Human Destiny: Karma and Reincarnation
John H. Hick, Philosophy of Religion (3d edition), 1983
THE POPULAR CONCEPT
To nearly everyone formed by our western Atlantic culture it seems self-evident that we came into existence at conception or birth and shall see the last of this world at death: in other words, we are born only once and we die only once. However, to one brought up within the Hindu culture of India it seems self-evident that we have, on the contrary, lived many times before and must live many times again in this world. Each idea or theory involves its own difficulties, and I shall be pointing out presently some of the difficulties in the idea of reincarnation. First let us take note of the main difficulty that Indians see in the western assumption. They point to the immense inequalities of human birth. One person is born with a healthy body and a high IQ, to loving parents with a good income in an advanced and affluent society, so that all the riches of human culture are open to one who then has considerable freedom to choose his or her own mode of life. Another is born with a crippled body and a low IQ, to unloving, un-affluent, and uncultured parents in a society in which that person is highly likely to become a criminal and to die an early and violent death. Is it fair that they should be born with such unequal advantages? If a new soul is created whenever a new baby is conceived, can the Creator who is responsible for each soul’s unequal endowment be described as loving? We have all heard the story of John Bradford, who saw a criminal being taken to be hung and said, “But tor the grace of God there goes John Bradford.” The story is edifying insofar as it reminds us of God’s grace to John Bradford; but what about God’s grace, or lack of grace, to the condemned criminal? The more one contemplates the gross inequalities of human birth, and our western religious assumption that human beings are divinely created in these different conditions, the more one is likely to see grave injustices here.
The alternative assumption of the Indian Religions is that we have all lived before and that the conditions of our present life are a direct consequence, of our previous lives. There is no arbitrariness, no randomness, no injustice in the inequalities of our human lot, but only cause and effect, the reaping now of what we have ourselves sown in the past. Our essential self continues from life to life, being repeatedly reborn or reincarnated, the state of its karma determining the circumstances of its next life.
In its more popular form in both east and west the doctrine of reincarnation holds that the conscious character-bearing and (in principle) memory-bearing self transmigrates from body to body. As we read in the Bhagavad Gita, “Just as a person casts off worn-out garments and puts on others that are new, even so does the embodied soul cast off worn-out bodies and takes on others that are new” (2, 13). On this conception it is possible to say that I — the “I” who am now conscious and who am now writing these words — have lived before and will live again, in other bodies. It must accordingly be in principle possible for me, in my present body, to remember my past lives, even though in fact the traumas of death and birth generally erase these memories, repressing them to a deep and normally inaccessible level of the unconscious. Occasionally, however, ordinary people do for some reason seem to remember fragments of a recent life; and these claimed memories of former lives are important, not only as evidence offered for rebirth, but also conceptually, as fixing what is meant by the doctrine. One may or may not find cases of this kind to be impressive, if they are considered hard evidence for rebirth.1 Nevertheless, the fact that supposed recollections of former lives are pointed to as evidence does mark out a particular content, for the idea of rebirth. Let me, therefore, formulate a reincarnation hypothesis on the basis of these instances of claimed memories of former lives.
Consider the relation between the John Hick who is now writing, whom I shall call J. H.60, and John Hick at the age of two, whom I shall call J. H.2. The main differences between them are, first, that J. H.60 and J. H.2 do not look at all like each other and, second, that their conscious selves are quite different. As to the first difference, no one shown a photo of J. H.2 would know, without being told, that it is a photo of J. H.60 as he was fifty-eight years ago, rather than that of almost anybody else at the age of two; for there is very little similarity of appearance between these two visible objects. As to the second difference, if one were to hear a recording of the two-year-old J. H. revealing his thoughts in words and other noises, one would, I think, feel that J. H.60 has a very different mind. No doubt the same basic personality traits are present in both the child and the man, but nevertheless the conscious self of the one is very different from the conscious self of the other — so much so that a comparison of the two would never by itself lead us to conclude that they are the same self. There are, then, immense differences between J. H.2 and J. H.60 from the points of view both of physical and of psychological description. Notwithstanding that, J. H.60 does have at least one fragmentary memory of an event that was experienced by J. H.2. He remembers being told when his sister, who is two years younger than himself, was born. Thus there is a tenuous memory link connecting J. H.60 with J. H.2 despite all the dissimilarities that we have noted between them; and this fact reminds us that it is possible to speak of memory across the gap of almost any degree of physical and psychological difference.
Now let us see if we can say the same of someone who remembers a previous life. To spell this out in the well-known case of Shanti Devi: Lugdi — who was born in 1902, lived in Muthra, and died as Mrs. K. N. Chaubey — was (presumably) very different as regards both physical and psychological descriptions from Shanti Devi, who was born in 1926 and lived at Delhi. But Shanti Devi had (or claimed to have) certain memories of people and events experienced by Lugdi, which are said to have been confirmed by impartial investigators. Our reincarnation hypothesis is that despite the differences between them, they are in fact the same person or self, in a sense comparable with that in which J. H.60 is the same person as J. H.2 In speaking in this way of the same person being born in 1902 in one part of India, later dying, and then being born again in 1926 in another part of India, we are presupposing the existence of a continuing mental entity which I am calling the self or the person. The hypothesis we are considering is that just as J. H.60 is the same person as J. H.2, though at a later point in the history of that person, so also Shanti Devi is the same person as Lugdi, though at a later point in that person’s history. The big difference — concerning which we have to ask whether it is too big a difference — is that now these are not earlier and later points in the same life but in two successive lives. They are, as it were, points in different volumes of the same multivolume work instead of in different chapters of the same volume.
Let us, then, consider the claim that all human selves have lived many times before, even though the great majority, even perhaps some 99 percent, have no memory of any such previous lives. The question I want to raise concerns the criteria by which someone living today is said to be the same person or self as someone who lived, say, 500 years ago of whom one has no knowledge or memory. For when we remove the connecting thread of memory, as we are doing in our present rebirth hypothesis, we have taken away one, and a very important one, of the three strands of continuity that constitute what we normally mean by the identity of a human individual through time. A second strand is bodily continuity, an unbroken existence through space and time from the newly born baby to the old man, a continuity stretching thus from the cradle to the grave. It may be that none of the atoms that composed the baby’s body are now part of the adult’s body. Nonetheless a continuously changing physical organism has existed and has been in principle observable, composed from moment to moment of slightly different populations of atoms, but with sufficient overlap of population and of configuration of population from moment to moment for it to constitute the same organism. However, this strand of bodily continuity is also taken away by our rebirth hypothesis, for there is no physical connection between someone living in the United States today and someone who lived, say, in ancient Greece two and a half thousand years ago. Nor does it even seem to be claimed by the doctrine of rebirth that there is any bodily resemblance; for it is said that one is sometimes born as a man, sometimes as a woman, sometimes in one and sometimes in another branch of the human race, and sometimes indeed (according to one version of the doctrine) as an animal or perhaps as an insect.
Thus, all that is left to be the bearer of personal, identity is the third strand, which is the psychological continuity of a pattern of mental dispositions. It is this that now has to carry all the weight of the identity of two persons, one of whom is said to be a reincarnation of the other. For the only connection left, when memory and bodily continuity are excluded, lies in the psychological dispositions that constitute one’s persona] character. It is claimed that B, who is A reincarnated, has the same personality traits as A. If A was proud and intolerant, B will be proud and intolerant. If A becomes in the course of her life a great artist, B will start life with a strong artistic propensity. If A was kind and thoughtful, B will be kind and thoughtful. But much now depends, for the viability of the theory, upon the degree of similarity that is claimed to exist between the total personality of A at t1 and the total personality of B at t2. Many people are kind and thoughtful, or have artistic temperaments, or are proud and intolerant, but as long as they are distinct bodily beings with different and distinct streams of consciousness and memory, the fact that two individuals exhibit a common character trait, or even a number of such traits, does not lead us to identify them as the same person. In the case of people living at the same time, to do so would be a direct violation of the concept of “same person.” In the case of people who are not alive at the same time such an identification is not ruled out with the same a priori logical definitiveness; in spite of that, it is beset with the most formidable difficulties. For the similarity between A (t1) and B (t2) must, in most cases, be so general as to be capable of numerous different exemplifications, since A and B may be of different races and sexes, and products of different civilizations, climates, and historical epochs. There can be general similarities of character, found in such qualities as selfishness and unselfishness, introverted or extroverted types of personality, artistic or practical bents, and in level of intelligence, between, let us say, a male Tibetan peasant of the twelfth century B. C. and a female American college graduate of the twentieth century A. D. However, such general similarities would never by themselves lead or entitle us to identify the two as the same person. Indeed, to make an identity claim on these grounds — in a case in which there is neither bodily continuity nor any link of memory — would commit us to the principle that individuals who are not alive at the same time and who exhibit rather similar personality patterns are to be regarded as the same person. But in that case there would be far too many people who qualify under this criterion as being the same person. How many people of Lugdi’s generation were as much like Shanti Devi in general character as Lugdi was? Probably many hundreds of thousands. How many people in the last generation before I was born had character traits similar to those that I have? Probably many hundreds of thousands. On this basis alone, then, it would never have occurred to anyone that Lugdi and Shanti Devi were the same person, or that I am the same person as any one particular individual who lived in the past. On this basis I could equally well be a reincarnation of any one of many thousands of people in each past generation. Thus, this criterion of character similarity is far too broad and permissive; if it establishes anything, it establishes much too much and becomes self-defeating.
Thus the idea of reincarnation in the sense of the transmigration of the self (though normally without memory of its previous lives) from death in one body to birth in another is beset by conceptual difficulties of the gravest kind.
1 There is an extensive literature reporting and discussing such cases. The most scientifically valuable are those of Professor Ian Stevenson Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, 2nd ed (Charlottesville University of Virginia Press, 1974); Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol I: Ten Cases in India, Vol. II: Ten Cases in Sri Lanka and Vol III: Twelve Cases in Lebanon and Turkey (Charlottesville University of Virginia Press, 1975-79).
THE VEDANTIC CONCEPTION
Let us then turn to the more complex and subtle conception of reincarnation taught in Hindu Vedantic philosophy. This is, of course, by no means the only school of Indian religious thought, but the Vedantic conception of karma and rebirth is a central one from which most of the other schools differ only marginally. According to Advaita Vedanta, the ultimate reality — Brahman — is pure undifferentiated consciousness, beyond all qualities, including personality. The creative power of Brahman expresses itself in the existence of the universe, whose nature is maya, which connotes unreality in the sense of being dependent and temporary. The infinite eternal consciousness becomes associated with maya to constitute a plurality of temporary finite consciousnesses, jivatmans or jivas, which I shall call souls. These finite consciousnesses are products of maya, and their very existence is a kind of illusion, the illusion namely of separateness from the one universal consciousness. In an often-used Vedantic simile, Brahman is like Space and the individual souls are like space in jars. When the jars are destroyed, the space that they enclosed remains part of Space. Likewise, the souls merge into the infinite Brahman when the ignorance that constitutes their finite boundaries is removed in enlightenment.
There are, then, a limitless number of individuals souls; and yet this plurality and individuality is ultimately illusory, for when different souls attain to consciousness of themselves as Braliman, the distinction between them ceases to exist: all souls as Brahman are one and the same. The theory of karma and rebirth is concerned with the soul and its evolution from the state of illusion to true self-coscioousness. For the innumerable souls, as “sparks of divinity” that have become illusorily separated from their source, ground, and identity in Brahman, are being gradually purged of this illusion through a succession of rebirths, in a process that is eventually to culminate in the attainment of liberation and the realization of identity with the sole ultimate Reality, Brahman, unspoiled by any illusory sense of separate identity. (This conception has, of course, its affinities in the West in Neoplatonism and Gnosticism and in the recent theology of Paul Tillich.
There are, then, an infinity of souls existing beginninglessly throughout past time. But I, the conscious self now writing, and you, the conscious self now reading, are not — or rather are not consciously — any of these eternal souls. We are psychophysical egos, illusorily distinct persons of the kind that exist only in this realm of maya. Whereas the psychophysical ego is a man or a woman, the soul is neither male nor female but includes (in Jung’s terminology) the animus and anima aspects that, when embodied in varying proportions, constitute human masculinity and femininity. Whereas the psychophysical ego is not normally conscious of the eternal past of the soul, there are depths of the soul in which all this past experience is recorded. Each psychophysical ego is thus a temporary expression, or organ, or instrument of an eternal soul, one indeed of the succession of such expressions which constitute the successive rebirths of that soul. That the soul is involved in maya means that it has become enclosed in a set of “bodies” or coverings, thought of on the analogy of a number of sheaths successively enclosing the blade of a sword, and all having to be discarded before the blade is free. There are three principal such “bodies” or sheaths: the gross body (sthula sarira), the subtle body (suksma sarira or linga sarira), and the causal body (karana sarira). So far as the essential logic of the idea of rebirth is concerned, we can conflate the latter two into one, the “subtle body,” and concentrate upon the relation between this and the “gross body.” The “gross body” is the physical organism that begins to be formed at conception and begins to disintegrate at death. It is survived by the “subtle body,” which then influences the development of another physical body as its next vehicle or incarnation. It must, however, at once be added that the phrase “subtle body” is likely to be seriously misleading to the western mind, for the “subtle body” is not, in the philosophically sophisticated versions of the theory, conceived of as a material entity in the western sense of “material.” It Hoes not occupy space, has no shape or size, and is indeed not a body at all in our western sense of the term. It is, however, material in the quite different sense given by the fundamental Indian dichotomy between consciousness and everything that lacks consciousness and is called prakrti — “nature” or “matter” — this being identical with maya. In western terms the subtle body must accordingly be described as a mental rather than as a physical entity; indeed, one Hindu expositor speaks of it simply as “the psychical part of the psychophysical organism.”2 So far as its functions in the theory of rebirth are concerned, we may describe the linga sarira as a mental entity or substance that is modified by, or registers and thus (metaphorically) “embodies,” the moral, aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual dispositions that have been built up in the course of living a human life, or rather in living a succession of human, and perhaps also nonhuman, lives. These modifications of the subtle body are called samskaras, impressions. But they are not thought of on the analogy of static impressions, like marks on paper, but rather as dynamic impressions, modifications of a living organism expressed in its pattern of behavior. We ordinarily think of the human mind and personality as being modified in all sorts of ways by its own volitions and its responses to its experience. A repeated indulgence in selfish policies reinforces one’s egoistic tendencies; a constant exercise of the disciplineof precise thought makes for more lucid and exact thinking; devoted attention to one or another of the arts quickens and deepens one’s aesthetic sensibilities; spiritual meditation opens the self to the influence of a larger environment; and so on. These familiar facts can be expressed by saying that the linga sarira is the seat of the various emotional, spiritual, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual modifications that are happening to us all the time in the course of our human existence. Such modifications are most adequately characterized in contemporary Western categories as mental dispositions.
We have already noted that the subtle body belongs to the material (prakrti) side of the fundamental dichotomy between consciousness and prakrti; and it is for this reason that it is appropriate in the context of Indian thought to call it a body. For being finite, changeable, and devoid of consciousness, it has far more in common with the physical body than with the soul. To appreciate this we have to conceive of thoughts, emotions, and desires as things, and as things capable of existing apart from consciousness as dispositional energies that, when linked with consciousness, can guide action. Through like grouping with like in mutual reinforcement, such dispositions form relatively stable and enduring structures whose “shape” is the character of the person whose thoughts have formed it. Such a dispositional structure survives the extinction of consciousness in death and continues to exist as an entity, the subtle body or linga sarira, which will later become linked to a new conscious organism. It is thus very close to what C. D. Broad has called the “psychic factor.”3 Broad developed his concept of the psychic factor to provide a possible explanation of the phenomenon of trance mediumship. When an individual dies, the mental aspect persists, not however as a complete conscious personality, but as a constellation of mental elements — dispositions. memories, desires, fears, etc. — constituting a psychic factor, which may hold together for a considerable time or may quickly disintegrate into scattered fragments. Broad suggested that such a psychic grouping, sufficiently cohesive to be identified as consisting of the memories and dispositional characteristics of a particular deceased individual, may become connected with a medium in a state of trance, thus generating a temporary conscious personality which is a conflation of certain persisting mental elements of the deceased together with the living structure of the medium. The theory of reincarnation can be seen as taking this concept further — as indeed Broad himself noted4 — and claiming that the psychic factor that separates itself from the body at death subsequently becomes fused, not with the developed life structure of a medium, but with the still undeveloped life structure of a human embryo. It then influences the growth of the embryo, as a factor additional to its physical genetic inheritance,
If we ask why Hindus believe that this is a true account of the facts of human existence, there are three interlocking answers. One is that it is a revealed truth taught in the Vedas. A second is that reincarnation is a hypothesis that makes sense of many aspects of human life, including the inequalities of human birth; I shall return to this presently. The third is that there are the fragmentary memories of former lives to which we have already referred and also, even more important, the much fuller memories that are attained by those who have achieved moksa, liberation and enlightenment. It is claimed that the yogi, when he attains, remembers all his former lives and sees for himselt the karmic connection that runs through a succession of apparently different and unrelated lives. This last item is for many in India the most important of all grounds for belief in reincarnation.
Now, what exactly does reincarnation mean when it is thus given factual anchorage by a claimed retrospective yogic memory of a series of lives that were not linked by memory while they were being lived? The picture before us is of, say, a hundred distinct empirical selves living their different lives one after another and being as distinct from each other as any other set of a hundred lives; and yet differing from a random series of a hundred lives in that the last member of the series attains a level of consciousness at which he or she is aware of the entire series. Further, she remembers the entire series as lives which she, now in this higher state of awareness, has herself lived. Yet there is something logically odd about such “remembering,” which prompts one to put it in quotation marks. For this higher state of consciousness did not experience those earlier lives and therefore it cannot in any ordinary sense be said to remember them. Rather, it is in a state as though it had experienced them, although in fact it did not.
The claim here, then, is that there will in the future exist a supernormal state of consciousness, in which “memories” of a long succession of different lives occur. However, this leaves open the question of how best to describe such a state of affairs. Let us name the first person in the series A and the last Z. Are we to say that B — Z are a series of reincarnations of A? If we do, we shall be implicitly stipulating the following definition: given two or more noncontemporaneous human lives, if there is a higher consciousness in which they are all “remembered,” then each later individual in the series is defined as being a reincarnation of each earlier individual. But reincarnation so defined is a concept far removed from the idea that if I am A, then I shall be repeatedly reborn as B-Z. Further, there is no conceptual reason why we should even stipulate that the different lives must be non- contemporaneous. If it is possible for a higher consciousness to “remember” any number of different lives, there seems in principle to be no reason why it should not “remember” lives that have been going on at the same time as easily as lives that have been going on at different times. Indeed, we can conceive of an unlimited higher consciousness in which “memories” occur of all human lives that have ever been lived. Then all human lives, however different from their own several’ points of view, would be connected via a higher consciousness in the way postulated by the idea of reincarnation. It would then be proper to say of any two lives, whether earlier and later, later and earlier, or contemporaneous, that the one individual is a different incarnation of the other. Thus it seems that there are considerable conceptual difficulties in the idea of reincarnation in its more subtle Vedantic form as well as in its more popular form.
Let us now return to the inequalities of human birth and ask whether the idea of reincarnation can after all really help to explain these. Either there is a first life, characterized by initial human differences, or else (as in the Vedantic philosophy) there is no first life but a bgginningless regress of incarnations. In the latter case the explanation of the inequalities of our present life is endlessly postponed and never achieved, for we are no nearer to an ultimate explanation of the circumstances of our present birth when we are told that they are consequences of a previous life, if that previous life has in turn to be explained by reference to a yet previous life, and that by reference to another, and so on, in an infinite regress. One can affirm the beginningless character of the soul’s existence in this way, but one cannot then claim that it renders either intelligible or morally acceptable the inequalities found in our present human lot. The solution has not been produced but only postponed to infinity. If instead we were to postulate a first life (as Hinduism does not), we should then have to hold either that souls are created as identical psychic atoms or else as embodying, at least in germ, the differences that have subsequently developed. If the latter, the problem of human inequality arises in full force at the point of that initial creation: if the former, it arises as forcefully with regard to the environment that has produced all the manifold differences that have subsequently arisen between initially identical units. Thus if there is a divine Creator, it would seem that that Creator cannot escape along any of these paths from an ultimate responsibility for the character of the creation, including the gross inequalities inherent within it.
2 Suryanarayana Sastri, “The Doctrine of Reincarnation in Educational Work,” Indian Philosophical Annual, 1965, p. 165. Generally, on Hindu and Buddhist conceptions of reincarnation, see Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, ed., Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions (Berkeley: University of Caliiornia Press, 1980).
3 C. D. Broad, The Mind and Its Place in Nature (London. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd , 1925 and New York: Humanities Pi ess, 1976), pp. 536ff.
4 Ibid, p 551.
A DEMYTHOLOGIZED INTERPRETATION
The possibility of construing reincarnation as an unverifiable and unfalsifiable metaphysical idea takes us to the borders of a third form of the doctrine. In this form it is a rnythological expression of the fact that all our actions have effects upon some part of the human community and have to be borne, for good or ill, by others in the future. This ethical sense has been attributed by some scholars to the Buddha, notably by I. C. Jennings, formerly vice-chancellor of Patna University.5 Jennings says, “Disbelieving in the permanence of the individual soul he [the Buddha] could not accept the Hindu doctrine of Karma implying the transmigration of the soul at death to a new body; but believing fully in moral responsibility and the consequences of all acts, words, and thoughts, he fully accepted the doctrine of Karma in another sense, implying the transmission of the effects of actions from one generation of men to all succeeding generations” (p. xlvii). Again, Jennings says, “Assuming the common origin and the fundamental unity of all life and spirit, he [the Buddha] assumed the unity of the force of Karma upon the living material of the whole world, and the doctrine of Karma taught by him is collective and not individual” (p. xxv).
On this view karma, with reincarnation as its mythological expression, is really a moral truth, a teaching of universal human responsibility. All our deeds affect the human future, as the life of each of us has in its turn been affected by those who have lived before us. Instead of individual threads of karmic history there is the universal networkof the karma of humanity, to which each contributes and by which each is affected. Understood in this manner, the idea of reincarnation is a way of affirming the corporate unity of the human race, and the responsibility of each toward the whole of which he or she is a part. We are not monadic individuals, but mutually interacting parts of the one human world in which the thoughts and acts of each reverberate continually for good or ill through the lives of others. As the ways in which men and women have lived in the past have formed the world in which we now have to live, so we in turn are now forming the world in which future generations will have to dwell. As our inherited world, or state of world karma, has formed us as individuals born into it, so we in turn are helping to shape the environment that is to form those who live after us. So conceived, the idea of karma has immense practical implications at a time when the nations are grappling with the threat of the pollution of our human environment, with problems of environmental planning and conservation, with the prevention of nuclear war, with the control of the population explosion, with racial conflict, and with so many other problems concerned with the ways in which the actions of each individual and group affect the welfare of all. Seen in this way, karma is an ethical doctrine. And both the more popular idea of the transmigration of souls and the more philosophical idea of the continuity of a “subtle body” from individual to individual in succeeding generations can be seen as mythological expression of this great moral truth..
Most western philosophers would probably have no difficulty accepting this last form of reincarnation doctrine, for it is a vivid affirmation of human unity; the world today is such that if we do not unite in a common life, we are only too likely to find ourselves united in a common death. But to what extent this is an acceptable interpretation of the idea of rebirth, which has for some thousands of years been cherished by the great religions of India, is not for us to say.
5 J. G Jennings, The Vedantic Buddhism of the Buddha (London. Oxford University Press, 1948).