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The doctrine of 'karma’ and its corollary 'punarjanam' (rebirth or reincarnation) rather than the belief in ‘Ishwar’ (God), or in 'Brahman' (Ultimate Self-Existent Being) is the core and the common substratum of the Indian religious and philosophical tradition. Thus, even Jainism and Buddhism which are agnostic, if not positively atheistic, and do not accept the authority of the Vedas accept the doctrine of 'Karma’. So does Sikhism. It is significant that several reform movements within the fold of Hinduism, though they, jointly or severally, repudiate idol worship, the eternity and infallibility of the Vedas and the caste system, they do not question the doctrine of 'Karma’.

Some Western scholars and savants who have studied Hindu religious and philosophical thought have also upheld the view. One recent western writer, Gina Cerminara’s book, 'Many Mansions', was published in London in 1966 and has been reprinted several times. The book is, indeed, remarkable for its captivating style, clarity of thought, and balanced approach. The author's tilt towards the reincarnation view is obvious, but she never claims to have proved the thesis. The book is not based on the study of Sanskrit classics or modern text-books, but on the work done by an American spiritual healer and teacher, Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), who gradually came to accept the doctrine of reincarnation without abandoning his Christian faith in its essentials.

The plan of what follows is this: I shall first describe the doctrine of Karma and reincarnation as expounded by Seminar. This will be followed by a critical evaluation of the doctrine. In the end I shall give my own approach to an issue which has served as the basis of the religious faith as well as the metaphysical perspective of billions of Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, down the centuries, and may not be brushed aside as a mere fancy or as a hidden device of ‘priests and kings’ to keep the human herd under control.

1.The Doctrine of Karma:

The universe is an eternal cyclical process of birth, growth, decay, and death followed by rebirth and the rest of the process ad infinitum. The self-existent eternal reality underlying the entire process is Supreme Sprit (Brahman), which cannot be understood or conceptualized through the categories of thought or experience, human or otherwise. The Atman is a portion or ray of Brahman and constitutes the higher self of the (jiva) human individual. Every human individual is thus a concrete psychophysical organism united with Atman, and through the Atman, with Brahman. In other words, the living human being is a temporary incarnation of Atman or a portion of Brahman itself. Death is the temporary release of the Atman from the bondage of the psychophysical organism-while birth its temporary union or reincarnation. This continuous process (sansar) however comes to an end when the individual organism (jiva) acquires perfection conceived as complete stillness and freedom from desire including the urge for individual existence or individuation. The release (mukti) of the jiva from ‘sansar’ or the cycle of birth and death is termed ‘moksh’ in Brahamanical thought, and 'nirvanain Buddhist terminology.

According to the traditional Hindu thought, reincarnation cuts across human and animal forms, and in the ordinary course the soul passes through over 8 million incarnations in various forms, including higher and lower animals and other sub-human or super-human forms before its deliverance from the bondage of birth and rebirth. According to Cacey's conception, however, the human 'jiva which is inseparable from Atman, incarnates itself in the human form alone, but it cuts across differences of sex, race, region, religion, etc.

The theory of Karma (literally, action) is the view that every act, whether overt behavior, or attitude of mind, affects, for better or worse, the condition and quality of the human agent and also of others. Every act of an agent may be likened to a stroke of the artist’s brush, which alters his painting, howsoever imperceptibly.

The law of Karma implies that every good act leads to an improvement in the spiritual health of the agent, thereby bringing him nearer the stage of inner goodness and felicity which delivers the soul from the ‘karmic’ necessity of rebirth, as a penalty and penance for his acts of commission or omission. Every bad act has just the reverse consequence. These effects, good or bad, may follow in the present life, or in the successive incarnation or in a much later incarnation just like recessive biological genes, but the effects cannot be just wished away. However, authentic self-insight and a high level of cosmic awareness and attunement could quicken the pace of spiritual growth and learning which are essential for reaching the stage of final liberation from pain and suffering.

Suffering is the price, which the soul must pay for failure to do one's duty (dharma) under the sway of blind desire or temptation. Suffering is the inseparable shadow of desire. The total extinction of desire, rather than merely controlling or regulating it, is the proper condition for final deliverance from the sway of desire (ichha) and the cycle of birth, death and rebirth (sansar). Every birth is, thus, not only a ‘karmic punishment’ but also a fresh opportunity to redeem the past sins and to grow towards the final stage of liberation and salvation.

It follows from the above conception that Karma must take its own course. Indeed, the Indian conception of final salvation has no place for forgiveness of sins, since there is neither law - maker, nor Punisher nor Forgiver, apart from the law itself. The individual must master his base desires and acquire positive spiritual merit in a measure that could more than compensate for the faults of commission and omission in his previous births. Salvation, therefore, must be assiduously earned by the individual himself, rather than granted by God as a gift in response to man's supplication. According to the religions of Indian origin, the law rather than the lawgiver is supreme. The view that the lawgiver could suspend the law in special cases is deemed to be an anthropomorphic refraction of the objective truth. According to the Indian view, every individual strives after perfection and is bound to achieve perfection, which is the same as the extinction of his finite distinct self. The Indian view rejects the belief that only people who profess a particular religion will be saved, while all others will be eternally doomed.

2.Evaluation of the Doctrine of Karma:

The doctrine of reincarnation is, strictly speaking, not a hypothesis put forward in the spirit of disinterested enquiry. The belief in question is an integral part of a total perspective on the human situation, and the child learns this perspective, just as he learns the natural spoken language of his milieu. The child is not only indoctrinated to believe in Karma and reincarnation, but is also taught that the human situation characterized by so much undeserved pain and suffering, is best explained by the said belief.

The fundamental belief that the universe is a cosmos, rather than a chaos, in other words, that law rather than chance governs what happens in nature and society has several concrete forms or versions. A particular version gets crystallized or established in every society. The child is conditioned in such a way that he comes to accept the dominant traditional version as exclusively true. Thus, the child conditioned to believe in reincarnation does not realize that there is an alternative Semitic version of the same basic belief, and that this version also performs the same function as does the Indian version. Likewise, the child conditioned to accept the Semitic version hardly suspects that there is another version of the basic fundamental belief, namely, that the universe is not a blind dance of atoms, but the locus of law and order.

The Semitic version of the said belief is that good intentions and deeds are always rewarded, while evil is, ultimately, punished. Good is that which God has declared good, and bad is that which God has declared bad. Doing good brings happiness, while doing evil suffering. At times, however, the innocent also suffer because of the wrong doings of human agents who defy God's authority. However, these sufferings of the innocent and the rejoicings of the wicked are merely temporary and a test of the believer's patience and fidelity to his Creator. On the Final Day of Judgment the all-powerful, just and loving God would judge all creation, reward the virtuous and punish the guilty and establish perfect justice and cosmic harmony forever.

The basic belief in the rationality of the cosmos or purposeful creation of the universe serves three functions, namely, to motivate man to do good and restrain him from evil, to explain why the innocent or the seemingly innocent have to suffer in this world, and finally, to console and sustain man in the face of human suffering on the ground of his faith in his ultimate deliverance and felicity.

It is generally believed that reincarnation provides a more satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon of apparently undeserved human pain and suffering than do other doctrines. Now, the question arises whether this belief or hope is true in all cases or true only in some type or category of cases?

Situations of pain and suffering are of various types. ‘Pain’ is used, primarily, in a physical context, while ‘suffering’ in the mental or psychological context. In what follows I shall analyze situations of pain and suffering on the basis of their genesis.

Consider the case of a bright young boy who is hit in the eye from a stone hurled by an urchin at a moving train during the Holi festival, and the boy loses the sight of one eye totally. This is a good instance of what appears to be undeserved pain and suffering for the boy and his parents.

Take the case of a plane crash. Among the casualties is a scientist on the point of achieving a break-through on a project of revolutionary significance for human welfare. Among the survivors is a crippled patient for whom death would have been a welcome deliverance. Among the papers destroyed is the only copy of the scientist's findings; among the papers remaining intact is an old railway timetable.

In the first case the suffering is, patently, due to the irresponsible prank of the urchin. Why should we not fix responsibility on the boy or his parents/guardians and sympathize with and help the injured boy? Why should we infer, on the strength of a speculative and avowedly unverifiable hypothesis, that the injured boy must have deserved this punishment, say, because in his previous incarnation he had mocked at a boy who had lost his eye, or because he had deliberately blinded a dog or cat, or because his father who was a tyrant landlord, had blinded a poor tenant farmer? Would this not amount to abandoning a simple and straightforward explanation, which is fully verifiable, and moving on to an explanation extremely speculative, complicated and totally beyond verification?

Why may we not say that the injury was due to blind chance, since the urchin's intention was to hit the moving train, and not any passenger? To this the believer in reincarnation might reply that since out of all the passengers only the boy concerned was hit be must have “attracted this mischance because of bad karma in the recent past or in some previous incarnation. But to give this reply is to assume, beforehand that every event has a purpose, whether we humans understand the purpose or not. Well, if we antecedently accept this view, it would logically follow that the particular conjunction of two events, namely the intended hitting of the moving train, and the unintended injuring of the boy's eye, through its coming in the exact plane of the stone's trajectory, also had a purpose, cosmic or divine, if not human.

A cosmos so structured is a logical possibility. But then there must be some basis for accepting this view or conceptual perspective. But there appears to be none, to reinforce or support a perspective, which the individual initially acquires from his cultural milieu just as he acquires the natural language, musical sensibility and other behavior patterns.

The proponents of the reincarnation view overlook still another logical implication of karmic causality. If we hold that accidental injuries are karmic punishments then why should we not think that accidental aids are karmic rewards? In this case the human situation would become punctuated by numerous karmic penalties / rewards, leaving hardly any scope for planned rational action on the basis of the causal uniformity governing nature and society.

If we try to remove this paradox by suggesting that conjunctions of events are sometimes chance occurrences and sometimes 'Karmic’, how shall we decide the issue in any particular case? This distinction was actually made by Cayce, but he did so because he claimed clairvoyant knowledge. Others will have no criteria to decide. May it, therefore, not be said that conjunctions of two or three lines of events are always chance occurrences, even though the succession of events within each set or chain is determined by its own corresponding laws. Obviously, this perspective or view, just like the Karmic view, is also not capable of being proved, scientifically or logically. It is just an alternative which appears to appeal to the scientific temper of modern man.

Next consider the case of a young student who embarks on a cycle tour of India to spread the message of world brotherhood. While on a lonely stretch of the road he is struck by lightning and instantly killed. In this case of apparently undeserved pain no human agency was involved. The destruction was caused by a natural phenomenon whose laws are now known to man.

Why should we not accept that human life is, after all, brittle and uncertain and at the mercy of natural forces. This realization has a sobering effect on human vanity. Why should we introduce the notion of guilt from a previous incarnation?

Take the case of an earthquake in which thousands of people perish, including numerous children and infants. Now even if, for argument's sake, we concede that the pain and suffering of the adults was a 'Karmic punishment1 for their misdeeds in the past or in a previous incarnation, how could we justify the suffering of the children and infants, on the Karmic view?  Their lives were cut short without their getting an opportunity to redeem their past sins, if any. It may be said that they would get another opportunity in their next incarnation. But, then, this particular incarnation appears uncalled for  a cruel prank, or a falling out of step, as it were, of the cosmic process.  In cases where the children lost their lives, but their parents were spared, the karmic view might, possibly, be defended on the ground that the tragic fate of the children was either a punishment for the surviving parents or an educative experience. Be this as it may, this line of defense breaks down where children and parents perish together.

Consider the case of a young boy who falls a prey to leukemia, and after a painful illness, passes away. It is only in this case of pain and suffering where the cause of leukemia is unknown to us, that the concept of karmic punishment may be said to be plausible. But here also the ever-advancing frontiers of human knowledge continually alter the knowledge-map. Thus, whatever plausibility the reincarnation view might have in such cases recedes once again. Advances in modern medicine, surgery and macro-hygiene are progressively reducing the incidence of physical pain, premature death due to infection, disease, epidemics and physical injuries. This reduction of pain is not correlated with moral or spiritual factors.

It may be said that there is no contradiction between the natural causal explanation of suffering and the karmic view; the scientific causal explanation gives the immediate concrete chain of cause and effect, while the Karmic explanation the ultimate ethical metaphysical reason behind the causal chain. This methodological point cannot be dismissed lightly as a case of superstition or blind dogmatism. But the fact remains that this speculative possibility is not self-evident and is beyond scientific or logical proof. At best, this possibility is one among several other possible ways of combining spiritual and natural scientific perspectives on the universe.

Let us now analyze the different situations of human suffering. Consider first, an able and devoted wife whose husband is a tyrant, whose cupidity, jealousy and callous behavior towards the children drive the long suffering wife to suicide. But the attempt fails and the tragedy, in a deepened way, goes on.

Consider, next, a competent and honest manager who refuses to cooperate with his superiors in an ongoing racket. He is severely made to suffer by being falsely implicated in some crime. His wife falls critically ill and the family is ruined.

Next, consider a group of landless laborers who exercise their franchise according to their free choice. Their enraged employer and landlord orders their houses to be razed to the ground and the women folk assaulted. The helpless victims are forced into bonded labour for a long time to come. Take Hitler's atrocities against millions of innocent Jews, including children. This was pathological mass murder.

The first two situations of suffering, related to the family and the occupational environment, may be termed 'micro-suffering’; the last two situations, related to society at large, 'macro-suffering'. In each slot or category numerous concrete cases of suffering could be placed. It is pretty clear that the suffering is the consequence of attitudes and actions of the wrongdoers here and now. In the cases of macro-suffering the suffering flows not merely from the wrong attitudes and deeds of the individuals but also from defects and evils inherent in the system, as such, political, economic, social and so on. Micro-suffering can be explained, quite adequately, in terms of personality dynamics, and macro-suffering in -terms of personality plus social dynamics, Why, then, should 'Karmic dynamics' be introduced into the conceptual framework for explaining undeserved suffering of innocent people?

Why should not the autonomous critical truth-seeker reflecting upon the human situation conclude that the imperfect world contains much ignorance, fear, hatred, selfishness, tyranny, tragedy, and so on, as well as goodness, beauty and joy. Man is called upon to resist and conquer pain and evil, no matter how arduous the task. Indeed, the struggle against evil and suffering has always gone on with partial success and fluctuating fortunes. .And this struggle must continue. In other words, why should we complicate the human situation by saying that the oppressed wife of today must have been a tyrant mother-in-law or husband in her previous incarnation, or by saying that the oppressed manager must have been a cruel dacoit in his previous life, and the bonded laborers tyrannical landlords in Bihar or plantation owners in Virginia? Why should we not say that evil, suffering and tragedy really exist in the world and not merely appear to exist?

A good deal of human suffering is not consciously intended, but is the by-product of the unthinking and selfish behavior of human agents engaged in the irresponsible pursuit of their own good. Now, just as science and technology have reduced physical pain social reforms and organized struggle are gradually reducing human suffering and producing a more humane and just social order, in other words, there is a positive correlation between improvements in the human condition, in the present, and the ongoing structural reforms. What, then, is the necessity to account for these improvements in terms of micro phenomena — the repeated incarnations of souls in a cyclical historical process which satisfies the law of karma? The simple and straight forward view is that human suffering decreases (except in the theatre of destructive wars) due to the joint impact of science, technology and an evolving social morality in the course of a dialectical historical process.

This approach recognizes the crucial role of the ethical and spiritual dimension, as causal factors, in the ongoing historical process (the substance of the law of Karma), without our being required to postulate reincarnation- an essentially speculative and unverifiable belief. This is, however, not to belittle the constructive role-played by the reincarnation view in the life of billions of people from times immemorial.

There remains a lurking danger in the concept of Karmic suffering, namely, a laissez faire approach to social suffering. Let us consider the suffering of an under-nourished tubercular laborer who has a large family to support. Suppose a believer in Karmic suffering says that the laborer was, in his previous life, a rich merchant who grossly maltreated his employees and family, and his present sufferings are a recompense as well as an opportunity of spiritual growth and reeducation. Metaphysical issues apart, this type of Karmic approach to problems of poverty and social suffering puts the focus on sins committed in previous reincarnations rather than on structural and functional social evils here and now. This approach obstructs the fixing of responsibility on human agents and diverts attention from the need to change the system for reducing the said evils. In other words, the concept of karmic suffering tends to dilute social activism.

Cerminara is fully alive to the above point. She clearly says that her approach to reincarnation does not imply social passivity. We, in the present, would become guilty if we allow the Karmic sufferers to stew in their own juice without our helping them out of disinterested compassion. This is what she means by combining Hindu metaphysics with Christian love. However this twofold synthesis is bound to remain incomplete and ineffective unless it be supplemented by a mature and critical sociological approach to the issue of human suffering.

Animal Suffering: Whatever the traditional Hindu view may be, Cerminara's exposition of karma and reincarnation does not deal with the issue of animal pain and suffering which is quite considerable and also partly similar to human suffering. Disease, old age, lack of nutrition, accidents and injuries, premature death, loneliness, callous exploitation, bloody competitions for food and mates, and so on, are common to humans and animals. Why should not the reincarnation view be applied to animals? Alternatively, why should not the explanation (if any) or lack of explanation of animal suffering be extended to human suffering? This is a crucial question, and is not being posed in a spirit of polemics. If we can accept animal suffering without any Karmic justification, why can’t we do the same in the case of human suffering? Why do we think that if we cannot give a convincing answer to the enigma of undeserved human pain and suffering the human pursuit of values would collapse and the world would become a chaotic? While a consistent and satisfying answer to the enigma of suffering greatly reinforces man's quest for the good life, restrains him from evil and gives him peace of mind, a definitive solution to this enigma does not appear to be an absolute or essential pre-condition for man's pursuit of the good and the beautiful. In the language of modern western thought a cosmic theodicy, after the manner of Leibniz, Shankar, Ghazzali et al, is not a logical postulate for man's quest for value. This quest is so deeply (though very imperfectly) embedded in the human constitution (because of the Divine spark within man) that man's quest for value is most likely to go on even without any solution to the enigma of undeserved human suffering.

Inherited Abilities or Gifts:

If congenital disability or disease be accepted as a cumulative karmic punishment it is quite natural and logical to hold that inborn ability or talent is a karmic reward. Thus, Cayce has said that a talent for music, or figures, or an extraordinary memory is the result of the hard and honest work done by the person concerned in his previous incarnation or incarnations, just as extreme obtuseness or imbecility is the result of say, sloth, or of arrogance or mockery of a gifted person in an earlier incarnation. Likewise, a person blessed with an extremely well proportioned physique was, perhaps, a great athlete in ancient Greece or Rome, reborn to continue his progress further in athletic or other fields.

That some individuals are highly talented and that individuals differ widely in their natural endowments is a patent fact. But the explanation in terms of reincarnation is, obviously, a speculative one. But why should we be so keen to seek an explanation of diversity found in human endowments and capacities? Why should we not look at the wide variety found in nature-animals, birds, insects, vegetables, fruits, flowers, plants, mountains, rivers deserts, stars and planets? If we can contemplate all this variety as diverse forms of finite existence - graded reflections or manifestations of Cosmic Creative Energy (God, in the language of religion) without importing the idea of reincarnation we could, perhaps, do the same in the case of human beings.

The reincarnation view gives rise to another difficulty posed by the obvious growth in the world human population. The reincarnation view implies that souls are immortal and their number is fixed. Each soul gets incarnated at different times in different human bodies corresponding to its cumulative karma. But the phenomenal growth of the world human population (which has multiplied several times over in the last thousand years) requires a corresponding increase in the human souls. Now, if the number of human souls be fixed an inner contradiction arises in the reincarnation view.

Cerminara suggests that the increase in population may be apparent rather than real growth, since we are not fully aware of the human population figures pertaining to continents which may have perished in the remote past or even in hitherto unknown inhabited worlds in the present. But this line of thinking is pure speculation rather than a plausible solution of a serious difficulty.

3. Cerminara's Tilt Towards the Reincarnation View:

What are the considerations or reasons for Cerminara's tilt in favour, of reincarnation? First, Cayce, under hypnotic trance could give factually correct descriptions of the physical condition of numerous persons far removed from him merely on the basis of their full name, sex, time and place of birth. Cayce's therapeutic measures were also effective in curing patients supposed to be incurable in a number of cases.

Cayce, under hypnotic trance, also correctly 'read ' the character traits of persons. His 'life readings' described the character and events of persons in their alleged previous incarnations, in the recent or remote past. Some of these details relating to recent incarnations were actually verified.

Many patients who had not responded to psycho-analytical treatment showed remarkable and quick improvement when confronted with their past lives and character described by Cayce in his hypnotic trance. Cayce, while in his hypnotic trance, also talked about philosophical ideas and themes of Hindu metaphysics, even though he was not at all grounded in the subjects concerned.

Now, Cerminara's contention is that since Cayce was right in regard to the physical and character readings, and also in regard to readings purporting to describe previous incarnations, in so far as the details mentioned were at all verifiable, he should also be deemed to be right in regard to his theoretical this or metaphysical claims. However, Cerminara does not hold this line of argument to be conclusive.

How far do the above considerations render highly probable, if not certain, that reincarnation is a fact? The answer is in the negative, despite the factual correctness of the other information given by Cayce. The reason is that the other information concerns what we all normally experience. Thus, symptoms of different diseases, different personality traits, behavior patterns or attitudes, which Cayce describes correctly, are antecedently known phenomena. But we have never experienced the reincarnation of souls, in any meaningful sense whatsoever, apart from any claim an individual might make on the strength of sheer faith or customary belief.

Let me give just one illustration of the methodological point at issue. We have seen people die, be born, fall ill, regain health, be friendly, arrogant / cruel / deceptive, change from one state to another, grow old, be killed in a fight or in an accident. Therefore, if Cayce says that five or ten thousand years ago a man named such and such did such and such a thing, or such and such a thing happened to him, we may well concede that this may have been the case, and wonder at Cayce’s super-normal ability to read the past or know what was the case independently of the normal means of Knowing what happened in the past. When Cayce gives us information about the relatively recent past, say hundred or two hundreds years ago, and the information is found to be correct, we will have to concede that Cayce possessed extraordinary powers of reading the past. But when Cayce says, say, that President Kennedy was a reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln, or that Gandhiji was an untouchable woman in a previous incarnation, or that Charlie Chaplin was a court jester in China in the Ming period, or that Einstein was once a Roman governor who had several Christian believers thrown before hungry lions and so on, he is saying two distinct things which are jumbled up in one statement. He is making a complex truth-claim without being aware that two entirely different types of truth-claims are involved. The first type of truth-claim concerns matters we have all experienced several times in our lives, and we may, well, believe that they occurred several centuries ago. But there is another type of truth-claim-one and the same soul reincarnates itself in different bodies at different times, and the soul also exists as a purely spiritual disincarnate entity. Now, these truth-claims concern matters of which we have no previous experience. Consequently, the verification of truth-claims made by Cayce in the first category has no bearing upon the second type of truth-claims, which remain as speculative and unverified as ever before. Though the beliefs concerned have an ancient and respectable lineage, they are certainly not universal.

Let us suppose a particular reading by Cayce said that Cleopatra was wearing a dress of such and such material, color, shape etc when she first met Antony who gave her a ring of such and such a shape and bearing such precious stones on such and such an occasion. Let us suppose that research actually unearths a dress of the same description. Now it would be quite reasonable to infer that verification of a part of the full truth claim increases the probability of the rest of the truth claim also being true. Thus, if the claim that Cleopatra had such a dress and, say, Antony had such a ring were actually established as true we could reasonably infer that probably, Cleopatra was actually wearing this dress at her first meeting with Antony, as claimed by Cayce. But would the partial verification concerned also confirm the truth-claim that Cleopatra had an immortal soul, and that in her earlier incarnation she was a Chinese princess or courtesan, and was later reborn as, say, Margaret Thatcher? Certainly not! The plain reason is that truth-claims concerning immortality of the soul, reincarnation, God, etc. are qualitatively different from beliefs concerning tables, chairs, houses, trees, mountains etc.  Consequently, verification of truth-claims concerning the latter do not have any bearing on the verification of truth-claims concerning reincarnation.

The same remarks apply when an individual claims to recall his experiences in his previous incarnation or incarnations. Let us assume that no fraud is involved and that the information the person gives about persons, things and events, in the alleged previous incarnation, is actually found to be correct after proper investigations have been made. Thus, let us suppose that
a house of his description, in some distant place and time, is actually located, the events and persons of his description actually traced, and so on. But it is pretty clear that this verification pertains to ordinary matters of fact that generally enter into the spectrum of normal human experience. Now, reincarnation is, certainly not, an actual human experience. Thus, even when the
information the person gives in respect of ordinary matters of fact is found correct, the claim that his soul inhabited this or that body in a previous incarnation remains as speculative and unverified as before.

The great merit of Cerminara is that she does not claim to have proved the reincarnation view. Cerminara has described several 'life-readings' made by Cayce, and is inclined to believe that the references made to previous incarnations of the patients concerned are factually correct. She then proceeds to discuss the possible sources of Cayce's extraordinary knowledge.

Cerminara suggests two possibilities: one, Cayce’s unconscious mind had the extraordinary power of getting in touch with the unconscious mind of some other person or persons, and two, Cayce's unconscious mind had the gift of deciphering or perceiving 'Akashic records'— the record of every event preserved in the Universal Soul or Over-Mind which is the ultimate Reality underlying the cosmic process. Both Cayce and Cerminara freely combined Hindu ideas and concepts with a liberal unconventional interpretation of the Christian faith.

In the above context special mention must be made of the work of the Society for Psychical Research, founded by Myers, Sidgwick et al at Cambridge in the last quarter of the 19th century. Soon afterwards similar societies were established in America and Germany. The main aim of these societies was to make a critical investigation into psychical phenomena, which had attracted popular attention all over the world. The founder members of the Cambridge Society were highly distinguished thinkers and scientists who wanted to study such phenomena as mind reading, telepathy, clairvoyance, fore-knowledge, automatic writing or computation, survive of the dead, communication with spirits, hypnotic trance, re incarnation, etc. in the spirit of disinterested enquiry and with a completely open mind. These eminent persons were of the view that the first pre-requisite of a truly critical and objective approach was first, to sort out the genuine from the spurious claims made by mediums, spiritualists, faith- healers, God-men, etc., next to classify the established facts and finally, to attempt, an explanation within the conceptual framework of modern thought, as far as this was possible. Where no explanation was possible, but the phenomenon was genuine, rather than imaginary or a conjuring trick the principle of the society was, not to reject the factual evidence, as such, but to question the adequacy of the basic conceptual framework of modern scientific and philosophical thought, or the hitherto unquestioned assumptions underlying the framework as such. The approach of the distinguished founders as well as the equally distinguished members who, directly or indirectly, furthered the work of the society, such as William James, Bergson, Jung, Whitehead, C.D. Broad, Tyrell et al was, thus, entirely free from dogmatism of any sort, be it religious or scientific. Much later on, since the thirties of the 20th century empirical psychologists like, JB Rhine, of Duke University, et al, investigated into what came to be called 'extra-sensory perception' (ESP) .

While some scientists and thinkers continue to belittle the empirical and investigative work mentioned above many eminent persons have come round to the view that paranormal phenomena do take place occasionally, even though they defy explanation within the accepted conceptual framework of modern thought. They hold that the above difficulty does not justify us in rejecting the phenomena as such. What is really required is a critical revision of the conceptual framework, as such, to enable it to explain the alleged para-normal facts, provided they are not fictions or fraudulent. These eminent thinkers, however, insist that the explanation should satisfy the well-established canons of a valid hypothesis, namely, verifiability, simplicity, consistency, range and predictability.

Coming to the subject of reincarnation or transmigration of the soul, this is, obviously, a culture-bound belief. Some empirical investigators have interviewed persons who claimed to remember their previous incarnation. The vast majority of these persons were minor children, under the age of 5, in a reported study of 300 cases listed by Ian Stevenson & Pasricha. In another list of 1900 cases the majority of the subjects came from Burma, followed by India. Hardly any case has been reported from Islamic or western countries. In a few cases the items of information given by the subject concerning his or her previous incarnation and related events or place were, reportedly, found to be correct. However, all this does not constitute or amount to direct or indirect proof or confirmation of the belief in reincarnation. The memories of the children concerned, or even of adults, for that matter, as well as the correctness of information about the events or places connected with an allegedly previous incarnation can be explained in different ways without any need to invoke the hypothesis of reincarnation. In other words, reincarnation cannot, as yet, claim the status of an established or even highly probable explanation of the phenomena concerned—the paranormal memory contents (verifiable or unverifiable) of some adults or children.

4.Pragmatic Implication or Directive Thrust of Reincarnation:

If reincarnation could have been established as a fact what would have this meant in terms of human action? Would a person be required to act in one way if he accepted reincarnation, and in a different way if he did not? If the answer be yes, then the issue of reincarnation would have to be accorded a far greater theoretical and practical significance than would be the case otherwise. Let us take a few examples to illustrate my point.

According to the reincarnation view a child born as a cripple is undergoing 'Karmic punishment’ for his own or his parent's cruelty / pride / mockery / indifference to the sufferings of others etc. in a previous incarnation. According to the natural scientific view some genes or some pre-natal freak or inexplicable chance has caused the defect. Now does the reincarnation view require that a person undergoing 'Karmic punishment' should not be given medical aid since this would amount to interference in the natural course of justice? If so, the acceptance or rejection of the reincarnation view would lead to different practical responses. Where complete cure was not possible medical treatment could only lead, to some reduction in the patients suffering. But where the cripple could be cured completely medical treatment would be tantamount to cancellation of the karmic punishment, as it were. It is in such a case that the pragmatic meaning or directive thrust of the belief in reincarnation has to be considered. If a proponent of reincarnation becomes indifferent to pain and suffering, the controversy becomes serious. If both the proponent and the critic of reincarnation advocate the same humanitarian attitudes and course of action it would hardly matter which view is theoretically true.

Let us, next, consider the case of a woman who starts behaving abnormally. Now, whether she is possessed by an evil spirit or is a patient of hysteria would certainly matter very much if the advocates of the first view prescribed torture, while the advocates of the second, psychoanalysis or counseling. It would, however, not matter if psychological therapy was also accompanied by some sort of medicine or spiritual help through scripture readings, mantras, prayers and so on. If the spiritual therapy does not include any form of cruelty to the patient or others (including animals) and respects the dignity of the human individual any disagreement between a faith healer and a psycho-analyst at the purely theoretical level, should hardly matter. Let us now consider a case of suffering due to social evils, say, the plight of an untouchable leper in a Calcutta slum. A proponent of the reincarnation view attributes these sufferings to karmic punishment for the atrocities committed by him in a previous incarnation when, as a tyrant landlord, he flogged laborers and raped their helpless women. A Christian/Muslim/liberal democrat/Marxist social scientist, on the other hand, attributes the sufferings of the leper to an uncaring society, inequitable laws, irresponsible population growth, and so on, without importing the idea of reincarnation into his conceptual scheme or causal analysis of the phenomenon. However, if they all engage in fighting against poverty and the superstition of ‘untouchability’ the acceptance/rejection/suspension of belief in reincarnation would not matter so long as they all agree on their strategy of action. It way be said that conceptual or theoretical disagreement is bound to lead to disagreement in practice at some point or the other. If and this situation arises we will have to choose between the alternative conceptual schemes and value systems. Here is one concrete instance where we must choose between alternative interpretations of social suffering. Consider the phenomenon of human birth. If one holds that every birth takes place because God wills to create a male/female child, while another person explains the phenomenon sex determination in biological terms. Both these explanations can co-exist. But if the social scientist goes on to claim that conception is under human control, and furthermore, that it ought to be controlled for the purpose of curing social evils caused by irresponsible parenthood, while the other person believes, in all honesty, that family planning is futile since both conception and sex determination are determined by God, that the Creator is able to feed his creatures, provided they follow Divine guidance we reach a conceptual cross-road. At this stage a conceptual choice becomes unavoidable. However, the biological model will not, necessarily, conflict with religious faith, provided it is suitably restructured in the light of well established scientific facts.

The same remarks apply to the phenomenon say, of calamitous earthquakes. Whether an earthquake is a natural phenomenon governed by ascertainable laws, unrelated with Divine wrath against human follies, or whether an earthquake is a Divine visitation could be left unresolved, or could be reconciled through revising traditional ideas of God. But a crucial dispute would arise if one said that God's wrath was occasioned by the activities of atheists or supporters of abortion rights, and so on, and the future safety and security of society demands their punishment.

Like belief in God, life after death, Divine incarnation, revelation, the reincarnation view is also not scientifically or logically demonstrable. However, the belief concerned has persisted since ancient times and has performed the crucial functions of moral restraint, psychological consolation and ideological explanation of prima facie undeserved human pain and suffering. The Semitic belief in the Day of Judgment (when perfect justice would be established by an all powerful and loving God) performs exactly the same functions. Neither of the two basic beliefs found in the human family is free from intellectual or theoretical difficulties. Cerminara however, seems to think that the Hindu metaphysical explanation of the enigma of undeserved pain and suffering is intellectually more satisfying than the Semitic. She goes to the extent of suggesting that the true teachings of Jesus on this score may have been different from the traditional view as shaped by the vicissitudes of history. It seems to me that this idea is rather far fetched. Both the Indian and the Semitic perspectives are human responses to the mystery and enigma of the human situation.

Prima facie, the concept of Karma provides a valid answer to the problem of pain and suffering in the universe. But further reflection reveals a number of intellectual difficulties that resist satisfactory solution.

1.Normally, we do not help a person to avoid punishment for his misdeeds, since we hold that the guilty must be punished. Now, if the prima facie unmerited sufferings of an individual be regarded as the just consequences of his misdeeds in some previous birth, then why should we make an attempt to help a person to escape the natural course of justice? How could it be right to reduce or mitigate the punishment meted out to an individual by the law of Karma?

2.Punishment is given for a wrong for which the individual is held to be responsible. Punishment given without specifying the charge that justifies the punishment is held to be arbitrary or immoral. But when an individual suffers in this life due to wrongs done in his previous births, he does not know his specific guilt. Unless one knows what went wrong with him in the past, it is not logical to expect that he would correct himself.

3.A number of diseases and the sufferings, which they entail, have been more or less conquered by science. Now, it is very
difficult to explain why those particular types of suffering
that were very common right up to our own times have been practically eliminated or rendered easily curable today.

4.It is also difficult to explain, on the theory of Karma, why
both the birth rate and infant mortality rate have fallen so
swiftly in some countries of the world. Is it that the individuals of these regions have suddenly reached the top rungs of
the ladder of spiritual merit and, thus, are spared the sufferings associated with high birth rates and equally high infant mortality rates? If it be said that the children born in affluent societies are drawn from different races and regions on the basis of their merits in previous births, this would imply that to be born in affluent western societies is a reward or privilege, while to be born in Africa or Asia is a punishment. This conclusion would land us in a sea of objections.

5.The concept of Karma seems to imply that malnutrition, dirt
and squalor and a total lack of medical and educational facilities are a punishment to the indigent child for his misdeeds in his previous life or lives, while decent and comfortable surroundings together with ample opportunities for physical, moral and mental growth are a reward to the well to do child for his good deeds in his previous life or lives. We, however, find that the standard of living in many eastern and western
societies shot up after the introduction of suitable reforms
in their politico-economic structure, while it remained
stationary or even declined in other societies. This shows
that the condition in which individuals are born or their
life situation depends upon politico-economic factors here
and now rather than upon their deeds, good or bad, in a previous life or lives.

6.What about the suffering of those persons who become totally
insane and loose all their memory or sense of identity? How
can they be helped or chastised by suffering when they have
lost all their power of judgment?

7.What about the sufferings of infants and children who can
have no idea why they suffer?

8.What about the sufferings of animals, who according to common sense are neither moral nor immoral but rather amoral? If it be said that a horse or dog who suffers was a guilty human being in his previous birth then how can the suffering of an amoral being be regarded as a punishment to a moral being? How can the sufferings of a dog be regarded as having an educative function for such a different type of being as a man?

9. Why is it that we do not remember our condition in our previous births? It may be said that, if we do not remember our dreams, how can we expect to remember the events of our previous births? But this argument is not convincing, since although we do not remember a large number of our dreams, we remember at least a large enough number to accept that dreams do take place. But we have no recollection whatsoever of our previous births. The few cases of alleged memories of previous births, generally, turn out to be clever hoaxes.  Where the persons concerned are really genuine they may be highly imbalanced or abnormal persons. Moreover, many supposedly verified accounts of previous births can be explained by other hypotheses much simpler than the doctrine of rebirth. Eminent thinkers like William James, Jung, Broad et al have shown the way though they do not claim to have clinched the issue. The above-mentioned difficulties in the concept of Karma are illustrative rather than exhaustive.

The conclusion of the above analysis is that the existence of pain and suffering in the universe is satisfactorily interpreted neither by the traditional Judaic, Christian or Islamic theism, nor by the traditional concept of Karma. Perhaps, the Semitic belief is, relatively, simpler and more suited to the temper of the modern mind than the Aryan. However, it seems that in addition to reincarnation or the Day of Judgment, some other metaphysical interpretations of the mystery of the universe, such as the Zoroastrian idea of perennial conflict between good and evil, Marxian evolutionary Naturalism and contemporary Existentialism can also produce integrated human personalities and lead to a world perspective capable of sustaining and reinforcing man's quest for value in the face of the prima facie undeserved pain and suffering in this universe. However, no conceptual model would be free from spots of conceptual opaqueness, as it were.

The spots of conceptual opaqueness conceal the inexplicable enigmas of human life and the universe. Our minds are not creaseless mirrors reflecting, without distortion, the contours of reality. We see complex reality through pinholes of slightly varying sizes. Our vision is condemned to be limited and only partly veridical. Moreover, no perspective on the cosmos can claim to be verifiable in the scientific or logical sense. A perspective on the cosmos is one among several possible perspectives. It is like speaking in one language out of several possible and actual language systems, each of which can serve human needs. No language is true or false, but a particular one may be more developed and useful, on the whole, or for a particular purpose.

The complexities of the human situation and the mystery of the universe would never become completely transparent to the autonomous, critical and completely honest truth seeker. In the final analysis, beliefs, which cannot be scientifically verified or logically proved, depend for their effectiveness, not upon their objective validity, but rather on how ‘authentic’ the believer really is. This is why numerous Hindus verbally professing karma and reincarnation are not at all restrained from doing evil, just as numerous Christians and Muslims verbally professing the Day of Judgment are not restrained either. On the other hand, the sincere and authentic faith in either view does restrain the believer from doing evil and does make him a better human being. In the final analysis, I conclude that a well-informed existential response to the mystery of the universe is more desirable than sticking to any theological or philosophical polemics.

Reincarnation And The Modern Mind
BY Jamal Khwaja

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Jamal Khwaja studied Philosophy in India & Europe. He was elected to the Indian Parliament in 1957. He retired as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Aligarh Muslim University. He is the author of seven major books. 

Khwaja’s work seeks to answer three inter-related questions: Firstly, What does it mean to be an authentic Muslim? Secondly, How should a believer understand and interpret the Holy Quran in the 21st century?  And finally, What is the role of Islam in a pluralistic society? 

Khwaja believes in judiciously creative modernization rooted in the Quran and firmly opposes shallow, unprincipled imitation of the West. His mission is to stimulate serious rethinking and informed dialog between tradition and modernity in Islam. 

Khwaja’s work is the definitive contemporary discussion regarding the collision of Islam and Modernity. Readers of his work will be in turn, informed, inspired, and intellectually liberated.