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Religions 2018, 9(1), 4;

Pātañjala Yoga’s Theory of ‘Many-Lives’ through Karma and Rebirth and Its Eccentric ‘Theism’
Tagore Professor Emeritus, Department of Religious Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405, USA
Professor Emeritus, Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, USA
Received: 30 July 2017 / Accepted: 19 December 2017 / Published: 23 December 2017


This paper discusses the theory of rebirth as set forth in Classical Samkhya and Yoga and offers a new interpretive perspective.
history of religions; India Studies; philosophy of religion; theology

1. Introduction

Michael Kinsley in his book, Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, quotes the following blunt question by Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle:
Death has never made any sense to me.
How can a person be there
and then just vanish,
just not be there?1
Kinsley himself responds to Ellison’s question with the following comment:
Actually the question is not whether death makes sense to Larry
Ellison but whether Larry Ellison makes sense to death. And I’m afraid
he does.
For someone born in the United States in 2013, the most recent year for which there are final figures, life expectancy is 78.8 years. That’s 76.4 years for males and 81.2 years for females. But if you’ve made it to 65, your life expectancy is 82.9, if you’re a man, and 85.5 if you’re a woman.2
This is as good a way as any to introduce the “contemporary relevance” issue with respect to the purpose of our special issue on karma and rebirth, since all of of us who are contributing to this issue to some degree find ourselves wrestling intellectually and personally with the matter of death, regardless of how we handle this basic question, whether with Hindu, Christian, agnostic, atheistic or secularist reflections.
Equally blunt is the manner in which Samuel Scheffler raises the matter of death in his book, Death and the Afterlife by presenting two similar but interestingly different thought experiments regarding how we think about “death and the afterlife.”3 He asks us to think about how we would react to two doomsday scenarios, first, a sudden doomsday, and second, a ‘softer’ doomsday. First, says Scheffler,
Suppose you knew that, although you yourself would live a normal life span, the earth would be completely destroyed thirty days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect your attitudes during the remainder of your life?4
Or, (secondly) borrowing from a thought experiment from P.D. James novel, The Children of Men, Scheffler presents a ‘softer’ doomsday scenario. Suppose, he suggests, that human beings have become infertile, “with no recorded birth having occurred in more than twenty-five years,” Scheffler continues,
It is entirely compatible [in such a ‘softer’ doomsday scenario] with every living person having a normal life span. So if we imagine ourselves inhabiting [such an infertile world] …it is clear that those reactions would not include any feelings about the premature deaths of our loved ones, for no such deaths would occur (or, at any rate, none would occur as an essential feature of the scenario itself).5
The difference between the two doomsday scenarios, of course, is that the latter is a somewhat ‘softer’ doomsday than the former, since the latter does not involve the death of friends, loved ones and the common world that we all enjoy in our current lifetimes.
Scheffler, it should be stressed, does not himself believe in any sort of personal afterlife or personal immortality. Each of us has but one life, and each of us will personally die. There is, however, says Scheffler, an afterlife that in many ways is much more important than our personal life, and that, of course, is the collective afterlife. Human life and life in general continue to go on for all persons and/or sentient creatures after our particular personal life ends, and Scheffler wants to argue, or attempts to argue, not only that the understanding of the meaning of our personal life depends on the collective afterlife only for those who do not believe in a personal afterlife, but even for those who do believe in a personal afterlife. To oversimplify in the interest of time, Scheffler’s basic thesis is that the meaning of “one life” or our “one personal life” presupposes the collective presence of “many lives” and that personal death is important for making sense of “(our) one life” as well as the “many lives” or, in other words, the “many lives that come after us” as well as “the many lives that have preceded us”. The doomsday scenarios, says Scheffler, make quite clear why this should be the case.
Finally, it should also be noted, that Scheffler is inclined to agree for the most part with the argument of Bernard Williams that “immortality” as a general notion is as equally problematic as a personal after-life, because the reality of death that makes one life exciting and challenging precisely because of its constraints, would lead to an incoherent tedium or boredom with a state of immortality wherein all such constraints are absent.6

2. Karma and Rebirth in Pātañjala Yoga and the Issue of Theism

But turning now to South Asian Hindu notions of karma and rebirth and the implicit notion of theism that operates within the framework of a theodicy of karma and rebirth (at least in the Yoga of Patañjali), especially instructive is the discussion of these issues in the Yogasūtra (hereafter YS) and its accompanying Bhāṣya, and in particular YS II. 13 and YS I. 24. [In an Appendix A to this summary presentation, I am attaching a full translation of YS II. 13 and YS I. 24, with the accompanying oldest Bhāṣya (commentary) for those who would like to see the full textual presentation.7]
These Hindu arguments of Pātañjala Yoga, I am inclined to think, come close to what Scheffler is attempting to argue in his book, Death and the Afterlife.
In II.13, a sequence of four questions is posed as follows, namely,
  • (1) Is it the case that one karmic action is the cause of one rebirth?
  • Or, (2) Is it rather the case that one karmic action is the cause of many rebirths?
  • Or, (3) Is it the case that many karmic actions bring about many rebirths?
  • Or, (4) Is it the case that many karmic actions bring about one rebirth?
The first three questions are given a negative answer, the first, because one karmic action causing one rebirth would rule out a proper sequence for the fruition of the many other karmic actions in a single rebirth; the second, because one karmic action causing many rebirths would eliminate the requisite time for accommodating all the karmic actions (that need to be accommodated); the third, because if many karmic actions were causing many rebirths, there would be required a simultaneity of rebirths that is obviously not possible. Only the fourth question, then, can be answered in the affirmative, that is to say, many karmic actions come together at the conclusion of one rebirth to bring about a single subsequent rebirth (ekabhavitka, or one life) that has (ekabhavika, or one life) a distinctive species-identity (jāti), a distinctive length of life (āyus), and a distinctive quality of experience in that rebirth (bhoga) based upon the massive heritage of previous karmic residues, karmic traces and karmic predispositions (āśaya-s, vāsanā-s and saṃskāra-s).
Karmic actions are, thus, (beginninglessly!!) cumulative, with some immediately dominant and/or predictable karmic actions being manifested in the new (or present) rebirth (prārabdha), and others being unpredictable and/or un-fixed, with some being stored (sañcita) for a subsequent manifestation in the present rebirth or for a subsequent rebirth, and some generating new karmic action in the present rebirth (sañcīyamāna) that will have fruition in yet future rebirths. Regarding the unpredictable and/or un-fixed karmic actions, three outcomes are possible. First, some may be set aside completely because they have become overpowered by more powerful karmic actions. Second, some may be easily endured by becoming absorbed in a larger unfolding dominant karmic manifestation. Or third, some may be simply be waiting in abeyance over several rebirths until they can become activated at an appropriately ripe moment (the a-dṛṣṭa or a-pūrva fruitions) that appear to be un-expected or un-forseen. These latter, that is, the adṛṣṭa or apūrva, are obviously variable and impossible to specify, but these unpredictable and/or unexpected karmas are exceptions (apavāda) to the general rule, and, indeed, are mysterious (durjñāna) in the sense that they are exceptions to the general rule that karmic actions heap up at the end of a rebirth (one’s personal death) and then become manifest in a single one life rebirth (ekabhavika) characterized by jāti, āyus, and bhoga.
Thus, there are cumulatively “many lives” over time issuing in single-life personal manifestations (like the personal life we are all experiencing in this present life) that will then transmute into a series of ‘many lives’ in the future. The entire unfolding process is a closed causal system of becoming (satkāryavāda and traiguṇya). One’s personal life in a given rebirth is not negated but, rather, greatly expanded, in the sense that our personal identity is part of a continuing diachronic series of variable rebirths, informed by many lives that have gone before and many other lives that are yet to come.
If one asks, then, what role does God play in such a closed, comprehensive system of synchronic phylogeny (the co-presence of all species) and diachronic ontogeny (the historical or real time becoming of life after life), the philosophy of Yoga (in keeping with the Sāṃkhya dualism) suggests the following in YS I. 24:
“God (Īśvara) is a particular or unique consciousness (puruṣa) (among a variety of manifestations of consciousness) (puruṣa-bahutva) untouched by the afflictions (kleśa-s) [avidyā, asmitā, rāga, dveṣa, abhiniveśa], karmic actions (karman), karmic fruits (vipāka) and long-term karmic pre-dispositions (āśaya-s) (that are characteristic of all other sentient beings associated with manifestations of consciousness).”8
God, in other words, is not part of the karma and rebirth system of becoming, and, hence, cannot be a creator (since God is not associated with the cause and effect system), nor can God be personal (since God is disconnected from the notion of “person” as ahaṃkāra or asmitā in the karma and rebirth scheme of things).9 Most puzzling of all, God is neither a cosmic Ātman nor Brahman or any other Absolute, but only a particular manifestation of consciousness among a variety of manifestations of consciousness. In other words, there is a strange reversal in Pātañjala Yoga (and Sāṃkhya) of the notion of the One and the Many. The realm of embodied becoming is a uniform and rational realm of cosmic, all-pervasive Unity (prakṛti = triguṇa) enveloped on all sides (and, again, all-pervasively) by a pluralized or quantized consciousness, one quantum of which consciousness is designated Īśvara.
Who or what, then, is this unique (viśeṣa) consciousness among the quantized varieties of consciousness, which together make possible the experience of all varieties of karmic becoming? God becomes manifest as the eternal excellence (śāśvatika-utkarṣa) that shows itself when the citta-sattva has been appropriately purified (through the practice of Yoga). The practice of Yoga, however, is not the cause of the manifestation of eternal excellence or the eternal presence of consciousness, since eternal excellence is not part of the causal order. The practice of Yoga only removes the obstacles for the manifestation of what has always been the case, that is, consciousness as the exemplar of complete freedom [“tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe ‘vasthānam,” YS I. 3], or, in other words, consciousness as the radical foundation of freedom.10

3. Conclusions

Let me share a few brief concluding observations. It was Max Weber who first highlighted in an essay entitled, “The Social Psychology of the World Religions” the three classic formulations of “theodicy” [that is, cogent explanations for the suffering and injustice that one finds in the world, including, of course, life and death.] Weber comments,
The metaphysical conception of God and of the world, which the ineradicable demand for a theodicy called forth, could produce only a few systems of ideas on the whole—as we shall see, only three. These three gave rationally satisfactory answers to the questioning for the basis of the incongruity between destiny and merit: the Indian doctrine of Karma (and rebirth), Zoroastrian dualism, and the predestination decree of the deus absconditus. These solutions are rationally closed; in pure form, they are found as exceptions.11
The Yoga (and Sāṃkhya) view of karma and rebirth, puts great stress on the responsibility of the individual person to bear the consequences of his or her own becoming but does so by greatly expanding the notion of “person” or sentient being to an extent that it encompasses a great number of “many-lives” giving re-birth to a diachronic series of embodied behaviors for which this broader sense of “person” must bear responsibility. Such a view, therefore, looks upon the notion of “person” solely in terns of one single life as a rather naïve and afflicted (kleśa) view of personal life greatly out of touch with its truly vast identity and significance.
At the same time, the Yoga view, by greatly expanding the reality of the diachronic becoming of the “person” lessens seriously the work of God, who is neither a “person” nor a “creator”, but, rather, is an all-pervasive presence of eternal and immutable consciousness that is always present as the certitude of freedom for those able (through Yoga) to get beyond the constraints or bondage of ordinary awareness (citta).
One need not buy into the archaic metaphysics used in ancient times to explain the process in terms of “transmigration,” “reincarnation,” “subtle bodies floating into new gross bodies,” and so forth. It is perhaps possible simply to accept the idea that my one single life is hardly just an isolated event in time but, rather, that I am in a great company of companions, many of whom are nearly identical to myself, who have made my life possible and that what I do with my life will have profound implications in the lives who come after me in countless generations to come. I must take responsibility for the events that surround me and with which I have been involved in preceding trajectories in which I had a different name and a different behavior pattern. God has not created my life; I have through my deeds.12 God’s grace (anugraha), is the simple presence of the consciousness that illumines my particular life and enables me to have experience. More than that, it is a witnessing presence that reveals to each or any sentient being that it can only be what it has made itself to be, and that authentic spiritual freedom brings with it the terrible destiny that I must take responsibility for myself in the great hierarchy of unfolding life.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.

Appendix A

Yogasūtra II.13 and I.24 with accompanying Bhāṣya:
(YS II.13)
[sati mūle tad-vipāko jāty-āyur-bhogāḥ]
[The Bhāṣya:]
-When the afflictions are continuing to exist, there is the beginning of the ripening of the karmic residue (karmāśaya) but not if the root of the afflictions has been uprooted.
-Just as rice grains covered with chaff made up of unburned (living) seeds are capable of growing, but not the rice grains that have had their chaff removed and the seeds burned; so in a similar fashion karmic residues or propensities (karmāśaya) covered with afflictions are capable of ripening, but not those karmic residues whose afflictions have been removed by (what is called) “deep or supreme meditation” (prasaṃkhyāna).
-And that ripening is of three types, namely, form of life (jāti), length of life (āyus) and quality of life (bhoga).
-Now herein, the following is to be discussed. Is it the case that one karmic action is the cause of one rebirth? Or is it rather the case that one karmic action is indicative of many rebirths?
-There is also herein a second discussion (to be pursued). Is it the case that many karmic actions bring about or accomplish many rebirths? Or is it rather the case that many karmic actions bring about one rebirth?
-First of all, it is not the case that one karmic action is the cause of one rebirth.
-Why? There is entailed then a dissatisfaction (for those) in (their) present birth, since the remaining innumerable karmic actions heaped up from beginning-less time are not ordered in a proper sequence of fruits (ripening effects), and such is (obviously) not reasonable.
-And likewise one karmic action is not the cause of many (or more than one) rebirths.
-Why? Since among many karmic actions only one would be the cause of many rebirths; and it would then be entailed that there would be insufficient time for the ripening of the remaining karmic actions. That also is (obviously) not reasonable.
-And, finally, more than one karmic action is not the cause of more than one rebirth.
-Why? More than one birth or many rebirths cannot occur simultaneously. They can only occur sequentially or one by one.
-Like the preceding two possibilities, this third possibility is also (obviously) not reasonable.
-[Only one plausible possibility remains as follows.] Therefore, the heaping up of the varied karmic actions (karmāśaya), both meritorious and de-meritorious, made or generated (kṛta) over the course of one life, from birth to death, organized (avasthita) in terms of primary and secondary (force), coming together in a single fashion, coalesce at the time of dying into a single mass and make or generate only one rebirth (janma = jāti).
-And that (form of) rebirth (jāti), by reason of (the accumulative) karmic force, determines the length of life (āyus) of that new rebirth.
-In this new form of life, again by reason of karmic force, the quality of life (bhoga) of this new rebirth comes forth or unfolds.
-This residue of karmic actions (karmāśaya) is called a threefold ripening, since the form of life (janma = jāti) (of the new rebirth) its length (āyus) and its quality of experience (bhoga) have been caused as has been just described.
-Hence, “the residue of karmic actions” (karmāśaya) is known or said to be a “single coming to be” or a singular rebirth (ekabhavika).
-Moreover, due to the causation (known as) quality of life (bhoga), there may be the appearing of one ripening in the present rebirth. Or, due to the causation (known as) length of life (āyus), there may be two sorts of ripening like in the instances of Nandīśvara and Nahuṣa (mentioned above).
-One’s ordinary awareness (citta) is constituted by a variety of predispositions or traces (vāsanā) congealed from beginning-less time with the experiences of ripenings of karmic actions and afflictions, extended as it were like the knots of a fisherman’s net. These predispositions (vāsanā) are (the markings) from multiple previous rebirths.
-That which is meant here, however, refers only to the residue of karmic actions (karmāśaya) from one preceding rebirth, hence known as a “single coming to be” or a “singular rebirth” (ekabhavika).
-Those predispositions (saṃskāra), known as (that group of) predispositions or traces (vāsanā), which are the causes of memory, (are derived) from beginning-less time.
-Furthermore, that karmic residue (karmāśaya) that pertains to a single rebirth (ekabhavika) has both a fixed or predictable ripening and an un-fixed or unpredictable ripening (vipāka).
-Therein, regarding the fixed ripening that pertains to a single rebirth in the present life, it follows the rule (niyama) of its designated fruition, but this is not the case for the un-fixed or unpredictable ripening.
-Why? What is not experienced in the present rebirth, and hence, un-fixed, is subject to three distinct outcomes. First, it may be destroyed without coming to fruition. Second, it may be dissolved in a more dominant ripening. And third, it may be postponed for a long time because of other fixed or predictable ripening.
-Therein (in regard to the first type) of un-fixed or unpredictable ripening, there is the possibility of the destruction of unpredictable black (negative) karma due to the rising up of white (virtuous) karmic ripening. [And see YS IV. 7 for the discussion of “black” and “white” karma.]
-As has been said: “Two types of action must be understood! One heap of meritorious action destroys (the black action) of the doer of evil. Thus, choose good deeds to do. Here in this world, the poets make known proper action.”
-(In regard to the second type, namely,) the dissolving of an un-fixed or unpredictable karmic action into a stronger or dominant karmic action.
-Wherein this has been said:
“Even a small mixture (of bad karma derived from sacrificial action) can be remedied and is endurable. It is not enough to drive away the good karma. Why? There is much in me which is good so that whatever (bad karma) is dissolved in the good karma will make only a small discomfort (for me) in heaven.”
-(In regard to the third type, namely,) the karmic action that has been postponed for a long time by reason of having been overpowered by the fixed or predictable principal karma.
-How (is this third type to be explained)? The moment of death is said to be the cause of the manifestation of the karmic action that has a fixed or predictable ripening schedule in a future life, but death is not the cause of karmic action which does not have a fixed ripening schedule (because it is subordinated to the dominant predictable ripening).
-This un-fixed or unpredictable karmic action, not being experienced in the present rebirth and thereby destroyed (by the fixed karmic action) or dissolved into the dominant karmic action, would continue to abide for a long time in an overpowered state until such time as the manifesting general karmic action no longer interferes with the intended ripening of it.
-Since the ripening of it (that is, this third type in a future rebirth) is not ascertainable in terms of space, time and causation, the course of this sort of karmic action is variable and impossible to specify.
-This does not set aside the general rule, however. It is only an exception (apavāda). Hence, karmic residue or the residue of karmic actions (karmāśaya) can correctly be said to be (anujñāyate) “arising from one preceding rebirth” or “single rebirth” (ekabhavika) primarily.
(YS I.24)
[Preface by the Bhaṣya:]
-Is this God (īśvara) by name separate from materiality (pradhāna) and consciousness (puruṣa)?
[kleśa-karma-vipāka-āsayair aparāmṛṣṭaḥ puruṣa-viśeṣa īśvaraḥ]
[The Bhāṣya:]
-”Afflicitions” refer to the five, ignorance (avidyā) and so forth. “Karmic tendencies” refer to good and evil actions (or deeds). “Karmic fruits” refer to the result or consequence of those actions (or deeds). “Karmic pre-dispositions” refer to the long-term impulses (vāsanā) associated with those actions (or deeds) and pre-dispositions.
-And all these operating in the mind are ascribed to (or are reflected in) consciousness (puruṣa), for consciousness is the “enjoy-er” (bhoktṛ) of the fruit (or result) of these (operations);
-Just as (yathā) victory or defeat among soldiers is ascribed to the leader (of an army).
-God, however, is a particular consciousness untouched by this sort of experience.
-Now many ( practitioners (kevalin) have attained spiritual release (kaivalya), for they have attained spiritual release having overcome the three types of bondage.
-There has not been or ever will be, however, any such relation to bondage by God.
-Although the consciousness (puruṣa) of a released Yogin has reflected earlier experiences of bondage, such is not the case for God.
-Or, as a later limit of bondage will come to be of a Yogin dissolved in materiality (prakṛti-līna), not so for God.
-In other words (tu), God is always released; is always just God!
-What is this eternal excellence of God because of an abundance of pre-eminent sattva, is it caused or not caused? [Answer:] Its cause is the Śāstra!
-But what then is the cause of the Śāstra? [Answer:] It is caused by the abundance of pre-eminent sattva! [In other words, each causes the other.]
-In regard to God’s sattva, there is a beginningless relation between the abundance of pre-eminent sattva, on the one hand, and the Śāstra, on the other.
-Thus, therefore, God always exists and always is released.
-And the power of God has no equal and is incomparable, so that (God’s) power cannot be exceeded by another power.
-If there were another power possessed of pre-eminence, that would then be the supreme power.
-Thus, wherein there is the highest limit of power, there is just God!
-And there can be no equality or equal power. Why? Since, when two comparable powers are seeking a separate purpose simultaneously, thinking, let this be a new (path to follow), or let this be an old (path to follow), there will be a diminution of the willfulness of the one or the other when a certain result is achieved.
-In other words there can be no attainment of a separate end or purpose by two equal powers, since the purposes contradict one another.
-Thus, whose power has no equal and is incomparable, that is just God!
-This is what is meant by referring to God as a “unique consciousness (among the many manifestations of consciousness)” (puruṣa-viśeṣa).


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(Scheffler 2013) (first delivered as a Tanner Lecture at UC Berkeley in March 2012, copyright with The Regents of the University of California, 2012).
Ibid., p. 18.
Ibid., p. 39.
See citation and discussion of Bernard (Williams 1973).
For the Sanskrit text of the YS and the Yogasūtrabhāṣya, I have used the (Bhattacharya 1963), pp. 61–65 (for YS II. 13) and pp. 24–27 (for YS I. 24). The English translation from the Sanskrit is my own.
Ibid., p. 24 in the Sanskrit edition.
This understanding of Īśvara has been contested in recent scholarship—e.g., (Bryant 2009)—and in Sanskrit commentaries on the Yoga Sūtras.
Ibid., p. 6 in the Sanskrit edition.
Though this statement can be qualified with the understanding that my deeds are ultimately not ‘mine,’ but originate in the impersonal causal process of nature, or prakṛti.

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