By Ibn Muhammad
The theory of Re-incarnation of souls, also known as the cycle of birth and death, is very central to Hindu philosophy. To a common Muslim this is a new idea which he/she has not previously encountered. We may not accept it, but we cannot cavil at the logic of it; more especially as it is born from the same causes which, in Muslim theology, give rise to the concept of Hell and Paradise. If life on earth is a life of preparation in which we have to attain certain qualifications essential for our entry into Paradise (Brahma Lok in the words of Shri Krishna), will it not be necessary, so would argue a Hindu divine, for us to return to earthly life again, if we have left it without acquiring the necessary perfection?
We had to attain certain experiences not available in the next world; we left this world without doing so and consequently we do need to come back to it again. This logic is not bad and the reasoning is quite plausible; but they do not coincide with what we observe in the universe.
For example, a fruit may leave a tree in defective condition. It need not go back into the branch of the tree it came from, to make up its deficiencies. The food we eat everyday will eventually take the form of a sperm and ovum, which will convert itself into the human shape of a child. The sperm has to pass through many stages before it reaches that stage. Things not properly cooked are sometimes taken in by us; they cause pains in the stomach, but the trouble is removed by medical treatment. The food is not sent back from stomach to the kitchen to be cooked again. We take medicine to help digestion, and enable the food to pass through the regions where it is made into blood. Sometimes, when, through the function of the stomach or through the function of a diseased liver, we produce poor blood, we seek a remedy in medicine, but no drop of that poor blood is allowed to return to the liver or the stomach for the purpose of rectification.
If therefore, this rule be universal in Nature, that the thing which has failed to attain the requisite state of perfection in one state of being is passed into the state of being next highest, where its deficiencies are corrected; and if such a system be more expedient and more conducive to the rapidity of the real progress then I fail to find any reason for subscribing to the theory of re-incarnation or transmigration of the soul.
THEORY OF KARMA
Closely linked to this theory is the doctrine of Karma (actions). The two, in fact, are one and the same theory, representing different aspects of the same doctrine. The doctrine of Karma takes for its genesis the diversity of circumstances in which people find themselves at their birth, from causes beyond their control. Some are born in affluence, poverty and indigence; some are born into the world with bodily defects, while others are blessed with bodily perfection; and this disparity, producing arbitrarily, comfort and discomfort, happiness and misery does seem a strange blot on the Divine Providence.
The theory of Karma, in Hindu theology, thus explains this seeming incongruity in the Divine dispensation. According to this theory, all that we receive at our birth in the form of happiness or misery, and all the differences in social status that come into our being at birth are the outcome of our deeds in the life before the present life. We take birth after birth to complete our course on this earth, and what we sow in the one; we must reap in the next. No one would question the logic of the view that human society works on the Laws of Actions. That actions must bear their fruit is the basic principle of every other religion, except Pauline Christianity. Differences in social position, in many cases, undoubtedly arise from our own actions. We are the creators of our own comfort and misery.
According to this philosophy, inferiority of a person to a second person in the social scale is due some of his sins in his bygone life. However, differences in occupation and employment are the motive power of social machinery. We must serve each other in a wide variety of differing capacities, if adequate contribution is to be made to the common comfort. If, however, difference of this kind is attributed to some past sin, then comfort and progress must demand the existence of evil. Men of one generation must necessarily commit sin so that, in the next, they may be reborn in the lower for the purpose of contributing to the happiness of the upper social stratum. What kind of philosophy is that considers sin and misdeeds essential to maintain and sustain the cycle of life. It is absurd on the very face of it. The process of procreation demands difference of sex. You may ascribe your present difference from another man to some cause in your previous life, but where were the actions which caused difference of sex in the first pair, whence our species has its being?
HAPPINESS A BENEFICENCE AND NOT A FRUIT OF ACTION
If all our present means of happiness are given to us as a reward for past actions, how are we to explain the happiness which comes to us providentially? Much of our happiness is derived from the varied manifestations of Nature, like the Sun, the Moon, the Earth and all that it provides; and the proportion of happiness that we acquire through our actions depends too, upon the working out, by us, of sources of Nature which were in existence long before man came on the Earth. How can all this be the reward of our past actions? We cannot live without the pre-existence of millions of things in the universe; they all add to our happiness. They all come as beneficence of God, and not in reward of actions. Divine Providence, as exhibited in Nature, makes Divine Blessing, which is the main store of our happiness, a pre-existing thing; while the theory of Karma makes our actions to pre-exist the Divine Blessing, which is absurd on the face of it.
If all our happiness has to arise from out actions, our happiness would be next to nothing. What comes out of our actions in the shape of happiness sinks into insignificance when compared with what we get as Divine Blessings. If we get everything due to the actions of our past life, then we need not be grateful to God anymore. As you can see, this is a blot on the Beneficence of God.
THE THEORY WEAKENS THE SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY
If our actions receive their birth and mould from our beliefs, we should not entertain any tenet or doctrine which tends to ruin our sense of responsibility, and to create in us oral or mental imbecility. Fatalism, in the received sense of the word, was condemned by Islam for this very reason. Vicarious Atonement in Christianity is another condemnable belief. If another has to bear the burden my burden, incentive for action, on my part, is lost. Similarly, we strive hard to alleviate our misery, because we believe that it is possible to alleviate it; but when we find that our trouble is absolutely without remedy, our zeal is gone, for what is the use of trying in such a case? Our misery, under the theory of Karma has come to us as the fruit of some past actions. It cannot be undone, and all our efforts to undo it will be in vain. I committed some wrong in a previous life, I must suffer for its consequences in the present life, and all my efforts to be free from it are simply to give the lie to that theory. If ‘A’ is down will cholera which he has got on account of some past wrong, it hardly befit him to seek medical relief if he subscribes to the principle of Karma. The theory thus makes man a fatalist and thereby impedes human progress.
Pain in this life, they say, is the penalty of past actions. If persecution and want of comfort may come within the category of pain, no progress in human society has, till now, been achieved without them as the famous proverb goes, “No gains without pains”. The world has seen its best benefactors in the persons of prophets, reformers and philosophers, but, unfortunately, they are the persons who have always been subjected to every kind of persecution. Similarly all scientific discoveries, to which we owe so much of our comfort and happiness, are fruits of pain and hardship. Should we believe that all these great teachers and inventors were wicked men and sinners in the past life, because they have been for the most part persecuted people and leading the most painful lives?
No one gets happiness without some pain and according to this theory; pain is the penalty of sin. Evil therefore becomes essential for enjoying happiness in the life to come. Such a theory cannot give birth to high character. If ‘A’ receives some injury from ‘B’, it is, as a Hindu would say, to make up for some injury received by ‘B’ from ‘A’ in his previous birth. Thus, offence becomes a justification in the eye of a culprit, if he believes in the philosophy of Karma. I need not be thankful to my benefactors, because, I receive from them only what I gave to them in charity in the past life. The more I think upon this subject, keeping in view all the consequences to which such beliefs much logically lead, the more I am strengthened in my conviction that this philosophy is most unfavourable to our moral growth.
The explanation given by our Holy Quran of the misery around us, and of the social differences which we have been discussing, appeals to me more, as it strengthens my sense of responsibility. Parents are more interested in their children than in their own selves. the welfare of the family often keeps its members away from such misdeeds as are sometimes unscrupulously committed by those who lead single lives.
If the consequences of every action I do be shared by my own children, I shall make my actions more steady and righteous. But if I alone have to reap what I sow, despair or temptation may, sometimes, lead me to extremes. Belief, therefore, that children born with bodily defects, owe their misfortune to paternity, which sometimes may come to them from three or four generations back, will generally prove a more efficacious check to intemperate actions, than the belief that the children are themselves responsible for their physical deficiencies. A person may not care much for the evil consequences of his actions if they are to be confined to him; but his care to see his family happy may reform him.
PLEASURE AND PAIN
The whole difficulty is one of misconception; or rather to conceive adequately of pain, or of pleasure, or of the real object and purpose of this our earthly pilgrimage; for what is pain to one is pleasure to another, who is to decide whether prince or peasant sleeps sounder in the nights or whether the millionaire or the bricklayer has the just perception of the end of life? The sublimation of our consciousness is the main purpose of our sojourn on earth; riches and poverty are both helpful and harmful to this end; helpful to one and harmful to another; a blessing to ‘A’, a curse to ‘B’, and vice versa. Consequently, there can be no ground whatever for any theory which ascribes the prosperity and poverty of this life to the good and evil deeds of an existence that is past.
And the same is true of all other cases wherein different persons have been variously endowed with the gifts of God. In the ordinary way of life, the organs of sense are the vehicles of knowledge and any deficiency in one tends to strengthen the perceptive power of the others. Blind persons are more imaginative that those who possess the faculties of physical sight; and if imagination be a blessing and an aid to the perfection of knowledge, then here is a blessing disguised as a curse.
When sometimes a hard problem arises, to which it is necessary that we devote our whole minds, to the exclusion of all other matters, we choose to site with closed eyes, in a room apart, so that we may be distracted by neither seeing nor hearing. In other words, we deprive ourselves of the use of these senses in order that we may use those that remain to the fuller advantage. The implication of this would be that the use of these senses of hearing and sight causes a distraction to our imagination process. So, it follows, at least at that time, the loss of the organs of sense must be a blessing, if anything, a reward for the past good deeds, rather than the punishment of old misdoings.