While browsing blog entries tagged with “Hinduism” read a post “Why Should I Care About Future Me?“. This is a good question about reincarnation. The author, Mike says:
… I have heard that most karmic systems also hold that the average person cannot know of past lives, and most certainly cannot know what actions from the past have caused present circumstances, nor when actions of the present will have their effects. Is my present situation a step “up” in the cosmic ladder, or “down?” Will stealing this watch or feeding this beggar help my soul tomorrow or 10,000 lifetimes from now? I cannot know. And if I cannot know in the present, then I know that my atman will not be able to know in the future. Thus, when I am reborn, I cannot consciously suffer the results of my wicked actions, which means I really do not suffer at all. If I am reborn into miserable circumstances, I can be mad at my past wickedness, but only in a general sense and not with any real contrition because I have no idea what I did to deserve misery.
This is a very reasonable argument. The only thing that I would quibble with is the assertion that we cannot know whether stealing a watch or feeding a beggar will help or hinder a soul. If we took reincarnation in total isolation this would be true, but within Hinduism we have clear guidelines on living dharma. The yama (constraint) of asteya tells us that stealing will be bad for our soul, and the niyama (observance) of dāna tells us that giving of alms will be beneficial.
Before answering this question directly I will look at how we handle similar issues in a single life. As a child we may work hard, study and learn. This may well be very beneficial to us in later life, but a child learning to read would have little comprehension of the issues that the adult deals with, or their thoughts and emotions. Similarly an adult may only have a dim memory of the days spent learning the alphabet, and the longing to leave the class and play outside. In many ways the adult is a different person to the child. Despite this we can all see how the learning as a child has helped the adult, and generally believe that the child should care about the future self.
Similarly we may save for our old age, even if we don’t know how healthy we will be, whether we will remember our earlier life well or suffer mental decline, or even if we will live that long. I think most people would save in order to be cared for even if they knew that they would lose their memory.
Of course just because we normally do care about our future self in this life does not mean that it should extend to caring about other lives, it merely shows that caring would be consistent. I can see two reasons why we should care though.
The first reason is compassion. We should care about our future selves just as we should care about any person or creature. This would be true even if there was no link to our present self. If our actions would harm any future person then they are clearly wrong.
The second reason is more direct, and it comes from the Hindu realisation that we are not our memories. There are so many things that we don’t remember. Think of the last time you went on holiday, or your last birthday. The chances are that you had not thought of ether of these things for a while. If you hadn’t thought of your holiday for a month think – would you still have been the same person if you had been unable to remember this for a month? What about things you can barely recall: How well can you recall your last day of school? Or your first?
Similarly though we may not recall previous lives now, we will recall these memories as we approach moksha, at which point we will know all.
Continuing the blog article, the author asks:
If my atman will be unaware of my previous incarnations and therefore neither able to repent of evil nor grieve my miserable circumstances, why should I care what its circumstances will be, since my self, as I am aware of this self, will effectively cease to exist at the end of this lifetime?
I have already explained that the self has not effectively ceased, and the memories are just temporarily unavailable. As Hindus we believe that virtuous acts will remove the veils of impurity form the atman, and this will continue between lives. However we can go further than this and feel what it is like to exist in the moment, when memories are still and we are just living in the eternity of the moment. The advanced souls may experience this in meditation, but others may have occasional glimpses also. In these moments we transcend the memories of this life and of time and just are.
Having read through this post I realise that I have missed one important point. In one sense it does not matter whether we care about our future lives, living dharma in this life is enough to advance. And since we believe that all ultimately reach moksha, progression to dharma is inevitable. Just as a plant grows from the ground we are bound to grow over many lives towards dharma. Perhaps the question should not be “why should I care about the whether the next life is a progression” but “why should I resist progressing”!
Very thoughtful and insightful. Regardless of religion or even a lack of religion, it is like asking “Why should I be a good person, why should I help rather than harm?” Because it is right.
This also begs the question – if we are doing some good deed or selfless act out of concern for some kind of salvation or progression or what have you, is the act truly selfless?
A good point, and brings an added complication that I left out of the post. Intention matters! It is better to follow dharma for dharma and God’s sake than because you just want reward.
Sometimes trying to follow dharma in the wrong way can cause harm, and selfish acts can cause good. You might selfishly spend some money you gained dishonourably in a shop that was about to go bankrupt, allowing it to survive and the owners to do respectable work – but it would still have negative dharma
Your response is exactly the type I was hoping for. Respectful, informative. I hope my post came off as I intended, i.e., genuinely asking and not attacking. And of course I agree with aikifox85 above, that reward should not be our primary motivator for ethical behavior; your response is also apt, that “good” acts can be done for the wrong reason. As an act of comparative study, I’ll note that Jesus of Nazareth taught the same to the Pharisees of his time, whom he called “whitewashed tombs” for their methodically religious, yet hypocritical, acts of righteousness.
I teach religious ethics to 9th graders, and one of the challenges is conveying the notion that the ultimate spiritual goal for ethical living is to need no reward, or perhaps to let right living be its own reward. Thanks for the thoughtful response. May I use it as a reference in my class some time?
–“Charlie’s Chaplain” Mike
I tried to comment before, but I’m not sure it posted. Anyway, thank you for your thoughtful response; it was just the type I was looking for. The challenge of living one’s dharma seems to be the same as living righteously within the belief systems of other faiths, namely that the individual must strive to cultivate a heart for doing the right thing for its own sake and not for measurable reward.
I did not know that Hinduism teaches that past lives become memorable when one is close to moksha. Would you mind if I use this post as a reference in my comparative religions class?
Thanks for replying. You are welcome to use my posts in your class. Bear in mind that Hinduism is a collection of beliefs, as at least as different from each other as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The belief that advanced souls will remember all is common but not universal. My sampradaya (school or lineage) teaches that we eventually merge with God, who we see as Shiva. As we advance we gain more and more awareness – most of it beyond human incarnations. When we gain complete awareness, because there is only one God then we are God. This is not a loss of self, but a gain – like slowly waking up and realising that we are God.
The lesson 345 from the teachings of my Sampradaya has more on memories and past lives.
Very interesting, thanks again. Another reminder of the vast diversity in what we place under the one name, Hinduism.
Reblogged this on "Charlie's Chaplain" and commented:
My thanks to this blogger for thoughtfully adding to my contemplation of motivations for ethical living!
The Concept of ‘Nishkamya Karma’ [Action without expecting results] is an underlying philosophy of Hinduism of any branch.It is part of Vedic thought.Nishkamya Karma has a graeter value than ‘Kamya Karma’ [Actions expecting a favourable outcome].Will write morelater. pressed for time. But both your posts are thought provoking & interesting. Bestwishes to both of you.
If one needs to understand the concept of reincarnation and karmic cycle, he needs to understand the various levels of consciousness and the various forms of dharma. But even before that, one needs to decondition himself and free himself of the inferior term ‘religion’ and stop mapping dharma to religion, for dharma and religion are poles apart. To do this, one needs to have questioning mindset, one who can question himself, his own beliefs. What one does or does not goes much beyond the analysis of mind for contrary to modern material science, quantum physics says everything is dance of energy even matter, but the Vedic thought or atma-gyaan says, everything is a dance of consciousness even energy, the static and its dynamism, the Shiva and its Shakti, the unmanifest and manifest, Vishnu and its maya and leela….the same reality explained differently through vedas, tantras and Upanishads!
A nice read though : http://www.indiacause.com/blog/2012/01/29/the-dream-of-vishnu-part1/
Good post, especially since it got me thinking about future incarnations in a way I hadn’t before. After considering all of this, my feeling is that compassion and ahimsa could be great motivators to right action in this life if one realizes that one’s “future selves” are, in a very real sense, entirely different people. Though the sense of “I am” is consistent through incarnations, nothing else remains static. So, as I am not the person in my portraits from 1979, I am not the person this jiva will become in future lives. But as my actions here in America can significantly affect, for instance, a man in Dacca, Bangladesh, they can also affect my future incarnations. Hence the need for compassion and non-harming.
I think practicing this mindset can be an effective work-around for the spiritual selfishness which impels one to do good and abstain from wickedness in order to improve conditions in future lives. Then again, Sri Ramakrishna did say that spiritual selfishness is not harmful.
Thanks for the post, Tandava.
I was interested that Sri Ramakrisna said that spiritual selfishness is not harmful. My feeling is that what he probably meant was that this motivation would not taint a good deed. I think that a deed done solely for self-benefit would have little merit when compared to a deed done for compassion, to follow dharma, or to honour God. Is this the way that you understand it?
No. Actually, he was talking about, for instance, being a little selfish with one’s time in order to do extra spiritual practice, or desiring God’s love for the bliss and freedom that it brings, as opposed to the very high state of desiring love for God for the sake of having love for God, or making japam for the sake of one’s own moksha as opposed to doing it in the name of another. He wasn’t talking about earning punya at all. Same concept in the Gita, when Krishna talks about the different kinds of devotees.
Sorry I didn’t make that clear before.
That makes it clearer
Once i said that we are as recycled plastic grocery bags and that from one time to the next we would never become aware of this truth. But, your blog makes me think harder about that…despite the fact we may not know this new being which we become (yet) we should try to learn as much as we can here so that this new Being will be in a better position to learn more and reach higher. So, though, as the plastic bag, we come again…we may come back new and improved…and this is a very goodly and important reason to strive very hard this moment, this now…for ourself and for this one yet to come. Hari Om it is nice to see you posting again. ❤
Nice article; Hinduism is as diverse as anything else, with multiple meanings of most things.
There are many reasons why we do not have memories of our past lives. But there is one that, I think, is relevant in the context of ‘If I don’t remember what good/bad things I did in order to deserve my present predicament, what good does it serve?’. And that is: It gives a level playing-field to act out our inclinations, our Sanskaras (our tendencies derived from past lives), but also to see what kind of choices we make under similar circumstances.
For example, lets say, I am someone dealing with issues of greed in this birth and I am poor in this birth. If I had been burdened with memories of my several past lives where I may have stolen, murdered or cheated someone out of greed; and I know that my present poverty is as a result of my misdeeds in dealing with greed issues in the past lives, then where’s the level field? If I had those memories then where’s the real test as to what choices I will make in this life? If I’m poor and still choose to not indulge in any sinful activities by succumbing to greed, then therein lies the real growth for my soul.
A rule of thumb for Karmic outcome is “You will get back what you have done” or “You will reap what you have sown”.