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Reincarnation.. Past-life Recall as Modern Proof for Reincarnation

Ernest Valea

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A) Reincarnation in World Religions
B) Past-life Recall as Proof for Reincarnation
C) Reincarnation and Cosmic Justice
D) Reincarnation and Christianity


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Part B. Past-life recall as modern proof for reincarnation
Part C.
Reincarnation and cosmic justice


Past-life Recall as Modern Proof for Reincarnation
Many people who accept reincarnation in the West today claim that it can be scientifically proven. They usually ground their belief on so-called past life recall experiences, which represent the ability of certain persons to recall facts of alleged previous lives. There are two categories of this phenomenon. One is observed under hypnosis, while regressing certain persons beyond the date of birth. The other is produced by some children who spontaneously remember a previous life identity, amazing their neighbors with specific details that match with the life of a deceased person. Could these experiences really be proofs for reincarnation?

Hypnotic regression as proof for reincarnation
Hypnosis can be defined as a method of inducing an altered state of consciousness, which causes a person to become very receptive to the hypnotist’s suggestions. The method has been used in psychoanalysis for treating psychic diseases by evoking the painful events which caused them in the past (especially during childhood) and then transmitting suggestions meant to heal these wounds which still affect one’s present. Although there are some encouraging results in using it as a psychiatric healing therapy, it is a fact that hypnosis can mix fantasy with real memories or even create entirely fictitious episodes. In deep states of hypnosis, some subjects have had out-of-body experiences and claimed to have traveled in mysterious spiritual realms. Others have had a mystical experience of oneness with the universe.

Hypnotic regression started to be used as a "past lives recall" method in 1952, when Ruth Simmons from Colorado, USA, was regressed "back in time" beyond the date of her birth. Suddenly she started to talk using a specific Irish accent, claiming that her name was Bridey Murphy and she lived in Ireland in the year 1890. Her brief descriptions seemed to describe properly the Irish society of the late 19th century. It was therefore believed that a scientific proof for reincarnation had been found. As a result, the method was used by a growing number of hypnotists in order to get information about alleged previous lives of their patients. Recently the method has gained a scientific aura, being used as therapy for releasing current fears and explaining certain personality tendencies as results of past lives experiences. By simply being asked to go back in time beyond the date of their birth and describe their impressions, some patients tell impressive stories in which some characteristics match with past and distant cultures of human history. They usually adopt a totally different personality, with a changed voice, behavior and facial expression. All the information they produce is the result of a dialog between the hypnotist and his patient, in which the questions have to be easy and clear in order to get a proper answer. As long as the information they produce couldn’t have been normally learned during their life span, it is supposed that they really recall past lives. However, this conclusion raises some difficulties, as there are other possibilities to explain how the "novelties" are produced, without accepting the past-life recall hypothesis.

One possible explanation, valid in a few cases, is cryptoamnesia. As hypnosis can be used in refreshing forgotten memories of one’s past, facts that are not available anymore in the conscious memory, in the same way can it be used for evoking information heard from other people, read in books, or seen in movies, in which the subject of hypnosis is involving himself as participant. His subconscious memory has kept this information stored and hypnosis determines its use in a completely fictitious scenario. Ian Stevenson, one of the important researchers of this phenomenon, mentions a confirming case:

    There is another English case going back to the turn of the century that was studied by a Cambridge don, in which a young woman seemed to be describing the life of one Blanche Poynings, a person around the court of Richard II in the fourteenth century. She gave a lot of detail about the people concerned, including proper names and the sort of life she lived. The investigators kept on probing, and a little later they began asking her about sources of information. In her trancelike state the girl herself came out with a reference to a book, Countess Maud, published in the latter part of the nineteenth century, a classic Victorian novel all about a countess at the court of Richard II. The subject had modified it a little bit, but basically it was all in the novel, and it turned out that her aunt had a copy of the book. She didn't remember reading it, but she remembered turning the pages (Omni Magazine  10(4):76 (1988)).

An intriguing aspect of the testimonies recorded under hypnosis is the fact that they heavily depend on the already existing data in current historic knowledge. In many cases, although the information corresponds to generally acknowledged historical data, further archaeological discoveries contradict them, casting serious doubts on the veracity of "past lives". Ian Wilson, another important researcher of this phenomenon, describes several such cases in his book Reincarnation (p. 88-90). One of them refers to a "person" who lived during the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III. Instead of indicating the name No for the capital city, he used the name Thebes, given by the Greeks much later. On the other hand, a true ancient Egyptian could not have known the pharaoh’s name by a number, as the numbering of pharaohs was adopted by Victorian Egyptologists during the 19th century. Another fault was mentioning the use of the sestertius coin, which was introduced by the Romans a thousand years later. Another case reported Vikings making a landfall in North America during the 11th century. According to the description, they were wearing helmets with horns, which cannot be historically true. In recent years scholars have proved that this idea is false, as Vikings wore in fact conic, close-fitting caps. Horned helmets were worn only in religious ceremonies by individuals of high rank. This and other cases prove that the "past life recall" experiences depend heavily on the historical knowledge mankind had at the time when the hypnotic regression was performed, but which are often contradicted by later discoveries.

ow could it be possible that the present personality could influence the knowledge of its "previous lives", some predating it with hundreds or thousands of years? How could people who lived four thousand years ago use the BC (before Christ) year numeration system? How can it be that some hypnotists can even "recall" future lives of their patients (which are obviously influenced by current science fiction literature)? These facts indicate that the alleged previous lives are culturally and religiously conditioned, casting serious doubts on their veracity. This is why the writers who are favorable to rebirth stories usually avoid mentioning specific data which might challenge their beliefs.

Another possible explanation that could overrule the veracity of past life recall is the influence of the hypnotist, whose suggestion ability is a sine qua non condition for the efficiency of hypnosis. The other necessary factor is the receptivity of the patient to the hypnotist’s suggestions. Although the two conditions determine the efficiency of hypnosis when used as psychiatric treatment, when expecting to get information from alleged past lives, the suggestion ability of the hypnotist becomes an important hindrance in obtaining true information, because it can contaminate the patient’s story. Ian Stevenson states:

    In my experience, nearly all so-called previous personalities evoked through hypnotism are entirely imaginary and a result of the patient's eagerness to obey the hypnotist's suggestion. It is no secret that we are all highly suggestible under hypnosis. This kind of investigation can actually be dangerous. Some people have been terribly frightened by their supposed memories, and in other cases the previous personality evoked has refused to go away for a long time (Omni Magazine  10(4):76 (1988)).

Under hypnosis, the subject is ready to accept all kinds of distortions, having his reality shaped according to what the hypnotist dictates. As in most cases the hypnotist expects a confirmation of the reincarnation theory, or at least expects it subconsciously, together with the verbal suggestions concerning relaxation and different phases of regression, he can transmit his own convictions concerning past lives and custom scenarios of this kind. In many cases it is easy to discern the religious convictions of the hypnotist in the stories told by his patients, his understanding of life as eternal return into a different body.

The risk of inventing completely fictitious scenarios through hypnosis cannot be ignored. It actually has happened many times. Remember the many cases of women who came for hypnotic treatment for their common problems, and over the course of therapy discovered incidents of sexual abuse by parents during childhood, which proved to be false. Even Freud abandoned hypnosis as a treatment method when he discovered so many cases of fake memories. More than that, it was observed that the memories "discovered" under hypnosis can replace the true memories after the hypnotic session is over and distort completely one’s personal life. This is called false memory syndrome. Courts of law know these dangers and most do not accept testimonies produced under hypnosis or from witnesses that have been previously hypnotized. The same way as alleged sexual abuses in childhood discovered through hypnosis have been proved to be false, past lives can be also fake scenarios (as well as the "extraterrestrial abduction" stories).

Another compromising factor in getting true "past life stories" is the preparation the patient undergoes before hypnosis. He is informed about its purpose, which induces in him a high expectancy state. The conscious desire to know "his previous lives" undoubtedly influences his response under hypnosis.

A third possibility to explain testimonies from alleged previous lives belongs to psychiatry. Multiple personality is known to it as dissociative personality disorder. It causes somebody to exchange in a short period of time up to 20 distinct personalities, as if playing successive roles. These contradicting personalities have different mentalities, behaviors, voices and even sexes than the real person. Usually it happens that one of them knows and observes the acts and thoughts of the others, and is even able to speak in the name of all.

From a psychiatrist's point of view, past lives testimonies may be the result of inducing the dissociative personality disorder through hypnosis. This has actually happened in several cases of schizophrenia. Used to uncover covert personalities and reintegrate them with the main personality, most cases of hypnosis have produced new personalities that didn't manifest previously in one's normal state. They first appeared during hypnotic treatment, and then remained active after the session was over. So there really is possible to create new personalities or "past life recalls" through hypnosis.

However, there still remains an enigma to which the above naturalist-scientific interpretation doesn’t have a satisfactory answer: How are the "past live" personalities distributed in their roles, or who decides which one will be next in the show? It cannot be a random process. Ian Wilson writes in his book: "Somewhere, somehow, the show must have a ‘director’. It is like watching a puppet show; we can see the puppets, see some of the strings by which they are made to work, but cannot see the puppet master." Who could be this hidden director of the multiple personality show? The naturalistic explanation says that it must be in the person’s mind, where consciousness is divided into separate entities, one of them taking the role of the director. The data supporting it is that sometimes, under hypnosis, a certain part of the mind stays conscious, continuing to receive data from the real surrounding area. The unsolved problem with this explanation is the motivation of such an entity (remained conscious in the person’s mind) to act like that. Why should it fool the people around about past lives?

Thus we come to another possible explanation of past life recall. In parapsychology it is called channeling, representing the phenomena of transmitting information generated by spiritual entities which are external to our world. They act through certain persons called mediums while being in altered states of consciousness. In channeling there are always external personal beings (spirits) involved in providing information through mediums. The annihilation of normal consciousness through hypnosis creates optimal conditions for contacting such external teachers, who can present themselves as personalities of one’s past lives. The only reason for rejecting this hypothesis is the presumption that the entity which is communicating through the medium has no reason to lie when it claims to be a reincarnated personality and not an external spirit. Although there have been many cases when such entities were caught lying, we will analyze in a later section their possible identity from a Christian point of view, and also their motivation for doing so.

In conclusion, the only criteria in establishing the veracity of "past life recall" is our trust in the hypnotist and his "past life recall" interpretation. There is no other way of relating the scenario of an alleged past life to one’s actual person. This is why we will now examine the other "strong evidence" for reincarnation through past life recall.

Spontaneous past life recall by children as proof for reincarnation
Another category of experiences credited as proofs for reincarnation are the cases when certain people, almost all children under the age of 10, spontaneously recall events of alleged past lives, insisting to be someone else who lived in the past. The details they mention concerning places, persons and happenings of the past, about which they could not normally know anything, prove to be true when investigations are performed in the indicated area. The extensive research of Dr. Ian Stevenson and his books on this topic are well known. Although the cases of spontaneous past life recall by children are much fewer than testimonies produced under hypnosis, they seem to be more convincing. The cases of the Indian girls Swarnlata and Shanti Devi are two of the most famous. At the ages of 3 (Swarnlata) and 4 (Shanti Devi) they both started to claim that they had lived a previous life as wives and mothers of two children, in a distant village. The most astounding element is that they mentioned specific facts about their alleged previous lives that have been verified by investigators. Imagine how surprised the sons of the deceased mother were when visited by a 4-year-old girl that claimed to be their mother (or other relatives in similar cases). Emotional disturbances often develop in such cases. Stevenson comments: “These children become embroiled in divided loyalties. In many cases children have rejected their parents, saying they are not their real parents and have often started down the road toward their so-called real homes. In other cases, they insist on being reunited with their former husbands, wives, or children. One Indian boy was passionately attached to the woman he said had been his former mistress and was trying to get her back, causing himself and her real distress” (Omni Magazine  10(4):76 (1988)).

However, there are other possibilities to interpret them, overruling the reincarnation explanation. One alternative explanation is the possibility of these children's contacting external spirits, through channeling. In this case the medium would be the child, without necessarily being conscious of it. However, this explanation is not too convincing, especially because the children do not seem to be skilled in communicating with spirits.

A better explanation would be the possession of these children by external spiritual entities. This phenomenon is related to channeling, but this time the human person is forced to transmit the messages of a spirit without having any conscious contribution to the whole process. In other words, possession implies that the invading spirit enters the body and takes over entirely the control of human consciousness, acting as if a past life personality would be manifesting itself. This explanation is more likely to be valid for the following reason: Almost all cases of spontaneous past life recall experiences are produced by children who manifest them between the age of two and five, when their spiritual discernment is almost nonexistent, especially concerning spirits. This situation makes them easier to be manipulated by external spirits. As the child grows up, the entities lose their power of influence upon him, which could explain why the past life memories are lost after the age of 10. Again, one argument against this explanation is the presupposition that such external spirits have no reason to lie about their true identity. Another argument is the fact that the child does not manifest the classic symptoms of violent possession. However, acting violent is not the only possible form of manifesting spiritual possession.

A confirmation of the possession hypothesis is the cases when the possessing spirit enters the child’s body a long time after he was born, and then produces the past life recall experience interfering with the actual personality of the child. There are enough such cases described in literature. Here is a brief description of two mentioned by Ian Stevenson, a famous researcher of this phenomenon, in his book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation:

First, there is the case of an Indian boy named Jasbir, aged three and a half, who was very ill and lapsed into a coma which his family temporarily mistook for death. He revived a few hours later, and after several weeks displayed a completely transformed behavior, claiming to be a Brahmin named Sobha Ram, who died in an accident while he (Jasbir) was sick. As Sobha Ram died when Jasbir was already three and a half years old, his "past life recall" obviously cannot be a proof of reincarnation. More than that, it is likely that the "reincarnation" of Ram’s soul took place even before he had physically died, according to the timing of his accident and the illness of Jasbir. For the previous 3.5 years both persons lived physically in nearby villages. While speaking through Jasbir, the "reincarnated Mr. Ram" said that he was advised by a saint to take cover in Jasbir’s body. So at a certain moment there were present two personalities in Jasbir’s body: the one of the child and the one of Mr. Ram. This suggests that it cannot be a case of reincarnation here, but rather a possession of Jasbir’s body by the so-called spirit of Mr. Ram.

Second, there is the case of Lurancy Vennum, a one-year-old girl who began to display the personality of Mary Roff when she (Mary Roff) died. This situation lasted several months, while Mary Roff claimed to have occupied the vacated body of the little girl. After this period Mary Roff departed and Lurancy Vennum resumed control. The overlapping of personalities and messages displayed during that period are strong indications of possession, excluding any possibility for reincarnation. Ian Stevenson admits in his book that "other cases of the present group of 20 cases may be instances of similar ‘possessing influences’ in which the previous personality just happened to die well before the birth of the present personality’ body" (p. 381).

Third, there is the case of a Buddhist monk, Chaokhun Rajsuthajarn, who was born a day before the death of Nai Leng, the personality he claimed to have been in his previous life. Stevenson commented in an interview: “I studied this case with much care but couldn't find an explanation for the discrepancy” (Omni Magazine  10(4):76 (1988)).

Spirit possession could also explain another “proof” for reincarnation that is becoming increasingly popular: the correspondence between wounds that caused a person to die and birthmarks on children that claim to be the rebirth of that particular person. Not that a spirit influence could induce such physical abnormalities, but it could “suggest” a special origin to those who are born naturally with birthmarks  and birth defects, especially in cultures where most physical and behavioural peculiarities are attributed to happenings in past lives (Southern Asia, the Druze in Lebanon, or Indians in North America). Not many cases need such an elaborate explanation as spirit possession. Most can be discarded as having no scientific proof (a precise medical report on the wounds of the deceased) or as being induced by the adults, who taught the children to have had a previous life as a certain family member. An important factor that could confirm spirit possession is cases of reincarnation prediction by people who strongly believe in it. Here is a case discovered by Stevenson among the Tlingit tribe in Alaska:

    I recall one in which a man had predicted to his niece that he would come to her and he pointed out to her two marks on his body. They were scars of operations. One was on his nose. He had had an operation at the corner of his eye (right) at the upper part of his nose, and another on his back. I don't know what that was from. Anyway, he said to his niece: "You will be able to recognize me because I will have these scars reproduced on my body as marks." So he died and about 18 months later his niece had a baby boy who was born with birthmarks precisely at these places. I remember seeing and photographing these birthmarks. This boy was about 8 or 10 years old when I first saw him. The birthmark on the back was especially clearly seen. It had small round marks at the sides that looked exactly like the stitch marks of a surgical operation (Venture Inward Magazine, September/October, 1995).

A further indication for understanding spontaneous past life recall experiences by children is the fact that they are culturally dependent. Most cases are reported in India and other South Asian countries, where reincarnation is fully accepted. The Asian cases are always richer in details than the Western ones. Western children who have such experiences give only poor details that could permit verification. When checking some verifiable details is possible, they usually turn out to be past experiences of other members of the family. Cultural conditioning certainly plays an important role in these phenomena.

For this reason Ian Stevenson, the well known researcher of this phenomena, was forced to admit in his book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation that the cases he studied, as the very title of his book indicates, are only suggesting reincarnation and cannot be considered proofs for it. Stevenson admitted: “All the cases I've investigated so far have shortcomings. Even taken together, they do not offer anything like proof” (Omni Magazine 10(4):76 (1988)). If this is the case, they could be also suggestive of spirit possession.

Metaphysical reasons for rejecting past life recall experiences as proofs for reincarnation
Even if hypnotic regression and spontaneous recall of past life by children were free of any contradiction, there still would be another major argument against their veracity: According to the classic doctrine of reincarnation, the entity which reincarnates is the impersonal self (atman or purusha), accompanied by karmic debt. Any psycho-mental element that defines personhood does not belong to the self or to the subtle body, and therefore ceases to exist at physical death. Memory is such an element. It acts only inside the limits of a physical life and vanishes at death. If things were different, if memory could pass to further lives through reincarnation, it would have the same ontological nature as the self, which is absurd, because memory belongs to the psycho-mental realm of personhood.

Usually it is said that the vehicle that carries the psychic impressions from one life to another is the subtle body (sukshma sharira in Vedanta) or the karmic deposit (karmashaya in Samkhya-Yoga). Although some say that these two elements act as a kind of unconscious memory of previous lives, they cannot represent a third ontological nature (different to both the self and the psycho-mental realm), which could play the role of a transmissible personal memory from one life to another. Karmashaya and sukshma sharira are a mere expression of the way karma records the debts of the past. As karma represents an impersonal and mechanical law which functions with mathematical precision, karma itself cannot justify one’s state at a certain moment. In other words, man cannot communicate with his karma. Karma is simply pushing the self into a foreordained scenario, without communicating which debts are to be paid from previous lives.

Even though some special meditative techniques are mentioned, which could render some limited information about past lives (for instance Yoga-Sutra 3.18 mentions the possibility to know the previous birth through practicing samyama), they are available only for the advanced Yogi. Even so, the veracity of the information gotten in altered states of consciousness is doubtful. (Click here for more information.)

One’s karmic debts could at best be imagined intuitively. For instance, it is supposed that a man who was murdered took his just reward for a murder he did himself in a previous life. Not even the past life recall experiences give any information about the "sins" one did in his previous life, but only figure out cases when he was a victim or a simple observer of life around him. These kinds of experiences do not attempt to prove the justice of karma, but only that past lives are real. In other words, the "recalled" scenarios do not indicate which facts of the previous life produced the present incarnation, but only try to prove that we lived previous lives, that reincarnation is true and has to be accepted in our belief.

Because of the metaphysical considerations mentioned above, most Eastern gurus do not consider experiences of past life recall as valid proofs for reincarnation. At the time Stevenson was carrying out his studies among Indian children that remembered previous lives, he met an Indian swami of the Ramakrishna order. He commented on these cases: “Yes it is true [meaning reincarnation], but it does not make any difference, because we in India have all believed in reincarnation and have accepted it as a fact, and yet it has made no difference. We have as many rogues and villains in India as you have in the West" (Venture Inward Magazine, September/October, 1995). These stories are appreciated mostly by Westerners, probably as a result of misunderstanding the original doctrine of reincarnation and also because of their pseudo-scientific outlook. The main argument for reincarnation in the East has another nature and will be analyzed next.   [TOP OF PAGE]


Reincarnation and Cosmic Justice
The most important argument for reincarnation is of a moral nature. It says that karma and reincarnation provide the perfect way to realize justice in our world, by rewarding all one’s deeds and thoughts in further lives. They will manifest as good or bad happenings and circumstances, with mathematical exactitude, so that everything one does will be justly punished or rewarded, at both a quantitative and a qualitative level. This would explain all inequalities we see among people, comfort those who cannot understand their present bad situation and also give hope for a further better life. According to karma, there is no forgiveness for the "sins" of the past, but only accumulation of karmic debt, followed by paying the consequences in further lives. Swami Shivananda states:

    If the virtuous man who has not done any evil act in this birth suffers, this is due to some wrong act that he may have committed in his previous birth. He will have his compensation in his next birth. If the wicked man who daily does many evil actions apparently enjoys in this birth, this is due to some good Karma he must have done in his previous birth. he will have compensation in his next birth. He will suffer in the next birth. The law of compensation is inexorable and relentless.  (Swami Shivananda, Practice of Karma Yoga, Divine Life Society, 1985, p. 102)

As the karmic debt man recorded in his past is considerably large, a single life is not enough to consume it. Therefore, in order to attain liberation, many lives become a necessity. In pantheism, where a personal god as Ultimate Reality is absent, man is alone in his struggle with his past. Even the theistic branches of Eastern religions are incapable of solving man’s loneliness in this struggle, as karma and God’s grace cannot be properly reconciled without totally compromising one of them. Grace, granted by a god or a guru, contradicts the basic role of karma and would render useless its action. As a result, the claims of some gurus to be able to erase the karma of their disciples are absurd. Through asceticism and meditation, man has to work out his salvation alone, or rather to bear alone the dictates of karma.

Although it may seem that the mechanism of karma and reincarnation is the proper way to realize social justice, there are two main objections which contradict it:

1) As long as suffering (or the reward for good deeds) can be experienced only at a personal level (physical and psychical), and man ceases to exist as person at physical death, it implies that another person, generated in another physical body, will actually bear the consequences dictated by the karma of the deceased person. The impersonal self (atman or purusha) which reincarnates has nothing to do with suffering; it is a simple observer of the ongoing psycho-mental life. If, at the moment of death, there is no more karmic debt left, the separation of the self from the illusory involvement with the physical and psycho-mental world is permanent, and this represents liberation. If not, the self is forced to enter a new illusory association with personhood until all fruits of past lives are consumed. In order to realize this, a new person is born each time the self enters a new human body. The new person will bear the karma produced by the previous persons inhabited by the same self. This mechanism, of one person accumulating karma and another bearing the consequences, is rather unfair, fundamentally contradicting the idea of realizing perfect justice. This is why natural disasters, plagues and accidents that affect innocent people cannot be explained away as being generated by karma.

For this reason, the saying "a man reaps what he sows" cannot be used as a way of expressing one’s reincarnationist ideas. (Actually this saying is taken from the New Testament, Galatians 6,7, but there it has a different meaning.) According to the reincarnation mechanism one person sows and another one reaps, since no personal characteristics can be preserved from one incarnation of the impersonal self to the next. In Buddhism, where the very idea of a self who transmigrates is rejected, the idea of sowing and reaping is even more absurd. See for instance the following text:

If it be that good men and good women, who receive and retain this discourse, are downtrodden, their evil destiny is the inevitable retributive result of sins committed in their past mortal lives. By virtue of their present misfortunes the reacting effects of their past will be thereby worked out, and they will be in a position to attain the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment (Diamond Sutra 16).

Who will actually work out the effects of his past? A new distribution of the five aggregates? Or who will actually attain enlightenment? A certain configuration of those impersonal five aggregates? How could this process render perfect justice? Perfect justice for whom? For an illusory personhood that disappears at physical death?

2) A second objection concerns the actual possibility of attaining liberation from karma and reincarnation. Normally it is supposed that the person who is living out the consequences of his karma should do it in a spirit of resignation and submission. But this ideal is far from reality. Instead of adopting a passive attitude concerning the hardships that have to be endured, man almost always reacts with indignation, and so accumulates a constantly growing karmic debt. Common human experience proves that evil almost always generates evil and therefore a balance between good and evil cannot be reached. As a result, a vicious cycle is generated in which karmic debt is constantly growing. This happens with most people of our planet, as it is said that most of us live in ignorance (avidya). From one generation to the next, the sum of karmic debt is always growing and this situation can never be solved. What kind of a justice is that which starts more problems than it solves?

If it is most likely that one will always accumulate new karma instead of getting rid of it, probably the best solution to attain liberation from reincarnation would be the Jain fasting to death, as stated by Mahavira:

If this thought occurs to a monk, "I am sick and not able, at this time, to regularly mortify the flesh," that monk should regularly reduce his food; regularly reducing his food and diminishing his sins, he should take proper care of his body, being immovable like a beam; exerting himself he dissolves his body....

This is the truth: speaking truth, free from passion, crossing the samsara, abating irresoluteness, knowing all truth and not being known, leaving this frail body. Overcoming all sorts of pains and troubles through trust in this, he accomplishes this fearful religious death. Even thus he will in due time put an end to existence. This has been adopted by many who were free from delusion; it is good, wholesome, proper, beatifying, meritorious. Thus I say. (Acaranga Sutra 1,7,6)

This should be the logical solution for anyone trying to escape his karma. However, this radical solution is far from being accepted by most adherents of reincarnation. But even if they would literally fast to death, it still could not guarantee the decrease of mankind’s karmic debt, as one accumulates more karma till the moment he adopts this kind of "holy" mortification than he could annihilate by using it.

 Let’s take an example and see how the two objections actually work in the case of a real person. If we take the case of Adolf Hitler, the results are astounding. (For a detailed study of this case and other important aspects of reincarnation see Mark Albrecht’s book Reincarnation - InterVarsity Press, 1982.) There is no doubt that all adherents of reincarnation agree that many lives are needed for consuming his karmic debt. Hitler died in 1945 and had to reincarnate as a child in order to bear the harsh consequences of his monstrous deeds. The two objections can be stated as following:

    1) The person of Hitler ceased to exist at the moment of his physical death. Only the impersonal self will reincarnate, accompanied by its karmic deposit. However, there is no continuity between the person of Hitler and that of the individual who has to endure the hardships imposed by Hitler’s karma. The newborn person doesn’t know that he has to work out Hitler’s karma. After the cruel life and death of this person, other millions of reincarnations will succeed with the same tragic destiny. The most disgusting fact is that the person of Hitler, the only one who should have endured at physical and psychical level the results of his foolish deeds, was dissolved at his physical death, while other persons, totally unaware of this situation and innocent, have to work out his bad karma.

    2) As a result of the hardships that have to be endured by the new incarnations of Hitler, it is almost certain that they will react with indignation instead of resignation to their situation, and thus will accumulate a growing karmic debt. Each new reincarnation of Hitler becomes a source of newly acquired karma, initiating a new chain of individuals who have to pay the consequences. The same happened in the case of Hitler himself. Whoever he was in a previous life, he made his karma a lot worse during the years of The Third Reich. Therefore, instead of solving the puzzle of global justice, the problem worsened. Starting with a single individual such as Hitler, we reach a huge number of persons who pay his karma and accumulate a new one. This is just one case of human history. Any attempt to imagine what happens at a larger human scale would reveal a catastrophe impossible to ever be solved.

As a result, karma and reincarnation cannot provide any kind of justice. Reincarnation cannot solve the problem of evil but only amplify it, leaving the original evil unpunished. If reincarnation were true, Hitler will never be punished for his deeds because he ceased to exist, right before any human person or circumstance of life could truly punish him.

Even if disagreement persists in accepting the growth of evil as an effect of karma and reincarnation, at least its conservation should be admitted in human history. This results from analyzing the links that exist between people and their karma from a global perspective. There are two points to be made here.

First, there is a moral issue involved. As suffering is the result of one’s bad deeds performed in previous lives, a possible way of reacting consistently with the law of karma might lead to a total lack of compassion toward people who suffer. One might think that the person who suffers deserves to be equitably punished, and anyone who dares to help him interferes with the unrolling of his karma and consequently is gathering bad karma for himself.

Second, the man who is the instrument of karma’s punishment records bad karma for himself and therefore will have to be punished at his turn, in a next life. Then the next person who acts as the instrument of karma will have to be punished in his turn, etc. A possible solution to this endless cycle would be that the one who acts as the instrument of karma in another one’s life should do it in a completely detached manner, without any interest in the results, according to the demand of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (2,47; 3,19; etc.). In this case it is considered that he doesn’t acquire new karma. However, such a solution would be limited, at best, to the few "detached" people that actually follow this rule, and thus has no significance on the larger scale of human society. Most people are far from considering themselves as detached executioners of karma in their neighbor’s life.

Let’s examine these two points in the case of the millions of Jews who were killed in gas chambers by the Nazis during World War II. First, it would seem absurd to have any feeling of compassion towards them, because they deserved to be killed like that, as a result of crimes done by them in previous lives. One could conclude that, after all, the Nazis did the right thing against the Jews, according to the dictates of karma. Using this reasoning any conceivable crime of the past or present could be justified, without bothering about moral values. This opens a horrifying perspective on the past and future of mankind, with implications difficult to grasp.

Second, the killing of millions of Jews requires that their executioners should be killed in their turn, in a similar way, in further lives. But this implies that the executioners of the reincarnated Nazis will be killed in their turn, etc., etc. The cycle would never end. The same reasoning could be used also back in time, which would require finding in each generation those millions of people executed and their executioners. An objection to this could be that killers may be punished (killed) in turn by other means, not necessarily by involving other new acquirers of karma. Natural calamities such as earthquakes could be the instrument of karma. However, this option doesn’t work because karma is generated not only by the actions themselves, but also by the desires that lead to the actions. The desire to kill has to be rewarded as well, not only the killing. Therefore, if reincarnation were a logical concept, it would imply that it has neither a beginning nor an end. This cannot be a solution for justice, but only a kind of eternal circus.

A further analysis of karmic justice proves that the basic principle of Hindu morality, that of non-killing (ahimsa), is absurd. According to this principle we should not participate in the killing of any living being, otherwise we will reincarnate in order to pay the consequences. (This is the basis of eastern religious vegetarianism.) For instance, the butcher who slaughters a pig will have to reincarnate as a pig in order to be slaughtered in his turn. However, the very principle of reincarnation contradicts the meaning of ahimsa and proves it to be futile. The pig had to be slaughtered, because he probably was the reincarnation of another butcher, who had to be punished that way. Neither in this case can the vicious cycle be stopped by natural means (i.e. the pig dying of a disease) because the butcher’s desire to kill the animal (for food or to earn his salary) also generates karma. Therefore the infringement of the non-violence principle becomes a necessity in order to fulfill karmic justice. The butcher was at the same time the instrument of working out one’s karmic debt and the generator of a new one for himself. In a strange and contradictory way, the fulfilling of karmic debt requires the punishment of its executioners. In other words, karma paradoxically acts through condemning the executioners of its "justice".

In conclusion, the concept of reincarnation stands in contradiction with logic, social justice, morality and even common sense. Looking beyond the apparent comfort it provides to this life by promising further lives in which perfection may be attained, belief in reincarnation cannot bring any beneficial result, but only resignation and despair in facing fate. Why then accept it as a major spiritual belief? [TOP OF PAGE]


Index to Reincarnation