Is there a rebirth of Punarjanma

Reincarnation and Karma in the Religious Idea of ​​Hinduism

By Bettina Bäumer (biography)


The teaching of karma and reincarnation has become the unshakable belief of the religions of Hindu tradition. The transfer of this doctrine in the context of a Western worldview often leads to gross misinterpretations. It is therefore important to understand the consciousness horizon of the karma and reincarnation doctrine in its full extent. It is not about translatable and thus transplantable terms, but about attitudes to life, experiences and motivations that come from a very specific culture.

The first question to which karma and rebirth comes up as an answer in the Indian context is the question: What happens to a person after death? Because "the whole world is food for death" (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad = BU III, 2, 10) - and this passage of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad is about overcoming "repeated death" (punar mrityu), not rebirth. This, in its clarity, the oldest text in the BU on this subject, in which Artabhaga asks the sage Yajnavalkya about the mystery of life and death, then reads: "'Yajnava'Ikya', he said, when the voice of a dead person enters the fire, his breath in the wind, his eyes in the sun, his mind in the moon, his hearing in the cardinal points, his body in the earth, his body hair in the plants, his (head) hair in the trees, his blood and his seed into the water, what will become of this person? "" Artabhaga, my dear, take my hand. Only the two of us should know this, that is not for all people. "The two went away and discussed (in secret). What they talked was the work (karma), what they praised was the work (karma). One becomes good by good works and bad by bad works. Then Yes was silent ratkarava Artabhaga "(BU III, 2, 13).

The karma as a secret

Karma and reincarnation are not simply causal theories, but ultimately a mystery, not rational, but religious statements. Only the word karma and the law that good work becomes good and bad work makes one bad come to the public eye. That is, the work of man and its effect or reaction are inextricably linked. The oldest commentary on the Yoga Sutras says it explicitly: "The course (gati) of karma is mysterious and difficult to discern" (Vyasabhasya II, 13). This proves, among other things, the fact that the rationalistic and materialistic systems of thought in India, which do not recognize any supernatural reality in any form, have denied the doctrine of karma and reincarnation. On the other hand, it was accepted by all religious schools and systems, albeit interpreted differently.

Two effects of sacred action

In the Veda one can distinguish between two modes of the effect of sacred action: a subjective and an objective one. Subjectively, every action leaves traces in the psyche, but also in the body and mind of the actor. This is what the Upanishad means when they say that one becomes good through good work and bad through bad. I. E. man makes himself, he becomes what he does or thinks. The "objective" effect of an action is the mark it leaves on the world, including its effect on other people. In the context of the rite, there are often very specific things, such as B. bringing about rain etc ..

The Isa Upanishad

Let us consider one of the oldest Upanishads in relation to karma, before the crystallization of the doctrine of reincarnation: Isa Upanishad. Apparently there are only two possibilities here after death: l. entering into "blind darkness" for those who are "slayers of themselves" (atmahah, Isa 3) and who are in ignorance or consider themselves wise (9:12); 2. Immortality for those who "see all beings in their own self and the self in all beings" (6), who have come to unity with all beings (7) and who through true wisdom have transcended both knowledge and ignorance so have overcome death (11). The condition for this is that no works "stick" to them, even if they live and do works for 100 years (2). The first verse gives the context in which man alone must recognize himself and act in order not to become entangled in karma: "This whole world, everything that moves, is permeated by God. Whoever renounces it, truly enjoys it, does not strive for it foreign goods "(Isa 1). What happens now at the hour of death? The dying prays that the face of the truth that is hidden may be revealed to him. After this transfiguring vision (16) the acceptance of death follows: "May this life enter the immortal wind, then this body can turn to ashes. OM, o spirit, remember the deed, o spirit, remember the deed!" (17)

No uniform teaching of reincarnation and karma

Whatever the development in the Vedas and Upanishads, the moment comes when the teaching of karma and reincarnation (punarjanma) has become the unshakable belief of the Indian religions. The Indian tradition itself has often succumbed to the dangers of simplifying and distorting the doctrine of reincarnation. Often it was this simplified notion that was adopted - or refuted - by the West. It is important to realize that there is no single or unambiguous teaching. Even in the great epic Mahabharata, which is just quoted as a prime example of these teachings, we encounter a wide variety of concepts and existential attitudes.

Karma and rebirth as a link between the present and the past

Karma and rebirth explain the past and present of every person or humanity and also of all other living beings. The inequality of birth, circumstances and fate of each individual is explained by the karma they brought with them from previous existences as "inheritance". The positive thing about this insight is the fact that no person is born in or out of a vacuum. The factors that determine its nature and fate cannot be explained simply as the result of heredity and external circumstances. The danger of this conviction exists among other things. in a minimization of suffering; d. H. any kind of suffering is viewed as repentance for past life sins. Although this attitude easily leads to fatalism, it also harbors the possibility of a willing acceptance of suffering as purification. In the Indian religions, it is above all enlightened and holy people (like the Buddha) who "know" their previous lives. This fact should draw our attention to the question of the subject of rebirth. Furthermore, there are people who remember previous existences through dreams or experiences of recognition.

Hope for the future

Regarding the future, the doctrine of reincarnation can inspire both hope and fear: hope because, if we fail to achieve salvation in this life, there is a chance of going so far as to use up our karma or ours in one or more future lives To atone for sins. Although most spiritual masters insist that we should use this present life to the full for our salvation, there are also quite spiritual people who expect from the outset to be born again and then strive more intensely for salvation. Every intense spiritual path demands a certain urgency - but the Hindu or Buddhist never needs to be afraid of finally missing out on his chance, which gives him a certain serenity.

afraid of the future

However, Hinduism has very often frightened its believers with the prospect of innumerable births. Especially in the context of the religious codes of law (dharmasastra), reincarnation became a threat to induce people to act morally and to keep the commandments - a negative function like the fear of purgatory and hell in Christianity until not so long ago Time fulfilled. This went so far that there are extensive lists in the dharmasastras of which sin one is reborn for which form of existence. In a simple form it is called z. B. that as a result of sinful thoughts in a lower caste, as a result of sinful speech as an animal and as a result of sinful action as an inanimate being (plant, stone, etc.).

Consequences of thinking and acting on karma

The theory behind the next life consequences is that the individual soul (bhutatman, literally the "elemental self") experiences suffering and joy and does the actions that entangle or set it free. But it is a transcendent, knowing self (ksetrajna, Manu 12, 12-23) that causes or enables the actions. But the true insight into the nature of things and the knowledge of this self acting in truth is sufficient to escape the consequences of one's own karma and therefore to be freed from rebirth (Manu 6, 74). Despite the cartoons that have existed and still exist of this system, it is important not to underestimate the ethical impulse. His background lies in the insight that our thinking, speaking and acting (karma always includes the first two) can never be arbitrary or arbitrary. On the one hand, they are already conditioned by what we (have become) are. Our previous karma must be aware, however, that every thought movement, every gesture or act that appears minor has far-reaching consequences. In the law of cosmic interrelationships, there is no such thing as chance or excuse. It is a law of cosmic responsibility.

Areas of karma and rebirth

The original context of the teaching of karma and rebirth is initially religious, and neither a scientific nor a psychological explanation does justice to this teaching (although there are correspondences and effects on these levels). It has to do with striving to overcome suffering and to gain release from the conditioning that arises through action. Karma and punarjanma are not primarily world-immanent explanations, but rather stepping stones, so to speak, for salvation. The ethics they emphasize is also a necessary step on the way to salvation, because precisely because karma is at work, steps cannot be skipped. The insight that we are what we do (or have done) and that we do what we are is a religious insight that affects not only the physical body (sthula sarira), but above all the subtle soul body (suksma sarira) up to the subtlest level of karana sarira ("cause-body").

Karma is opposed to an individualistic view of life

The context is further that of an awareness of being embedded in cosmic contexts. This awareness presupposes a mythical openness to the cosmos and a great sensitivity for the invisible currents that are at work in people and in the world. The karma is thus completely opposite to an individualistic worldview and attitude to life. Against the background of an individualistic view of life and a linear concept of time, karma becomes a straight line that runs through different existences of the same person. But karma is just a dense weave of many intersecting threads. The holistic vision of the karma teaching is lost.

The subject of karma and rebirth

Who is the subject of karma and rebirth? This question was asked repeatedly in Indian traditions and answered in different ways, and it is here that the spiritual and philosophical paths are divided (Buddhism: no I; pluralistic schools: many subjects; Advaita: only one I). But no matter how great the philosophical differences in the Indian context, it is always clear that the individual ego (we prefer to call it ego), if it exists at all, has to be overcome from its atomic existence (anu) or its animal existence State (pasu) to break out and (re) recognize one's true identity (cf. Upanishads, Sivaism of Kashmir). Surely it cannot be my limited ego that lives on and is reborn after death. But who or what is then the bearer of "my" karma? In short, one can only say: there is a continuity, and the human being is like a vessel (patra), a channel through which the stream of the samsara flows, or like communicating vessels.

There is only one who is born again

The first and last answer of Hinduism to this question is given by Sankaras Advaita, who sums up the whole Vedic-Upanishad tradition: "In truth, there is no one else who is born again but the Lord." (satyam nesvarad anyah samsari, Brahma Sutra Bhasya I, 1, 5; see Coomaraswamy, On the One and only Transmigrant, Journal of the American Oriental Society 1944). The individual souls are only "incarnations" of the Lord, manifestations of God, ultimately his game (purple). The only person (Purusa) is the Lord, hence the only doer in all beings. We are all parts of his body. But when we have come to this insight, we are already freed from our karma, even if we still have to finish the karma (prarabdha) that has begun to mature and which is our present life.

The level of mind and matter

So we discover two levels that are not separate, but differentiated: on the level of the true I (aham), the spirit (purusa, atman), we are already liberated from the samsara as soon as we only recognize it (or "are recognized." how we are "in Christian terms). At the level of matter (prakriti, maya) there is a never-ending cycle of birth and death, because just as energy cannot be destroyed, the karmic energy that constitutes the concrete living beings also continues: "What the metaphor of karma and punarjanma wants to awaken in us is the realization that if we follow the law of matter (ie if we only act out of our [karma-conditioned] desires and aversions), we will be like matter and be born again and again. " (Francis D 'Sa, Karma: Work for liberation and means of pondage. Towards a Hindu Theology of Work, manuscript, p.12)

Incompatibility with Western terms for individuality and history

It is clear that the Western concept of individuality (since Descartes) cannot possibly be applied to the doctrine of reincarnation because it would result in the exact opposite: Instead of relativizing the ego and inserting it into its cosmic-human relationships, it would rather be extended to several Births. What a "non-egocentric understanding of karmic existence" looks like is on the one hand a more relaxed attitude towards fate, both the sufferings and the joys, a relativization of oneself, but at the same time a "feeling of cosmic responsibility, because the whole universe depends on it dealing positively with the karma that is available to me. I am the link between past and future, between myself and others ... "(R. Panikkar, Myth, p. 379).The situation is similar with the occidental concept of history, which is only suitable as a background for understanding reincarnation if history is not understood to be a collection of (factual) events. History in the sense of the integration of the collective past could, however, be equated with the concept of karma.

Karma as the basis for liberation

Karma and rebirth reflect world-related structures, they are the epitome of samsara. Therefore, it often seems like they function automatically, without reference to any god. But there are religious schools in which karma is subordinate to God, so that his grace can also work against a person's karma. Most of the time, however, it is assumed that the person has to strive to pay off his accumulated karma like a debt. He must not create anything new (for example through sinful works) or "swim against the current" in order to free himself completely from karma - with or without divine grace. The knowledge of karma and its acceptance are therefore the material that is available to man in order to achieve his salvation, they are the stepping stone to liberation (moksa).

Two possible ways of salvation

According to Indian tradition, there are two directions that the acting person can take: One, the active one (pravritti), swims with the flow of the action; the other, the path of renunciation, passivity, contemplation (nivritti), swims against the current of karma. The activity (pravrittam karma) is also described as acting to fulfill wishes in this or the next world, i.e. motivated action, while the "detached action" (nivrittam karma) is without desire and desire, which requires true knowledge (cf. Manu 12.88-90). Pravritta contributes to the continuation of the world (also in a positive sense), while nivritta transcends worldly existence or reverses it (literally).

The Bhagavadgita as an example of a way of salvation

The quintessence of Krishna's teaching to Arjuna in the Bhagavadgita is that it is not mere inaction that liberates man. An escape from one's own duty (svadharma) is not preached here, but the person must act, but it depends on how and with what inner attitude he acts, whether his actions entangle him in the samsara or free him from it. An action that consciously wants to free oneself from the bonds is called karmayoga, we could translate it as spiritual practice, integrated action, disciplined action. The difference between binding and liberating karma is nowhere so clearly revealed as in the Gita: "Your matter is only the work alone, but never its fruit (result, reward), do not let yourself be guided by the expectation of the reward, but also hang on not in inaction "(47). "Do your works, being steadfast in yoga (spiritual exercise, devotion, integration), give up all attachment, O victorious. Remain indifferent in success or failure (success or failure), for equanimity is called yoga" (48). It is not the renunciation of action that brings liberation from the samsara, but the renunciation of the results of action. In other words: it is selfless action that redeems ourselves and the world, an action that the Gita also equates with sacrifice (3: 9). Both sacrifice and selfless act are doing that go against the current of samsara. Only acting with desire, attachment and expectation of a reward leads to rebirth and thus delays salvation. Delaying again means creating unnecessary suffering, for yourself and for others.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

The classical yoga Patanjalis tries to see through the psychological processes and mechanisms that lead to the formation of karma and to purify and reverse them through exercises. All eight stages of yoga are ultimately a way of this purification from the conditions, which should lead to the discriminating vision of reality (viveka-khyati), which alone liberates man. In the second chapter, which is devoted to practice (kriyayoga), the subtle psychic processes are shown which lead to the solidification of karma and which must be seen through and overcome. We must also simplify here: II, 2: The goal of yoga is the attainment of samadhi (immersion), which presupposes the reduction of defilements or painful tensions (klesa). (Yoga is very realistic here in that it does not speak of eliminating, but of reducing.) II, 3: What are these defilements (klesa)? Ignorance, attachment to the self, desire, hatred and instinct for self-preservation. After all, it is these defilements (klesa) which are the root of the accumulation of karma (II, 12) and which bear as fruit the birth (already understood negatively), the lifespan and the painful or joyful life experiences (II, 13). In this birth the fruits of joy or sorrow ripen according to the good or bad works one does (II, 14). The deposits of the works in the psyche are the samskaras, which condition further action from the subconscious. It is clear from this whole process that only the elimination of the cause leads to an overcoming of karma, which again presupposes that one sees through and recognizes these processes - in oneself, not abstractly (cf. I, 51, II, 26).

Karma as the "will of God"

There are a number of existential attitudes shaped by the teaching of karma and reincarnation, as found in traditional Hindus and also in some modern forms of Hinduism. The first of these attitudes could be set analogous to what was called "the will of God" in Christianity. Strokes of fate, injustice, oppression, illness, success or failure are accepted and carried as best as possible with serenity in the knowledge that one only has to "bear" one's own karma. There is therefore less of a tendency than in the West to blame other people or even God for their own fate. The suffering is therefore no less real, but the inner rebellion, the defensive action, which is often the spontaneous reaction of Westerners, disappears or is at least subdued.

The karma can be seen in every detail

As a second attitude, one could say that the person who lives in karma does not consider anything to be a coincidence. He is attentive to the slightest signs, to encounters and events, because they have "karmic" meaning for him - in a positive or negative sense. Z. b. the fact that you like some people and dislike others is explained by karma. Why is there e.g. B. Encounters that lead to lasting relationships and those that pass and remain completely indifferent, and still others that lead to enmity? The Hindu is convinced that these relationships can only be satisfactorily explained by previous karma.

Karma as a motivation for moral action

As a third attitude, one can say that where the karma consciousness is still intact, the motivation to act morally is also strong. At the average level of religion, one must endeavor to fulfill one's duty, including ritual, in order to earn merit (punya) and thus mitigate or eliminate the effects of the bad karma of previous births. Believing Hindus explain the moral decadence, especially among the youth, with the fact that they no longer believe in karma and therefore do not fear the consequences and punishments of their actions. When this moral motivation is not only formalistic, but paired with spirituality, it often produces the most sensitive and attentive people. In the spiritual realm, i. H. For people who consciously go a spiritual path, the motivation that one does not want to postpone one's salvation to countless births, but rather that one wants to achieve it in this life, plays a major role. The sannyasa, i.e. monasticism, actually means the renunciation of all karma, i.e. H. the "burning" of karma and so the highest freedom.

Interpretation of karma and reincarnation in the Christian context

The understanding of karma and reincarnation (like any religious statement) firstly depends entirely on the level of consciousness at which we interpret these statements. Second, our interpretation depends largely on the answer we give to the question "Who am I?" give (cf. Kausitaki Up.) in order to know who the substratum, the subject, is.

Karma and reincarnation as existential attitudes - and not as "dogmas" - have a number of points of contact with Christianity, since both traditions respond to the same basic human experiences and want to free people from their karmic or sinful condition. In both traditions, human actions are never neutral and can never be separated from motivation. In Christianity, an exaggerated sense of sin and the threat of hell punishment have led to a reaction that has abolished all morality. As for the afterlife, reincarnation in the Christian context would be more like purgatory than resurrection - a time of purification until the soul can rise again. The resurrection is also the overcoming of the karma of the world, so moksa accordingly. It is said of people who have already found their true identity and are therefore already redeemed in this life that they "will not return".


Edited and shortened by Ernst Pohn