Request for comments: Informal extended abstract

Anand Venkt Raman A.Raman at
Tue Nov 28 05:29:41 UTC 1995

Some time ago I was experimenting with an AI program that formed
inductive theories by successively merging situations which appear in
similar contexts.  You could tell it what degree of generalisation you
want it to make via a variable parameter.  Accidentally, I ran it
on some data with runaway generalisation and it produced a trivial
(but useless for prediction) theory by merging all possible outcomes
into a single state.

That night, as I thought about it, the following thought struck me
which I have developed into a sort of informal extended abstract.  I
would ideally like to develop this further into a formal note and thus
would like some comments on it.  I am thus posting it to the list and
would greatly appreciate any feedback the members might have.  I would
also be grateful to not be flamed for any glaring errors the article
may contain.

It is a novel and modern :-) solution to the problem Sankara faced
when asked how a singular soul could undergo rebirth because of its
actions towards other(?) souls.


- &

Sankara's monism is a form of Hindu philosophy. In fact, it is one of
the most popular ones. It emerges in the Hindu Scriptures and was
developed by the Hindu philosopher and theologian Sankara in the 8th
century. Sankara, it has been argued, made the theory cogent and
intelligible, consistent with other scriptural claims and even used it
as a tool in an attempt to try and convert recalcitrant Buddhists.

Briefly, Sankara's monism, or Advaita as it is called, says that there
is no distinction between mind and body, and besides, that there is
only one mind in the universe. This non-dual mind is identified with
our Self, which is our thinking soul, and also with god.  Everything
else, including your and my individuality, is an illusion, called
Maya, in this mind due to its intrinsic ignorance about the nature of
things.  There need be no cause for ignorance, Sankara argues, as it
occurs naturally.  Only wisdom needs to be explained.  Thus there is
no need to posit any further entities to back this thesis.

Now, post-vedic Hindu scriptures contain ample references also to the
doctrine of karmic rebirth1. That is, every being is caught in an
unending cycle of births and deaths.  As you sow, so you shall reap.
Thus, our "sins"2 will eventually catch up with us causing us (our
souls) to be reborn in our next lives and eventually (after an
infinite time) experience exactly what it is we did to other creatures
in this and our previous lives.  This has been proposed by some as the
Hindu solution to the problem of evil.  A very simplistic
interpretation of this doctrine (folk-rendition) says that if you kill
a butterfly in this life, then you will be reborn as a butterfly in
one of your future lives during which this butterfly will be born as a
human who will kill you, thus evening things out in the final

At first sight, this doctrine itself seems fraught with many serious
problems of personal identity and the final equalisation seems
extremely doubtful given the interconnectedness of so many events.
Much work has been done towards trying to make this theory more
sophisticated, including the claim that an infinite regress does not
merely postpone ethical compensation indefinitely, but achieves it.
But none of them seem convincing to one who is not already convinced
by its naive presentation above.  I hope, however, that I am able to
give a cogent rendition of the doctrine in this note that will solve
all these problems convincingly.

Besides having problems of its own, the doctrine of karmic rebirth is
also inconsistent with Advaita.  Simply, if there is a soul that
undergoes death and rebirth because of its actions towards other
souls, then by implication there are many souls, each undergoing a
series of regenerations. Each has its own bank of karmic consequences
and each tries to work its way to salvation separately. Where then is
Sankara's grand singular soul, the Atman, which is forever unchanging
and blissful?  If Sankara's Atman does not undergo birth or death as
he claims3 where then is the individual soul which undergoes karmic
rebirth? As far as I can tell, Sankara sidesteps the problem as much
as possible, and when the going gets really tough from the Buddhists,
he circumvents it by claiming that there are two kinds of souls, the
absolute, and the manifested.  It is the manifested soul that is
caught in the endless cycle of karmic rebirth - the absolute soul is
free from karmic consequences and as such is untouched by birth or
death.  The apparent existence of the manifested soul is a consequence
of Maya in the absolute soul.

I have never been truly happy with this interpretation. It looks to me
to be suspiciously close to an ad hoc modification to Sankara's
original thesis. I was also unhappy with this because there is a much
nicer solution to this whole problem which goes as follows: We start
off by assuming that there are indeed several individual souls as
required by the doctrine of karma.  There is no mention of any
temporal parameters for the karmic law in the Hindu scriptures.  Thus,
the phenomenon of rebirth could be said to be temporally unbound.
That is, while our bodies may be subject to temporal causes and
effects, there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that our souls also
are.  Our souls may well be aspatio-temporal, i.e., beyond space and
time.  Thus, a person who dies today, may not necessarily be reborn
tomorrow or in the next instant; he or she may be reborn a million
years into the future or even (swallow this for the moment) in the

>From this, it is but a small step, to propose that not only can the
individual soul be reborn in the past and the future, it can even be
reborn in the present! Thus, my neighbour with whom I am carrying on a
conversation could be my own self reborn (or vice versa) and his or
her neighbour and friend could all be rebirths of my soul. If we
extend this scenario enough, a final picture will force itself on us,
which also, by the way, provides ground for good ethics on pragmatic
grounds. There are no other souls than our own.  Every other soul is
just a rebirth of this one soul at a different time and place.  Notice
also, how things even out very nicely in the final reckoning.  There
need even be no final reckoning. As long as we consider that every
sentient being is just our own soul reborn at a different point in
space-time, everything is always in a state of balance. What you
do to your neighbour you are doing to yourself.  Christ's ethical
dictum "Do unto others what you would like others to do unto you" now
becomes pragmatically founded. When you kill a butterfly, you have
just killed yourself as a butterfly. You create and spend the karmic
consequence simultaneously.  You start off with a nil balance and you
end with a nil balance in your karmic bank.  Indeed, you are always in
a state of no debits and no credits.  The real individual soul, of
which there is but one, can now be identified with Sankara's grand
universal soul.  The atman is the Atman.  It is perpetually in the
state of equanimity.


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