"In a restaurant or place for drinking cold water, many travelers are brought together, and after drinking water they continue to their respective destinations. Similarly, living entities join together in a family, and later, as a result of their own actions, they are led apart to their destinations."
I recall sitting on the lap of my father and entertaining company with my parents, and now it is forty years later, a letter has arrived for me in Hong Kong from my mother saying my father has died in Arizona, so I am remembering him and reflecting on death.
In English we sometimes say "pass away" for "die," but the similar term "pass on" comes closer to the everyday understanding of half a billion of the world's people here in the East. Reincarnation is what they learn from their scriptures and what their forebears have always believed. It's what I now believe: that your personality survives the death of your body and travels on to live in another body until you attain the Supreme.
For part of my youth in a tiny Catholic town in Minnesota, I thought of death in terms of heaven, hell, and purgatory, without knowing there were other ways to understand dying.
But I encountered some of them in college in 1970. Scientists and psychologists taught that life is reducible to a brain state and ends when the body dies. I rejected their ideology because I worked in the university hospital and saw people die, and sought deeper philosophical explanations of life and death.
In the Hare Krsna movement I found a strong and important intellectual tradition that explains life and death.
When I joined the Hare Krsna movement, my father took it hard because he wanted me to get involved in a field where the jobs pay well. Every father wants success for his son. But for him success had nothing to do with what state of being we might attain after death.
I told my dad, ten years after he retired in Arizona's Sun Belt, "You'll forget your wife and home when you die."
He ordered that in his house I should keep my philosophy to myself and even added, "This is my temple." Yet he enjoyed his dominion only a few years more. As a philosopher once wrote, time, the supreme teacher, kills all its pupils.
Naturally, my father's achievements were as short-lived as everyone's. He just hated being reminded that death would remove him from everything, because he'd grown up poor and worked hard to make his fortune. For business, through many snowy winters, he'd gotten up at four in the morning.
His young grandson once told him. "You are going to die."
And he protested, "No I'm not."
My father had the right idea according to the sage Canakya, who advised, "If you want to succeed materially, think you will live forever."
But Canakya added, "If you want to succeed spiritually, think you will die at any moment." He meant that we must be spiritually ready to meet death.
My sister and brothers said nothing in their letters about the fate of Dad's soul. They helped carry out my parents' decision to cremate Dad's body and bury his ashes next to the graves of my maternal grandparents, and my uncle in the granite business prepared a polished tombstone: Born February 16, 1916.
Dad's birthday wasn't his real beginning. Bhagavad-gita says that we souls have lived before, in other bodies, and will live again in new ones.
"As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones." (2.22) This verse reminds me of a clothing store I saw in India called The Garment Galaxy. Nature is like a cosmic garment warehouse outfitting the soul with the apparel of aquatics, plants, insects, reptiles, birds, beasts, human beings, and demigods. Nature provides the body, just as a tailor provides a suit. The living entity within the body is not created by material nature; he is an eternal part of God.
On what turned out to be Dad's last birthday, five months before he died, I wrote him a letter acknowledging his good character. "In these respects I admire you: You stayed married, supported us, and took us to church."
Because my father acted piously and impiously, from scripture I'd expect him to attain mixed results. His religious ideas about the afterlife happen to fit into the framework explained in Bhagavad-gita (14.14). If his piety was enough to gain him a place in Christ's association, he'll attain the Supreme in the near future. But before then he might have to endure punishments, or enter a purgatory from which he can advance by the intercession of relatives.
My father's destiny will turn too on what he remembered at the moment of death. Bhagavad-gita (8.6) says, "Whatever state of being one remembers at the time of death, that state he will attain without fail." Memories, in other words, form the boundaries of our states of being and mold our natures. They hold thoughts and feelings, as sponges hold water, and they affect the dying person's consciousness.
Even though the memories of one life create the next life, those memories eventually fade completely. People hardly ever remember their previous lives or where their soul came from before entering their mother's womb. This is a reason why hardly anyone in the West takes transmigration of the soul seriously. But memory is an unreliable thing. We're lucky if we can remember a person's name five minutes after we've met him. So even if we did live past lives, it's not surprising we forget them.
Living in the framework of an Old Testament creation epic also influences beliefs about reincarnation. As John Boslough wrote in National Geographic in March 1990, "The Western idea that past, present and future are arranged in a straight line … seems to have grown out of a Judeo-Christian tradition in which events like the creation and Christ's resurrection take on special meaning because they occur in a sequence. It may also lead to a belief in life after death, rather than earthly reincarnation."
Boslough asks whether "our concept of time as a one-way track also lies at the heart of the follies of our you-only-go-around-once culture the cult of youth, the type A personality, a relentless consumerism always in search of something new."
Bhagavad-gita lets us understand that time moves in ages like seasons of the year and that the world is repeatedly created, maintained, and destroyed.
God created the world to reclaim the fallen souls, who meet with repeated birth and death as they transmigrate through various species of life. In the human form a soul has an opportunity to become free from this cycle of birth and death and attain the kingdom of God. Such freedom arises when the soul properly develops a full realization of his nature as an eternal spiritual being and uses his mind and senses solely to please God.
Without this developed consciousness, we misidentify ourselves with the material body, as lower forms of life do, and like other species of life we act merely to satisfy material desire. While we populate and work to build the world, we entangle ourselves in webs of mundane identities.
And because we fail to realize our human potential, when we pass away all our material desires come before our minds, and we remain in the world of the dying, attached to whatever state of life we remember or wish to return to.
God accompanies the soul as it travels through different bodies. He is in everyone's heart. He thus knows what everyone deserves, and He sanctions all desires accordingly.
To teach everyone about an eternal life of perfect knowledge and bliss, God Himself sometimes descends personally and sometimes sends His representative in the form of His son or servant. Those who are advanced in spiritual culture and knowledge can train us to become absorbed in the names, forms, qualities, and pastimes of the Supreme. That absorption is called Krsna consciousness, and the training culminates in the final test: how to die.
Lord Krsna says in Bhagavad-gita, "One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world but attains My eternal abode. Whoever, at the end of his life, quits his body remembering Me alone at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt." (Bg. 4.9, 8.5)
If we do have some doubt, it might help to remember that science can never "prove" reincarnation or, for that matter, anything else. All scientists can do is gather data and try to explain it consistently and reasonably. When the body of data grows, scientific explanations should grow with it. And because of the work of certain researchers, the body of data has grown large enough to suggest that reincarnation is a fact.
Devotees of Krsna, however, have another way to get understanding: We accept that the Bhagavad-gita conveys the words of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the supreme intelligence behind the workings of reincarnation and the universe.
Krsna appreciates any of our efforts to know and serve Him. He even assures us that if we can't carry on with spiritual life throughout our lives, there is no loss or diminution. Krsna is so kind that He never forgets a person's service. Whoever fails to become fully Krsna conscious in this life receives an opportunity in a future life to live in the association of elevated sages or in a righteous or aristocratic family. "On taking such a birth," the Gita says, "he revives the divine consciousness of his previous life, and he again tries to make further progress in order to achieve complete success." (6.43)
So I can be confident that because my dad believed in God, his faith will endure, even if covered by material desires in his next human life. And if he becomes convinced that God exists and that God is omnipotent, then he will go beyond faith to fact. The fact is that God can descend into the world and display His activities so that His devotees can understand His actual position. God speaks about Himself and His pastimes in Bhagavad-gita. He makes it possible to understand Him.
The last time I visited Dad he limped pitiably, from partial paralysis caused by heart trouble. I said to him, "I'm also getting old. No one avoids it."
When he lived in a youthful body and held me on his lap, he cared nothing for infirmity or old age. The poet Coleridge says of youth and age, "Dew-drops are the gems of morning, but the tears of mournful eve."
Like a child who outgrew his favorite game, Dad had to stop playing golf because traversing the fairways on his electric cart proved too laborious. I wish he had realized what my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, observed in America: that old men, after working hard their whole lives, squander the valuable time they have left working hard to hit a ball into a little hole.
But if we spend our time on the process of self-realization in Krsna consciousness, ultimately we will stop old age, disease, and birth and death from happening to us again. "For the soul," Krsna says, "there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval."
Tattvavit Dasa recently edited The Nectar of Book Distribution, a book of interviews with devotees who distribute books on Krsna consciousness. He is now editing a book about Srila Prabhupada. He joined ISKCON in 1974.