Early in my United Nations career, my first boss, a lay preacher in his native Denmark, asked me a pointed question: “Why should a Hindu be good?” Not, I replied, in order to go to heaven or avoid hell; most Hindus do not believe in the existence of either. If heaven is a place where a soul should sprout white wings and sing the praises of god, it must be rather a boring place, hardly worth aspiring to, and god must be a rather insecure being.

And as for hell, the very notion of hell is incompatible with Hindu cosmology, since it suggests there is a place where god is not, and that, to the Hindu, is impossible to conceive, for god is everywhere or he would not be god.

If Hinduism is, indeed, a manava dharma, an ethical code applicable to the whole of humanity, then it is legitimate for a non-Hindu to ask why indeed should a Hindu be good. First of all, because he is bound by the moral obligation to fulfil his dharma, the right action his religion enjoins upon him always to undertake.

The Hindu is taught that there are six principal obstacles to the performance of dharma: two are Purusharthas gone wrong, kama as lust rather than desire, and lobha as greed and avarice for material possessions (beyond artha which is the legitimate acquisition of wealth and worldly goods for a worthy life).

Four other vices are personal failings that are within an individual’s capacity to prevent: krodha (hatred), mada (vanity), matsarya (envy) and moha (delusion arising from ignorance or infatuation). These six obstacles are prevented and overcome through the practice of seven essential virtues laid down from the time of Adi Shankara: ahimsa (non-violence), satyam (truth), shivam (piety), sundaram (the cultivation of beauty), vairagyam (detachment), pavitram (purity) and swabhavam (self- control). The rejection of these vices and the practice of these virtues are essential for a Hindu to lead a good life.

My boss was a worldly-wise man; he wanted a more pragmatic reason for why a Hindu should be good.

If it was not the promise of a better life in the next world, or a desire to avoid eternal damnation in Hell, what was a Hindu’s incentive? I explained that whereas in Christianity the body has a soul, in Hinduism the soul has a body. In other words, we are emanations of a universal soul, the atman, which does not die; it discards its temporal form, the body, from time to time.

Since the purpose of the soul is ultimately to reach moksha, to attain union with Brahman and stop the endless cycle of birth and rebirth in various bodies, the incentive for a Hindu to be good lay in the desire to progress towards this goal. An amoral Hindu, one who lived in adharma, would be in disharmony with the world and be set back in his soul’s striving for moksha.

I am not sure he was satisfied with my answer, and I am not sure you, the reader, will be. There was, however, a catch in what I was propounding.

If the soul is permanent and the body is not, it makes sense that the soul sheds bodies and keeps returning to earth until it has attained moksha; from this flows the doctrine of punarjanmam (reincarnation), the idea that one will be reborn until one has attained that level of self-realisation.

The idea of reincarnation, emerging from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, is basic to Hinduism. If in other faiths the individual is a body which has its own soul, in Hinduism the individual is a soul which happens to be in temporary possession of a certain body; the immortal soul occupies a mortal corpus, which it discards at the end of its physical life, only to re-emerge in another form, until it accomplishes true self-realisation and moksha, and merges with Brahman.

This cycle of birth, death and rebirth is known as Samsara, and it is a belief that addresses one of the central challenges facing every believer in god – if god is all-knowing, all-seeing, all-compassionate and merciful, why does he permit so much suffering, pain, inequality and inequity to bedevil his creations?

The Hindu answer is that such suffering is the result of man’s own actions in a previous life; our present circumstances are caused or enabled by our past deeds and misdeeds, action and inaction. The soul continues from life-cycle to life-cycle, hopping from body to body as a caterpillar climbs onto a blade of grass and jumps to a new one (the metaphor is Upanishadic, not my own.)

I always considered this deeply unfair: why should a human being, conscious only of himself in his present life, have to suffer for wrongs he does not recollect and misdeeds he has no memory of having committed in previous lives of which he is unaware?

Still, I had to accept it was a more coherent explanation than the contradictory ones offered by other faiths, which struggled to reconcile the world’s injustices with their theological belief in a merciful god. If you thought of god as, for instance, an old man in a white beard looking down benevolently at you from the heavens, listening to your prayers and interceding when he saw fit, then it was difficult to accept that his benevolence stopped short of your well-being despite your prayers, or that he was indifferent to the cruelty and suffering assailing his creatures.

If you stopped thinking of god that way, however, but saw god in everyone and everything, in the bad and the good, in the unfair as well as the just, as an impersonal cosmic force that just is – then you can come to terms with the world’s tragedies as well as its joys.

The idea of reincarnation is related to that of karma, or action – the accumulated actions of your life. So the very circumstances of your birth – the home, the place, the nation and the opportunities into which you are born – are determined by your soul’s actions in its previous incarnation. The time and circumstances of your death, too, are beyond human agency; when you have finished enjoying the benefits earned from (and paying for the misdeeds committed in) your previous life, your time on earth ends and your soul discards your body, to enter another. This is known as prarabdha karma.

Then there are your characteristics, tendencies and aptitudes, themselves emerging from the accumulated learnings of your previous lives; this is called sanchita karma and can be changed by your efforts, education and conduct in your present life. Finally there is agami karma, those of our actions which will pave the way for our future (reborn) life. Our evil words or deeds in the present life will mar our soul’s prospects in the next, whereas good deeds, right actions and the fulfilment of our dharma without regard to reward, will ensure our rebirth at a higher stage of the progress towards moksha.

To some this suggests another, somewhat simplistic, answer to the question “Why should a Hindu be good?”

Be good so that you are reborn in a better situation in your next life than in the present one; if you are good, you may reappear as a king or a sage, whereas if you are bad, you might come back as an invalid or a mosquito. (Or as Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate, put it: “As a Hindu, if you are a good economist in this life, you come back in the next as a physicist. If you are a bad economist in this life, you come back in the next as a sociologist.”) Jokes apart, your prarabdha karma is established by what your soul has experienced in its previous foray in a human body: your incentive to be good is to improve its chances of a better time in its next innings.

I was never comfortable with this idea, since it seemed to me to have been devised somewhat self-servingly by the upper castes to ensure social peace. Do not rebel if you are born poor or “untouchable”, the doctrine seemed to imply, since it’s merely your soul paying for the sins of your past life; and do not blame us for leading a much better life than you, since we are merely reaping the benefits of our past good deeds.

Behave, conform, accept your lot and serve your betters, the doctrine seemed to suggest, and you will enjoy the rewards next time around. As a philosophy to reconcile people with their lot, and that would help maintain social peace, such a belief-system was of inestimable value. (It also justified human suffering in terms that no other religion’s theology could match.)

But I found it ethically dubious – and so, no doubt unfairly, looked askance at the idea of reincarnation itself. I was wrong to do so, since the socio-political rationale was irrelevant to the Hindu sages who had advanced the theory of punarjanmam. They were less concerned about issues of socio-political conformism than I was; the rishis’ interest lay in the soul’s unsteady and imperfect progress towards self-realisation and merger with the cosmos. Their doctrine was about the divine soul, not the social circumstances of the body it happened to occupy.

Excerpted with permission from The Hindu Way: An Introduction to Hinduism, Shashi Tharoor, Aleph Book Company.