Karma & Reincarnation ... Contradictions?

I’ve been contemplating the doctrines of karma and reincarnation, and how they work co-dependently. From my research I have discovered there are many ways of viewing karma and its effects on reincarnation. I have made a list of possible options/view points to see if anyone agrees or disagrees with my logic in any of them because as I discover more, I find there seems to be a contradiction in each possible perspective. Please tell me what you think.

Option One: Karma is the necessary reason for all life’s existence. In other words, you are only living this life due to karma that you have produced and accumulated from past lives, and it’s not that you want good karma in order to escape the cycle of rebirths, but you want neutral karma. Neutral karma is necessary because then you have completed your dharma which is neither good nor bad, and you thus have zero attachment to this illusory world. If your karma is neutral then you have nothing else to “pay off” in a future life, but if you have good karma then you must come back and live out your better life in order to rid yourself of the good karma. If this is the method of thinking, then our contradiction is - We would have no first birth. Some people say we would be born with perfect karma in our first birth, but if karma is entirely actions based then we would have neutral karma (due to never existing until creation). And with no karma to pay off then there is no reason for a birth in the first place.

Option two: The application of Karma began after we were created by the gods. In other words, we were created… without real reason to begin with (I have looked around, and I cannot find the reason in which Hindus believe the gods created human life forms) So, we were created without any karma attached to us yet, therefore, everyone is on the same playing field. But then due to our freewill (which we were born with good and bad in us automatically) we started the process of karma on our own by behaving according to our nature. The problem with this is two fold. 1) If we are all on an equal playing field from the beginning, and we can reincarnate as different animals (going to a lower life form for bad karma), and if everything is one, then there should not have been any diversity in the creation until AFTER the first death. But that’s not what we see. Instead, creation was automatically diverse, therefore, all living things did not start off with equal karma which is very unjust. 2) If we initiated our karma after our creation, and we were not made perfect in the beginning (like in the bible) but instead we were made with both good and bad in us, then it would come to follow that we were essentially damned from the beginning to fall into the karmic cycle.

Option three: Instead of karma taking place after creation by the gods, we instead (due to our ignorance) broke free from Brahman on our own and this ignorant act of pulling away initiated karma. Essentially, this has moved from a “creator/created” world view, and instead a pantheistic world view. Well if we are Brahman, and it’s just due to our ignorance that we fell away, then that means Brahman itself is ignorance because there cannot be any distinction between us and the “ultimate divine.” Here’s the contradiction: Why would we need to rid ourselves of our karma, begun by our act of ignorance if Brahman is equally ignorant? We are already one in the same, so we must have unity and common characteristics ie- ignorance! Thus, poof, we should all be gone back into this so called “ultimate being” regardless of our karma or awareness.

Option four: Karmic reincarnation is even more diverse than what we ever realized AND the whole system is stacked against us! People can be reborn as insects, plants, animals, humans, microbes, or temporal divine beings. Furthermore, hell is only a temporal place for cleansing of the soul until you return to earth to complete any unfinished business. This implies that earth is the only place that we are able to “break free” of this process of rebirths. Furthermore, this implies that ONLY WE can accomplish this liberation on our own. Here’s the issue: why can’t hell fully cleanse us, then if we have good karma we need to pay off why not immediately go to “heaven” temporarily then wallah we are cleaned of all good and bad? Why is the system so heavily based on us? If the system of karma can’t even be implemented in a way to prevent the continued cycle of rebirths and only we can break it, then that implies that we are more powerful than karma itself. How can we be trapped by something we are stronger than? Through ignorance? Well, then please refer to option three. If all is one then either the law of karma also has capacity for ignorance OR karma is the most powerful law of reason that even gods are subject to OR karma is an illusory law just like the world itself according to hinduism.

I know this was a long post, but in all honesty it was also a way for me to work out my thoughts on the whole issue as well. Has anyone else found logical contradictions or justice issues within the laws of karma and reincarnation? Thank you for your opinions

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Hi @DeAnna_Collins,

For someone like yourself who did not grow up in a Hindu culture, I wonder how difficult it must be to even start feeling familiar with the hindu terms and then thinking through them. What frustrates me when I try to understand Karma is that there is no clear explanation for our starting point on earth in Hinduism. It’s all so fluid and diverse! It all depends on what hindu scripture we pick to read.

Option 1- Karma is the necessary reason for all of life’s existence. This is the most common belief irrespective of the hindu sect and the ultimate goal of a hindu is to escape this life’s existence. If that’s the case, its logical to ask what karma do we have in our first birth? I think this question assumes that our individual consciousness doesnt exist until the first birth when Brahman is embodied in matter. It may be useful in conversations with hindus who believe in the Sankhya philosophy where Purusha the cosmic consciousness ( i.e Brahman or another male god) causes manifestation of Prakriti the nature (female god) producing different life forms with intelligence (Buddhi) and ego/identity (Ahankar) in the modes (gunas) of goodness, ignorance and passion. I wonder how such a hindu would respond. We will need to look into what is believed about the nature of individual consciousness before material embodiment in Sankhya philosophy. If our identity exists only on earth, then it begs the question- why must we suffer for something we didn’t even choose? Another question to consider is could Karma be accumulated due to bad intent before earthly manifestation? Karma is not just action but also intent which doesn’t need our body. Is Brahman responsible for the karma? The Sankya philosophy seems to also assume eternality of earthly matter and with the metaphor of creation as male-female union, it makes the spirit world and material world interdependent.

Option 2: Karma starts after creation. Your thoughts make me ask, is diversity in animals possible before first death? Since the first animals in this option are free of karma, I think logically it is possible to have diversity of animals. Bad karma of humans is not necessary to create animals. The only necessity to have karma is a free will. Free will implies freedom to do good or bad. We could be good with the option to be bad but not actually be bad and so we are not damned from the beginning. A question to consider here is what moral capacity do animals have for them to have karma? Also why are animals considered to be a lower creation related to bad karma if all species were first created free of karma? But generally as animals are considered to have same souls as humans, we have to wonder why souls were created unequally even when free of karma? It would be fair that everyone starts as animals if karma starts after creation so everyone has the same journey ahead. If humans were created at the same time as animals, this option falls apart as it seems unfair.

Option 3: For the idea of Hindu creation to be true, where only material but not spirit is created, I think this is a better option than the first two as it allows for pre-existent karma. If individual souls always existed with God as small parts dependent on God, they must have a free-will before being embodied to accumulate karma. As the souls choose their own way, they are cut off and sent to material world, metaphorically called a prison house, to experience life apart from God and seek spiritual union. So in this scenario I dont think Brahman contributes to ignorance because He can have a separate will. In this scenario, what troubles me is a lack of appreciation and care for creation and uniqueness with which each and everyone of us are created.

Option 4: I am not sure I followed this option well enough. Karma is a law that even the gods are subject to. Karma depends on morality and the only being who can be fully good is God so He alone can be free of karma. Hinduism assumes multiple universes and souls can go anywhere between the hierarchy of spiritual planets or earthly planet to work out the karma. The system is heavily based on individual’s ability to be detached. I have been told that the gods are similar to human souls that have accumulated enough moral credentials to have more powers. The problem in this scenario is how can an impersonal law of karma be administered if it knows nothing about personal moral choices.

Any further thoughts? My family is more into option 3 and I would love further ideas on that. Look forward to hearing from you! Thanks.

While some of this is totally over my head, I’ll try to give some of my initial thoughts to your response.

OPTION 1: If our consciences are existent before matter, but we are still part of Brahman, I don’t see how we could have bad intent unless Brahman also had bad intent. This is quite the insult to an ultimate being.

OPTION 2: I agree entirely with the last two sentences of your paragraph, as it is exactly what I was thinking myself. Furthermore, if all creation is one and equal then why do people fear coming back as a beetle or a dog? Why do people fear karma at all since no one remembers their past lives anyhow.

OPTION 3: If none of the spiritual realm is created then it would follow that people’s souls are considered far too exalted. It begs the question, what’s the cause of a soul? Furthermore, if the soul was separate but dependent on god from the beginning then it seems counter intuitive that in order to get back to god you are only depending on yourself. If god cuts you off, and if he is more powerful than the soul, why on earth would the soul be able to will itself back into union? Finally, I also agree with your last sentence. Life is meant to be a gift not a punishment and creation is meant to be beautiful not the sign of poor behavior.

OPTION 4: I was mostly implying, why is karma and reincarnation so inefficient? It seems to me that if karma truly is fair and a supreme law that everything is subject to, why wouldn’t there be a quicker way. For example, if someone accumulates a lot of bad karma, why not pay it all off for 100 years in hell rather than pay it all off for 5000 years on earth? The system just seems flawed. I also like what you said about karma being impersonal but still administered. What is the “mind” behind karma? As it appears, there certainly needs to be one.

One final thought that I think is kind of interesting, I watched a video that explains the Vedic tradition of why reincarnation even began in the first place. Apparently, according to the scripture, reincarnation began when some god (I don’t remember the name) was scared about the earth being over populated. So, they thought about it and realized “man, we need to kill some people. But hey! Let’s bring them back to life to form a cycle, so that they don’t truly die for forever AND the earth doesn’t over populate and lose its resources.” So thus, the process of reincarnation was invented. It’s kind of silly to think about, but that’s what is in one of the inspired texts, and because this concept of reincarnation has been reinterpreted so much from this origin, I think that is a clear sign that it’s not a reliable doctrine.