Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part XV

The Doctrine of Karma and Reincarnation

Continued from Part XIV

Hinduism is perhaps the only major religion in the world that traces its origin in monotheism and through its diversified culture, philosophy and doctrines assumes the characteristics of a polytheistic religion. Hinduism strongly believes in Karma and a cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). Through Karma and enlightenment, individual souls escape samsara and achieve Moksha i.e. the end of suffering. According to Hindu philosophy, death is not the end of life; it is merely the end of the body and the soul seeks attachment to a new body and new life to carry on its journey. Where and what life one gets, is a result of the past life based on accumulated positive and negative deeds and the resultant Karma (cause and effect). The journey of the soul continues through the cycle of death and rebirth in different life forms until it is purified to attain unity with God (Brahman).

As the oldest surviving culture and religion, the Hinduism is also metaphysically the most debated and complex religion, which despite an origin in monotheism, absorbs and reflects the characteristics of polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism and even atheism in a vast expanse of time. Such hybridisation is possible because it always professed tolerance, reasoning and dissent. Unlike the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, the Hinduism has an accumulated vast literature in the form of scriptures and texts such as the Vedas, Upanishads, Shashtras and Puranas. As it allowed different school of thoughts to prosper, Hinduism has multiple doctrines on life after death too but the one propounded in Hindu scripture Bhagvad Gita (BG) is considered as the gist and synthesis of all, the most authenticated Hindu rext with universal appeal and acceptance.

Soul, Karma and Moksha

Soul and Moksha has been dealt with at length in the previous part of this series. In Bhagvad Gita Chapter 2, Verse 17 to 22, the nature and action of the imperishable soul has been delineated and emphasised in a beautiful and mesmerising way. According to this holy text, a dying person's soul seeks a new body that determined his (or her) next life:

Vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya Navani grhnati naro 'parani
Tatha sarirani vihaya jirnany Anyani samyati navani dehi

{BG: Chapter 2, Verse 22}

(As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.)

Persons who do not attend Karma based Moksha remain part of the cycle of the life-death-life. The interruption in the cycle may come as their temporary abode in heaven or hell for some time depending upon their deeds in the previous life i.e. good or bad actions. After the merit of their good Karma or the demerit of their bad Karma is exhausted, they have to leave heaven or hell, as the case may be, to be born again into the Earth plane. This cycle of the birth and death shall be repeated till the attainment of Moksha or liberation of the soul and the length of the cycle will depend on the deeds that enable the person to attain Moksha or liberation.

The obvious question arises as to what happens on attainment of Moksha, and why it is so vital to attain it. The different Vedanta school of thoughts in Hinduism offer different doctrines on Moksha or liberation.

Advaita Vedanta: Advaita Vedanta is the most popular school of thought among Hindus propounded by Adi Shankara who was 8th century Indian philosopher and theologian. Followers of the Advaita believe in non-dualism (monism) that is the individual soul is not different from Brahman (God). Having imbibed the teachings of Vedas and Upanishads under the supervision of Guru Govinda Bhagavadpada, Shankara wrote extensive commentaries on Hindu sacred scriptures and put forth the Advaita philosophy. The followers of this philosophy are called Advaita Vedantins or Advaitins who seek Moksha through noble deeds, vidya or gyan (knowledge). According to this doctrine, the Moksha is possible while still living i.e. Jivan-mukti, and after death i.e. Krama-mukti.

Dvaita Vedanta: Dvaita Vedanta is another school of thought in the Vedanta tradition of Hindu philosophy which was propounded by Madhvacharya, a 13th century philosopher and scholar. According to this philosophy, the Atman or Jivatman (i.e. soul) and Vishnu as Supreme Soul (Brahman or God) are independent and distinct realities. Followers of Dvaita Vedanta believe that Moksha can be attained after death. According to this doctrine, there are four levels of Moksha based on good Karma in the ascending order of 1) Salokya, 2) Samipya, 3) Sarupya and 4) Sayujya. In the first order (Salokya), the eligible departed soul after the death goes to the abode of Vishnu and stays blissfully there. In the second order (Samipya), the soul enjoys the bliss of the extreme proximity of Vishnu. In the third order (Sarupya), the departed soul acquired the form of Vishnu to experience intense bliss while in the highest fourth order (Sayujya) the soul is absorbed in Vishnu blissfully.

Vishistadvaita Vedanta: Vishishtadvaita Vedanta is another Hindu philosophy propounded by Ramanuja, a theologian, philosopher and exponent of the Sri Vaishnavism tradition within Hinduism in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Vishisht Advaita literally means ‘Unique Advaita’ is a non-dualistic school of Vedanta philosophy. According to this doctrine, Brahman alone exists but He is characterized by multiplicity i.e. individual souls explained as the qualified monism or attributive monism. There is unity of all souls and that the individual soul has the potential to realize identity with the Brahman. This realization (Moksha) is possible after the person’s death whereby soul would live blissfully in Vaikuntha (the abode of Vishnu) in spiritual bodies. Such soul may acquire divine powers such as omniscience yet remain subservient to God and, unlike God (Vishnu), they cannot create, sustain or dissolve the world.

Karma: Cause and Effect

Karma is the Hindu concept of ‘action’ or ‘deed’ which regulates the entire cycle of the cause and effect of life on earth. Through the law of Karma, the effects of all deeds actively create past, present and future experiences, thus making one responsible for one's own life, and consequent joy and pain. The result or 'fruit' of actions is called karma-phala. Through the doctrine of reincarnation, Karma extends through one's present life and all past and future lives as well. The concept of Karma is based upon the simple feature of the total and unconditional involvement of the living being i.e. when you do something, do something; when you sit, sit only; when you eat, eat only; when you sleep, sleep only; and the purpose of doing all this in essence is to do a thing with complete concentration and involvement.

The other essential part of Karma is the essence of mindfulness or living with right awareness. Karma has been defined as a form of yoga. A person must engage in actions to tame own monkey-mind and allow it to become absorbed in the moment of the action, without any expectation of the outcome in terms of the appreciation, recognition or approval or after comfort. A person has to engage self in actions for self-cleansing or transformation, and not with an aim to feed own ego or strengthen own identity or achieve distinction. In Bhagavad Gita, the entire concept has been beautifully explained by Lord Krishna as under:

Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani.

{BG: Chapter 2, Verse 47}

(You have the right to work only but never to its fruits. Let not the fruits of action be not your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.)

A quote from Swami Vivekanand explains this in for more lucid term:

“…Karma-Yoga, therefore, is a system of ethics and religion intended to attain freedom through unselfishness, and by good works. The Karma-Yogi need not believe in any doctrine whatever. He may not believe even in God, may not ask what his soul is, nor think of any metaphysical speculation. He has got his own special aim of realising selflessness; and he has to work it out himself. Every moment of his life must be realisation, because he has to solve by mere work, without the help of doctrine or theory, the very same problem to which the Jnani applies his reason and inspiration and the Bhakta his love and devotion.”

In Bhagavad Gita, the concept has been further amplified as under:

Tasmad asaktah satatam karyam karma samacara,
Asakto hy acaran karma param apnoti purusah.

{BG: Chapter 3, Verse 19}

(Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty; for by working without attachment, one attains the Supreme.)

In Hinduism, despite multiple doctrines of the Soul and Divine (Brahman), the reincarnation is a common product of the individual’s cumulative Karma. As the soul is attached to a Jiva in a span, the physical being that is subject to the impurities of attachment, delusion and the laws of Karma, the death is not an end but a natural process of continuance of the soul in some other form. The soul being immortal and imperishable, either it must attain Moksha or continue in the vicious cycle of death - rebirth.

According to Bhagavad Gita, the two distinct paths that a soul could travel after the death of the physical body are the paths of Sun and Moon depending upon Karma. The path of the sun is also stated as the path of divine because if the soul finds the bright path of Sun, it will not return to mrityulok (perishable world) and attain Moksha. The soul taking the other one i.e. the path of Moon or the dark ancestors’ path returns to the same cycle again. Essence of attaining the path of Sun is given in Bhagvad Gita, which Lord Krishna himself narrated as under:

Sarva-dvarani sanyamya mano hridi nirudhya cha,
Murdhnyadhayatmanah pranam asthito yoga-dharanam.

{BG: Chapter 8, Verse 12}

(Restraining all the gates of the body and fixing the mind in the heart region, and then drawing the life-breath to the head, one should get established in steadfast yogic concentration.)

Om ityekaksharam brahma vyaharan mmm anusmaran,
Yah prayati tyajan deham sa yati paramam gatim.

{BG: Chapter 8, Verse 13}

(One who departs from the body while remembering me, the Supreme Personality, and chanting the syllable Om, will attain the supreme goal.)

To summarise it – If the person exercising control over all the openings of the body, concentrates mind in unison with the heart, directs the Prana (breath) towards the head in yogic posture and thus leaves the body remembering Supreme Soul (God) chanting AUM, he (or she) certainly achieves the highest goal i.e. Moksha. Those who had Karma of the highest order in the material life are able to do so to attain Moksha and ones who have bad Karma and a life full of sins will enter into the cycle to take rebirth again.

According to Hindu philosophy, if the Karma of an individual is good, the next birth will be rewarding in an evolved and higher form, and if not, the person may actually devolve and degenerate into a lower life form. In order to achieve good Karma it is important to live life according to Dharma or what is right. The Hindu doctrine of Karma and reincarnation (cycle of birth and death) alone offers a satisfactory explanation of the existence. Each person earns the sorrows of his present life, as he also earns its joys too; by his good Karma in the previous life, one can "earn" happiness in his present and future lives.


In Hinduism, the concept of reincarnation has roots in the Vedic period as some early references are found about the cycle of samsara (birth and death). Also in early Upanishads, the idea is far more explicitly mentioned or evolved. These early scriptures supported the theory of Reincarnation on the premise that "Nothing is destroyed in the universe." Accordingly, after the death of the physical body, some element of each being is left for sure which is independent of the person's physical being, and after death this element seeks another physical body for the living experience. This idea was, however, best evolved and explained in Bhagavad Gita by Lord Krishna Himself. The concept of reincarnation is explained by Lord Krishna to Prince Arjuna at one place as under:

Shariram yad avapnoti yach chapy utkramatishvarah,
Grihitvaitani sanyati vayur gandhan ivashayat.

{(BG: Chapter 15, Verse 8)

(As the air carries fragrance from place to place, so does the embodied soul carry the mind and senses with it, when it leaves an old body and enters a new one.)

The Reincarnation is a major concept in Hinduism that differentiates it with the Abrahamic religions of the world that profess the concept of resurrection. According to Hindu scriptures even if the soul finds a place in hell or heaven after death of the physical body, this will only be a temporary abode and the soul will ultimately return to mrityulok through reincarnation. It is always in interplay with Karma which may lead to another birth or salvation depending upon the balance sheet of good and bad accumulated from the previous life. Out of so many relevant verses from Bhagavad Gita, a few are cited here in this context that address various facets and attributes:

Dehino'smin yatha deha kaumaram yauvanam jara,
Tatha dehantara praptir dhiras tatra na muhyati.

{BG: Chapter 2, Verse 13}

(Just as in the physical body of the embodied being is the process of childhood, youth, old age; similarly in the transmigration from one body to another the wise are never deluded.)

Na jayate mriyate va kadacin nayam bhutva bhavita va na bhuyah,
Ajo nityah sasvato yam purano na hanyate hanyamane.

{BG: Chapter 2, Verse 20}

(The soul never takes birth and never dies at any time nor does it come into being again when the body is created. The soul is birthless, eternal, imperishable and timeless and is never terminated when the body is terminated.)

Vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya navani grhnati naro'parani,
Tatha sarirani vihaya jirnany anyani samyati navani dehi.

{BG: Chapter 2, Verse 22}

(As a person gives up old and worn out garments and accepts new apparel, similarly the embodied soul giving up old and worn out bodies verily accepts new bodies.)

Jatasya hi dhruvo mrtyur dhruvam janma mrtasya ca,
Tasmad apariharye'rthe na tvam socitum arhasi.

{BG: Chapter 2, Verse 27}

(For a being who has taken birth, death is certain and for one who has died, birth is certain. Therefore in an inevitable situation understanding should prevail.)

In these narrations of Bhagavad Gita, the nature, fate and cycle of the soul is clearly defined. The eternal, imperishable and timeless soul doesn’t terminate with the body. Like a person discards the old and worn out clothes and adopts new clothes, in the same manner the soul adopts new body on termination of the old body. Then from the birth comes death and from the death comes birth. It is like in the spring new buds grow which blossom into full grown leaves and flowers in the summer, change colours in the autumn due to maturity and aging, and fall and worn out in winter; the same cycle is onset and repeated in the next spring. In the same way, a soul enters new body and passes through infancy, youth, mature and old age that terminates in death, starting the process again. All beings that exist in the material manifestation have to necessarily follow this cycle.

Getting Rid of Death and Rebirth Cycle

Conceptually, a Jiva is driven into action according to the admixture of the 3-Gunas i.e. Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. However, different actions have a tendency to bind the soul to physical body (Jiva) as one has to bear the consequences of own actions. Being through these actions, the soul discards the old body and enters a new body carrying good and bad Karma from the previous life. Thus the cycle of death and rebirth goes on and on; and the liberation from this cycle is called Moksha. According to Hindu scriptures, more specifically Bhagavad Gita, there are ways to break this cycle to attain Moksha and this can be achieved through Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga.

Karma Yoga

Karma yoga is considered to be the simpler and easier means for all to achieve the intended goal. It is meant not only for spiritual aspirants but also for all worldly people, who have work as the way of life with a will and potential to deal with the challenges and distractions. Karma yoga or the path of action as suggested in the Bhagavad-Gita teaches people how to cope with the pains and pleasures of life without choosing and without escaping. It teaches people how to remain engaged with the process of living, however difficult and distasteful the circumstances may be. The concept is in contrast to the popular belief that men should renounce their worldly things, go to a forest or some secluded place or cave away from the society and perform tapas or meditation in order to achieve self-realization.

According to the Bhagavad Gita, the selfish or desire-ridden actions bind men to their consequences and subject them to the cycle of births and deaths. Also one cannot escape from Karma merely by shunning actions and responsibilities. Besides, involuntary actions such as breathing and digestion, being autonomous, cannot be wilfully controlled or regulated. Hence inaction or non-action is not a solution to escape Karma. Bhagavad Gita says the liberation cannot be attained by abstaining from the work or by renouncing the work:

Na karmanam anarambhan naishkarmyam purusho ’shnute,
Na cha sannyasanad eva siddhim samadhigachchhati.

{BG: Chapter 3, Verse 4}

(One cannot achieve freedom from karmic reactions by merely abstaining from work, nor can one attain perfection of knowledge by mere physical renunciation.)

The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, verses 39 and 40 teach that one could engage in the Karma yoga through selfless actions as a way of sacrifice and service to God. It holds that the desire is an eternal enemy of the wise, which deludes the soul by over powering the senses, mind and intellect. Therefore, a true karma yogi endeavours to control his desire and senses through wisdom and discipline. As a person’s right is to his work only and not to the fruits, hence a karma yogi would perform his duty without attachment by remaining even minded in all situations i.e. success and failure:

Yoga-sthah kuru karmani sangam tyaktva dhananjaya,
Siddhy-asiddhyoh samo bhutva samatvam yoga uchyate.

{BG: Chapter 2, Verse 48}

(Be steadfast in the performance of your duty, O Arjuna, abandoning attachment to success and failure. Such equanimity is called Yoga.)

In Chapter 3 of Bhagavad Gita, many verses deal with the various attributes of a karma yogi such as the importance of controlling his senses, engaging in actions by restraining the mind and senses, remaining unattached and directing his organs to work. With this, he is able to overcome desires, takes delight in doing rightful things and remains contended within himself. He does not expect or depend on anybody else for anything and performs his actions without attachment and inner commotion remaining calm and collected at all time.

In essence, Karma yoga is the total transformation of a person without any sense of ego, pride or ambition. The karma yogi surrenders his actions to God as he performs them, with his mind fixed on Him, free from any expectations, attachment and mental botheration. The yogi remains unattached to the external stimuli and physical world, while engaging self in the contemplation of Brahman and identifying himself with Him. Having been able to withstand desire, he remains self-restrained and delighted as a true renunciant. By conducting self in this manner, one is able to get riddance of any selfish motive or action and thus indulges only in such actions which promote the welfare of the universe. A true karma yogi is thus able to identify himself with the God and achieve salvation.

Jnana Yoga

The Jnana yoga is akin to the "path of knowledge" for the self-realization. Unlike Karma yoga which is open to all, the Jnana yoga is a spiritual practice that a yogi pursues in the quest of seeking knowledge and place of self in the universe. Such practitioners usually require assistance of a Guru (teacher or counsellor), at least initially, for their studies and meditation to have true insights on the nature of his own Self (i.e. Atman or soul) and its relationship with Brahman (God). According to Bhagavad Gita, the ultimate goal of the Jnana yoga is self-realization but it is also the most difficult, slow and confusing path because the Jnan yogi seeks to deal with the ‘formless supreme reality’, also known as “the Avyakta”. The path is, however, suited for the intellectually oriented beings with a hunger for universal truth.

Jnan yoga focuses on the knowledge which according to Hindu philosophy has the power to purify, elevate, liberate and unite the being with Brahman (God). The Jnan yoga for these very reasons is considered as supremely sublime and pure too. Those performing Jnan yoga constantly need a focus on two aspects of the knowledge i.e. the theoretical information and practical realization. The theoretical part is achieved by reading and imbibing the scriptures, under the guidance from the Guru but it is only one part and insufficient. The practitioner achieves the intended goal of Moksha only when he practices sadhana (commensurate with the theory) that leads to purification of the mind, and thereby the realization of the nature of the Self and Brahman.

The chapter 4 of Bhagavad Gita is dedicated to the general exposition of the Jnana yoga; while chapters 7 and 16 deal with its theological and axiological aspects too. According to Lord Krishna, Jnana is the purest and divine method to learn and discover Self:

Na hi jnanena sadrisham pavitramiha vidyate,
Tatsvayam yogasansiddhajh kalenatmani vindati.

{BG: Chapter 4, Verse 38}

(In this world, there is nothing as purifying as divine knowledge. One who has attained purity of mind through prolonged practice of Yoga, receives such knowledge within the heart, in due course of time.)

Bhakti Yoga

Bhakti yoga is another prescribed path for the self-realization. It is literally the path of ‘Bhakti’ which again is a spiritual practice of loving devotion towards the personal god. This personal god could be any Saguna form of Brahman such as Vishnu, Shiva, their consorts, Shakti (Durga) and a host of other gods and goddesses. Though the Bhakti movement started about the middle of the first millennium CE in parts of India, Bhakti yoga by a devotee as a path of spirituality was known since ancient time. In Bhagavad Gita, in reply to a query from prince Arjuna about different yoga practitioners, Lord Krishna endorses and explains the value and worth of both Saguna and Nirguna Brahman.

Shri-bhagavan uvacha
Mayy aveshya mano ye mam nitya-yukta upasate,
Shraddhaya parayopetas te me yuktatama matah.

{BG: Chapter 12, Verse 2}

(The Blessed Lord said: Those who fix their minds on me and always engage in my devotion with steadfast faith, I consider them to be the best yogis.)

Ye tv aksharam anirdeshyam avyaktam paryupasate,
Sarvatra-gam achintyancha ku?a-stham achalandhruvam.

Sanniyamyendriya-gramam sarvatra sama-buddhayah,
Te prapnuvanti mam eva sarva-bhuta-hite ratah.

{BG: Chapter 12, Verses 3-4}

(But those who worship the formless aspect of the Absolute Truth - the imperishable, the indefinable, the unmanifest, the all-pervading, the unthinkable, the unchanging, the eternal, and the immoveable - by restraining their senses and being even-minded everywhere, such persons, engaged in the welfare of all beings, also attain me.)


The sum of all this is that the Atman, unchanged with time and circumstances, remains entrapped in the world of samsara (i.e. the cycle of life, death and rebirth) by the Law of Karma. The good and bad deeds ultimately return in the form of reward or punishment and it is the overlying necessity of the reaping of Karma that compels person to repeat in the cycle of rebirth in successive lifetimes. Such concept has origin in various Hindu scriptures and texts since Vedic era but the doctrine has been explained at length by none other than Lord Krishna Himself in Bhagavad Gita.

While the concept of the heaven and hell as temporary abode does exist in Hinduism, like other major religions of the world, the overwhelming belief in Hinduism is that a person (Jiva) experiences it in the same samsaric life. For instance, if a person was very generous and kind in the previous lifetime, he (or she) may be reborn as a wealthy and prosperous being in the next birth. Similarly, if he had done unkind and evil deeds in previous life, he may be redeemed to live a poor and miserable current life. Moksha is the eventual goal in this vicious cycle that liberates one from the rigour of the cycle of the death and rebirth, whereby the individual soul would merge or get absorbed in Supreme Soul (God) for eternity.

Continued to Part XVI


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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