One of the perplexing questions facing religious systems relates to the uneven distribution of good and bad fortune in the world. Some are born healthy and some with poor health, some are born to wealthy parents and some to impoverished ones, some grow up in happy homes and some in dysfunctional families, and some succeed in life with little effort and some face only hurdles and accidents in life. All this seems incompatible with the vision of a God who is merciful, just, and compassionate.
Various traditions have come up with various explanations for this ancient and all too common feature of human societies. Hindu thinkers resolve the paradox in terms of what is known as the law of karma. The word karma ordinarily means action in Sanskrit. In Vedic literature it generally meant ritualistic duties. In this context, however, it refers to any consequential action. Some of the acts that we do are inconsequential, while others have consequences. Scribbling on a piece of paper while waiting for a person may be inconsequential, but offering a helping hand to a person in need is a consequential action. A karma has some impact on others or on the world around us. The law of karma states that every karma has an experiential effect on the doer, that is, every individual will experience something as a result of his/her karma.
This experience (consequence on oneself) resulting from a karma may occur right away or at some future time. Furthermore, our current significant experiences are the results of our past karma. Indeed no one can escape the sweet fruits or the bitter berries arising from one's karma.
But what about little children who undergo pain? And how do we explain the fact that many people get away with all sorts of sins and crimes without ever apparently experiencing anything for their misdeeds? It is in this context that the notion of reincarnation becomes meaningful.
According to Hindu metaphysics, the atman (soul) (pronounced aathman) migrates from body to body. The phenomenon of (physical) death is thus the disembodiment of the atman that later encases itself in another body. One of the earliest expressions of this idea of the transmigration of the atman is to be found in the Brhadaaranyaka Upanishad (IV.4.4). Just as a leech that reaches the end of a blade of grass jumps over to another blade, so too the atman, after leaving behind an unconscious body, enters another body. A famous passage in the Bhagavad Gita (11.22) propounds the doctrine of metempsychosis with this simile: Just as a man discards worn-out garments and puts on new ones, so too the souls abandon the old bodies and take on new ones.
Reincarnation or the cycle of birth and death is known as samsara (pronounced samsaara). It is a basic tenet of Hinduism. Its fundamental thesis is the periodic reemergence of the atman in physical encasements, that is, the continuity of the atman on the temporal plane in association with different bodies. Consider the words in a book. We find that the same letter occurs over and over again in different contexts in different pages of the book. Likewise, the same soul appears in different bodies at different times. In other words, according to the notion of reincarnation, each of us has been on earth before in other bodies, and we will return again many more times in the future. There are two positive effects of belief in reincarnation. First, the notion that the atman is imperishable is a source of strength when death occurs. At that saddest of all moments in the course of a family's history, there is the assurance that all is not lost. The individual has literally departed, not died. Second, there is also the hope that the disembodied atman will reappear in the family as a member of the generation yet to be born. It is not unusual for grandchildren to be named after their deceased grandparents for precisely this reason.
The idea of transmigration of the soul was accepted in many ancient cultures: in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and even medieval Europe. Plato referred to the Orphic tradition, according to which, for example, soul and body are united until death at which point they are liberated with a new birth. In the Hindu framework, the ultimate goal of spiritual evolution is to break away from samsara, the repetitious birth-death cycle with its attendant woes and passing pleasures. This is to be achieved through right action and spiritual effort.
In the history of ideas, there have been two views as to our present condition and future prospects. One is fatalism, that is, everything was predetermined by an Almighty God, and we cannot change the course of events. The other is free will or that we have the choice to do good so as to ensure everlasting peace in heaven. The law of karma may be looked on as a blending of the two views in more earthly contexts. It accepts that our present condition was predetermined, not by God, but by our own previous actions. What this means is that we cannot point the finger at a merciless God for our sufferings. It also accepts free will in that it says we have the power to choose the good, and this will ensure our future happiness. Thus, the law does not imply a stoic acceptance of what has happened to us, for it leaves the future open.
Recognizing the law of karma can inspire us to good and meritorious actions in the present life so as to ensure happier states in future incarnations. The law of karma is a wise blending of determinism and free will. It regards as unalterable what has already happened, yet as transformable what is yet to transpire. When something good occurs to you, you may give credit to yourself as having played a role in it at some time in the past. When something bad occurs, do not search for others or God to blame. Moreover, you have the potential to mold your future. And that future is not confined to this particular life.
Explanation in terms of the law of karma is as sound as any to reconcile assumed divine justice with observed social and hereditary nonuniformity. The law of karma and the associated belief in reincarnation are part of the religious worldview of people of the Hindu faith. To those outside the Hindu faith, it can be yet another interesting theory to explain the mystery of human existence.