Karma and Rebirth - Samsara
Karma and Rebirth
Through the ripening of the fruits of his actions he does not attain any rest, like a worm caught within a whirlpool. The desire for liberation arises in human beings at the end of many births, through the ripening of their past virtuous conduct.
Śukla Yajur Veda, Paiṅgala Upaniṣad 2.11. upr, 913
How Do Hindus Understand Karma?
Karma literally means “deed” or “act” and more broadly names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction which governs all life. Karma is a natural law of the mind, just as gravity is a law of matter. Aum.
Karma is not fate, for man acts with free will, creating his own destiny. The Vedas tell us, if we sow goodness, we will reap goodness; if we sow evil, we will reap evil.
Karma refers to the totality of our actions and their concomitant reactions in this and previous lives, all of which determines our future.
It is the interplay between our experience and how we respond to it that makes karma devastating or helpfully invigorating. The conquest of karma lies in intelligent action and dispassionate reaction.
Not all karmas rebound immediately. Some accumulate and return unexpectedly in this or other births.
The several kinds of karma are: personal, family, community, national, global and universal.
Ancient rishis perceived personal karma’s three-fold edict:
The first is Sañchita, the sum total of past karmas yet to be resolved.
The second is Prārabdha, that portion of Sañchita to be experienced in this life.
Kriyamāna, the third type, is karma we are currently creating.
The Vedas propound:
“Here they say that a person consists of desires. And as is his desire, so is his will. As is his will, so is his deed. Whatever deed he does, that he will reap.” Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
Is There Good Karma and Bad Karma?
In the highest sense, there is no good or bad karma. All experience offers opportunities for spiritual growth. Selfless acts yield positive, uplifting conditions. Selfish acts yield conditions of negativity and confusion. Aum.
Karma itself is neither good nor bad but a neutral principle that governs energy and motion of thought, word and deed.
All experience helps us grow. Good, loving actions bring to us lovingness through others. Mean, selfish acts bring back to us pain and suffering. Kindness produces sweet fruits, called puṇya. Unkindness yields spoiled fruits, called pāpa.
As we mature, life after life, we go through much pain and joy. Actions that are in tune with dharma help us along the path, while adharmic actions impede our progress.
The divine law is: whatever karma we are experiencing in our life is just what we need at the moment, and nothing can happen but that we have the strength to meet it.
Even harsh karma, when faced in wisdom, can be the greatest catalyst for spiritual unfoldment.
Performing daily sādhana, keeping good company, pilgrimaging to holy places, seeing to others’ needs—these evoke the higher energies, direct the mind to useful thoughts and avoid the creation of troublesome new karmas.
The Vedas explain:
“According as one acts, so does he become. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action.” Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
What Is the Process of Reincarnation?
Reincarnation, punarjanma, is the natural process of birth, death and rebirth. At death we drop off the physical body and continue evolving in the inner worlds in our subtle bodies, until we again enter into birth. Aum.
Through the ages, reincarnation has been the great consoling element within Hinduism, eliminating the fear of death, explaining why one person is born a genius and another idiot.
We are not the body in which we live but the immortal soul which inhabits many bodies in its evolutionary journey through saṁsāra.
After death, we continue to exist in unseen worlds, enjoying or suffering the harvest of earthly deeds until it comes time for yet another physical birth.
Because certain karmas can be resolved only in the physical world, we must enter another physical body to continue our evolution. After soaring into the causal plane, we enter a new womb. Subsequently the old manomaya kośa is slowly sloughed off and a new one created.
The actions set in motion in previous lives form the tendencies and conditions of the next. Reincarnation ceases when karma is resolved, God is realized and moksha attained.
The Vedas say:
“After death, the soul goes to the next world bearing in mind the subtle impressions of its deeds, and after reaping their harvest returns again to this world of action. Thus, he who has desires continues subject to rebirth.” Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
How Should We View Death and Dying?
Our soul never dies; only the physical body dies. We neither fear death nor look forward to it, but revere it as a most exalted experience. Life, death and the afterlife are all part of our path to perfect oneness with God. Aum.
For Hindus, death is nobly referred to as mahāprasthāna, “the great journey.” When the lessons of this life have been learned and karmas reach a point of intensity, the soul leaves the physical body, which then returns its elements to the earth.
The awareness, will, memory and intelligence which we think of as ourselves continue to exist in the soul body.
Death is a most natural experience, not to be feared. It is a quick transition from the physical world to the astral plane, like walking through a door, leaving one room and entering another.
Knowing this, we approach death as a sādhana, as a spiritual opportunity, bringing a level of detachment which is difficult to achieve in the tumult of life and an urgency to strive more than ever in our search for the Divine Self.
To be near a realized soul at the time he or she gives up the body yields blessings surpassing those of a thousand and eight visits to holy persons at other times.
The Vedas explain:
“As a caterpillar coming to the end of a blade of grass draws itself together in taking the next step, so does the soul in the process of transition strike down this body and dispel its ignorance.” Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
How Does One Best Prepare for Death?
Blessed with the knowledge of impending transition, we settle affairs and take refuge in japa, worship, scripture and yoga—seeking the highest realizations as we consciously, joyously release the world. Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
Before dying, Hindus diligently fulfill obligations, make amends and resolve differences by forgiving themselves and others, lest unresolved karmas bear fruit in future births. That done, we turn to God through meditation, surrender and scriptural study.
As a conscious death is our ideal, we avoid drugs, artificial life-extension and suicide.
Suicide only postpones and intensifies the karma one seeks escape from, requiring several lives to return to the evolutionary point that existed at the moment of suicide.
In cases of terminal illness, under strict community regulation, tradition does allow prāyopaveśa, self- willed religious death by fasting.
When nearing transition, if hospitalized, we return home to be among loved ones. In the final hours of life, we seek the Self God within and focus on our mantra as kindred keep prayerful vigil.
At death, we leave the body through the crown chakra, entering the clear white light and beyond in quest of videhamukti.
The Vedas affirm:
“When a person comes to weakness, be it through old age or disease, he frees himself from these limbs just as a mango, a fig or a berry releases itself from its stalk.” Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
Desireless, wise, immortal, self-existent, full of bliss, lacking in nothing, is the one who knows the wise, unaging, youthful ātman. He fears not death!
Atharva Veda 10.8.44. ve, 538
He, however, who has not understanding, who is unmindful and ever impure, reaches not the goal, but goes on to reincarnation. He, however, who has understanding, who is mindful and ever pure, reaches the goal from which he is born no more.
Krishna Yajur Veda, Katha Upanishad 3.7-8. uph, 352
Go, my breath, to the immortal Breath. Then may this body end in ashes! Remember, O my mind, the deeds of the past, remember the deeds, remember the deeds!
Śukla Yajur Veda, Īśa Upaniṣad 17. ve, 831
Even as a heavy laden cart moves on groaning, even so the cart of the human body, wherein lives the spirit, moves on groaning when a man is giving up the breath of life.
And as when a king is going to depart, the nobles and officers, the charioteers and the heads of the village assemble around him, even so all the powers of life gather about the soul when a man is giving up the breath of life.
When departing, by the head, or by the eye or other parts of the body, life arises and follows the soul, and the powers of life follow life.
The soul becomes conscious and enters into Consciousness. His wisdom and works take him by the hand, and the knowledge known of old.
Then even as a worker in gold, taking an old ornament, molds it into a form newer and fairer, even so the soul, leaving the body and ignorance behind, goes into a form newer and fairer, a form like that of the ancestors in heaven, or of the celestial beings, or of the Gods of light, or of the Lord of Creation, or of Brāhma, the Creator supreme, or a form of other beings.
Śukla Yajur Veda, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.35; 37 & 4.4.2; 3. upm, 138-139
O Maghavan, verily, this body is mortal. It has been appropriated by death. But it is the standing ground of that deathless, bodiless Self (ātman).
Verily, he who is incorporate has been appropriated by pleasure and pain. Verily, there is no freedom from pleasure and pain for one while he is incorporate. Verily, while one is bodiless, pleasure and pain do not touch him.
Sāma Veda, Chāndogya Upanishad 8.12.1. uph, 272
I pray Thee for undying love. I pray Thee for the birthless state; but were I to be born again, for the grace of never forgetting Thee. Still more do I pray to be at Thy feet singing joyfully while Thou dancest.
Tirumurai 11, Karaikkal Ammaiyar. pr, 132
Thus acting from the principle of maya itself down to the lowest level, karma, even when it manifests as good, is an obstacle still, because it is not toward liberation that it leads. Karma does not dissolve without its various fruits being tasted and consumed.
Mṛigendra Āgama, Jñāna Pāda 8.A.5-6. ma, 193-4
A twice-born, gone to the end of the Veda, knowing that life is impermanent, may abandon the body there by fasting to death according to prescription. After worshiping the Gods and honoring the munis, the siddha may go to heaven, the eternal realm of Brahma.
Mahābhārata, Anu. Parva 25.63-64. he, 100
Even as the snake sloughs off its skin, even as the bird leaves its shell, even as in its waking state the Jīva forgets happenings of the dream state—thus does Jīva from one body to another migrate until, with grace of Hara, it reaches where it is destined to be, and there experiences the two karmas, good and evil.
Tirumantiram 2132. tm
They germinate the seed. They plant the seedlings. But, poor in spirit, they do not think of their own fleeting life. Knowing nothing of karmic sorrows, verily they are consumed in the funeral pyre.
Tirumantiram 2084. tm
All suffering recoils on the wrongdoer himself. Therefore, those desiring not to suffer refrain from causing others pain. If a man visits sorrow on another in the morning, sorrow will visit him unbidden in the afternoon.
Thirukural 320, 319. ww
The Life of my life, whose nature ’tis to hold the fire in His hand, essence of Truth of purest gold, who neither comes nor goes, the Mighty One who doth all souls pervade—in this great world, for those who thus meditate on Him, all future births will end.
Natchintanai, “Cure for Birth" NT, 191