Book reviews

Obeyesekere is the kind of thinker I love: sweeping, sociological, anthropological and philosophical. However, unlike myself, he’s a real scholar and doesn’t ignore the details. In Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth he looks at just what makes karma special from rebirth thought in cultures around the world. The unifying theme he finds is that while rebirth is a very common idea – the idea that this rebirth is in fact determined by someone’s ethical actions, is an Indian one.

This is a scholarly tour de force: Obeyesekere takes us to Africa, the Americas, Greece and more. In short: there’s hardly a continent where he does not find a reference to belief in rebirth. What you don’t find, however, is any reference to karma. Neither the Pythagoreans, nor Melanesians or the Tlingit believe that the ethical quality of our actions, thoughts and words make a difference in how we’re reborn. This idea developed in India and became a major feature of most religions that originate there.

The book is easy to summarize, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to read. For those with the patience to do so, there is a wealth of detail here that is worth exploring. For instance, we find Socrates saying:

Every seeker after wisdom knows that up to the time when philosophy takes it over his soul is a helpless prisoner, chained hand and foot in the body, compelled to view reality not directly but only through its prison bars, and wallowing in utter ignorance. (p. 250)

It’s a cliche in multi-cultural dialog that diversity is a good thing, because it brings new perspective. As a cultural (though probably not a believing) Buddhist Obeyesekere’s perspective on Greek philosophy is refreshing. He brings an Asian sensitivity to the topic that is useful when one is used to hearing about the classics through the lens of modern materialistic thought. After all, it’s really not like those Greeks were post-modern themselves.

All in all I do recommend this book to the intelligent reader willing to deal with anthropological references, or at least able to skip them without losing the main thread of the book.

This book is a companion to Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Instead of looking at the classical period (before the common era), it looks at more modern developments in interpreting karma. That means it starts with Buddhism 2000 years ago, catches up to Hinduism in the 1850s and covers the reception of karma in China and Tibetan Buddhism as well as the modern West. And yes, that includes people like H.P. Blavatsky, Jung, Swami Bhaktivedanta, Rajneesh and modern Buddhism in the USA.

The advantage of this approach is that the material is more relevant to our day-to-day spirituality than in the companion volume. We find reference to the modern tendency to combine karma with evolution, psychology and merit making and ritual aspects of karma as well.

However, we’re still talking about a volume written by and for scholars. This means copious footnotes, a critical response to the material entered and even an index.

Like the preceding volume on individual topics this book can seem a bit superficial. We get a summary of Lama Tsong Khapa for instance that doesn’t really add anything to what anybody these days can glean from the translation of the Lam Rim Chenmo (2000). However, when this book came out, that work had not yet been completed. On the other hand, the treatment of theosophy is unexpectedly thorough. Neufelt concludes that Blavatsky is an utopian author. This surprised me, as I had never thought of her as an optimist, let alone a utopian thinker. However, when it comes to karma, it’s true: she’s an optimist who believes (among other things) that people will mostly improve and be reborn as people. My surprise is due to the frequent pessimistic thoughts one finds elsewhere in her writings.

Again: I can recommend this volume as a good introduction to various aspects of karma.

Thumbnail image for Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy (ed). Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions

Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy (ed). Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions

April 5, 2014

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Karma: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality

April 4, 2014

In researching my (upcoming) book about Karma, I brushed up my knowledge on the topic. One of the books I turned to was Karma: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality by Johannes Bronkhorst. My teachers at Leiden University whisper his name with awe. Professor Bronkhorst is a living legend in the study of India and Buddhism. From the […]

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HH the Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World

March 30, 2014

The Dalai Lama is well known as the (officially former) leader of the Tibetan people in exile and as a spiritual teacher. In this book he has done something unprecedented: he wrote a book for non-Buddhists, with no aim to convert them. As a Tibetan, his approach to ethics – the topic of Beyond Religion: […]

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Trying not to Try – Wu Wei and De

March 13, 2014

How do we fall asleep? Trying to sleep only worsens insomnia. Trying to achieve something worsens the result in many areas of life. In Chinese philosophy this paradox is described through the twin principles of ‘wu wei‘ and ‘de‘. Wu Wei is roughly what we would call ‘flow’. The experience of being in the moment, […]

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Alphatudes – the alphabet of gratitude

November 17, 2013

I am always a bit suspicious of books about gratitude. The very concept sounds to me like a way of telling people to not feel their pain and ignore their troubles. This book is not like that. It tells us to lovingly embrace our emotions, to deal with our fears and sorrow. Yet it is […]

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Man The Measure Of All Things

November 17, 2013

This deep, engaging and insightful interpretation of Blavatsky’s ‘The Secret Doctrine’ by Sri Madhava Ashish and Sri Krishna Prem is one of those books I’ve heard about for years, but never had the opportunity to read. Having read Blavatsky’s magnum opus myself, I was not inclined to read this commentary. However, the second hand bookshop of the […]

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Out of this World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein

November 13, 2013

Real science is always hard to summarize. This book by Ioan Couliano is a book like that. I read the whole thing, but to be honest the most fascinating parts were the introduction and the conclusion. The rest helped flesh it out, but it did get a bit boring. Still, Out of this World: Otherworldly […]

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Thumbnail image for Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, Edward Conze

Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, Edward Conze

November 13, 2013

There are a lot of Books about Buddhism out there. Most of them focus on Buddhism for modern people: what’s relevant today. That’s fine, in fact that’s great. But it’s not what the Buddha taught. It’s not what Buddhists believed in and practiced over the past 2000 years. This book is. In Buddhist Texts Through The […]

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