Assuming that karma produces rebirth we have to ask ourselves how karma is the cause of rebirth, and in what way rebirth is connected with it as effect. If karma potentially contains rebirth then it manifests it after one dies and moves towards getting the conditions that make rebirth of the soul, who does the karma or act. This would mean that rebirth is already present in the cause namely karma. If rebirth is considered to be a misery and wisemen would avoid it, then karma has also to be abjured. Therefore there have been serious students of liberation or moksa who have counselled absolute renunciation of all action (karma-sannyasa). This means that these thinkers hold that cause contains the effect potentially, a doctrine known as sat-karya-vada.
If on the other hand one follows the counter-doctrine or alternative doctrine that cause does not contain the effect, but it is a new product created by the efficient cause, then the efficient cause has to be inspected as to whether it can be the cause of the rebirth - this is revealed by all to be desire, kama, trsna, conscious or unconscious, voluntary in a sense. But when extended to cover all living which is said to be the 'will to live', then the abjuring of all desire would be the cause of non-birth. This means a niskama karma will not produce the conditions for rebirth or in any way stick to a man. The renunciation of desire is the dharma that has to guide the performance of all duties, not the renunciation of all karma. Karma then would be the upadana karana, whereas kama would be the nimitta karana of rebirth: and consequently niskama would lead to non-birth.
There are three kinds of karma which the ancient Indian thinkers have propounded, the nitya (permanent or daily) performance, the naimittika (occasional for one's spiritual advancement and for paying one's debts to one's ancestors, and gods on prescribed occasions), and lastly the kamya (rightful desires which are for progeny, for success in one's undertaking). One is expected normally to perform all karmas with a sense of detachment in respect of fruits even. Desires for wealth, power, glory and knowledge are desires; even desires for emancipation and spiritual advancement are desires; and there are legitimate as well as illegitimate desires as well as means adopted to gain these goals. These could be the cause of pleasure or pain, success or defeat. There are desires to take further lives to ensure the fulfillment of one's desires or for taking vengeance.
We have to take note of karma which is not linked up with rebirth or even in any way restricting or binding the soul which does its duty by its knowledge of God's all-pervasiveness or presence and in the light of its own nature determined by this vision. Such action is capable of making one cross over death. As the Isa. Up. says, Na karma lipyate nare, and avidyaya mrtyum tirtva, the Lord in the Bhagavad Gita also says kartavyam karma has to be performed and the kartavyam karma are nitya-permanent and daily duty – such as the observance of self-discipline, yama which includes satya, ahimsa, aparigraha, asteya and brahmacarya which have to be followed as also the niyamas of Sauca and Isvara pranidhana. These duties performed with dedication of their results to God or without any attachment lead to svarupa avadharanam. It makes one know oneself as a spirit seeking liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. The nitya works are described in the Agamas as pancakala duties – so that one develops the conditions of God-mindedness (maccitta) or (man-mana) of the Gita which helps one to cross over all obstacles (sarva-durgani) through the grace of God (mat-prasadat). This shows that karma-yoga shows the way to realisation of moksa through performance of works through dispassion and dedication.
The naimittika duties are for higher evolution, for sublime happiness. One should aspire for the attainment of the divine nature. Here desire is sublimated and made to help the realization of the divine nature. This occasions the undertaking of tapas (austerity), dana (charity) and yajna (sacrifice). Svargakama which is certainly a higher sublimated experience and at one time considered to be the highest that one could aspire for, a world of light and bliss fulfilled only through sacrifice (yajna). Of course Brahma-yajna is very important, so too devayajna, pitr-yajna and atithi-yajna and lastly bhuta-yajna reveal the highest aspiration for the unity of the triple worlds, bhuh, bhuvah and svar. In a modern conception this is for higher evolution and births in higher worlds. Unless one goes to the highest one is said to return to lower worlds – the earth itself. One is said to return – punaravrtti. If one reaches the highest Brahman one does not return--na punaravrtti. The attainment of the Purusottama is said to secure this state of non-return. All yajna is for higher results. If we consider the kamya-karma these procure results even now and here such as progeny, kingdoms which have been lost, or attainment of world mastery or sovereignty. Yagas help these – these are called istis secured by offering yaga to the gods who could give or work for them directly. Here the results are not permanent and one may, because of sacrificial killing suffer also, though there is difference of opinion on this matter. It is only Buddha and Sankhya that hold yaga to be a violation of the rule of ahimsa. In any case it is kamya-karma that is capable of landing one in misery of rebirth. The fear of rebirth is therefore very evident in this conception.
It is a very fundamental question whether rebirth is not something that is not desirable. Though transmigration to lower types of bodies, such as that of asuras, animals etc is to be avoided the birth in higher types of bodies such as devas or of nitya-suris, rsis is something very much desired for, firstly because such beings are of the purest type, without a taint of sin or bondage, suddha sattva, ever apakrta, divya. Many seek to prolong their happy existence even on this planet and wish to be reborn again and again to be of service to God, or enjoy bliss even in this body. Some do not desire even Vaikuntha for service of the Godhead here seems to them to be preferable. But some others even though they express such sentiments seek to attain the state of Brahman or His world (paramapada) and as Sri Krsna stated that which determines one’s next birth is the antyakalasmarana – the remembrance at the last moment. This has therefore to be carefully watched. Since by the axiom that which we desire, that we become, rebirth is caused by the strongest desire at the last moment or during last days of a man’s life, for he would have rejected many things, learnt also what not to desire and what to desire, and finally would be remembering his sins and transgressions for which he had to perform prayascitta, expiations and pray for being saved. This is the place for saranagati, self-surrender which helps him to cross over the birth into lower kinds of wombs. He is said to become quickly a good soul, a soul which has decided to help himself or uplift himself, kalyanakrt.
If unending births with unlimited joys – whatever these may be ‘is desirable’, then all that is needed is the performance of such actions which bring forth these results. Proper selection of actions for the attainment of these ends is important. Thus the Vedic seers knew of karma – divya-karma which led to results that grant joys or delight. The knowledge that one might have to return to mortal birth after exhaustion of the fruits of actions was also an incentive to (i) continuous performance of such karma (yajna) or kratu, and (ii) to discover that sacrifice which leads to non-return. The second was the self surrender – and bhakti into which it developed.
It is possible at this point to consider whether rebirth consciousness does not entail the remembrance (smarana or smrti) of past lives or not. One of the arguments against rebirth is that we do not remember the past life. There are cases of such remembrances. Swami Vivekananda himself has declared that he remembers them after performing samyama on that matter. A yogin can remember his past lives. For others it is a necessity not to remember not only one’s own past lives but also others as well. Indeed forgetfulness or the necessity to forget is one of the great incentives to take one’s life or suicide. Apoha or loss of memory is a great psychological or psychoanalytical fact about which Freud has written.
If there is conscious desire or volition to be born again there is also a conscious volition to forget one’s past. Perhaps it is remembrance that makes saints speak about their sinfulness through lives. Therefore it is the belief in this power of will or desire (trsna) that is expressed as the most powerful force towards realizations of both the good and the bad.
Sri Aurobindo has in his brilliant work on Rebirth mentioned that continuous or serial births is one way by which immortality of the soul is being demonstrated. The soul is the transmigrator, it is that which has been moving up the ladder of: evolution through several kinds of births in the several levels of consciousness from the elemental molecules or matter to the level of man by their appetitions and later desires and volitions.
Other seers also have spoken about their previous lives and despite the incredulity of modern materialists it is clear that one can realize his own past lives though this realization is bound to be of personal interest alone. This should not be a reason for dismissing the remembrance of past lives and rebirth therefore as sheer moonshine or imagination. Our hatreds and lives are verily based on prior life-histories as Kalidasa himself states. Sri Krsna himself mentions about his own previous lives all of which he remembers, whereas Arjuna is one who has forgotten them: janma karma ca me divyam: bahuni me vyatitani janmani tava carjuna, tani aham veda sarvani na tvam vettha Parantapa (4.5). In the Bhagavata he reminds his mother about his previous births in her womb in her previous births.
Hinduism always believed in this cycle of rebirths and births-divine as well as human and sub-human of the soul. Karma is the cause of these, either as propelled by a divine desire and divine work, or by undivine desire and undivine work, as of the asuras and the human beings and sub-humans. To deny the rebirths is therefore to go against all facts.
The immortality of the germ-plasm and its continuity does not spell out rebirth idea. Rebirth in one sense is to speak about the continuous ascent of life. But it could well be just a cycle of birth and death at every level as such. We cannot directly affirm or deny the principle of karma-rebirth relation in biology. All that we could affirm is that lower organisms which are wholes become parts of larger wholes whilst yet keeping up their wholeness. This holistic nisus towards larger and more intelligent and conscious organisms in a polyphasic manifestation is about the most significant factor of organic evolution. But karma and rebirth are not of relevance at the level of the germ-plasm. It is the inveterate habit of some thinkers to seek to make Vedanta or any other scientific study by utilizing phraseology which they hardly perhaps understand as inapplicable at the lower levels.
All such identifications are bound to be firstly first look analogies which fail to satisfy under scrutiny. Karma is something deliberately chosen and not all kinds of acts. As a matter of fact karma has been dealt with in three forms: 1. Karma-action which is done and it may be either dharma (righteous) or adharma (unrighteous). If former, according to Buddhism it severs the chain of rebirth-cycle; according to Mimamsa it is that which procures svarga: 2. Karma means not knowledge and therefore akarma means knowledge. Actions which lead to purification of the citta removing its vrttis is the preparation for non-birth. Thus avidya means karma and vidya means knowledge. Isa says that by avidya one conquers or goes beyond or crosses death, whereas vidya leads to immortality or non-death. The third is called vikarma which is wrong activity. It is this wrong activity that constitutes the principle of fall (patana). Asuric activities, transgressions of divine law, egoism and so on are the causes of misery, death, rebirth into lower wombs. Adam’s fall is due to transgression of Divine counsel or command. So all transgressions involve death as well as birth into lower wombs, wombs suitable for the qualities of wickedness and so on with their resultant miseries and further falls. There is a hierarchy in the fall as there is a hierarchy in the ascent. The spiritual evolution is not like the biological evolution by which the individual soul is made to traverse the whole downward path through a search for pleasure or enjoyment of nature but slowly discovering that Nature can only give insecure and paradoxical pleasures and enjoyments attended by the misery (duhkha of three kinds adhibhautika, adhyatmika and adhidaivika) he gains wisdom through these anubhavas and seeks to liberate himself from Nature by withdrawal of Nature from him and or he from her. Science in this field is a little different and the laws of the higher level could only be by distortion applied to the lower levels like the biological life. Spirit has different aims and laws, perhaps remotely correspondential not directly. Swami Ishwaranandaji’s paper confuses the two evolutions. The samskaras of pumsavana and simantham at the fifth and ninth months or thereabouts speak about the special process of entry of the soul into the growing uterus. How far this is justifiable from our present or current knowledge it is difficult to say.
Further the transmigration occurs through the subtle body comprising the ten sense-organs, mind and the tanmatras and the Buddhi and the Purusa, in an infinitesimal state. The lingasarira is that which enters the body and groups together the gross elements according to the attractions of the subtle elements and with all the defects earned in the previous life. An alternative account is given by Plato in his Republic regarding how the soul selects its next body.
There is every evidence to hold that there are cases of the subtle or astral body moving about for a foothold again in some body in some womb. Some inexplicable cases of monstrous births are results of such wandering souls which yearn for a body. For the physical body is the only means by which they could expiate their past or redeem their future. The hereditary principle which tries to question the rebirth-karma principle is not conclusive. The divine determines the birth of each soul, according to a complex set of circumstances like the parents karma, the individual's karma, the conditions under which both karmas or other karmas as well would work out. Fate there is but it is conditioned by the principle of grace and the principle of ascent through aspiration or yearning after liberation and renunciation of the pleasure principle without hugging the pain principle.
The soul can exist in a disembodied state, that is to say, without a karma – body, or a body filled by karma as the Jainas say. To give up the body is to give up bondage. Such a condition is one of pure spirit. Such a soul is freed from all kinds of prarabdha, sancita and agami karmas, and lives a spirit. Such a soul it is stated can get a divine body and also could freely operate in all the worlds of God without any taint of karma or rebirth. The divine karma of avataras to which reference was made earlier in this paper reveals that when the Divine work takes place also the angels or rsis and liberated souls would be taking bodies to assist the avatara. Ramayana mentions this as also the Mahabharata. So is it with the disciples and workers who also come with their leaders. So too their opponents are said to come into the world to oppose the Divine, even as Zoroaster posited. The purpose of these divine births – of those who remember their previous lives – is to protect the good, to punish the wicked and to restore the reign of justice or law (dharma) in the world. They may suffer much but it is taken as a consequence of their past misconduct or papa, but as an expiation for other’s wrongs and sins, or as preparing for the punishment of the wicked through giving opportunities for doing evil or desisting from it before it is too late for pardon.
We can also refer to the two lines of karma – the descending one determined by desire for low pleasures of the body, and the other the higher line of karma which seeks higher and divine births through purest aspiration for the divine life.
In the higher lines of birth we have a series of births spoken of as the twice born, the thrice born, the quadruple born and so on. The dvija is one who had the initiatory sacrament called the upanayana – which in a sense prepares him for study of the scriptures and also to worship the Divine Sun and Gayatri in order to go upwards to the next birth – namely of sarana or self surrender and self offering. The individual is then fit for higher births beyond the terrestrial world. This is what is intimated in the Isavasyopanisad – sambhutim ca vinasam ca yastad vedobhayam saha, vinasena mrtyum tirtva, sambhutya amrtam asnute.
Such births are invaluable steps which lead to that condition of being without a body, akayam, avranam, asnaviram etc. These are very important in order to show that one has to distinguish between karmas that take one down, because such karmas are pleasure-seeking motivated. There are karmas which lead to higher evolution because one seeks to transcend all sorrow through knowledge and devotion. These are important for evolution and liberation. There are karmas which are divine and do not produce any births. The divine personalities take births in order to liberate man. Karma does not condition birth but birth conditions karmas. These later do not come down to be subject to laws of karma-rebirth sequence at all. They may not elect to do any actions also-either divine or human. They can be perfect contemplatives-jnanins enjoying their samatva.
Their descent can only be through love – for to emancipate souls in suffering from their suffering. Such loving karma partakes of the divine nature, and can produce only happiness – sukha, because it is done with a prayer for the welfare of all – lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu. It is a blessing.
The Bhagavata-dharma also speaks of kainkarya or service of waiting on God as the most perfect expression of karma dedicated to the Ultimate seeking no return but love of God as an end in itself. Even the desire for liberation is surrendered because at that level one beholds God as the only object and Him in all. Na va are patyuh kamaya patih priyo bhavati Atmanastu kamaya patih priyo bhavati – Not for the sake of the husband is the husband dear but for the sake of the Self is the husband dear.
Such transfiguration happens when one seizes the inward divinity of dedicated activity of the higher lines.
Concluding, it can be said that biological conceptions are yet in their infancy in these matters of heredity and evolution. Spiritual truths have been discerned through revelation and sruti and not by reasoning or laboratory statements or even by dogmatic Christian or Islamic theologians who have not seriously weighed the testimony of the mystics. Perhaps there are hierarchical levels to which the denominational mystics belong who had kept certain realities of their experiences closed. An open mind can throw more light on the relationship between karma and rebirth, both higher and lower. It is an axiom of spiritual experience. It is a moral principle of responsibility. It does not abrogate at the human level the freedom of choice to do sacramental acts, or knowledge acts or evil acts at all, with the responsibility of getting their deserts. But this is an integral conception also and it is in this sense that one should conceive of it. To deny its operation on the ground that it belongs to realm of maya also is not to abolish it. Karma or dharma can transcend maya also if not make use of it for liberation itself when one interiorises it or turns it on itself or upward even like the Kundalini-kriya.
It is true that for one who is concerned only with liberation and jivanmukti the results of karma and rebirth do not hold any terrors. It is not to be construed that the fear of rebirth is a great incentive to seeking liberation from all birth. It is perfectly clear that as Silenus the Satyr said to King Midas that the first best is not to be born, and the second best is to die at once. The significant meaning is that every one should seek to avoid rebirth by knowing the Ultimate nature of Oneself. The second best is to be understood as the renunciation of all and become a nothing (akincana) or a zero, and avadhuta who has thrown away all that make one deem himself to be living in the worldly sense of the term. Dying to possessions and even rights and duties, (sarvadharman parityajya of the Gita) is to die at once and this will prevent the formation of the next life itself. This is done by Saranagati, as the great Sathakopa did show, and earned for himself the name of one who has destroyed and was the enemy of future births or the potency that makes for it (satha). Swami Ishwarananda's standpoint of not trouble oneself with karma or rebirth but to attain the ultimate state is understandable, but not the support he tries to get from biology or the science and physiology of life.
Upanisads that deal with rebirth & birth. Isa, etc.
Sri Aurobindo: Problem of Rebirth, Karma and rebirth – higher lines of karma. Life Divine.
Annie Besant: Reincarnation
Wincent Lutoslavski: Pre-existence and Reincarnation