Karma and Reincarnation: optimism vs pessimism

About half a year ago a respected theosophist asked me to turn my blog into a book. He’s one of the most respectable theosophists in my book, so of course I listened. The book idea has morphed somewhat and now it looks like I’ll be bundling my posts on karma and reincarnation in that book.

However, it’s a tricky topic: Blavatsky and the whole spiritual Western World after her softened the blow of this doctrine somewhat. I think everybody who reads this is aware of the option of people reincarnating as animals. I don’t think many people realize just how common that sort of rebirth is said to be.

I have a very classical teacher in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism and he doesn’t do much softening of the blow – and when he does, he tells us he’s doing so. One thing he won’t budge on is karma.

From a metaphysical perspective the main issue here is: what causes rebirth? What force is it that helps us find a new body after we died and determines whether that body is human or something else?

Blavatsky wrote at a time when evolution was thought to be an upward trend. It only go better. In her day this optimism was common also in all other fields. The first World War put an end to that cultural optimism in Europe and the Second gave it another blow. The fact that both those wars were fought outside the US mainland may explain why optimism is still such a big part of US culture.

That may sound like an aside, but the issue is very real. We take our good fortune for granted. Do we really take into account the likely option that we’ll be reborn as one of those persons somewhere on this planet living in a hut with too many people, no fresh water about, food at a premium and life in general uncertain from one day to the next?

During a lecture tour the other day I asked my audience who there believed in reincarnation. Over half put up their hand. However, I asked them: does that mean you take rebirth as an animal seriously? I was invited as a Buddhist and given only 10 minutes so I didn’t mince words.

Most people in the West, I think, have inherited the Theosophical position on reincarnation, which is that the chances of rebirth as a human being are good. Blavatsky thought only hardened criminals and black magicians de-evolved into animals. The arc of evolution is upward, so Blavatsky thought, and as long as you’re a decent human being, you will be reborn as one in your next life.

That’s a comforting thought. Leaving aside the large chance of being reborn as a human being with far less comforts than I have now.

The option of being reborn as an animal is usually seen as a scare tactic: it reminds us too much of preachers warning about going to hell if you don’t attend church every Sunday. Not that I experienced that, but it’s part of my cultural heritage.

All this is the upbeat version. Lama Yeshe too was confident most people would be reborn as humans. Chögyam Trungpa in his book ‘Glimpses of Abhidharma
‘ likened karma to ‘auspicious coincidence’. That too is an image that takes all the sting out of the idea of karma. It reminds me of Jungian Synchronicity. However, karma goes both ways: for every auspicious coincidence there is an inauspicious coincidence waiting to happen. Call it the Law of Murphy if you will.

Karma can be quite funny sometimes, even if it’s also sad.

Although much more can be said on this topic, for now I would just like to know whether you all believe in Karma and how you feel about being reborn as an animal? Is it likely? Do you believe in that at all?

A version of this post appears in my book Essays on Karma.

19 thoughts on “Karma and Reincarnation: optimism vs pessimism”

  1. Belief is the worst thing human beings have ever invented. It justified so many unhuman behaviors, including wars and atrocities in the name of God (whatever God it is). When belief starts, there is no more investigation, no more questioning. Karma and reincarnation are at the heart of most of the religions/life-philosophy. One may question : “Why ?”. Who is asking the question ? Who wants to “live for ever ?” Who fears to be re-born in an animal body ?The answer to these questions have been described in may books, but the real answer can only be found deep, inside the heart of each of us. Monotheism religions denied reincarnation (or the teaching was erased from human memories since the first centuries), most eastern religions embrassed all this basic concept. Modern theosophy came with a mix, reincarnation,but mainly as human in the cycle of evolution. It is like most of the basic questions one may ask. There are so many contradictory answers. The easy way is probably to conform with one of these religions and to stop thinking. There is however another approach, probably as difficult, which I would call FACTS. Obviously, facts have a hard time not to be interpreted before they can be categorized and shared. But basic facts, not interpreted by mental,memory, conditioning, and so on, remain solid ground for investigation. Regarding karma and reincarnation, do we have facts we could use in this search ?
    Human reincarnation is described in the tulku phenomenon in Tibet and around this country. Animal reincarnation is less common, except in legends. This does not gives us enough clarity to conclude.
    I like Jiddu Krishnamurti statement : “I don’t believe in reincarnation, I know it is a fact”.

  2. Yes I believe in Karma and any one can reborn either as human or an animal. Kindly read my following comments for detailed scientific belief in reincarnation.

    Among the ancient Greeks Socrates, Pythagoras and Plato made reincarnation an integral part of their teachings. According to Dr. Granville Dharmawardena of Colombo University reincarnation may be defined as the re-embodiment of an immaterial part of a person after a short or a long interval after death, in a new body whence it proceeds to lead a new life in the new body more or less unconscious of its past existences, but containing within itself the “essence” of the results of its past lives, which experience goes to make up its new character or personality.
    In the seventeenth century Rene Descartes divided everything in the universe into two realms as “Res Extensa” (matter) and “Res Cogitans” (mind). Gathering knowledge within the realm of Res Extensa was called Science and the phenomenon of reincarnation got pushed into the other realm Res Cogitans which was not considered suitable for scientific probing. Science developed in the framework of Res Estensa is known as “Classical Science”. Classical science had tremendous material achievements because it helped all round growth of technology which brought about prosperity to mankind. The air of frame work of Classical Science was blown out by Henry Becquerel in 1896 by the discovery of Radioactivity. The discovery of Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein in early 20th Century gave it further blow. The advent of Quantum Theory and the Uncertainty Principle did the rest. It is significant to note that Einstein’s discovery fall entirely within the frame work of Res Cogitans as it did not involve any experiments or measurements. Gravitation Force Theory of Newton is also an example of such observation and intuition work involving no experiments and measurements.
    Modern Science enhanced man’s knowledge surpassing the restrictions imposed by the five senses and took us to hidden areas of nature and profound changes had been introduced in procedures of science. Our ability to understand everything by way of perceptible mental pictures is reduced and it became necessary to imagine models with components which behaved in ways that had no counterparts at all in the world familiar to us. In most cases mechanisms involved in these models not only are imperceptible but also consist of elements that operate in ways never known in the world that we actually experience through sensory inputs.
    Modern science tied up the two realms, Res Extensa and Res Cogitans and made us to understand that they are not independent and cannot be completely studied independently. Within the establishment of modern science some of the aspects of nature that did not strictly adhere to the realm of Res Extensa, which were therefore earlier condemned as unbecoming of scientists to talk about have become respectable. Reincarnation falls into this category
    Reincarnation is a very old belief and a large fraction of the world population believes it. For example Rene Descartes’ statement “What I have said is sufficient to show clearly enough that the extinction of the mind does not follow from the corruption of the body and also to give men the hope of another life after death” in 1641 confirms his belief in reincarnation. About 20 percent of those in the Western World whose religions shun reincarnation nevertheless believe it. According to opinion polls this percentage is rising.
    Lisa Miller, Religion Editor of Newsweek says that Americans are becoming more Hindus. According to 2008 Harris Poll 24% of Americans say they believe in reincarnation
    Steven J Rosen writes in The Reincarnation Controversy, Uncovering the Truth in World Religions (New Age Books) that belief in reincarnation allows us to see ourselves as architects of our own future. Rosen raises certain queries,‘ what is it that reincarnates from one body to another? Is it the soul? the mind? the intellect? To understand this we should suggest answer to these questions. We all know that there are four fundamental forces in the universe viz., gravitation force, electromagnetic force, weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force. I have written a paper entitled ‘Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator’ and presented it at the 1st International Conference on Revival of Traditional Yoga held in Lonavla Yoga Institute, Lonavla in January 2006. In this paper I have defined soul (individual consciousness), mind and body. According to this every point of action of Gravitational Force Field is individual consciousness or soul, electromagnetic force as the force of mind and weak and strong nuclear force as the gross material force which constitute physical frame of body.
    Consciousness is All Intelligent and pervades everywhere. Although all other remaining three forces are also intelligent but they are subordinate to Gravitational Force. THIS DESCRIPTION WILL HELP TO UNDERSTAND ‘WHAT IS IT THAT REINCARNATES FROM ONE BODY TO ANOTHER.
    According to Buddhism this is not the supreme atman or soul that ties one life to another, instead it talks about past lives as evolvement of consciousness, emergence of a new personality from the same stream of consciousness.
    Contrary to popular belief, reincarnation is not an exclusively Eastern notion but that has flourished in cultures around the world. It is still an integral part of some sects of the Jewish tradition; Kabbalistic Jewish wisdom tradition has reincarnation ideas embedded in it one way or another. Reincarnation is mentioned in numerous places throughout the classical texts of Jewish mysticism. “As long as a person is unsuccessful in his purpose in this world, the Holy One, blessed be He, uproots him and replants him over and over again”. (Zohar I 186b)

    Gnostic and Early Christians also believed in reincarnation; only later on church removed all such texts and blended those heretics. History records that early Emperor Justinian in 545 A.D. was able to apply the full power of Rome and his authority to stop the belief in reincarnation. However, the Bible contain no condemnation of the principle of reincarnation, and in fact, when Christ was asked when Elijah would return, He answered that Elijah had returned, referring to John the Baptist. At one place it is also mentioned, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).

    Sakina Yusuf Khan writes in an article A Night Of Forgiveness published in The Speaking Tree: “It (Shab-e-Barat) is also a festival associated with the dead. It is believed that the souls of the dead are set free on this night to visit their relatives.” What this indicates? This is a belief in reincarnation, of course in subtle body. The Koran says, “And you were dead, and He brought you back to life. And He shall cause you to die, and shall bring you back to life, and in the end shall gather you onto Himself.” Among the followers of Islam, the Sufis especially believe that death is no loss, for the immortal soul continually pass through different bodies.
    Unaccomplished activities of past lives are also one of the causes for reincarnation. Some of us reincarnate to complete the unfinished tasks of previous birth. This is evident from my own story of reincarnation:
    “My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state of mine. This was sort of REVELATION.
    HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab. Sarkar Sahab later on became Fourth Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith.
    Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ (Agam Geet yeh gawan chahoon tumhri mauj nihara, mauj hoi to satguru soami karoon supanth vichara) but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.”
    I am one the chief expounder and supporter of Gravitation Force Theory of God. This is most scientific and secular theory of God. This is the Theory of Universal Religion. I have given Higher Theory of Everything. Sometimes back I posted this as comments to a blog on:
    ‘Fighting of the Cause of Allah by Governing a Smart Mathematics Based on Islamic Teology’
    By Rohedi of Rohedi Laboratories, Indonesia. Rohedi termed my higher theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Some details are quoted below:
    @anirudh kumar satsangi
    Congratulation you have develop the higher theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Hopefully your some views for being considered for Unified Field Theory are recognized by International Science Community, hence I soon read the fundamental aspect proposed by you.
    I have posted my comments to the Blog of Syed K. Mirza on Evolutionary Science vs. Creation Theory, and Intellectual Hypocrisy. Syed Mirza seems to be a very liberal muslim. He responded to my comments as mentioned below.
    “Many thanks for your very high thought explanations of God.
    You said:
    “Hence it can be assumed that the Current of Chaitanya (Consciousness) and Gravitational Wave are the two names of the same Supreme Essence (Seed) which has brought forth the entire creation. Hence it can be assumed that the source of current of consciousness and gravitational wave is the same i.e. God or ultimate creator.
    (i) Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator, Source of Gravitational Wave is God”
    Whatever you call it, God is no living God of any religion. Yes, when I call it “Mother Nature” is the God generated from all Natural forces and Gravitational force is the nucleus of all forces or we can presume that Gravitation is the ultimate guiding principle of this Mother Nature we call it non-living God unlike living personal God of religions. I can not believe any personal God would do so much misery created for its creation. Hence, only non-living natural God can explain everything in the Universe. When we think of any living personal God, things do not ad up!”
    I have also discovered the mathematical expression for emotional quotient (E.Q.) and for spiritual quotient (S.Q.).
    Austrian Scientist Rudolf Steiner says,
    “Just as an age was once ready to receive the Copernican theory of the universe, so is our age ready for the idea of reincarnation to be brought into the general consciousness of humanity”.

    1. Grandiose claims re your past great guru do not impress me.
      As for Descartes, his spirituality extended to likening animals to mechanical beasts.
      You really seem all over the place and i would suggest that your excessively long post may not be helpfull to novices, by virtue of the exhalted position you seem to adopt. Still all good wishes

  3. The whole concept of Karma and reincarnation has always made a lot of intuitive sense to me. And if one accepts the idea of reincarnation, I think it would be inconsistent not to accept the possibility of reincarnating in animal form. After all, if animals are conscious beings just like we are, we are accumulating Karma with almost every single non-vegetarian meal we are having. Perhaps reincarnating as one of those who we consider “inferior beings” is inevitable for our understanding of their suffering at our own hands.

  4. I have been mildly interested in Theosophy for over 50 years and still have some Theosophist friends including the presidident of Theosophy down Under, here in Australia.I also have a friend ,agnostic, and formerly a young theosophist president who now runs the Victorian Atheist Society.
    My I/n involvement with Buddhism saw me upsetting the moderators, who, on that forum, felt that Theosophy denigrated Buddhism. These Buddhists, who claimed to embrace all of the schools, were much more into Annatta, which, in my view, is too subtle to be even meaningfull.
    My book Who is This God 2007/8 was reviewed by Theosophy Down Under.
    Theosophists teach a pre incarnation schooling of sorts in a spiritual realm, to help one move on productively.
    As a Saspian iI endeavour to act reasonably decently and open mindedly, without making attachement a counterproductive fetter.
    Good luck with your book and your life.

  5. Yes Jacques, reincarnation is a fact either in human form or in some animal or vegetable form.

  6. When people speak of reincarnation as a fact they unjusifiably embrace the whole universe from their specific huiman understanding.
    Even Buddha did not make such grandiose claims. indeed he warned against too much cetainty, particularly relating to cosmic causality.
    to speak of ‘facts’ whether scientifically or spiritually is quite egotistical in my view.

  7. No idea. I beleive in the continuation of the soul/experience, as I take time to be a projection… So I take it as a given we’re reincarnated, though how or me is beside the point, it dosen’t efect curent experience. My concern is how I am. Coming from perhaps a more strickly non dogmatic and budhist point of view…
    Blessings 😉

  8. After reading the title of your post I remembered Krishnamurti’s statement which I read somewhere long time ago, “What is that which reincarnate?” In my opinion belief is not important. Gurdjieff said that most people have no soul. You have a soul only if you are self realized. Otherwise you don’t have soul. This is funny. Anyway I don’t believe in karma or reincarnation theory. This is true that if you do lots of bad karma there is possibility that it will return back to you. But there are people who were killed by masses because they were doing good karma.

    Anyway this topic is vast and complicated. I’m not telling that my view is 100% correct. No not at all. But still nice articles. I like your blogs and hubs. I have read your many articles. Great work.

  9. I am a 51 yr old Shaman practising the Munay-Ki Traditions, and have experianced “Spirits” most of my life. I also have 5 near death experiances of my own and consider myself extremely spiritual. I don’t believe that I know everything there is to know about spirituality, or after death experiance. In fact, the more I learn, more questions arise bringing me back humbly before Great Spirit as a child before his Mother.

    I believe that we absolutely “reincarnate”, without doubt in my mind I know that this is true. We are energy beings having a human experiance, we incarnate to learn lessons, to rise above greed & selfishness, we all have a life path & a soul path that we journey. And if we do not learn these lessons, or get side tracked off our paths, we return in another life to again, learn that lesson. And because we are beings of energy, we have a Luminous Energy Field that can absorb the energetic blueprint of physical, emotional & psychological pain that we experiance thru-out our life, but choose to not properly deal with the pain, or let go of it sending it to Mother Earth, (Pachamama), to be mulched and turned in to possitive energies.

    Everything is energy, everything from the trees, plants, animals, humans, stone is all made from the same building blocks of life, and is energy. So as a being of energy that is working my way back to the loving arms of the devine, I may reincarnate hundreds, or thousands of times, always with amnesia to my past lives, for if we understood our true selves, we would not learn our lessons of life. And a person never reincarnates as a animal as some believe, that would not do your soul a bit of good. What could you take with you, or what could you learn by that type of experiance. I have a hard time accepting this, but again, I know so very little as we all do.

    Myself, I came from a very dark place of substance abuse, violence, lousey attitude, biker club member, and I found Sprituality thru my Fathers death. It was an amazing ride, I made massive changes in my life in a very short period of time, less than a year, although I believe the process was in motion for many years. Today, my life is wonderful, each day brings new opportunity, love of those around me, and the chance to do something good for somebody else. I hope & pray that all those reading this also experiance the bliss that The Great Spirit Brings.. Aho, Namaste, Much Love & Joy to Everybody….B

  10. I will consider myself a novice and observer, as everyone seems to have much more knowledge here.

    I’m not sure why most of us seem worried about reincarnating as animals or vegetables even. As human form are we less than animals, or vegetable? Actually, No. If we are in human form now, does that not infer we were once incarnated as animals or vegetables? So if karmic law determines that we need to re-experience those states in order to fulfill our realization as bodies of light, why are we nervous and complaining?

    The real questions here are:
    1. Is reincarnation a reality at all? I personally think it is.
    2. Is reincarnation linear or multi-track? I cant answer that one.

    Multi-track meaning do humans have a different evolutionary track in terms of reincarnation than animals or vegetables?

    In my opinion, reincarnation is NOT linear, neither is it multi-track. This means we don’t leave the animal or vegetable state behind forever.

    Material bodies are provided by the Lords of Karma for training. We have no choice in the matter. The only time I believe one can choose bodies is after enlightenment is achieved by the Soul. This is just my opinion, I don’t have facts, so consider it conjecture.

    What I am trying to say is that since reincarnation exists and is meted out by spiritual adjudicators (Lords of Karma), we will reincarnate based on our Karmic score, until we advance spiritually. In other words, there is no choice, except as determined by Karma.

    One could reincarnate as human, animal or vegetable. It doesn’t matter, as long as the lessons are learned. We should strive to advance toward enlightenment rather than fear reincarnation.

  11. Well, I wasn’t going to comment, but as everyone seems convinced that there is a reincarnation I thought it only fair that there should be one dissenting voice! I can see the attraction of the idea. Death is something that we must acknowledge, and what lies beyond is a mystery. To reincarnate is to explain away that mystery. The end is not the end. I can understand the desire for that, but reincarnation – even as a vegetable – seems a little too cosy. It is what we would want. Another chance. In fact, as many chances as we need. But what if we have only one chance? That seems a big risk to take.

    So, I would prefer to base my life on the idea that we get one chance, and that the end is not the end. Maybe it is just that I prefer this form of comfort. Maybe I just have a greater respect for the teachings of Jesus. I suppose we all have to choose to follow someone…

  12. Dear Al Leyland

    Congratulation for a very good comment. I particularly like your following views very much.

    “One could reincarnate as human, animal or vegetable. It doesn’t matter, as long as the lessons are learned. We should strive to advance toward enlightenment rather than fear reincarnation”


  13. My idea about reincarnation is that all cells in a human body is a “soul” in itself. Every cell has a memory of its eternity in infinite space. That makes you consist of 50 – 75 trillion entities, that all have infinite power and eternal life. If my theory is correct, no wonder that we have difficulties. It’s hard to keep order in such a big organism. Read more on http://www.crestroy.com

  14. Otto,

    Your comment sounds a bit like the concept of life atoms, as discussed by the American Theosophist Gottfried DePurucker. The notion is that we are responsible for vast numbers of less developed entities, and that our own progress can actually help them along their path. In Dr. DePurucker’s view, however, this is much more than a purely physical process.

    1. Gotfried Leibniz had the same ideasd. He was from 3-400 years ago. He called them monades. The Vatican calls them Angels and Deamons. I call them crestroyers.

  15. Blavatsky was far too wise an Occultist ever to teach that men and women can (or do) reincarnate as animals. This pernicious and erroneous doctrine (perhaps ‘dogma’ would be a better word), grew out of a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the Greek doctrine of Metempsychosis, which generations of self-appointed ‘mahatmas’, Eastern ‘gurus’ and Western ‘masters’ have embroidered with the idle speculations of their untrained minds.

    The problem is that it is impossible to put the most profound spiritual truths into plain words that cannot be misunderstood by a large number of seekers. Hence the very many different and contradictory interpretations of the Secret Doctrine teachings anent reincarnation as **interpreted** by Blavatsky’s so-called ‘followers’.

    Moreover, the REAL truths about reincarnation have never been given out OPENLY to the world at large, and Blavatsky was no exception, knowing full well that the average mystic is utterly incapable of grasping these truths. She gave out what she was permitted to reveal about reincarnation and no more. Sadly, that ‘little’ has been distorted out of all recognition by Besant, W.C. Leadbeater and others, and confusion reigns in place of the bright Light of Truth Blavatsky laboured so hard to disseminate….

    …And yet, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the real truths about reincarnation ARE to be found in the Secret Doctrine, but they are concealed from all but the very worthy FEW. Or, as we may read in the Life of the Lord Krishna: “The untutored mortal who seeks to read the Book of the Mysteries of God is blinded by its luminous pages…He turns his eyes to earth again, to rest them; but lo! the sockets are empty, and the mind is burnt to ashes.”

  16. I think to be scared about reincarnation into animal or that person in 3d world country is only from point of view of human, especially present incarnation personality. From human logic it is a digress, but it can be an evolution, just acquiring another qualities, such as resilience or patience for example, or putting them on to another level. Then the time conception is different too, what looks as endless life of enduring could be just a moment in sense of that force causing reincarnations, or past present future is a one moment too. I am not really educated spiritually, but these are my thoughts from what I know.

  17. Reincarnation molds us into a soul that is worthy of being united with the Supreme soul..It takes a few generations of effort for ordinary people…Very helpful post……I have more to learn as I go through this blog..Thank you

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