Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth

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.