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Tree of Life


  Updated June 1, 2003

Chapter 3:

George Holt was a young man with immense potential.  The Captain of his football team, one of the most popular men in his senior class and valedictorian at a high school with the highest credentials, George seemed to have everything going his way.  He had received both athletic and academic scholarship offers from a dozen respected universities.  His ambition to become a medical researcher at a major university hospital seemed almost a foregone conclusion.  Until the fire.

It had begun in a small duplex.  A gas-heated hot water tank had exploded, starting the fire in one of the duplex apartments.  The family in the affected apartment had quickly run from the building, but they had failed to warn the young girl next door who was babysitting for a seven month old baby.  When the girl finally realized the building was on fire, she had panicked and run from the building.

George was biking with his friends, just outside the duplex, when flames began to shatter the window glass on the second floor.  The babysitter practically ran into his arms.  When George tried to calm her down, she suddenly remembered the baby.  George quickly realized what was happening, found out that the baby was sleeping in a second floor bedroom and sprinted for the building.

An exceptional athlete, he was in the building and up the stairs before most even realized what he was doing.  He quickly found the baby girl, wrapped her in her blanket, and with fires beginning to engulf the building, turned and raced to the stairs.  But just as he began his leaping descent, the upper portion of the stairs gave way.  Both he and the baby fell into the mass of flames and burning debris.  At virtually the same time a heavy ceiling beam collapsed, crashing into his lower back.  The impact threw him forward into a protruding step where he took the blow immediately above his right eye.

Despite the immense pain in his back, with his jacket arm already on fire, his head and eye critically injured, George managed to stagger from the building with the baby still cradled in his arms.  Reaching his friends, he suddenly lost feeling in his legs and collapsed in a heap.  Even as he fell, he did his best to protect the baby from the fall.

Within a few days the baby was fully recovered from the ordeal.  George was paralyzed from the waist down, his face and left arm badly burned, his right eye seriously scratched and his mental capacities encumbered by a severe head injury.  The prognoses for his paralysis and mental impairment were bitterly pessimistic.  George’s future potential was suddenly much less

Cause and Effect

Where’s the justice in a world where an innocent, heroic young man can lose so much?  How can we rationalize the horror of seeing bad things happen to good people?  If George had been a notoriously evil individual, perhaps we could accept his fate as just punishment for previous sins.  But George seemed blameless.

In the world of reincarnation, however, one need not confine themselves to the deeds in a single lifetime.  Perhaps George was actually receiving his just deserts for deeds committed in a lifetime prior to this one.  Perhaps justice was indeed being served.  Only in this case, it would more likely be referred to as karma.

Karma, in its simplest form, is a belief in the law of cause and effect, i.e., the rebirth of a soul into a lifetime where the trials and tribulations or the joys and happiness encountered may be punishment or reward for deeds done in previous incarnations.  In this simple form, karma is considered to be fundamental to the Hindu religion where it is believed a soul evolves by increasing purity achieved over successive existences, until that soul eventually reaches a state of Nirvana.  The state of Nirvana is essentially a state of divine bliss.

Sachindra Kumar Majumdar, in his book, Introduction to Yoga Principles and Practices, describes karma as a doctrine regarding human bondage and freedom:

“The doctrine of karma offers a philosophical explanation of the life and experience of an individual in terms of a moral law operative in the universe and not as the working out of blind chance or fate, or the fiat of a whimsical Ruler of the world.  The individual is the maker of his own destiny; he determines by his own action his future life and experience, his happiness and misery, his success and failure.

“Karma views the present life not as an isolated incident but as an episode in the larger career of the soul.  The life we live now is one link in a long chain; it is the result of our thoughts and actions in the previous existences.  Though our present life is determined by the past, it is not an absolute determination, for we can alter its course within limits.  We never lose our freedom completely, and there is always the possibility that we can attain complete freedom by discovering our true identity through knowledge.

“Our present life can be compared to a game of bridge.  The cards have been dealt out; we cannot change them.  But how we play our hand depends on us.  We can play well or poorly; we can make the best use of our opportunities or miss them.

The tone of this description might give one the impression that karma is predominantly a product of eastern philosophies.  Such an impression would not be entirely correct.  Consider, for example, a more “western” viewpoint.  In their book, Life Between Life, Dr. Joel L. Whitton and Joe Fisher (both of whom happen to be Canadian), describe karma in much the same way:

“Karma is that which individuals have set in motion for themselves from lifetime to lifetime by their motivations, attitudes, and behavior.  Acceptance of karma dismisses the idea that humans are mere pawns in a cosmic chess game.  To accept karma is to acknowledge that the world is an arena of natural justice:  There can be no unfairness, inequality, and misfortune if all conditions arise as a direct result of past conduct.  Karma weds self-responsibility to the law of cause and effect; one’s actions from life to life give shape and substance to personal continuity and personal destiny.

“Karma is a system of retributive justice that perpetuates rebirth and determines the form and setting of each succeeding incarnation.  Sooner or later, people will experience for themselves precisely the joys and sorrows they create for others.”

A Christian View

Although karma is a Sanskrit word (loosely translated as action or destiny) and intimately associated with Hinduism and Buddhism, the concept is also implied in biblical passages.  For example, recall our quotation from the previous chapter:

“And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.

“And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?

“Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents:  but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” (John 9:1-3)

Not only does the passage imply the ready acceptability by Jesus’ disciples of the idea of reincarnation, but the context also implies their acceptance of something equivalent to karma.  We can, for example, view the idea of a man being born blind as being punished by the blindness for sins committed in an earlier life before he was reincarnated in the world.  Accordingly, we might suggest that a concept akin to karma, whereby sins in one incarnation are atoned for in a later one, were, to some degree, current and acceptable during the time of Christ.

The implication that early Christianity may have advocated its own form of karma, suggests that the idea can not be limited to Eastern mysticism.  Recall also our discussion of Plato’s ideas on reincarnation in the previous chapter, where we found a clear indication of a belief that one’s lot in this life was dependent upon a soul’s degree of evolution.  Ducasse, in paraphrasing Plato’s ideas, states that lives are probationary, in which a righteous life improves and an unrighteous life deteriorates the progress of the soul.  Plato apparently also believed that a human soul could move from man to beast and back, as part of a soul’s improvement/deterioration.

Interpretations of Karma

Historically, the last three to four thousand years have seen significant modifications to our concepts of karma.  In the ancient Egyptian text, The Instruction of Ptahhotep (dating back to 2600 BCE), we find such concepts as your actions become your judgments.  The Bible was even more specific in balancing a soul’s moral accounts with retribution for past debts.  The Old Testament’s  “an eye for an eye” is relatively clear in its intent, as is the New Testament’s:  “He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity; he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword.” (Revelations 13:10)

Subsequent interpretations by The Christian Gnostics and the Hebrew Kabbalists, however, involved a simpler and perhaps more sophisticated form of compensation.  Instead of condemning a murderer to die in similar circumstances, the person’s soul is allowed to make amends and balance the books in some other way—perhaps by caring for the dying or maimed in a future life.

This second view is certainly a bit more practical.  The approach of “an eye for an eye,” assumes that for any misdeed for which karma would be incurred, there would be a compensating deed available in the future.  This may not always be the case.  For example, a Frenchman who created considerable karma by his acts of guillotining innocent victims, might be hard pressed to find a guillotine in a future life over which he could lose his own head.  Over the centuries, times change and compensation in precise forms is not only unlikely, but may not be equal in any case.

Another problem with the strict “eye for an eye” form of karmic justice is the potential for self-perpetuating problems.  If Tom chooses to die by Dick’s hand, in order to account for the fact that Tom killed Harry in a prior life, what about Dick’s karma?  Karmic tradition does not necessarily let Dick off the hook, if he chooses to kill Tom.  Where does it all end?

A third view is that karma may be the ultimate learning process, whereby knowledge and understanding are obtained through the age old tradition of “trial and error.”  In this view, someone who has killed another may not necessarily be required to be a murderer’s victim or to make restitution in some active way.  Instead the repercussions in a later life may be sufficient to settle the accounts if they instill in the past-life murderer an understanding of the self-destructive nature of his or her actions.

This latter view might be a bit too permissive, as it could be said to accept karma as cosmic justice, but one we can perhaps do without.  Bad deeds in a prior life could be viewed as nothing more than motivation to do good deeds in the current lifetime.  The concept of justice would be more strained in this situation, if the only real sense of karma was to allow the soul to evolve or graduate to the next step.  Nevertheless, such a view is often accepted, and as such, deserves some consideration.

Karma as Learning

Past-life regressions have tended to illustrate all three forms of karma with the more ruthless balancing of justice (“an eye for an eye”) being more likely in the earlier stages of a soul’s evolution.  This may be a very important point, in that karma may very well be “in the mind of the beholder.”  If some feel that they must pay for murdering someone by being a victim, then so be it, but if they can find other means of compensation, that’s okay as well.  The implication (i.e., the “good news”) is that each of us is our own judge.  The bad news is that you’re  probably the toughest judge you’ll ever have to face.

Some subjects of past-life regressions consider karma as a development of the self, wherein the intent is to further the evolution of their own soul.  In this case the belief is that certain experiences are necessarily encountered over and over again in order to learn the essential but difficult lessons of their existence.  How often the same lessons are repeated is determined by how well subsequent experiences are handled.

Whitton and Fisher, utilizing the reports of Dr. Whitton’s subjects regressed to the state between lives, note that the stricter definitions of karma are not necessarily applicable to every situation:

“Life doesn’t have to work that way.  Those who have visited the bardo  (the state of existence between lives) insist that karma is, essentially, learning.  It is the principle at work in all things that makes possible the development of the soul.  To learn is vital, but the way in which learning is accomplished—whether through violent exchange, laborious application or sophisticated insight—is relatively unimportant.”

Whitton and Fisher state that contrary to Buddhist and Hindu beliefs of souls strapped to a wheel of rebirth, souls “have the power to direct their own course of learning.”  I.e. “karmic patterns are formed as a result of the soul’s efforts to improve itself with specific challenges.”  Furthermore, “most karmic adjustments can only be made by returning to physical existence and re-encountering, in many instances, those with whom the karma has been established.”

Stewart C. Easton, in his book, Man and the World in the Light of Anthroposophy, states:

“Whenever we bemoan our destiny on Earth and complain of our ill-fortune, we are railing against our own choice, not the choice of some arbitrary god or gods who have done us a bad turn.  In consequence the one vice which no one  with knowledge of karma should permit himself is envy, be it envy of anyone else’s life situation, or of his talents, fortune, or friends.  For we have what we have chosen and earned....”

This may not sound like the best news you’ve heard this week, but there is one possible saving grace.  It is possible some of the soul’s choices for this life were not made in order to account for misdeeds in a past life, but as a means of preparing that soul for tasks and accomplishments in a future life.  Karma does not have to be viewed simply as a means to force us into predictable behavior, but can be thought of as the means to allow for the soul’s evolution.  If motivation is the essence of karma, the exercise of free will is an inevitable aspect of it as well.


Whitton and Fisher also report (in considerable detail) the case history of a woman named Jenny.  This particular lady had lost two children in successive past lives, and despite the fact virtually any reasonable judgment authority would hold her blameless for their deaths, Jenny’s perceptions of her behavior in both situations was distorted by guilt.  Her karmic choice was then to atone for her children’s death by events in her current life.

As Whitton and Fisher pointed out, whether incarnated or not, one’s perception can be one’s reality.  This is an important point, for Jenny chose to return to earth as a victim of continual brutality and sexual abuse.  Thus, not only must a soul strive in this lifetime to overcome the real karmic accumulation of previous lives, but the perceived karmic accumulation as well!

Dr. William J. Baldwin, Ph.D., of Carmel, California, has made a similar statement:

“Our choices for a future life can be the result of misperceptions, misinterpretations, inappropriate decisions based on those mistaken thoughts, harsh self-judgments and self-imposed punishments.”

According to these experts, it would appear that our self-judgments are more severe than the judgments of others.

Karmic Continuation

Assume for the moment you have just completed a past-life regression (or a psychic reading or whatever), and have now become aware, much to your karmic horror, that you lived one life as a Portuguese priest during the Spanish Inquisition.  At that time you were responsible for the torture, maiming, and death of a large number of innocent victims.  Does this mean you have a very large karmic debt to work off during this lifetime?

Not necessarily.  There is some evidence to suggest that karmic ties may be settled in succeeding lifetimes; that in fact a relatively swift form of justice may prevail.  Dr. Whitton, for example, has noted his subjects moved from incarnation to incarnation, continually interacting with the same entities in constantly changing relationships.  And while one’s deeds in one life may determine the setting and challenges of the next or succeeding lives, there is no requirement that karmic ties need be extended over centuries. 

Manly P. Hall, writing in Death to Rebirth, notes that:

“The individual pays his karma very largely by the process which perpetuates an attitude existing at a particular time.  If this attitude exists at the time of the previous death, it will go on to become the drive for the re-embodiment of the new personality.” 

In other words, there is a strong tendency to start balancing karma as soon as possible.

Mind you, karma has a much longer arm than any earthly law enforcement agency might have, and will happily wait for a millennium to be satisfied.  But the relationships between many souls appear to resolve many of their karmic ties sooner than later.  Perhaps not in the very first incarnation immediately following the karma-incurring deed, but within a few lifetimes.  Furthermore, this presupposes that it was the soul’s choice prior to one of the succeeding incarnations to balance their karma.  Assuming the continuing evolvement of the Portuguese priest’s soul, there is some hope that he will be off the hook in the reasonably near future.  Perhaps by the year 2250 AD?

On the other hand, if an attractive, sexy individual coyly suggests that you were the Roman soldier who threw him or her to the lions in ancient times, and that perhaps you might be looking to make up for this crass move by some thoughtful gesture in this incarnation, you might at least consider the possibilities.

A Contrary View

In distinct contrast to the reports of Dr. Whitton’s thirty subjects, Dr. Ian Stevenson, whom we encountered in a previous chapter (and who is being reincarnated in this one), in his extensive investigations found minimal evidence of an empirical basis for karma, wherein one pays for one’s misdeeds.  Stevenson did not, apparently, encounter situations where differences in circumstances between personalities could be glibly accounted for by variations in evil or goodness.  He also felt that Western observers who regard reincarnation and karma as inseparable are unaware that many groups who believe in reincarnation do not necessarily believe in the type of karma commonly associated with those originating in Southeast Asia.  In other words, reincarnation does not necessarily imply that our present lives are dictated in some way by our previous lives.

One could make arguments against Dr. Stevenson’s conclusions from several different positions.  For example, the view of karma being more sophisticated than “an eye for an eye,” makes simple correlations between lives chancy at best.  Additionally, actions in a current life with an eye toward the future would also escape anyone’s ability to document.  Karmic accumulation may also be a longer term effect, in some cases, evolving over a multitude of lives—a record of which may not be readily apparent to even a lengthy investigative effort of someone’s numerous past lives.

There is also the question of balancing bad deeds with good deeds during the same lifetime.  In other words, there is no a priori reason to assume that karmic debts incurred in this life cannot be repaid immediately.  Or, perhaps more significantly, the rewards for the good deeds of this life may very well be received in this lifetime and, hopefully, before one is too far gone to enjoy them.  Many modern concepts of karma, in fact, have noted that the pace of karmic retributions seems to be increasing and that karmic-induced rewards and/or punishments are following closer and closer on the heels of their causes.  Actress Shirley MacLaine has argued that justice will be done, not only in the long run, but often in the short run; and has claimed that her karma is registering back to her in exceedingly short periods of time (e.g. minutes as opposed to months). 

Could it be that justice, unlike our court system, is becoming swifter?

Why Karma?

Instead of considering differing views of researchers and diverse religions, we might do better to ask questions about the basic viability of the idea of karma.  For example, does karma make sense?  Is there a clear reason to have karma in the first place?

Clearly one significant distinction of karma is the inherent fairness of the concept.  I mean we’re talking Justice with a capital “J!”  Nobody gets away with nothing, no how!  We can all rest assured that any and all misdeeds will invariably show up in indelible ink on the very complete account ledgers of every soul.  And regardless of the number of past lives that pass between the misdeed and the current one, the karmic debt waits patiently (or perhaps impatiently) for the inevitable repayment.

From a profoundly philosophical point of view, it is perhaps comforting to know that the rat fink who sold you that lemon will sooner or later get his, even if it may not be in this lifetime!

We can also question whether karma is an essential attribute of reincarnation.  Lytle Robinson, in his book, Edgar Cayce’s Story of the Origin and Destiny of Man, notes that everyone is born with specific personalities, with a mixture of good and bad characteristics.  From Mr. Robinson’s viewpoint, if these characteristics are incurred entirely by heredity and environment (i.e. there is no carry-over from a previous life), then how can one be held responsible for what is in effect God’s creation?  Mr. Robinson believes karma is therefore meaningless from the viewpoint of only one life.

In other words, from Mr. Robinson’s viewpoint, reincarnation is essential to karma.  Saint Paul’s advice to the Galatians:  “Be not deceived; God is not mocked:  for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7) can be interpreted as not being a true statement unless the time for reaping is spread out over a longer period of time than a single lifetime.

By the same token, there is the complementary view that good deeds performed now, will provide for rewards in the future.  And with the potential for future lives, everyone can be confident of receiving their just deserts.  Perhaps more importantly everyone can assume their free will is still intact and they can by their own actions make things better in the future simply by taking appropriate steps now.  Furthermore, everyone can reduce karma (theoretically) by doing good, as well as by enduring the current pain and suffering.


But is karma as essential to the theory of reincarnation as the other way around?  As Ian Stevenson has already pointed out, reincarnation can be perfectly true without karma.  The evidence for karma, must therefore, not rely on the proof of reincarnation, but upon the concept of a universal justice (assuming that such justice exists).

For example, the motivation to eliminate karma, i.e. reduce the misdeed debits on the account books to zero, is predicated on a belief of the existence of justice and a just result.  We often think of our ability to enter heaven as being dependent upon our receiving a “passing grade” in the sum total of our life.  But instead of allowing anyone to sneak in with a C- (while a D+ sends you in the other direction), karma implies that everyone has to eventually bring their grade-point average up to A+ (no matter how long it takes to get there)!

Reincarnation allows for the opportunity to retake the test again and again until you score 100%; while karma ensures that only 100% scores are acceptable for that all important passing grade.  Reincarnation allows for equal opportunity; karma ensures equal results.

Logically then, acceptance of karma implies a fundamental and profound assumption.  The reality of karma assumes a just God (or Gods) or, minimally, a God who desires justice.  If God is not just, then karma may be nothing more than the figment of the imagination of someone suffering from injustice.  But if God is just, karma is the philosophical personification of Saturday morning’s Justice League.  Just perhaps slower than a speeding bullet.


Summarizing, we might arrive at the following:

     1.  Karma implies the law of cause and effect.

     2.  Karma insists on the individual being responsible for his or her own deeds and misdeeds and that actions in a past or current life will give shape and substance to the individual evolution of a soul.

     3. Karma is determined by each soul in its own self-judgment.

     4.  Karma implies the presence of motive, which in turn, necessitates the exercise of free will.

     5.  Karma requires that karmic accumulation (the sum total of uncompensated misdeeds) must be reduced to zero over the course of however many incarnations are necessary, before a soul can escape the “Wheel of Life.”  [A corollary is that karmic reduction may be done in part by others, such as Jesus Christ who many believe died for other’s sins (and thus helped to reduce their karma).]

     6.  Karma reduction requires physical existence.

     7.  Any reduction in karmic accumulation invariably involves interactions with other souls, as do karmic-related rewards.

     8.  Karma may be spread over several lifetimes and/or within a single lifetime.


Chapter Two:     The True Believers

Forward to:

Chapter Four:     Adding a Few Spices



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