The doctrines of karma and reincarnation, and hereditary caste and poverty in India:

Summary:

Conservative Christian apologists frequently attempt to portray other faiths in the worst possible light (by comparison to their own, which they attempt to portray in the best possible light), in attempting to justify their harsh exclusive view of comparative religion. However, when we examine the details of the arguments that they use to try to make their case, we see that in every example they are fudging the facts, and abusing logic in order to attempt to reach their conclusions.

In this case, Christians have been known to claim that the doctrines of karma and reincarnation naturally justify and produce injustice and poverty, as can be seen in the hereditary caste system of India (which inflicts gross injustices on the lower-castes) and in modern India’s vast poverty.  However, the fact remains that India’s cultural aberrations are not natural results of the doctrines of karma and reincarnation.  Identical doctrines of karma and reincarnation are also found in other Dharmic faiths (such as Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism) which do not give any support to concepts of caste.  As a whole, all the Dharmic faiths teach compassion and charity towards all life, all humans and animals.

Furthermore, India was actually one of the wealthiest nations in the world for almost all of its history.  It was only after British annexation of India that the Indian economy fell (from which the modern Indian nation is steadily rebuilding itself), as the British literarily raped India of its riches.  Whilst India does indeed have real issues to face, and whilst Hinduism does indeed have areas in need of reform, conservative Christians are guilty of spreading misinformation about Hinduism, and do a gross injustice to the sublime spiritual philosophy that is found in Indian spiritual texts.

Main Article:

The following is an add-on that I have been working on for my soon to be self-published book.  It may still be edited further for that purpose, but I decided to publish it here as is.  The following is being added to a chapter in my book on common arguments against Perennial Philosophy (see Eastern religion and the New Age movement), usually given by conservative Christians in their attempts to paint other faiths in the worst possible light:

(The below text in bold is therefore the accusation against Perennialism that I am seeking to here counter):

The concept of karma and reincarnation naturally leads to people ignoring the suffering of others, rather than seeking to help them. As a result, Hindus in India will step over the bodies of those suffering in the streets because they don’t want to interfere with their karma, as they believe that whatever others are experiencing is fully deserved, and it isn’t their place to interfere with divine justice. The doctrines of karma and reincarnation naturally support the evils of India’s hereditary caste system, in which lower castes are treated as sub-humans simply on the basis of their birth. Hence, the Dharmic doctrines promote suffering and poverty, and we can see what Hinduism has done for India.

Both parts of this argument are extremely common amongst conservative Christians[i], however I have found some parts of it difficult to verify. I certainly have encountered examples whereby Indians have justified the hereditary caste system by explaining that spiritually advanced souls are born to high-caste parents and wicked souls are born to low-caste parents. However, I have yet to verify for myself the claim that some Hindus will refuse to help those who suffer on the grounds that it would be interfering with their karma[1]. So, whilst I have found it hard to personally verify, let us assume that there are cases where there is true. Let us accept that there are indeed some cases whereby a Hindu may see someone suffering and may believe (or argue) that to help them would be to interfere with their karma, and therefore to interfere with the action of the gods. The question is then, if this is so, would this be indicative of the very nature of the concepts of karma and reincarnation, and of Hinduism itself?

Whilst Christian apologists would like us to believe it is so, the truth is quite the opposite. In truth, by and large, the Vedic Scriptures actually teach that to fail to give assistance to those in need would bring bad karma. There’s actually a tradition in India where they treat the stranger as if they were God, offering food, clothing and shelter freely to those in need, as if God were dwelling amongst them disguised as a beggar. Indian spiritual texts repeatedly encourage the aspirant to serve all beings equally and wholly, seeing the king and the beggar as identical in their inner, eternal nature. Hindu spiritual texts repeatedly promote compassion for all, infinite unconditional love and the unity and equality of all existence. Hence, the enlightened soul naturally stops to help those who suffer, regardless of whether or not the cause of their suffering can be clearly seen to be self-created.

A primary concept of all the Dharmic faiths (including of course Hinduism) is ahimsa – non-violence. Obviously ahimsa isn’t simply the absence of violence towards others, but rather also compassion for all living things, humans, animals and all existence[2]. Compassion for all living beings is one of the central hallmarks of Buddhism; hence Buddhists often take a vow to remain within creation until all beings are liberated from suffering and ignorance[3]. Likewise, the same sentiment can be found in Hinduism in the mantra “Lokah Samastah, Sukhino Bhavantu”, which literally translates as “May all the beings in all the realms find peace”.

It is true that the concepts of karma and reincarnation have indeed in some cases been used to justify the harsh life endured by some. In particular, the concept of reincarnation has been used by the priestly Brahmin caste to justify hereditary caste. Accordingly, they argue that each soul incarnates into a body that is appropriate for their level of spiritual growth. Hence, they have argued that a spiritually advanced soul would naturally incarnate into a child of a priest or king, an intermediate soul into the child of a merchant, and a wicked soul into the child of a servant or sub-caste. However, this does not mean that such a view is inseparable from Hindu philosophical doctrines.

To the contrary, there were (and are) a number of other well-known religions (or philosophical sects) that preach the doctrines of karma and reincarnation, but yet are largely free of the cultural issues that are associated with Hinduism. For example, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Platonism all share these primary doctrines, yet do not also teach hereditary caste. This fact alone should refute the above argument, as it shows that the doctrines of karma and reincarnation do not always go hand in hand with hereditary caste. Likewise, as Platonism was a prominent philosophy of the elites of the classical Greek and Roman worlds, this likewise refutes any idea that the doctrines of karma and reincarnation run contrary to the success of Western civilization.

Obviously I am not attempting to defend India’s hereditary caste system and its treatment of the poor. Rather, these things are indeed worthy of being denounced, and people of all faiths and nations should speak against them. I have seen it argued that India’s original conception of caste was simply as a measure of natural tendencies, rather than a rigid designation of ones life occupation based solely upon birth[ii]. If this was the case than one can of course argue that the hereditary caste system that we are familiar with is a degeneration of the original Vedic system of caste. Otherwise, if Indian caste has always been as unjust as it is today, it is simply a case of a social institution that runs contrary to the highest ideals of India’s philosophical elite, but was upheld through the power of the ruling elites. Either way however, my responses still stand to refute the above apologetic argument.

Whilst India’s hereditary caste system is indeed a wicked aberration, one must remember that Western civilization has not been free from rigid class snobbery, in which peasants obviously couldn’t marry nobility, and the higher classes often treated servants as sub-humans. Certainly the way in which European settlers treated indigenous people in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand is every bit as bad as the treatment of the sub-castes in India, and the treatment of African slaves in the US is probably the very worst of all. Furthermore, in this last example we can actually state that the Bible itself not only does not condemn slavery, but certainly the OT actually condones and mandates slavery[iii].

Now, whilst I do criticize Christianity on the basis of the major moral issues with the Old Testament, I do not hold Christianity as a whole accountable for all the atrocities that have been committed by Christians over the better half of the last 2,000 years. Rather, I attempt to limit my criticisms of Christianity to the actual content of Christian scriptures, and the core doctrines that are central to the orthodox form of the faith. There certainly is the case that sometimes the misbehaviour of members of a certain faith can be found to be encouraged by the scriptures of the faith in question, in which case it is indeed fair game to lay some of the blame on the faith itself.

In the case of India’s hereditary caste system, one can certainly point out that it is condoned and mandated by the Laws of Manu, and thus argue that Hindu scriptures themselves condone the injustice of the caste system. In this example it is true that the Laws of Manu is considered canon by many Hindus. However, the case is quite a bit more complex than the canonisation of problematic parallel texts in Christianity and Islam (for example). In the cases of Christianity and Islam, each faith has one primary text made up of many parts[4]. A unifying feature of all orthodox Christian denominations is that they accept the Bible as a whole to be the Word of God, and likewise the same is true of orthodox Muslims and the Koran. Certainly one can argue that certain parts of the Bible contradict other parts[5], or that parts of the Koran contradict other parts[6]. However the fact remains that if a Christian were to openly renounce part of the Bible, this would immediately place them outside of the boundary of orthodoxy[7].

By contrast, the Vedic canon is not as unitary or well defined. Rather, there are a vast number of texts considered to hold canonical status, with primary texts designated sruti, and secondary texts designated smrti. In this case, the Laws of Manu are one of many, many texts generally given secondary status as smrti. In this regard different Hindu sects may focus their studies on particular texts from the vast Vedic library, and may not pay attention to competing doctrines found in another text. Furthermore, modern scholars have concluded that the Laws of Manu did not hold the same authoritative status prior to British rule. That is, prior to this period there were more than a dozen different law texts in circulation[8]. It was the British that gave the Laws of Manu its formal status, as they wanted a formal law by which to govern Hindus, just as they allowed sharia law for Muslims[9]. Hence it is much easier for progressive Hindu to accept some Vedic texts whilst ignoring or denouncing others, than for progressive Christians or Muslims, who find themselves forced to consider denouncing the Bible or Koran in part or whole.

There have been many Hindu reformers that have sought to rid India of hereditary caste, as they have argued that it is contrary to the core spiritual principles of Hinduism. On many occasions progressive Indians have sought to enact legal reform to improve the rights of the low-caste, which have been opposed by those of high-caste, who wish to keep things as they are. One could perhaps draw a parallel to examples in North America where attempts by progressives to enact policies designed to raise the minimum wage, institute universal healthcare and make tertiary education more affordable etc. are met by resistance by conservatives (who largely represent the wealthy), who accuse all such efforts of being examples of socialism.

Of course both of these examples have little to do with religion, and more to do with common behaviour of human beings possessed by the ego, manifesting the lowest potential of humanity in resisting positive change. Likewise, both of these examples show people of different faiths going against the primary doctrines of their faith. Philosophical Hinduism teaches unconditional love and absolute compassion for all beings, and given that this naturally extends to animals as well as humans, it should naturally extend to all humans, regardless of birth. Likewise, whilst there are parts of the Old Testament that could be presented in favour of conservative political doctrines[11], a major theme of the NT Gospels is social justice, compassion for the poor and sick, and likewise early Christians were known to give up their individual possessions for the community as a whole[iv].

Hence, we do not use examples of politically conservative Christians in the US being unsympathetic to the plight of the poor in their own country as examples of the true nature of Christianity, as in truth the New Testament in general praises asceticism and promotes compassion for the underprivileged, whilst condemning materialism. Likewise, we should not take examples of high-caste Indians who wish to maintain their privilege (which comes at the expense of those below them in the social sphere) as examples of the true nature of Hinduism, as the central doctrines of Hinduism teach compassion and service for all humanity, and likewise again the concepts of karma and reincarnation are present in other faiths like Buddhism and Sikhism, naturally leading to compassion for all beings.

As for the 2nd part of the argument where apologists claim that these Hindu doctrines are the cause of the poverty of India, again this is a gross misrepresentation of the truth. It is indeed true that classified under the general term Hinduism are a myriad of different sects. Certainly, there are many expressions of supernaturalism in India that can legitimately be termed superstitious, and some of these could be argued to hold back Indian culture. One could also argue that Indian spirituality is known to place too much emphasis on transcendence of the physical world, and not enough upon evolution within it. However, to argue (as Christian apologists do) that the problems of Indian society are the natural consequences of the concepts of karma and reincarnation (in contrast to Western culture, which they falsely claim is primarily a result of its Judeo-Christian heritage) is quite erroneous, as I will now explain.

In truth, from very early on in its history India was well known for its wealth, and for the majority of the past 2,000 years (prior to European invasion) India had one of the world’s largest (and possibly the largest) economies. It is estimated that at the time of British annexation India accounted for approx. 23% of the worlds economy, whilst at the time of the re-establishment of Indian independence this had fallen to as little as 4%[v]. The British placed a tax on local goods whilst placing none on imported products, they held back the industrialisation of India commerce, used prime Indian agricultural land for growing Opium instead of food crops[12], and imported Indian food and other resources back to Europe, whilst Indians were starving and living in stark poverty[13]. Tens of millions of Indians starved under British rule, and whilst there obviously was poverty in India prior to British rule, there doesn’t seem to be any question that these famines were largely due to the economic policies of the British.

Of course the issue isn’t absolutely black and white. The British did build railways, which bestowed various benefits to Indian people, plus they also built damns, which helped to create fertile land out of previously arid soil. Likewise, I am not claiming that the Indian region did not have any problems prior to British annexation. However, the point still stands. Whilst Christian apologists claim that poverty is a natural consequence of Hinduism – in contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition, which they claim breeds prosperity – in this case, the truth is the exact opposite. Quite literarily, a so-called Christian nation screwed India, raped her economy and plundered her riches. Now, in fairness, the behaviour of the British in this manner could hardly be considered to be consistent with general Christian morality as derived from the New Testament. However, the above again refutes this general argument.

Furthermore, again we should note that Western civilization was actually founded by so-called pagans, that being the Greeks and Romans, and we could likewise argue that the foundation for Greek culture was found in Egypt and other nations prior to the flourishing of the great Hellenistic Empire. A number of major Greek philosophers actually shared the Hindu doctrines of karma and reincarnation. Hence, one could actually argue that Western civilization was founded on similar philosophical foundations to Hinduism. Now of course, the large parts of Greek and Roman civilization would not have necessarily shared the high ideals of the philosophical elite (in which case we can argue that Western civilization was founded on traditional polytheism). However, Platonic thought (for example) was incredibly influential amongst the elite of the ancient world, and so the point still stands.

Ultimately, if some Indians have used the concept of karma as a justification for ignoring the suffering and injustice inflicted upon others, they have done so in direct violation of the central tenets of their religion. Therefore such attitudes are not a direct consequence of the concept itself, but are more akin to some Christians using the concept of divine justice as a justification for the suffering of those caught in natural disasters[vi]. One must be careful in any comparison to compare apples with apples; that is, to take a fair consideration of each side rather than to stack the deck to favour one team. Hence, this is again another case of Christian apologists attempting to define other faiths by the worst examples that can be found within and around them, whilst they likewise attempt to excuse their own faith of quite legitimate criticisms.

For true progress to occur in interfaith relations (and also in other fields of study), we all need to be willing to see various belief systems as they are.  That is, we should be willing to see the strengths and weaknesses of different faiths as they stand, not as we might wish them to be relative to our own faith, in order to attempt to justify our stance on comparative religion.  We do indeed need to reform our own faiths, and perhaps when we stand outside another faith we may perhaps see their problems from a different perspective to them.  However, we should not let apologetic arguments like those above stand without being refuted.  Christian apologists are responsible for enormous amounts of misinformation on various sub-topics of religion, and these erroneous arguments deserve to be laid aside once and for all.

Peace.

[1] Though I have heard a close family member (who is Christian) tell me that she has heard this directly from an Indian woman she knows.

[2] Hence vegetarianism is common amongst the Dharmic faiths.

[3] Known as the Bodhisattva vow.

[4] Many individual books for the Christian Bible, and many chapters for the Koran.

[5] Say for example, one can take various quotes ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels and present them as contrary to the harshness of the Old Testament (as Marcion did in his Antithesis).

[6] Again, I believe that there is disagreement between early and late chapters of the Koran in relation to how Mohammad viewed Christians and Jews in relation to Islam.

[7] And again, the same is also true of Islam.

[8] Some of which were significantly more liberal by comparison to the Laws of Manu.

[9] We should also mention that there are many different manuscript variants on the Laws of Manu, and it is universally accepted that the text is subject to considerable interpolation and redaction. The British effectively gave canonical status to the first manuscript of a law text they encountered, without any in-depth consideration of the consequences.

[11] Though again, there are also parts of the OT that speak up for the plight of the poor, and feature similar social justice themes to those found in the NT.

[12] For which the monetary gains were taken by the British.

[13] And they refused to send them back as emergency relief.

[i] I believe that the above analogy was raised amongst others by Stephen Mansfield in his recent book “Where has Oprah taken us”: http://www.amazon.com/Where-Has-Oprah-Taken-Religious/dp/B007SRZ8XW.

[ii] See the following link and the further links at the bottom of the page, which contain various passages from Vedic to support the contention of the author, as well as the examples of sages becoming recognized as Brahmins (priests) on the basis of their learning, despite being born from mothers who were Shudras (servants): http://www.hinduwisdom.info/Caste_System.htm. I personally have no vested interest in whether or not this was the case, and without having studied the issue at length one must also consider the possibility that the above are merely exceptions to a system that was from its conception rigid and unjust.

[iii] One should note that as Christian apologists are well known for claiming credit for everything, they have also attempted to claim credit for ending slavery. However, the fact remains that the enslavement of African people by Europeans was instigated by Christians, that this was mandated by papal bull, and that many Christians also opposed the abolishment of slavery. See following article: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2009/11/did-christianity-abolish-slavery/. Also, we should note that Christian apologists are well known to claim that their critics are taking the Old Testament out of context, and to argue that the slavery condoned by the OT was merely a sort of employer-employee contract. I will not be going into this issue here; for those that are interested, please check out Thom Stark’s online response to Paul Copan, titled “Is God a moral compromiser?”: http://thomstark.net/copan/stark_copan-review.pdf.

[iv] This is largely encouraged in the Gospels themselves, Acts of the Apostles attests to it (and whilst I consider Acts to be largely – if not wholly – fictional, this attestation is still significant), and it is mentioned by Lucian in “The Death of Peregrinus” (again a work of satire, possibly fictional, though still an important citation). Hence, many people have correctly considered early Christians to have followed a form of socialism, much to the irritation of modern politically conservative Christians.

[v] According to the calculations of historian Angus Maddison: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_India#British_Era_.281793.E2.80.931947.29.

[vi] This has happened on several occasions in America, such as with the 2010 earthquake in Haiti (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5TE99sAbwM). Pat Robertson proclaimed that the suffering was brought on by “wickedness” and that the natural disaster was God’s judgment. Whilst these claims were heavily criticized, most observers are intelligent enough to note that such absurd and abhorrent claims are not indicative of Christianity as a whole (even though there is possibly some justification for such a view, mostly in the Old Testament). Rather, most observers can see that such comments are a result of human stupidity and bigotry, manifested within a Christian context. Likewise, the aforementioned example of Indians not caring for the suffering of others fits this last description; human stupidity and bigotry manifest within a Hindu context, and it is not indicative of the very nature of the concept of reincarnation or karma.

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4 thoughts on “The doctrines of karma and reincarnation, and hereditary caste and poverty in India:

  1. I have to wonder if these people think before they speak? Poverty and charity are considered Christian virtues, as well as shunning wealth altogether. Yet we live in a culture that has gone completely sideways, where most Christians advocate for unregulated businesses and corporations, while those in need are marginalized for being lazy. God forbid you tell them that early Christian churches relied on subsidies from the state and communities. But Socialism is good only when it’s an incorporated business getting a bailout from their awful decisions. Christianity in America is a joke. Capitalism is a joke. Viva la Revolution!!!

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  2. Indeed, Christians can be selective in whether they are arguing that poverty is a virtue, or whether the righteous are rewarded with wealth by God. The Old and New Testaments basically have directly opposite views in this regard. In the Hebrew Bible it was thought that the righteous were rewarded with long life, many wives and children, animals, status and other wealth, whereas in the New Testament it is taught that the righteous are persecuted whilst the wicked rule and achieve wealth because Satan and/or the Demiurge rule the world. It truly is bizarre that so many people that are politically conservative consider themselves Christian; you just have to ask, have you actually read these Gospels? And yes, you are right, they have socialism for the rich.

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  3. This is an excerpt from a website of one of your hindu brothers:

    Caste System has been the bane of Hindu society for centuries. In terms of impact, it did much greater damage for a much longer period to a great many people than the slave system of the western world or the witch-hunting practices of medieval Europe. The Hindu caste system was a clever invention of the later Vedic society, justified by a few law makers. The upper castes found it convenient to retain and perpetuate their social and religious distinction and political and economic advantage. With the exception of Saivism and a few ascetic traditions, most of the ancient sects of Hinduism were caste biased.
    The idea of staying away from unclean people is understandable in a society that was obsessed with the concept of physical and mental purity. There is nothing unusual with people who are selective in choosing their friends and relationships. It is normal behavior to stay away from people who are found to be socially deviant, untrustworthy or unfamiliar. It is an expression of our social intelligence and self-preservation instinct. Personal hygiene, family background and financial status do matter today in society as it was thousands of years ago. But what was wrong with the Vedic society was it recognized inequalities among men based on birth and family lineage and proclaimed it to be the will of God. This line of thought was perpetuated by Vedic scholars for centuries through the authority of scriptures and fear of divine retribution. They wrongfully created human stereotypes to justify a social structure that favored a few at the expense of many, denying a vast majority of people opportunities to use their inborn talents and pursue their own dreams and aspirations.

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