A skeptic’s guide to reincarnation

by Hartosh Singh Bal

IMG_1768 The Karmapa sits cross-legged on a throne facing several rows of monks, mostly Tibetan and male, arrayed on the floor according to rank. The rows behind the monks are the lay deity, most Western and female, gathered here to hear him preach during his annual sojourn at Sarnath, just a few miles from Benares. A life-size picture of the Dalai Lama looks down on him, above and beyond golden against the vivid blue, yellow and oranges of the murals on the monastery walls a giant statue of the Buddha dwarfs them both.

He is speaking at the Vajra meditation centre, across the road from the centre is the boundary wall of the deer park where the Budha first preached the dhamma almost 2,500 years ago. I am in the audience because a series of ham-handed interventions by the state government of Himachal Pradesh, the state where the Dalai Lama has dwelt in India after his flight from Tibet in 1959, have managed to rather implausibly brand the Karmapa a Chinese spy, the others in the audience, pained as they are by the charges, are here because they believe the 26-year-old seated before them is seventeenth in the line of reincarnations that date back to the first Karmapa born in 1110.

Since then, they believe, each Karmapa has left a message foretelling where he would be reborn, and senior Lamas of the Kagyu sect (one of the four important schools of Tibetan Buddhism including the Dalai Lama’s Gelug school that attained political power in Tibet in the seventeenth century with some help from the Mongols) have set out in search each time a Karmapa has died. The idea became central to Tibetan Buddhism and was slowly imitated by other schools. The Dalai Lama lineage starts hundreds of years later, which is why the current Dalai Lama is but the fourteenth in the chain of reincarnations.

The system has given rise to an elaborate web of interrelated reincarnations comprising the important lamas of the various sects. When a young boy is identified as a reincarnation based on a set of signs and portents, he is brought to be trained at a monastery, usually by the very men who had been taught by his predecessor, and when they die it is he who will identify their reincarnations. Unlike a western observer, the concept is not alien to me, quite the contrary. Among my people, the Sikhs, it is the tenth guru – Gobind Singh who brought the line of living gurus to an end by vesting that spiritual power in a book that is largely a compilation of their writings. Writing of the lineage of gurus, he said:

Guru Nanak spread dharma in the iron age,

And put seekers on the path

Nanak transformed himself to Angad,

And spread dharma in the world,

He was called Amar Das in the next transformation,

A lamp was lighted from the lamp

The people on the whole considered them separate,

But there were a few who knew them to be one and the same,

Those who recognized them so,

They were the ones successful on the spiritual plane

The images he uses are not alien to Buddhism or for that matter Hinduism – a lamp lit from the lamp, the path of dharma.

The Buddha himself said, “With the mind thus composed, quite purified, quite clarified, without blemish, without defilement, grown soft and workable, fixed, immovable, I directed my mind to the knowledge and recollections of former habitations. I remembered a variety of former habitations, thus: one birth, two births … or fifty or a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand births; or many an aeon of integration, disintegration, integration-disintegration; such a one was I by name, having such and such a clan, such and such a colour, so was I nourished, such and such pleasant and painful experiences were mine, so did the span of life end. Passing away from this, I came to be in another state where I was such a one by name…so did the span of life end. Passing away from this, I arose here. Thus I remember diverse former habitations in all their modes and details.’’

In this sense reincarnation is the very basis for the explanation offered by the vast majority of subcontinental religions for the dilemmas of existence. Religions as disparate as Sikhism and Buddhism – in contrast to a Buddhist a Sikh must live in this world, must marry and is permitted violence against injustice if other means have failed – both begin with this idea.

In a practical sense I myself have no faith in the idea, but that does not preclude me from being attracted by its logical power. I have always been perplexed by the labels of fatalism and determinism that are often ascribed to the chain of life that reincarnation describes. In each life we lead, we earn merit or demerit through our actions and inactions, this then determines the circumstances of our next life, not our actions. Think of it as a promotion or demotion in an office, this may influence but it does not determine how I perform my new job.

Where the religions of the subcontinent diverge is in an elaboration of this basic idea. Merit or demerit accrues according to our acts but for this to happen the acts must be judged against a certain set of standards. For a Buddhist killing when done with the intention of killing brings demerit, for a Sikh if killing is a necessity imposed by injustice no such demerit accrues. For many sects of Hinduism such as Purva Mimasa sacrifice of animals as enjoined in the Vedas would bring merit, for a Buddhist or a Jain it would not.

Thus, reincarnation comes with set of ethical principles that differ from religion to religion. The differences do not end with the set of ethical principles, the very fact that somewhere in the universe the accumulation of merit or demerit is recorded and weighed enjoins some sort of entity that/who vastly exceeds our capacity of remembrance. In some sects of Hinduism such as Poorva Mimasa this entity termed Apoorva is no more than that, a passive databank that records our acts and bestows results based on an evaluation determined by the performance of Vedic acts. In Sikhism the entity is all powerful and unknowable, Buddhism remains silent on the question.

However, palatable the idea is to me in theory in my few days in Benares I find myself lost in an alternate universe. Neither Sikhism nor Hinduism force me to deal with the idea of reincarnation on a daily basis. Among the followers of the Karmapa there is no way to do anything but confront this reality. I find myself noting down what one of the Karmapa’s teachers says about the Tulkus (reincarnate high ranking Lamas, which today number in the thousands), explaining the ease with which they learn the texts to the fact they may have mastered the same text in their last birth or may have even authored them a few reincarnations before.

Such a system of locating and training Lamas has served Tibetan Buddhism well. It has kept alive the transmission and exegesis of Buddhist texts that have long been lost in India and the Dalai Lama is proof that it produces some exceptional individuals. As I sit among the audience with the Karmapa leading his followers through a session of questions and answers on topics ranging from living a good life (seek to understand our interdependence on others even for the food we eat, the air we breathe) to the killing of animals to prevent their suffering (the intent of killing is wrong, what we do not allow for humans we should not allow for animals) I find it possible in some measure to understand the extraordinary power of individual presence in religious life.

Sitting there an idea of Douglas Hofstadter plays in my mind. The part of his book I Am a Strange Loop where he talks of the death of his wife has stayed with me. If I remember correctly, Hofstadter seeks to understand whether we as patterns in time, patterns that dissipates in death, can hope to survive in some measure after our death. His answer is that we do, in the minds of those we leave behind, in the mind of a spouse, and to some extent in our children and close friends. We survive not just in their memory but in their very being, in how they conduct themselves. And then I think of what happens if we take a young, intelligent child and let him be taught by the very people who have spent a lifetime imbibing the learning of a man who is now dead, would it not be possible to recreate in some measure the same patterns of thought? Is that then what constitutes a reincarnate Lama?

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