According to Vedanta, the human life form is one of the most prestigious to attain; because it is empowered with both mana (mind) and buddhi (intellect) and has free will (sankalpa, which means determination or intention), it is considered by the scriptures to be the “stairway to heaven or hell.” In the Ramcharitmanasa, the human form is likened to a jewel, which should not be wasted for animalistic purposes. That is, because we have been granted the human form, we should take advantage of the tools that empower us, rather than living like an animal could, depending primarily on sensual pleasures.
How does one ascend to the human form? To understand this, one must understand that there are many dimensions of reincarnation. The cycle of reincarnation is often called samsara (which is not an exclusively Buddhist term), represented by a wheel–but the idea of a cycle signifies repetitive nature, not the idea the same life occurs again and again. With this logic, samsara could be considered not a wheel, but instead a line of lives, a line that extends with each additional life we experience. But the vast majority of the time, these lives aren’t lined up horizontally straight. Lives are “higher” or”lower” than others, depending on the capacities of the form. (Note that this does not mean that life forms are unequal to each other: all life is based on the same atman and ideologically equal. However, this does not mean that a plant, ant, lion, and human, which all have different sthitis, or conditions, should be treated in the exact same way.)
What determines whether our next life form will be? We “ascend” to a higher life form or “descend” to a lower life form based on our karma, or our action, in this life. Karma means action–not only physical action, but also speech and thought. Most non-Hindus are familiar with the concept of the law of karma: it states that our actions cause proportional bondage according to their quality. Or in other words, all of our actions come back to us as results. When we perform “good” action, “good” things happen to us, and when we perform “bad” action, “bad” things happen to us. In terms of bondage, people who accumulate good karma are “rewarded” by ascent to a higher life form, and people who accumulate bad karma are “punished” by descent to a lower life form. This raises a lot of questions: What determines whether action is good or bad? What is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing? And perhaps most importantly, why do good things happen to people who do bad things, and why do bad things happen to people who do good things?
We will answer all of questions. Whether action binds upwards or downwards is dependent on another tenet of Hinduism: dharma. Dharma is the righteous course of nature, like Tao in Taoism. Although it is often translated as “duty,” it is not limited to this: it is the dharma of sugar to be sweet, and the dharma of cow to give milk. These are not “duties,” but instead what naturally occurs when the world is in order. Humans each have a unique prescribed dharma–this dharma is not rigid throughout life, nor is it determined by one’s family of birth. What causes humans to contravene this dharma are the gunas (modes of nature) rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance), associated with the six enemies of the self (Arishadvargas), which are based in ego (ahamkara) and desire (kama). Without attachment in the way, a human will perform dharmic (“good”) action or punya, and with attachment, a human will perform adharmic (“bad”) action or papa.
What kind of results arise from performing punya or papa? These results are not necessarily “reward” or “punishment”; they are just inevitable parts of nature. Just like pushing a wall guarantees the wall will push back on you, similarly, performing punya guarantees positive bondage. But why do seemingly bad things, or negative results, still happen to people who perform punya? For one, whatever happens in the current life could be a result of karma performed in previous lives, of which we are unaware. But also, it is hard to define what is good or bad for us, because we really don’t know the consequences something will have in the long run. A medical condition that restricts your motion may bring opportunities you never would have imagined, or a gift you receive now may end up causing difficult tensions in your family. But with the law of karma, we can rest assured that we will always get what we deserve, and that no good deed will go unaddressed.
We know that an individual who performs more punya, or dharmic action, is more likely to ascend to the human form. Does this mean that the increase in human population is due to an increase in dharma in society? What we can be sure about is that the growth in human population is a result of advances in sanitation and medicine, which have caused the death rate to decrease and the life expectancy to increase. But Vedanta says that we are in Kali Yuga, in which adharma is on the rise and dharma is declining. The reality is that there are probably many spiritual factors in the increase of human population that we do not understand. For example, we don’t know if other life forms with capabilities comparable to those of humans exist on other planets, or if human adharma is causing negative consequences in other forms, such as the destruction of the planet or the increase in incidence of many diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, which come at later ages. Or even more radically, we don’t know if the Vedic time cycle is perhaps symbolic of the evolution of the self, and dharma is in fact increasing. There are many ways to look at this question, but we don’t have one, authoritative answer.