Bardo Mandala, Thangka Showing the Period Between Death and Reincarnation
Bardo Mandala,...
Thangka Showing the Period
Between Death and Reincarnation

Karma and Reincarnation

Taking responsibility for this life and the next: Karma and reincarnation are linked. Karma is the idea that what we do and have done influences our circumstances, talents and options. Reincarnation means that what we do and think will not just influence our present life, but also our future existences.

Why do people believe in karma?

Some religious views

Many people believe in karma because it explains aspects of life that are otherwise hard to explain. For instance: karma gives an explanation as to why different people get such very different deals in life. Some have a hard life, while being very kind. Others get born wealthy and make a fool of themselves in front of millions of people... One could of course say this is all chance...

But if it isn't, karma is the only explanation that makes sense. If the cause of most of our misery is karma, wealth and poverty, sickness and health, wisdom and stupidity are all ultimately the responsibility of each person themselves. What's more, if we help others, that will come back to us. Helping others becomes the ultimate blessing: not only are we helping someone else become a better person, the person helping will get their reward... I'm not talking money here, I'm talking happiness, wisdom, chances to grow, meeting the right people ... Good karma is ultimately not about being wealthy and getting the chance to dress up in the fanciest cloths. From a spiritual perspective good karma means the chance to grow in wisdom and get more and more chances to help and bless humanity.

Where 'the secret' is supposedly that we each need to just visualize happiness in order to get it - the doctrine of karma means that happiness can only come to all of us, when we all make the effort to try and make others happy.

Our past and future lives

When people think of reincarnation, they usually think of reincarnating (in the future) in an animal. This is hard to imagine: how can this personality reincarnate into an animal?

The misconception, from a philosophical point of view, is this: it IS NOT the personality that reincarnates. Our personality is formed by our circumstances, our body, our eating habits, the country we grew up in etc. Those are karmically caused, but change in each incarnation.
What we take along into our next incarnation is what we've learned on a spiritual level and our habits (bad and good).

Our past lives impact us in many ways. First of all our circumstances, talents and inclinations are to a large extent caused by our karmic inheritance. It's our starting point. What we do with that, what we choose to change or keep, is up to us.

Looking again at our future lives: according to modern Theosophy, if we are misusing our responsibilities as a human being, and instead live like pigs, chances are we will reincarnate as pigs. But most people do use their capacities as a human being. Many people just do the best they see how. In those circumstances, the human element, the conscious responsible element, is strong enough to stay alive into a next incarnation. This means a human birth.

However, Buddhism and Hinduism insist that we can easily be reborn as an animal or worse - as long as the animal side of our nature is strong enough to direct our consciousness at death.

Within these traditions there is longstanding debate about what that means. A hell-rebirth can be taken literally, figuratively or psychologically. That is: being reborn in a war-zone is hell-like. Who needs hells of fire or ice when there is depression, illness, hunger, war etc. right here in the human realm.

So, can we choose our next life?

The more spiritually advanced you are, the more likely you are to fully be able to choose your next life.

Choosing your next life depends on how much (negative) karma you have waiting to work out. Lots of karma that needs to be worked out means that you don't really have much choice on how your next life is going to look. If you have reached a point in your spiritual evolution where there isn't too much bad karma to work out any more, and you have consciously chosen to only work for good - a point will come where you can start to actually choose what to do with your life.

That said: I do believe that even with a lot of bad karma, you can still choose the lessons to learn from that karma.

Right action

What we do impacts our lives. This is pretty obvious: if I finish school, that will benefit the rest of my life. If I quarrel with my family, that too has its effects.

Right action means both not doing wrong and actively doing right. Avoiding harming other people and the world we live in can be difficult. Sometimes it's not even possible. The important thing is to just try.

Actively doing right is more difficult. It can mean doing volunteer work, or talking to that guy that's ignored by everybody. If you see some wrong - don't just complain, see about doing something about it. It's better for this world, and good karma for you.

Right thought

Trying to stay fair. Right thought is the hard part of understanding karma. It starts with the basic fact that what we think influences our lives. When we expect to be treated well, we will be treated better then when we expect to be offended.

Karmically it's more important what we think of others. Are you fair to them? Do you keep in mind that their lives are hard too? What are the challenges of the people you disagree with? What do they have to deal with? Always try to balance your negative thoughts about people with a fair perspective on how it must be from their perspective. This will help keep the relationship healthy and avoid trouble. After all: what we think will influence what we say and do.

Karma: the ethical law of cause and effect

We may see that this is so in every-day life. Law on the physical plane takes no account of intention. If you seize a red-hot bar it will burn you, whether you seized it in order to kill somebody, or in order to save a child from injury. On the physical plane the result will be precisely the same, but on the plane of intention it is very different. In the one case there could be nothing but shame and remorse, and the evil result of an outpouring of hatred and malice; in the other there would be the happy consciousness of a brave deed done, and the good which flows from a strong thought of heroic self-sacrifice.

C.W. Leadbeater: Karma, the law of cause and effect

Creating the right habits

The reason bad karma is so hard to escape is that bad thoughts, words and actions create negative habits. Negative habits are, like all habits, hard to break. They are themselves bad karma and also create more bad karma - because we just keep acting on them.

So each time you break a negative habit, the negative karmic cycle is broken. Each time we act on love, the negative conditionings that keep us from changing our habits is softened.

Reader responses to this topic

I definitely believe in karma and reincarnation. Western philosophy is like a chap who has lost his keys and is certain it is in this one room. So he keeps looking... But can't find them, but he persists and keeps looking in this one room. Western philosophy has a rigid structure and seeks to find answers within this strict system. Karma and reincarnation is the answer to man's innate nature and the fruits he sows during his life. The human form is the highest form we can achieve on earth, why? Because it allows us to offer devotion to God. And when you offer devotion to God, and attach yourself to Him, you will reach is abode and break this cycle of birth and death.

I'm sure I've had previous lives on Earth; I feel I have vague memories of lives in other bodies and with other people.

Yes we are reborn. The physical body perishes, but the soul goes on for ever. I have clear memories of my past life, they are not a figment of my imagination, nor wishfull thinking.

I believe in reincarnation. For me, it is the only reasonable explanation for much of what happens in life.

My ultimate goal is to stop the reincarnation cycle. Knowing that you had past lives are just depressing to understand. And this life is no different. I am tired of all of these earthly incarnations and when I am dead I will see to it that I do not come back to this miserable world. There is just too much negativity and discernment in this world for me to want to come back and repeating the same old things over and over. I learned about my previous lives and found that most of them were wasted away by dying too early and not ever really living the life that you really wanted anyways. And for what?  No more reincarnation for me. 

I believe I worked out and balanced some karma needing done in this life and it has been a difficult life and yet a life of leaning wisdom. I believe in reincarnation and I believe I will choose what my next life is. It is a feeling that you get once your karma is complete as I did not feel this way before in this life.

Karma &  Reincarnation

"You can do nothing better than to study the two doctrines - of Karma and Nirvana - as profoundly as you can."

The Master K.H.

In the Theosophical E-mailgroups and forums karma also gets discussed, every once in a while. Here follow some contributions on karma from the theosophical e-maillists:

Books on Karma

  On death and beyond

Karma and reincarnation are central ideas many members of the Theosophical Societies believe in. They have traditionally been part of eastern philosophy, though these thoughts are becoming more common in the west. Above is material from theosophical writers, Buddhist writers and Jiddu Krishnamurti. In a philosophy of life the following questions become essential: Is there something permanent in our spirit? Do our actions and thoughts have consequences that return to us? What is the place of thought in our lives? In eastern philosophy such questions are seen as central to life and living, though finding answers is perhaps not as important as it is to ask questions.