The Vedic teaching on the cycle of birth, death, and birth again.
- Does some aspect of our personality survive bodily death?
- If it does survive, where does it go?
- The explanatory value of the
Vedic point of view
- Who gives credence to this?
- If reincarnation is a fact, how does it work?
- Why reincarnation? What’s the purpose?
- What about scientific evidence for reincarnation?
- Objections to the idea of reincarnation
- If I had past lives, why don’t I remember them?
- Since we don’t remember past lives, what could be the use of them?
- If reincarnation is a fact, why is the population increasing?
- Well, if you believe in it, I suppose it could be true for you.
- How could I enter someone else’s body and become someone else?
- But the Bible denies reincarnation.
- Clearly, the idea of reincarnation proceeds merely from wishful thinking.
- Personality is but a product of the higher nervous system and the brain. So how could it move from one physical body to another?
- Suggested readings
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.
There are problems with that.
- It implies that God is cruel—he gives no second chance.
- It implies that God is unfair—he stacks the deck in favor of some souls, against others.
For example, a person born in a good Christian family will get every opportunity to hear about Jesus Christ, put his faith in Christ, and, according to Christian teachings, be saved. But if you’re born in an atheistic or unenlightened family—well, tough luck.
- It leaves no sensible way to explain why people (or, for that matter, any living beings) are born in different circumstances.
Why should one person be born rich, another poor, one healthy, another diseased? If we live only once, it seems the best you can say is “It’s just chance”—which is no explanation at all.
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.
- How and why, from that oneness, would personality emerge?
- Why, from oneness, should a plurality of personal beings appear? Why in so many varieties? And what could determine what those varieties will be?
- And why would the living being automatically return to that oneness again?
The idea that personal beings somehow spring forth from an impersonal oneness runs into problems like the ones mentioned above. But even supposing it’s true, why suppose that at death we automatically merge into oneness again?
Of course, we can speculate that only some of us do, or that we do so only under certain circumstances. But then we’re back to the original question: What happens to the rest of us, or where do we go meanwhile? That is, If personality does survive, where does it go?
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 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.
- Why are living beings born in such a multiplicity of forms and circumstances? Not by chance but because of their previous acts.
- How is it that some people have extraordinary skills, even at an early age? How is it, for example, that Mozart was composing symphonies by the age of 4? If we accept the Vedic point of view, those skills may have persisted from a previous life.
- Even with ordinary abilities—some of us are good at mechanics, others at math—reincarnation offers explanatory value.
- Why do some of us have particular fears, others particular objects of fondness? One contributing reason may be the circumstances of a previous life.
- Why do some people feel they’ve got “the wrong gender”? Some men feel like they “should be” women, some women like they should be men. Why? Feelings persisting from a previous life offer, again, a contributing answer.
- The Vedic answer also virtually solves “the problem of evil.”
Why do the innocent suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? How can a just God permit injustice in the world? As soon as we accept the Vedic view, the problem virtually dissolves. For no longer is anyone “innocent.” None of us is merely a blank slate. Each of us has to suffer or enjoy the results of our own past acts.
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
- 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)
- Francois 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)
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.
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
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.
- Deja vu
Perhaps we’ve all had the feeling “I’ve been here before.” Could one feel that way because of experience from a past life? Maybe, but practically speaking there’s no reliable way to know.
- Channeling, or mediumistic communication
Sometimes certain people—they may be called “mediums,” “psychics,” “sensitives,” or (a more recent term) “channels”—transmit what are purported to be messages from departed souls. The medium may speak in trance, or his or her hand may produce writing automatically.
This is a field in which parapsychologists have done extensive investigation.
It’s a problematic field.
Much of the material transmitted tends to be stereotypical. The wisdom and insights dispensed by “departed spirits” often consist of a tired litany of new-age platitudes. For discriminating minds, this doesn’t create a lot of confidence.
Most material generated by mediums or channels is unfalsifiable—there’s nothing specific enough to either prove or disprove.
Even when material is specific and impressive and fraud seems ruled out, explanations other than communication with departed souls are available, and almost always more likely.
- The channel may have acquired information normally. For example, if a “sitter”—a person consulting a medium—asks about a particular departed person, the sitter may give various clues about that person, even unintentionally.
- The information may also be within the channel’s normal area of knowledge—Greek or Egyptian history, for example. Or the channel might have received information from an ordinary news item. Or from friends or acquaintances.
- Sometimes the channel might have acquired the information long before, even in childhood, and forgotten it—but still have it available in his mind for access. This is called “cryptomnesia.” Reliably investigated cases show that one might unconsciously retain impressions from even a few lines of text read years before—and might unconsciously use this material to construct a “paranormal” event.
- The channel may in fact receive information paranormally, by telepathy or clairvoyance. That is, one might pick up the information from the mind of another living person, or by remotely “seeing” an existing object—the page of a book, for example. Whether these abilities exist, and to what extent, are also subjects of controversy. But if one assumes they exist, they provide alternative explanations to communication with departed souls.
- Past-life regressions under hypnosis
A person under hypnosis may remember what might seem to be a former incarnation or re-experience events from a “former life.”
Sometimes the memories or experiences are dramatically vivid. For example, a woman remembering a trial and punishment for witchcraft may show signs of genuine terror.
And what the hypnotized subject says may be rich with little-known but accurate historical facts, or facts that “only such-and-such person could have known.”
Still, many of the problems afflicting cases of mediumship or channeling pertain to past-life regressions as well. And regression cases have other problems of their own.
A core feature of hypnosis is the tendency of the hypnotized subject to respond compliantly to suggestions. In response to hypnotic suggestions, even ones not deliberately given, a subject in trance may subconsciously construct a fictitious past life.
To do this, he may draw on information he has gained normally, or perhaps even paranormally.
In some cases, researchers have found that the rich, dramatic details of a “past life” match those of this or that historical novel, a novel the hypnotized subject must have read and then forgotten.
Hypnotized subjects may creatively draw on their inner resources to dramatize imagined experiences, and may thoroughly believe them true, even after the trance is over.
Regression to a “past life”—so-called past-lives therapy—may have therapeutic effects, even if that past life is fictitious. A skilled professional therapist, therefore, may knowingly invoke such regressions as a therapeutic technique.
Less discriminating therapists may themselves be overimpressed by the fictions they themselves have invoked and join their clients in believing them. The more discriminating will know better.
Among other such therapeutic techniques, by the way, are the deliberate creation of a fictitious childhood, one more comfortable and useful for the client than his true one. Another technique is hypnotic progression, in which the client experiences a time in the future—for example, seeing himself in a time when an issue troubling him has been resolved. The client may “experience” this imagined future as vividly and dramatically as an imagined past.
“Past lives” experienced in hypnotic trance are therefore unlikely to be objectively real. As evidence of reincarnation, nearly all such cases are scientifically worthless.
A few cases have shown features that make them more worthy of scientific consideration. But such cases are the rare exception, and the evidence they provide is far from conclusive.
If you’re interested in past-life regressions, there’s something else you should know: The “experiences” from a past life, however fictitious, may profoundly upset the person experiencing them and cause him emotional distress or confusion even after the trance is over. In some few cases, also, the hypnotically invoked “former personality” has spontaneously returned and resisted the usual suggestions to disappear. Like hypnosis in general, “past-life regression” should not be used as a plaything.
Dr. Ian Stevenson offers a further discussion about hypnotic regression to previous lives.
- Spontaneous experiences of past lives
Sometimes an adult not under hypnosis may experience what seem to be memories of a past life.
Again, there may be rich details and sincere conviction. And again, almost always, these cases are easily subject to normal explanation and are scientifically of little or no value.
How can we know that the “memories of a past life” haven’t really been generated from this one? Nearly always, most likely they have.
A few exceptional cases are notable—for example, cases in which a person shows the ability to speak a foreign language he seems not to have normally learned. (This may also be a feature of cases hypnotically invoked.) Such cases are rare, and reincarnation is not the only possible explanation for them.
- Spontaneous past-life memories in children
Here we come to the scientific evidence for reincarnation that is most interesting and persuasive.
Sometimes a child, perhaps at the age when he first begins to speak, will talk about a “past life.” He may give details about that life, sometimes enough to enable one to identify a particular deceased person as the “former personality” whose life the child seems to remember.
The child may yearn to go back to his “former home.”
He may show interests, habits, mannerisms or skills characteristic of the “former personality.”
He may show knowledge of personal matters that few but the previous person would have known.
He may show fears that match the cause of the previous person’s death—;for example, a child who speaks of having been killed by a lorry may have a particular fear of lorries.
If the child is brought to the town or village where the previous person lived, he may be able to lead the way to that person’s house. And there he may show signs of recognizing the former person’s friends and relatives. He may show strong emotions towards them, emotions fitting for the previous person. He may act towards them in ways suitable for the relationships that the former person had—like a son towards that person’s parents, like a parent towards that person’s child.
When the subjects of such cases are small children, many of the normal explanations that could apply to adult cases are unlikely, if possible at all.
Small children have not learned anything from newspapers or novels. They cannot draw upon years of adult experience in the world. Their contacts with other persons and places are limited.
Fraud is a possibility, and may sometimes take place. But cases in which fraud seems ruled out, cases carefully investigated by scientists on the lookout for fraud, now number in the thousands.
When children speak of past lives, their parents often discourage them. And the parents, far from seeking to profit from the unusual circumstance, are sometimes reluctant for the case to become known.
Discrepancies in investigative technique? These are also possible. But merely alleging them is not enough. There are too many published cases in which the techniques and reporting appear meticulous.
Normal explanations may still be possible, of course, but they become harder to come up with and support.
Paranormal explanations are also possible.
A child might have powers of telepathy or clairvoyance and might use them to create and dramatize a fictitious past life corresponding to that of an actual deceased person. But why should he do this? And would the extent of the powers this would require—amounting to “super-ESP,” as it’s called—be any more likely than reincarnation?
Another possible explanation is that the child has been “possessed” by a disembodied spirit. For some cases, this explanation may in fact seem a better fit. But for others it seems to offer no explanatory advantage.
Particularly interesting are cases in which a child shows special skills characteristic of the previous person. Knowledge, it might be argued, could be passed normally to a child from some other person, or accessed by the child
himself by super-ESP. But skills are forms of learned behavior. How could a child, without training, acquire the skills that another person had?
Cases of what seem to be spontaneous past-life memories in children have been extensively investigated for more than thirty years by Ian Stevenson, M.D., formerly Carlson Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia.
He called his first book on the subject Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.Years later, with some 3,000 cases on file, he felt justified to call a later, multi-volume work—reporting cases in India, Burma, Turkey, Alaska, and elsewhere—Cases of the Reincarnation Type.
Apart from the particulars of the individual cases, his collection of cases shows statistical regularities that strengthen confidence in the collection as a whole. For example, in 51% of the cases the “previous person” underwent a violent death. A tendency for the purported memories to appear in early childhood and fade as the child grows older are another statistically regular feature.
Dr. Stevenson’s published research, it should also be said, is notable for its rigor. Cross-verifications, searches of medical records, and reporting of discrepant testimony are standard in his work. Dr. Stevenson points out the weaknesses in his cases as well as their strengths. Also worth noting is the extent to which he discusses other possible explanations, both normal and paranormal, as alternatives to the hypothesis of reincarnation.
Other researchers with established professional credentials have independently studied similar cases.
Dr. Stevenson’s most recent contribution to studies of cases of the reincarnation type is an examination of cases in which birthmarks or birth defects seem to correspond to physical features of the “former person,” often to fatal wounds. An unusual birthmark, for example, might correspond in shape and position to a previous person’s knife wound. Or severe and unusual birth defects in a person’s legs, defects in the form of ropelike constrictions, might correspond to the injuries of a previous person tied by the legs and killed.
A child, one may suppose, might fantasize a previous life, with help from normally acquired knowledge or from what he has learned through ESP. Or adults might wishfully persuade themselves that a child’s statements were more accurate than they were. Or conniving adults might use a child to put up a hoax.
But how is it, we might ask, that a child would show severe and statistically rare birth defects corresponding to wounds verified by medical records to have been inflicted on the body of a person whose life he seems to remember?
Such are the questions dealt with in Dr. Stevenson’s two-volume work Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects, a collection of case histories, with analysis, amounting to more than two thousand pages.
Dr. Stevenson has also dealt with this research in a more accessible summary, Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect.
In short: Most of what is put forward as empiric evidence for reincarnation can and deserves to be dismissed. But some of it commands attention and is difficult to set aside.
This doesn’t mean that all mediumistic communication or channeling can be dismissed as worthless. Some carefully investigated cases do seem to hold up under scrutiny and show evidence for possible survival of bodily death.
But those cases are rare.
And even if there were genuine communication with a departed spirit, this wouldn’t in itself prove reincarnation. The spirit might presumably be communicating from heaven, from hell, or from some sort of limbo, without any “succession of births.”
For that matter, even if a “departed soul” tells us there’s reincarnation, how do we know he’s telling the truth? When people here in this world can be such liars, why not people “there”?
- If I had past lives, why don’t I remember them?
Memory is such a thing that we put down our car keys and later can’t remember where.
We can’t remember being in the womb. Were we there?
Forgetting one’s previous birth upon taking the next appears to be a law of nature (though a law that apparently has exceptions).
Srimad-Bhagavatam, a Vedic scripture, says that by the trauma of birth a child forgets his previous life.
It might also be said that if we could remember our previous births, the burden of the memories would be unbearable. The memories we carry around from just one life are sometimes sorely distressing. Multiply such memories manyfold, and they would surpass our ability to deal with them.
- Since we don’t remember past lives, what could be the use of them? They wouldn’t teach us anything.
The Vedic scriptures don’t tell us that the only purpose of reincarnation is to learn.
According to the Vedic sages, the living entity forgetful of his eternal relationship with God, or Krishna, wants to enjoy independently in the material world, so Krishna affords him repeated opportunities to try to do so.
Sometimes the living entity wants to experience the supposed enjoyment of flying, so Krishna may grant him the body of a bird. Sometimes he wants to enjoy eating without discrimination, so Krishna may give him the body of a pig.
In this way, the bewildered living being can repeatedly pursue—for unlimited lifetimes—the material enjoyments for which he has come to this material world.
On the other hand, Krishna gives the living being repeated opportunities to turn away from the fruitless prospect of independent material enjoyment, attain spiritual self-realization, and regain the eternal relationship with Him.
- Krishna offers guidance through books of wisdom, like the Vedic literature.
- He offers guidance through His saintly devotees.
- And He also prompts us from within.
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.
- If reincarnation is a fact, why is the population increasing?
The Vedic literature tells us that there are 8,400,000 species of life, and living beings pass through all of them. So although to our limited vision the population may be growing, when we take all these species into account the true population of the world is beyond counting.
Added to this, the Vedic literature tells us that there are also living beings on other planets and in other universes.
The results of our limited human census, therefore, don’t present a problem.
One might object that this is just an ad-hoc explanation, a cop-out, a way to escape from the objection. But in fact it is an integral part of the Vedic philosophy, with implications in other contexts That it is not falsifiable doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. The realms of empiric science have their limits, so not everything in the world is falsifiable. What it means, therefore, is that the truth of this Vedic teaching is beyond the ability of science alone to either confirm or deny.
- Well, if you believe in it, I suppose it could be true for you.
This is a very strange idea.
If I say “Night follows day,” is that true only for me? It happens whether I believe in it or not.
Or suppose I say, “If you believe in death, it’s true for you.” Please—death will come for you whether you believe in it or not.
The Bhagavad-gita says, “For one who is born, death is certain. And one who dies is sure to be born again.”
According to the Bhagavad-gita, this is a law of nature. You can decide for yourself whether to believe there’s such a law or not. But laws of nature—whatever they are—do not depend on one’s belief.
- How could I enter someone else’s body and become someone else?
According to the Vedic literature, that’s not what happens.
It’s not that you switch bodies with someone else, or take over someone else’s body. Rather, you—the consciousness or soul within the body—take birth again, in a new body. You transfer, just as you might transfer from one apartment to another, or as you might change clothes, or as a caterpillar sheds its old body and takes on that of a butterfly.
- But the Bible denies reincarnation.
Reincarnation is a topic about which the Bible is fairly quiet.
There is a text—Hebrews 9:27—that says, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”
But is this a comment on reincarnation? Or is it, rather, a conventional statement? Any particular man—John W. Smith—is born but once, and dies but once. This we all know. Whether his soul then enters another lifetime is another matter.
The Vedic literature says that when any man dies, the acts of his life are weighed—he is judged. And then he takes his next birth accordingly. Is this in conflict with the text? You decide.
But before you do, please take into account the entire text:
"And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation." (Hebrews 9:27-28)
The focus here is not on the question of whether the soul undergoes transmigration. Rather, a common example is being given by which to better understand the divine sacrifice offered by Christ.
There seems little reason to suppose that the use of this example rules out reincarnation.
Sometimes a text from Matthew (17:9-12) is offered as evidence of reincarnation. There Jesus tells his disciples that Elias had come again as John the Baptist. This text, however, does little to support the doctrine of reincarnation. It fits better with the Vedic concept of avatara—the doctrine that God, God’s son, or one of God’s messengers from the spiritual world may, by spiritual power, appear through birth in the world for the upliftment of the fallen souls. (Christians may find that this Vedic doctrine resonates with their own beliefs, or even offers a way to greater understanding—but that is another matter.)
A more relevant text appears in John (9:1-2):
"And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?"
The idea that the man was born blind due to the sins of his parents is easily intelligible: because of their own sins, the parents had a son who was blind.
But how are we to understand that a man could have been born blind due to sins of his own? Clearly, the man must have lived before. Of course, one could say that the man must have sinned in the womb. But this is a very strange explanation. What sin could the man have done there—crossed his legs wrong? Would the disciples have even entertained such ideas? Surely the alternative they are asking about is the possibility that the man had sinned in a previous life, an alternative that fit with a doctrine taught for centuries before Christ and undoubtedly still current while he was on earth—the doctrine of reincarnation.
And how does Jesus answer? Does he upbraid the disciples for their foolishness? Does he condemn them for bringing up a worthless or repugnant idea? Does he tell them in no uncertain terms that reincarnation is a mistake, a wrong teaching, an error?
Surely, here was an ideal opportunity to do so. But Jesus doesn’t.
Instead, in the next verse, he answers, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”
In other words, this is a special case, a setup. The man has been born blind so that Jesus may show a miracle, as he does a few verses later.
And so Jesus comments on neither of the offered alternatives—the sins of the parents nor the past sins of the man himself—but simply puts forward a different story.
As we see, reincarnation is an idea that Lord Jesus declines the opportunity to refute.
- Clearly, the idea of reincarnation proceeds merely from wishful thinking—it’s comforting to think that, birth after birth, the soul lives on.
Comforting? The Vedic writings say that the cycle of birth and death entails repeated miseries. Is birth fun? Is dying your idea of having a good time?
Apart from that, whether the idea gives solace or dread is beside the point. How we feel about things makes no difference as to whether they are true or not.
The objection suffers from the fallacious strategy of attacking one’s supposed motives for holding to a position—in this case, the idea of reincarnation—rather than addressing the position itself.
- Personality is but a product of the higher nervous system and the brain. So how could it move from one physical body to another?
Hold on there. You’re making some pretty big assumptions.
That consciousness is just a product of highly organized matter is just a theory. And the theory has an awful lot going against it.
Of course, if your theory is right, your objection raises serious difficulties. Effectively, reincarnation is scuttled. But if your theory is wrong, the grounds for your objection dissolve.
Apart from that, the objection essentially begs the question. The doctrine of reincarnation holds that we are souls who transmigrate from one body to the next. The objection says that this is wrong because we aren’t souls at all.
Merely to assert this just isn’t enough to amount to a refutation. Without supporting evidence, it’s just an instance of circular reasoning: The doctrine is wrong because it is wrong.
For your objection to be sustainable, you need to show us—not merely tell us but persuasively demonstrate—that the so-called soul (that is, individual consciousness) does arise from and depend upon particular formations of matter.
Though that belief is widely held to, with all the zeal of an article of faith, it is far from scientifically established. It remains a belief, with a lot going against it.
Extensive data gathered in rigorous parapsychological research points to the existence of consciousness as an entity that doesn’t conform to what are usually thought of as material laws.
Such research has shown strong evidence for psychokinesis—that is, the ability to bring about tangible material effects in objects beyond the reach of the muscles and physical senses. And there’s similar evidence for clairvoyance—the ability to see objects and actions beyond the range of natural vision. And this is apart from out-of-body experiences, precognition, evidence for spirit possession, and cases of the reincarnation type.
And we’re talking here not about flimsy research but high-caliber professional work. (For example, click here.)
Quantum physical arguments offer reasons to suspect that consciousness is an entity unable to be confined within physical systems.
And arguments from information theory show that the genesis of consciousness from matter would require either that enormous levels of complexity develop from the sparest of information (how? and why?) or that enormous amounts of complex information be present in boundary conditions from the start (and again why? and from where?).
And then again: When has science ever generated life in a laboratory?
Set aside naive misconceptions about the Stanley Miller experiments conducted in the 1950’s, in which the outcome was biochemicals—not life but another sort of matter. And set aside talk of cloning, in which to come up with life you start with life to to begin with. When has science ever started with raw chemicals and generated life in a laboratory? The answer is never.
And that leaves an open-minded inquirer free to be persuaded by the considerable strengths of the Vedic view that the conscious living being is indeed a separate entity, transmigrating from one lifetime to the next.
Transmigration of the self from one body to another—often known as reincarnation—is something we all experience, all the time, but may not be aware is happening. It's like this: during a single lifetime, our bodies change from infant to child to adult to elderly, but our conscious awareness stays the same.
Of cours our minds change over time, and we certainly don't see things the same way as adults as we did as children, but the same sense of being—conscious existence—remains consistent throughout our lives.
The case history of a little girl from West Bengal suggests she remembered a life she had lived before.
When Sukla Gupta was a year and a half old and barely able to talk, she used to cradle a pillow or a block of wood in her arms and address it as “Minu.” Minu, she said, was her daughter.
And if you believe the story Sukla gradually told over the next three years, Minu actually was her daughter—but in a previous life.
Sukla, the daughter of a railway worker in Kampa, a village in West Bengal, India, was one of those rare children whose testimony and behavior give evidence for the theory that your personality survives the death of your body and travels on to live in another body. This is the theory of reincarnation.
For some five hundred million of the world’s people, reincarnation is more than a theory—it is a fact, a given, a part of their everyday understanding. It’s what they’ve learned from their scriptures, and what generations of their forefathers have believed for thousands of years.
Aside from people in the East, Western philosophers at least as far back as Plato have found it reasonable to believe that our souls have lived before, in other bodies, other lives, and will live again in new ones.
If we have lived other lives, you might ask, why don’t we remember them? But memory is a tricky thing. We’re lucky if we can remember where we’ve put our car keys. So even if past lives are a fact, it’s not surprising we can’t remember them.
But at least a few of us apparently can.
Sukla talked not only about her daughter, Minu, but also about her husband, “the father of Minu” (a good Hindu wife avoids speaking of her husband by name). She also talked about his younger brothers Khetu and Karuna. They all lived, she said, at Rathtala in Bhatpara.
Sukla’s family, the Guptas, knew Bhatpara slightly—it was a city about eleven miles south—but they had never heard of a place called Rathtala, nor of the people Sukla had named. Yet Sukla developed a desire to go there, and she insisted that if her parents didn’t take her she would go alone.
What do you do when your daughter starts speaking that way? Sri K. N. Sen Gupta, Sukla’s father, talked about the matter with some friends. He also mentioned it to one of his railway co-workers, Sri S. C. Pal, an assistant station master. Sri Pal lived near Bhatpara and had two cousins there. Through these cousins he learned that Bhatpara indeed had a district called Rathtala. He also learned of a man there named Khetu. Khetu had had a sister-in-law named Mana who had died several years before, in 1948, leaving behind an infant daughter named Minu.
Sri Sen Gupta decided to investigate further.
The story of Sukla is one of nearly two thousand in the files of Dr. Ian Stevenson, Carlson Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia. Over the past two decades. Dr. Stevenson has gathered reports of people in various parts of the world who showed evidence suggesting that they had remembered past lives. About one thousand three hundred of these cases Dr. Stevenson has investigated personally, including the case of Sukla. [Among Dr. Stevenson’s books are Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (in which the case of Sukla appears) and the multivolume Cases of the Reincarnation Type. Both are published by the University of Virginia.]
When someone seems to have truthful memories of a former life, Dr. Stevenson interviews him, the people around him, and if possible the people of the life apparently remembered, looking for a more ordinary, normal way to explain things. He looks for fraud. He looks for stories with holes in them and conflicting, unreliable reports. But sometimes, as in the case of Sukla, normal explanations just don’t seem to fit.
After Sri Sen Gupta learned of the family in Rathtala, he decided to yield to Sukla’s desire to go there. With the consent of that family, he arranged for a visit. Sukla said that she could show the way to the house.
So in 1959, when Sukla was a little more than five, Sri Sen Gupta and five other members of his family journeyed with her to Bhatpara. When they arrived, Sukla took the lead. Avoiding various possible wrong turns, she brought them straight to the house of Sri Amritalal Chakravarty, allegedly her father-in- law in her past life.
As the party approached, Sri Chakravarty happened to be out on the street. When Sukla saw him, she looked down shyly, following the usual custom for a young woman in the presence of an older male relative.
But when Sukla went to enter the house she was confused. She didn’t seem to know the right entrance. Her confusion, however, made sense: after the death of Mana, the woman whose life Sukla seemed to remember, the entrance had been moved from the main street to an alley on the side.
And the party soon found that Sukla recognized not only the house but also the people in it, including those she said were her mother-in-law, her brothers-in-law, her husband, and her daughter.
Fraud? When some Hollywood movie actress claims to remember a past life as the Queen of Persia, that’s likely the right explanation. But here we’re dealing with a little village girl. She starts talking about a past life as soon as she’s old enough to speak. She knows all sorts of things about people neither she nor her family has ever met. Careful investigators find no evidence of fraud and no normal way the girl could have learned what she knows. And her behavior actually fits the story of her previous life.
Inside Amritalal Chakravarty’s house, Sukla found herself in a room with some twenty or thirty people. But when she was asked, “Can you point out your husband?” she correctly indicated Sri Hari-dhana Chakravarty. Following the proper Hindu etiquette, she identified him as “Minu’s father.”
Sukla and Haridhana Chakravarty were to meet again several times, and Sukla always longed for these meetings. When he was to visit her house, Sukla told her family to make him a meal with prawns and buli. She said that this was his favorite food. Her family did what she said and later found that she had chosen correctly.
Sukla behaved toward Haridhana Chakravarty like a perfect Hindu wife. After he ate his meal, she would eat whatever food was left on his plate, as a devoted Hindu wife would do. But she never ate food from the plate of anyone else.
To try to account normally for this kind of behavior, another explanation sometimes put forward is what is technically known as cryptomnesia, “hidden memory.”
Psychologists know that our minds record more than we consciously remember. Under hypnosis, an old man may vividly describe his fifth birthday party, an event for which his normal consciousness has lost all the details. Or he may recall exactly what he read in a long-forgotten book some thirty years before.
So the hypothesis of cryptomnesia supposes that what appear to be memories of a past life are merely memories of something one has heard or read and consciously forgotten.
This may in fact be the best explanation for many of the “past-life regressions” now becoming popular in journeys through hypnosis. Asked by a hypnotist to go back to a past life, a subject obediently searches his forgotten memories and uses them to dramatize an entirely fictitious “former existence.”
In one notable case, back in 1906, a clergyman’s daughter under hypnosis told vividly of a past life in the court of King Richard II. She poured out a wealth of details, nearly all of which proved to be true, even though many of them were so obscure that they sent researchers hunting through scholarly English histories the girl was most unlikely to have read. Finally, however, it came out that all these detailed facts appeared in a novel. Countess Maud, that the girl had read when twelve years old and had entirely forgotten.
But the case of Sukla, remember, is that of a girl less than five years old. And her recollections of a past life took place not under hypnosis but as part of her usual waking consciousness.
We may suppose that she gathered these memories normally, but this is only a supposition—there’s no evidence of any normal channel through which these memories could have come.
Moreover, Sukla didn’t just recall information—she actually recognized people, people who in this life were complete strangers.
She recognized Mana’s mother-in-law from a group of thirty people. She pointed out Mana’s brother-in-law Kshetranath, and she knew his nickname, “Khetu.” She also recognized another brother-in-law, whose nickname was “Kuti.” But she identified him correctly by his given name, Karuna, which even his neighbors didn’t know.
She also said that her first child, a son, had died while still an infant. This was true for the life of Mana. And Sukla tearfully recognized Mana’s daughter, Minu, and showered her with affection.
If there isn’t a normal way to explain this, maybe there is some other less-than-normal explanation. Perhaps Sukla learned about Mana and her family through extrasensory perception.
Research has clearly shown that there is such a thing as ESP. In rigidly controlled experiments, the late Dr. J. B. Rhine and other parapsychologists have shown persuasive evidence for telepathy (the ability to read another person’s thoughts) and clairvoyance (the ability to perceive objects and events without using your senses). And experiments have shown that both telepathy and clairvoyance can work over long distances.
But although ESP may seem hard to believe, to use it to explain a case like Sukla’s you’d have to believe in super-ESP. Not only would this five-year-old girl have to have incredible psychic powers, but she would have to use them to zero in on a specific family in an unfamiliar city and learn intimate details of their lives. She’d also have to be selective about what her psychic radar picked out, so that she’d “remember,” for example, the location of her father-in-law’s house but be unaware that the entrance had changed, since that took place after Mana’s death.
And then, for purposes yet unknown, Sukla would have to mold what she’d learned into a drama in which she immersed herself in the role of the departed Mana.
Most dramatic in Sukla’s case were her strong maternal emotions towards Minu. From babyhood Sukla had played at cradling Minu in her arms, and after she learned to talk she spoke of her longing to be with Minu. Sukla’s meeting with Minu had all the appearances of a tearful reunion between mother and daughter.
Once Mana’s cousin tested Sukla by falsely telling her that Minu, away in Rathtala, was ill with a high fever. Sukla began to weep, and it took a long time for her family to reassure her that Minu was actually well.
Minu was twelve and Sukla only five. And Minu had grown taller, so Sukla said, “I am small.” “But within this limitation,” Dr. Stevenson says, “Sukla exactly acted the role of a mother towards a beloved daughter.”
And after taking other possibilities into account, Dr. Stevenson cautiously submits that perhaps we can understand this case most suitably by accepting that Sukla was Minu’s mother, just as she thought herself to be.
This brings us back to the idea of reincarnation. Of course, science can never “prove” that reincarnation is a fact. For that matter, science can never actually “prove” anything. Through science, all we can do is gather data as carefully as possible and then try to explain them in the most consistent and reasonable way. And when the body of data grows, our explanations have to grow with it.
Because of the work of Dr. Stevenson and other researchers, we now find ourselves facing a considerable body of data suggesting that reincarnation is a fact.
Yet science doesn’t go far in making clear to us what that fact is.
How does it work? Why does it happen? Who or what is reincarnated? How long do you have to wait between births? Does it happen to all of us, or only a few?
Perhaps one day scientific investigation will come up with answers to these questions. For now, investigators can do little more than gather data and speculate.
So if reincarnation happens to everyone, you can figure on going through it yourself—perhaps countless times—before science even begins to figure out what’s going on.
The members of the Hare Krishna movement, however, have a different way of getting understanding.
Faced with an unfamiliar but complex machine, you can observe it and try to figure out how it works. You can monkey with the thing and see what happens. You can call in friends and get their ideas of what the pulleys, gears, and wires are supposed to do. And maybe you’ll figure it out. Maybe.
But the sure way to understand the machine is to learn about it from the person who built it.
So the direct way to understand the machinery of the universe—including the subtle machinery of reincarnation—is to learn about it from the person behind it.
That there’s a person behind this machine comes near to being self-evident. It’s axiomatic. Of course, you’re free to reject the axiom. But then you’re faced with the task of explaining how things “just happen” to work, how everything in the universe “just happens” to fit together, without any intelligence behind it.
You can say that everything happens “by chance” (which is no explanation at all). You can ascribe everything to some ultimate impersonal force that, without intelligence or volition, gets everything to work. Or you can sidestep the problem by saying that everything we see is merely an illusion: “The machine doesn’t even exist.” But then you have to explain where the illusion comes from. And that puts you right back where you started.
It’s easier and more reasonable, therefore, to assume that behind the workings of the cosmic machine is the supreme intelligence, or the Supreme Person. This is the entity to whom we refer when we use the name Krishna.
For various excellent reasons (explained elsewhere in the issues of this magazine), we accept that the book known as Bhagavad-gita conveys the words of Krishna Himself. So the members of the Hare Krishna movement, like devotees of Krishna for thousands of years, learn about reincarnation from the words of Bhagavad-gita
In Bhagavad-gita Krishna tells us that reincarnation happens to everyone. “For one who is born,” Krishna says, “death is certain. And after death one is sure to be born again.”
Krishna compares this journey through a succession of lives to the changing of clothing. Your true self—your “soul”—is eternal, but it goes through temporary bodies, one after another.
So it’s not that you “become a different person” when you change from one body to the next, any more than you become somebody else when you change your clothes or when you grow from a child to an adult. You’re always the same you, but you watch your body and mind transform from those of a child to those of a youth and then those of an old man or woman. Similarly, Krishna says, death is but a transformation from one body to the next.
Still, death is like nothing else under the sun. It’s the biggest jolt there is. And when we get to the other side, we forget all about what we were doing in the life before, just as a person who falls asleep forgets what he was doing during the day and then wakes up and forgets about his dreams.
In rare cases, though, memories may persist, as they apparently did with Sukla Gupta. Sukla remembered her home, her family, and her clothing from the previous life. She talked about the three saris she used to wear, especially the two made of fine Benares silk. And when she visited what she said was her former home, she found the saris stored in a trunk, jumbled in with clothing that belonged to others. She picked out the three saris she said were hers, and in fact they had been Mana’s.
Sukla talked about a brass pitcher in a particular room of the house. When she visited, the pitcher was still there. The room had been Mana’s bedroom, and Sukla correctly showed where Mana’s cot had previously been. And tears came to Sukla’s eyes when she saw her old sewing machine, the one that Mana had previously used.
But even if we forget our previous lives, they influence our present one nonetheless. The Bhagavad-gita says that it’s what we’ve done and thought in our past lives that determines what kind of body we start out with in this one. And by what we do in this life, we’re paving our way to the next.
According to the Bhagavad-gita, we’ve already been through many millions of lifetimes, and it’s possible we’ll have to go through many millions more. Some of them may be in human bodies and some in the bodies of lower forms like animals and trees.
But by spiritual realization, the Gita says, we can free ourselves from spinning through this endless cycle of incarnations. We can transcend material existence altogether and return to our eternal home, in the spiritual world with Krishna.
The Gita points out that each of us is eternal and Krishna is also eternal. And our real existence is our eternal life with Krishna.
As we travel from lifetime to lifetime, we can’t hold on to anything, for everything in the material world is temporary. Everything material fades away and ultimately loses meaning.
The Bhagavad-gita therefore advises that now, in this present human life, we should fully use our energy and time for spiritual realization.
By the time Sukla was seven, her memories of her former life had begun to fade. Yet even before the memories left her, that life was already gone. Sukla had mentioned that in her former life, as Mana, she’d had two cows and a parrot. But after Mana’s death the cows had died, and the parrot had flown away.
Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
In recent years interest in reincarnation has grown, with new advocates, theories, and discoveries. Testimonies by persons who have returned from the verge of death after supposedly glimpsing the hereafter have intrigued modern parapsychologists, as well as researchers like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying, and Raymond Moody, author of Life After Life and other bestsellers.
The original source—books on reincarnation, however, are the Sanskrit Vedic, literatures. The Srimad- Bhagavatam, for example, gives a fascinating account of the near-death experience of a man named Ajamila. Unlike modern investigations, the case of Ajamila lets us study the near-death experience not from the viewpoint of the dying person but from the viewpoint of higher beings present at the time of the soul’s passing out of the body.
Srimad-Bhagavatam relates how the messengers of Death and the messengers of Lord Vishnu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, disagreed over where Ajamila should reincarnate in his next life. Being deathless, the atma, or self, must take birth in another body when the present body ceases to function. And that next body is determined by one’s individual karma: “As you sow, so shall you reap.”
In the case of Ajamila, the messengers of Death wanted to drag the soul to hell because of his life of sin. Although Ajamila lay in a coma, he was conscious of the messengers of Death preparing to transfer him to the lower regions. But suddenly the beautiful, effulgent messengers of, Vishnu arrived and intervened. The messengers of the Lord said the messengers of Death had misjudged the soul of Ajamila and had no right to take him.
Incensed, the messengers of Death explained why Ajamila should be taken and punished. Judging a person’s karma, they said, is a relatively simple thing. At the time of death, when a soul is ready to enter another body, the superintendent of Death arranges for a future body in accordance with the particular soul’s past sinful and pious acts. Because Ajamila had led a sinful life, he was now due to be punished.
The messengers of Death gave an analogy: As springtime in the present indicates the nature of springs in the past and future, so this present life of happiness or distress indicates one’s activities in the past, and one’s present activities are an index of one’s future incarnations. In other words, on the basis of the activities a person performs in his present life, the higher authorities determine his destiny in the next life.
Since most people incur at least some bad karma, it is the duty of the messengers of Death to transfer them to a lower position. Most people act without any understanding of the law of karma and thus commit all kinds of abominable acts for the pleasure of the present body. They do not know that their present suffering is a result of past sins, nor are they able to understand that their present sins will cause them future suffering. Acting in the darkness of ignorance, most people are unable to know their past or future lives. And even when they hear from the Vedic literature about transmigration of the soul and the law of karma, they refuse to accept that there is anything beyond this present life of sense .gratification.
Such an ignorant person was Ajamila. And because of his life of sin, the messengers of Death saw no reason why the messengers of the Lord should obstruct their work of awarding him his just karma.
The messengers of Lord Vishnu, however, asked the messengers of Death on what basis they had judged Ajamila. The messengers of Death replied that they had judged him according to the religious scriptures. They then read a long list of criminal, violent, irresponsible, irreligious, and perverted acts Ajamila had committed. At this, the messengers of Vishnu admitted that hellish punishment would ordinarily await such a sinner but in the case of Ajamila, this did not apply.
The extraordinary circumstance in Ajamila’s case was that at the last moment of his life he had called out the name of God, Narayana. Although he was not thinking of God but of his son Narayana, he had nevertheless called out, “Narayana!” This had neutralized all Ajamila’s bad karma and had saved him.
The messengers of Vishnu explained that Ajamila’s uttering the name Narayana had absolved him of all his sins—not only those of his present life but those of millions of past lives. He had chanted without offense and was therefore purified and eligible for liberation. The messengers of Vishnu explained that even if a person chants the name of God indirectly (to indicate something else), jokingly, for musical entertainment, or even neglectfully, the holy name will still free him from the reactions of all sins. No matter how sinful a person may be, the holy name of God has the power to absolve him and save him from hellish punishment.
Unable to oppose the higher authority, the messengers of Death released Ajamila. The supernatural beings vanished, Ajamila awakened from his coma, and by the grace of the Lord he was able to spend his remaining days in devotional meditation on the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
This account from Srimad-Bhagavatam gives us valuable information about the soul, the next life, the laws of karma, and the potency of the holy name of the Lord. For those interested in reincarnation, the Vedic literatures are worth investigating. Rather than limit oneself to empirical data from modern researchers, one should consult Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita for a clear understanding of reincarnation and the specific importance and responsibility of the human form of life. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And an essential part of one’s life to examine is one’s death. What happens at this critical time? Is there a next life? If so, how can we assure the best next life for ourselves? Certainly any introspective, openminded investigation into the subject of reincarnation would be incomplete without careful study of Vedic writings like Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad- gita.
by Jayadvaita Swami
If all you see here is bodies changing, you’re not seeing the point. The bodies are changing—that’s obvious. But the most important person in this picture is the person you can’t see at all. That person is the living spark of consciousness within the body. In other words, that person is you. Whoever you are, your body is changing. You once had the body of a child. Now you have the body of a young person or old person. The change is gradual, yet continuous. At every moment, within your body, millions of chemical reactions are taking place, millions of cells are growing, dying off, replacing themselves. Just as you can’t walk into the same stream twice (at every moment the stream is changing), you can’t keep your body the same.
Your mind is changing, too, from moment to moment. And your intelligence is also changing—becoming sharper, we hope, and more mature.
So far we’ve been talking about your body, your mind, your intelligence. Now, what about you?
You are not your body. This is not meant to be an enigmatic koan, nor merely a statement of dogma or belief. Rather, it is a scientific observation, one that bears repeating: you are not your body. Please consider this carefully.
Your body and mind are changing at every moment. Every seven years, scientists say, all the cells in your body have been replaced, including the cells in your brain. Yet something is constant.
That something is the consciousness within the body. If you think about it, you will almost certainly agree that there’s a difference between you and your experiences, you and your surroundings, you and your hands, your feet, your chest, your head, even you and your present thoughts (whatever you were thinking an instant ago, that thought has just gone away, and so by now has the one that followed it—but you, I trust, are still reading on).
You are still reading on. Not you the body or you the mind, for the body and mind of a few moments ago no longer exist, but you the observer, you the consciousness within.
Although your body and mind change, that consciousness is permanent. Of course, the content of consciousness may change, but the fact of consciousness does not. Within the body of the smallest child, consciousness is present. As the child matures, he gives up the child’s body for that of a young man and an old man, just as one might take off old clothes and put on new ones. But just as the person changing the clothes remains the same person, the conscious individual who changes from one body to another remains the same person within, the same conscious observer.
And what about death? When the body falls dead, it no longer holds consciousness. But has that individual consciousness ceased to exist? After all, throughout an entire lifetime of change from one body to the next, that consciousness has persisted. Now it is gone. Where is it?
And where did it come from?
Is it possible that at the time of death that conscious individual continues to exist? If so, where does he go? Might this individual spark of life, this individual consciousness, travel on to another body, to take birth again and go again through the cycle? And if so, does this cycle have an end?
These are some of the questions posed, examined, and answered in the philosophy of Krishna consciousness.