Karma, and Transmigration

Karma is a central concept to several world religions, sometimes termed dharmic religions for their belief in dharma — a complex term that may be said to refer to a pluralistic worldview that views all religions as many different paths all striving to reach the same cosmological and moral truths. The concept of karma lends itself to this pluralism: Karma is “debt” accumulated throughout one’s life that must be paid off, in some form or fashion, in this life or the next — with the next being directly impacted by the weight, positive or negative, of one’s karma.

Dharmic religions view this transmigration as one that happens upon death: We live our present life, accrue our karmas, and when we die, we are reborn as another being with a fate according to those karmas.  A sinner may therefore be born again as an insect to pay off their bad karma, while a charitable individual may be reborn as a holy man. The holy man, through his practices, can achieve liberation from this cycle of birth and death.

Karma, transmigration, and dharma are all intricately interwoven, and it isn’t a coincidence that they are always seen together.  Karma requires transmigration to function, and the pluralism and emphasis on cause and effect inherent in dharma lends itself to a belief in karma.  The relevant question cannot reasonably therefore be whether dharma, karma, or transmigration are relevant concepts to a nondual worldview; rather, these things should be more heavily explored and defined.

A worldview centered on oneness is necessarily dharmic; even in not believing in a dualistic God, it recognizes that the belief in such is a relevant paradigm and may lead to the same truth.  This is equal with not believing in any God at all. The concept of nonduality is a very difficult one, and it is probably accurate that the large majority of individuals who embrace a nondual worldview began their study and practice from a dualistic or materialistic one.  Therefore, these paths are not inherently distinct in their destinations.

Karma and transmigration, however, need reexamination.  From a nondual perspective, there is only a single, universal soul that might be called God, and the appearance of being separate is illusion.  This soul is necessarily both without and with every describing feature, since it encompasses everything, ie there is nothing that is not God, and so it does not seem reasonable to assert that karma might accumulate upon it with the intent of judgement.  This is not to say that karma does not exist in nonduality, but rather, it needs a more discerning definition: Rather than debts accrued that one is punished or rewarded for by being given worse or better lives — with bad and good being a duality — the dichotomy needs to be scrubbed and viewed without judgement.  Instead of being bad and good, karmas simply are.

This means that karmas do not cancel each other out — one cannot get rid of the bad karma of stealing by then taking care of one’s ailing grandmother.  From a rational standpoint, this is also sensible: Even in taking care of one’s grandmother, it isn’t as if the consequences of the theft aren’t felt.  The theft will still hurt the victim, and the thief will still be punished, and no one would say that this should not be the case simply because the thief decided to turn over a new leaf.  Even if overnight they became completely saintly and devoted the next fifteen years to charity, that one theft still has its consequences.

It is not certain that the consequences will be felt by the thief, however.  There are many who do not apparently reap the rewards of their activities; people make a magnificent living off of the suffering of others and die happy.  Religions have often noted that these people must experience internal anguish, but we know that psychopaths are not uncommon among any population and will never feel any such thing, by nature of their neurology.  Dharmic religions address this by stating that this evil individual will be reincarnated into a low or bad life, but within nonduality, what is low? What is bad? Explicit punishment and reward cannot exist from this perspective.

Furthermore, what is rebirth?  In dharmic religions, it is the transmigration of the individual soul, but that requires a duality — one soul moving from one form into another, and existing in one where it does not exist in another.

Transmigration needs, therefore, to be redefined: Rather than a soul existing in one place at one time, and another place at another time, it must be reasserted that the single, universal soul exists in all places at all times.  Within nonduality, it is important to remember that not only are the differences in entities illusory, but the differences in times are as well; that is, every entity that exists, has ever existed, and will ever exist, is in truth the same single entity.

When understood, this concept leads to a new, but compatible, take on karma: Rather than being punished for doing bad, or rewarded for doing good to others, one is instead only doing what they are doing to themselves.  The dichotomy of good and bad is no longer necessary: If one murders, they are murdering themselves.  If one cures someone else’s cancer, it’s their own cancer that they are curing. So it is no longer past or future lives that are being discussed, it is simultaneous lives, all being affected by the karma produced by themselves and by one another, as they are played out by oneness.

Once more, this is spirituality and morality approached through rationality: The karma discussed here is no more than cause and effect as defined by the known and scientific laws of the universe.  They do not require a judge, or the creation of metaphysical laws. All that is requires is a nondual paradigm that sees a singular soul or awareness at the root of existence.