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Imagining Karma

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

Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 477
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  • Book Info
    Imagining Karma
    Book Description:

    WithImagining 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93630-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xxvi)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xxvii-xxx)
  6. 1 KARMA AND REBIRTH IN INDIC RELIGIONS: Origins and Transformations
    (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 “Pythagorean.”

    I will begin with Hinduism and the problem of origins. The association between karma and rebirth is not at all clear in the earliest texts and discourses on Indic religions. There are virtually no references to rebirth or to an ethical notion of karma in...

    (pp. 19-71)

    Although it is well known that rebirth beliefs exist in Africa, especially in West Africa, their ethnographic documentation is meager. West African eschatology needs the kind of rethinking done by the authors ofAmerindian Rebirthin 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 things as African theism or pantheism or...

    (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, social changes were occurring in the small Greek city-states, although the scale of change was not as great as in India. Avoiding terms likehighandlow, primitiveandcivilized, greatandlittle, literateandpreliterate, classandclassless,and other such dichotomies, I...

    (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 societies—we know this from the early work of Paul Radin, the lives of prophets like Handsome Lake and, of course, the famed Ogotommeli.¹ When we move to Greece in chapter 5, we will find scholarly constructions of the...

    (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, like similar figures in religious history, is simultaneously a historical and mythic persona such that it makes little sense to differentiate the two. Mythishistory for those who believe in it. To...

    (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 to those willing to listen, which for the most part meant the members of his academy. Nevertheless,...

  12. 7 IMPRISONING FRAMES AND OPEN DEBATES: Trobriander, Buddhist, and Balinese Rebirth Revisited
    (pp. 319-360)

    In this final chapter I want to further explore a theme that pervades much of this work, that even radical religious innovation must occur within the frame of preexisting structures of thought, which can on occasion act as “prisons of thelongue durée.” 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 cultures.

    Let me begin...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 361-412)
    (pp. 413-428)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 429-448)