Karma & Frank Morales

by Koenraad Elst, Ph.D., 2007

In Dharma Journal: Authentic Dharma for Today's World dd. 19 March 2007, Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya, originally known as Dr. Frank Morales, has published a contribution: “Is there evidence for reincarnation?” Given the pivotal role that the assumption of reincarnation plays in the worldview and ethics of many millions of Hindus and Buddhists, a bit of solid proof would certainly be welcome. Unfortunately, that is not what is offered in the article cited.

Frank Morales is doing good work as a preacher, but as a defender and apologist of Hindu doctrine, he suffers the same shortcomings of most catechism-type introductory books on Hinduism, including those that are used in courses for youngsters in US temples or in the UK school system. In this case, it is the tendency to treat as “proof” something that will only convince the already-convinced Hindus but is sure to fail with outsiders, including the not-so-meek critical Hindu-born youngsters. Hindu teachers and polemicists typically fail to get feedback from the outside world. So let me provide some.

Morales presents the problem thus: “I've often been asked about what evidence there is for the process of reincarnation. (...) In the same way, reincarnation cannot be proven through scientific experimentation (…) but it can be proven through inference and logic. (...) One of the most powerful arguments for upholding the fact of reincarnation is that, without the existence of reincarnation and karma (reincarnation and karma are inseparable; you can't have one without the other), the existence of human suffering has no explanation and no coherent meaning.”

First off: reincarnation and karma are separate concepts, and the one does exist without the other. Many tribal societies believe in reincarnation, but with implications that are very different from those assumed by Hindus and Buddhists, e.g. some see reincarnation not as a burden but as desirable, sometimes even as a reward given only to an elite. In particular, many have no notion of karma, i.e. carrying over guilt or merit or some life programme from past lives. Conversely, the Christian notion that you get rewarded or punished in the afterlife for your good and bad deeds in this world, viz. by going to heaven c.q. to hell, amounts to a karma doctrine (carrying over guilt/merit) but without reincarnation.

Morales treats his assumption as a logical necessity: “Logically speaking, we can only explain the meaning of suffering in the world by inferring the fact of reincarnation and karma.” But this in turn pre-supposes the pre-logical assumption that there is any “meaning” at all to suffering. Maybe it doesn’t have meaning except at most the one that human beings choose to give to it. Maybe suffering is tragic or absurd. This may or may not be the case, but surely it is not incompatible with the laws of logic.

Then, Morales moves on to an argument that is indeed very commonly heard among believers in reincarnation: “If each of us merely pops into existence at the moment of conception, and did not have a pre-existence previous to the creation of this body, then how do we explain the fact that some people are born with terrible birth defects (blindness, lacking a limb, etc.), and others are not?”

Well, we don’t. We need not assume that there is an explanation for this painful difference between individuals, except by natural causes. Some children have an infelicitous genetic mutation, some children’s mother took the wrong medicine during pregnancy, some suffered injuries during delivery, and so they ended up handicapped. In contrast, others were not so unlucky. That's all.

Next follows a theistic version of the same argument: “How can a merciful and loving God allow some babies to be born fine and healthy, and others to be born in a terrible state of pain and suffering?”

Once more, what is presented as a strict deduction from logical necessities turns out to be based on quite a number of contingent assumptions, in this case that (1) there is a God, (2) He is merciful and loving, and (3) being merciful is incompatible with remaining passive at the sight of suffering. Well, maybe there is no God. Or maybe He isn't good and merciful. There is no logical necessity for God to exist nor for Him being merciful. Moreover, He may even think suffering is good for us. Maybe, as some Christian saints have asserted, the ones suffering most are being specially blessed by God. Morales reformulates this argument: “Simply claiming that such instances are merely ‘divine mysteries’ is just avoiding the question.” That much is true, but then: “The only explanation for suffering that does not make God seem either unjust or impotent is the concept of reincarnation/karma.” But why should we avoid making God “seem” so and so? After all, He may indeed be impotent (e.g. because non-existent), or alternatively, He may not care about the suffering of His creatures. Thus, in the deistic view, God merely set the clockwork of the laws of nature moving and then withdrew from creation, leaving His creatures to their own devices.

Follows yet another reformulation of the same argument: “More, we also see that people are all born with very different capacities, talents, attributes, and personalities. As much as we want to pretend that all human beings are born as complete tabula rasa-s, or blank slates, the truth is that none of us are born with equal intrinsic faculties. Some people are born with more of an inherent talent to be creative and artistic than others. Some are born more cerebral and intelligent than others. Some are born 7 feet tall and can become famous basketball players, while some are 5 feet tall, and cannot. Again, the only logical explanation for why a just and merciful God would allow people to be born with such diverse and unequal qualities is reincarnation and karma.”

No, genetics is sufficient explanation for these differences, with some environmental influences thrown in. But no God needed. And even if a God were somehow involved,-- why should we impose egalitarianism on Him? He didn't create sheep and wolf equal, did He?

Dr. Morales restates the predominant moralistic version of the karma theory, viz. that self-chosen good deeds lead to happy experiences in the future, while evil-doing will cause misery for oneself: “The concept of reincarnation and karma is a principle of both universal justice and radical freedom of the individual to create his/her own destiny. This concept teaches us that with every thought, action and word containing ethical-content that we engage in, we are freely creating who we are – and who we will be in the future. When we perform actions that are of an ethically positive and good nature, we are directly affecting our own consciousness in such a way as to purify and ennoble who we are. Conversely, when we perform actions that arise from selfishness, egotism and negativity, we are ensuring that our future only holds darkness and sorrow.” Karma is not supposed to work only across lifetimes; it works across time, and there is no reason why it should not already have an effect within a lifetime. Now, it is true that doing good rewards you with peace of mind and serenity, while doing evil creates mental unrest and profound unhappiness, in most people at least. But it is not the case that within one lifetime, those who do good are rewarded with happy life events, nor that evildoers find themselves punished. Experience teaches that good people are often hit by sad events, while evildoers often prosper. It is perfectly possible that, if there is reincarnation, the same lack of reward or punishment still holds across lifetimes. I don't know if that is the case, but it is Morales who speaks repeatedly of a logical necessity behind karma. My point is that while it may be factually true (that remains to be investigated), it is certainly not logically necessary.

As for “universal justice”, well who ever said that the universe is just? Perhaps the universe by itself is indifferent to matters of justice. Perhaps justice is but a human artefact with which we may, if we choose, humanize this vale of tears.

Among Hindu activists, the fatal tendency to talk to themselves and ignore the outside world is enormous. Whether it is the Aryan invasion debate or Hindu-Muslim relations, Hindu orators are enamoured with their own words and don't care to await the reaction of the other party. They are satisfied with and convinced by their own words, so they don't care to verify whether these have convinced anyone. In the present context, the claim that karma is justice and that it explains cases of suffering as just, may well sound nice to you, but it doesn't to Christians or atheists. They have the logical objection that you merely assume that the universe is intrinsically just, which is not logically necessary nor apparent from life experience.

But more importantly, they have the moral objection that this is an easy way to justify suffering. When Communists came to power in Buddhist countries, they correctly remarked that the karma doctrine is the perfect “opium of the people”: when you are suffering because of social injustice, it lays the blame with yourself (your past incarnations) rather than with your exploiters and oppressors. That is why many abhor the karma doctrine and won’t be bought off with this syrupy explanation. In the case of India, they denounce it as a typically Hindu (meaning: duplicitous, hypocritical) device to justify caste oppression, which they see as the backbone of Hindu society.

If anyone feels called to write on karma, he had better not repeat the worn-out self-justification that all Hindus and Buddhists already know anyway. Rather, he should meet these objections, which are not mean-spirited or biased but come naturally to any candid mind. Including that of sufficiently gifted and non-conformistic young Hindus. If you want to keep them in the Hindu fold, it were better to come up with an explanation that is thoroughly convincing and remains so even after critical scrutiny and confrontation with alternative views.

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