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”!