Karma in the context of Reincarnation

Karma in the context of Reincarnation October 10, 2014


Editors’ NoteThis article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Remembering the Dead: Ancestors, Rituals, Relics. Read other perspectives here.

I was at a dinner party once when a woman said, “I hope the men who mistreat women are reborn as women so they can be mistreated in the same way!”

“But you’re saying you hope the mistreatment of women continues!” I said.

The guy across from me became visibly upset and announced that, “If karma works, the punishment needs to be in this lifetime. It isn’t fair to get punished in another lifetime!”

At this point everyone changed the topic because he obviously had strong feelings about the issue and it was supposed to be an upbeat social gathering.

I remembered what he said, and how passionately he felt about it, because one objection a lot of people have is that they either don’t believe in reincarnation, so how can karma be true? Or they think it’s unfair for the consequences of an action to happen in a future lifetime when we don’t remember performing that actions.

Remember how I described karma as a garden?

  • Not all gardens have the same potential. This goes back to what I was saying in my Fate or Free Will? post about only being able to choose from the options available to us. I can grow apples or peaches here in Ohio, but I can’t grow avocados or oranges. You are in a certain climate with certain soil and you have to work with what you have. What gardening zone you’re in may be determined by a past life, but you’re fully responsible for how you tend the garden you have in this life.
  • We inherit seeds and learn to plant from our parents. We don’t just show up to life with a blank canvas; we come into a story that has already been going on, and we’ll leave before all the plot threads get tied up. Most people keep planting the seeds their parents taught them and, even if they don’t want to, they keep harvesting the same things again and again. It takes an enormous amount of will and effort to break these patterns and redo our entire gardens, and the person who undertakes it will never have the easy experience of someone who was born with different seeds and who learned better habits from their parents.
  • Some people seem to just come into life and they have a full orchard of apple trees just waiting for them. This can be a talent that would take someone else years and years to cultivate but the first time they open their mouths to sing they sound like they’ve been training for years. This implies that they already put in a lot of work toward their goals in a previous lifetime, and it also implies that if we’ve put in a lot of work toward unfulfilled goals in this lifetime, we’ll start out ahead in those areas.

Karma carries across lifetimes — and you don’t have to believe in reincarnation for this to be true. Your children and grandchildren will inherit the fruits of your karmas whether you reincarnate or stop existing at death. Future generations will inherit the world we create regardless of what we “believe” or “refuse to believe.”

Violence against women is a karmic cycle that perpetuates unless people actively change it. Wanting the perpetrators to become the victims is wanting the cycle to continue. Whether it’s “fair” or not to be punished in another lifetime isn’t a question I can answer because I’m not sure that’s even quite how things work (and it’s not as though I could change it by deciding it was unfair). But violence does punish children who are innocent in this lifetime — and it lays the groundwork for them to grow into victims or perpetrators as adults.

Harmful karmic cycles harm future generations whether we believe in reincarnation and whether we consider it fair. Once we realize that our actions will inevitably have an effect on people in the future, whether or not we’re here to personally be rewarded or punished, we can make better decisions about those actions.

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