FAQ Karma & Reincarnation

Propeller of Death and Birth     

The questions answered in this chapter are journey to heaven or hell, where does the soul go after death, importance of performing good karmas, are good Karmas enough to free away from the bondage from Karma? And what is the logic about Avatars.

Q.20 The journey to Heaven or Hell?
A.20 According to the secular texts, death is a systematic process in which the period just preceding the moment we actually die is crucial. This is when the messengers of Yamaraja, the king of death, arrive. Those who have surrendered themselves and all their desires, thoughts, feelings, losses and achievements to the Divine, however, are visited by messengers of the Divine Being. These are a breed apart from the messengers of the king of death. 
Whether our crossing has been easy or difficult, we meet the messengers again on the other shore, and they take us to the city of the king of death, where we are met by his bookkeeper. If our karmic records are clear and straightforward, we are assigned to either heaven or hell. Should our records be complex, or should we dispute them, we are brought to the chamber where Yamaraja sits on his throne. Without either mercy or cruelty and unaffected by sentiment, he looks at our karmic records and weights the pros and cons. Then he decides where we should go, and his decision is final.

We are then led to specific areas of heaven or hell, some better and some worse. The length of our stay is determined by our karmas. Either by tasting heavenly pleasures or by going through hellish pain, the karmas that brought us here are eventually exhausted. Then we are sent back to the earthly realm to begin life all over again.

The yogis interpret this scenario symbolically. According to their experiences, the messengers of the king of death represent the forces of time these forces are punctual-time cannot be untimely - and once they have arrived, we cannot avoid feeling their presence. We also know the meaning of their coming: it is time to leave the body and move on.

Desire, worry, insecurity, fear, disease, and old age set the stage for the messengers, but long before they actually arrive we harbor the fear of death at both the conscious and unconscious levels. When death actually comes, these feelings intensify. Those of us who do not willingly accept the message that our time in this body is over die miserably.

There is no alternative to this message, but a strong attachment to our bodies, our families our friends, and our possessions impel us to cling to life, and this creates a deep sense of fear. Throughout life we have filled our mind with the idea that the objects of the world and the people we love are integral to our existence; now combined with our fear of the unknown, our fear of losing our relationships and possessions intensifies. Death itself is not painful - it is the fear of loss and the fear of the unknown that torment our mind.

The moment death’s messengers, the forces of time, arrive our life-force (prana) recognizes them. Disregarding our desires and wishes, it obeys their command and gradually withdraws from the body brain, and conscious mind. As it does, our limbs, organs nervous systems, and brain begin to lose, their ability to function. Filled with fear and confusion, we desperately attempt to hold on, channeling all our reserve energy to clings to life - but we fail. The connection between the life force, the body and the conscious mind is severed. This is the moment of death.

When a dying person tries to cling to life, the process of death is accompanied by internal chaos. There is a tug-of-war as the life force begins to abandon the body while the individual self tries to pull it back. But death will out: in the midst of this commotion, the pranic force ineluctably continues to withdraw from the system of energy channels.

These energy channels, or nadis, meet at various sites in the body. Where three or more nadis come together, they form a wheel of energy, or chakra. There are ten principal chakras: muladhara at the base of the spine, svadhishthana in the pelvic region, manipura at the navel center, anahata at the heart region, vishuddha at the throat, ajna at the center between the eyebrows, and vhrikuti, trikuti, and sahasrara, all of which are above the ajna chakra. All ten chakras are also centers of consciousness and they function like gates. If the gates are open, the pranic forces traveling through the nadis can leave the body through them. But at the time of death nine of the ten gates are shut. Our karmas play a crucial role in this, influencing the blocking and unblocking of our energy channels until only the gate through which the prana will finally exit remains open; the unconscious mind and the soul will leave by that same gate.

The relationship between prana and the mind (which includes the senses) is like the relationship between a queen bee and the workers. The workers swarm around the queen; if she leaves the hive, they follows. In the same way, the mind and senses follow the prana as it abandons the nadis and their corresponding limbs and organs; they exit the body by the gate through which the queen departed.

Those who lack nonattachment and those who are not fully established in a systematic and authentic spiritual practice are totally at the mercy of their karmas. And since these karmas are contaminated by attachment and a host of other emotions such as desire, fear, hatred, jealousy, and greed, the pranic forces and consciousness are naturally inclined to move toward the lower chakras at the time of death. If we do not understand how karma binds us to the body and how the pranic forces keep the body alive, we are terrified in the face of death. We refuse to leave voluntarily when the messengers of the king of death arrive - but nature kicks us out anyway. It is too late to choose a desirable gate, and we are swept into the unknown.

When the pranic force is gone, the body is lifeless and the afterlife journey begins. We arrive at the river of the mind. Its name is Vaitarani, literally “that which can be crossed only by skillful swimmers,” for this river is the repository of our karmas, and its crossing is an inner journey. We cannot escape the contents of our mind during this journey. Problems and worries that entangled us during our lifetime ensnare us even more completely now, because in life we had family, friends, teachers, therapists, and – most importantly - our own conscious mind and intellect to help us manage our problems. Now all of these are gone and we are alone with the contents of our unconscious.

Next we arrive at the capital city of the king of death. This is Samyamani Puri, the city of the inner controller - conscience. And here we meet the king’s bookkeeper, Chitra Gupta.  Chitra means “picture” or “reflection of various forms”; gupta means “hidden or mysterious.” Thus Chitra Gupta is the voice of our heart, the one who resides hidden in all the forms and shapes we assume throughout life, the one who witnesses our thoughts, speech, and actions. Nothing escapes death’s bookkeeper. Since we have by now acknowledged our deeds, their consequences, and our responsibility for them, Chitra Gupta simply confirms this recognition and assigns us either to heaven or to hell on the basis of our karmas.

But if we managed to perfect the art of killing our conscience while we were alive, ignoring the voice of our heart and learning to live comfortably with self-deception, the subtle impressions of this self-deception will cause us to argue with our conscience. If that happens, the bookkeeper brings us to the court of the king of death, Yamaraja, the representative of the immortal within us.

Q.21 Where does the Soul go after death?
A.21 Our karmas are the sole vehicle for this journey to heaven or hell, and if we knew what our karmas were, we could predict our destination. The problem is that we cannot grasp the complexity of our karmas with the limited mind and intellect presently at our disposal. And even if we could know all of our karmas, the story of Jaigishavya in chapter two makes it clear that even accomplished yogis can be overwhelmed if they experience all of the infinite number of samskaras deposited in their mind-field. The texts of yoga tell us that it is impossible for anyone another than the omniscient Divine Being to know all of them.

The flow of prana during the time of death is regulated by the forces of our karma. This determines the particular gate through which the pranic force departs, and this in turn shapes the journey that follows. We can makes some predictions about the destination of the departed soul, the scriptures tell us, by observing the movement of prana and the precise time it leaves the body.

According to the Bhagavad Gita, all unliberated souls must follow one of two paths after death: deva yana or pitri yana, the path of the gods or the path of the ancestors. The path of the gods is bathed in light; the path of the ancestors is shrouded in smoke. The path of the gods is open in the six-month interval between the spring and autumn equinoxes; the path of the ancestors is open the remaining six months. The broad and simple rule is that those who die between the spring and autumn equinoxes go to the realm of the gods, and those who die during the other half of the year go to the realm of the ancestors. Within this broad arrangement, there are more precise times connected to the path of gods or the path of the ancestors. For example, those who die in the daytime go to the realm of the gods, and those who die to at night go to the realm of the ancestors.

The yogic interpretation of this is that the six-month period following the spring equinox corresponds to the dominance of solar energy in our body, and this is indicated by the flow of breath through the right nostril (pingala nadi); the six-month period following the autumn equinox corresponds to the dominance of lunar energy, indicated by the flow of the breath through the left nostril (ida nadi). Accomplished yogis who can leave their bodies at will often do so during twilight when the breath is flowing equally in both nostrils, and prana is like wise flowing through both nostrils. At this time, day and night, sun and moon, are wed, and a yogi leaving the body then goes neither to heaven nor to hell, but transcends both. Regardless of the time of day, however, accomplished yogis can, if they wish, create the atmosphere of twilight within their own body by opening sushumna nadi and leaving the body while this nadi is active.

The gate through which the prana leaves the body is another indication of the soul’s destination. According to a famous yogic text, Saundaryalahari, the two lowest chakras the muladhara and the svadhishthana - are connected to the realms of blind darkness and darkness, respectively. The prana of an unliberated soul leaves the body from one of these two chakras and goes to the realm of darkness. Those who leave the body through the manipura chakra (the navel center) go to the realm of shining beings (deva loka) and are reborn again after enjoying celestial pleasures.

Those who leave their body from any of the charkas above the manipura chakra are free from any illusion and are reborn only if they choose. Hundreds of nadis meet at the anahata chakra (heart center). Normally entangled these nadis can be disentangled with the help of meditation, charity, selfless service, blessings of saints & God’s grace. When this happens, energy flows freely through all the nadis at the heart center, and prana exits from this chakra at the time of death. Following the prana, consciousness leaves the body by the same gate and reaches the realm of the Divine, which transcends both heaven and hell. (Katha Upanishad 2:3:14-18).

Q.22 Importance of Performing Good Karmas?
A.22 Because it is through our actions that we become the creators of our destiny, we must be vigilant about what we do. The law of karma is so complex it is unlikely that we will ever understand exactly which karma or group of karmas causes us to be born as a sage, a queen, a dog, a caterpillar, or a plant. But whether we understand it or not, destiny is the result of our karmas. We plant seeds, which eventually sprout, grow, blossom, and bear fruit. We are not entirely aware of the dynamics of this process, yet the process goes on. The same force that makes an apple seed grow into a tree that bears apples rather than coconuts, peaches, or walnuts also ensures that the karmic seeds we plant eventually bear the proper fruit.

We have seen that our previous karmas keep us from having perfect freedom of choice, yet the freedom we do have is sufficient to makes us the creators of our destiny. The doctrine of karma is not fatalistic. On the contrary, it proclaims that God or divine providence helps those who help themselves. If we use our present level of freedom with full determination and faith, nature beings to grant us a wider range of freedom. That is how we evolve spiritually. By listening to our inner voice and consulting scriptures and saints to confirm its validity, we can arrive at the right understanding of our actions.

Then, if we perform our present actions selflessly, lovingly, and skillfully we attenuate old unwholesome karmas and at the same time generate new, positive, and uplifting karmas. This is karma yoga, selfless service. And once we begin restructuring our destiny by following the path of karma yoga, divine providence comes to our aid in one form or another.

Actions performed on the path of karma yoga cannot of course change the course of destiny in our present life-destiny has already determined our birth, longevity, and other aspects of our fate. But such actions can minimize the influence of the secondary strands of our destiny. And by doing so they can prevent future misery.

The path of karma yoga is the foundation for all other paths. Selfless service purifies the way of the soul, and without such purification our mind and heart remain caught in worldly concerns. Regardless of which spiritual path we ultimately follow, we cannot bypass karma yoga - it helps us earn virtues, which in turn draw God’s grace toward us in the form of right thinking (vichara) and meeting wise people (satsanga) at the crucial moments in life.

The scriptures tell us that a master appears when a student is prepared. Selfless service is the means of preparation. It begins to transform the mind’s tendency to identify itself solely with the material world into a tendency to be attracted to the more subtle realms of existence. Thus the scriptures ask, “How can those who have not performed good karmas either meditate on thee or even acknowledge thee, O Divine Mother?”(Saundaryalahari 1)

Q.23 Are good Karmas enough to free away from the bondage from Karma?
A.23 Creating good karmas helps lay the groundwork, but by itself karma yoga is a long and drawn - out way of freeing ourselves from the bondage of karma. Even the noblest act of nonviolence and compassion involves some degree of pain to someone, somewhere - there is no action perfectly devoid of negative karmic effects. No matter how skillfully and wisely we perform our actions while living in the world; they are bound to be contaminated to some degree. Complete freedom from the bondage of karma involves stepping out of the realm of karma - including the practice of karma yoga.

We do this through meditation. The Yoga Sutra tells us that only samskaras created in this way do not create further bondage. And in the highest state of samadhi, even the samskara of meditation vanishes completely. The scriptures advise us to use the path of selfless service as a stepping-stone but to avoid becoming attached to the stepping-stone. We must be vigilant. While dedicating ourselves to the path of service, we must also explore one of the paths that lead, directly to the final destination. The paths of meditation, knowledge, and devotion are such paths. Each of these, when pursued with diligence, is like a keen sword which cuts asunder all the ropes of karma, or like a fire which burns them.

A spiritual discipline becomes even more powerful and effective when it is accompanied by faith, enthusiasm, retentive power, one-pointedness, and intuitive wisdom (Yoga Sutra 1:20-21). And if we commit ourselves to an intense spiritual practice, we will draw closer to the goal even faster. Intensity makes a spiritual discipline shine.

When our practice is intense we become so absorbed in it that nothing else matters anymore. When we pour our entire mind and heart into our practice with true fervor, all else vanishes, even our concern about whether or not the practice will yield the desired result. The samskaras created by such intensity are more potent than the samskaras created by our normal activities, and in the face of such powerful spiritual samskaras, the samskaras of other actions - regardless of how influential they had been previously - lose their potency.

The other way of creating powerful spiritual samskaras is to surrender ourselves to God (Yoga Sutra 1:23). Samskaras created in this way will also outshine all others. But the path of surrender is not easy. In fact it is actually more demanding and difficult than the path of intense practice, requiring as it does whole-hearted devotion to, and meditation on, God.

The yogis tell us that intense practice or complete surrender creates the deepest groves in the mind-filed, and resulting samskaras occupy the mind at the time of death. Then at the time of death, when the mind becomes free from fears, attachments etc the pranic forces are channeled through towards the chakra which had been the focal point of practice, and leave the body from that center.

Q24.    How do we come back?
A24.    The purpose of life is to realize our true self – that which is divine and one with the universal self. If we have accomplished this we are free from the journey after life.

If we have committed ourselves to surrender or intense practice but have not reached perfect realization when death arrives, we still leave the body in a glorious way. Our chitta (unconscious) is absorbed in its broader counterpart, prakriti (primordial nature), which becomes the custodian of our unconscious.

Nature makes sure that we are born at the right time at the right place. In the Bhagavad Gita (6:37-45) Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, “A yogi committed to intense practice who dies after completing the practice is born into a family of resourceful yogis”. The Yoga Sutra (1:19) calls such people bhava pratyaya yogis – i.e. yogis who inherit the knowledge and experience of yoga by birth. They are also known as videhas i.e. those who remain absorbed in prakriti until their rebirth.

In the subtle realm, appropriate parents attract us if we are among the fortunate few, and we attract them. Thus we are born into a family that is equipped to provide us the resources we need to continue our journey as accomplished yogis. If were a videha we may be born to a father who possesses a great deal of knowledge. Our mother’s selflessness and tenderness of her love opens our heart.

Those who dedicate their life to intense practice but die before completing it leave their body with piece of mind. They are not confronted by death’s bookkeeper. Like a compassionate mother, nature becomes their custodian. Such people leave and reenter the world gracefully.

Those of us who are on a less intense path accumulate samskaras of a milder potency along with other karmas. We come to this world with a host of positive and negative karmas and live a life composed of pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and hence ride the roller coaster of pleasure & pain, success and failure etc. Occasionally we see the light and then loose it again. Thus we experience some commotion at the time of death. We must cross the river of mind, sort out unresolved issues, face our conscience, and stay a while in heaven or hell before being reborn.

In this way we return exactly as we left: before death we engulfed by our unconscious, and we regain consciousness again only after we are born. When we reborn we have to learn everything again because we have lost all the knowledge we had gathered through the senses and the conscious mind. However, the subtle impressions of all this information are stored in the unconscious mind, so it is relatively easy to relearn provided we born in the right environment with the right resources.

Q.25 What is the logic about Avatars?

A.25 There are many stories of miraculous transformations involving those who had been dedicated to an intense practice in a previous life. These people seem to acquire great spiritual wisdom with minimal effort in this lifetime, and we wonder why, failing to comprehend the intense effort they have put into their sadhana in the past. Because they seem to achieve great success with little effort, we say they are blessed. We attribute their present success to God’s grace alone. The truth is that such people have reincarnated rather than being reborn. These are the videhas and prakriti layas.

Reincarnation is the fruit of intense practice. Yoga scriptures make a clear distinction between rebirth (punar janma) and reincarnation (avatara). Punar janma literally means “again birth,” and carries a connotation of weariness. Avatara means “to descend.”

Then there are the fortunate few who, after dedicating themselves to intense practice, achieve the goal: the realization of the self at every level. Through their practice and God’s grace, they unveil the mystery of the body, pranic forces, mind, samskaras, and consciousness, as well as the relationship between individual and universal consciousness. This enables them to experience the fact that although they have a body and a mind, they are nevertheless totally separate from either their body or their mind. Rising above both, they experience their oneness with the Supreme. And as this knowledge dawns, the darkness of ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear of death totally vanishes. Then the unconscious mind can no longer bind the soul to the body.

If such adepts continue to maintain a body, they do so not because the force of karma demands it - in their case, there are no karmas left - but because they are one with the Divine and are acting out of that oneness. They are called apta kamas - adepts whose every desire is fulfilled and who are under no obligation of perform any action of any kind. Whatever actions they now engage in bear no fruit for them; such actions as they do choose to perform are freely rendered solely for the benefit of others.

Such adepts are immortal - death cannot touch them, because death applies only to those who have karmas. They are free from desire, attachment, fear, and any sense of loss or gain, so it makes no difference to them whether they have a body or not. When the body no longer serves a purpose they cast it off, just as we ordinary people takes off our clothes. They choose the exact method of casting off the body, and voluntarily return its physical elements to nature. Following the instructions of such an adept, prana leaves the body in the exact manner that the adept orders it to leave. The gross elements of the body return to dust; the pranas are reabsorbed into the cosmic life force, and the mind into prakriti.

These apta kamas are no longer part of the cycle of rebirth or reincarnation. Whenever, under the will of the Divine, they are inspired to return to this world, they emerge through divine birth, in a mysterious process beyond both rebirth and reincarnation known as divya janma (divine birth). Because we do not comprehend the fact that someone can enter this world without being born, we sometimes call such a phenomenon “immaculate birth,” even though birth in the sense that we understand it is not involved. A more accurate term for it is “emergence.”

Yoga scriptures explain the entire dynamics of divine emergence systematically. They show, for example, how an adept can leave the body they have been inhabiting and enter one that has been abandoned by its original inhabitant - a technique known as parakaya pravesha (Yoga Sutra 3:37). In other instances, they tell us that a yogi can create a body solely from the powers of the mind. And the mind itself is created by the sheer force of the yogi’s asmita, “I-am-ness” (Yoga Sutra 4:4-6).

Before we discuss the dynamics of death, birth, reincarnation and divine birth, we must determine the extent to which the law of karma governs these and at what point this law no longer applies. We will do this by analyzing the subtle nature and function of rebirth, reincarnation and divine emergence.

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