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10 Big Questions About Hinduism, Answered

8

What Does Hinduism Teach About Karma and Reincarnation?

reading Bhagavad Gita
Hindus read the Bhagavad Gita at a temple in Sarcelles, France, in celebration of Gita Jayanti, the day when the Bhagavad Gita was revealed. Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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Both Hinduism and Buddhism (as well as Jainism and Sikhism) share a belief in karma and reincarnation. Hinduism teaches that when the Divine takes form, it is encapsulated as atman or the "soul." This soul, which exists within every form of reality (not just humans and animals, but even nonliving things like rivers and rocks), is eternal and cannot be destroyed. Instead, when one form passes away — through death, decay or destruction — the soul moves on to inhabit a new form.

Reincarnation, or samsara, is the continuous process of death and rebirth in which the soul repeatedly takes on new forms and new experiences. However, the nature of samsara is suffering, so the ultimate goal of Hinduism is moksha, liberating the soul from the endless cycle of death and rebirth, and allowing it to return to the Divine.

Moksha can only be obtained when a soul inhabits a human form, so humans are considered the most spiritually evolved lifeforms.

The force that governs the transmigration of souls from one form to another is called karma. In its simplest form, karma is the law of cause and effect. Righteous and selfless thoughts, speech and actions have a positive effect on your soul, while lying, stealing, cheating and hurting others will have negative effects.

Dharma, which often translates as "duty" or "morality," points to a way of righteous living that's most conducive to spiritual growth and the accumulation of good karma. Part of righteous living is detachment, including detachment from the rewards or "fruits" of righteousness. Only when one works for the benefit of all beings without any expectation of, or attachment to reward will they achieve liberation.

We'll talk more about this in the section on India's caste system, but Shukla emphasizes that Hinduism does not teach that people who suffer in poverty or illness are being "punished" for evil actions in a past life. For starters, a poor person may suffer on a physical level, but may otherwise have a kind and giving disposition, while a rich person may enjoy physical comforts, but is plagued with meanness and jealousy.

"That's a serious misunderstanding of this concept," says Shukla. "Karma acts as a positive motivator and does not give permission to judge the suffering of others or absolve us from helping others. We have a duty to better the circumstances of family, society and our country."

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