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Reincarnation for the Enlightened?
John: There are so many perspectives on reincarnation, and I’ve always wondered about it. Upon realization I saw that I was not any of my temporary forms such as body, mind or anything else, for that matter. I was the Supreme Self, ever free.
All notions of reincarnation fell away, as it didn’t make any sense, since there was no one dwelling inside the body to reincarnate. I saw that the body and mind and everything else are just temporary appearances of the Self.
Therefore the idea of an eternal indwelling soul that leaves the body and transmigrates is obviously not true. I have found that in the writings of Ramana Maharshi also a validation for my own experience, where it says in David Godman’s book Be As You Are:
Question: Is reincarnation true?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Reincarnation exists only so long as there is ignorance. There is really no reincarnation at all, either now or before. Nor will there be any hereafter. This is the truth.
[Note: Comments by David Godman: “Most religions have constructed elaborate theories which purport to explain what happens to the individual soul after the death of the body. Some claim that the soul goes to heaven or hell while others claim that it is reincarnated in a new body.
“Sri Ramana Maharshi taught that all such theories are based on the false assumption that the individual self or soul is real; once this illusion is seen through, the whole superstructure of after-life theories collapses. From the standpoint of the Self, there is no birth or death, no heaven or hell, and no reincarnation.
“As a concession to those who were unable to assimilate the implications of this truth, Sri Ramana would sometimes admit that reincarnation existed. In replying to such people he would say that if one imagined that the individual self was real, then that imaginary self would persist after death and that eventually it would identify with a new body and a new life. The whole process, he said, is sustained by the tendency of the mind to identify itself with a body. Once the limiting illusion of mind is transcended, identification with the body ceases, and all theories about death and reincarnation are found to be inapplicable.”
Reading this was a great relief because it made perfect sense and concurred exactly with my own understanding. I would say that for me, it is the supreme Self that incarnates in all these bodies, not a separate soul.
BUT, with time, although I was quite happy with this understanding, I had a nagging suspicion that maybe there is something that does get transferred between lives. I looked into Buddhism, where it is understood that there is no soul that reincarnates, but rather something else is transferred; they call it rebirth, not reincarnation. They are not sure what is reborn. I assume maybe some aspects of the subtle body in the form of ego or mind is transferred. The mechanism of this remains a puzzle.
I have heard one person, who I take to be enlightened, mention that there is an individual essence that reincarnates, and that even though he is enlightened, he will come back in another body to continue to enjoy life as a human being.
Ultimately my question is what does Vedanta say about reincarnation? Specifically, what is anything, gets transferred from one body to the next?
Rory: The way Vedanta deals with the issue of reincarnation depends on the inquirer’s level of understanding, and whether they take themselves to be a jiva or the self. Therefore it’s a bit of a yes-and-no answer.
First of all, it helps to define what a jiva (an individual) is. Vedanta says a jiva is basically awareness, the self, associated with a gross and subtle body via the power of maya. While the self is limitless, formless and all-pervading, the power of maya apparently creates this whole world of multiplicity, much like the dreaming mind creates a dream world and all the objects in it.
Maya has two main powers: the power to conceal (avarana shakti) and project (vikshepa shakti). It conceals our true nature from us, making awareness identify with the gross and subtle bodies and then project an identity out of them.
This is the root of avidya, or ignorance – taking oneself to be what is actually just an upadhi. An upadhi is a limiting adjunct, something which makes another principle appear to take on its qualities. For example, when you hold a transparent crystal in front of a red cloth, the cloth becomes an upadhi to the crystal. It lends its “redness” to the crystal, making it seem like you’re holding a red crystal. In the same way, the self seems to take on the qualities of the gross and subtle bodies, the physical body and mind-intellect-ego. The ahamkara (ego) attaches its identity to the body and mind, even though these are just temporary objects appearing in awareness.
By misidentifying as the body and mind, the jiva adopts their limitations and feels itself to be limited and lacking. This drives us to perform karma, action, in order to try to make ourselves whole and happy – not realising that the self is actually already whole and happy, and that we are the self.
Every time we perform an action it creates a subtle impression or imprint in the mind, called a vasana, and thus the tendency to either repeat or avoid that action. The more we act (and we’re acting all the time in life) the stronger these vasanas become. Stored in the causal body, or unconscious, these vasanas, which conglomerate to become samskaras, are basically karma in hard form, and they drive the entire psyche, conditioning the subtle body (the subtle body is the mind, intellect and ego/“I-sense”) to act in certain ways.
According to Vedanta, what we call death is just the shedding of the gross body. The subtle body doesn’t die along with the body, because it’s composed of subtle matter. It recedes into the macrocosmic causal body, the unmanifest seed state, much as it does every night in deep sleep.
Basically, everything in the Creation is in a constant state of recycling. As scientists say, matter can’t be created or destroyed, it can only change form. If the vasanas haven’t been resolved during the jiva’s lifetime, like a seed that wants to sprout, they again fructify and this is the momentum, the gravity, that leads the subtle body to associate with another gross body and adopt another incarnation.
So it’s the subtle body, driven by its vasana load, which transmigrates between incarnations.
However, each new incarnation is pretty much a new person. The old memory is wiped and the jiva has a new body, with a new name, a new environment, new parents, perhaps a new culture, and new conditioning. So it’s basically a new person, but it’s the same vasanas that transfer from lifetime to lifetime, in order to be worked out (or, as usually happens, added to!). This accounts for the huge variation in human tendencies, psychological traits and predilections even from a very young age. No one starts off with a completely blank slate.
Here’s an excerpt on this subject from a Bhagavad Gita commentary I am writing:
“When an action is performed, the karma accrues results – both good and bad. This karma fructifies in the form of vasanas and samskaras, the psychological pressures that compel the jiva to keep performing action.
“Some of these results are experienced in the present lifetime, but most must be carried over to be inherited at some future time. This karma remains on the jiva’s “account,” so to speak.
“Accordingly, the jiva will be reborn to exhaust his or her accumulated karma. The problem is, the moment the subtle body is associated with a new gross body, the vasanas compel this new jiva to perform more actions, accumulating yet more karma, requiring them to assume yet another body. And so the wheel of samsara keeps turning.
“In the final chapter of the Gita, Krishna says, ‘By my maya, I cause [all beings] to revolve as if mounted on a wheel.’ In other words, Isvara is causing the jivas to dance like puppets on a string, pushed and pulled by their likes and dislikes in the form of vasanas.
“Vidyaranya Swami clarifies that, ‘“Mounted on a wheel” means that jivas think they are doers. “Revolve” means that, impelled by their vasanas, they do the same good and bad deeds over and over.’”
The Vidyaranya Swami quote actually reveals the way out of this!
As Ramana said, rebirth is caused by ignorance, by this false notion of doership and ownership. The belief that “I am the doer” and that “the results of my actions belong to me” is the fundamental error based on ignorance of our nature.
You already know this because you know that the self is ever-free, whole, partless and actionless.
If the self is actionless, then I must be actionless too because I am the self. I only appear to be bound to action and its results when I falsely identify with the gross and subtle bodies.
Swami Dayananda says, “If you know you are actionless, how can you perform action and how can the results ever come to you? When one appreciates that one’s nature is actionless, all punya and papa (good and bad karma) standing in one’s ‘account’ is written off, for there is no longer a doer to reap those results. There is no rebirth for the wise person, for there is no punya-papa to inherit, and therefore no cause for taking a body.”
Our problem was only ever one of ignorance. Speaking as the self, Krishna says, “The one who knows Me as his own divine Self overcomes bodily identification and attachment and is not reborn into this world.” The key to liberation is therefore knowledge of the self.
When you know that you are the self and that the content of the subtle body doesn’t actually belong to you, you are no longer bound. Identification shifts from the gross and subtle bodies to the self. The “karmic account” is voided because there’s no addressee anymore, only the self. For as long as the body lives, there’s still an apparent entity, experiencing certain karma based on past actions/momentum (prarabdha karma), but ignorance is gone, so there is no longer bondage to form.
This is what Ramana was saying. When we realise we are the self, and assimilate this knowledge, we see through the illusion of being a separate individual. The karma is voided, and therefore the subtle body is no longer compelled to keep incarnating into form to exhaust its vasanas. All that remains is the self, which is and always has been free. The self isn’t subject to rebirth, because it was never born in the first place. Another word for it is ajata, meaning unborn. It’s the light by which the entire Creation is known, but itself is never affected by the Creation – a bit like the way the dreaming consciousness is never actually affected by the dream.
The issue of reincarnation is therefore a kind of yes-and-no answer. From the perspective of the jiva, you could say there is rebirth, even though it’s actually just the vasanas that are carrying forth from one lifetime to the next, like the thread holding a necklace of pearls together. This continues as long as ignorance about the nature of the self remains.
With the assimilation of self-knowledge, the vasanas are neutralised because there’s no longer anyone to take ownership of them. The locus of one’s identity shifts from the finite jiva to the infinite self.
Knowing oneself to be the self and ever whole, there’s no need to continue seeking wholeness in the world, so there’s no new karma created. The self-realised/actualised person just runs off their prarabdha karma until the body drops. It’s the “itch” of karma that prompts rebirth, and when this karma is negated through self-knowledge, there’s no need for the liberated soul to take on another body.
John: After enlightenment, when one knows one’s self to be the Self, what happens to that enlightened person after his body drops or dies?
Rory: When the subtle body is divested of its “me-ness,” when identification shifts from the ego to the self, the vasanas that previously kept the jiva incarnating are negated. They are seen as impersonal forces belonging only to the field of existence, and not you. The jnani, the knower of the self, is no longer bound to the illusion of separation. The vasanas are kind of like an elastic band, binding the subtle body to the world of form. When that elastic band is snapped by the light of self-knowledge, the impetus for the subtle body to again assume form is gone.
The subtle body dissolves back into the macrocosmic casual body, like a wave folding back into the ocean. For the jnani, aside from the dropping of a temporary form, there’s no change at all, because they see themselves as the self. That’s why Ramana said on his deathbed, “People say that I’m leaving, but where can I go? I am here.”
So, after the body goes, the “person” is no more, but identification had already shifted from personhood to awareness. When the form is subtracted, the essence remains; and that is the blissful wholeness of pure awareness.
John: You explained that there would be no need for rebirth, since the vasanas are not identified, so there is no vasanas’ pull to be reborn. But my sense is that the Self will want to take birth again just to continue enjoying the lila, or play of the Self?
Rory: The self is free of all desires because it is limitless; there’s nothing other than it, therefore it has nothing to desire.
For the jnani, those liberated while living, life becomes lila. A jnani knows there’s nothing for them to gain or lose by being here, because they know they are the self. Ramana said that the jnani only has bhoga (enjoyment) vasanas. But these are not binding vasanas, in the sense they won’t necessitate rebirth. For the samsari, life isn’t a whole lot of fun. But once you know who you are, life can be enjoyed. I think this is where the lila concept comes in.
But there’s no desire or need on the part of the self to return to form. Indeed, the self was never technically in form – the maya world just appears in it as a dream appears in consciousness at night – an apparent, but not an actual, Creation.
John: Right now, I know that I am the Self, which is eternally unchanging no matter whether having a body or not. It makes no difference, as I am not identified with the body.
But if I take rebirth, I will probably have forgotten all the self-knowledge gained in this lifetime and will have to gain it again?
Rory: Once gained, the knowledge is never lost. Krishna makes it clear in the Gita that no effort is ever wasted. Even if one doesn’t attain liberation in this lifetime, the knowledge and spiritual “progress” the jiva makes carries through to the next life. This accounts for those who display spiritual vasanas from a young age – or indeed any age! Even to have an interest in spirituality is a sign of punya (good karma).
It isn’t out of the realm of possibility for a realised soul to return if Isvara, as the force that weilds maya and governs the laws of the Creation, decides it necessary for whatever reason. There are cases of rare souls that are born almost fully-realised. In these cases, the knowledge usually flowers quite quickly, although they usually need access to a teacher/teaching to help them actualise it.
So if for whatever reason your jiva does come back, the self-knowledge will inevitably come with it.
John: The gist of my question is regarding what happens to someone like Ramana who is self realized. I assume they do not take birth again, as he realizes he is the eternal Self and not identified at all with the body or mind. Therefore he simply remains eternally the Self.
Rory: Spot on! You totally got it.
John: So that’s my little tiny question that is left, to understand a little more of what happens for the realized after death to, say, someone like Ramana.
Rory: I hope the above helps with your query.
Basically, when identification with the jiva, and the idea of being a separate entity is gone, and the vasanas/karma neutralised, further rebirth is unnecessary. The wave becomes the ocean. This is actually what happens during the jnani’s life after realisation. The gross and subtle body remain for the duration of the incarnation, but the identification is totally with the self. So, while we think of Ramana as being a certain jiva, he was the self, and he knew it. That’s why he said he wasn’t going anywhere: “I am here.” The self is ever-present and eternal and all-pervading. Appearances notwithstanding, it is not born and it does not die.
John: Many thanks for your clear and lucid answers. It now makes total sense! Wonderful, and thank you! I totally understand your points about bhoga as the remaining non-binding vasanas, as this concurs with my own experience, so this was very helpful that you mentioned that.
In addition, thanks for clarifying again where the realized sage goes; basically he goes nowhere, it’s only the body which comes and goes.
Rory: You’re very welcome. I’m glad that helped clarify it. ☺