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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Thoughts of rebirth in the light of Vedanta philosophy

When ever any non Indian of non Hindu comes to know that I am not only a Hindu but I also give talks on Hindu philosophy immediate stock question he/she will have is, ‘do you believe in rebirth’, or ‘why do Hindu’s believe in rebirth?’

Similarly when ever I conduct a seminar in Germany or Austria one of the interesting topics for discussions is rebirth!

I some times feel like being naughty and tell them that yes I believe in and their immediate question is why? My answer is because I am a Hindu. Next question some people have that follows is why Hindus believe in rebirth? I simply say that every one has some thing or the other they believe in the name of their religion, such as Jesus Christ is born to Virgin Mary and this is a belief. N the same way we believe in rebirth. I know that this is not real answer but that at least silence a casual enquirer.

The idea of rebirth is also useful in making certain situations light hearted. On one such occasion a friend an NRI living in US was very proud, saying how much that country gives importance to the recycling of the material once used and disposed off, that they have separate bins for waste paper and separate bins for plastic and separate for glass bottles and how little India pays attention to recycling. I tried to tell him in India actually our waste is also very less compared to west especially in those days. After some time I felt irritated because it is not in my capacity to implement any thing and I am a simple person; but he never listened to me. Finally I took chance to tell him, “no other culture thinks recycling as much as Hindu culture did, that we even thought of recycling our soul, and that is the reason we have the concept of rebirth!” he was at once stunned!

For a sincere and serious student there is a detailed explanation with minimum assumptions possible for rebirth on the basis of simple experiences and the scriptural support which I shall try to present here. The idea of rebirth is also useful in making the direction for our approach in life!

Krishna addresses it very directly and in a simple manner. According to him what is the body which is apparent reality is an ever changing reality. But in order for this to exist there must be an unchanging inner reality which is hidden behind and which is also non-apparent reality. Krishna says that we are the unchanging reality and what is changing in the form of death and decal is like when ever our dress is worn out we change it and put on new dress. Similarly we have passed through childhood youth and old age, and we will come back in new body. The underlying reality which is we are can not be cut by sword or burnt by fire or wet by water. Where there is no question of birth and death where is the question of rebirth! But we need to experience that we are that undying principle and what we see as dying is the unreal. This is where Hindu philosophy gives the methods of Sadhana for achieving that experiential state.

How can we experience that unchanging aspect within us? The process is of translating this idea into experience is called meditation. I meditation we sit comfortably and consciously de-identify from the physical body, and then develop absolute nonattachment from Prana and mind which is pranic personality and mental personality- pranamaya kosa and manomaya kosa, as further journey de-identify from intellectual and bliss personality- vijnanamaya and anandamaya kosas deep within, and finally be that and finally be that which is non of these personalities and you are mere awareness. This is described in Taittiriya upanisad as the following sloka

Tatra Annamayam Atmanam upasankramati. Pranamayam Atmanam Upasankramati

Manomayam Atmanam Upasankramati. Vijnanamayam atmanam Upasankramati

Anandamayam Atmanam Upasankramati

Yato vacho na nivartante Aprapya manasa saha Anandam brahmano vidvan…

The student then rises beyond the identification of physical personality and pranic or life force personality and then he rises above the level of mental and intellectual personalities and finally he goes beyond the bliss personality and then becomes one with the Brahman which is beyond all states which can be reached by mind or intellect or emotions. This is not only a philosophy but the Upanishad gives it as the method of spiritual practice or reaching or realizing the goal of life.

The personalities from annamaya kosa to anandamaya kosa are of the quality of coming and going and that which is beyond is not the same and that we are. In other words, truly speaking we do not belong to that aspect which is coming and going and we are the one beyond. Therefore the Upanishads also mention that one who realizes that will not have any bondage.

There is another logic Upanishad gives to explain about our existence beyond this changing physical body and its various aspects. This is also given in a simple way in Bhagavad-Gita.

Dehinosmin yatha dehe kaumaram yavvanam jara,

tatha dehantara prapti, Dheerah tatrana muhyati. 2-12

Jatasyahi dhruvo mrityuh, ……2-27

We are the ‘dehi’ one who has the body and like the way we remain through the body ‘deha’ as it is undergoing the changes such as childhood, youth, adulthood and finally dies, in the same way we remain one body after another body too and this does not depend upon your consciousness! One, who knows about this truth, is not affected by birth and death.

We can agree to the idea that we are behind the flow of life called childhood youth and adulthood etc, but several questions rise as a result of this way of looking at life. These are as follows.

1. Can we explain the mechanism with little more clarity how this process of coming back in a new body takes place?
2. What brings about in to new life?
3. How can I modify my life with this knowledge?
4. Why don’t we remember about our previous life or lives?

In order to understand these ideas some of the passages in Prasnopanishad are useful, when we try to look at them comparing them with day to day experience in life.

In Prasnopanishad the sage Pippalada, states that we are all born with life force which is called as Prana and this Prana is responsible for all the activities going on in this body.

The only one form of energy we get that we know of is the suns energy in the form of food we eat! The sage appears to be hinting us that apart from the energy we consume in the form of food there is another form of energy called ‘Prana’ which is responsible for all activities. This Prana is the grosser manifestation of the self which is in subtler form than even the mind and intellect realm. The ‘self’ drives the mind and which in turn influences the Prana and this Prana manifests that as activity at the body level. For example the soul or self having a thought of desire to see first of all creates the eye. Then this desire further becomes a force called Prana in the eyes and same thing will see through the eyes!

At thought level we don’t have any instrumentation for finding or proving and intention is much more subtle than that. Even when thought becomes Prana also we can not find out through instruments. But this aspect we can experience that we desire to see and we see through the instrument called eye and we desire to walk and we walk through the instrument called legs, etc.

Though this Prana within the body is same every where, depending upon the nature of activity this Prana is divided into five branches called Prana Apana, Vyana, Udana and Samana. These are not different Pranas but they are different types of functioning modes inside the body. While describing these Panca (five) Pranas excepting a portion of Udana the activities of all the other Pranas can be understood easily by observing the activities the respective Prana does in our body. For example, activities such as respiration is because of Prana the rhythmic up and down or in and out activity, urination and bowel movement etc are all the responsibility of Apana the downward Prana, Udana the upward Prana creates the activities such as seeing hearing thinking and similar activities. These are explained in slokas iii-5,6, of Prasna Upanishad.

In addition in sloka iii-7 an interesting point is brought about by the Upanishad teacher. Pippalada says, Udana is also responsible for taking you to heaven or auspicious worlds depending upon the auspicious deeds one performed in this world and the world of suffering for the acts of suffering one does in this world!

This can be simply taken in a mystic way saying that there are ‘heaven and hell’ some where in the space and one will go to the place as per once deeds. By taking it like that it will no more be logical and we loose some important pointers Upanishad it trying to convey to us. Let me try to understand it from the point of our experience in normal life of any individual.

The scriptures indicate and the modern science also accepts that our body is like a flowing river where water is constantly changing and fresh water is coming. Similar to that in our body also the old cells are dying and going out and new cells are taking birth and we are therefore constantly changing. A famous philosopher said that we can not put our foot in the same river twice because by the time you put your foot second time the river has already flown and new waters are there. But this needs to be further extended by saying that even your foot is also not the same by the time you put it for the second time. The cells in you foot also have changed.

Another point of experience we need to recognize is, let us consider the activity of Prana which is respiration. We breathe now and we are alive now, which means that the Prana belongs to the body here and now. Similarly the activity of Vyana which is conveying the information of some thing touching our skin and the message immediately goes to the brain which also means the activity of Vyana is here and now. In the same way the activity of seeing, hearing etc also belong to here and now. You can not say that we touch now and the sensation goes to the brain tomorrow, or I am feeling the sensation of touch of yesterday on my hand today in my brain. Which in other words, all these Prana activities belong to body. Keeping this in view it is very important to know that there is some thing of this Prana which does not belong to body.

There is one activity which does not belong to ‘here and now’. As I said earlier Udana is responsible for all the upward activities such as seeing hearing thinking which also includes memory. This memory we know is in several layers. A part of Udana is responsible also about the memory. Our memory does not belong to this body alone but it is the bridge between body and soul or consciousness. That is the reason though memory collects the information from the body it does not flow away along with body. It stays with us even after several days years stored in our subconscious levels. This memory is there even if the body is not there physically. That is the reason when we sleep the whole memory goes in to a shell in subconscious level. When we wake up then the memory comes back to the forefront.

At sub conscious level we have several layers. Our memory also will be stored in these subconscious levels. For example, we are not born with our names, name is given to us after our birth, and every one call us by that name and we learn to respond. We hear our name so many times that the name enters into sub conscious levels. That is the reason when we are sleeping along with several people and some one calls us by our name only we hear and others do not hear because the name they call will enter into our subconscious levels and for others it does not bother.

The same way the memory of our body is also deep in some layers of our mind. That is the reason we have the memory of the body even though we don’t have body. This is observed in several cases and the phenomenon is called as ‘phantom body experience’.

A friend of mine lost is thumb in a motor bike accident. The doctor put sutures for the hand where now there is no thumb. After ten days also my friend reported that the thumb which is not there is itching! Similarly we also come across people whose legs are amputated complain pain in that leg which is not there any longer. That means though the leg is not there the memory of the leg is there and is around the body part. If a leg is not there and the memory of the leg can exist, Hindu philosophy says even though there is no body the memory of the body exists around that body; which means even after death we exist and for some time we carry the memory of the body for some time with us.

Now let me summarize the thoughts we examined earlier. A part of Udana which carries our memory does not go away like all other Pranas go away as the body flows, since it does not belong to the body. We are soul or self or consciousness which takes this part of Udana when we die along with us. This is like the intention that we talked earlier. When we have body we have an intention and we materialize that activity since we have the necessary equipment called body is there with us.

This kind of phenomenon has been demonstrated very effectively by Dr Satwant Pasricha in several cases where she could connect the memory of some children in this life can be traced to a child existed in the previous life.

Therefore what we store in our memory goes with us whether we have body or not. If body is there then we can give expression to what we have if it is good we give expression to good or in other words we do good in this birth and if we have bad in our memory from previous birth we do bad. That is why in Hindu philosophy when one dies; symbolically we tap the head and say that the Prana of a person goes from the head. This is known as ‘Kapala moksha’.

The body memory stays with the soul for fourteen days. How our sages came to this idea we really do not know and they have therefore prescribed that we need to take care of the departed soul for thirteen days. Each day the son or who so ever is conducting the ceremonies will wake up and give him bath and offer prayers and feed him or her with the choicest food items for next thirteen days. On the fourteenth day all the family members are invited and amidst chanting of good Sanskrit verses from Upanishad bid final farewell to the soul which is supposed to be in the home premises for all these days. The scholars also say that the soul thus will feel satisfied that we took care of it.

When I joined as an engineer freshly graduated from college, I had a very senior engineer who was my super boss. He was superintending engineer and wanted desperately to become chief engineer. The whole office knows about how desperate he was and behind his back they made fun of his attitude. That super boss in addition had a great faith in the power of god and so called spiritual or godly people. He is also very religious and the moment he would see any temple in his way he would stop and bow his head towards god and pray that he should become chief engineer immediately. Every morning he has to tell the story to his subordinates about his dream where in he has seen himself as chief engineer at this project or that project! When ever the superiors call him he would say passionately that they must be calling him to personally tell him that he is going to be chief engineer. Any person looking like dressed in spiritual attire he would at once fall at his feet and ask for his blessings that he will become chief engineer!

One day I happened to reach office late and I didn’t want especially my boss to see me coming late, obviously. But to my bad luck as I rushed into the elevator I found this super boss already in the elevator alone! The lift door closed and it started moving up. To my shock I found my boss suddenly at my feet and asking me, ‘Raghuram, bless me that I become chief engineer’, I said, ‘sir, what is this you are so senior and I am just new entry how can I say any thing’? He replied, ‘Raghuram I heard yesterday some people talking that you also meditate and it is said that those who meditate will have powers. May be you have some powers so I want you to bless me’. With uneasy feeling I said, ‘sir, what will anybody think if he sees us’? ‘That is why I am catching you in the elevator, nobody can see us’ was his immediate reply! By the time we reached our floor we came out and he now turned to me in front of all asking, ‘Raghuram, why are you late to the office’? I was surprised because just now he was at my feet and now suddenly he became my boss!

This man was given to all kinds of vices and abused his body with drinking and smoking. As a result he developed sclerosis of liver and eventually was in deep coma. We, friends were by his side in hospital as his heart lung machines are working not allowing him to die. Ten days are over and the doctors also have very little hope for his recovery. People say that just as before dying the lamp glows bright life also shows a spark before the final end comes. That evening suddenly we found some little movement in his body which has been lying lifeless all these ten days recognizing that he is regaining consciousness I gave my hand in his hand and in his ears said to him, ‘sir, don’t worry. Things will be alright and doctors say you are doing fine and once you gain strength we will go home and you will be alright’! I only thought I have to give him some positive suggestions.

He recognizing my voice opened his eyes and told in feeble voice, ‘Raghuram, save me, I want to become chief engineer’!

I wondered at the strength of the desire that he nurtured to become chief engineer. It entered into such deep levels of subconscious states and unconscious states that he was in a total coma state living like vegetation for days and suddenly when he regained his consciousness for few minutes the thought surfaces so strongly at the top of his mind! I thought that this shows that the thought can be so deeply embedded in us. In few moments the inevitable happened and he died but I am sure his soul would have carried this thought of wanting to become chief engineer and would come back on this earth with a preformed agenda that he wants to become chief engineer. In the next birth he would acquire new impressions from the new environment and he restlessly runs to become some thing!

That is the reason our elders say that don’t keep in mind such thoughts which can make you restless and agitated so that that forms the investment for the future life. What we do in this life is the investment for the next life. Keep in deep memory things which are pleasant and happy s that in the future life you will make your life happy and if you nurture the thought that you are bound you will be bound and if you nurture the thought that you are free you will be free. People like Krishna and all are born free and have no bondage. When you are born as free person then you will enjoy the life blissfully with out any struggle.

Another positive note by looking at this way about life is that one need not feel bad that so much of life is already spent with out nurturing any good because what you do now on will be useful and you can shape your life.

Let me summarize the thoughts as follows.

We are a combination of aspects which have the qualities of birth and death called body mind complex and the aspect which is eternal which is known as soul or consciousness. We continue our journey even after death in the same manner that we give up worn out dress to new dress. Deep inside our activities are propelled by the aspect deep in our memory which is created in Udana. This aspect of Prana does not finish with the body but at the time of death we carry this memory with us the soul and we create another body suitable to fulfill these unfulfilled desires. If we carry bad memories of destruction, violence then, we come back with destruction and violence. On the other hand if we nurture in our memory good thoughts and peaceful ideas our life will be peaceful and joyful. Therefore Vedanta says that there is a definite reason for nurturing good not just for the sake of others but for our sake and our rebirth! When the sage in Prasnopanishad says punya loka and papa loka, they are not any where outside but they are what we create around us here.


dm said...

I have often heard people quote that your bad deeds in the current life will make you manifest a body of a different species. Is there any basis to this or a mere corruption of ideas?


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