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Reincarnation and Karma

(Note: Start the discussion on this subject by posing some challenging questions and making them think: e.g.: Why children are born in families with different atmosphere? Is God cruel - Why some children are born handicapped? How come some of the bad guys go uncaught and lead a happy life?

With smaller children, you may even ask questions like, "What would you like to be born in your next life and why?" These questions will increase the children's imaginative power and creative thinking)

Cycle of Life: Hindus believe that life does not end with death. What perishes is the body; the soul is immortal and eternal. When the body dies, the soul assumes a new body in order to experience the fruits of our good and bad actions in the previous life. While reaping the fruits, we also have the free will to change our destiny. This cycle of being born again and again is called reincarnation. Most of us cannot remember anything about our past lives but there are some who can remember. The most important thing that comes with us when we are reborn is our character. That is why we see children born in the same family with such different characters. That is why some children are born as geniuses - they had developed their skills in past lives.

We start off being born as a lower being like the plant but we slowly evolve and are reborn as higher and higher beings until we become human.

Law of Karma: The word karma literally means 'deed or action,' but implies the entire cycle of cause and its effects. According to the Law of Karma, every human action-in thought, word, or deed-inevitably leads to results, good or bad, depending upon the moral quality of the action. There is no such thing as action without results. "As we sow, so shall we reap," is the unerring law which governs all deeds. The Law of Karma conserves the moral consequences of all actions, and conditions our future lives accordingly. We ourselves create our future destinies by our own choices each minute. Every child born in this world is born to work out its own past deeds.

The doctrine of karma is the answer provided by Hindus to the questions of why suffering and inequalities exist in the world: "Why should one person be different from another in his looks, abilities, and character? Why is one born a king and another a beggar? A just and merciful God cannot create such inequalities." The doctrine of karma, a law of actions and their retribution, can be viewed as the law of causation (cause and effect) applied to the moral realm. The law that every action has a reaction works in the scientific world as well as in the moral world.

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The doctrine of karma is based upon the principle of cause and effect. This doctrine of cause and effect differs from the Christian notion that God punishes the wicked and rewards the virtuous. The underlying basis for this difference is that Hindu religion is a god-loving religion rather than a god-fearing one.

Karma is neither predestination nor fatalism. Fatalism and predestination imply that individuals are bound by circumstances or by some outside power and, as such, cannot free themselves with their own effort. That is exactly opposite of karma. The Law of Karma is actually the law of harmony and equilibrium. It adjusts wisely, intelligently and equitably each effect to its cause. But, it is also the law of opportunity, which allows an individual to change his past for a better future. If we understand karma as the law of order and opportunity, we will become self-reliant and understand that we cannot and should not escape responsibility.

Operation of the Law of Karma

The past karma of an individual consists of two parts, pr„rabdha karma and saŮchita karma. Pr„rabdha karma is the part of one's past karma, which is to bear fruit in the present life of the individual. SaŮchita karma is accumulated karma of the previous births which is to bear fruit in the future. Pr„rabdha karma of an individual consists of two components: fixed and variable. The fixed component of karma is beyond our control and consists of that component of the past karma, which determines one's parents, the family and the country in which a child must be born, the general features of the physical body that the child will eventually develop, and the social and religious environment in which the child must grow.

The variable component of the past karma remains latent in the subconscious mind of the child in the form of samsk„ras (natural habits and tendencies). It is this variable part of the past karma that one can overcome by initiative and free will. The level of success one can achieve in diluting the effects of the variable component, however, depends upon the power of the samsk„ras and the strength of the individual will.

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The past karma of an ordinary human being is either good, bad, or mixed. An individual's particular incarnation is determined by the overall balance of past karma. If the overall balance is positive (i.e. overall good karma), the individual will be born in an environment that would be naturally conducive toward the onward progress of his soul. In a particular incarnation, only those innate tendencies (samsk„ras) are manifested for which conditions are favorable in that incarnation. The right environment is essential for manifestation of the samsk„ras. For example, if an individual is born as a professor (because of his overall good karma) and if he had been a gambler in his past incarnations, his innate gambling tendency will not find the right environment to manifest itself in the academic environment of his vocation. However, if he happens to be in the company of gamblers at a weekend party, he will exhibit a natural love for gambling because of the residual impressions of his past karma.

Every human action, be it physical or mental, produces two effects. First, depending upon the moral quality of an action, the appropriate fruits of the action will be rewarded later, either in the same life or in a future life. Secondly, the action leaves residual impressions (samsk„ras) on the subconscious mind of the individual. These samsk„ras generate thought waves (vrittis) and thereby determine the character of the individual. Thus, actions determine the personal conduct and this conduct molds the character, in a revolving chain of cause and effect. The Brihad„ranyaka Upanishad declares thus: "A man becomes good by performing good deeds and evil by performing evil deeds."

Free Will

Human will can be sharpened and strengthened by yoga, meditation, prayers, positive thinking, right environment, and association (satsangh) with the pure-minded persons. According to the philosophy of yoga, the negative thought waves which arise in the human mind due to samsk„ras of the past karma, can be neutralized by introducing positive thought waves generated by human will.

The consequences of human actions are determined by the doctrine of karma as well as the doctrine of free will. The negative samsk„ras of the past karma can be overcome by human will. In Hindu view, what separates a saint and a sinner is only time. With right knowledge and effort, a sinner of today can be a saint of tomorrow. As Dr. R„dh„krishnan says, "The cards of life are given to us [in the form of samsk„ras], but we can play them as we wish, and win or lose, as we play."

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The Role of Parents and Teachers

When one commits a murder, two possibilities exist. Either the person is creating a brand new karma (agami karma) by misusing his free will, or his action is motivated by the negative samsk„ras of his past actions. In either case he is totally responsible for his actions. He could have been helped if his free will had been strengthened by yoga, meditation, prayers, positive thinking, and right environment. This responsibility squarely falls on the society in general, and parents and teachers in particular. The best time (and perhaps the only time!) to implant good samsk„ras in a person is when the person is still young and his negative samsk„ras are not yet ready to bear their bitter fruit. The children in modern societies are constantly subjected to negative samsk„ras of violence perpetuated by television, family conflicts, and lack of appropriate training of parents to properly raise their children.

Unfortunately, in modern societies more attention is given to development of the body than the mind. The educational institutions generally teach skills that enable one to make a descent living to maintain one's physical body, but no skills are generally taught to nourish one's mind. Just as soap and shampoo clean the physical body, yoga and meditation clean the mind by removing mental impurities, such as fear, anger, lust, greed, jealousy, and conceit. Yoga and meditation also strengthen the mind by increasing its willpower. A strong mind is a virtuous mind and without virtue there can be no happiness in this world. "One may gain political and social independence, but if he is a slave to his passions and desires, he cannot feel the pure joy of freedom," says Sw„mÓ Vivek„nanda.

Is God not forgiving?

When we indulge in wrong deeds knowingly or unknowingly, we will have to reap the fruits of our action. However, severity of the fruits of action can be reduced by the grace of God when we sincerely repent for our wrong deeds. This is known as 'pashcaattaapa'.

Can we stop being reborn? Yes, only after we find God. That is the final destination. We have to reach God to stop this cycle of rebirth. This is called moksha.

(Prepare for the question from the children - How to attain Moksha)

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Different ways to reach God

There are lots of different ways to find God.

Some clever-clogs like to use their intelligence to find God - this way to God is called path of knowledge (jnana marg).

Then there are others who just fall in love with God - the method they use to find God is called the path of devotion (bhakti marg).

There are also some that like to use concentration and find God. This method of finding God is called path of meditation (raja yoga).

Some people like to be very active. They love to work. The method they use to find God is called path of action (karma marg).

No one method is better than others. The method we choose should reflect our own character and abilities and most of us will have to follow a combination of the above paths.

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