Quite a large number of people accept, either fully or partially, what is called reincarnation. But for many there are also some confusion or misunderstanding.
This talk attempts to shed some light on the subject. Some verses which I quoted this subject:
As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change. Bhagavad-gita 2.13
For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain. Bhagavad-gita 2.20
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. Bhagavad-gita 2.22
The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas. Thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another. Bhagavad-gita 15.8
The caterpillar transports itself from one leaf to another by capturing one leaf before giving up the other. Similarly, according to his previous work, the living entity must capture another body before giving up the one he has. This is because the mind is the reservoir of all kinds of desires. Srimad Bhagavatam 4.29.76-77
So, I’ve from time to time received a few inquiries about reincarnation, the topic. When you ask a lot of people in the world today, it’s actually quite surprising how many people sort of have some acceptance of this idea of reincarnation, but for most people it’s just not really clear to them what it is. The ideas that they may think they have, which even seem like solid ideas to them, are actually not really that solid at all. So I hopefully will be able to sort of clarify things for everyone today.
I don’t know if you noticed on the ad that we put up, and it’ll be a slate on—when we post the edited version online, there’s a picture of a woman and a dog, and it was actually part of a really hilarious looking series of pictures that some well-known photographer in America had taken. And it was titled “People who look like their pets,” and some of it was just like, I mean it’s just like you’re going to burst out laughing when you see it, but what it does underneath that kind of comical sort of reaction that you have to it, it’s almost like, “Oh my Gods, they actually really look like each other!” And what’s happening, it’s evoking some recognition that there are two personalities that are displaying some similarity here. It’s like, quite a while ago I did a talk, and it was in relation to that aspect of things: Who’s that looking back at me?” And it’s people that become very involved with their pets.
We have this general tendency, when we drive down the road, especially here in New Zealand, you’ve got a whole paddock or a field full of cows or sheep or other animals, deer, and you just see a mob. There’s just a whole ocean of these guys all hanging out, and it’s kind of sort of monolithic. We see them as like a herd. And it’s usually, for most people, not until you develop a connection to animals that you begin to start perceiving the distinct differences in character, and how they behave towards each other, how they behave towards you. It’s—they have really unique behavioral characteristics that most people would understand to be some sort of expression of an individual personality. And so, while in the beginning we may just look at things as a big mob—
I mean I always remember my uncle…I grew up in in Te Aroha in a dairy farming community, and my mum’s sister, after her first husband died, she married a farmer who was a Yugoslav guy, and it was like—he was a big personality, but he had named each one of his cows, and he would talk to them, and he would interact with them, and they would interact with him. And it was really fascinating to see, as a kid, how distinct all the personalities were, and how they related differently.
So, what we’re getting to here is an appreciation of unique individuality and of personality. With human beings it’s distinctly perceivable. As you start going down through the different species the ability to perceive differences becomes much more difficult because there are not so many external things, like quirky features, or the way they move their head, or the way they do things.
And I’m just thinking of when my kids were young, the two younger girls, they used to keep, usually at just one time there was one bird, a budgie, or other types of birds, and my wife was pointing out how each of them sort of displayed a really different kind of personality and the way that they would behave to things. So they used to put on—have chanting mantra music going on, and some of it was kind of quite upbeat, and one of the birds they had at one time would get down in front of the player and would actually dance, like it would move in time to the beat and bobbing its head and really grooving on the beat. I mean it was so obvious! Whereas other ones didn’t display this type of characteristic.
So it becomes a little bit more difficult to see the distinctive individual personality as we start moving down the scale of species. The Vedic understanding was that the human form of life was considered the most subtle form of life, this most subtle covering, because the nature of the soul is more distinctly discernible through this particular species of life.
The view that they had and was cultivated by the great yogis, there was this understanding that this body that I have on is not who I am. This is a covering. It is an external identity that I’m assuming, and the animating principle of a body is the actual soul itself. I found that within Christianity, for example, and actually many religions in the world, while there was an acceptance of the idea of a soul there was no clear understanding really of what the soul was. Like for instance, you are somebody that is a religious person: “Can you speak to me clearly and intelligently about the soul for five minutes?” And it’s kind of like, “Well… what can I say…” And it usually begins with, “I have a soul.”
So the question that would arise from that, of course, is, “Okay, if you have a soul, who exactly are you, the possessor of the soul?” and then that would spark this kind of mystified reaction. It’s like, “Yeah, I’ve never thought of that!” because we develop these habits of speaking and relating without actually clearly thinking about stuff really on a more detailed sort of level.
So the Vedic understanding, the yogic understanding, is that the personality, the life force that’s manifest in the body, all of the symptoms of life arise from the soul itself. The Sanskrit word for this is atma. Atma literally means “the self”, the actual self, who you are. So the body is a covering. It was understood that the actual soul itself, the atma, has two coverings, a very subtle covering and a gross covering. The gross covering is very obvious: it’s the body that you’re wearing around. But the subtle covering is perhaps not as obvious to people, and it’s comprised mostly of the mind, and that’s a quite a big subject. And we’ve spoken about some of these aspects of things previously.
The understanding was that it was the presence of the atma, or the self, the soul, that makes it so that the body takes on or appears to be alive; and similarly the mind, the mental body, the mental self takes on its characteristics and appears to be alive because of this presence. The soul, or the atma, is not simply an energy source. The most important thing to understand is that the atma, or the soul, the spirit soul, is a person. The body is not a person.
The body is gross material energy—like at death, when the person has gone, we’re looking at a body, and it seems like someone that we knew and someone that we were related to but now it’s begun to develop a different sort of—it’s manifesting a different sort of characteristics, and it’s becoming increasingly unattractive as time goes by, in the hours and then the days and the weeks, and begins to completely deteriorate. That is not the person.
The person, or one’s personhood, arises from the soul itself, from the—we are a spiritual being, you and I, all life, there is a spiritual being, a spiritual personality. In Sanskrit the term was purusha. So the purusha is truly who you are.
It’s important to understand these fundamentals in order to be able to understand and appreciate reincarnation.
See, one of the problems people have is, people may ask, “What? Reincarnation!? You mean I can become a dog?” And of course, the answer is, “No, you don’t become a dog, but you may enter into that body and assume that external identity.”See, the spiritual perspective is that in truth, in reality, I am not a human being. I am a spiritual being occupying a human body. And the human body is the most subtle covering in that the characteristics of the person within are more visible through this form than any other form. So, you don’t become an animal, but you can occupy the body of an animal and begin to assume the identity.
There was this fundamental understanding and appreciation that there’s really only two categories of—principal categories of energy within the material world.
One is the material energy, of infinite varieties. And it’s kind of really amazing and astonishing when we consider that if we look at the three principle atomic particles, meaning a proton, a neutron, an electron, the electrons in a lump of gold are no different from the electrons in a stone; the protons or neutrons in chocolate is no different than the proton or neutrons in dog poo. I know it’s a bit gross but that’s the reality of things. And yet we have this astonishing arrangement whereby these same particles can produce an infinite variety of forms and substances with apparently different characteristics. But the understanding was, the underlying smallest unit of material energy, it was the same throughout the entire material creation, in spite of all the varieties of things that may appear to us.
The second type of energy that’s manifest is the energy of the atma. They call it the jiva atma in Sanskrit, the spirit soul. The main visible characteristic of the presence of this energy is life. Anywhere where you see the characteristic of life we should understand it is due to the presence of this kind of subtle energy, this subtle spiritual energy known as the jiva, or the atma, the jiva atma, the soul, or the spirit soul.
There was this appreciation that when a person—a human being was distinguished from all other forms of life, or life forms, in that a human being can ask questions, “Who am I? Why am I here? What is this all about?” The human being was considered completely responsible for all of their choices and all of their actions.
In all the other species, the lower species, they act according to impulse, to desire, in response to the urges of the material energy. They don’t ask those kind of questions. They act impulsively. They don’t have a choice.
And so, with the human form of life one acts, and their actions are called karma (karma literally means action), but then there is a responsibility that goes with choices. There is a karmic reaction. You do something bad, something bad will happen to you. You do something good, something good will happen to you. There is this balance in the material nature that makes it like this. There are very stringent laws, just as there are laws of gravity we cannot escape.
The human form of life was understood to be an opportunity for the living being to attain spiritual liberation, to become free from these things. In the ancient Vedic teaching reincarnation, or more appropriately, transmigration of the soul, was not considered desirable. It was a completely undesirable thing. Some people think, “Oh, I just wish I could come back as my dog, an animal, that my life would be so much more simple. It would be so much happier and carefree.” That is a very naive look at things and very naive perspective. Things don’t become easier or better just because you are occupying the body of a lower species, life form. So reincarnation was considered an undesirable thing.
There was an understanding—and again, it’s perceivable from the time of birth: when a person takes birth in a human birth we see that almost everybody is born in a completely different circumstance and completely different situation. Some people are born with incredibly good looks, or incredibly strong bodies, or amazing physical attributes, or characteristics, or talents, or musical talents. Other people don’t have any of that, or very little of it. Some people can be born with disabilities and live their life with great disability. So this was all considered to be connected to one’s previous karma, that according to how a person chose to live, according to what actions they engaged in, according to the nature of the desires which they developed, then at the time of death they would take another body that would be directed by these two things: the nature of the desires that you’ve developed, the things that you’re attracted to; and then it also—you become implicated in your past actions and activities, and the results that will bear fruit going forward.
So I have a couple of verses here which I will read. The first one is from the Bhagavad-gita, and it says:
“As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. And a sober person is not bewildered by such a change.”
Sober here meaning a person that is very deeply thoughtful—doesn’t mean you have to be of have a high IQ or anything, but somebody that actually observes and considers these things.
So they’re pointing out something that’s now—has become a proven and scientific fact: your body is constantly going through change. If somebody looks at a photo of their baby body: “Oh, that’s when I was a baby!” and you ask, “Where is that body now?” people will say, “Oh, this is the same body. It’s just grown.” Actually, that’s not true. Scientifically it’s not true. Within five years literally all of the atoms, the cell and the atomic particles, the matter making up the cells, have been completely changed. They are constantly being renewed and turned over. You are literally—there’s about like, what’s the number? Five billion cells dying in your body every minute and being replaced. It’s an extraordinary number. I may have got it wrong there, but it’s an extraordinary number. So the body that you see as a baby and then as a young person, a youth—or a child, then as a youth, and then as a middle aged person, and an older person, this is a constantly changing situation. And there’s a physical transformation as well.
And it was interesting, some of the yogis pointed out that it was quite amazing that the change from childhood to youth was celebrated, and the change from youth to adulthood was celebrated, but the change from adulthood to old age was not celebrated at all. It was considered something that was undesirable. And then they said but why should everybody be so upset with death when a person is now going to have the opportunity to have a fresh young and vigorous body? It’s only so much mental concoction, they would say, why people experience all of this sense of tremendous sadness, or lamentation, rather.
So it was understood that just as there are so many bodily transformations within one lifetime but there is one person experiencing all of those changes, that is the constant, the perpetual identity of the individual who is experiencing these external changes; and they say, just as it is going on within this lifetime one should understand it does not end with the end of this particular life of this body, that actually the person moves on to another body.
Then again from the Bhagavad-gita, I’ll read a couple of verses here:
“For the soul there is neither birth nor death…”
That’s a pretty astonishing idea. That’s actually, if one can actually grasp that, it is incredibly liberating, particularly for one who is facing the inevitability of death of the body, that the soul itself does not die, only the body dies. The soul continues.
“For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. The soul is not slain when the body is slain.
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 living entity in the material world…”
Well, let me just pause before we deal with that. I mean this is really a profound idea, that you don’t die, you can’t die, you never die. When this body has used the end of its usefulness, because of disease or old age or whatever, you move on. So now the question is, Okay, so if you move on, what is it that’s determining the nature of the birth, the next birth that you will take? So, it says:
“The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas. Thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another.”
Then we have—I’ll read another couple of verses, and then we’ll just talk briefly about it. And there is this really incredible—this is an amazing subject—and they would talk about how people develop deep attachments and desires to enjoy in a particular type of way, and it is this process of cultivating these deep attachments and desires associated with enjoyment that really blaze the trail for where the soul is going to go. So an amazing example is given here:
“The caterpillar transports itself from one leaf to another by capturing one leaf before giving up the other.”
So I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that? The caterpillar comes forward, and then it’s going to reach for another leaf, and it goes up, and first of all it seizes hold of it, and then once it’s seized hold, it’s going to pull itself over, then release from the one that it’s on and now be on another leaf. And to use that example is just completely mind-blowing for me. It’s an extraordinary observation. So it says:
“Similarly, according to their previous work, the living entity must capture another body before giving up the one he has. This is because the mind is the reservoir of all kinds of desires.”
That’s from the Bhagavata Purana as is this verse:
“When the living entity passes from the present body to the next body, which is created by his own karma, he becomes absorbed in the pleasurable and painful sensations of the new body and completely forgets the experience of the previous body. This total forgetfulness of one’s previous material identity, which comes about for one reason or another, this forgetfulness is called death.”
This is an extraordinary way to look at things, but it’s a very liberating way. And so because of this course of things there was this awareness, in more ancient times, within these very spiritual cultures, of, “I need to be cautious about what I had developed attachments to.”
If I become tongue indulgent and are just thinking about constantly tasting new flavours—I mean if you think about that, that’s all pretty pointless. I mean how long can that go on for? How many flavours are there? There’s not that many flavours anyway. But we we’ve entered this time where there’s this extraordinary focus on preparation of food and turning it into a highly sensual experience, visually, in terms of aroma, textures, flavours. I mean 30, 40 years ago majority of people didn’t think about that kind of stuff. It was all pretty basic. But now there’s become this huge focus and this tendency towards tongue indulgence. From it we get these situations where people are just looking to fill up this empty space in their heart by just eating and consuming and eating and consuming. And the human body is not the most adequate body for such an activity. There are other types of bodies that are better suited to unlimited eating.
So all of the infinite desires and things that can come from stimulating the senses, if one becomes overly focused and overly indulgent and deeply attached to these experiences, what we’re doing is building the pathway forward into the next type of body that we will occupy.
Can you go down? Yes. You can go all the way down through the species and even assume the body of a unicellular entity, an amoeba, a microbe. All life is due to the presence of the soul, but this idea and thought that the soul can be going through these cycles (they were called samsara, the cycle of repeated birth and death, moving from one body to another), when one considered—it was considered they reached the pinnacle when they reached the human form of life, because from here there was the opportunity for full self-realization, God realization, liberation, spiritual liberation; and if one did not take advantage of that because of the desires that were developed, because of the activities that were performed and the results that will come from them, if one did not become spiritually liberated they would be on a trajectory again to move through all these different species of life. You don’t have to go through all of them. You can go down a certain distance, or you can go way down, but this is the way things happened.
And so the idea of reincarnation, it was not a cool thing. It was not desirable, was not something that we should be achieving—in fact it was considered utterly lamentable. The idea I mean—once some people are thinking, “Oh, but my pet is so happy. If only I could be like my pet!” but it’s kind of like, well you may think that that’s a good idea, but once you get into that body you have lost control, and you don’t know where things are going from there, and you can end up in incredibly lamentable situations.
And so this need to get off this perpetual cycle of birth and death, to regain my own glorious spiritual position, to find my spiritual home, to be where I truly belong, to experience the awakening of the highest spiritual experience, which is of spiritual love and limitless blissfulness, was considered what we should be really aspiring for; and not losing the plot, not losing our direction.
So that’s the ins and outs, hopefully, of reincarnation. It may not be what you were expecting. I mean you’ve got people speculating, “Oh, I was previously the queen of Egypt,” or, “I was a royal…” People like to fantasize about all this stuff.
It doesn’t matter what station of life, what status of life, what position you occupy, everybody experiences the same limitations of a lack of fulfillment and the complete experience of true and lasting real happiness. It cannot be—this state cannot be fully experienced through material experience. One needs to engage in spiritual activity so that we become awakened to our eternal spiritual nature and begin to taste the sweetness of true spiritual experience.
And of course, the primary way of doing that is through this process of chanting. So, I’d like to invite you to join me. I’ll sing the Aum Hari Aum mantra. And I would like to request you, that during the experience of kirtan one should let everything go. Allow the mind to just relax. Don’t follow it. Don’t feel like you have to think of anything; and just to become immersed, in the same way that a person immerses themself in a hot spring or the ocean, immerse yourself in this spiritual sound. Allow it to wash over you. Just simply listen to it and then repeat it, and hear yourself repeating it. And in this way it will work its magic. It will work its wonder of transcendental spiritual transformation.
So we will sing this Aum Hari Aum.
40:20 – 54:50 Kirtan
Acharya das: Thank you very, very much for joining us on this Wednesday; Yoga Wisdom Wednesday. And once again just a reminder, if you have questions or if you have particular things that you would like to hear about, feel free to email me, or you can message me on Facebook if it’s easier for you. Or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org at my website and I would be happy to try and address any of the questions that you may have. Thank you very, very much. Namaste
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