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Reincarnation, karma and past lives
by Benjamin Creme

A discussion of  the Laws of Karma and Rebirth and the need for right relationship in order for humans to move their lives forward in the cycle of evolution. 


I suppose in the world, today, there are really three approaches to the idea of reincarnation. A two-fold one in the West, where the idea itself is almost non-existent, either a belief in the transmigration of souls - that you could be a human being in one life and an animal in the next, and therefore that there is great danger in swiping flies and treading on ants because it could be your grandmother -- or simply an interest in past lives. That is almost the sole interest in the concept of rebirth in the West.

In the East, broadly speaking, people do believe in reincarnation and, correctly, in relation to the Law of Karma. Unfortunately, even in the East, the Law of Karma is seen from an erroneous point of view. Of course, here and there, both in East and West, there is a correct interpretation and approach to the idea of rebirth, and its close connection with the Law of Action and Reaction, Cause and Effect.

In the Orient, most people believing in the Law of Karma accept that they are who and where they are because of their actions in a previous life, which is true; but, unfortunately, they think they can do nothing about changing their particular situation, which is not true. In the West, we tend to think that we are totally in control of our destiny, which we are to some extent, but that there is no greater law governing our destiny, which is not true.

The Westerner tends to reject the idea of a future life. It is an idea which is only just beginning to engage people's minds. If he thinks about it at all, he really thinks about it in terms of: If I have a future life, I must have had a past life; and if I had a past life it is interesting to know who I was. The popular literature in the West about reincarnation is almost exclusively about previous existences.

There are now many techniques, authentic or otherwise, advertised and used to take people back into an experience of their past lives: hypnosis, rebirthing, and so on. Of course, there is also much serious research on the subject going on in several countries. The work of Professor Ian Stevenson and others is adding much evidence pointing to the likelihood of the fact of reincarnation.

The Danger of Knowing our Past Lives

Is it of value to know our past lives? After a certain point: yes. Before that point, not only is it not of major value, it can actually be dangerous. There is a little-known law that when we become truly aware of our past life we enter into the karma of that time. Most of us have a heavy enough load of karma to deal with in this life without an unnecessary load from some previous one, which happily we are not yet called upon to resolve.

And it is irresponsible for so-called clairvoyants to tell people about their past lives; even if they are correct. Particularly if they are correct! If they are wrong, people will still create thoughtforms around that incorrect image of themselves. That makes for glamour, illusion. If they are right, the people involved become subject to the karma for which they may not yet be prepared. There are occasions, in certain illnesses of a mental nature, which cannot be handled in any other way, in which it may be useful to go back to a previous life. These are relatively few, and the way is through hypnosis.

The whole subject is fraught with danger and complexity. When our past lives enter spontaneously into our consciousness, they will do so under law. The more important thing is to know that every moment we are making karma, we are creating our next life right now.

Needless to say, you will always find clairvoyants, channels and sensitives who are only too happy, for a price, to look into your past and to tell you about your previous lives. But how do you know if they are right or wrong? In what possible way can you verify what they may tell you? It is better for you to keep your money. If you are told that in a previous life you were important and powerful (it is usually some king, queen, priestess), a priestess in Egypt, say, how can you prove this? And are you, today, at least the equivalent in importance, influence and power in the world, contributing something original and creative to life?

Memories are Not Infallible

It is also the easiest thing in the world to be mistaken in our own memories. Let me illustrate with an instance from my own experience which rose in my consciousness during a profound meditation lasting about five hours. I saw myself (it did not look like me now, but I recognized myself nevertheless) as a minister of religion during religious persecutions somewhere in Europe around the 1650s.

My church looked on to a square. I stood on the steps outside the church listening to the shrieks and cries of pain and terror. I knew what it meant: the Protestants were being set upon by the soldiery and put to the sword. From a road at one corner of the square the people came running, screaming, chased by the soldiers. Diagonally across the square and into the church they ran, seeking sanctuary. I stood in the church entrance, a very tall, broad figure in a long black cassock, urging the terrified people into the church. The soldiers came up the steps, stabbing and laying about them with their swords. I was not at all afraid, but held my arms out sideways to block their passage. I said, "This is my holy place." To my surprise, they were not the least impressed, and one ran me through with his sword. I can see it vividly now: this tall, broadly built man and the sword through his chest. I fell and can still clearly feel the sensation of the hard, cold stone on my cheek as I lay dying on the steps of my church.

For years I believed I had remembered in total clarity, like a film, my last minutes of a previous life, and it was not until about ten years ago that I learned from my Master that the experience was real, had happened, but not to me. It was nothing to do with me; I had never lived near that town or been the minister in the black cassock.

It was a clairvoyant experience of the death of someone closely related to me on the soul plane. So how do you know what you are picking up? How can you be sure?

Fatalism is Not the Correct Approach

Fatalistic Eastern people have a different point of view. They are not so worried about who they were in their past life. They believe that if they are poor, hungry, miserable, indebted to the landlord, with hardly enough to feed their family, they were someone really terrible before. They believe it is the Law of Karma because they were so bad, nasty, horrible, such low-grade human beings in their past life, they deserve the misery they are in now.

They believe that; it is the teaching. And they believe, because it is the Law of Karma, that there is nothing they can do about it. They accept it totally, fatalistically, as their due according to the law. And they also believe that if they accept their lot meekly and try to be good they will be rewarded with a life of higher status next time around. If there is anything which has kept the Orient down, in terms of its living standards, its social happiness, social democracy and equality, it is the acceptance of the Law of Karma on that basis.

There is nothing to prevent the untouchables of India from transforming their lives except the acceptance that their untouchability is due to their misdeeds in former lives. So, some kind of balance has to be reached, both from the Eastern and the Western viewpoints, in the approach to these two great laws: the Law of Karma, Cause and Effect, and the Law of Rebirth, its corollary.

The Law of Cause and Effect, Karma

This is the basic law governing our existence in this solar system and is the outcome of the action of the energy of the alter ego of our solar system, the constellation Sirius. Just as our personalities are acting out, more or less well, the intentions of ourselves as souls, so this solar system acts under the intentions of Sirius as its soul. To put it more succinctly, the relationship between Sirius and this solar system is the same as the relationship between our soul and its reflection, the personality.

Every thought, every action that we have and make sets into motion a cause. These causes have their effects. These effects make our lives, for good or ill. We are now, have been, and will go on, making our lives from moment to moment. Sooner or later, the causes set into motion by our thoughts and actions will produce effects which will rebound on us; and we will experience that as good karma or bad karma.

When it is uncomfortable we call it bad karma. And when it is good karma, when life is comfortable, easy, we do not notice it. We take it as our right, our due, because that is what we expect life to be like. People really only talk about karma when they mean bad karma. It is important to realize and remember that we have more good karma than bad karma.

Lords of Karma

Like all laws, the Law of Karma is under the control, the jurisdiction, of certain entities -- in this case, the Lords of Karma. The Lords of Karma are like cosmic judges. They look at this action and reaction of causes and effects which we set in motion, and they regulate this according to our needs as evolving souls. It is always the soul which incarnates, in every entity, human or sub-human. Our souls incarnate in a personality with a given structure of energies, rays, which relate to the karma and the possibilities of that particular incarnation.

The souls cooperate with the Lords of Karma to decide what pain or pleasure we will suffer in any particular life. That, of course, is precisely the wrong way to describe what happens. The soul is not at all interested, nor are the Lords of Karma, in our pleasure or our suffering. These are simply psychological reactions to events.

What they are interested in is the working out of the Law, the cosmic Law of Cause and Effect. Also, the soul has its own purposes for every given incarnation. It provides itself with a vehicle, the personality, with mental, emotional and physical bodies which will provide the possibility for its intentions being achieved in that particular life. That purpose might not be achieved, but the soul provides the possibility. The soul lives ever in hope!

The ultimate aim is to live life in such a way that we make no personal karma. We can do that either by being perfect or being dead. Since being perfect is much more interesting than being dead, most people accept the premise of trying, more or less, to achieve the soul's purpose and staying to the last possible moment to do so. Thus, we work with this burden which we have ourselves created in the present and in past lives.

We try, consciously or unconsciously, to become perfect. We have no control over the events of life. The only thing we can control is our reaction to these events. So the aim is to achieve such a measure of detachment from events that we can control ourselves. In this way we cope with the burden of karma in any given incarnation. This is not a case of sitting in a catatonic stupor, so that we do nothing and therefore create no karma.

What we can do, in every event, in every situation, is distance ourselves from that event -- looking at the event as out there, and us here, and not react. In this way we gradually create an impersonality in relation to life, a detachment in relation to events, where we become indifferent to whether our karma is good or bad.

Renunciation Leads to Self-Mastery

Correctly seen, evolutionary life is a gradual renunciation of the lower for the sake of the higher. As a soul in incarnation, a high level of divinity has incarnated at a lower level of divinity, and the journey to perfection, the evolutionary goal, is the gradual renunciation of these lower levels, by embodying, at these lower levels, the higher; becoming more and more what one essentially is as a soul.

The soul makes its journey into incarnation over aeons of time, and then back, out of the need to incarnate at all. The path of return for the soul is the gradual release of itself from the limitations of the physical, astral and mental planes. This is done by infusing its vehicles -- physical, emotional and mental -- with its energies and qualities. Two things are going on at the same time in this process. One is the gradual spiritualizing of the vehicle by the soul. The other is the burdening of the vehicle, intentionally, by the soul, to burn up ancient karma.

As the soul progresses in its incarnational experience, so its reflection, the man or woman in incarnation, receives a heavier and heavier burden of karma until, in the last incarnation of all, in which the person will be a fourth-degree initiate, the burden is at its heaviest. It is for this reason that the fourth initiation is called, in the West, the Crucifixion and, in the East, the Great Renunciation. In that experience everything, all the lower aspects, are being renounced in favor of the higher spiritual reality. That is why the life of the fourth-degree initiate is usually, from the world's point of view, painful, heavy indeed.

People imagine that, as a man or woman progresses in evolution, they should become freer and freer of karma. The opposite is true. Not only that, but as a man or woman becomes a disciple, becomes initiate, a world-server, they take more and more of the weight of world karma. They are the upholders of the world. Their shoulders are, and need to be, broad. Imagine a bridge over a river, and the river is the world and its karma, and the disciples and initiates are the pillars of the bridge, and the spaces between are the masses of people. Where there are spaces, the water flows easily through. It is the pillars of the bridge that take the force of the flood, of the water.

In a very real sense, the disciples and initiates of the world support the world. That is one reason why the life of a disciple is, from the average man's point of view, a very difficult life to lead. But, of course, he is governed by the great Law of Service. Under this law, disciples and initiates come very frequently into incarnation to serve world need and to finish off this earth experience as quickly as possible -- not to get it over with, but to serve the better. The more advanced a person is, the more he can serve, the more useful he can be to the world.

When a certain level is reached -- that of the third-degree initiate -- the relationship to the Law of Cause and Effect changes. Gradually the law is manipulated by the person himself. As a conscious divine soul, working in the world, he becomes really the pilot of his own plane. He may have a co-pilot, his Master, but he is the pilot. It is not an automatic thing, but gradually this point is achieved. He takes an active part in his own evolution, consciously working with the Law of Karma, under the control of his soul. Then it may come to pass that his previous lives will open up before his inner eye. As this happens, also the karma of that time becomes open to him on the physical plane, which, of course, increases the burden of the initiate.

The aim is that by the time the person is ready to take the fifth initiation and become a Master, all karma will have been resolved, burned up, taken back to the source from which it came.

Service: The Best Method for Resolving Karma

How do you get rid of karma; how do you deal with it? Well, you cannot give it away. It is too heavy, nobody wants it. There is no sale for excess karma; everyone has enough of their own. So what do you do, how can you cope with this burden that limits your activity, your joy and happiness? There is a very simple method. It is called service. Service is the way par excellence for getting rid of karma. Of course it does not get rid of it, but it burns it up.

The process is something like this: as you serve you draw to yourself energy. By giving out energy, you get energy back; that is the law. Basically, it is the Law of Love, which governs our nature, without which the universe would not exist. It is, of course, in another sense, the Law of Cause and Effect itself. As you give love, you set in motion a cause, the effect of which is the return of love. So the law itself sets in motion its own fulfilment. As we serve, we demonstrate love. As we demonstrate love, by law, we get love. That strengthens and potentizes the individual in a way in which he can deal with his own karma.

As the person progresses in love, in service, he is automatically distancing himself from the effect of events. The events take place, but they have less and less effect on his psychology. In the East they say: well, it's my karma. In France they say: well, c'est la vie. Gradually, we have to develop an attitude of c'est la vie. If it is good, easy: c'est la vie. If it is hard, if it is painful, makes us unhappy: c'est la vie. We really have to live with that attitude.

Right Relationship Ends the Karmic Cycle

The Law of Karma is a great binding law, but it is benign. Nobody receives more karma than their soul, and the Lords of Karma, know they can usefully handle. Some lives for some people are very hard, very painful, very limited indeed. From the point of view of the soul, this is probably intentional and useful, productive. Because the soul knows that, by the burning in this way of a burden of karma from the past, greater progress can be made. What holds us back, what limits us, is our karma. The efforts made in dealing with the karma pave the way for periods of growth. Our development proceeds thus in cycles.

The Law of Karma is not a mechanical law of punishment. If you hit somebody on the head, it is not inevitable that you will be hit on the head. It is not a question of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It is simply the energetic outcome of previous causes set in motion by ourselves. All that we do will inevitably come back in some way or other. However, we can do something about it. The untouchables of India can change their lives. They are not bound by karma to be untouchables. That is a social structure, a class system, which binds people to particular stations in life. It is totally artificial and man-made. The poverty, the squalor, the degradation and the misery of people in the Third World is not necessary, it is not a result of karma, but of our greed. And we have the major responsibility to help them change these conditions and enter true living.

People think of karma as always from the past life, but what about yesterday's karma, or the day before, last week's, last month's karma? It is this succession of moments of action and reaction which today we are coping with, which tomorrow and in our next life we will cope with. Until we come into right relationship with each other and with the whole of which we are a part, we will go on making bad karma. It is more important, more useful, to realize the benefit of right relationship, thus handling the Laws of Karma and Rebirth correctly, than to know our past lives.


Benjamin Creme, the chief editor of Share International, lectures throughout the world on the emergence of Maitreya -- the World Teacher -- and His group, the Masters of Wisdom. Click here to see Mr. Creme's upcoming lecture venues or here to listen to his previous talks located on this site. 

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005