as one performed by a caring God for our benefit, Sankaracarya refers to competition among the karmas themselves. The two viewpoints can be harmonized by supposing that the most intense karmas are, by their very nature, the ones that we would benefit most from experiencing first. And anything that happens is ultimately attributable to Ishwara, regardless of in what way or at what level the will of Ishwara is expressed.

The intensity of a karma is probably the same as the intensity of the original desire; the desire we had to possess something, or the desire we had that caused us to commit some particular action.

We can imagine a simple mechanism for sorting and reconciling the effects of all these karmas in a distributed way. Each person (jiva) is a storage house of samskaras and the creative energy shining through those samskaras, which causes them to manifest.

Now we want to use the metaphor of a web. From each jiva in the web, a strand of attractive force could be said to emanate outward through each of that jiva's samskaras. Each strand connects that jiva to the other jivas involved in a particular karma. The attractive force of each strand is proportional to the intensity of the desire that created the samskara.

At any given time, each jiva is being pulled upon by all the strands that connect it to other jivas. These can be visualized as vectors of force pulling in various directions. Physicists have mathematical methods for calculating the effect when various vectors are added together. A similar rationale could, in principle, be used to calculate the direction the jiva will move.

This direction manifests itself as a subconscious desire on the part of the jiva. Suppose that all the people I have intense karma with are currently living in New York state, but I live in California. A subconscious impetus ensues that causes me to imagine various reasons why it might be desirable to move to New York; all the time, I am unaware of the real karmic motivations that underlie my behavior.

The metaphor of the karmic web is an example of a self-organizing system. Without outside interference, it will tend to bring together the people who need to work out intense karmas. It also conforms with Sankara's statement that no single karma, no matter how intense, is guaranteed to manifest first. This follows because one's life is determined by the combined effect of all the strands of the web.

The karmic web is an example of the way the doctrine of karma can be extended, or interpreted, so as to manifest those qualities of simplicity and beauty that are considered harbingers of truth in scientific theory.

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The Problem of Residual Karma

Suppose I steal 50 dollars from Donna. Now, perhaps Donna has only a mild desire for revenge and steals only 30 dollars from me. In this case, is there a residual left over from the original samskara? What happens to that residual? Does the samskara negotiate with someone else who will steal an additional 20 dollars from me? What if there's no one around who wants to steal that exact amount?

Even if Donna stole exactly 50 dollars back from me, it is hardly possible that the money will have the exact same significance in my life that it did in hers when I first stole it from her. The whole context of my life is different. I might have used that money to buy a book, but she might have used the same money to buy a dress.

Because of such problems, I would like to propose that individual karmas are rarely completely repaid by individual responses. Instead, patterns of similar karmas tend to form a composite force that attracts appropriate types of responses to you. Thus a habitual thief earns a series of punishments appropriate to thievery. For convenience, we'll refer to this tendency as the Law of Blending.

Only in the case of extremely intense karmas could we reasonably expect a single climactic event that repays all at one shot.

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The Problem of Conflicting Desires

Take the case of unrequited love. Perhaps 1 million men in the world have a serious crush on supermodel Claudia Schiffer. If all desires must be fulfilled, does it follow that Claudia must take a million more births so as to marry these men one by one? If not, then how are the desires of her fans to be fulfilled?

Even supposing that Claudia takes another million births to fulfill her fans' desires, how likely is it that she will look the same in each birth? Claudia in her next birth may be a brunette. Thus she will no longer resemble the woman that her fans desired. Even if she marries them, their desires are not precisely fulfilled.

Even in everyday life, how often does the person you desire turn out to be quite different than you expected, when you get to know them better? But you desired them based on your image of what you thought they were like. How, then, can your desires be fulfilled?

I suppose the answer would lie in the following factors:

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The Problem of Failed and Accidental Actions

Now consider cases where the intent behind an action does not match the results of an action. Bear in mind that the desire behind an action must be crucial in shaping karma, since those who act without desire are said to accrue no karma.

We can handle these situations by supposing that there are different levels of karma: physical karma and mental karma, if you will. Consider the following examples:

Failed Actions
I'm hopping mad at my boss and I decide to shoot him. I fire the gun with this intent clearly in mind, but I miss.
The repayment in this case would take some form that would cause me the mental suffering that a murderer deserves, but not the physical pain. Perhaps I am unjustly convicted of murder in a future life, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Blameless Accidents
I'm driving a car when an oncoming car drifts into my lane. I swerve to avoid that car and drive onto the road shoulder, killing a pedestrian. I was using reasonable caution at the time, but circumstances conspired against me.
The repayment in this case would damage my body without having much affect on my mind. Perhaps I am hit by a car and die instantly at a ripe old age.
Negligent Accidents
I'm driving faster than I should on a rainy night. I don't notice someone on the crosswalk until it is too late, and I accidentally hit them.
The repayment(s) in this case must punish you not only for the night you crashed, but for all the other times you were negligent but didn't happen to hit anyone. Thus it might not be unreasonable for you also to be hit and seriously injured by a negligent driver; though no one negligent action was wicked enough to deserve this, the combination of them all might be sufficient.

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The Problem of Astral Vs. Physical Fruition

If we receive repayment for our deeds in our future earthly births, then why is it necessary that we also receive reward and punishment in the heavens and hells? How is it decided which karmas will be repaid in the earth plane, and which in the various astral planes? On this subject, Sivananda says:

There is double retribution or reward for man's virtuous actions. He gets after his sojourn in Heaven, and return to the earth, a good birth with good surroundings, environments and opportunities for his good actions and inner evolution.
--Swami Sivananda (2), 204

Every wrong action causes punishment first in the inner nature or soul and externally in circumstances in the form of pain, misery, loss, failure, misfortune, disease, etc.
--Swami Sivananda (2), 104

On the other hand, the Upanisads seem to imply that all karmas are exhausted in the heavens or hells before rebirth takes place. Following is an example:

Exhausting the results of whatever works he did in this world he comes again from that world, to this world for (fresh) work.
--Brhad-aranyaka Upanisad (Radhakrishnan), IV.4.6

Sri Sankaracarya examines this issue at some length in Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya, III.i.8. He concludes that not all karmas are exhausted in the heavens or hells; rather, we return to this world with residual karmas:

Therefore by residual karmas are meant those other effects in this world and which will still stand over after experiencing the results that were to fructify there (in heaven); with these former the souls descend.

However, Sankaracarya does not explain in this passage what causes some merits to fructify in heaven, while others bear fruit in the next earthly birth.

There is some indication that the system of heavens and hells is to restore a balance of good and bad karma that makes it possible to be born again on the earth plane:

Some say that if one's merits and demerits are equal, they are directly reborn here. Merits outweighing demerits, the subtle bodies go to heaven and are then reborn there; demerits outweighing merits, they go to hells and are afterwards reborn here.
--Ramana Maharshi, 198

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The Problems of Birth and Death

To a modern Westerner, the descriptions of the way the soul leaves the body and passes to heaven, and the way the soul returns to earth and is reborn again, are perhaps the least plausible-sounding elements of the theory of karma.

The Upanisads offer a number of varying and rather obscure descriptions of the path after death. See The Path of the Gods and The Path of the Fathers. Sankaracarya has to devote some considerable effort to harmonizing these accounts in Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya IV.iii.

One feature the descriptions have in common is that one passes physically upward to the moon or sun in order to reach the various heavens. The followers of the Path of the Fathers are said to remain on the moon, performing sacrifices to the gods until their good karma is exhausted.

Today, human beings have flown to the moon in the Apollo missions. We don't have the same viewpoint of celestial bodies that the ancients had. We have discovered these celestial bodies to be physical places that we can visit, and where the same physical laws seem to apply as do here.

The polite thing to do at this point is to suppose that the Upanisadic accounts are metaphorical, or perhaps that they describe the subjective aspects of the after-death experience rather than a literal path through the sky.

Even more embarrassing is the description of how we take rebirth, as in the following account:

Having dwelt there as long as there is residue (of good works) they return by that course by which they came to space, from space into air; and after having become the air they become the smoke; after having become smoke, they become mist.

After having become mist they become cloud, after having become cloud he rains down. They are born here as rice and barley, herbs and trees, as sesamum plants and beans. From thence the release becomes extremely difficult for whoever eats the food and sows the seed he becomes like unto him.
--Chandogya Upanisad (Radhakrishnan), V.10.5-7

Once again the heaven of the afterlife seems to be envisioned as physically above us. Worse than this, before the soul can regain human birth, it has to become a sort of excess baggage captured in plants that already have souls of their own.

Then it is postulated that the soul is eaten by a man, digested, and enters into his semen, later to be sown into the womb of a woman. We know today that the woman plays an equal--indeed, a greater part in the genesis of new life, since the egg is much larger than the sperm and is the source of all the mitochondria inherited by the child. Further, we know that semen contains not one life, but many, many spermatozoa.

It is not so much that modern biology contradicts the Upanisadic account. The problem is that there is a displeasing lack of symmetry between the two, and the differences seem suspiciously like they might have resulted from a knowledge of biology inferior to our own.

The modern devotee would find it most natural to suppose that the soul enters this physical plane at the moment of conception, entering immediately into the newly fertilized egg. Equally, one would find it natural that after death, the soul pass directly beyond this physical universe, without side trips to the moon or sun. But such is apparently not the viewpoint of the Hindu scriptures.

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The Problem of Physical Vs. Psychic Causation

Suppose Basil is walking down the street one day and passes next to a skyscraper that is under construction. It so happens that a steel girder falls on Basil and kills him instantly. Why did this happen?

A believer in karma and rebirth might explain that the event was due to Basil's karma from a previous birth. For example, perhaps in a past birth Basil killed someone by dropping something heavy on them.

A student of the physical sciences might explain that the girder fell because the cable holding it to the crane was frayed. Why was the cable frayed? Because the owner of the crane was an alcoholic who was neglecting the proper maintenance. Why was the owner alcoholic? Because he had a genetic predisposition and his father beat him as a child. Why did he receive this gene and why did his father beat him? The questions obviously go on and on, in an indefinite regress.

But the key point is this: no matter how far you pursue the chain of physical causation, you will find no simple explanation of why this particular man happened to be where this particular girder fell on this particular day. Because the elements of physical causation in such a case are too complex to trace, and even if traced would have no great interest or usefulness, we commonly refer to the event as a "coincidence."

Now, when we call something a coincidence, we do not mean that it happened without causation, nor do we mean that known physical laws cannot, in principle, give a complete account of the factors that led up to the event. But the account would be lacking any moral component. That is to say, current physical science contains nothing to support the conclusion that the man was killed because he morally deserved it.

How does the karmic law of cause and effect interact with ordinary physical laws of cause and effect?

Physical Anomalies

Are we to suppose, for example, that Basil's karma caused the cable to fray and break sooner than it otherwise would have? In this case, a scientist observing the cable minutely would see an anomalous acceleration in the fraying process; one that could not be explained by known physical laws.

If fact, considering the omnipresent role of karma in human life, human beings would be everywhere surrounded by disruptions of normal physical causality.

If this is true, then why have not these disruptions been noticed? Following are some possibilities:

Although physical science has made great strides in the last few centuries, our ability to understand and predict the behavior of nonlinear complex systems is still quite limited. The new studies of "chaos" and the "sciences of complexity" are still in their infancy. Further, the vast number of particles involved in everyday interactions between human beings is too vast to be observed or calculated in detail. Therefore, we could be surrounded by minute deviations from physical law, without ever happening to notice them; or if we did notice them, would find them difficult to reproduce, and would dismiss them as bad data.
Quantum indeterminacy
Those who subscribe to the "Copenhagen interpretation" of quantum physics, believe that the behaviors of subatomic particles are governed partly by chance. For a certain particle interaction, there may be several possible outcomes and the scientist cannot predict which one will occur. To the sincere Copenhagenist, this is indeterminacy is not due to any limitation of science; rather, it reflects a fundamental indeterminacy in the universe itself. In recent years, it has become quite popular to justify any and all theories of mystical or paranormal phenomena by positing that they arise from "mysterious quantum effects." Therefore, a certain segment of the population can be counted on to assert that karma is the hidden, determining factor in these subatomic interactions, and through that method influences our physical universe without breaking any known physical law. (The pros and cons of the Copenhagen interpretation, and the scope of its legitimate application, make for quite a complex discussion which will not be attempted here.)

Psychological Anomalies

Another alternative is to suppose that karma is fulfilled entirely through the subconscious motivations of individual people. For example, we can postulate that the girder was going to fall that day for good physical reasons, regardless of whether or not Basil was standing beneath it. Some aspect of Basil's psyche drove him to organize his day so that he would be walking underneath the girder at the exact moment it fell

Note that this theory depends on some notable peculiarities of Basil's subconscious, which we'll call Sub-Basil:

Psycho-Physical Anomalies

In many ways, the characteristics of Sub-Basil are not that different from the way many modern psychologists describe the subconscious. In fact, it is probably my modern background that makes me interpret the theory of karma in these terms.

However, one sticking point for the modern psychologist is the claim of psychic omniscience for Sub-Basil. The question of where such an omniscient faculty resides in the human brain, or if external, how it communicates its information to the human brain, remains unanswered. This is allowable in part because the details of brain function are far from understood at this time anyway.

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The Problem of Non-Profit

Suppose that Karen knows that her friend Cindy is short of money. Cindy is just starting a long trip across country, and Karen is concerned that Cindy might not complete her journey safely without some money for emergencies. So, out of the goodness of her heart, Karen gives Cindy $100.

Now, what is the karmic recompense for this action? Well, perhaps in a future life, Cindy will give Karen $100 (or whatever the closest equivalent is after inflation).

Yet if you think about it, if Karen had kept that money, she could have invested it in a 401K plan for her retirement. Thirty years later, the money would have grown faster than inflation and Karen's benefit from saving it would be greater than the amount of money she originally put away.

Can we conclude, therefore, that investing money in 401K plans pays better than helping out friends in need? This would be a startling conclusion. The system of karma is, after all, supposed to generally reward good deeds. Yet if you think about it in a general way, and all our actions receive a reward comparable to the original action, then how do we ever come out ahead? Couldn't we do just as well, or better, by being selfish?

One possible response to this dilemma is to point out that a good action is not necessarily as great a sacrifice to the giver as it is a benefit to the receiver. In the example above, because Cindy was short of money, the $100 made a much greater difference to her than it did to Karen. In fact, by helping her cross the country, it enabled her to start a new job with many new opportunities.

This disproportion between the loss to the giver and the benefit to the receiver could be referred to as the Law of Leverage, or even better as the law of Lakshmi. When the gods churned the ocean of milk, first the goddess Alakshmi (poverty) sprang forth. But when they churned more, Lakshmi (wealth) was born. A way of interpreting this myth is to say that the same ingredients can bring forth wealth or poverty; it is by combining them properly, in ways that take advantage of leverage, that wealth is created.

I once knew a spiritual teacher who said, "I have devotees in Chicago who have a printing press, but they don't know how to use it. And I have devotees in Los Angeles who know how to use a printing press, but they can't afford to buy one. This is how my energy is." It was a lament. In this instance, the principle of Alakshmi was at work rather than that of Lakshmi.

So what Karen's karma earned her was not just any $100. It earned her a friend in need who will appear to help her out just when she needs the help the most. From that point of view, the money was a very good investment indeed.

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The Problem of Prarabdha

Swami Muktananda makes the following interesting observation about prarabdha karma:

Kabir says in this connection that on the sixth day after the birth of a child, when a special rite is performed, God Himself comes down and decides the destiny of the child, and that cannot be altered. So the allotted span of your life can neither be increased nor decreased. Tulsidas also says that whatever had to be allotted has already been allotted. Therefore, you should life free from anxiety.
Swami Muktananda (4), 17

The oddity of this doctrine becomes apparent when you think about the fact that almost all your own personal karma has an effect on other people. If you live to an average lifespan, then about half the people you interact with in the course of your life are older than you, and half of them are younger than you. All the older people had their karma fixed before you were born. This includes the karma involving all their interactions with you! So by the time you are born, at least half your prarabdha has already been fixed. In that case, what does it mean to say that your prarabdha karma is selected on the sixth day after your birth?

One way out of this conundrum is to suppose that the prarabdha fixed on the sixth day is your interactions with all those who you are to meet in your life, but who haven't been born yet. However, even this solution is somewhat awkward. Many of those people who haven't been born yet will also interact with people who were born before you; and all such interactions were already determined before your birth. These prior engagements must severely limit these people's abilities to fulfill newly arranged karmic appointments with you.

The problem of complexity seems to work out more smoothly if you suppose that the "karmic web" is evolving constantly. To pick out one moment, such the sixth day after birth, as special seems to violate the symmetry of the system.

However, you can perhaps salvage some semblance of order by supposing that the web operates most strongly between people who are in the same loka, and who thus are in some sense closer to each other than are people in different lokas. The ceremony on the sixth day after birth might have the effect of temporarily magnifying the strength of those karmic strands between you and those who are in other lokas, in a way that determines whether those people will take birth in your current lifetime or not.

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The Problem of Spiritual Evolution

How do the Law of Action and the Law of Desire tend to promote our spiritual evolution? Patanjali says the following:

4:3. Good or bad deeds are not the direct causes of the transformation. They only act as breakers of the obstacles to natural evolution; just as a farmer breaks down the obstacles in a water course, so that water flows through by its own nature.

The flowing pathway most associated with spiritual evolution is the path of the kundalini shakti through the sushumna to the sahasrar. So based on Patanjali, we would suppose that the sushumna is blocked by obstacles, and the operation of the karmic laws tends to help the shakti to break through those obstacles.

Punishment is said to promote spiritual evolution by discouraging us from repeating bad actions. Pleasant experiences are said to reward us for performing good actions. But good actions are not an end in themselves. Do they also promote our enlightenment?

Yes, because it is often said of a spiritual aspirant, that if he makes unusually fast progress it is because of his good karma from former births.

Yet good karmas are also spoken of as being a type of bondage. Someone rewarded by wealth for his past good conduct may become too attached to that wealth to be interested in spiritual things.

Following are some speculative reasons why good karmas might tend to promote our progress toward enlightenment:

Doing good requires us to consider the feelings of other people rather than merely our own. This constant shift of perspective might tend to make us more detached from our own desires. It might nurture the awareness that the consciousness in you is equally present in others.

The fruits that we receive from such karmas give us pleasant experiences. And pleasure in itself might promote enlightenment, because the sensation of pleasure is simply a momentary glimpse of the Self.

However, it could be objected to the latter point that the Katha Upanisad draws a clear distinction between the pleasant and the good:

I.2.I (Yama said): Different is the good, and different, indeed, is the pleasant. These two, with different purposes, bind a man. Of these two, it is well for him who takes hold of the good; but he who chooses the pleasant, fails of his aim.

I.2.6 What lies beyond shines not to the simple-minded, careless, (who is) deluded by the glamour of wealth. Thinking "this world exists, there is no other," he falls again and again into my power.

Katha Upanisad (Radhakrishnan)

Therefore, the question of whether pleasure itself promotes spiritual advancement is an obscure one to me.

If pleasure does not promote spirituality, then how can the Law of Desire be construed as beneficial to the aspirant? You would certainly expect the fulfillment of desires to bring pleasure, and the Law of Desire guarantees us that all desires will be fulfilled (eventually). Yet writers on karma often warn us that the fulfillment of desires simply creates an addiction that leads to more and more desires.

Thus, the means by which the Law of Action and the Law of Desire promote spiritual progress is not at all obvious. For now, I must class it as an unsolved problem.

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The Problem of Changing Population

If we are each reincarnations of people who lived before, how is it possible that the human population is able to grow, much less to grow exponentially as it has in this century? Where are all these extra souls coming from? Sivananda says:

It is not necessary that the same persons are reborn, and none else. In the process of evolution into the human life many from lower births also come up to the human level. All these are controlled by superhuman powers or by the Divinity, God or Isvara Himself. Further rebirth need not necessarily be on this earth plane alone. It can take place anywhere in the Universe.
--Swami Sivananda (2), 201

Similarly, Swami Muktananda says:

There are many more worlds than the world we know. There is the world of the moon and the world of the sun. There is heaen and hell, and the worlds of Indra and Varuna. Individual souls keep passing through these worlds... When bodies die here and their souls pass from here to other worlds, the population here goes down; when more souls take birth here, the population goes up.
--Swami Muktananda (5), 117

This is actually a straightforward and workable explanation. The number of animals greatly exceeds the number of human beings on Earth. The evolution of animals into humans could therefore account for a much greater population growth than we have encountered so far.

Further, an uncounted number of souls are believed to reside at present in the various heavens and hells. The human population of Earth could rise significantly during periods when a greater-than-average number of such souls are returning to birth in this world.

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The Problem of Identity

Another objection sometimes raised against reincarnation is that the concept of personal identity is completely bound up with our physical body. According to this point of view, the "reincarnated" self could no longer be referred to as the same person, because it is in a new and different body.

Interestingly, this is the same viewpoint adopted by some adherents of reincarnation. Buddhists, and to some extent Hindus who follow the Vedantic philosophy, deny that there is a continuous individual "self" that passes from one body to the next. According to this view, that which is the Self exists equally in all beings and has no individuality. That which reincarnates is simply a bundle of "stuff," karmic patterns that become the cause of a new and separate birth.

However, if you adopt this viewpoint, an interesting effect follows. The system of karma then no longer rewards or punishes the original doer of an action. Instead, the doer's karmas are inherited by a new being who has done nothing to deserve them! From this point of view, the system of karma gives us no incentive to perform good deeds.

But it gets weirder. Because from the true Buddhist or Vedantic point of view, the individual self is an illusion anyway. So both the doer of the action and the person who inherits the karma later are equally fictitious.

The more you think about it, the more evident it becomes that these systems of philosophy are speaking of reality from a transcendent point of view, and from that point of view, the whole system of karma is also an illusion so there's no point talking about it anyway.

Therefore, let us return to a more ordinary view of reality. Supposing that individuals exist: can a person be reborn in another body and still be the same person?

Now, when I say that Jake is the same person I knew when I was in high school twenty years ago, I don't mean that he is exactly the same. In fact, he's likely to have changed quite a lot. But we call him by the same name for various reasons:

Now, how do these factors apply when Jake takes rebirth in a new body?

Thus, if you believe that individuals exist, and that we have a subtle body that passes from one physical body to another, it seems reasonable to speak of the reborn person as being a continuation of the same individual. But you can choose not to speak that way if you wish. To pursue the argument further at this point would be to descend to a mere quibble over words.

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The Mind-Body Problem

The theory of karma and rebirth would seem to hold that the unique qualities of our mental character (talents, likes and dislikes, emotional tendencies, etc.) carry over from one birth to the next. This is possible because these tendencies reside in the subtle body (linga sharira) or one of the still subtler levels contained within it.

This is a difficult conclusion to understand in light of our modern knowledge of the brain. Now, we certainly don't understand how the brain works in detail. However, we do know how to mess the brain up in a great variety of different ways. Accidents, drugs, surgery, shock treatments, strokes and tumors do a very efficient job of disorganizing various aspects of the brain.

The really interesting fact is that none of those qualities that comprise our mental character is immune from such accidents. We can lose our memory, our talents, the normal emotional tone of our personality, and our likes and dislikes because of various cerebral accidents and injuries. And of course, we can lose all our faculties as well, such as the ability to reason, to form speech, to control our bodies, etc.

Now, if the subtle body is sufficient to support the existence of a mental life, including all our faculties and all the unique qualities of our mental character, then why is the brain also necessary, and why cannot these mental qualities continue when the brain is damaged?

One answer I can think of is that, once the subtle body enters a physical body, it somehow becomes limited by that physical body. It is as if you were sitting buckled in at the driver's seat of a car. If the engine breaks down, you can't go anywhere without unbuckling the seatbelt, opening the door, and leaving the car. The engine could correspond to any of our brain functions. The departure from the car would be the equivalent of dying or having an out of body experience. Similarly, the Katha Upanisad says:

Know the Self as the lord of the chariot and the body as, verily, the chariot, know the intellect as the charioteer and the mind as, verily, the reigns.
--Katha Upanisad (Radhakrishnan), I.3.3

Another possibility is to say that the physical body is manifested, or projected forth, by the energy in the subtle body. The subtle body is affected by past karmas. When such a punishment "shuts down" some aspect of the subtle body temporarily, the corresponding faculty of the physical body shuts down as well. The difficulty with this point of view is that some mental problems seem to have immediate physical causes (such as a bullet in the head). The reply would be that those physical causes were also created by the karma of the people involved.

Yet another possibility is suggested by an anecdote a friend recently told me about a dog. It seems that a certain fellow used to take his dog to the carwash, and they would ride in the car through the carwash together. When they got out of the car on the other side, the dog would shake itself as though it was wet. In this case, the dog seemingly attributed to itself certain qualities that really pertained only to the car. By this analogy, perhaps the subtle body is simply deluded into thinking that injuries to the physical body apply to the subtle body as well. By shaking free of this illusion, the subtle body might be able to retrieve faculties that were thought to be irretrievably lost. Such a hypothesis might help to explain the phenomena of faith healing and healing through positive thinking and visualization.

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The Problem of Unequal Evolution

4:10. Since the desire to exist has always been present, our tendencies cannot have had any beginning.

If all souls were created at the same time, by a god who treated all equally, why is it that today some people are much more spiritually advanced than others? It would seem that one of the following factors must be at work:

I am not aware of any scriptural statements that would help us to choose among these alternatives.

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The Problem of Suffering

If you take an individual birth as an isolated event that begins with the birth of the physical body and terminates with its death, you cannot find any correct explanation or solution for the affairs of life...

Why should God make one happy and another unhappy? Is He so whimsical and eccentric? ...The doctrine of karma alone will give satisfaction. It is sound. It appeals to reason. It throws a flood of clear light. Everyone reaps the fruit of his own actions.

Swami Sivananda (1), 102, 105-106

One of the arguments frequently advanced for the theory of reincarnation is that it explains the seemingly unfair distribution of pleasure and pain in the world. Since our pleasures and pains are rewards and punishments for our own past-life actions, we are to blame for our own problems, rather than God.

Yet, if we do create our own suffering through bad actions, one has to wonder why we perform bad actions at all. Are we really that dumb?

Imagine that you have a child. You want to train the child not to do certain things. Therefore, whenever you see them doing something wrong, you don't say anything, but you make a note of it. You wait a few days until the child has forgotten the whole misdeed. Then you grab the child without warning and beat the shit out of them. But you don't bother to tell the child why you're beating him.

What would the child learn from this very roundabout method of discipline? Probably not much, except to hate their parent. But this is how reincarnation is supposed to train us. You are born again, all your previous deeds forgotten, and you are subjected to various rewards and punishments without being told what you did to deserve them. Is it any wonder if people take a long time to learn to do good?

Some would say that that is the whole point of the system. A friend of mine once speculated that there are many universes, and in most of them the souls regain their enlightenment very quickly. So those universes are played out in a short while and come to an early end. For the lila, the divine play, to continue for very long, it has to be very difficult for people to attain enlightenment. We live in a universe that lasts a long time because attaining enlightenment is very, very hard.

So the current system of karma and rebirth can be described as one that causes people to advance, but only very, very, slowly. How are we supposed to feel about this system? Well, there is a strong philosophic strain in Hindu and Buddhist thought that regards our presence in this world as a misfortune to us, because our existence is one of long and frequent suffering. From this theory comes the desire for moksha, or liberation from the wheel of rebirth.

But you can't have it both ways. If you're talking about the unfortunate wheel of rebirth and the need to escape from it, you can't consistently turn around and say that the very same wheel is a good thing. You can't use God's essential goodness as evidence for the existence of this karmic system, when the system itself is also described as painful and unfortunate.

The problem of how a loving God can allow us to suffer is one of the most basic problems of theology, and I won't attempt to resolve it here. I simply want to point out that the theory of karma does not in itself solve this problem. No one suffers deliberately. The system of karma allows and even enforces suffering. Therefore, the Hindu devotee is left in much the same quandry as the Christian with regard to suffering.

However, in one particular aspect, reincarnation does seem less cruel than the system posited by one-life religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). In the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, the sojourns in hell are finite in length and proportional to the sin that caused them. The concept of eternal damnation is foreign to these systems.

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Copyright 1996-2001 by Joseph F. Morales