FAQ Karma & Reincarnation

Return of the Soul      

The questions to which this chapter gives answers are, what is the journey from one birth to another and what is the process of reincarnation.
Q.26 What is the Journey from one birth to another?
A.26 JIVA IS THE SANSKRIT WORD for the individual soul. Caught in the endless cycle of birth and death, the jiva must play different roles in different lifetimes, and therefore requires garments of different shapes and sizes. Each of our bodies is a different garment for jiva. After completing one role, the individual soul must take off its costume and don one that suits its next role. And just as costumes are manufactured in the external world, the body that clothes the individual soul is generated by nature

If this body is indeed a garment we put on, then why is it we don’t remember that we did this? The answer is to be found in scriptures such as the Yoga Vasishtha, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutra, the Katha Upanishad, and the Garbha Upanishad, which tell us that those who fall asleep before dying remain asleep when they are being reborn. (In this context, “sleep” means “lack of conscious awareness”) In other words, those who die unconsciously remain unaware of their birth. According to the scriptures, however, birth has nothing to do with conception or delivery. Birth takes place the moment we identify ourselves with a particular body, and this is why sages and yogic adepts are never born even when they inhabit a body: they never identify themselves with that body.

As we saw in the previous chapter, under most circumstances death is accompanied by confusion and chaos. When prana departs, the body, brain, and conscious mind become lifeless, and the jiva is left with the unconscious mind. That is the vehicle with which it leaves the body. This kind of death can be compared to a blind man trying to get out of an unfamiliar house. Because of the confusion caused by our desires and attachments, we do not even know through which door we are leaving.

In the interval after death we are in the realm of our unconscious, experiencing pain or pleasure until the strongest among the subtle impressions of our karmas gathers momentum and pushes us in the direction of rebirth. These powerful samskaras (called vasanas) stir the unconscious, motivating us to group around for a body. But we are in such a deep sleep that we are not even aware of this stirring, although we feel it an unconscious level.

This unconscious stirring is so strong that we cannot resist it. Here again nature takes a hand. Making sure we find a body that meets the needs of our vasanas, nature brings us to parents who have vasanas similar to ours. The vasanas from both sides-ours, and our parents-attract each other. Just being in the proximity of such a body offers a sense of security to our unconscious mind. The pranic forces reemerge from nature and enter the body, diving it life. And following the trail of prana, riding the vehicle of the unconscious mind, the individual soul (jiva) enters the fetus.

The formation of the brain, the seat of the conscious, mind, is a crucial stage in pregnancy. According to the Garbha Upanishad, when that has happened the soul has the tools to think and feel. In a sense it has entered the world, although it is still living in the confines of the mother’s womb. Even so, the unconscious mind of the fetus is quite active, even more so than the unconscious mind of children and adults. This is because the conscious mind of a fetus has no opportunity to occupy itself with sensory diversions, and so experiences the unconscious vividly and intensely.

During the period between death and conception, the soul has been encapsulated in the unconscious. Even thought it had been experiencing pain and pleasure, it had no conscious experience of this. It did not even know where it was. But now with the development of the nervous system, brain, and conscious mind, memories have returned.

The jiva now knows that it is being reborn. It remembers its previous lives and clearly knows the reason for being born into this particular species under these particular conditions. It remembers how painful it is to die and to be born. Its tender senses and mind are bombarded by the racket in its mother’s body and jolted by her emotions. The primitive instinct of hunger has also returned, and an attempt to cope with it, the fetus begins to suck its own toes or thumbs.

The jiva now realizes what a great loss it has been to die without attaining the goal of life, and it does not want to make that mistake again. Regretting the waste of its previous lives, it prays to the Divine Being, “O God., I have been traveling from one species to another for thousands of lifetimes. I have suckled different breasts and eaten different kinds of food only to be born and only to die. I cannot see a way out of this ocean of pain and misery. I performed good and bad actions, telling myself that it was my duty and I was doing it for my loved ones. Today I am suffering alone from the pain of those scorching actions. O Lord, help me get out of this place. This time I promise I will embrace you alone and serve only you”. (Garbha Upanishad, 4)
Occupying itself with these thoughts, feelings and prayers, the jiva completes the period of gestation. But when the infant emerges from the womb, it touches a pranic force known as Vaishnava Prana, which wipes away all memories. The amnesia is so total that the infant does not even remember its birth. The thoughts and feelings it had in the womb, its prayers everything-vanishes, and the infant’s conscious mind is like a clean slate. The body must relearn everything by means of its environments, its parents and its teachers, and later on, through self-study and personal experience. The vaishnava prana cleans up the mess of the past and grants you freedom from the animosity, revenge and remorse, which would otherwise follow you from life to life.

Q.27  What is the Process of Reincarnation?
A.27 As we have discussed earlier, those who dedicate themselves to attaining knowledge of the purpose of life putting their mind and heart into sadhana (spiritual practice), are blessed with a higher form of rebirth, known as reincarnation. Those who die before completing their sadhana reincarnate. Following the law of karma, nature rewards their intense sadhana by placing them in the right family. And even if such souls are reborn in a nonhuman species from some reason, they still retain a higher level of intelligence than their fellow creatures, and perhaps they even retain the memory of their previous lifetimes. The following story from the Srimad Bhagavatam will give a sense of the process of reincarnation and the conditions it involves.

Story - There once was a saint named Bharata. Content within, this saint lived in solitude in his ashram near a peaceful stream. One day a doe who was just about to have a fawn came to drink from this stream; suddenly sensing the presence of a tiger, she made a frantic attempt to leap across the stream and fell, injuring herself fatally. In her death throes the fawn was born. Bharata, observing these events, was driven by compassion to adopt the newborn deer.

The saint came to love the fawn and raised it as he would his own child. And in his company the fawn lost its natural instincts and became totally dependent on the holy man. But within a few months Bharata fell mortally ill. Although he had mastered the technique of casting off his body at will (thereby avoiding the normal journey after life), he was so worried about what would happen to the fawn that as he died his mind was fully occupied with the deer. His attachment had made him so weak that he failed to remember how to leave his body consciously, so he died as ordinary people do and was reincarnated as a deer.

However, because he still remembered his previous life, Bharata was not caught up in the four primitive urges like other deer-he ate just enough to sustain his body, and had no fear of predators. He had no regrets about being born as a deer, but spent, most of his time in contemplation. And with the help of introspection and self-analysis, he came to understand the difference between compassion and sentimentality.

When he realized that his time as a deer was almost finished, he decided to drop his body. He remembered the yogic technique he had mastered as a saint, but he could not use it while he was in the form of a deer. So instead, following the path known as muni brata, he undertook the austere practice of fasting until he died.

Next the sage reincarnated as a human. This time he was blessed with all the means and resources he needed to accomplish the highest goal of life: a body and mind perfectly fit for intense sadhana and an environment that was conducive to this. Circumstances freed him from worldly duties at a very early age, and soon after renouncing the world he became fully established in perfect wisdom. During this lifetime he transcended his body-consciousness through his sadhana, and gaining perfect mastery over all the faculties of mind, he rose above the realms ruled by the laws of karma, destiny, death, and birth. End Story

The story illustrates the dynamics of reincarnation. Bharata was established in wisdom and had almost attained freedom from all his karmas. Then, shortly before he died, he incurred a karma that clouded his mind at the moment of death. He saved the fawn out of sheer kindness, but by identifying him-self with this action, he contaminated it, thus compromising its value. Further, his emotional involvement in helping the fawn led him to worry about the fawn’s future - he forgot that it was God saving the fawn through him and that he was simply an instrument in the hands of the primordial savior, the Divine Being. Bharata also forgot that the same Divine Being would continue to help the fawn after his death. In the presence of an omnipresent God, no creature is helpless.

Had he been occupied with other, more worldly thoughts and emotions at the time of death he could have been swept up by the messengers of death and stranded at the river of his mind by confusion and commotion? But as it was, his only thought was concern about the deer, so his entire awareness subsided into deer-consciousness. His samskaras of faith, enthusiasm, retentive power, one-pointedness, and intuitive wisdom were so strong that the pranic forces left his body peacefully, and his mind, accompanied by deer-consciousness, was absorbed in nature. Then, to free him from the deer karma, nature placed him in the body of a deer. Once there, mother nature, in her compassion, restored his memory. Thus, although living in a deer’s body Bharata was still gifted with the saintly samskaras of his previous life.

According to yoga tradition, this was not rebirth but a reincarnation, and reincarnated souls retain samskaras to a greater or lesser degree, depending on their level of spiritual achievement in the previous lifetime. The previous knowledge of these highly evolved, incarnated souls manifests more spontaneously than does the knowledge of those who are less evolved. But all such souls are blessed with the opportunity to pick up their journey at the exact place they left off in their previous life - although the form in which that opportunity will manifest cannot be predicted. There are hundreds of such stories centered around the Buddha when, during the process of his spiritual evolution, he incarnated into several species as a bodhisattva.

The story of Bharata also illustrates the fact that even a highly evolved soul may incarnate for a time in nonhuman form. Our human ego would prefer not to believe that it can ever go backward, but if we allow ourselves to be caught in animal behavior and nurture inhuman samskaras, how can we be reborn as human? Even a holy man cannot expect to harvest grapes if he plants poison ivy.

Most of us have encountered people who are simple, loving etc but are obsessed with one desire – say having a child. In such cases the forces generated by willpower, determination, good actions, austerity and so on are all directed towards fulfilling that single goal.

According to the scriptures, the consciousness of such a person is concentrated on that one desire during the time of death. And this one-pointedness inspires nature to place that person in the environment most suitable to fulfilling that desire as we can see in a story from the Mahabharata. (too long so not included).

Some souls, because of their strong will, practice of austerities and prayer, and their power of determination reincarnate to complete the work they were intent on accomplishing in their previous life. Friends to my mind the passion I have for acquisition and sharing of knowledge seems to be taking off from where I left it in my previous birth. In fact a Nadi astrologer that I met in Pune actually said so.

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