Dharma Journal: Authentic Dharma for Today's World dd. 19 March
2007, Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya, originally known as Dr. Frank
Morales, has published a contribution: "Is there evidence for
reincarnation?" Given the pivotal role that the assumption of
reincarnation plays in the worldview and ethics of many millions of
Hindus and Buddhists, a bit of solid proof would certainly be welcome.
Unfortunately, that is not what is offered in the article cited.
Frank Morales is
doing good work as a preacher, but as a defender and apologist of Hindu
doctrine, he suffers the same shortcomings of most catechism-type
introductory books on Hinduism, including those that are used in courses
for youngsters in US temples or in the UK school system. In this case,
it is the tendency to treat as "proof" something that will only convince
the already-convinced Hindus but is sure to fail with outsiders,
including the not-so-meek critical Hindu-born youngsters. Hindu
teachers and polemicists typically fail to get feedback from the outside
world. So let me provide some.
Morales presents the
problem thus: "I've often been asked about what evidence there is for
the process of reincarnation. (...) In the same way, reincarnation
cannot be proven through scientific experimentation (*) but it can be
proven through inference and logic. (...) One of the most powerful
arguments for upholding the fact of reincarnation is that, without the
existence of reincarnation and karma (reincarnation and karma are
inseparable; you can't have one without the other), the existence of
human suffering has no explanation and no coherent meaning."
reincarnation and karma are separate concepts, and the one does
exist without the other. Many tribal societies believe in
reincarnation, but with implications that are very different from those
assumed by Hindus and Buddhists, e.g. some see reincarnation not as a
burden but as desirable, sometimes even as a reward given only to an
elite. In particular, many have no notion of karma, i.e.
carrying over guilt or merit or some life programme from past lives.
Conversely, the Christian notion that you get rewarded or punished in
the afterlife for your good and bad deeds in this world, viz. by going
to heaven c.q. to hell, amounts to a karma doctrine (carrying over
guilt/merit) but without reincarnation.
Morales treats his
assumption as a logical necessity: "Logically speaking, we can only
explain the meaning of suffering in the world by inferring the fact of
reincarnation and karma." But this in turn pre-supposes the pre-logical
assumption that there is any "meaning" at all to suffering. Maybe it
doesn't have meaning except at most the one that human beings choose to
give to it. Maybe suffering is tragic or absurd. This may or may not
be the case, but surely it is not incompatible with the laws of logic.
Then, Morales moves
on to an argument that is indeed very commonly heard among believers in
reincarnation: "If each of us merely pops into existence at the moment
of conception, and did not have a pre-existence previous to the creation
of this body, then how do we explain the fact that some people are born
with terrible birth defects (blindness, lacking a limb, etc.), and
others are not?"
Well, we don't. We
need not assume that there is an explanation for this painful difference
between individuals, except by natural causes. Some children have an
infelicitous genetic mutation, some children's mother took the wrong
medicine during pregnancy, some suffered injuries during delivery, and
so they ended up handicapped. In contrast, others were not so unlucky.
Next follows a
theistic version of the same argument: "How can a merciful and loving
God allow some babies to be born fine and healthy, and others to be born
in a terrible state of pain and suffering?"
Once more, what is
presented as a strict deduction from logical necessities turns out to be
based on quite a number of contingent assumptions, in this case that (1)
there is a God, (2) He is merciful and loving, and (3) being merciful is
incompatible with remaining passive at the sight of suffering. Well,
maybe there is no God. Or maybe He isn't good and merciful. There is
no logical necessity for God to exist nor for Him being merciful.
Moreover, He may even think suffering is good for us. Maybe, as some
Christian saints have asserted, the ones suffering most are being
specially blessed by God.
Morales reformulates this argument: "Simply claiming that such instances
are merely 'divine mysteries' is just avoiding the question." That much
is true, but then: "The only explanation for suffering that does not
make God seem either unjust or impotent is the concept of
reincarnation/karma." But why should we avoid making God "seem" so and
so? After all, He may indeed be impotent (e.g. because non-existent), or
alternatively, He may not care about the suffering of His creatures.
Thus, in the deistic view, God merely set the clockwork of the laws of
nature moving and then withdrew from creation, leaving His creatures to
their own devices.
Follows yet another
reformulation of the same argument: "More, we also see that people are
all born with very different capacities, talents, attributes, and
personalities. As much as we want to pretend that all human beings are
born as complete tabula rasa-s, or blank slates, the truth is
that none of us are born with equal intrinsic faculties. Some people
are born with more of an inherent talent to be creative and artistic
than others. Some are born more cerebral and intelligent than others.
Some are born 7 feet tall and can become famous basketball players,
while some are 5 feet tall, and cannot. Again, the only logical
explanation for why a just and merciful God would allow people to be
born with such diverse and unequal qualities is reincarnation and
No, genetics is
sufficient explanation for these differences, with some environmental
influences thrown in. But no God needed. And even if a God were
somehow involved,-- why should we impose egalitarianism on Him? He
didn't create sheep and wolf equal, did He?
Dr. Morales restates
the predominant moralistic version of the karma theory, viz. that
self-chosen good deeds lead to happy experiences in the future, while
evil-doing will cause misery for oneself: "The concept of reincarnation
and karma is a principle of both universal justice and radical freedom
of the individual to create his/her own destiny. This concept teaches
us that with every thought, action and word containing ethical-content
that we engage in, we are freely creating who we are - and who we will
be in the future. When we perform actions that are of an ethically
positive and good nature, we are directly affecting our own
consciousness in such a way as to purify and ennoble who we are.
Conversely, when we perform actions that arise from selfishness, egotism
and negativity, we are ensuring that our future only holds darkness and
is not supposed to work only across lifetimes; it works across time, and
there is no reason why it should not already have an effect within a
lifetime. Now, it is true that doing good rewards you with peace of
mind and serenity, while doing evil creates mental unrest and profound
unhappiness, in most people at least. But it is not the case that
within one lifetime, those who do good are rewarded with happy life
events, nor that evildoers find themselves punished. Experience teaches
that good people are often hit by sad events, while evildoers often
prosper. It is perfectly possible that, if there is reincarnation, the
same lack of reward or punishment still holds across lifetimes. I don't
know if that is the case, but it is Morales who speaks repeatedly of a
logical necessity behind karma. My point is that while it may be
factually true (that remains to be investigated), it is certainly not
As for "universal
justice", well who ever said that the universe is just? Perhaps the
universe by itself is indifferent to matters of justice. Perhaps
justice is but a human artefact with which we may, if we choose,
humanize this vale of tears.
activists, the fatal tendency to talk to themselves and ignore the
outside world is enormous. Whether it is the Aryan invasion debate or
Hindu-Muslim relations, Hindu orators are enamoured with their own words
and don't care to await the reaction of the other party. They are
satisfied with and convinced by their own words, so they don't care to
verify whether these have convinced anyone. In the present context, the
claim that karma is justice and that it explains cases of suffering as
just, may well sound nice to you, but it doesn't to Christians or
atheists. They have the logical objection that you merely assume that
the universe is intrinsically just, which is not logically necessary nor
apparent from life experience.
importantly, they have the moral objection that this is an easy way to
justify suffering. When Communists came to power in Buddhist countries,
they correctly remarked that the karma doctrine is the perfect "opium of
the people": when you are suffering because of social injustice, it lays
the blame with yourself (your past incarnations) rather than with your
exploiters and oppressors. That is why many abhor the karma doctrine
and won't be bought off with this syrupy explanation. In the case of
India, they denounce it as a typically Hindu (meaning: duplicitous,
hypocritical) device to justify caste oppression, which they see as the
backbone of Hindu society.
If anyone feels
called to write on karma, he had better not repeat the worn-out
self-justification that all Hindus and Buddhists already know anyway.
Rather, he should meet these objections, which are not mean-spirited or
biased but come naturally to any candid mind. Including that of
sufficiently gifted and non-conformistic young Hindus. If you want to
keep them in the Hindu fold, it were better to come up with an
explanation that is thoroughly convincing and remains so even after
critical scrutiny and confrontation with alternative views.