Charles Shahar explains how our sanskaras the mental impressions from our past lives—can determine our sexual preferences and behavior in our present life
One of the key elements of most Eastern philosophies is the concept of karma, and by extension, the process of reincarnation. Applying these concepts to sexual identification and orientation is a fascinating topic that may shed light on the LGBTQ community in ways that very few people consider.
First, let’s examine the concept of karma and its impact more closely. What is karma? Basically, it can be described as the law of cause and effect. Your actions in past incarnations impact your current dispositions and conditions. This influence may be subtle or direct, depending on the intensity of your past life experiences. It is perhaps surprising for some people to know that much of our personality and the choices we make in life are influenced by karmic predispositions.
According to Eastern philosophy, we have all incarnated many times before. Previous to our human incarnations, we lived an earthly life as lower forms of consciousness, such as plants and animals. With each incarnation, our consciousness has evolved, and it is still evolving. Each lifetime brings new lessons and insights. In each lifetime, we have special work to do.
Every significant person in your life represents a karmic connection. You usually have a karmic link with your parents, children, significant relatives and friends, important teachers, and so on. You may also have it with a business partner or a next-door neighbor. Not only do you have a karmic link with them, but your connection continues to evolve. Thus, you may be perpetuating karmic trends started in a past life or, perhaps, starting new ones in this lifetime.
Sometimes, a parent and child will seem particularly close. It is interesting that they may have been a married couple in a past life and decided to change their roles in order to learn new life lessons. Their closeness will have an added element of endearment to it (I am not implying an incestuous element).
What is the point of our karmic connections? We are all evolving together on this planet. The aim is to learn lessons that life has to offer. We are also all mirrors for one another. We reflect on the best and worst aspects of each other. We grow through such reflections, or at least, they present us with opportunities for growth. It is up to us whether we want to expand our self-understanding or not.
Our karmic conditions often determine our psychological dispositions in this lifetime. We come into the world with what the Hindus call sanskaras. These are the seeds of past life experiences, which exist as tendencies or predispositions in the mind of the incarnating soul. Whether these tendencies bear fruit or not depends on a number of factors, including one’s upbringing and other factors in the environment.
Many of our greatest fears and desires are the result of past life experiences. For instance, a fear of water may be caused by the experience of drowning in a previous life. Acquisitiveness, or a personality-driven to make money, may result from the experience of withering poverty in a past incarnation. Thus, people who hoard money, and cling to every penny, were often impoverished in a past life. They are almost always not conscious of this fact.
Fear of being alone may relate to an experience of abandonment in childhood, or in some cases, of being abused while alone and helpless. Some people have died alone in a past life, and the soul suffered deeply as a result. The fear of being alone is a very common one and can often be traced to past life circumstances.
Overeating may result from having starved to death in a past life, or the opposite, living a life of abundance and decadence. A fear of heights may have to do with a fall to one’s death in a previous incarnation.
People who are spiritually inclined have often done such work for several incarnations. I sometimes meet people who take to yoga and meditation right away, seemingly the first time they try it. It feels like they have done this before because they seem so at ease performing such activities.
Finally, some people have spent a particularly impactful incarnation as a member of a specific race or ethnicity. When they return, it is interesting that they may assume certain physical features that uncannily resemble such a group. For instance, I knew of a Westerner who looked remarkably Asian, even though he had no Asian ancestors. Interestingly, he would spend much time at a local Chinatown and eventually married a Chinese woman. It was obvious to me that he had a prior incarnation in China, which was strongly influencing his present life.
I myself have a strong affinity with India. I have visited this country several times and stayed at a meditation retreat in the Himalayas. Just before the first time I visited India, I looked at my passport picture, and I was amazed at how East Indian I looked. I am sure that I have had many incarnations in India, and I feel a constant pull to visit the country that feels most like my homeland.
There are certain types of past life conditions that shape sexual identity. For instance, homosexuality can result from a very strong attachment to people of a particular sex in a previous life. If in an immediate past life, a man experienced an intense and consuming attraction for women, this could have consequences for his current sexual orientation. If he came back as a woman this time around, her sexual preference could then be for people of the same sex, as a carry-over from past life experiences. This condition requires an attachment for a particular gender, which is strongly imprinted in the preceding incarnation, as well as a switch in the biological sex of the individual in the following lifetime. Although such switches are common across incarnations, it is the past life experience that will ultimately determine an alternative sexual orientation.
In some Buddhist circles (not necessarily in the scriptural texts), there is a tendency to explain male homosexuality as punishment resulting from ‘negative karma’ of men who badly disrespected women in a past life by deriding and sexually or physically abusing them. Some of these individuals also say that gay men tend to be more derisive of women generally. They view this as proof of such an idea of karmic liability. The problem with this theory is that I know plenty of gay men who have deep relationships with women and can understand and relate to them on a level that many heterosexual males may not be capable of. It is also a misunderstanding of the law of karma. It explains homosexuality as a type of punishment, but that is not the purpose of karma. Its purpose is to expose us to varied circumstances so that we can grow and perfect ourselves as people.
I don’t want to leave the wrong impression about Buddhism’s reaction to homosexuality. Actually, the Buddha himself was not anti-gay and his teachings are neither for nor against it. Contemporary Buddhism is remarkably accepting on that score unless one wishes to be ordained as a monk or nun, in which case, celibacy is the rule and one’s sexual orientation is inconsequential.
However, re-examining the above argument, it is possible that some gay men may have had a strong disdain or contempt for the opposite sex in a past life. A man who was misogynistic and had a severe loathing for women may not only have carried such an attitude into the present lifetime but may have become completely averse to having relationships with them. It is also possible that women who were loathing their own gender and transitioning into males would also not have an attraction to females generally in their current lifetime.
Conversely, women in a past life who had extremely negative experiences and feelings regarding men may have carried a strong preference for same-sex relationships if they returned as females. This may have resulted from traumatic past-life encounters with men. If they were males in a past life, who had strongly unfavorable views towards men generally, and came back as women, the result would again be a lesbian orientation.
The bottom line is that—as with all issues related to human nature, particularly if we examine not only present psychology but those of past lives as well—the permutations are staggering. We may find a hint to unravel this complexity in the reactions of people, not only to the gender of their attraction but their reactions to the ‘other gender’ as well. It is also instructive how strong feelings of either attraction or repulsion toward a given gender can have a powerful impact on the tendencies of future lifetimes.
To add to this complexity, if we assume that strong feelings can be transferred across lifetimes, why, then, do people not continue to be homosexuals from one lifetime to the next? In fact, there is a Buddhist text that suggests that Ananda, the Buddha’s first cousin and personal attendant, had been born as a kathoey (homosexual) for many hundreds of lives. Ultimately, depending on the vagaries of culture and upbringing, not to mention the biological sex of the person in a given lifetime, we have all likely experienced different sexual orientations throughout our journey as a soul.
What about a bisexual orientation? It is interesting that some bisexuals prefer having sexual encounters with one gender and romantic (emotional) attachments with another, or they may look for a stable or passive quality in one gender and a wild and crazy time with another. Other bisexuals make no such distinctions. As outlined above, a complex mix of past life attitudes and experiences could easily shape such dynamics.
Transgender individuals, those who are born feeling that they inhabit a body of the wrong sex, likely had strong fixations on the gender they experienced in an immediate past life. If they came into an opposite-sex body, the mismatch is often a source of distress. Most trans people are aware of this discrepancy very early in their incarnation. These sanskaras shape the ego-personality in powerful ways, so their convictions about their gender identity are very profoundly felt.
Individuals who are queer, that is, who have a fluid identification with gender are perhaps the most difficult to assign a karmic profile to. It is likely that ambiguity or ambivalence in sexual identification reflects a situation where inputs from more than one past life are competing with one another and, perhaps, are equally strong. This explains why queer persons sometimes have difficulty defining their sexual identity or struggle to find terms to describe it.
Individuals who are asexual may have various karmic scenarios. Their lack of sexual desire may result from repressed sexual feelings in a past life, particularly in societies where the person was punished for expressing their sexuality; or where their upbringing or familial environment was highly sexually repressive. Such individuals may have also been members of the clergy, where sexual expression was not emphasised and also repressed.
There are other types of situations where karma might play a role for members of LGBTQ communities. For instance, those of an alternative sexual orientation born in repressive regimes, who are forced to hide their predilections and whose lives may even be in danger, maybe live such persecutions for a reason. In fact, anyone living in such repressive circumstances has specific karmic consequences to live through.
I am not minimising the suffering of such people by any means, but, sometimes, we incarnate to experience what it feels like to be a victim. We live the gamut of experiences, from being oppressed to being the oppressor; and, hopefully, at some point, we develop compassion and love for fellow beings in situations where we might have power over them or the opportunity to help them.
There is no doubt that even LGBTQ individuals living in supposedly more ‘enlightened’ societies, sometimes face significant hurdles in terms of their ability to live out their lives openly. But this does not necessarily imply that people of such sexual orientations are living through some ‘bad karma,’ just by virtue of their sexual predispositions. The point, rather, is that we are handed certain ‘work’ to accomplish in life, with the ultimate goal of finding and accepting ourselves. People have different challenges, and some of these have nothing to do with their sexual orientation. To love one’s self (and by extension, to be open and love others) is the aim across all of these circumstances. We just keep coming back until we get it right.
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