Ann Perkins and Reincarnation

03/14/2016

Some associate reincarnation with fear.  Isn’t reincarnation scary, full of uncertainty as to whether we will lose everything we have now?  In the words of Ann Perkins, “I think the danger in believing in reincarnation is that you spend so much time trying to figure out what you’re going to be in the next lifetime that you forget to enjoy the one you’re in now.”  In my opinion, no on many levels.  First of all, the discussion attributed reincarnation to Buddhism, not Hinduism, and though reincarnation is a Buddhist tenet, why can’t we give Hinduism credit for what is originally Hindu?  Buddha was, after all, a Hindu reformer.

Second of all, the context around this quote assumed that Buddhists consider objects like pretzels, inanimate skeletons, and socket wrenches to be possible life forms, and none of these are empowered by the atman.  Third of all, I am a very devout Hindu and have spent probably less than 30 seconds throughout my life so far wondering what my next life form will be.

Fourth of all, there is no danger, no worry, with reincarnation.  Reincarnation entails infinite second chances, and besides, it’s a system of justice.  It should be reassuring, not frightening, to know that the next life form we assume will be one we deserve, because we have control over what we deserve, seeing that we have the power to manipulate our actions and character to a significant degree.  In my opinion, much more frightening than reincarnation is the idea of YOLO, which places a time limit on attaining spiritual perfection with the threat of eternal hell.

Finally, the quote assumes that the goal of life is pure enjoyment, which I find rather limiting, since it doesn’t even factor in how that enjoyment is derived.  Of course, many aspects of jagat, the world, are meant for enjoyment, like love, laughter, social relations, beauty, and diversity.  However, I believe that more often than not, humans don’t know what will be most enjoyable to them in the long run.  Chapter 18, Sloka 37 of the Bhagavad Gita tells us, “The happiness which seems like poison at first but tastes like nectar in the end, generated by the pure intellect situated in self-knowledge, is said to be sattvic (of the mode of goodness).”  This does not mean that every form of pain always resolves to pleasure–that would justify the argument that the path to the most long-term pleasure is the same as the path to the most immediate pain.  No; rather, it means that the path to real life satisfaction may not appear to be so pleasant short run, but it’s the path we should take.  You may lose a few minutes of pleasure if you don’t smoke that cigarette, but if you exercise enough excruciating restraint to overcome the habit of smoking altogether, you will live longer and be happier with your body and relationships.  You might think you will enjoy your life less if you dump your body with processed oils, salt, and sugar less often, but even though it can be hard to sympathize with your future self, you know you would rather not suffer Type 2 or heart disease in your later years for the sake of tiny doses of extra pleasure now.

Ann Perkins was a nurse and probably already understood the idea that restraint could be rewarding, yet she couldn’t articulate the values she probably already had.  But apparently, she thought believing in reincarnation was “dangerous” because of the (unfounded) prospect of losing immediate pleasure–does it not seem ludicrous and make yet-more ludicrous assumptions?  But this is the only place all Eastern culture (that label is itself objectifying) gets in a popular context.  My goal is not to be a myopic, extra-touchy liberal who would rather attack an innocuous line than address real problems.  Nor is my goal to blame comedy writers for the cultural standing of Hinduism, even if they should be more culturally aware.  I know Ann Perkins is a fictional character, and I know this line negatively affected no one.  But I don’t think it would be radical to at least learn from it.

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