The vast wheel of birth and death carries the soul on its seemingly endless sojourn through 8,400,000 species of life. At the top of the wheel is human life, which, if spent wisely, can liberate the soul from the bondage of birth and death.
“I adopted the theory of reincarnation when I was twenty-six.” Henry Ford said that in the San Francisco Examiner on August 26, 1928. This surprising announcement put him in the ranks of a select group of Americans—Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, and of course Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman—who believed that the soul goes on to a new body when the present body dies. We tend to think of reincarnation, or transmigration of the soul, as a recent import from India, but actually the concept of reincarnation plays an important role in the philosophical and theological tradition of the West. Plato, who lived in Greece during the fourth century B.C. and who helped lay the foundations of Western philosophy, held that “a soul is allied with different bodies at different times.” (Laws, 10.903) And in the third century A.D., Origen, one of the fathers of the Christian Church, wrote in his book First Principles:
By some inclination towards evil [certain] souls lose their wings and come into bodies, first of men; then through their association with the irrational passions, after the allotted span of human life they are changed into beasts, from which they sink to the level…of plants. From this condition they rise again to the same stages and are restored to their heavenly place.
However, as Christian theology solidified over the centuries, this view became decidedly heretical, and in A.D. 553, Emperor Justinian issued his Anathemas Against Origen: “If anyone assert the fabulous pre-existence of souls and the monstrous restoration which follows from it, let him be anathema [cursed].” This edict snuffed out almost all talk of transmigration throughout Christendom.
Was Justinian right to condemn the idea of reincarnation as “fabulous” and “monstrous,” or is the soul actually “allied with different bodies at different times,” as Plato thought? The best way to settle the matter is to go directly to the source—the earliest mention of reincarnation. Fortunately, the earliest records of transmigration are also the most philosophically complete. They’re found in the Vedic Sanskrit literature written around 3,000B.C. In India.
The Vedic view of reincarnation is clearly explained in the Bhagavad-gita, which is universally accepted as the essence of Vedic spiritual knowledge. In the Gita, the Supreme Lord Krishna enlightens His student and friend Arjuna in the science of self-realization, beginning with a lucid presentation of the process of reincarnation.
The Soul Within the Body
Right at the beginning of His instruction to Arjuna, Lord Krishna declares that transmigration of the soul is a fact: “As the embodied soul passes, in this body, from boyhood, to youth, to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death.”(Bg. 2.13) The existence of the soul—an unchanging conscious principle within an ever-changing material body—is implied by the recent findings of modern science. In The Human Brain, Professor John Pfeiffer points out that “your body does not contain a single one of the molecules that it contained seven years ago.” He compares the living body to a whirlpool. The form doesn’t change, but all the ingredients stream through at a dizzying pace. In his Foundations of Biology, L. L. Woodruff gives another apt analogy:
…The old saying that the materials forming the human body change completely every seven years is a tacit recognition that lifeless material, in the form of food, is gradually transformed into similar living matter under the influence of the body. Indeed, just as a geyser retains its individuality from moment to moment, though it is at no two instants composed of the same two molecules of water identically placed, so the living individual is a focus into which materials enter, play a part for some time, and then emerge to become dissipated in the environment.
So, during the seventy-year lifetime of an average American, he has “died” and been “reborn” ten times. Of course, unlike the body’s ultimate demise, when personal identity seems to end, these intermediate “deaths” don’t destroy the body’s structure and personal characteristics. Be that as it may, however, the physical substances of a seventy-year-old person’s body have actually changed ten times over. Has he been ten different people? Of course not. But then what exactly do we mean by the word “person”?
The best way to answer this question is to contemplate the person we know best—ourselves—through a simple exercise in memory. For instance, the farthest back I can remember is a day when I was about one-and-a-half years old. I was asking my mother if she could understand what I had been saying to her. I didn’t know the right words, though, and I became very frustrated. In my mind this incident sticks out vividly—what it was like physically and psychologically. Through such memories I can directly experience the continuity of my existence over the years. I can recall millions of things I did, saw, heard and felt. No one else enjoyed or suffered all these things—only I did. Thus I as a person am continuous, despite the discontinuity of my body.
Going further, I can become aware that my emotions, thoughts and memories are also ever-changing. I’m actually an observer of even these mental phenomena. They are flowing by me in the same way that the molecules of my physical body are flowing by me. My body is a gross form made of gross particles, and my mind is a subtle form made of subtle particles. But I’m neither one of them. The person I call myself is in reality a continuity of consciousness—an eternal spiritual soul.
The question now arises, “Why haven’t the scientists found the soul?” The simple answer is that an empirical scientist observes everything through his material senses and mind, which are too gross to perceive the subtle spiritual soul. There are some scientists, however, who do understand something of the existence of the person beyond the mind and body. For example, physicist Irwin Schroedinger, who in 1933 won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work in wave mechanics, wrote in What Is Life?: “Even if a skilled hypnotist succeeded in blotting out all your earlier reminiscences, you would not find that he had killed you. In no case is there a loss of personal existence to deplore. Nor will there ever be.” Of course, the most definitive statement on this subject is given by Lord Krishna Himself: “For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Bg. 2.20)
The Sojourn of the Soul
How you (the soul) pass from one body to another is explained by Lord Krishna through a striking analogy: “Just as a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” (Bg. 2.22) Lord Krishna explains that the mind is the mechanism behind these transmigrations: “Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail [in his next life].” (Bg. 8.6) Everything we’ve thought and done during our life makes an impression on our mind, and the sum total of all these impressions determines our final thoughts at death, According to the quality of these thoughts, we are awarded a suitable new body after death.
I remember that when I was ten or twelve, back in the early fifties, we used to jokingly say things like “Don’t kill that fly! It may be your great-grandfather!” That wasn’t too far off, but we missed the real point of transmigration, which is that our next body after this one is better or worse according to the quality of our activities in this life. If we’re saintly, we’ll get a saintly body next time, but if we’re doggish, we’d better prepare ourselves for a dog’s life after this one. This is the law of karma, which states that for every action we perform, either good or bad, there is an appropriate reaction to be reaped either in this life or in a future life.
So the millionaire and the genius are reaping the benefits of good karma, and the pauper and the dunce, having committed sinful activities, are getting their just deserts. Perhaps we would like the system better if everyone became a millionaire or a genius, but the purpose of the law of karma isnot to provide us a cozy homestead in the material world. The purpose is to bring us to the point of asking the all-important question: “How can I escape from the painful cycle of birth and death?”
And a tediously painful cycle it is. According to the Vedas, the vast cosmic wheel of birth and death rolls through 8,400,000species of life: 900,000 aquatics, 2,000,000 plants, 1,100,000 insects, 1,000,000 birds, 3,000,000 quadrupeds, and 400,000humans. If you start at the lowest level, you first have to pass through the very simplest one-celled organisms before reaching those with sense perception. Finally, you evolve through all the mammals up to the human stage. Krishna explains that after death “the living entity, thus taking another gross body, obtains a certain type of eye, ear, tongue, nose, and sense of touch, which are grouped about the mind. He thus enjoys a particular set of sense objects.” (Bg. 15.9) Therefore the type of body we have now is an expression of our consciousness at the time of our last death.
As Origen guessed back in the third century, the path of karma doesn’t always lead uphill. Once having reached the human stage, we can fall back down into lower forms of life if we misuse the facilities of the human body. The human form is special because only human beings have sufficient intelligence to inquire into the means for getting out of the cycle of birth and death. Only in the human form can we stop identifying ourselves with the bodies we are passing through and learn to see our spiritual identity within. Once we realize our eternal, indestructible spiritual nature, we are free from the vicious cycle of birth and death.
The Soul and the Supersoul
To actually establish ourselves on the spiritual platform, not only must we know ourselves (spirit) and matter (our bodies, minds and the world around us), but we must know the controller of both (God) as well. We know that God exists because there’s no other sensible explanation for the design of the universe. A story about Isaac Newton illustrates this point well. The famous British scientist once made an intricate model of the solar system. Somehow he’d figured out how to gear miniature planets to revolve around a miniature sun in a facsimile of their observed orbits. One day an acquaintance, an atheist, dropped by his house and was astonished by the ingenious machine.
“Who made this wonderful machine?” he asked. “Nobody,” Newton replied. “It just happened.” “Oh come now, stop teasing me. Who put together this machine?”
“Well,” said Newton, “you’re convinced that some person constructed this machine. But when you confront the entire universe, which is manufactured with a degree of precision far beyond that of this model, and on a scale infinitely greater, then you say it just happened by chance. Why is that? Only because you don’t want to admit there’s a person so great he could do such a thing. But there is, and He is God.”
What role God plays in our sojourn throughout the many species of life in the material world is explained by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita: “The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart…and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine made of the material energy.” (Bg. 18.61) When we transmigrate from one body to another, we forget all our past activities and unfulfilled desires. But the omniscient Lord, the eternal witness within our heart, knows all these things, and He fashions another body just suitable for us to try to satisfy our unfulfilled desires.
Thus the only way to escape from the chained victimization of repeated birth and death in this material world is to transform our mentality in such a way that at the moment of death we’ll be completely free of all material desires. It’s not necessary, or even possible, to stop desiring altogether; rather, it is the quality of our desires that must change—from material to spiritual. Material desires we’re familiar with—we’ve been cultivating them all our lives. But what are spiritual desires, and how can we cultivate them? Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita: “Engage your mind always in thinking of Me and become My devotee. Offer obeisances and worship Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me.” (Bg. 9.34)
At present we are always absorbed in thoughts of material well-being. As we have seen, however, this mentality inevitably leads to the misery and frustration of repeated birth and death. To be released from this painful wheel of karma, we need only transfer our thoughts to the Supreme Lord, Krishna. Then, at the time of death, He will award us a spiritual body to enjoy eternal, blissful association with Him.
The easiest way to absorb our mind in thoughts of Krishna is to hear and chant His glories, beginning with the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. In addition, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada has written many books describing the activities, qualities and words of Lord Krishna. By sincerely trying to follow the instructions found in these books, all of which contain the highest Vedic wisdom, one can cultivate loving devotion to Krishna and go back home, back to Godhead at the end of this lifetime.
June 11, 2020 at 4:24 am
Thank you for such an insight. I have been struggling with this particular thought – about reincarnation. Coming from a Christian background I find this confusing.
Since the bible doesn’t condone this thought anywhere. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians that it would be better I depart from this body and be with Christ. From this scripture i gather it refers to direct transfer of the soul to the presence of divinity.
The 1st century christian authors as you’ve mentioned of Origen is not helpful because there were some school of thoughts that was not in line with the biblical thinking. Hence there was opposition and decanting of their philosophical thoughts.
Appreciate if you could elaborate further to defuse my dilemma.