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Mike Shreve was a teacher of yoga at four universities. (The portrait above was drawn by one of his students in 1970.) Then a spiritual rebirth brought him into a real relationship with God and drastically changed his heart, his life and his belief system.  Read his story here.

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Is our future really determined by past “karma”?

Teachers of Far Eastern religions maintain that the process of reincarnation is necessary for the ‘reaping’ of what some call ‘the karmic debt.’ This process determines the ongoing evolution of the soul. Every action produces either good or bad karma. Ordinarily, good karma cannot cancel bad karma (though some teach it can). Each cause must have its own effect. In his book, "The Teachings of Yogi Bhajan," my former guru explained, "There are no accidents. Anything that comes to you, you have put out beams for it."1 According to this theory, if we have an accident or any kind of negative experience, we have drawn it into our lives by some former negative behavior, probably in a previous existence. However, Yogi Bhajan even went as far as saying that, "Every word uttered by you must come back to you within twelve years and it must grip you within the scale of seven years. This is a law of nature."2

If Yogi Bhajan’s theory is correct (and if I am interpreting his words correctly) karma would usually have to have its effect within the same earthly life span, especially since our words are inseparably tied to our actions. The main ‘overflow’ of karma that a person would carry into the next life would primarily be the result of the last seven to twelve years of his or her life.

Whether or not this was Yogi Bhajan’s intended meaning, most teachers of the doctrine of karma agree that any negative or positive thing we do in life produces either bad or good karma that will inevitably be reaped, either in the same life or a future life. The object of the soul’s sojourn in this world is to walk in such righteousness, love and devotion to right religious principles that only good karma is sown. When this happens, when we become so perfected that we have no more negative karma, we attain moksha (release from samsara, the cycle of rebirths). Supposedly, this process can be quite lengthy. Some adherents of this doctrine feel it can involve hundreds, thousands, even millions of separate existences.

Thirteen Reasons Why I No Longer Embrace
the Related Doctrines of Reincarnation and Karma

(1) If suffering, evil and imperfection in any individual are a result of negative karma reaped from a former life, then how do suffering, evil and imperfection make their appearance in a soul’s first ‘incarnation’? Since every human being goes through suffering in this world, and every person is subject to evil and imperfection, there is no person free from this evidence of previous guiltiness. Therefore, there is absolutely no proof that anyone has been born for the first time with a ‘clean slate.’

(2) It is taught that the justice of God demands the concept of reincarnation. For instance, if a child is born physically debilitated or in abject poverty, there is no other explanation for such a condition than the presupposition that this is repayment for evil behavior in a former life. Otherwise, allowing such a circumstance would be sufficient evidence to indict the Almighty God with the crime of injustice. A loving Creator could never allow such a terrible plight to come upon an innocent child. So negative circumstances can only be the result of karmic indebtedness.

Believing this line of logic supposedly preserves the integrity and justness of God and places the blame on man for his own predicament. But does this really answer the questions we all ask concerning human suffering? Does it not instead catapult the human race into an even greater abyss of despair?

If this scenario is true, then the innocent child is no longer innocent and good people who suffer are no longer good. Instead they are all guilty parties who should unresistingly submit to the ‘punishment’ they deserve. How could this possibly be fair and just treatment especially since those who suffer have no recollection of the ill deeds for which they are being ‘punished’? Furthermore, because there is no remembrance of the causal action, unfortunate recipients of such ‘karmic curses’ cannot assess their wrong behavior patterns in order to make necessary adjustments in their character.

The unfairness of this doctrine is magnified even more if the Buddhist doctrine of no-self (anatta) is correct. According to this view, there is no enduring self or soul that exists from one incarnation to the next. Instead, five ‘aggregates’ are disassembled at death and a new person is assembled from five new aggregates in the next incarnation. The only thing transferred from one manifestation to the next is the "unconscious disposition" with its attachment of karma accumulated from previous lives. In this scenario, a person does not suffer for his own evil deeds, but for those performed by altogether different individuals. In the Garland Sutra (10) this is verified—"According to what deeds are done, do their resulting consequences come to be; yet the doer has no existence: this is the Buddha’s teaching." One person being subjected to suffering because of another person’s errors is not justice; it is injustice—of cosmic proportions.

(3) If negative karma must be paid off, then any person used to execute such ‘divine justice’ unwittingly throws himself into the same vicious cycle. For instance, if someone lived his life as a compulsive thief, it would be necessary for that same person, in a future life, to be subjected to numerous robberies. But the thieves fated to participate in this ‘karmic payoff’ would be sowing negative karma that they too must reap in future lives, making it necessary for a third generation of robbers to emerge. Further down the karmic road, those fated to fill the role of fourth generation ‘robbers of the robbers of the robbers of the robber’ would also incur a load of karmic debt that must be paid off. This would necessitate many more thieves to be born in order for ‘robbers of the robbers of the robbers of the robbers of the robber’ to make their appearance on the stage of life. So the process would multiply itself exponentially into an inescapable, never-ending, infinitely-enlarging, impossible-to-solve scenario. Besides, are these thieves making the choice, out of their own free will, to rob others or did fate destine them to be thieves? If the latter is true, injustice reigns over the future of the human race, because people are forced to do things for which they are then punished because of karma. They become unknowing and unwilling victims of an irresistable process.

(4) Belief in the law of karma can actually result in indifference toward, and even inhumane treatment of, those who are suffering. Logic would dictate that people in misery are just paying off their karma. So why interfere? In fact, if someone does interfere with the karmic process through an act of charity, it could serve to prolong a person’s suffering (even lifetimes) because the repayment of the karmic debt is postponed. So theoretically, the only safe reaction to society’s woes would be passive non-involvement, detachment, withdrawal from a pained world (a paralyzing mindset that often dominates societies where this doctrine is embraced).

Taken to an obviously, rarely-embraced extreme, if the doctrine of karma is right, helping others could actually be doing them a disservice. Doctors should not help the sickly; counselors should not help the mentally impaired; benevolent persons should not give alms to the underprivileged. Because in doing these things, those compassionate persons are resisting what fate has dictated for the hurting. If this is the case, is it not even possible that the benevolent person could be earning negative karma himself? By assisting the helpless and the hopeless, he could actually, in some situations, be hurting them and hurting himself. So the answer would be, not alleviating all of this misery, but escaping into an inner world by striving to attain some ‘higher Self.’

Of course, it must be said that many who believe in karma and reincarnation are very compassionate persons who actually make great efforts to reach out to those who are needy. This is commendable, and I am certainly not suggesting that they should do otherwise. But when this doctrine is closely inspected, these facets of interpretation must be seriously considered.

(5) Certain predictions of karmic retribution in ancient Hindu sacred texts appear much too severe and obviously unjust. The Puranas are considered sacred and inspired writings by Hindus. The following passage from this portion of Hindu Scripture communicates a detailed warning concerning the severity of the karmic retribution resulting from specific sinful acts:

The murderer of a Brahmin becomes consumptive, the killer of a cow becomes humpbacked and imbecile, the murderer of a virgin becomes leprous—all three born as outcastes. The slayer of a woman and the destroyer of embryos becomes a savage full of diseases; who commits illicit intercourse, a eunuch; who goes with his teacher’s wife, disease-skinned. The eater of flesh becomes very red; the drinker of intoxicants, one with discolored teeth…Who steals food becomes a rat; who steals grain becomes a locust…honey, a gadfly; flesh, a vulture; and salt, an ant…Who commits unnatural vice becomes a village pig; who consorts with a Sudra woman becomes a bull; who is passionate becomes a lustful horse…These and other signs and births are seen to be the karma of the embodied, made by themselves in this world. Thus the makers of bad karma, having experienced the tortures of hell, are reborn with the residues of their sins, in these stated forms. (Garuda Purana 5)

Does it not seem unreasonable that these terrible curses are the in-evitable plight of those who transgress in the ways mentioned above? Though some are extremely grave sins (such as murder and adultery), others are quite minor. What if there was a benevolent man who helped thousands, who built hospitals, who gave to the poor, who lived and promoted the truth his entire life, yet he unfortunately stole some salt when he was a young boy? According to this passage, his change of heart and his righteous acts would be of no avail. Because of one ill deed in his youth, this man would be confined to the horrid destiny of becoming an insect until his karmic debt was sufficiently paid off (because good karma normally cannot cancel out bad karma). Such severe treatment could only be labeled unfair and unjust. It isolates individual errors instead of determining a person’s destiny according to the total contribution of his or her life.

Of course, it must be stated that many proponents of the doctrine of reincarnation, both East and West, do not accept the idea of the regression of the soul from human to animal form. For instance, Theosophist Irving Cooper commented, "Progress is forwards, not backwards, so as we advance we always come back in human bodies, each one a little better than the previous one. Sometimes, it is true, for some grievous fault, we may during one incarnation retrace our steps to a slight extent and take birth in a less advanced type of body and under less favorable conditions. But this retrograde movement is apparent and not real, even as the backward movement of an eddy in the flowing water of a river does not change the forward course of the stream."3 So there is great disagreement even among reincarnationists concerning the correct interpretation of this process.

(6) The doctrines of karma and reincarnation leave no room for forgiveness coming from God, as promised in the Bible. In Mark 1:15 Jesus exhorted his listeners to "Repent and believe in the Gospel." (The word gospel means "good news"—the ‘good news’ of the message that Jesus preached.) This passage reveals the two necessary prerequisites for those desiring salvation and forgiveness for sins. The first is repentance (which is genuine sorrow for sin resulting in a change of mind). The second is faith toward God (confidence and trust that he will fulfill his promises). Those who fulfill these criteria place themselves in a receptive position to receive that divine forgiveness that wipes sin out of existence. 1 John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (See Matthew 9:13, Romans 6:23, John 3:14–16; 5:24; 10:28, Acts 5:31, Hebrews 6:1.)

There is no biblical passage that even remotely implies the progressive evolution of the soul by means of self-achieved works of righteousness over a period of multiple lives. Quite the contrary, Titus 3:5 states, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit." This "washing" and "renewing" of the soul is a reference to the spiritual rebirth that takes place when the Spirit of Christ indwells any person yielding to his influence. Of course, only a personal and transcendent God can make the decision to forgive and indwell the heart of a remorseful, receptive and believing person. An impersonal, pantheistic, cosmic force could never willfully respond to carry out such a compassionate act of divine intervention.

(7) There are some means offered through Hinduism and other related religions that enable adherents to escape the accumulated effects of negative karma. For instance, it is generally accepted that if Hindus die in the city of Varanasi, especially if they have washed away their sins in the nearby River Ganges, such privileged ones will go straight to Shiva, returning immediately upon death to oneness with the Godhead. All negative karma that should forestall such an event is instead bypassed. Another escape from karma is promised in the Ramayana, an epic considered sacred and inspired. This portion of Hindu Scripture ends with a pledge that those who "read it" or "hear it read" will have all their sin washed away.

Some propose that meditating on the third eye can destroy karma from previous lives. Yogi Bhajan of Kundalini Yoga explains the value of chanting mantras, "Who is powerful? God or you? When you do the japa, chanting repetitiously, then the result is tapa, the heat that burns the karma."4

Some gurus and swamis claim to be able to dissolve negative karma in the lives of their disciples just by personal contact. Similar to this, Sikhs are encouraged in their holy book: "Whoever meditates on Guru Arjun [the fifth Guru in Sikhism] shall not have to pass through the painful womb of reincarnation ever again." (Adi Granth 1409:6)

Animal sacrifices have also been prescribed in Hinduism. In the Brahmanas, the ancient horse sacrifice (which began with the slaughter of 609 animals) was said to be especially efficacious. Though it took a year to finish, it was spoken of as "atonement for everything, the remedy for everything" redeeming all sin.5

If Jesus was an Avatar, as some claim, and if he knew these means of escaping karmic indebtedness were viable options, he would have surely concluded that dying on the cross was unnecessary. He would have emphasized pilgrimages to the city of Varanasi for the sick and ailing, the reading of the Ramayana, concentration on the third eye, the chanting of mantras or simple interaction with his disciples, karmically rewarding their devotion to him. If Jesus really did study under enlightened masters in India during his hidden years, as some assert, he certainly would have had this information as part of his spiritual portfolio. Yet he never taught or even implied these things! How could someone ‘enlightened’ withhold such valuable information if it were really true? And above all, why sacrifice yourself when the sacrifice of horses would prove sufficient?

(8) The doctrine of karma and the Hindu belief in cycles of creation seem to be in direct conflict with each other. (See "Hinduism" under Worldviews Contrasted: Cycles, Ages and the Ultimate State of the Universe.) How could a perfect age (the Krita Yuga) in which dharma (the moral order) is completely manifested in the human race, ever degenerate into anything less? There would only be positive karma being sown. Likewise, how could this present corrupt age, the Kali Yuga, with its overload of negative karma ever hope to be reborn into another Krita Yuga, a golden era of utter perfection? What happens to the huge amount of accumulated negative karma? Furthermore, if the world in its present stage is ‘digressing’ into the ever-increasing, miry depths of the Kali Yuga, how can souls caught in this evil age ever hope to be found ‘progressing’ toward perfection and godhood? The current of fate’s influence is carrying us down, not up. Yet this is the cyclical pattern that is promoted in traditional Hinduism as the true developmental, evolutionary process of this world.

(9) If reincarnation is true, then fatalism is true. The hypothesis is this—"at the moment of reincarnation, the soul (called the subtle body), after making the appropriate karmic calculations, attaches itself to a developing embryo."6 This would make it necessary for the future of that embryo to be absolutely predetermined, even in minor details. Otherwise the calculations could not be dependable. This leaves very little, if any room for freedom of choice or divine intervention. Men and women are no more than puppets on karmic strings, controlled by an inexorable and inescapable law. While appearing to be masters of their own future, according to this standard, men and women are really prisoners of their own past.

(10) If it is necessary for human beings to work out their ‘karmic debt’ through many incarnations, Jesus’ death was in vain and the crucifixion was not the pivotal, planetary event that Christianity claims. If Jesus were ‘enlightened’ to the doctrine of karma, as some insist, he would have known that people’s problems may take numerous incarnations to resolve. An attempt to intervene for man on such a grand scale would have been a gross disregard for the karmic process. By his own admission, no man took Jesus’ life from him. He gave it up willingly, knowing the infinite value of what he would accomplish. (See John 10:18.) The very fact that he did this, expecting it to bring salvation to the world, shows that the related doctrines of reincarnation and karma were not part of his belief system. Therefore, these doctrines should not be a part of our belief system either.

(11) If it is necessary for human beings to evolve to perfection through numerous incarnations, then both the resurrection of Jesus and the promised future resurrection of all believers, are stripped of validity, value and purpose. Jesus’ physical body went through an agonizing death on the cross. The same body was resurrected three days later. This literal conquering of mortality is something no other religious leader ever accomplished (though Sikhs claim something similar for their founder, Guru Nanak). After Jesus ascended into heaven, he was glorified, receiving a "glorious body," a celestial form that shines like the sun in the kingdom of God. (Philippians 3:21) When the biblical patriarch Job faced imminent death, he confessed to God, "All the days of my appointed time will I wait till my change come." (Job 14:14) The Psalmist David also foretold, "I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness." (Psalm 17:15) In other words, the ultimate hope for God’s people is a final, physical change into the likeness of the Lord himself.

While on earth, Jesus promised, "This is the will of him who sent me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:40) The Scripture also promises that he is able to "transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to his glorious body." (Philippians 3:21) This will happen at the Second Coming of Christ, when the resurrection of the dead takes place.

Jesus explained that after that great event, in the future "kingdom of heaven," God’s people will sit down and commune with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the patriarchs of Judaism). (See Matthew 8:11, Luke 13:28.) If these men are identifiable eternally as these singular, previous personalities, then what happened to their multiple personalities up to that point? Or what happened to any subsequent personalities they bore later on? No, the implication is clear—they only lived one life!

If reincarnation is true then the doctrine of the resurrection becomes totally confused. If we wear a number of physical bodies during numerous earthly sojourns, which one is resurrected? Furthermore, if the soul ultimately evolves, through the reincarnation process, into formless union with Brahman, then resurrection is unnecessary. Yet resurrection was the pattern set forth in the prototype of all sons of God. If Jesus, the firstborn Son of God, was literally resurrected from the dead, he went through this experience to set a precedent and to give his followers hope—hope that we, too, will eventually be resurrected from the dead, in a literal sense.

If Jesus was really an ‘Avatar,’ and if he really studied under Far Eastern masters, why did he teach such a doctrine that is so contradictory to what they would profess. Considering these things, it must be concluded that these two doctrines—"reincarnation versus resurrection"—are completely incompatible. Therefore, only one belief can be retained, at the expense of the other being discarded. (For more information on this particular aspect, see the section directly preceding this section, titled, "Which is right: reincarnation or resurrection?".)

(12) Some worldviews teach man’s ultimate destiny is to be liberated from ‘personhood’ in order to achieve an undifferentiated union with an ‘impersonal’ Cosmic Force! For instance, in philosophic Hinduism the implication is made that passing from a state of being a ‘personal entity’ to the state of being one with an ‘impersonal essence’ is actually ‘progress.’ However, if viewed logically, the loss of personality would have to be gross spiritual digression, not progression. Generally speaking, Buddhism forecasts an even more tragic, spiritual reversal (though a Buddhist would counter that such a view is not pessimistic, but realistic). In this worldview, an individual is finally divested of all the trappings of ‘personhood’ when he or she enters paranirvana (final extinction of personal existence). Embracing such a concept would make some difficult or negative ‘personalities’ on the evolutionary journey superfluous, expendable and, in a sense, even discardable—reducing the value of the individual. Christianity, on the other hand, grants each person infinite value and promises the perfecting of the individual personality in a final glorified state, as well as an unending love-relationship with a personal and eternal God. It must be said that such a scenario alone constitutes true spiritual progress.

(13) Finally, true salvation is based, not on man’s effort to reach perfection, but rather, on God’s effort to reach man. The biblical worldview depicts man, caught in a sinful state, seeking God and trusting the Creator to condescend to his level. In response to man’s humility and repentance, God grants forgiveness, mercy, restoration, an imparted status of righteousness and the gift of eternal life. The Far Eastern worldview depicts man being awakened out of a state of ignorance, striving to ascend to a place of perfection through human effort. Though striving to live a perfect life is certainly commendable, it is not possible. No human being can be entirely free of imperfections. The Bible does encourage believers to be perfect even as the heavenly Father is perfect, but it does not hinge salvation on the actual attaining of this goal. (See Matthew 5:48.) A more thorough explanation of this final argument immediately follows, under the heading, "Does salvation come by human effort or by the grace of God?"


1 Yogi Bhajan, The Teachings of Yogi Bhajan, The Power of the Spoken Word, p. 171, #673

2 Ibid., p. 177, #710.

3 Irving S. Cooper, Theosophy Simplified (Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House, sec. Quest ed., 1989) p. 57.

4 Yogi Bhajan, The Teachings of Yogi Bhajan, The Power of the Spoken Word, p. 173, #684.

5 F. Max Muller, Sacred Books of the East (Oxford 1879-1910) Brahmana translation: 44:328; quoted in Robert E Hume, The World’s Living Religions (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, rev. ed.,1936) p. 23.

6 John H. Hick, "Reincarnation," The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Press, 1983) p. 491; quoted in Norman L. Geisler & J. Yutaka Amano, The Reincarnation Sensation (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1986) p. 29.


"In Search of the True Light" ©2002 copyright by Mike Shreve.
All articles unless otherwise noted are copyright by Mike Shreve.
Personal Stories are the work of the individuals.
All Rights Reserved.

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