Misuses of Reincarnation

 

Reincarnation - the mystical concept that the human soul passes through a series of different lives on the earth - that we have lived before (past lives) and will live again (future lives) - is an important component of the New Age, derived, of course, from "non-Western" belief systems such as Buddhism and Hinduism. I believe in reincarnation, and its associated moral dynamic, karma, which holds that there are positive consequences for our positive actions on the earth, and negative consequences for our negative actions. Consequences which may catch up with us in this life, or in a subsequent one.

Beautiful and engaging though this belief is, I have noted, to my chagrin, that there are also many possible angles for misusing and misapplying it: abuses generally stemming from ignorance and/or a lack of spiritual depth and sincerity regarding the believerís relation to his belief.

It is my wish, here, to briefly address some of those abuses.

Probably the most widespread of all the misuses of the reincarnation belief and associated beliefs is the misuse of the concept of karma. Looking from the present to the future, "karma" no doubt serves as a promoter of moral behavior, very much in the manner of the Christian concept of Heaven and Hell. Unjust, cruel, and immoral actions in the present expose one to the likelihood of future punishments, most of them seen to take the form of hardships, setbacks, and tragedies in a coming life. Going in this direction, from now to later, "karma" seems to work as well as any other spiritual dynamic, of any other spiritual system, to encourage our "good behavior" while living on the earth.

Unfortunately, when the direction of our karmic perception is changed, and we look from the present to the past, instead of from the present to the future, some dangerous openings are created for abuse. Looking at things from this angle, it suddenly seems possible to blame the unfortunate in this life - the poor, the diseased, the blind, the crippled, the war victims, and the refugees - for their own misfortunes, interpreting their wounds and struggles as karmic punishments for crimes and transgressions committed in previous lives. Viewed in this way, not as victims, but as perpetrators doing time for their sins, they suddenly seem less innocent and tragic, to some; less deserving of our sympathy and aid. This perspective is especially deadly in the case of those miseries which are largely products of the defects of our society and civilization: for in such cases, the deceived observer ceases to see human injustice, which must be rectified, but divine justice, which ought to be left intact. And he therefore need not lift a finger to help the dying, withering millions of the earth, the poor, the forgotten, the dominated, and the persecuted. Indeed, he may even reap the profits of their "fall." And the exploiter, and the one who turns his back, cease to bear guilt, for they are now only the wardens and the witnesses of a world in jail.

But, of course, this is only a mental mechanism for protecting oneself from the rigors of being just, in a world where justice requires sacrifices and limits, and active responses, not just abstinence from "wrongdoing." "Karma", misused in this way, is but a means of building a moat around the castle of oneís ego or indifference, and locking out the world. It is a concept pillaged from the understanding where it was born, and inserted into the ignorance of those who poison all they touch.

Still, some ask how it can be that the innocent suffer, without being guilty. Perhaps it is in the same way that the innocent Christian is said to suffer: as a form of trial, as a mighty effort of soul-building, that shall bring greater rewards in the future, as high as the depth of the sorrow being lived in this lifetime. Perhaps, even, some of these wounded, agonizing souls have generously fallen into a pit so that our own, lesser souls, may grow by struggling to lift them out. Perhaps they have heroically burdened themselves with the yoke of suffering, that we, who are the princes of the earth, may be saved!

Although it would be foolish to imagine that every tormented, bleeding soul in the universe is spiritually exalted, blameless, and innocent, it would be far more foolish to imagine that every broken man on our earth was a criminal, paying a well-deserved karmic debt. Love is the only hope we have in this desperate, endangered world of ours, and spirituality is meant to free love, not confine it.

Besides this - the "karma trap" as I call it - another conceptual danger arising with the reincarnation belief is the idea that our sins in this life matter less, because we have more time to recover from them and redeem ourselves in other lives. To be more explicit: if the Christian kills a man in the here and now, he sees himself as having but a single life in which to win Godís forgiveness; but if a believer in reincarnation were to commit the same crime, he might feel less repentant (or less averse to committing the deed in the first place), as well as less need for transforming himself, because his next destination, if he did not "clean up his act", would not be the flames of an eternal Hell, but only another earthly life. Of course, it goes without saying, it could be a serious miscalculation to underestimate the awful potential of "hell on earth", which our world is able to provide in so many terrible forms, not to mention the fact that many belief-systems centered on reincarnation also discern possible realms of suffering in various between-lives states. But, of course, the greatest and most positive motivation for moral action on the earth should simply be the knowledge that such action is "right", and the knowledge that the soul that is incapable of grasping this, and acting rightly because it has a deep desire to do so - the soul that does "right" only because it fears punishment - will forever remain a prisoner of its limited state of development, never escaping the conditions that keep it from entering into the incomparable blessed state of "oneness" with the Universe, which is the goal of all souls, the deepest longing, underneath all the false longings, of every heart.

Finally, regarding possible misuses of the reincarnation belief, I would like to mention a variation of the "time dilutes the crime" concept just mentioned. In this variation, the exploitation or abandonment of people in the present is justified as a sacrifice which will benefit them directly in the future (not just their children or descendants). Thus, if a "Third World" program of economic development will not bear fruit for another generation, or two, whatís the problem? The souls that go without today will return to reap the benefits of their sacrifice in the future. Their lives will, therefore, not have been squandered, wasted, thrown away, or trampled underfoot, only used to enhance the lives they will come back to live in other incarnations. And the pillaged unloved generations will be nothing worse than the lean and hungry years of a student, working, saving, and struggling to pay his way through college, so that he may acquire a useful skill, obtain a promising job, and finally build a life of abundance and prestige by the time he is thirty. In this way, to provide an explicit example, the terrible abuses of the Industrial Revolution, in which enormous multitudes of our forefathers lived and died in squalor, eaten alive by sweatshops and factories, crushed by the indifference and greed of those who used them to become giants, could be brushed aside: for if the workers whose stolen lives helped to lay the foundations of our material abundance today were able to reincarnate, then perhaps their living was only postponed, not denied; and they are somewhere, happy, today, with their TV sets and cars, their washing machines, dishwashers and computers, achievements of the industrial-technological system which their sacrifices helped to put into place. And all their tormented suffering and oppression, their slow, grinding annihilation, was really only equal, in the context of eternity, to one "bad day at work."

Once again, of course, the defect of this way of thinking should be obvious. It should be utterly transparent as nothing but a strategy for taking the urgency out of othersí crises, for trivializing suffering and devaluing human life, for justifying criminal levels of patience regarding the rescue of the dying. It should be utterly transparent as nothing but a thin excuse made by those who would hurt others - a trick for protecting their conscience from the incriminating pain in othersí eyes, by looking beyond that pain. But, in truth, there is nothing beyond the pain, nothing wiser or greater than the pain; the pain is the end, the mountain peak, the place where the flag should have been planted: the flag of an act of love, the flag of an act of compassion. Greater than any city, greater than the gold of the future. To develop the sensitivity and compassion we need to evolve into great human beings, fully reconnected to the universe, we must learn to treat every life and every lifetime as sacred, and reject all conceptual mechanisms which impede us from doing so. What could be more simple than that?

Of course, reincarnation-belief is not the only form of spiritual belief vulnerable to misinterpretation, manipulation, and misuse. Look at the crimes - the terrible murders and wars - committed by Christians over the ages. Look at the sins of misguided Muslims, today, whose ruthless terror attacks have lost touch with the true meaning of righteousness, which is the child of love. All spiritual belief systems are, unfortunately, subject to this poisoning; vulnerable to the venom of those who want to kidnap the outer form as armor to cover over their failure to grasp the inner essence. In this article, my intention has been only to point out some of the ways in which reincarnation-belief can be misused, as a way of trying to prevent the New Age, in which it plays such an important part, from drifting off course. May we not need yet another life to understand this!

 

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