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  • Imagining Karma, Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth
  • A. L. Herman
Imagining Karma, Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. By Gananath Obeyesekere. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 448 pp.

Gananath Obeyesekere, professor emeritus of anthropology at Princeton University, is probably one of the world's greatest living anthropologists. The proof of that assertion lies in this his latest work on comparative anthropology, a study of the concept and practice of rebirth—"reincarnation" as he calls it—from ancient Greece and India to modern West Africa, Melanesia, and North America. In what follows let me briefly set forth what I understand his central thesis to be, the evidence for it, and the conclusions to be drawn from it. I will end with two very modest problems connected with this altogether intriguing and brilliant investigation into the doctrine of rebirth.

As a modified structural anthropologist, Gananath Obeyesekere rejects the rationalist model structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss. He follows instead the lead of two of his empiricist predecessors, Max Weber and Fernand Braudel, pointing out that structures, types, or models "are constructions of scholars, not universals waiting to be discovered" (p. 351). Consequently, as this book aptly proves, Obeyesekere's own "imagined" models are based on parole data following the actual language of the cultures being studied.

Obeyesekere thus begins his book with an elementary rebirth structure based on such parole. He refers to this primitive, first structure as "rebirth eschatology," which entails the rebirth of a deceased's soul into the body of a newborn relative of the deceased but without any determining ethical component as found in the more sophisticated and complex "karmic eschatologies." Such ethically neutral kin group rebirths are found among certain small-scale societies in West Africa, the Trobriand Islands, the Northwest American coast tribes, and the Inuits (Eskimos). Obeyesekere [End Page 303] draws extensively on field studies of these groups to bolster his conclusions about them. This simple rebirth eschatology is non-Indic in origin, Obeyesekere claims, since no evidence of influences have been found between these practitioners of rebirth eschatology and work relating to the Indic religions (Hinduism and Buddhism). The entry of the soul into postdeath life, either in this world or the world of the ancestors, depends not at all, consequently, on one's this-worldly behavior such that "morality does not affect the fate of the soul after death" (p. 74).

Obeyesekere turns next to the "transformation" of this rebirth eschatology. It occurs with the introduction of the concept of ethicization, "the processes whereby morally right or wrong action becomes a religiously right or wrong action that in turn affects a person's destiny after death" (p. 75). It is Obeyesekere's contention that when ethicization is systematically introduced into any rebirth eschatology the latter must logically transform itself into a so-called "karmic eschatology." In other words, this second topological model or conceptual structure, karmic eschatology, the new ethicized rebirth eschatology, says that the otherworld for the dead is not simply a way station for departed souls waiting to be reborn, but rather that otherworld is now a place of retribution and punishment. Kinship affiliation alone no longer determines who goes where after death but moral action does. My own guess is that rebirth eschatology was introduced to answer the question of why the grandchild resembles the deceased grandparent. Karmic eschatology, on the other hand, was probably introduced to solve a more complex and sophisticated puzzle: Why is it, if there really is justice in the universe, that the wicked never get appropriately punished and the good never get sufficiently rewarded? At this stage of transformation, the law of karma, or some other principle of universal justice, now says that everyone gets what's coming to them, either in this life or the next, and that rebirth is necessary to make that principle of justice workable.1 In arguing that "rebirth cannot be divorced from ethics; it looks as if it is generated from ethics" (p. 82), Obeyesekere would seem to concur that karmic eschatology was introduced to answer the question: Why do the wicked seem to prosper and the good appear to suffer?