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KARMA AND TRANSMIGRATION

( Originally Published 1922 )



THE doctrines of karma and samsara, which in Indian thought are so closely bound up together, merit discussion in a separate chapter because of the great importance that they have had in the ethical thinking of the Hindus. There is no other single conception which has had anything like the same importance as the doctrine of karma, and there is probably nothing in which Hindu ethical thought is more sharply distinguished from the ethical thought of the West than by the ways in which it has applied this doctrine.

At every stage in our study of the history of Hindu thought, from the time at which it became reflective, we have been brought face to face with the conception, but it may be well here first of all to fix our attention on the essential principle contained in it. It is more than the familiar principle, that whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap, which in some form is believed by people belonging to widely sundered schools of thought. It is this doctrine, interpreted in a particular way, and understood as working so inexorably that the simple converse of it is also true—whatsoever a man reaps, that must he have sowed. In this peculiarly Indian form of the doctrine of the fruit of action belief in some kind of transmigration is implied. It is implied in some way—and the accounts given of it are various—that after the death of the body the life of the individual is continued in another body, and so on in indefinite series. The doctrine of karma may thus be stated abstractly in a form in which it is easily comprehended—whatever a man suffers or enjoys is the fruit of his own deed, a harvest sprung from his own actions, good or bad, committed in previous lives.

But much misunderstanding has arisen in the minds of many people from the fact that the doctrine has been apprehended in this abstract way, apart from its more concrete expressions in Hindu thought. Theosophy has done much to popularize it in a modified form in recent times. And apart from this it has become more familiar to the West in its Buddhist form than in any of the forms it has taken in Hinduism. By the Buddhists it was interpreted in a way more thoroughly ethical, and at the same time more logically consistent, than it has been by most Hindu thinkers. The ordinary reader whose knowledge of Indian religions is of a general and superficial character frequently owes his knowledge of karma largely to such sources, and consequently fails to realize in how many ways the simplicity of the doctrine has been interfered with. Let us look at some of these.

In the first place, as we have seen in previous chapters, the kinds of actions that are supposed to produce good and bad fruit respectively are by no means always actions that most of us would regard as ethically good and bad. The telling of a lie is an act which produces an evil crop, but so does marrying before an elder brother. Showing kindness to strangers is an act which produces good fruit, but so does the performance of many kinds of ritual and magical acts. Besides, the various forms of penance by which atonement is made for sins, in many of which it is impossible to see any ethical value, are supposed to have the effect of wiping out actions which otherwise would have evil consequences. Throughout the history of Hindu thought the ethical has generally been but imperfectly discriminated from the non-ethical, and the consequence is that the accounts that are given of the relation of act to fruit are often unsatisfactory from the ethical point of view.

Again the inevitableness of the connexion between act and fruit in the individual is interfered with in certain ways. A sentence from the Mahäbhărata has sometimes been quoted as expressing the law of karma in its strictness— that no man inherits the good or evil deed of another man. As a matter of fact, in primitive ethical thought the individual is regarded only within certain limits as separable or distinguishable from the other members of his family or tribe. We see this in ancient Hebrew customs—for example, in the doom which Achans sin brought on his whole family, all being thought of as sharing in his sin. The same idea comes to expression in certain thoughts and customs which are found in the history of Hinduism. For example, Manu says that punishment `strikes down the king who swerves from his duty, together with his relatives . Again, it is stated that a faithful wife shares the fate of her husband. Her own karma does not work itself out independently of his, but, provided only she be faithful to him, she shares his fate, irrespective of what her own actions would otherwise have determined for her. There is another and very different way in which one may partake of the karma of another. In Manu much is said regarding the transference to the king of the guilt of acts which he has failed to visit with their proper punishment. Similarly transference of karma may take place under certain conditions from host to guest or vice versa. The belief is even found that it is possible for one voluntarily to transfer his good karma to another. In all this we see certain features that are characteristic of the conception of karma. A man reaps what he has sown, not in accordance with the operation of a principle whereby each action con-tributes to the shaping of his destiny, or to the giving of his - character such a bent that it is bound to lead him to a certain end. For the Hindu thinks less in terms of character than in terms of acts. And each act is thought of as a seed bearing fruit, the seed or growing plant not being irrevocably fixed in a particular soil, but being capable under certain conditions of being transferred from one soil to another.

Hopkins draws attention to another way in which the operation of karma in the individual is interfered with. He finds in the Mahabharata the idea that the fruit of karma may appear in ones sons or other descendants. He thinks that this idea is the simple consequence of the evidence that forced itself upon men that a mans family shared with him the punishment of wrong-doing, as when a kings relatives suffered with him because of the wrong which he had done. It seems hardly necessary to go so far for an explanation. May it not be that the idea that the fruit of a parents actions is inherited by his children is the outcome of experience of the simple fact, which can hardly be ignored, that in some way the fruit of ones acts is passed on to ones descendants ? The extraordinary thing is not that occasionally this should be recognized and admitted, but that anywhere where men have begun to think about problems of conduct it should not force itself upon their attention.

It has been pointed out, particularly in our study of the Upanishads, that reward and punishment were originally believed to be meted out, not in new incarnations, but in other spheres of existence, in heaven and hell. We have seen how the attempt has been made to reconcile the two beliefs, and the result has not been satisfactory. Through the retention of the belief in heaven and hell, the machinery through which karma is supposed to work has been greatly complicated, with the result that frequently we seem to have it taught that reward and punishment are given twice over, once in heaven or hell, and again in a new birth on earth. It often requires the exercise of considerable ingenuity to get over this difficulty.

These are but some of the ways in which the doctrine of karma is crossed by or complicated with other ideas. In his article on ` Modifications of the Karma Doctrine, Hopkins has discussed the subject with some fullness. He has shown, for example, the incongruity with the doctrine of the old belief in sacrifice, repentance, and penance as destroyers of sin. But enough has perhaps been said at the present stage to make it clear that the doctrine of karma as we find it expressed in Hindu literature is not the simple thing that it is often sup-posed to be. Much might be made by the critic of the difficulties connected with this complication. But it is questionable whether it would be fair to lay great emphasis on these. For it might reasonably be held that there is in the doctrine a perfectly intelligible principle, which may at times have been inadequately stated, but which nevertheless is capable of being considered apart from the weaknesses which inhere in any particular statement. As a matter of fact, in discussing the problem with Hindus at the present time, we do, as a rule, have the question narrowed down for us to that of the inseparable union between works and their fruits. So it is desirable that in our discussion of the validity of the doctrine we should deal with essentials, setting aside accidental ideas that have been connected with it.

Let us, then, examine the doctrine in its simple form, and let us first of all consider briefly the belief in transmigration, which is essentially bound up with the doctrine. There is no reason why the fruit of actions should be supposed to appear in the individual in another incarnation in this world. for the same principle of the relation of action to its fruit might quite well he supposed to work itself out in another sphere of being. But, as a matter of fact, in Hindu thought karma and samsara are bound up together. The belief in transmigration itself is not unique. It has appeared among various peoples at various times. For example, scholars have been impressed by the fact that the Pythagoreans held the belief, and attempts were made at one time to find some link of connexion between Pythagorean and Indian thought. It is now generally agreed that the belief has sprung up independently in various quarters. This is a fact which is full of interest, and the question of the origin of the belief is a fascinating one. But it need not detain us here, for questions of validity are different from questions of origin. We may also pass over arguments based on the idea of the intimate relation which undoubtedly exists between the psychical and the physical, by the use of which some have sought to prove the impossibility of re-incarnation in another body. For any such argument might be met by the argumentum ad hominem that on the same grounds practically any kind of belief in the continuance of individual existence after the dissolution of the body would be untenable. Many of the arguments by which the Christian defends his belief in a future life would in this case do equal service to the believer in transmigration.

A more serious objection to the doctrine of transmigration is this, that it is capable neither of proof nor disproof. But here again we might be faced with the argumentum ad hominem that the same difficulty attaches to all forms that the belief in a future life takes. Some would go farther and deny the truth of the assertion, maintaining that there have been men who have been able to recall experiences which they have undergone in former births. Both in Hinduism and in Buddhism this claim has been made. The evidence which has been offered in support of these claims has, however, seldom made a deep impression on the minds of men who have been trained to weigh evidence. It is when the fact that proof and dis-proof are supposed to be equally impossible is taken along with other considerations which remain to be considered that its full weight will be felt.

It is on moral grounds that the belief in transmigration is most strongly defended by the modern Hindu. He holds that it is only on the hypothesis of successive rebirths that certain of the facts of life can be satisfactorily explained. The man born blind, it is explained, must have been born so on account of evil deeds done by him in a previous state of existence. Those who have discussed the problem with educated Hindus find that they continually come back to this, that all suffering and misfortune which the individual experiences must have its root in his own actions. It may be safely said that this is one of the most profound convictions of the average Hindu mind, and one that to many seems beyond dispute. It is at least as deeply ingrained in the Hindu mind as the belief in God was in the mind of the Jew in Old Testament times. This is in a way surprising, for the belief involves the assumption that the Universe is constituted on moral lines. It is doubtful whether such an assumption fits in with the main lines of Hindu thought. It is by no means clear why the demand should be made at all for a justification of the suffering which humanity endures. It might well be but a moment in the juggling process by which conscious beings are misled and drawn away from reality, and any further explanation might appear superfluous. Indeed there are traces alongside the karma doctrine of an older theory that a mans lot is due not to himself but to the fate imposed upon him by the gods. Traces of this may be seen, e.g. in Manu, xi. 47, where it is said that it is daiva, fate, which causes a man to sin ; and the notion of a fate belonging to one apart from ones acts has been traced elsewhere down through Hindu thought. Also the idea of the grace of God, which is prominent in much of the literature of bhakti from the Bhagavadgita- onwards, is in contradiction to the karma doctrine of the equivalence of act and fruit from another point of view. Nevertheless the belief in karma remains deeply rooted in the mind of the average Hindu.

Another difficulty, which may seem to be of minor importance, but which is still very real, is closely connected with that just indicated. The whole tendency of Hindu thought has been to depreciate the physical. The highest life is one lived in indifference to the attractions of all earthly things. Yet the doctrine of karma assumes an attitude to the physical which elevates it to a position of great significance. The point of the difficulty may no doubt be turned by the argument that to him who has attained the goal, or who is on the last stage of the journey towards the goal, all good or ill fortune is indifferent. But this is an argument which rests on another rock of offence-that dualism which runs through so much of Hindu thought, according to which the life of every day is separated by a wide gulf from the kind of experience which has been held up as the ideal. What is relatively good or bad can be so, even relatively, from the point of view of rational beings, only when it is in relation to what is really of worth. Good and ill fortune in this world in the end count for nothing.

Verily the man whom these disturb not, indifferent alike to pain and to pleasure, and wise, is meet for immortality, O chief of men.

Why, then, make so much of these as the fruits of actions ?

It may still be maintained that after all the facts are on the side of the believer in karma. Sin leads to suffering. Whatsoever a man soweth, that doth he also reap. Experience, it is said, testifies to the truth of these principles. In a sense it does. We see these principles in operation about us, and it may well be held that we are justified on the ground of what we see in inferring that we see the operation of a wider principle of retribution by which the deeds of men meet with their due reward or punishment elsewhere. But if this inference is justified, the facts do not justify it in the form which it takes in the karma doctrine. The facts of life do not bear out the idea that ` no one inherits the good or evil deeds of another man. Men are so linked together in human society that a good or an evil deed touches an indefinite number of men, bringing pleasure or pain, good fortune or ill, to many who have no responsibility for the deed. The doctrine of karma makes our admiration of pain and suffering endured by men for the sake of others absurd. It leaves no place for what has been called vicarious suffering, such as is exemplified in ordinary life in the bearing by men of one anothers burdens, and which is seen in its most sublime form in the Cross of Christ. Wrong-doing certainly leads to suffering, but in the first instance it is often the suffering of persons other than the wrong-doer. It may be answered that the Christian believes equally with the Hindu that in the end the wrong-doer too will suffer. But that is not the point. What is here maintained is that the fact that an individual suffers does not prove that he has been guilty of sins either in this life or in another. And further there is a thought regarding suffering which believers in the doctrine of karma have never clearly apprehended, but which is of the greatest importance. There is no such thing as mere physical suffering. Pain endured in a good cause may be accompanied by such spiritual exaltation that it ceases to be pain, while in the case of another who through wrong-doing has brought the pain on himself it may be almost insupportable. This is a distinction that can have no meaning to him who believes that all that is endured is the fruit of the individuals own acts.

Let us turn to another line of thought. It is frequently urged that the belief in karma has great practical value, inasmuch as the anticipation of reward and punishment for all ones good and evil actions must operate as a powerful motive to well-doing. There is, no doubt, something in this contention. It is generally admitted that anticipation of reward and punishment is an inducement to the living of a life at least outwardly decent, though it is less likely that such anticipations will conduce to a lofty moral life. Further, we cannot deny all moral value to the belief that present experiences are the outcome of good or evil done in former lives. Its value may be impaired by other considerations, but the belief in itself has value. The effects of wrong-doing, to look at but one side of the case, are present with a man ; they are not something that may be in the future. This should stimulate a man so to live as to avoid in the future similar punishment.

But there are elements in the case that detract from the moral value of the doctrine. For example, one weakness has been laid hold upon by many writers on the subject of karma. They have held that an immoral element is introduced into the doctrine when it is said that a man is punished for sins which he committed in a former life and of which he has no recollection. This objection is sometimes pushed too far, and stated in forms in which it might be used with equal cogency to condemn the doctrine of heredity. Indeed with greater cogency ; for it might be maintained that it is far more unjust that a man should suffer for sins committed by progenitors, for which he had no responsibility and of which he has no knowledge, than it is that he should be punished for sins committed by himself which have escaped his memory. But the principle of heredity does not work in the hard, mechanical way in which karma is supposed to work. This is a fact that may be expressed in various ways. For example, it often happens that a man becomes strong on that side of his character on which by heredity he is weak. When a man knows that he has inherited a tendency to a particular vice, he often sets himself resolutely to combat it, and his character gains in strength from the combat. Or even when a man suffers some physical disability which is the result of the wrong-doing of some progenitor, it is not necessarily regarded as an unmitigated misfortune. It may be the occasion of activities for the good of his fellow men which otherwise might not have suggested themselves to him. And there is the other aspect of human suffering, to which Jesus referred in that most illuminating passage where He speaks of the man born blind. To those who asked whether his blindness was due to his own sin or that of his parents He replied, ` Neither did this man sin nor his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him . Suffering is not necessary penal ; on the contrary it may be an occasion for the exercise of certain virtues on the part of others, which otherwise might not have been developed in them.

So, then, suffering which one owes to evil heredity is in no real sense of the term punishment. According to the doctrine of karma, on the other hand, whatever one suffers is the direct fruit of ones own misdeeds. He suffers from various disabilities from which the sufferer from the evil deeds of his forbears is exempt. To begin with, he has no indication in the nature of the penalty he endures of the particular line along which he should seek to amend his character. There are, indeed, passages where it is said, e.g. that he who steals water will be born again as a duck, he who steals corn as a mouse, and where other penalties of a similar kind are threatened. But such penalties can hardly be looked upon as having a reformatory character. And as regards the great mass of suffering there is no means of knowing the precise nature of the sin which occasioned it. Again, if a man believes that his own suffering and that of others is a punishment for sin, that thought is in danger of arresting the impulse to the service of others in the alleviation of suffering. There can be little doubt that it is this belief, more than any other one factor, that is responsible for the backwardness of the people of India in the work of ministering to the unfortunate. In recent times it has been by men in whom the belief has been breaking down that the work of social service has been taken up most enthusiastically.

We may consider in somewhat fuller detail another difficulty which besets the doctrine of karma, which has already been hinted at. In the characteristic form of the doctrine it has been seen that good and evil are thought of in terms of act rather than of character. Now, it is generally recognized that works are, when taken in isolation, but a poor criterion of what a man is. There are works formally evil which may be the outcome of stupidity, or of good intention unskilfully executed, as well as of evil purpose. And there are deeds apparently good which are the outcome of long-sighted wickedness. These are facts to which too little weight has been given in Hindu thought. In teaching regarding karma it is almost invariably deeds that are spoken of as persisting and producing fruit, not tendencies of character, ` The deed does not die, it is said. Good deeds form, as it were, the credit side, and bad deeds the debit side of an account, which every one of necessity incurs. The relation of this account to the individual is of a comparatively external kind. As we have seen, karma may be in certain ways transferred. It may be exhausted without any suggestion that the individual becomes in any way different. Good and evil deeds are thought of not as realities that may have infinite consequences, but as having values that are definite and fixed. The Hindu would have but little understanding of or sympathy with the Puritan saying that as one leak may sink a ship, so one sin may sink a soul. The evil deed is considered not as symptomatic of a disease, which it in turn aggravates, but as constituting a load or a debt involving various disabilities. This way of looking at conduct shows itself in many ways in the everyday thought of many Hindu people. To mention only one of these ways-new-comers to India have often re-marked on the curious attitude that Hindus seem to take to cases of wrong-doing. They often argue that for a single lapse a man should not be punished, even when the deed is one that to the western mind seems to indicate serious culpability. It is not that the benefit of a ` First Offenders Act is sought, but, as one sometimes hears it put in so many words, that the seriousness of a single wrong act is not recognized.

Now, these are facts which have very important consequences for the doctrine of karma generally. If for ` deed we substitute character in the various formulations of the doctrine, the whole situation is altered. Character certainly bears its proper fruit, but its most important fruit is itself. A mans destiny must be that for which he fits himself; it cannot be the fruit of a series of external acts abstracted from the character of which they are the expression. Judgements passed on acts apart from the character of the agent are usually very precarious. We do speak of certain kinds of acts as good or bad, and we speak of the good and bad points in mens characters. But that does not alter the fact that character is a unity, and that it cannot be truly represented after the analogy of a balance sheet with its credit and debit sides, It is possible for us to think of the individual as migrating from one form of being to another, each new birth being determined by the bent which his character has received in the preceding life. It may seem to us that certain men have characters more suited to the life of the ` tiger or the ape than to that of man, and it may not require much exercise of the imagination to think of them as re-incarnated in such forms. But this is a conception different from that with which we are familiar in Indian thought. In all the varieties of statement in which the doctrine is presented, it is the deed, not the character, which is supposed to persist. And this thought of deeds as existing in isolation from each other and from the character of the doer is one that is psychologically unsound.

There is another objection to the doctrine of karma which has been put in various forms by many writers on the subject, viz. that the doctrine, as involving a fatalistic explanation of human conduct, does nothing to solve the problem of the inequalities of human fortunes. The problem, it is said, is merely shelved. One life is explained by reference to a previous life, and it by reference to another, and so on ad infinitum. This objection is presented with some hesitation, because it has been denied that the deeds that men commit are determined by their karma ; it is said that it is only those experiences which lie outside their own choice that are so determined. This is a point that raises the whole question of the attitude of Hindu thought to the problem of freedom. It may, at least, be safely said that popular thought is largely fatalistic. The average individual feels that his misdeeds are the outcome of the operation of forces beyond his control as are the misfortunes that beset him. And Sankaracharya at any rate, among philosophers, has definitely maintained that the actions that a man performs are determined by karma. He says that the actions and sufferings of man are due to a cause inherent in himself. God apportions good and evil among men, having regard to the efforts made by them.

`But , he asks, ` can this regard to the efforts made by the souls exist together with the dependence of all activity on God ? Certainly. For though the activity depends on God, it is only the soul that acts ; while God causes it to act when it acts ; and as He now in causing it to act pays regard to former efforts, so, too, He in causing it to act formerly had regard to still earlier efforts ; for samsara is without beginning.

This is an admission which undermines the value of the doctrine of karma as a justification of the seeming injustices of life. On this admission the difficulty is, indeed, only shelved, No explanation is given of the problem which is supposed to be explained. The individual becomes the sport of an over-ruling fate, and the real cause of his good or ill fortune is as mysterious as ever. samsara is eternal—without beginning. Living beings have been through all time tossed about like the balls of the juggler, and the statement that man by his own actions determines his destiny may be as true, but it is as irrelevant, as the statement that the conditions of the balls rising in the air determine its fall.

One more objection to the doctrine of karma is that it is incompatible with, belief in the possibility of the forgiveness of sins. This is an objection that will have no weight with those who believe thoroughly in the doctrine. There are many to whom the idea of forgiveness appears an immoral idea, which contrasts very unfavourably with that of the inevitable union of work and fruit. They also point out that the idea of forgiveness involves a theory of the relation of sin to God which they cannot accept. This second point we may pass over for the present, but the first point deserves some attention. It really brings us back to an aspect of the question discussed above as to the moral adequacy of the doctrine. The question before us here is whether this rigid doctrine of the relation of work and fruit is necessary for morality, or whether the highest moral doctrine may not admit of, or even demand, the possibility of forgiveness. It is noteworthy that it is in the works which manifest the spirit of deepest moral earnestness that the tendency has been most marked to depart from the rigidity of the doctrine of karma, and to grant a place to the grace of God, which is given freely, not according to merit. For example, karma is accepted unquestioningly in the Bhagavadgita, but we realize at once that we are face to face with one of the many inconsistencies of the book when we come to such a statement as this :

Whatever be thy work, thine eating, thy sacrifice, thy gift, thy mortification, make thou of it an offering to Me, O son of Kunti.

Thus shalt thou be released from the bonds of Works, fair or foul of fruit ; thy spirit inspired by casting-off of Works and following the Rule, thou shalt be delivered and come unto Me.

This quotation does not refer to forgiveness, but it refers to grace, a conception which really is a denial of the doctrine of karma. The forgiveness of sins as it is understood by Christians is thought of as a particular expression of the grace of God, and it is connected with a distinctive way of regarding sin which one hardly finds in Hinduism. But what is of importance here is the fact that within Hinduism the forms of religion that have had the greatest influence in the production of a spirit of moral earnestness have been forms in which the doctrine of karma was superseded by a doctrine of grace. The real bearings of the case have not always been explicitly recognized, and the two antagonistic doctrines have been held alongside each other, as in the Bhagavadgita; for belief in karma is deep-rooted in the Indian mind. But the fact remains that it has been the thought of a way of escape from the operation of karma that has given to men freedom and hope. It has done this only imperfectly, for the idea has been only imperfectly conceived. It has not been easy for the Hindu mind to get away from the idea of action as working itself out pitilessly and inexorably, to that of a God who is gracious and forgiving, with a forgiveness that does not make sin a light thing, but a thing abhorrent to him who has been forgiven.

If the criticisms which have been offered above are sound, then it has been shown that the doctrine of karma lacks justification on moral grounds. The doctrine of samsara falls with it. It has been shown that it can be neither proved nor disproved when stated simply by itself. But the fact that moral justification for it is wanting serves to make a prima facie case against it.



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