Here, from the 2nd-cenury BCE Laws of Manu, is the most explicit elaboration I'm aware of of the system of Hindu reincarnation: that is, the specification of which sort of soul ends up in which species of womb:
A priest-killer gets the womb of a dog, a pig, a donkey, a camel, a cow, a goat, a sheep, a wild animal, a bird... A priest who drinks liquor enters the womb of a worm, bug, or moth, of birds who eat excrement, and of violent creatures. A priest who is a thief is reborn thousands of times in spiders, snakes, and lizards, aquatic animals, and violent ghouls. A man who violates his guru's marriage-bed is reborn hundreds of times in grasses, shrubs, and vines, in beasts that are carnivorous or that have fangs, and in people who engage in cruel actions. Violent men become carnivorous beasts; people who eat impure things become worms; thieves become animals that devour one another; and men who have sex with women in the lowest castes become ghosts...
The rhythm of the list grows more rapid and staccato as it moves on to the crime of theft:
For stealing grain, a man becomes a rat; for brass, a goose; for water, an aquatic bird; for honey, a stinging insect; for milk, a crow; for spices, a dog; for ghee, a mongoose; for meat, a vulture; for marrow, a cormorant, for seseme oil, an 'oil-drinker'; for salt, a cricket; and for yogurt, a crane; for stealing silk, a partridge; for linen, a frog; for cotton, a curlew; for a cow, an iguana; for molasses, a bat; for perfumes, a muskrat; for lettuce, a peacock; for cooked foods, a porcupine; for uncooked food, a hedgehog.
There appears to be a system of correspondences here, as clearly in the pairing perfume/muskrat. Each theft seems, though often in a very cryptic way, to be followed by a transformation into the sort of animal associated with the object stolen, an association either in virtue of a property of the animal itself, or in virtue of the animal's characteristic activity (what Leibniz would call its officium). But then the system grows more straightforwardly just, in a poetic sense, when the sort of theft in question involves the taking of another living being:
[For stealing] a deer or an elephant, [he becomes] a wolf; for a horse, a tiger; for fruits and roots, a monkey; for a woman, a bear.
Presumably, stealing these sorts of animals (or plants) is akin to preying on them, even if one does not in fact eat them as a real predator would; and presumably there is something bearish in the ravaging of a woman.
Far worse than theft or even murder is to fail in the carrying out of the innate activity (the officium?) of one's social class. For this one becomes not an animal but some variety or other of ghost. Thus:
A priest who has slipped from his own duty becomes a comet-mouth ghost who eats vomit; a ruler who slips from his duty becomes a false-stinking ghost who eats impure things and corpses. A commoner who has slipped from his own duty becomes a ghost who sees by an eye in his anus, eating pus; a servant becomes a moth-eater ghost.
This is all very vivid material for the imagination, but what interests me most are the correspondences between animals on the one hand and the theft of various objects on the other. Following a lead from Zimmermann (1982), it seems that in this system we have a basis for claiming that Indian folk-taxonomy is embedded not just in therapeutics and pharmacy (Zimmermann's focus), but also within its system of justice. This would provide grounds for claiming that a text such as the Laws of Manu leaves a rich trace of a science of nature, in much the same way that Leviticus does with its dietary prohibitions: which have to do with morality, hygiene, and taxonomy all at once.
The difference is that the Hindu system of justice is an explicitly cosmic system, where the consequences of moral transgression are projected into a future life that begins through a radical species transformation. Because it is such a bedrock principle of Western natural philosophy that species transformation must involve the eradication of one individual and the generation of another (even lycanthropy in Europe is almost universally explained as a taking on of the outward appearance of a wolf, while maintaining the human species essence), it might be harder to see that what the Hindu system of reincarnation is doing is not only trading in metaphysical impossibilities, but also saying a great deal about the nature of various kinds of social action and about certain salient features of the natural environment. And again, like Leviticus, it is doing this by a single motion.
I'll be writing on this more in the future, towards an eventual article. But for now I have to keep working on my Sanskrit, and keep reading...
See Francis Zimmermann, La jungle et le fumet des viandes. Un thème écologique dans la médecine hindoue, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1982.
See also my earlier post on Zimmermann here.