Edited by HENRY REED, Ph.D.
May 07,   2009
Universal Laws of Karma and Reincarnation

Universal Laws of Karma and Reincarnation



M.B. Sharan

Emeritus Professor

PIET, Rourkela


E-mail: mithilasharan@yahoo.co.in


Evidences for Life after Death


     Is there life after death? And, if it is, what is the evidence for that? These questions have been asked by many persons very often. This can be answered only when we know what someone means by the term "evidence". If he or she is looking for "scientific" evidence, then perhaps nobody can satisfy him or her. But if he/she is ready to realize that life after death (reincarnation) is a metaphysical reality (meta means "beyond" and physical means "material"), then many convincing evidences can be cited in its favour. The subject of reincarnation has been examined by many persons from different countries from different angles and has been accepted today beyond any doubt (Stevenson, 1974; Khoo, 1995; Chadwick, 1988; Knapp, 2005; Sivananda, 2001; Abhedananda, 2007; Yogananda, 2007). Therefore, we should look for those evidences first to understand the existence of reincarnation. We should not forget that the modern psychology has the dual roots of philosophy and science and its scope has broadened considerably in recent years to include non-material things like mind, experience, soul, love, and spirituality in it. There was a time when Watson wanted to make psychology a 'natural' science and was not in favour of accepting anything of subjective nature in it. But today, we have realized those mistakes committed by Watson and his followers and have gone for correcting it by allowing psychology to gain consciousness by accepting metaphysical realities. It was rightly remarked by someone that, in order to become 'natural' science, "psychology lost first its soul and then its mind, and it was left only with the body and behaviour in the hands of behaviourists." This, however, does not mean that we can accept anything in psychology blindly without sufficient evidences. If the concept of reincarnation has been accepted, it is because of the following six convincing evidences researchers have noted (Khoo, 1995).


  1. Near Death Experience
  2. Out-of-Body Experience
  3. Mediumship and Channelling
  4. Hypnosis and other Forms of Regression
  5. Spontaneous Past-life Recalls
  6. Induction by Techniques other than Hypnosis


     Volumes of reputed research have been conducted in various fields to support the above mentioned categories of evidences. University professors, scientists, and thinkers like Dr. Ian Stevenson, Dr. T.K. Khoo, Edgar Cayce, Carol Bowman, Gloria Chadwick, Stephen Knapp, Swami Abhedananda, Swami Sivananda and many others have all researched thoroughly into these topics and have accepted reincarnation as a reality. We, therefore, should try to understand the issue on the basis of what they have noted and suggested.


     One of the most powerful arguments for upholding the existence of reincarnation is how people are born with different capacities, talents, interests, body defects and birthmarks. How are some children born with inherent talents to be creative, exceptional, and artistic than others?  There are many such instances of wonderful powers exhibited by artists and painters when they were quite young. Sankaracharya, the great commentator of the Vedanta philosophy, finished his commentary when he was twelve years old. How could the shepherd Mangiamelo calculate like an arithmetical machine at the age of five? The same is true with another child, Zerah Colburn. When he was under eight years of age, he could solve the most tremendous mathematical problems instantly without using any figures. In one instance, he took the number 8 and raised it up progressively to sixteenth power and instantly mentioned the correct result which contained fifteen figures -- 281,474,976,710,656. When asked the square root of numbers consisting of six figures, he would state the result instantly with perfect accuracy. He used to give the cube root of numbers in the hundreds of millions the very moment when it was asked. Somebody asked him once how many minutes were there in 48 years, he answered, 25,288,800 (Abhedananda, 2007). The same is true with Shakuntala Devi in India today. All these can be explained only through the doctrine of reincarnation and not by learning.


     Some persons may try to explain these instances through heredity. But is it not a fact that the children of the same parents show marked dissimilarities to their parents and to each other? For example, if a man has five children, one is honest and saintly, another is an idiot, the third one is a murderer, the fourth one is a versatile genius, and the fifth one is a crippled and diseased one. Then, how can we say that it is due to heredity? Even the identical twins have dissimilar characters and possess opposite qualities, although they are born of the same parents and brought up under similar conditions and environments. These dissimilarities and body defects, therefore, cannot be explained through heredity. They can be explained only through past-life karmas (reincarnation). Moreover, heredity believes in chance factor many times when it fails to explain something, but reincarnation does not believe in chance factor and gives causal explanation for every thing.


     Is it also not a fact that sometimes we have experienced being here before (Deja Vu) while watching a movie or having a dream or going on a vacation to a new place? Hearing some children saying that they were so and so in their past lives which came to be true to a great extent on verification? Feeling attracted and falling in love with some persons at first sight? All these and many more instances are there to support the existence of reincarnation. Simply saying that such instances are just by chance or merely "divine mysteries" is just avoiding the question or showing ignorance of the divine law.  


What is Karma?


     Karma is a Sanskrit word which literally means action. But for a human being, action is not just a physical act or behaviour because it also includes his/her intention for doing that behaviour. Intention may be expressed through either physical or verbal actions. According to Tsering (2004), "Intention is the most important of all mental events because it gives direction to the mind, determining whether we engage with virtuous, non-virtuous, or neutral objects. Just as iron is powerlessly drawn to a magnet, our minds are powerlessly drawn to the object of our intentions." Therefore, when we take intention into consideration, we find that the human behaviour becomes "karma" because we human beings -- not the animals -- have the freedom and capacity to judge rightly or wrongly about our behaviour.  This freedom gives direction to our mind to choose virtuous, non-virtuous, or neutral objects. This exercise of judgement is known as karma for which human life is known as the karma-bhumi.


 What is Reincarnation?


     The word "reincarnation" takes its root from the Latin word, "in carnis" which means "in the flesh" or incarnation. In the classic Vedic texts of India, it is called Samsara which is a Sanskrit word, and which means being bound to the cycle of repeated birth and death. Therefore, it has been defined as the soul's cyclical return to the earth or other planes until we free ourselves from our negative karmas (Sanskaras) and can be purified and unified permanently into the "ONE" source. It postulates that there is a pre-existing soul before birth and continues after death. According to Khoo (1995), the soul incarnates hundreds or thousands of times to "promote spiritual growth so that the soul can arrive finally at one with the universe".


     "Soul" is a term which is rarely used with precise meaning in philosophy, religion, or common life. It is, however, regarded as descriptive of an entity related to but distinguishable from the body -- the spiritual part of human beings that animates their physical existence and survives death. Since every thought and action creates memory and comes back either to bless or haunt us, it creates a field of information around us at the level of energy. We store this information in our mind as we do in a computer. This data or memory is either positive or negative which is also recorded in our soul as a hard disc (Harra, 2002). All the negative memories try to resurface in our life again and again unless they are resolved. As a result, when one dies, his/her soul comes out with such unresolved memories, which are known as his/her karmas, and looks for new parents to incarnate (get another body) so that the repairing could be done to what the person did wrong. And this practice continues life after life till all the negative memories are erased from the soul.


How Karma and Reincarnation Work


     How karma works is well expressed in the divine statement: "As you sow, so you reap" like the third law of Newton: "Each action has an equal and opposite reaction." We have seen how the soul travels from one body to the next due to unresolved karmas. All these show clearly that we are all governed by the universal "karmic law" and there are no exceptions. Whether we realize it or not, every day we are creating karma with every thought and action. Either we kill an insect, abuse someone, or are jealous of a friend, we are creating bad karmas. Similarly, every single positive thing we do, like helping someone, or showing sympathy and love towards someone, creates good karmas. In this sense, life is a constant balancing act of offsetting the bad karmas with the good ones (Sharan, 2005, 2007). If we don't erase our bad karmas or heal them at the end of every day, they accumulate. Such accumulated karmas -- accumulated over time and sometimes over many life times -- work like the "snowball" effect. They go on multiplying and multiplying. We, therefore, need to resolve negative karmas every day either by more and more positive acts or by regular prayer (confession). Otherwise they will never be healed and we have to take birth again and again to live with the consequential sufferings.


     How reincarnation works is nicely elaborated in the Vedic texts of India. The Bhagavad-Gita explains that whatever state of consciousness one attains, when he or she quits this body, a similar state will be attained in the next life. This means that after the person has lived his or her life, the numerous variegated activities of the person form an aggregated consciousness. And when the living beings take birth again, they get a certain kind of body that is most suitable for the type of consciousness they have developed. Therefore, according to Padma Purana, there are eighty-four lacs species of life, each offering a particular class of body for whatever kind of desires and consciousness the living being may have in this world. In this sense, the living entity is the son of his past and the father of his future. According to Knapp (2005), "All of our thoughts and actions throughout our life will collectively influence the state of being we are in at the time of death. This consciousness will determine what that person is thinking of at the end of one's life. This last thought and consciousness will then direct where that person will most likely go in the next life because this state of being carries over from this life into the next."


     Thus, it is clear that every physical and verbal action is preceded by mental activity. Goodwill motivates a kind gesture; ill will motivates nasty words. The presence of ill will before and during this act has an impact on the mind due to which a certain potential is left behind. This potential is a karmic seed -- a seed planted in our mind as well as in the soul (which functions like a hard disc) by physical, verbal or mental action. The strength or depth of this seed is determined by a number of factors; including how strong our intention is, whether we clearly understand what we are doing, whether we act on our intention, and whether the physical and verbal action is completed. Seeds will remain in the soul until they ripen or are destroyed. These seeds are responsible for selecting parents to get an appropriate body in reincarnation. Seeds created by negative mental events and actions, however, can be destroyed by some opponent or antidotal powers. The most important of these powers are regrets for the negative acts and a firm resolve not to act that way again in the future. According to Knapp (2005), "One's state of consciousness or conception of life exists in the subtle body, which consists of mind, intelligence and false ego. The soul is covered by this subtle body, which exists within the gross material form. When the physical vehicles can no longer function, the subtle body and soul are forced out of it. Then, when the time is right, they are placed in another physical frame which properly accommodates the state of mind of the living entity."


     This can be explained better by understanding how the seeds of different trees select different materials from the common environment and absorb and assimilate different quantities of elements. Is it not a fact that when two seeds -- one of an oak and the other of a chestnut -- are planted together in a pot, they germinate and grow differently although the environments, earth, water, heat, etc. are the same? There is some peculiarity in absorbing different quantities of elements and other properties for each seed so that it can maintain its own identity. Similarly, through the law of "natural selection" the subtle body of the dying person chooses and attracts such parts from the common environments which can be helpful in its proper expression or manifestation. Parents are, therefore, nothing but the principal parts of the environment of the re-incarnating individual.


Theory of Transmigration


     The theory of transmigration is one of the oldest theories accepted by the people of the Orient to solve the problems concerning life and death as well as to explain the continuity of existence after death. This theory presupposes the existence of the soul as an entity which can live even when the gross material body is dead or dissolved into its elements. The materialists of all ages have refused to accept this theory because they do not admit the existence of the soul. The same is true with many of the scientists because they accept the theory of heredity and endeavour to explain everything by it. But when we examine the arguments cited in favour of heredity, we find that the theory of transmigration is much more satisfactory, much more rational than that of heredity (Abhedananda, 2007). Those who believe in heredity, have to depend on chance factors many times. But those who believe in the theory of transmigration apply the law of karma which explains that human souls are bound by this irresistible law and cannot get out of it. Their future birth does not depend upon the chance factor, or upon their whimsical free choice, but upon the thoughts and deeds or misdeeds of their previous lives. According to Swami Abhedananda, "Parents do not create the souls; they have no power to create. They can only give the suitable environments necessary for manufacturing a gross physical body. The souls come with their tendencies, with their desires, and they remain as germs of life." And these germs of life contain vital forces, sense physical and mental powers, and ethereal particles of matter. The Vedanta philosophers also describe these germs as subtle bodies which are subject to evolution and growth. They arise from lower to higher stages of development -- from the mineral through the vegetable to the animal kingdom and eventually to human beings. Professor Huxley has rightly said that "None but hasty thinkers will reject it on the ground of inherent absurdity. Like the doctrine of evolution itself, that of transmigration has its roots in the world of reality."


Universal Laws of Karma and Reincarnation


     Every person should have a comprehensive understanding of the Nature's laws, and their operations. Similarly, he/she should also have a good understanding of the spiritual laws. Then only he or she can pull on well in this world by utilizing the helping forces and neutralizing the hostile or antagonistic currents. All these laws of the universe are governed by the master law of cause and effect. The cause is, however, invisible in many cases but the effect is visible. The falling of an apple from a tree, for example, is the effect of a certain invisible force called gravitation; suffering of a person is due to his/her past misdeeds. These examples suggest that all visible or perceptible phenomena are but the various expressions of different forces which act as invisible or imperceptible agents upon the subtle and imperceptible forms of matter. These invisible agents or forces together with the imperceptible particles of matter make up the subtle states of the phenomenal universe. The same explanation is applicable to the law of karma and reincarnation. According to Abhedananda (2007), the gross human body is the result of its subtle body which is nothing but a minute germ of a living substance. It contains the invisible particles of matter which are held together by vital force, and it also possesses mind or thought-force in a potential state, just as the seed of a plant contains in it the life force and the power of growth. Every action of body and mind which we do, every thought we have becomes fine, and is stored up in the form of a Samskara or impression in our minds. It remains latent for some time, and then rises up in the form of a mental wave and produces new desires known as Vasanas or consciousness. According to Vedanta, these Vasanas or strong worldly desires are the manufacturers of new bodies. And, if such Vasanas or longing for worldly pleasures remain in any subtle body, even after hundreds of births, that person will be born again.


     Thus, if Vasana (also known as subtle body or consciousness) is understood as basic to everything, it becomes easy to believe in reincarnation because it is governed by certain spiritual laws. These laws come from and are imbued with Spirit. Therefore, they are also known as Divine Laws. These laws dictate the results of our thoughts and actions. When we perform an action or put our thought, we try to control the results. But we fail to do so because there are too many laws working at too many levels for the ego to manage. This is the reason why the Bhagavad-Gita says that we should perform our actions consciously with good intentions and leave the results or consequences up to Spirit or Divine Laws.


     We have seen that every action or thought has an effect or consequence, and the nature of that effect depends upon the nature of the cause. If the cause is "good", the effect will be good. If the cause comes from negative thoughts or evil, the results will be equally negative or evil. The law of reincarnation is based exactly on this karmic law. We are all energy fixed in time and space based on karmic law. We, therefore, cannot commit karma and can expect it to finish with it in one life time. There has to be many lives to resolve one's karmas. That means, once karma is initiated, it must continue until it is spent. This process of karma and reincarnation is based on certain spiritual laws out of which the following three are very important (Khoo, 1995):


  1. Law of Continuation: We have seen that when the karma is initiated, it continues till it is spent fully. We, therefore, need to understand how it continues. Actually, there are three kinds of karmas: Sanchita Karmas, Prarabdha Karmas, and Kriyaman Karmas. Sanchita karma is the sum total and storehouse of all our actions, good and bad, committed in the innumerable past lives and in the present life. The whole of it is recorded and preserved. Prarabdha karma is the ripe karma ready to give its overdue effect in the form of gain and loss in the present life. Kriyaman karma is in the course of making it in the future. It is this which preserves our freewill with certain limitations and ensures our success (Sivananda, 2001). Thus, unless all these karmas are spent fully, we shall continue to incarnate and re-incarnate.


Sometimes, we face a dilemma. How is that when a person is doing many good things, he or she is getting bad results? The answer is very simple: It is due to his/her past bad karmas (Prarabdha). For example, although we are pouring good rice from the top of a grain elevator or silo, we are getting sometimes bad rice from the door at the bottom because it was put earlier. Therefore, once this lot of bad rice is clear, we are bound to get good rice from the same door (Knapp, 2005). The same is true with our karmas. Good and bad results are coming because we have good and bad karmas stored in our soul.


 Law of continuation also has another meaning. It says that some of our good tendencies, traits, habits, talents, and abilities are carried over to the next life. Such characteristics we are strongly associated with tend to be carried over to the next. We find among ourselves persons who are born with some wonderful powers. For example, Shri Ramakrishna was born with God-consciousness, and he went into the highest state of Samadhi when he was four years old. Similarly, one person may be born with such a developed power of self-control that others cannot acquire it even after years of hard struggle. Therefore, we have to admit that a few characteristics or qualities are inborn in every person. This, however, does not mean that our all characteristics will be carried over to the next life. Perhaps, it is only those characteristics which are very good and we are strongly associated with them particularly at the time of death.


  1. Law of Consequence: The law of consequence, which is also known as the law of rebirth, is the most fundamental law in human destiny. This is, however, not a static law. We constantly use it to create new destiny to improve the old destiny brought from the past. We all have lived many lives on this earth in the past and shall be living many more in the future. In each of these past lives, we have gone for good and bad karmas which have attracted good and bad reactions affecting our consciousness. This consciousness, consisting of thinking, feeling, and willing, has covered the soul with a subtle body made up of mind, intelligence and false ego. The shape of the subtle body is said to change according to the type of consciousness we develop. This subtle body travels with the soul from one material body to another, or even in between material bodies, as we go through the rounds of repeated birth and death. It is thus the consciousness, which we develop during our life time, is responsible for our rebirths and new bodies. This is the reason why the law of consequence is known as companion to the law of rebirth.


It has been rightly described in the "Western Wisdom Teachings" that there is an invisible institution in every person which is functioning like a Universal Bank where we make a deposit of every good thought, feeling, and action. "All our constructive work, our self-discipline, our service to others, and all our other actions which are in harmony with the Divine Will make deposits in the Universal Bank. These deposits are the source from which we draw our destiny, our good fortune, and our opportunities. The unseen Director of this Bank, together with the Agents of Destiny, keeps an unerring record of all deposits." And, from time to time, the Director declares a dividend in the form of some opportunity, success, good luck, or "wind-fall".  Since the Universal Bank is backed by the Universe, it cannot fail. We can never lose nor can we get more than what we deserve. If our destiny and success are not what we would like them to be, then it is because our credit in the Universal Bank has been temporarily depleted. In such a case, there is nothing to do but get busy to make new deposits. If we wish to change our environment and fortune, we should change our thought patterns by developing 'creative power of thought'. Since two thoughts cannot occupy the mind at the same time, we simply need to replace destructive thoughts by constructive thoughts. The negative desires like anger, hate, revenge, resentment, etc. disrupt and disarrange creative power of thought. We, therefore, need to substitute them by positive desires like love, respect, trust, and kind attitude.


      3.   Law of Compensation: As we progress in our life, we are bound to experience         innumerable facets of life. In some lives we have to be physically strong and in some week; in some we have to be intellectually active and in others mentally subdued. Not only that, we also need to change our sex, race and religion to round up our education. All these are due to law of compensation which operates everywhere in Nature's   phenomena.


According to Swami Sivananda, the law of compensation also refers to the perfect balance between the cause and effect. The seed breaks and then only a big tree comes out of it. Water becomes steam and the steam moves the engine. Similarly, when the sulphuric acid of a jar of a battery is consumed, electricity is produced in a bulb to give light. We find that this law of compensation is operating everywhere in the Nature. It is for this reason the Bhagavad-Gita says that "Birth must be followed by death and death must be followed by birth." Vedanta also maintains that "Nothing is destroyed in the universe." Today scientists are also supporting this view that "non-existence can never become existence and existence can never become non-existence." Based on this principle, we can say that the impressions or consciousness which we have now will never be destroyed and will remain with us in one form or the other. Therefore, even if our bodies die, the karmas or Sanskaras remain in our souls in the form of a subtle body. And that subtle body of the soul gets another body sooner or later.




     In order to understand reincarnation, first we have to realize that we are not only the bodies, but we also have minds and souls within us. Mind is an internal instrument functioning like a mirror on which the soul is throwing lights constantly. Thereby, the mind is getting the power of consciousness only from the soul (Sharan, 2007). According to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the soul is self-luminous, beyond birth and death, and unlimited by time and space and, therefore, beyond all change. As one witnesses the birth and death of a tree, similarly, the soul experiences the birth, death, and various activities of the body like a separate entity in it. In this process, under the influence of karma (Vasana), the soul is covered by a subtle body which becomes capable of manufacturing another material body according to its desires and tendencies. Just as a germ of life develops a grosser form by cellular subdivision by growth and by assimilation of the environmental conditions, so the germ of the human soul manufactures the body by obeying the laws which govern the physical plane. Parents are thus nothing but the channels through which the migrating souls receive their material forms. Parents do not create the souls because they do not have powers to create. However, they provide suitable environments necessary for manufacturing a gross physical body. It is not possible for anyone to see what type of subtle body or consciousness is being carried over by the soul at the time of death. But every soul, covered by the subtle body, has to look for another materialistic body to take up where it left off in the previous existence. Knapp (2005) has rightly said that "... the next life may be in another physical body or in a subtle body in between births, or even in heavenly or hellish states of being."


     The phenomena of the universe, as reported by science, are subject to evolution -- a gradual change and progressive development from a relatively uniform condition to  relative complexity. From the greatest solar system down to the smallest blade of grass, every thing in the universe has taken its present shape and form through this cosmic process of evolution. The sun, moon, stars, satellites and other planets have come into existence by going through innumerable changes produced by the evolutionary process of the cosmos. The same is true with reincarnation. Embryology -- a branch of life science -- has also proved that "man is the epitome of the whole creation." It tells that the human body before its birth passes through all the different stages of the animal kingdom -- such as the polyp, fish, reptile, dog, ape, and at last, man (Abhedananda, 2007).


     The process of evolution, as science says, is governed by three laws: Tendency to vary, natural selection, and struggle for existence. With the same laws, science also tries to explain the physical, mental, and spiritual evolution of mankind. So far the first two (physical and mental) evolutions are concerned, yes; the science seems to be correct. But what about the spiritual evolution? It is a fact that every human being has animal nature. Therefore, Darwin seems to be right when he says that human beings are just the developed form of lower animals. But his evolution theory fails to explain how every human being is also spiritual in nature. Since no animal has morality or spirituality as such, it cannot be expected that this kind of nature has evolved from animals in human beings.  This is, therefore, not a case of evolution but of a creation or sudden development.


     Actually, as Vedanta says, each germ of life possesses infinite potentialities and infinite possibilities. It contains vital forces, sense powers, psychic powers, and ethereal particles of matter. At the time of death, the soul contracts and withdraws all its powers from the sense organs to its innermost centre, and in that contracted state it leaves the body like a seed. By the law of persistence of force and conservation of energy, these powers remain latent in that centre until environmental conditions become favourable for their manifestations. Rebirth gives a chance for their manifestations. However, their manifestations are controlled by limitations of each material body the soul chooses.


     We have seen above that the process of reincarnation starts from the mineral through the vegetable to the animal kingdom and finally to the human beings. The reason is that the soul wants to have all sorts of experiences so that finally it gets a human body and thereby it gets a chance to liberate itself. In human body, all powers of the contracted soul get a chance to manifest themselves fully which was not possible in any other body. This is the reason why the human body is said to be a perfect body for the incarnating soul.


     There is another advantage of the human body. The spiritual power of the soul also gets manifested in this body which was not possible in any other body. With the help of this spiritual power, a person can be completely free from all the worldly desires. He/she can be engaged only in good karmas as a selfless person without being 'involved' in them. Not only that, even if something wrong is committed, it will be resolved by him or her at the earliest either through confession or through regular prayer. As a result of that, when he or she will die, there will not be any debt for the soul to pay back.  And, once the soul is free from any such debt, it will not be covered by any subtle body (Vasana). This way, it will get liberated and will merge with God.




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