Reincarnation and Karma: An Escape from Samsara or an Embrace of the World as Divine?

“Just as the body casts off worn out clothes and puts on new ones, so the infinite, immortal self casts off worn out bodies and enters into new ones.”
-- The Bhagavad-Gita

To the dreadlocked, inward gazing sadhus along the burning ghats of Benares, India the ultimate purpose of yoga is not to feel sexier, healthier, and more energetic. To the sadhus, the goal of life is to escape the attachment of samsara and the lusts of the body, escape the cycle of birth and death, stop the cause of bad karma, and, finally, to awaken one’s identity with the superconscious Self, or atman.

This vertical enterprise of renouncing the world through fasting, prayer, chanting, meditation and yoga has been the central purview of Indian spirituality for thousands of years.  Running parallel to this inward gazing and transcendental yoga culture—that has often shunned women, sex, the body, the lower castes and the world in general—there has been a more integral yoga culture, through which the world and its many expressions are seen, not as a trap, but as yet another expression of the divine effulgence of spirt.

Lucidly expressed in the Bhagavad-Gita and especially in Tantra, we see instructions on why we should not escape the endless woes of samsara, but rather embrace this dualistic world of ecstasy and heartbreak openheartedly and with deep spiritual intention. This integral kind of yoga promises to free us from karmic bondage while we both enjoy and serve the world. But is that truly what the karmic enterprise of rebirth and final enlightenment is all about?

Punar-janman, or rebirth, the idea that we can be reborn after this life in a human or animal form has been commonly accepted by most Indian schools of thought since a few hundred years before the time of the Buddha (700 BC), and has likely existed in the oral traditions for thousands of years longer. But the Indians are not the only ones believing we live multiple lives. (Feuerstein, 2014)

Even the great and popular modern scientist Carl Sagan believed in the possibility. “There are claims in the parapsychology field,” he said, “which, in my opinion, deserve serious study, with [one] being that young children sometimes report details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.”

The main scientific work on reincarnation to date is the work of Dr. Ian Stephenson, author of Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect. Here, we encounter dozens of cases of children retelling stories of life in former bodies and places. They vividly recall their own and other family member’s names, the place where they lived, and often how they died. He documents many cases in which the children’s information are checked and match-up perfectly with real people and places. Many of them claim to have faced violent deaths in their previous lives and, strangely, they often have birth marks that match the way they were killed. Stephenson’s work on over 2500 cases through the University of Virginia is so far the most scientific study of reincarnation. (Stephenson, 2008)

Long before modern science, in Greece, reincarnation appeared in the philosophical tradition from about the 6th century BC, very possibly a conceptual and cultural migration from India. During the Iron Age, the Greek Pre-Socratics discussed reincarnation. During the same era, the Celtic Druids also taught a doctrine of life after life. And back in India, in both vague and sophisticated forms, the rebirth doctrine has surfaced in many scriptures and schools related to Vedic, yogic and Tantric wisdom, from the Rigveda to the Upanishads, from the traditional Tantras to the modern Tantra-inspired philosophy of Shrii Shrii Anandamurti.

Escaping the lures of lust and suffering of worldly rebirth is central to Buddhism, as well. And in Jainism, the religion founded by Mahavira, a close friend of the Buddha, we find two interlinked features: reincarnation and deliverance; that rebirth is based on karma from a previous life, and when we finally are free of karma (the laws of action and reaction), when we achieve deliverance, we are not only enlightened, we are also free from acquiring new karma. We become an arihant—a saint with perfect spiritual knowledge and happiness. (Augustin Paniker, 2010)

The origin of the Indian reincarnation theory is most prolific in the non-Vedic and oral sramana (Buddha, Mahavir) and Tantric Shiva traditions. This, many scholars believe, would explain why the concept enters historical, written records rather late, with the adaptation of ideas such as karma (action and reaction), samsara (the world of action and reaction) and moksha (liberation from the world of action and reaction) in the Upanishads and other scriptures.

In his book The Encyclopedia of Yoga and Tantra, Georg Feuerstein writes that “the notion of punar-janman is associated with the idea, first expressed in the Brihad-Aranyaka-Upanishad (4.4.5), that the quality of one’s being is determined by the quality of one’s actions, so that the doer of good deeds become good and the doer of evil becomes evil.” (Feuerstein, 2014) Hence, due to the karma acquired in this life, we acquire either good or bad reactions in our next life.

Karma, Samskara and Enlightenment

As long as we live in this world, the yogic scriptures inform us, we will engage in various actions, we will be performing various forms of karma. We will be experiencing the law of cause and effect. Newton's third law of motion; that every action causes a reaction, is a physical application of this law. In yoga, however, the karmic law goes beyond the law of physics and also applies to both physical and psychological actions. In yoga, there are broadly two approaches to dealing with the duality of the world: to escape it by retreating from the world and see the phenomenal world as an illusion, which is a feature of Vedanta, or, as in Tantra, to see the world as an expression of Sprit and thus engage the world by fusing it with spirituality and sacredness.

The spirit of balancing transcendent spirituality with living in the world is integral to the Bhagavad-Gita in which three fundamental karmic acts are described, each dependent on the person’s inner motivation: 1) sattvik karma—actions performed with non-attachment to the fruits of its results; 2) rajasik karma—actions performed with a sense of ego and in order to experience pleasure; 3) tamasik karma—actions performed by a delusional mind with no regard for the moral or spiritual consequences. While both rajasik and tamasik action causes karmic reactions, when we perform sattvik actions, we do not acquire any new karmic reactions. Thus the goal of a yogi, according to Lord Krishna, is not to lead a path of least resistance and avoidance, but to perform sattvik actions—to act in the world with benevolence, freedom and love in the heart. That is, to infuse one’s actions with spiritual ideation; to combine doing with being; to combine karma with mantra, to combine action with meditation. (Mitchell, 2002)

Superficially, karma is often understood as a kind of universal punishment for our sins or unconscious acts. When bad things happen to people, or even worse, when bad things happen to good people, then we may feel justifiably outraged at the unfairness of life and at the higher power meting out these cosmic punishments. But, according to the yogic worldview, that is not how the laws of karma unfold.

“The concept of karma depicted in the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad-Gita,” Nischala Joy Devi writes, “is in fact a neutral energy that when activated by the mind and emotions, manifests into action. This action leads to a reaction which in turn spawns new action and continuous the cycle.” (Nischala Joy Devi, 2007) Most importantly, as Patanjali reminds us, our actions are colored by our vritties, various emotional instincts, positive and negative, such as desire, longing for liberation, anger, delusion, hope, greed, envy. These vritties—of which there are 50 in all, are located in the various chakras, and related to our instincts and hormones—when expressed unconsciously, when not overcome through psycho-spiritual practice, will lead to unskillful actions and more samskaras and thus complicate our path toward liberation. (Anandamitra, 2002)

Who we are in this life, even what we look like, where we live, etc. is thus largely based on our past life samskaras. When we perform an action (karma), how we manifest that action depends on how we express and relate to our innate nature, to our vritties—our anger, pride, etc—and that in turn, is largely based on our previous samskaras.

What is the way out of this web of karmic interactions? To develop mindfulness and loving kindness, and, most importantly, love for the Divine in ourselves and within all beings. In yoga, we work on the body through asana practice to release the hold of our psycho-somatic samskaras and specifically in Tantric yoga, asana practice becomes a means of seeing the non-duality of mind and body—because, according to Tantra, the body is nothing but energy and energy is nothing but consciousness. (Michael Stone, 2008)

The practice of yoga is not just about developing an elastic body, but also an elastic mind, to learn to accept our samskaras—whether they are physical or mental, good or bad—rather than to live in denial and blame. For, the mental gaze and the heart of a yogi is instructed to identify with, and surrender all actions to, the deep ocean of consciousness inside. With an awareness and attitude of “embracing and transcending,” the Tantric yogi, in particular, walks and lives in this world without being of it. As the yogi’s actions are increasingly an expression of conscious love, rather than karmic compulsions, he or she is nurtured from the grace of the nondual heart within—from the Divine, never-ending source of inspiration—and gradually feels a deeper sense of liberation, enlightenment and freedom.     

Samsaric Action or Inaction: What is the Way to Yogic Freedom?

There has long been a strong tradition of ascetic denial of the world in India, of yogis escaping society to live in a cave or jungle to minimize worldly activities, and to wholeheartedly focus on spiritual pursuits. But that is not the way prescribed in the Bhagavad-Gita. To the contrary, Lord Krishna advises us to engage in “work, for action is superior to inaction, and, if inactive, even the mere maintenance of your body would not be possible.”  (Anandamitra, 2002)

In the spirit of the Bhagavad-Gita, modern Tantric teacher Shrii Shrii Anandamurti advises that the way out of the bondage of karma, while living in the world, is first by understanding and accepting the three types of samskaras humans acquire. They are: 1) inborn—from previous lives, 2) acquired—from independent, free will actions, and 3) imposed—from society and family, from our responsibilities and education and from habituated actions.

So what is the way out of the samskaric prison? In the spirit of the Bhagavad Gita and Tantra in general, Anandamurtii advises us to act in these three ways to be free of karmic reactions and thus free from collecting more samskaras: 1) To act without a desire for the fruits of the action; 2) to act without vanity; and 3) to surrender all actions to the Divine ocean of the nondual Brahman. Hence the yogi’s ultimate aim is not good karma, but rather no karma, which is the final state of inner freedom and enlightenment—the state of moksha, the state of freedom from action and rebirth altogether. (Anandamitra, 2002)

The most direct way out of karmic bondage, according to the yoga tradition, is through spiritual practice.—to practice meditation. This practice, especially in its various Tantric expressions, is both precise and complex and a whole life-science in itself. But put simply, a mantra (ma=mind, tra=to liberate) is a word that liberates the mind from bondage, from preoccupation and attachment. The power of a mantra lies in its sonic qualities as its syllabic resonance raises our awareness from the lower to the higher chakras, activating and aligning dormant spiritual energies, while helping us return to seeing the world from a non-dual, loving and detached perspective. By reciting a mantra, which can be practiced in formal sitting meditation, but also on the breath throughout the day, we align our minds with our higher purpose. Mantra recitation (japa) throughout the day, as sitting, walking meditation or kirtan, inspire us to perform karmic actions in the world by creating less or no entanglements, as it enable us to act while seeing the world as an expression of the deep cosmic Self.     

The Samsaric and Karmic Embrace of Tantra

“Your richness of experience
Is the wine you offer
To the Divinity that is everywhere.”
--The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra (translated by Lorin Roche)  

There are largely three streams of spiritual philosophy in India—two forms of non-dualism, as expressed in Vedanta and Tantra, and several forms of dualism, mainly in Samkhya—which today is mostly known as the philosophy of Ayurveda—and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is largely based on the earlier Samkhya philosophy. In Samkhya, the Yoga Sutras and Tantra, there are two important philosophical elements—namely purusha (consciousness, spirit—that which simply is) and prakrti (energy, that which creates).

In the dualistic Samkhya philosophy, as well as in the Yoga Sutras, the interrelationship between these two forces is not clearly explained. They remain largely separate, dualistic. In Vedanta, the emphasis is on purusha, or rather Brahman, on pure consciousness, and thus prakrti (the world) is seen as Maya, an illusion, a trap, to be ignored or avoided. This world-denying, verticalist idea—that this world is unreal and that only Brahman (God as pure consciousness) is real—is a central tenet of Vedanta, but many scholars also point out that the Yoga Sutras, due to its duality, emphasizes a world-and-body-denying lifestyle or way of being as well.

The introverted, verticalist stream of spirituality has been very influential in Indian culture and reached its peak with the Advent of Advaita Vedanta, founded by Shankara (700 AD). For classical Advaita, “the body and the world as a whole are deemed insignificant, the spiritual seeker is further advised to focus exclusively on the Self, abandoning all conventional pursuits.” (Feuerstein, 1998) Following this line of logic, we may say that the West, with its focus on materialism and hedonism, has cultivated a more extroverted, horizontalist culture. For the verticalist Indian yogi, the way out of the entanglements of the world of samsara has been to seek an otherworldly state of freedom through ascetic, life-and-body denying forms of yoga.

In the various Upanishads, however, we may also find expressions of a more integral approach to spirituality, in which the world and spirit are united in a graceful and integral embrace. Statements such as—Verily, all this is the Absolute—represent an integral spirituality, at times even emphasized in Vedanta, which unities consciousness and energy, spirituality and the world. This integral approach, uniting both the ascending and descending worldviews, found its full flowering in India through the path of Tantra.

In the yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which Georg Feuerstein and other scholars claim is dualistic in its spiritual approach, the concepts of purusha and prakrti are separate. In Tantra, however, and most explicitly in the 10th century philosophy of Abhinava Gupta and the modern Tantra of Anandamurtii, the two are united in a cosmic embrace of non-duality. Brahman, the One, is thus seen as composed of the Two, of purusha and prakrti. For, in Tantra, the One cannot be without the Other, the Other cannot be without the One. Indeed, in Tantra this world is nothing but a coming together of purusha and prakrti, of consciousness and energy, which together dissolve in unison in the ocean of Brahman, in the ocean of pure, cosmic consciousness. This integral approach to spirituality holds great promise and appeal to heal and renew us, and to solve many of life’s most pressing personal and social problems.

While the verticalist approach to spirituality does not need to take the body or the world seriously, an integral, more Tantric approach, cannot deny the world, because, for the Absolute Brahman, all is the world. Integral yoga sees the world and the other as nothing but a part of its larger body, its larger spectrum of consciousness, an integral expression of the consciousness/energy continuum. For integral yoga and Tantra, the body and the world (parkrti) are simply expressions of That (purusha), a micro-cosmic mirror of the macro-cosmic consciousness, of Brahman.

Through the lens of integral yoga and Tantra, through the embrace of the world as an expression of spirit, the concept of karma becomes less of a burden and a trap to escape. Rather, the concept of karma becomes a life-affirming opportunity. As integral yogis, we will want to infuse our karmic engagements in the world with spirituality by acting selflessly and with loving, and if need be, with fierce kindness. That is the Tantric esprit, the integral embrace of yoga—that our karmic actions are part of, rather than separate from, our spiritual practice. In the words of the late yoga philosopher and Indologist Georg Feuerstein, “when we realize the imperishable Self previously obscured by karmic habit patterns, we overcome the world, which means we overcome our restricted world experience. In that instant the world loses its hostile quality and instead reveals itself to us as the benign ever-present reality itself.” (Feuerstein, 1998)

While the verticalist yogi wants to renounce the wheel of samsara and the world’s conflicts and problems by escaping the karmic wheel, the integral karma yogi is compelled to transform the world—because there is nothing to escape. To the karma yogi, this world is an expression of the Divine; because, to live and act in this world is just another opportunity to reveal the Divine through practice.  


Notes:

  1. Georg Feuerstein, Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, Shambhala, 1998

  2. Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, Hohm Press, 2001

  3. Georg Feuerstein, The Encyclopedia of Yoga and Tantra, Shambhala, 2014

  4. Anandamitra, Avadhutika, The Spiritual Philosophy of Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, AMPS Publications, 2002

  5. Stephen Mitchell, Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation, 2002

  6. Michael Stone, The Inner Tradition of Yoga, Shambhala, 2008

  7. Augustin Paniker, Janism: History, Society, Philosophy, and Practice, Motilal Banarsidass, 2010

  8. Jim B Tucker and Ian Stephenson, Life Before Life: Children’s Memories of Past Lives, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008

Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes

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