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About Reincarnation: The Vedic teaching on the cycle of birth, death, and birth again

by Kanai Lal Das

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Does some aspect of our personality survive bodily death?

Some say no. But there are strong reasons for thinking it does. You?ll find some of them discussed later in this article. Meanwhile, here are the basic teachings of the Vedic philosophy, the teachings given by the ancient wisdom literature of India.

According to the Vedic literature, the psychophysical entity with which we now identify ourselves is not our true self. The true self is neither the body nor the mind, nor a combination of both. The Vedic sages tell us that the body and mind are but gross and subtle coverings of the self.

Underlying these temporary coverings, the real self is a spark of spiritual consciousness, eternal and unchanging but temporarily misidentifying itself with matter in the form of the body and mind. And this real self, the Vedic sages tell us, survives the death of the body and lives on.

If it does survive, where does it go?

Eternal heaven or hell?

There are problems with that.

Or perhaps we merge into some sort of spiritual oneness.

Perhaps. But this seems to presuppose that the soul has its origin in spiritual oneness too, emerges from that oneness as a personal being, and then returns to that oneness again.

This leaves many questions to be answered.

The Vedic answer is that at the end of one lifetime we embark upon another.

The Bhagavad-gita says, "As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones."

The explanatory value of the Vedic point of view.

The Vedic teachings about reincarnation offer us an opportunity to understand our material circumstances more deeply, and those teachings answer questions that might otherwise yield no suitable answers.

Who gives credence to this?

In much of the civilized world, the idea of reincarnation, or transmigration of the soul, is the prevailing point of view. More than a third of the world?s people accept reincarnation as a fact of life.

And even in the West, the doctrine of reincarnation has a long list of distinguished adherents.

Pythagoras (Greek philosopher and mathematician, c.582-c.500 BC)
Socrates (Greek philosopher, 469-399 BC)
Plato (Greek philosopher, 427-347 BC)
Plotinus (Greek philosopher, founder of Neoplatonism, 204-270)
Giordano Bruno (Italian philosopher, 1548-1600)
Frangois Voltaire (French philosopher, 1694-1778)
Benjamin Franklin (US statesman, philosopher and inventor, 1706-1790)
Gotthold Lessing (German philosopher and dramatist, 1729-1781)
John Adams (Second president of the United States, 1735-1826)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German poet and dramatist, 1749-1832)
August Wilhelm von Schlegel (German poet, critic and translator, 1767-1845)
William Wordsworth (English poet, 1770-1850)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (US philosopher and writer, 1803-1882)
Robert Browning (English poet, 1812-1889)
Richard Wagner (German composer, 1813-1883)
Henry David Thoreau (US social critic, writer and philosopher, 1817-1862)
Walt Whitman (US poet, 1819-1892)
Thomas Huxley (English biologist and writer, 1825-1895)
Leo Tolstoy (Russian novelist and social critic, 1828-1910)
Mark Twain (US writer, 1835-1910)
Gustav Mahler (German composer, 1860-1911)
Rudolf Steiner (Austrian philosopher, 1861-1925)
David Lloyd George (British Prime Minister, 1863-1945)
Henry Ford (US automobile pioneer, 1863-1947)
Rudyard Kipling (English writer, 1865-1936)
W. Somerset Maugham (English writer, 1874-1965)
Carl Jung (Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist, 1875-1961)
Sir Hugh Dowding (British Air Marshal during the Battle of Britain, 1882-1970)
George S. Patton (US general, 1885-1945)
Robert Graves (English poet, 1895-1985)
Erik Erikson (US psychoanalyst, 1902-1994)

If reincarnation is a fact, how does it work?

According to the Bhagavad-gita, whatever we think of at the time of death determines what sort of body we?ll take next. And of course what we think of at death depends largely on what we thought about and what we did during our life. The process is subtle, because the mind is subtle.

The Bhagavad-gita explains that the mind, at death, carries with it subtle conceptions, just as the air carries aromas. And these subtle thoughts are what shape the next body. They determine what sort of eyes one will have, what nose, ears, and tongue, what sort of hands and legs and other bodily features. These all assemble around the mind.

The Vedic writings tell us, also, that our karma?what we deserve for our past acts?proceeds not only from what we have done in the present life but from past lives as well. My present birth, then, is an outcome of what I have thought and what I have done in the past.

Are human beings always reborn as human beings? According to the Vedic literature, no. Some are, but others are promoted to still higher forms, forms beyond our present experience, and others are degraded to lower species.

Sometimes, for example, we see a person living just like a pig?dirty, sloppy, gluttonous. We may think he even looks like a pig. According to the Vedic teachings, such a person, already practically a pig in consciousness, may get the body of a pig in his next life.

The Vedic writings say that there are 8,400,000 species, most of them lower than human. In the lower species, the living beings always act precisely as nature dictates. They have no choice. A horse always acts like a horse, a tree like a tree. You never see a tiger stealing oranges.

And so the living beings in lower species always advance to species higher. Slowly, one step at a time, they are promoted by nature from one species to the next.

But human life affords us greater choice. We can live in harmony with nature?s laws, or we can violate them. And accordingly we may be promoted or degraded. The human life is therefore meant for spiritual realization and for gaining freedom from the cycle of birth and death. No other species offers us this opportunity.

Why reincarnation? What?s the purpose?

The Vedic literature offers two answers.

First, we?re being given a chance to live out our desires. You want to fly? Take the body of a bird. You want to swim? Take the body of a fish. You want to drink blood? The body of a tiger. Fool around and have sex all day? The body of a monkey.

Second: We?re being given repeated opportunities to attain spiritual realization, break free from material entanglement, and resume our eternal nature in the spiritual world. The Vedic writings are meant to guide us in achieving this goal.

What about scientific evidence for reincarnation?

There are various sorts of empiric evidence offered in support of the idea of reincarnation. Much of it is weak or useless, some of it strong.

Objections to the idea of reincarnation

In this way, we may embark on the path of spiritual advancement. And whatever progress we make is our permanent gain. So even if we don?t complete the project in one lifetime, in the next we can take it up where we left off.

Materially, whatever we have gained in one lifetime we leave behind when life is over. The millionaire can?t take with him even a penny. The professor can?t hold on to even a shred of his erudition.

But spiritually, according to the Bhagavad-gita, whatever gains one makes are never lost. If one takes up the path of spiritual advancement but fails to complete it, he may be granted a birth in a pious family or a wealthy one. Or, still better, he may be born in a family of transcendentalists. He then revives the spiritual consciousness of his previous life and again tries to make further progress.

By virtue of the divine consciousness of his previous life, he automatically becomes attracted to spiritual principles?even without seeking them. And when he engages himself with sincere endeavor in making further progress, he is gradually freed of all contaminations. Then, ultimately, after many, many births of practice, he achieves perfection and attains the supreme goal.

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