Coming Back Bad:
by Stephen Sakellarios
Accepting and understanding reincarnation very quickly solves a number of sticky philosophical points that throw huge monkey wrenches into both materialistic and traditionally religious doctrine. However, the existence of bad people--especially, those who rise (or sink) to a level of historical infamy--poses a standing challenge even to reincarnation. Reincarnationists will tell you, for example, that people in the afterlife, having a grander perspective, choose to come back in this or that circumstance. But why would someone choose to incarnate as a bad person achieving historical notoriety? In the long incarnational process, who are these people and why do they show us the worst of human nature? Clearly, they provide society with examples of what not to do, driving moral lessons home to the mass consciousness as no preaching or exhortation can do. But how do they get that way?
In order to explore this question more deeply, I will have to return to my philosophical roots, because the matter is beyond my understanding alone. In my late teens I began studying the writings of a few carefully-selected spiritual teachers, with occasional exposure to other sources. My criterion was that the writer should have attained a very high state of spiritual advancement. I can't go into how I determined this, except to say that once I identified one or two such persons, using intuition and intellect combined, the rest were discerned by comparison. I don't claim infallibility in this selection process, but after 30-plus years I feel clear enough in myself that I made the right choices. Nor do I claim that my small list is exhaustive. These are simply the teachers I felt most drawn to. In what follows, I will be drawing primarily from these sources: Meher Baba, Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, and the Sufi poet, Rumi. Because Meher Baba has written most clearly and extensively on this subject (and not only because I am a disciple), I will be relying most heavily on his teachings.
I'll return to my original question, and analyze it: "Why would someone choose to incarnate as a bad person achieving historical notoriety?"
First of all I think the notion that all people have 100% choice in the incarnation process is mistaken. I think it is more like college, where freshmen have a number of required "core courses," with a limited number of electives; but a senior might be taking almost all electives. I think people have degrees of choice within certain parameters. A student, for example, can choose what foreign language to take and whether to take it this semester or next semester--but the language requirement remains.
In the same way, it may be necessary to have the experience, at certain points in one's incarnational "college," of being what society considers a bad person. Reincarnation is driven by the necessity for well-rounded experience of the opposites of life. It is not possible to be good without having been bad (i.e., in a previous life). Swami Vivekananda adds that because everything in this world by necessity balances out, it is not possible to have good people in the world without there being bad people (i.e., at any given time, not that people remain bad for all their incarnations). He goes so far as to say that good people owe their opportunity to be good to those who are, for that incarnation, being bad. The chaste woman owes her opportunity in this life to be pure to the prostitute, and so-on. Furthermore, the chaste woman has not become chaste--she could not have attained the motivation to become so--except by having gone through the multi-incarnational process of learning what it meant to be impure in previous lives.
However, we have set for ourselves the task of addressing this question--what of the persons who make a career, as it were, of being bad, taking it to an extreme and excelling in that dimension to such an extent as to achieve historical fame? Can reincarnation address this phenomenon?
It can, but only by first addressing the deeper issue of good and evil.(1) In Meher Baba's "Discourses," he devotes an entire chapter to this subject, and the themes he sets forth are repeated through many of his works. It's a difficult perspective to grasp initially, because it is so foreign to our way of thinking. Encountering these ideas in other sources, many have tried to assimilate them but have garbled it, erroneously putting good and evil on an equal footing. I'm going to try to present what I've understood of it in my years of study, but I refer the reader to the original for more clarity.
Swami Vivekananda often repeated, "Not from bad to good, but from good to greater good." Meher Baba wrote, "...evil is not utterly evil but goodness in its lowest degree; weakness is not mere incapacity but strength in its lowest degree; and vice is not pure vice but virtue at its lowest."(2) In order to get at the root of what these teachers are saying, you have to understand the law of manifestation, that everything in the world, from ideas, to feelings, to physical objects, all are reflections or manifestations of one Source. This Source is both Personal and Impersonal--and this can be clearly inferred, because in this manifested world you find the personal and the impersonal, so logically the Source of the manifested world must include both. When viewed as being Personal, we call this Source, God. When viewed as being Impersonal, we call it Truth. When referring to God, we say the world was "created"; when referring to Truth, we say it was "manifested." But these are merely different perspectives.
Now, if everything we see is a manifestation of Perfection, how do we account for evil? Evil is a low degree of manifestation of some particular attribute or attributes of Perfection. Immediately you can see that it would be possible to have a high degree of manifestation of one attribute, coupled with a low degree of manifestation of another. So we might have someone manifesting a high degree of strength, coupled with a low degree of compassion.(3) Both attributes originally came from the Truth, or (looked at another way) are reflections of some aspect of the Truth. Strength comes from God; compassion comes from God. A certain individual may have achieved strength, but may not yet have achieved compassion. To return to our college analogy, he might have taken all his mathematics courses, but no humanities.
It should be clearly understood that, to a degree, this is a natural process. No-one can learn everything all at one time. We each have to tackle the huge problem of going back to the Source consciously--the purpose of life--from a particular starting point. No matter what starting point you take, there will be things you miss. It's inevitable. The language major will not be as proficient in science; the science major will not be as proficient in languages. It is even part of some people's primary path in life to single-mindedly develop one talent or attribute to the exclusion of others. This is the part of our collective experience that he brings to the table. But in general, the biggest problems develop where someone is resisting, avoiding or neglecting their personal overall growth process, delaying their progress and flying in the face of the purpose of life.
If you extend this principle to the multitude of attributes that people can pursue and perfect, you can see the wide range of possibilities. And you can see that a few people might become so lopsided in their development over the course of several lifetimes that they develop enough skill and power to become famous, without the concomitant wisdom, compassion, selflessness or restraint to handle it. This process involves infinite shades and combinations. Many such persons may have begun their initial drive with good intentions. This is commonly known--what's not taken into account is the multi-incarnational aspect. Greatness--including infamy--isn't achieved in one life. It's a cumulative effort requiring many incarnations.
There is one category that deserves special attention, and that is the sociopath or psychopath. This type of person forms a standing challenge to all our assumptions about good and evil, because, apparently, he chooses at a deep level to put his own welfare above everyone else's. He does not seem to have a conscience, or at least, to have an effective conscience. How can we apply the principles stated above to this case?
First of all, we see that such a person has developed in a lopsided manner. Typically, he is highly intelligent, charming, attractive and with great personal magnetism. This is no accident. He has developed this power over his past incarnations, based on his beliefs and assumptions about life, which operate at a deep level. But he has neglected the development of compassion and responsibility. So he is manifesting a high degree of certain attributes, but a low degree of others.
Let's stop for a moment to introduce the acid test. The acid test is to use a highly spiritually advanced person as a measuring stick. Such a person is manifesting all the attributes, however opposite they may seem, to an advanced degree simultaneously and in harmony with each other. Jesus, for example, had great power, but also was very gentle and had great compassion. From the Biblical accounts, he had tremendous charm and charisma, and people were drawn to him. But he lived entirely for the benefit of others and never took advantage of anyone.
Now, back to the sociopath. This person has developed charm and magnetism, and uses it to exploit others. There may be some very basic underlying philosophical assumption (analogous to the momentous childhood decisions driving "personal scripts" that are uncovered in psychotherapy, but extending across incarnations) that he has bought into many lifetimes back, permitting this lopsided development, such as, "If you don't look after your own interests, nobody else will." You hear these pithy philosophical "sound bites" all the time. They sound innocuous--but they are like train tracks that have been diverted into a ravine. They are hardly innocuous, which I think is the original reason that those who tried to preserve the integrity of Christianity were so concerned about heresies. Unfortunately, that effort got taken over by people who had not developed enough compassion.
Which brings up an interesting point. Swami Vivekananda, speaking of efforts at social reform, said that the world is like a dog's curly tail--straighten it out and it curls back up again. He also said that criticism as a means of promoting change has been tried for centuries, and it doesn't work.
So here we have two basic assumptions that occasionally drive people, perhaps over a number of lifetimes, to a place they never intended--that of becoming a cruel revolutionary, with the justification that they are doing good. They want to reform society, and they start out by criticizing it. They harbor two very deeply-rooted assumptions: 1) that it is possible to reform the world permanently, and 2) that by pointing out people's errors, the recipients will be grateful and will change.
This is how irrational some of our assumptions are--if you look at these two in the light of day, it's obvious that they are in error. But because such assumptions are usually buried and never seriously questioned, there has been a veritable parade of infamous people throughout history who have acted them out!
Reforming the world would be something like trying to force a college to offer only graduate level courses, and forcing all the students to immediately behave and perform academically as though they were graduate students. It's not going to happen, because it flies in the face of the definition of a college. This world is a perfect spiritual college. It can be a very tough college, depending on how willing you are to "study." At certain periods of history there is a larger freshman class, and they are making a hash of it. But that's what's supposed to be happening. The learning process is proceeding as it should. At other periods of history the senior class predominates and a different atmosphere prevails. Always, there are "professors," and always there are "graduate students". The freshman may not have so much access to the professors, but will encounter them in classes; the graduate students may work for them.
The spiritual teachers I've cited above tell us that no soul is ever lost. Eventually, even the infamous sociopath must come back to the Source. Presumably such a person suffers by the karmic repercussions of his previous life actions until he sees the necessity for more well-rounded development. One fascinating aspect of the incarnational process is that the greatest sinner has the potential to become the greatest saint. Great wrongdoing creates great suffering. Great suffering, in its turn, gives birth to great depth of character, which gives rise to a noble life.
So when you see a Hitler, you may be seeing someone who developed too far along certain lines, gained too much power, and then misused that power. When you see a Gandhi, you may be seeing someone who had been like Hitler, suffered, gained a greater understanding and balance, and expressed that new greatness in a socially beneficial way.
Meher Baba wrote that sinners and saints are like waves on the same ocean. He also indicated that bad (lower degrees of manifestation of good) leads to good (higher degrees of manifestation)--but that good leads to God, or Truth, which is beyond both. Now we see the purpose behind Swami Vivekananda's statement, "Not from bad to good, but from good to greater good". Calling anyone "bad" misses the point entirely, because everyone is found to be at some point or other on their own journey back to the Source. If they have achieved greatness in infamy, this is only a stage in the process--they will have to come back to fulfill their destiny, by transmuting that lopsided, distorted greatness into a full and noble greatness.
1) This article is not attempting a comprehensive philosophy of good and evil, but only sets forth some of the less-commonly understood principles. For example, maya, the force which deludes people into perceiving the unreal as real, also plays a large role by inducing people to desire lower, fragmentary manifestations of Truth. Meher Baba's teachings on sanskaras also throw a great deal of light on this topic.
2) Meher Baba, "Discourses" Vol. I, page 115.
3) It is also just as possible to manifest a high degree of compassion, but a low degree of strength--something clearly seen as undesirable by the person who idealizes strength.
If you liked this article, you may also like my reinarnation self-study,
"Mathew Franklin Whittier in his own words," described here.
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