In today’s blog I would like to draw attention to the role of dharma and karma in reincarnation. As most already know, karma is all about what the good book refers to as, “What you sow is what you reap,” so called karma-laden consequences. According to this proposition, one can accumulate both karmic credits and karmic debits during a lifetime. Further, this credit-debit system carries over to future lives and as such, one may be born into a life of suffering in order to square their karma. Indeed, the Eastern sages inform us if we were to do something like cut a man’s hand off we may well find that in our next life we are born without a hand, or we lose a hand, or our arm and hand are paralyzed, and so forth, as a consequence of karma for our act. Conversely, good karma brings good fortune.
Okay, now dharma is all about duty—right action. In the Bhagavad-Gita this is fleshed out between Krishna and Arjuna. By birthright Arjuan’s station in life is as a warrior and he finds himself in a situation where he must lead an army against friends and family. The struggle begins between two sets of cousins battling over the rule of their kingdom. Now “the Gita is actually presenting us with an allegorical battle between convention and higher duty, order and chaos, individual desire and an understanding of one’s place in the universe.” 1
Arjuna seeks advice from Krishna when faced with an opposing army largely made up of family members, teachers, and friends. Krishna informs Arjuna that it is his duty to fight. Arjuna is torn between his duty as a warrior and his duty to family. Krishna tells Arjuna to “focus on what is permanent, not ephemeral—the universe and structure of enduring values, not the lives of warriors. Arjuna should fight because fighting is what realizes the eternal value of justice—his duty as a warrior.” 2
Now think about that. According to the sages, we choose our lives. So theoretically in this context, Arjuna chose to be a warrior. Some would say that killing members of your family would bring about great negative karma, but Krishna seems to imply that the greater negative karma would result from ignoring your duty as a warrior. Ponder that for a minute and let me back track to two weeks ago when I asked Dr. Linda Backman on my radio show about the relationship between karma and dharma. For those of you who missed the show, Dr. Backman is a licensed psychologist who has spent more than twenty years conducting past life and between life regressions.
Now Dr. Backman informed us that her husband was a warrior and he had been a general in a past life. As such, the conversation led to this question, “Since we choose our lives, our parents, our objectives, our roles, and so forth, her husband must have chosen to be a general. That implies his willingness to lead armies and kill the enemy. So does someone in this position obtain negative karma for killing in the line of duty?”
Her answer was yes—you cannot kill another without gaining negative karma. I just don’t think so. The problem is this: why would a person choose to have a life that created negative karma if the whole reincarnation bit is about escaping the wheel of rebirth, Moksha?
When the earliest records or sources of information about theories of reincarnation recite Arjuna like obligations, I think it becomes clear that the duty of a soldier is to the nation he/she serves and that may well mean killing; the duty of a police officer is to serve and protect and that too may well mean killing; etc. Sometimes to save lives we must take lives—it’s that simple. But then, here is the really difficult question: “Who determines what’s right?” Think about that.
Two armies meet on the field of battle—let’s just say ISIS and US Special Forces. ISIS is confident that they are doing the work of Allah and that Americans are infidels—sinful, savage, gluttonous infidels! American troops are equally confident that they are protecting a sacred way of life—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! They take the field and many die. To whom is karma attributed?
When you really get into these inner areas of metaphysics, it can truly become murky. This one is indeed very murky indeed.
Thanks for the read,
NY Time Bestselling Author of Choices and Illusions
1 Garfield, Jay L. The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions, The Teaching Company, 2011.