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Hinduism and the belief in rebirth




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by Jayaram V

According to Hinduism, a soul reincarnates again and again on earth until it becomes perfect and reunites with it Source. During this process the soul enters into many bodies, assumes many forms and passes through many births and deaths. This concept is summarily described in the following verse of the Bhagavad gita:

"Just as a man discards worn out clothes and puts on new clothes, the soul discards worn out bodies and wears new ones." (2.22)

According to Hinduism, a being has to live many lives and under go many experiences before it attains perfection and becomes one with the Divine. The Hindu theory of creation suggests that creation begins when the individual souls become separated from the undifferentiated One. It continues as the evolution of life and consciousness in matter progress upon earth in phases. During this process some souls manage to return to God, their source, through the transformation of matter or Prakriti in which they remain hidden and bound. The remaining souls continue their existence and return to Him in the end, not through transformation but through the great destruction that happens at the end of each time cycle. Thus the great cycle of creation, stretching over millions of years, comes to its logical end.

Once the creative process begins, each individual soul is drawn and bound to a false personality called jiva (living being). This jiva, which stands for all living forms, not just humans, is also known as the embodied self or the elemental self. It has an inner subtle body and an outer gross body. The soul remains encased within the subtle body. The subtle body (linga sarira) is made up of the subtle senses, the subtle mind, breath, ego and intelligence. The gross body is made up of the gross mind (animal mind) the elemental body and its organs. Each jiva (being) has an ego-sense (anava) or self-sense arising from perceptions, knowledge, memories, desires, attachments and the notion of diversity and separation. Because of the ego-sense, the jiva remains ignorant about its true identity and experiences delusion (moha), duality (dvanda) and attraction (raga) and aversion (dvesa) to the pairs of opposites such as heat and cold, or pain and pleasure. As a result of attachments (pasas) and delusion, the jivas acts selfishly as if they are different from the rest of creation. Due to egoism, desire-ridden actions and selfishness, they end up suffering, caught hopelessly in the phenomenal world.

Technically, the body is the prison and the soul is held in it as the prisoner for the sins of the physical self. At the time of death, the physical body and the gross mind return to the elements of the earth. But part of the subtle body survives and accompanies the soul to the next world. Depending upon the nature of their past deeds, and the extent of subtle bodies they develop, the jivas either ascend to the ancestral heaven (pitr lok) or descend into the hell. Hiding the indwelling spirit in its core, the subtle being stays in these worlds until the fruits of its good or bad actions are fully exhausted. Having squared off the karma and learned new lessons, it then returns to the earth to take another birth and repeat the process.

Thus the Jivas (living beings) undergo innumerable births and deaths in the mortal world. They remain bound to the mortal world and the laws of nature due to desires and attachments. Death gives them temporary relief from the earthly suffering, but exposes them to the risk of falling into greater depths of sorrow and suffering since each birth bring them newer challenges and opens them to innumerable possibilities and opportunities, both good and bad. This goes on until they achieve liberation and enter into the immortal world of Brahman where they remain liberated forever in a state of unity with the Supreme Self.

Even the Buddha who founded Buddhism did not refute reincarnation, although he was silent about the existence of God and proposed the non-existence of an eternal soul. He preached that there was nothing like an eternal and indestructible soul. What incarnates from birth to birth was but a only a subtle body, the vestige of a being in the form of a temporary construct, the residue of an ever changing individual personality or character, which moved from one birth to another birth, until all changing and becoming came to an end, by virtue of right living on the Eightfold Path and the practice of Dharma.

Hinduism speaks of the existence of multiple heavens above and hells below. The former are sun filled, inhabited by gods (devas), celestial beings, forever immoral souls (anityas) who would never be subject to mortal life, besides innumerable freed souls (muktas) who were once bound to the mortal world but liberated by the grace of God or the merit of their actions. The hells are dark and demonic worlds (asurya lokas), populated by evil and demonic beings who are forever intent upon creating chaos and disturbing the order and regularity of the worlds. The individual souls go into these worlds according to their deeds. But they do not stay there permanently. They go to these worlds basically as a consequence of their actions, either to enjoy heavenly pleasures or suffer from the consequences of their misdeed. In both cases. they learn their lessons and return to the earth to start a new earthly life all over again.

Thus according to Hinduism, life in the ancestral heaven lasts longer, but it still is a temporary existence only because eventually every soul that goes there has to return. There, a soul may enjoy great pleasures, but eventually the enjoyment has to end like any other good dream. Once its karma is exhausted, an individual soul falls down from the heights of heaven through rain and returns to the earth to take part once again in the turmoil of an unstable earthly life. The scriptures also suggest how each soul enters a new body and takes a new birth. The suggested return journey begins with the falling of an individual soul from the ancestral heaven located in the moon to the earth through rain. From earth, it enters into plants through water. When the plants are consumed by animals or humans, it enter into a human or animal body and becomes part of semen (retas). Through semen its enter the female body and finally settles in her womb in the embryo until its birth.

The concept of reincarnation, which is common to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhims, is alien to people who practice Judeo-christian religions. It is mostly misunderstood and misinterpreted in the western world, partly because of ignorance and partly because of some inherent mental blockage natural to those who practice dogmatic religions and who are conditioned to the single minded pursuit of religious faith along rutted paths. It generated a lot of controversy in the past because it directly challenges the western notions of one birth, one God, one heaven and the Day of Judgment.

Today, belief in reincarnation is gaining ground among many people from all over the world and from diverse religious backgrounds. A few reasons are worth mentioning for this develoopment. Firstly, a great mass of evidence has accumulated over the years in favor of reincarnation in the form of personal experiences and recollection of past lives with great detail. These people were able not only to recollect their past lives, but also point out the places and the people with whom they lived in the past. Secondly, hypnotic regression made it possible for people to travel back in time in their subconscious minds and unearth the hidden memories of their past lives. Thirdly many people, endowed with psychic abilities, like Edgar Cayce, confirmed beyond doubt that reincarnation was not just a theory or imagination, but a real phenomenon that could be conclusively proved through psychic means and even used to cure some physical and mental ailments.

The Hindu concept of reincarnation is based upon the logical notion that life on earth did not emerge suddenly, but evolved gradually, involving great epochs of time and a vast multitude of beings. During this process the static and inert consciousness of matter yielded place to the dynamic movement of life and consciousness. The animal tendencies gave way to higher faculties such as perception, reason, intelligence and self-awareness. Extending the same logic we may further conclude that in future, from this part animal, part human and part divine being, may emerge a spiritual man of divine consciousness, the Superman of Sri Aurobindo, with supra mental consciousness.

If you examine the personality of an ordinary human being, you will realize that there is a lot in that, which is grosser and denser and cannot be purified or transformed in a shorter time or one life. What is a hundred years or a few decades of life upon earth on a scale of millions of years of continuous evolution of life that has been happening upon our planet? Does not it sound illogical to say that we would remain static from the evolutionary point of view, while change is the nature of life and every thing else all around us has been changing and evolving constantly?

Hinduism does not accept the premise that a human being can overcome all imperfections in just one lifetime and retune to its creator as a liberated soul. It may happen only in exceptional circumstances. Creation is God's drama, enacted by Him for His sole enjoyment. He is the enjoyer as well as the enjoyed. He is one who binds, who is bound, who suffers and who watches Himself suffering, while at the same time remains untouched by all the flux and commotion. Life has to therefore continue along the ordained path until the end of the time cycle. During this period, each Jiva has to struggle and find its way through trial and error until it finds the rare opening to the immortal world. Each Jiva has to evolve progressively through the cycle of innumerable births and deaths before it reaches perfection From inert matter to inert consciousness and then to dynamic consciousness, from ignorance to semi awareness and then to self awareness, from attachment to detachment and then to complete freedom, from illusion to awareness and then to reality, from darkness to dawn and then into light, from mortality to immortality: this is the forward movement of life in creation. And all this cannot happen just in a few hundred years.

It is very obvious that God did not create the worlds and beings in His likeness, but in a manner that is different from Him or opposed to Him so that there can be duality, diversity and the illusion of movement, attainment, perfection, struggle, conflict, competition and intense drama. If He would have created everything in His true likeness and exactly as Himself, then there would have been no differentiation and no possibility of any movement or the need for desires or attainment. Creation would have remained static, without an aim and purpose, offering no scope for movement, achievement and change.

It is true that God is hidden in every aspect of His creation. But that which is visible and sensible is not His true self. It is His negative and false self, which tries to compete with Him and fight for its own individuality, and finally, having lost the battle, would move towards Him in total obedience.

Thus the whole drama of creation seems to start with innumerable individual selves that become enveloped by the principles (tattvas) and modifications (vrittis) of Nature and suffer from temporary distraction until they overcome their delusion and remember their true nature. The Hindu scriptures describe this process variously with such expressions as bondage, true self hiding behind a false self, self becoming enemy of the self, God entering into Nature and remaining united with it in a tight embrace or Self suffering from delusion or becoming enveloped by ignorance and impurities.

The awakening comes afterwards. It happens, when the mind and body are purified, when virtues are cultivated, when the senses and the mind are restrained and stabilized and when the soul stirs out of its distractions and radiates its light in the discriminating intelligence. When the mind and body become pure like glass, with the predominance of sattva, the Self shines through. Each word of that being then becomes the word of God. Each stirring a movement of Him. Each decision a manifestation of His supreme will. It is then ignorance is returned to ignorance, karmic debts are squared, the seeds of liberation germinate and one becomes filled with the light of the soul. With that, the outgoing movement of the individual soul that happened as part of His creation begins to reverse and return to its source. The individual being now begins to look to the heaven rather than the earth, to the life immortal rather than transient pleasures of the earthly life

The inexorable law of karma operates through out this grand drama. Karma is the correction mechanism, the chisel with which the negative self, the inert stone, is chiseled away until the hidden deity comes out of it and enters the temple of God. In the ordinary circumstances, awakening of a sleeping Self cannot take place through miracles but through trial and error. Good actions lead to good future, and bad actions to its opposite. An awareness of this very law is the first great awakening and the first sure leap towards the Light.

All this cannot take place in one simple life, but over a period of time involving many lives. It cannot happen on the strength of a life time's learning but in the light of a great mass of accumulated wisdom. It cannot happen unless the purpose of the whole life is to move towards light and truth.

This is where the idea of reincarnation of soul perfectly fits in. If we accept the whole creation as a grand process stretching over a vast period of time, we cannot over look the importance and the role of human beings in it. Human beings cannot appear for a brief span upon earth, live just one life and then disappear forever into the cozy corners of some safe heaven, or the vast dungeons of some burning hell, leaving creation, God and Nature to themselves.

At the individual level, the movement of creation and evolution need not universally progressive. Since the whole movement is regulated on the principle of trial and error, of learning and improvement through such learning, some times, a retrogressive movement may also take place. Due to some unfortunate error of judgment, instead moving towards the light, a being may move away from it.

Thus depending upon the merits of the previous deeds, a being may evolve into higher life forms or regress temporarily into a lower life form. However, due to some peculiar circumstances, if an individual takes birth as a lower life form, he can still reverse the process. He can change his present actions and establish a basis for his forward movement again.

The Jiva thus drifts, sailing in the boat of his own karma, in a sea of worldly illusion (samsara sagaram), towards the shores of liberation, through trial and error, self effort and assisted by invisible laws and mysterious forces, with the soul remaining as its silent, witnessing companion.

That the theory of reincarnation is not a mere theory, but an actual fact is being now established beyond reasonable doubt. Many instances have now come to light where individuals were able to recollect their past lives through a process of regression or by other means. The theory still baffles many, while many others refuse to acknowledge it because of intense prejudice.

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