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Imagining Karma

Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth

Gananath Obeyesekere

Publication Year: 2002

With Imagining Karma, Gananath Obeyesekere embarks on the very first comparison of rebirth concepts across a wide range of cultures. Exploring in rich detail the beliefs of small-scale societies of West Africa, Melanesia, traditional Siberia, Canada, and the northwest coast of North America, Obeyesekere compares their ideas with those of the ancient and modern Indic civilizations and with the Greek rebirth theories of Pythagoras, Empedocles, Pindar, and Plato. His groundbreaking and authoritative discussion decenters the popular notion that India was the origin and locus of ideas of rebirth. As Obeyesekere compares responses to the most fundamental questions of human existence, he challenges readers to reexamine accepted ideas about death, cosmology, morality, and eschatology.

Obeyesekere's comprehensive inquiry shows that diverse societies have come through independent invention or borrowing to believe in reincarnation as an integral part of their larger cosmological systems. The author brings together into a coherent methodological framework the thought of such diverse thinkers as Weber, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche. In a contemporary intellectual context that celebrates difference and cultural relativism, this book makes a case for disciplined comparison, a humane view of human nature, and a theoretical understanding of "family resemblances" and differences across great cultural divides.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: Comparative Studies in Religion and Society

Title Page, Other Works by the Author, Other Works in the Series, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-viii


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pp. ix-xii

List of Illustrations

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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. xv-xxviii

...In this book I examine three eschatologies that until now have not been put together in any kind of systematic comparative perspective: the rebirth doctrines of small-scale societies in various parts of the world, such as West Africa, Melanesia, the Northwest Coast Amerindians, and the Inuit (Eskimo); those in the Buddhist, Jaina, and other religions that flowered in the Ganges valley around the sixth century b.c.e.; and those of the Greeks of the Pythagorean tradition of...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xxix-xxxii

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1. Karma and Rebirth in Indic Religions: Origins and Transformations

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pp. 1-18

...The major problem that I investigate in this work is the manner in which the “rebirth eschatologies” of small-scale societies are transformed in two large-scale historical developments: in the “karmic eschatologies” that one associates today with religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism and in the Greek religious traditions that could be broadly defined as...

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2. Non-Indic Theories of Rebirth

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pp. 19-71

...their studies of Northwest Coast and Inuit religions.1 In the African situation ethnographers were sensitive to religious and magical practices with which they were familiar, especially those resonating with their own European traditions, or they recorded customs exotic in the extreme if only to show the hidden rationality of seemingly irrational beliefs and practices. These were such...

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3. The Imaginary Experiment and the Buddhist Implications

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pp. 72-149

...The idea of scale is useful because historians agree that religions such as Buddhism, with their “karmic eschatologies,” emerged during India’s “second urbanization”(the first of course associated with the Indus valley civilizations). During this period small communities were linked to each other by trade networks and the imperialist designs of emergent empires. Similar, although not identical...

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4. The Buddhist Ascesis

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pp. 150-189

...In chapter 3 I showed how religious innovations are constrained within the limits of prior structures of thought. At the same time I also wanted to give agency and creative capacity to religious innovators, but I was constrained by the imprisoning frames imposed by prior scholarship and my own preconceptions. Although poorly documented, creativity and cultural innovativeness are found in small-scale...

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5. Eschatology and Soteriology in Greek Rebirth

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pp. 190-248

...I will now bring to bear on my imaginary experiment the traditions of thought in ancient Greece, conveniently labeled “Pythagorean,” that also contained multiple theories of rebirth. Most of the doctrines of rebirth discussed earlier have both historical and contemporary relevance, but for Greece one has no choice but to deal exclusively with the historical traditions, beginning with the figure most associated with rebirth doctrines, Pythagoras. Pythagoras...

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6. Rebirth and Reason

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pp. 249-318

...Where does Plato come into our scheme of things? With him we are dealing with a thinker who carefully worked out a cosmology and eschatology of rebirth. I doubt that he would have done so had he not personally believed in its truth, and, for me, it is senseless to convert figures like the Buddha and Plato into figures of the European Enlightenment or, as some do, into modern and postmodern thinkers. Plato was not interested in conversion, but he addressed his message...

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7. Imprisoning Frames and Open Debates: Trobriander, Buddhist, and Balinese Rebirth Revisited

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pp. 319-360

...As usual I will place that notion within ethnographic and historical contexts, returning to the “small-scale” societies discussed in chapter 2, especially Trobriand. Then, varying our theme somewhat, I deal with Bali, a “nation” consisting of villages that resemble the small-scale societies of our sample yet have historical connections with Buddhist and Hindu...


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pp. 361-412


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pp. 413-428


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pp. 429-448

E-ISBN-13: 9780520936300
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520232433

Page Count: 477
Publication Year: 2002

Series Title: Comparative Studies in Religion and Society