So enquired the wife of a pastor of a church of me. I answered in the affirmative. She shot back, “Then tell me how a small ant can do any good or bad karma and get a better or worse birth next time?”
In 2002, I visited Toronto in Canada on a work assignment. Toronto happens to be the nearest city to the famed Niagara Falls from Canadian side. I took a conducted tour to Niagara Falls. As it happened, there was a world-wide convention of churches (not all but of one branch), and I went on the conducted tour on which the delegates from that convention were booked. It was on this tour the pastor’s wife caught me off guard. Off guard, because I was a computer programmer and not an evangelist of Hinduism even though I was of 51 years of age.
Hindu philosophy states that all people born on this earth are certain to die and equally certain is the fact that all the dead would be reborn. This concept is enunciated in 27th Sloka (couplet) of the second chapter of Bhagavad Gita, the sacred book of Hindus. They believe that there is a soul (Atman) in every live being, and that it goes through the cycle of birth-death-rebirth and ultimately merges with the universe (Brahman). The second chapter of Bhagavad Gita (Slokas 17, 20, 23, 24 and 25) states that the Atman cannot be hurt, burnt or destroyed.
In Christianity, there is no antonym for “sin.” You can commit “sin,” but can you commit what is opposite of “sin.” Hindus believe that a person is capable of committing not only sin but also “punya” (“u” to be pronounced as in “put” – “put it down”). Punya is currently being translated as “good karma” by some astrologers in the western world.
“Karma,” by the way, means “duty.” There is nothing good or bad about it, just as “duty” has neither bad nor good connotation to it. We will discuss about “Karma” in another article.
Why do souls go through cycles?
Why does the Atman (soul) go through the cycle? It is because of the debts (obligations) it acquires during life. Every time we perform a favor for some one (it need not be to people alone but could be to animals, society, air, water or to the environment), we receive an IOU. Whenever we receive a favor from any one, we execute an IOU. We steal something and may escape getting caught. All the same, we signed the IOU. As we live from day to day and year to year, we execute so many IOUs some in our favor and the rest in others’ favor. Now, who keeps an account of all IOUs of all persons? Hindus believe that there is one God in charge of it – namely “Chitra Gupta,” the celestial accountant.
Now you may be laughing. “Impossible,” you say, “how many terabytes are needed to keep the score?”
Let me state the other incredible belief that is common to Islam, Christianity and Judaism: They believe that there is going to be total destruction and a day of reckoning on which every person has to answer the God for their actions on earth. Now, for the last 6,000 years, no such day has taken place. Supposing today total destruction takes place and the day of reckoning is scheduled for tomorrow, how many people would be in queue? Billions, if not tens of billions – right? OK, so all three religions claim that that their adherents would be first in the queue without much evidence to attest to the claim except their holy books. Now, where do the souls of the dead reside till the Day of Judgment? Don’t tell me that they do not believe in souls! The phrase “RIP” – the full form of which is, “May his/her soul rest in peace till the day of judgment” – attests that they do believe in souls.
In Hinduism, one’s actions are accounted for immediately upon death. A person’s reward (positive or negative), as well as the next birth, is decided, and the Atman is sent back to another birth to enjoy/suffer the reward. The individual’s account is deleted. This action reduces the workload drastically. The judgment can be automated fully. As it is on a daily basis, the workload is distributed more or less evenly. The workload is not postponed and stacked to a single day somewhere in future.
That concept is why the Bhagavad Gita and advanced concepts of Hinduism state that God is none other than Brahman (the universe) itself!
What determines the place of our next rebirth?
Where does the next birth take place? Hindu scriptures state that there are 14 Bhuvanas (earth-like worlds) in this universe with seven above us and the rest below us. The birth can be at any place. Heaven and hell are part of these fourteen. Heaven is supposed to be above us and hell below us. The next birth can be either in heaven (the best place) or hell (the worst place) or in any of the remaining 12 Bhuvanas. The form of birth would be directly proportional to the IOUs we executed. Please note that the positive and negative IOUs do not cancel out each other! All the IOUs have to be either repaid or collected. You can’t even write them off! If you have more positive IOUs, you will get human form. If negative IOUs are more than positive IOUs, the form would not be human.
“Taking what nature gives and giving back to nature what it needs is the only way to get out of the cycle of birth and death.”
Now, how can the soul get out of this cycle? Easy – become debt-free in a life! Collect all the IOUs owed to you and pay all the IOUs you woe and do not execute any fresh IOUs to become debt-free. Buddhists call this state “Nirvana.” But everyday living demands favors from us and to us. That is why Hindus clamor to become Rishis who dwell in forests and live as one with the nature. Rishis do not pluck fruits from trees. They eat only the fallen fruits. Taking what nature gives and giving back to nature what it needs is the only way to get out of the cycle of birth and death.
Now, what about animals, birds, insects and other non-human life? How will they escape the cycle? Any non-human form of life is akin to a jail term. Any form of life other than human form is a punishment for the Atman. The Atman suffers the punishment and reverts to the human form similar in circumstance in which it was before taking on non-human form. This is the answer I gave to the pastor’s wife in 2002. I told her that even in jail, the term is extended or reduced based on the good/bad behavior of the inmate. When the environment is tightly controlled by people of absolute authority, how can inmates still behave badly? Or, where is the opportunity to exhibit good behavior when they are consigned to a cell most of the time? An animal or an insect is akin to a person in a jail. The same opportunity is available to the non-human life as is available to a jail inmate.
I was not sure if I convinced her on that day but she did not ask any further religious questions of me.
New translations of the Ramayana by Dr. Murali Chemuturi!