Reaping and Sowing: Multicultural Perspectives on Reincarnation


Photo of Shem-shem Pablo

By Pam Johnson


The eastern notion of karma is steeped in Indian mythology. Karma works off of the idea of reciprocality and reincarnation. The word karma actually refers to an action or deed that leads to commensurate positive or negative changes in life cycles in this eastern reincarnation schema. In other words, acting ignobly in one life might lead to negative consequences in the next life. The birth, death, and reincarnation cycle in eastern mythology is actually known as samsara.

Samsara: Key to Reincarnation
Samsara is a word liberally bandied about in Tibet, the putative spiritual epicenter of this planet. In sanskrit, the word samsara means continuous flow. In the east, this notion of continuous flow connotes the idea of a soul leaving one corporal existence and shunting into another one. The reincarnation and rebirth cycles of samsara are a staple of many eastern religions, including but not limited to: Buddhism, Bon, Jainism, and Hinduism. Although these religions oftentimes have different or a dearth of deistic beliefs or iconography, they nonetheless are united in their belief in samsara and reincarnation.

Different Strokes for Different Folks
Although the basic idea of samsara is the same among many eastern religions, the mechanisms guiding that idea are oftentimes radically different depending on the religion in question. For instance, Jainism is an unusually strong proponent of the notion that accruing bad karma in this lifetime will lead to negative consequences in the next. This belief could mean one wretched and immoral life might lead to being reincarnated as an animal or insentient life form. Religions or lifestyles life Buddhism and Hinduism, contrastingly, contend that one can’t come back in another life as a rock or animal because those things lack awareness and, therefore, fall outside of the scope of karmic and samsara consideration.

Christian and Western Interpretations
The western mind, perhaps because of its overwhelming reliance on empiricism, has interpreted ideas like karma and samsara in a rather earthy and unsophisticated manner. Far from endorsing the underlying ideas that govern reincarnation, like souls and any non-empirical data, the western mind has assumed samsara and karma to mean negative consequences in this life fully attributable to the tangible consequences of one’s actions.

East Meets West
The western phrase “what comes around goes around” is an apt illustration of the western mind’s belief in retribution within the narrow confines of empiricism. Another example comes from the book of Galatians: one will reap what one sows. This stodgy interpretation of samsara stands in start contrast to the Hindu belief, which posits that god distributes karmic consequences. Jainism and Buddhism, interestingly, uphold the cosmological notion of karma but insist that god proper doesn’t play a role in its allotment. To be fair, though, some theosophists in America believe that humans can come back to experience another life, but that that life isn’t orchestrated by divine beings.

Summing Up
Although samsara and reincarnation are beliefs that pervade disparate eastern religions, many of those religions take idiosyncratic stances on the actual process of samsara.

About the Author:  Pam Johnson enjoys studying other cultures and blogging. She is a contributing writer for