The transmigration of the soul, sometimes called reincarnation, is a much misunderstood phenomenon. This is because the doctrine has often been presented by philosophers who do not actually believe in the existence of the individual spirit soul. However, transmigration has no meaning except on this basis. In trying to explain the infinite variety which we actually see around us in terms of abstract Oneness or Void, these philosophers have twisted the Vedic teachings quite out of shape. Justifiably, therefore, most people cannot grasp this concept they either get a very vague picture of it, or they laugh it off as ridiculous.
The transmigration of the soul is, however, presented very lucidly and scientifically in the Bhagavad Gita, that marvelous battlefield conversation which sums up the essence of Vedic knowledge in the space of seven hundred verses. Bhagavad Gita was taught by Lord Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. It stands to reason that the doctrines of the Supreme Divine Person do not lend themselves easily to impersonal philosophical speculation. This is why the impersonalist thinkers so befuddle their readers when they try to use the Gita's authority to back up their own theories. If we are to learn from Bhagavad Gita, as from any scripture given man by God, then we must put aside our preconceptions, and accept what is said to us as it is spoken.
Although the impersonalist philosopher makes the claim that everything is one, the Lord Himself draws a line of distinction for us:
Earth, water, fire, air,
Understanding, and false ego
This is the eightfold division of My nature.
This is My lower nature.
Know My other and higher nature
Which is the soul,
By which this world is upheld, O Mighty-armed.
This means that Lord Krishna manifests His creation through two energies. The one matter is called lower because it is mutable, and because it depends upon the other for its existence. The other energy is the soul, which is called higher because it is immutable, eternal, and because it depends directly upon the Lord Himself The Supreme Energetic for its existence and activities. Futhermore, the lower nature has no independent consciousness, whereas the higher nature is composed of an infinitude of individual, independent sparks of consciousness, identical in quality with the Lord Himself, Who is the Supreme Soul.
A basic difference between God and the individual soul now comes into view: the Supreme Consciousness is all-pervading, but the individual consciousness is limited. Although the Lord is the awake indweller in all manifestations, the individual living entities are each subject to a limited range. They too can extend their consciousness, but on a smaller scale. This they actually do when they adopt the material concept of life, and identify themselves with the body, which is nothing but matter, or lower energy. Unlike the Lord, however, the living entities tend to forget themselves while in contact with matter. For this reason, they are classified in a third category, as marginal energy, although they are constitutionally spiritual. This forgetfulness is the source of all woe, and the mechanism of all bondage.
The soul, being eternal, does not die when the body dies, even though it imagines itself to be the body. It simply goes on to take up habitation in another form. Lord Krishna describes this as follows:
Just as a person casts off worn-out garments
And puts on others that are new,
Even so does the embodied soul cast off worn-out bodies,
And take on others that are new. (Gita, 2.22)
Although this may seem a very far-fetched notion to the man who hasn't given it much thought and even more so to one who hasn't make the distinction between body and soul it is actually a principle which we see illustrated for us every day of our lives and in our own lives at that. This is how the Lord puts it for us to comprehend:
As the soul passes, while in this body,
Through childhood, youth and age,
Even so is its taking on of another body.
The wise are not perplexed at this. (Gita, 2.13)
Even modern medical science agrees that the body is perpetually changing. And yet, there is that constant "I," that has been here since my first memories, and I am still unchanged. In this way we can see that the change of body is always occurring. The change from one body to another is only a bit more emphatic in that, in the process, we lose most of the remembrances of past life.
The factors guiding this change from one body to another can also be understood in terms of the daily processes of the organism. The food I take today will determine the structure and soundness of my body tomorrow. Good, nutritious food will assure me a healthy, strong body. Poor or careless diet will assure me ill-health, and unclean food will result in disease. Food determines the nature of the body. In changing from body to body, it is conscious association that acts as the determining factor.
Thinking of whatever state
He at the end gives up his body,
To that state does he attain, O son of Kunti,
Being always absorbed in thinking of it. (Gita, 7.6)
The living being thus puts in an application, so to speak, in terms of its devotion. That to which it is devoted is given it in full. The much talked-about genetic code is actually the application blank-stamped by nature and approved by the Lord, Who is willing to let everyone have what they want.
All this is accomplished through the agency of the three modes by which material nature manifests itself. Because the soul has lost consciousness of its real identity, and has given itself over to nature, it is limited to nature's means of expression, which consists of the modes. The situation is outlined in the Thirteenth Chapter of Bhagavad Gita:
The soul in nature
Partakes of the modes born of nature.
Attachment to the modes is the cause
Of its births in good and evil wombs. (Gita, 13.21)
The three modes are goodness, passion and ignorance. They may be characterized as follows: Goodness applies to duty, purity, health and knowledge. Passion is the principle of attraction, avarice, lust, anger and activity. Ignorance is the principle of inertia, negligence, indolence, stupor and blindness. All three are material manifestations, not found on the spiritual platform. As regards the transmigration of the soul from one body to another, the modes work in this way:
Those who are established in goodness rise upwards;
The passionate remain in the middle regions;
The dull, steeped in the lower events of the modes,
Sink downwards. (Gita, 14.18)
The concept of rising applies to more highly developed consciousness, and therefore sinking applies to less developed consciousness. This is the principle of karma, or worldly activity. Those who devote their lives to, and work in accordance with, a particular mode or concept, will quite naturally cling to that concept at the time of death. By concept, I do not mean some abstraction. I mean that to which one is actually actively devoted, irrespective of his announced public philosophy. Thus, one's activities in this life prepare the ground for the next birth.
The results of actions performed under the influence of the different modes is more fully described elsewhere in the same chapter by Sri Krishna.
When the embodied soul meets with dissolution
When goodness prevails,
It attains to the pure worlds
Of those who know the Highest.
Meeting with dissolution when passion prevails,
It is born among those attached to action.
If it is dissolved when ignorance prevails,
It is born in the wombs of the deluded. (Gita, 14.14-15)
Thus we learn that pious activities will lead one to rebirth on heavenly planets. Activities in passion will usually lead to rebirth on earth, or on similar worlds where greed and lust are the dominating forces. Those who have given themselves over to ignorance, meanwhile, take birth among the lower animals, plants, and even among living stones, such as mountains.
Before going into greater detail about these births and the modes which determine them, let's examine the actual occurrence of transmigration, as the Lord describes it to Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita.
The living entities are eternal fragmental parts of Me.
They are dragging on
In a bitter struggle for existence in material nature,
With the six senses, including mind.
When the soul takes up a body
And when he leaves it,
He takes these (mind and senses) and goes
Even as the wind carries perfumes from their places.
Although the mind forgets its past activities when it is brought to a new birth, it does retain impressions. This is why some people have been able to recall events from their previous lives. This is not to be confused with the phenomenon of organic misfunction called deja-vu, in which we actually experience the same thing twice within a thousandth of a second. These impressions of past lives are real, and they have a strong influence on our present actions.
Mind and the senses are actually very subtle forms of matter, which we keep as long as we remain in material nature, or until the period dissolution of the universe. The body is the gross covering of the soul, and mind and the senses are the subtle. It is through the medium of the mind that the spirit surrenders consciousness of itself, and loses its identity. Mind is the seat of the senses, and mind, having become the focal point of consciousness, is also the tape on which our activities are registered, determining according to the modes what our next birth will be. This is why control of the mind is essential to spiritual and worldly progress alike. The yoga process is actually nothing more than the science of controlling the mind. The system of bhakti yoga also tackles this problem, but on a slightly different level.
Having obtained some idea of what transmigration is and how is works, let's examine the influence of the modes of nature upon our activities, and learn what effect these have upon the cycle of rebirth. Lord Krishna says:
The fruit of good action
Is said to be of the nature of goodness and pure;
The fruit of passion is pain,
And the fruit of dullness is ignorance. (Gita, 14.16)
Those who devote their lives to hellish activities can expect to take rebirth in a hellish situation. This is the justice which is a constitutional part of nature, and from which no being is exempt: "… For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall be also reap." (Galatians, 5.7)
To many people, the idea of eternal damnation has always stood as a most unreasonable proposition in the teaching of Lord Jesus Christ. It is incomprehensible to them how the Lord can give frail man a single chance to choose his way, and then cast him forever into hell. Modified by the principles of reincarnation, however, the prophecy of the gnashing of teeth takes on new meaning. Here is Lord Krishna on this subject:
Given over to self-conceit, force and pride,
And also to lust and anger,
These malicious people despise Me,
Dwelling in the body of themselves and others.
These cruel haters, worst of men
I hurl these evil-doers only into
The wombs of demons
In this round of births and deaths.
As for those who, though bound by material nature and unable to give up their attachment to it, nevertheless follow the scripture and have some faith in God, things are different. The fruits of goodness are presented in these terms:
The knowers of the three Vedas who drink the soma juice and are cleansed of sin,
Worshipping Me with sacrifices, pray for the way to heaven.
They reach the holy world of Indra,
An enjoy in heaven the pleasures of the gods.
Having enjoyed the spacious world of heaven,
They return to the world of mankind when their merit is exhausted.
Thus conforming to the doctrine enjoined in the three Vedas, and still desirous of enjoyments,
They obtain what is subject to birth and death.
This is the fruit of actions performed in the mode of goodness that is, according to scriptural law and with faith in God. However, it is worth noting that this is the type of birth gained by those who still love this material world, and like all things material, it is perishable. Even on the highest of all material planets, the Brahmaloka, where life is immensely long, and where there are ample facilities for pleasure on a scale unimagined here, still the law of birth and death continues. Even for Brahma himself, whose life span is coequal with the life span of the universe, birth, death, old age and pain exist.
From the realm of Brahma downwards,
All worlds are subject to return to rebirth.
But on reaching Me, O son of Kunti,
There is no return to birth again. (Gita, 8.16)
Just as the craving for the fruits of material activities leads one on to take his next birth in this material situation, and then on and on again so there are spiritual activities too, and these lead one, by association, to take his birth in the spiritual world, in his natural, constitutional and final form as pure spirit soul. Just what these spiritual activities are and how the association with one's own true spiritual self can be established is enunciated in all the scriptures of the world.
These whose thoughts
Are set on Me,
I straightway deliver
From the ocean of death-bound existence, O Partha.
On Me alone fix thy mind,
Let thy understanding dwell in Me.
In Me shalt thou live thereafter.
Of this there is no doubt. (Gita, 12.7-8)
And so it is that God guarantees eternal life to those who accept His association. Actually, we are all servitors of the Lord in our true position as His spirit soul parts and parcels. Therefore, returning to our conscious, natural status means returning to our relationship of service to God. If we do not worship God, then we worship some other thing, for we are by nature worshipful. Maintaining these secondary relationships keeps us from Him, and thus from our own full consciousness of Self. Further information of birth in the spiritual world the Kingdom of God is given elsewhere in Bhagavad Gita.
Those who are freed from pride and delusion, who have conquered the evil of attachment,
Who, all desires stilled, are ever devoted to the Supreme Spirit,
Who are liberated from the dualities known as pleasure and pain and are undeluded,
Go to the eternal state.
The sun does not illumine that,
Nor the moon nor fire.
That is My supreme abode,
From which those who reach it never return.
The Kingdom of God is not artificially illuminated, because it is self-effulgent. There is no dead matter of any kind there. All things are fully alive, fully aware and awake and all things are fully, blissfully engaged in the service of God. This answers the question as to why so few men go there, or even aspire to that state: it is for those who serve. All who dwell there, including the Lord Himself, are full of love, and are engaged in devoted service. Men in their foolishness do not seek this position, nor have they any taste for it and therefore they do not attain to it. But the one who realizes the sweetness of devotion and who recognizes his real position as the servitor of God, will associate with God by means of transcendental loving service here during this life, and will then take his next birth according to that association.
We must, now, realize that all men buy and pay for their own sufferings. Who plants thistles and expects to harvest grain? We do, all of us. In actuality, the unhappiness of this earthly existence is what we want and what we ask for. The Lord merely supplies our demands.
As men approach Me,
So do I accept them.
Men on all sides
Follow My path, O Partha. (Gita, 4.11)
Nevertheless, because of His unbounded love and mercy, Krishna advents Himself or sends His representatives from the spiritual sky here on earth, in order to give us knowledge of these things, and to offer the wandering lost souls an opportunity to return home, back to Godhead.
For the protection of the good,
For the destruction of the wicked
And for the establishment of righteousness,
I come into being from age to age.
He who knows thus in its true nature
My divine birth and works,
Is not born again when he leaves this body,
But comes to Me, O Arjuna.
We are the beloved children of the Lord of All Existences, and we can have anything we want from Him. This is the secret of God's love for all beings. What we have to do is to understand our real position, so that the real being can have real happiness by knowing what to ask for. Death is actually a birthday party, at which Krishna presents us with just what we wanted, in the form of rebirth. Understanding this, the sublime and infinite kindness of God, what can we want beyond His association? He Himself is the dearest of all delights, and His service is the most joyful of all activities.