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Reincarnation In Hinduism - An Introspective Drilldown

Updated on March 18, 2014

In passing...

A stature frail, senses unsure unclear
Scores reckoned up, prepared to cross again
Let death dispatch to heaven, hell, or here
In Thee shall rest my heart - pleasure or pain

In a nutshell, the above quatrain captures the highest theistic conception that Hinduism can give us to take away at the time of our death. This conception is realised by those great souls who have strived in their lives to develop a loving relationship with the supreme person through highest philosophical reasoning, and more so, genuine faith (sraddha).

In Hinduism, reincarnation is one of the fundamental concepts that forms the basis of a whole philosophy. Reincarnation in Hinduism is not a one-time affair, nor are the conventional conceptions of heaven and hell eternal situations. There is much complexity and variety in the concepts of Hinduism that makes it misunderstood and at the same time the most exhaustive approach to satisfy all interrogations of a faithful searcher. In this article I introspect on how its philosophy holds together and answers crucial questions on reincarnation. For brevity of scope, I shall leave out atheistic questions, and in doing so, I invoke the faith of the readers in the simple fact that matter cannot produce consciousness and that life comes from life.

Questions on introspection -

  1. What is reincarnation in Hinduism?
  2. Why is there reincarnation?
  3. On what basis is our next life determined?
  4. Do we return from heaven or hell?
  5. Is reincarnation into animal species possibe?
  6. How did we enter the cycle of birth and death?
  7. Why is there material creation at all?
  8. How should we end the cycle of birth and death?

Ralph Waldo Emerson on Reincarnation

Brahma composed in 1856 represents the maturity of Emerson's comprehension of some of the fundamental concepts of Vedic thought. Emerson also wrote knowledgeably about reincarnation, the theory of Karma and of Fate, of the latter not in the classic Greek sense, but in it's Indian interpretation -

"Fate is nothing but deeds committed in a prior existence."

Reincarnation in Hinduism

Bhagavad Gita says that we are not the body, nor are we the mind. The eternal, indestructible, unchangeable individual unit (soul) is the force that drives our body and our mind. Our identity rests in the soul, technically called the jiva. Just as we change clothes, we accept a new body when the old body deteriorates. This change is known as transmigration or reincarnation in Hinduism. By subtle analysis we can see that our body changes even during our lifetime - our bodies as toddlers are very different to our bodies as grown up men or women. In the material world, it is the nature of the soul (jiva) to -

  • accept a body
  • facilitate growth, sustenance, and production of by-products
  • eventually leave the dwindling body to accept a new one

This cycle of birth, sustenance, and death is technically called samsara. In the material world everything undergoes the phases of creation, maintenance, destruction, and re-formation. Living beings are not exempted from this process.

Why is there reincarnation?

In Hinduism, there are two worlds -

  • Laukika jagat- the material world
  • Alaukika jagat or vaikuntha - the supra mundane world

The primary difference between these two worlds is that in laukika jagat every aspect is ephemeral, subject to the effects of time (kaala), whereas vaikuntha is an eternal plane not affected by time. Intrinsically, jiva soul is alaukika - eternal in nature. However, when residing in the laukika jagat, it accepts a material body. The material body dwindles by the effects of time inducing the eternal, ever-fresh, jiva soul to transmigrate to a new material body. Along with it the jiva soul carries the subtle senses - the mind (mamas), intelligence (buddhi), and ego (ahankara) - just as a breeze carries fragrance from a flower with it. Therefore there is reincarnation.

The three types of karma
The three types of karma | Source

On what basis is our next life determined?

In Hinduism the next life is determined by our actions or karma in this life. Our current life is the culmination of our past karma that also includes karma of our past lives. Essentially, there are three grades of karma - karma, akarma, and vikarma.

Karma constitutes prescribed moral duties according to the Vedic principles of varnashrama. By performing our moral duties we accumulate piety that leads us to higher or heavenly planes of existence.

Vikarma, on the other hand, is immoral activities that pulls us down to lower or hellish planes of existence.

Of all the three types of actions, akarma is the highest if properly understood. Akarma literally means inaction. But simple negation of all activities - physical and mental - leads to the darkest regions of indolence impeding the real progress of the soul. Moreover, activity is inherent to the jiva soul, whereas inactivity is a precarious condition. In proper perspective, akarma involves karma, but without a selfish desire for the result. Akarma means doing your duty properly without being overly attached to the result. Akarma is a golden means achieved by yogis who understand that the soul has no superior interest other than serving the interest of the Supreme Person. By performing regulated karma, just to maintain the body and directing consciousness towards the Supreme Person, the sublime path of akarma liberates the jiva from the cycle of birth and death and delivers it to Vaikuntha - the eternal supra-mundane abode of the Supreme Person.

The Srimad Bhagavatam mentions fourteen planes of existence, or planetary systems (loka). Each plane is classified according to the three modes of material nature viz. goodness (sattva), passion (rajas), and ignorance (tamas). The earth planet, where humans reside, is called Bhuloka, where the mode of passion is prominent. Bhuloka is the only place where jiva souls perform karma, and accumulate piety and sin, whereas in other planes they redeem them by enjoyment and suffering. Once accumulated piety and sins are redeemed, the jiva reincarnates back into Bhuloka.

There are six planes of heavenly existence above Bhuloka, and seven planes below. The higher planes are Bhuvarloka, Svarloka, Janaloka, Tapaloka, Maharloka, and Satyaloka or Satyaloka. The mode of goodness is more prominent from Bhuloka to Satyaloka. The mode of goodness is the source of happiness, knowledge, and longevity. Therefore, as we go higher, the lifespan, and the bliss of knowledge increases. Gross enjoyment in higher planes is practically nil and replaced by subtle forms of enjoyment that are more pleasing and fulfilling.

The seven lower hellish planes of existence are collectively called Patala. These planes are, Atala, Vitala, Sutala, Talatala, Mahatala, Rasatala, and Patala. Patala is the lowest region of the material universe. The mode of ignorance is more prominent as we go lower from Bhuloka to Patala. The mode of ignorance is the source of lust, anger, and greed. Foolish and sinful people take birth in these lower hellish planes and suffer from extremely gross types of enjoyment or severe physical conditions. Although the lifespan in lower planes is comparatively short, the residents feel that they are suffering for a long time.

In this way the jiva soul goes up, down or in the middle as his karma propels him. Although there is facility for different degrees of gross and subtle enjoyments in the fourteen worlds, it is incomparably meagre compared to the ocean of joy of the soul when in connection with the transcendental service of the Supreme Person.

Do we return from heaven or hell?

Fourteen planes (lokas) of existence in Hinduism
Fourteen planes (lokas) of existence in Hinduism | Source

Bhagavad Gita on temporary nature of heaven

After having enjoyed the vast heavenly realm, when their merit is exhausted, they enter the earthly plane once again. Thus those following the religion of the three vedas, desiring material pleasure, obtain a reward that comes and goes. - Bhagavad Gita 9.21

The Srimad Bhagavatam mentions fourteen planes of existence or planetary systems (loka). Each plane is sorted according to the three modes of material nature viz. goodness (sattva), passion (rajas), and ignorance (tamas). The earth planet where humans reside is called the Bhuloka, where the mode of passion is prominent. The Bhuloka is the only place where jiva souls perform karma, and accumulate piety and sin, whereas in the other planes they redeem them by enjoyment and suffering. Once the accumulated piety and sins are redeemed, the jiva reincarnates back into Bhuloka.

There are six planes of heavenly existence above Bhuloka, and seven planes below. The higher planes are Bhuvarloka, Svarloka, Janaloka, Tapaloka, Maharloka, and Satyaloka or Brahmaloka. The mode of goodness is more prominent from Bhuloka to Satyaloka. The mode of goodness is the source of happiness, knowledge, and longevity. Therefore, as we go higher, the lifespan, and the bliss of knowledge increases. Gross enjoyment in higher planes is practically nil and replaced by subtle forms of enjoyment that is more pleasing and fulfilling.

The seven lower hellish planes of existence is collectively called Patala. These planes are, Atala, Vitala, Sutala, Talatala, Mahatala, Rasatala, and Patala. Patala is the lowest region of the material universe. The mode of ignorance is more prominent as we go lower from Bhuloka to Patala. The mode of ignorance is the source of lust, anger, and greed. Foolish and sinful people take birth in these lower hellish planes and suffer from extremely gross types of enjoyment or sever physical conditions. Although the lifespan in lower planes is comparatively short, the residents feel that they are suffering for a long time.

In this way the jiva soul goes up, down or middle as his karma propels him. Although there is facility for different degrees of gross and subtle enjoyments in the fourteen worlds, it is incomparably meagre compared to the ocean of joy of the soul when in connection with the transcendental service of the supreme person.

Is reincarnation into animal species possible?

In Hinduism, reincarnation into lower species is possible.
In Hinduism, reincarnation into lower species is possible. | Source

We are far outnumbered!

Recent figures indicate that there are more than 200 million insects for each human on the planet. It is therefore probable that we will reincarnate into lower species if we do not utilise the human form of life judiciously by pursuing knowledge of the soul.

Yes, it is possible. As stated earlier, there are six traits of the jiva soul in the material world - birth, growth, sustenance, production of by-products, dwindling, and death. Therefore, it is logical that not only animals, but even trees and plants are jiva souls embodied in such forms. Therefore, it is possible that we may reincarnate into animal or plant species. Moreover, humans are far outnumbered by the animal, insect, and plant kingdom. An article in the New York Times claimed that the world holds 300 pounds of insects for every pound of human. Hence, it is probable that we will reincarnate into lower species if we do not utilise the human form of life judiciously by pursuing knowledge of the soul. Only humans have the propensity to delve into the knowledge of existence. It depends on us how we utilise this unique opportunity.

Humans have a sense of morality, therefore they are subject to good and bad reactions for their actions. Whereas, animals and plants, concerned only with their sustenance, do not incur such reactions. Jiva souls, too entrenched in the mode of ignorance, accept an animal or a plant body and transmigrate into such species until they receive a suitable opportunity to accept a human body. Everywhere in the Vedic philosophy human life is celebrated as a rare gift.

How did we enter the cycle of birth and death?

Jivas originate at the shore of the material and the supra mundane universes
Jivas originate at the shore of the material and the supra mundane universes | Source

It is our own free will and faulty judgement that brought us into the laukika jagat (material world) and into the cycle of birth and death. Our freedom is incomplete if we are not free to commit mistakes. I may even deny that I actually made a mistake and continue to live thinking that I have a nice family, a prosperous business, and a faithful circle of friends. Even then, what use is all of this if death eventually takes it away and puts me in midst of a new family, and a new situation? In all the fourteen worlds there is nothing more certain than death.

The jiva soul originated on the shore between the supra-mundane and the material universe. The Supreme Person has three principle potencies -

  • Internal potency (antaranga shakti) - The supra-mundane universe is the manifestation of the internal potency of the supreme person.
  • External potency (bahiranga shakti) - The material universe is the manifestation of the external potency of the supreme person.
  • Marginal potency (tatashta shakti) - The source of the jiva souls.

In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad we find the following verse -

The jiva has two options, the material world and the supra mundane world. The jiva is situated at a third position, called svapna sthana, on the border between these two places. Situated in this marginal place, he can see both the material and spiritual worlds. -Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.9

This marginal position is described as follows-

Just as a large fish living in the river wanders from one bank to the other, so the jiva is of similar quality, and is equipped to wander in the Karana waters between the material and spiritual worlds (svapnanta and buddhanta). -Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.18

Though all the jiva souls are generated from the Supreme Person, they have a separate existence from Him. They may be compared to the atoms in the sun's rays, or the sparks of a fire.

Just as sparks arise from fire, all the jivas arise from the supreme person - Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 2.1.20

From this it may be determined that jiva souls are small, separate conscious particles which may find their place either in the material or supra-mundane worlds due to their dual nature (tatastha). But their essential nature is to be the servant of the Supreme Person.

An illustrious stalwart in the Vaishnava tradition, Swami B. R. Sridhara explains the marginal position of the jiva soul as follows -

Because the soul is very small, his freedom is also imperfect; a soul in the marginal position is very vulnerable. Freedom does not mean absolute freedom. Because the soul’s existence is small, his freedom is defective; there is the possibility of committing a mistake. Freedom of the minute soul does not mean perfect freedom. Complete freedom would be perfect reality., but the minute soul is endowed with the smallest atomic freedom. This is the position of the atoms of consciousness, and this why they are vulnerable. They may judge properly of improperly; that is the position of those who are situated in the marginal position. If the soul were not endowed with the freedom to determine his position, we would have to blame god for our suffering. But we cannot blame god. The starting point of the soul’s suffering is within himself.

Why is there a material creation at all?

Necessity is also the mother of material creation. The jiva souls are independent to make their choice. The material creation exists to facilitate the desire of the jiva souls to enjoy independently of the Supreme Person. The only difference between the material creation and the supra-mundane world is the secondary interest (dvitiya-abhinivesha) of the jiva soul. If the interests of all jiva souls were one with the interest of the Supreme Person, there wouldn’t be a necessity for a material creation. But unfortunately, this is not the case.


The approach to liberation - paddle with the flow.
The approach to liberation - paddle with the flow. | Source

How should we end the cycle of birth and death?

The simple answer is to paddle with the flow. Regardless, the deluded jiva soul must ride against the current. When feeling strong, the jiva soul paddles fast, makes material progress and appreciates the material creation; whereas when tired and weak, it curses the material creation as being too difficult. When the jiva soul gives up all struggles and sits speculating with the mind, it crashes with a rock, whereas when it moves with the current and guides the boat taking navigational help, it eventually reaches home without much difficulty. Therefore, it is intelligent to paddle with the flow.

The above analogy corresponds to the three instinctive approaches towards material nature - exploitation, renunciation, and dedication.

Path of exploitation

The material nature is not our property – someone else created it. What’s more, we don’t own even ourselves because we are a part and parcel of the Supreme Person. Yet, we think our body belongs to us. From such body consciousness we create our family, our town and our nation, and systematically or unsystematically, exploit material nature. Our selfishness to enjoy material nature binds us to good and bad reactions that leads to the cycle of birth and death. Therefore, this approach should be rejected.

Even the karma-kanda section of the Vedas provides systematic ways to higher sensual enjoyment of material nature. The Vedas cater to people at all levels and provides them with a plan to achieve their cherished goals. All tendencies of the jiva soul have been explored in the Vedic philosophy. Hence one must carefully select its aspects by considering what is supremely beneficial for the spiritual progress of the soul and reject others as counter-productive. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna informs Arjuna as follows - “O Arjuna, the unintelligent people, absorbed in the praises of svarga (heaven) offered in the vedas, propound that there is nothing higher than that, and speak only superficially attractive words. Because their hearts are filled with selfish desires and their goal is heaven, they prescribe many rituals that award higher birth, wealth, power, and lead to enjoyment and opulence.” (Bhagavad Gita 2.42-43)

Path of renunciation

This approach is considered by the learned as negative in nature. Mere renunciation (vairagya) of material nature by abstention of all actions does not lead to progress. Moreover, this path is strewn with extreme difficulties because it is not possible to abstain from all actions. Those following the path of renunciation think that the material creation is an illusion and has no real purpose. Because the material creation displays a variety of forms, they think that form means illusion and conclude that God is ultimately formless or there is no God. In the Srimad Bhagavatam we find the following statement concerning those following the path of renunciation -

ye 'nye 'ravindaksha vimukta-maninas tvayy asta-bhavad avishuddha-buddhayah aruhya krcchrena param padam tatah patanty adho 'nadrta-yushmad-anghrayah

O lotus-eyed Lord, although non-devotees who accept severe austerities and penances to achieve the highest position may think themselves liberated, their intelligence is impure. They fall down from their position of imagined superiority because they have no regard for Your lotus feet. (Srimad Bhagavatam, 10.2.32)

Dry renunciation or vairagya, takes us out of the furnace, but into the fire. Progress means rejection of old values replacing them with higher values. If we don’t fill our lives with positive engagement, dry renunciation has no value.

Path of dedication

Dedication can also be called devotion (bhakti). The followers of this path intelligently adjust things according to their proper perspective. They are the true followers of the aphorism in Ishopanishad - ishavasyam idam sarvam (everything belongs to the Supreme Person). For them, the Supreme Person is the centre of all activities. Just as we see the effulgent sun in the sky, they are constantly aware of the Supreme Person.


tad vishno paramam padam sada pashyanti surayo diviva cakshur atatam tad vipraso vipanyavo jagrvamsah samindhate vishnor yat paramam padam

“The supreme abode of Lord Vishnu, or the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu, is spread all around like the sunlight in the sky. Great sages and saintly persons always see that supreme abode, recognizing Him as the highest truth. Spiritually awake souls learned in transcendental science always glorify the supreme person.” (Rg Veda 1.22.20-21)

Instead of exploiting or rejecting material nature, the followers on the path of dedication utilise it for the service of the Supreme Person. Just as a good manager in the corporate world brings out the best from his subordinates for the benefit of his company, one may find the best use of everything in the service of the Supreme. This virtue is also called yukta-vairagya or intelligent renunciation. Because one is only the mediator, he is not affected by material contamination, and thus becomes an eligible candidate for liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

Nevertheless, the purpose of devotion is more than just liberation. Factually, liberation is just a by-product of devotion. Even the desire for liberation is a selfish motivation that impedes the awakening of pure devotion (shuddha bhakti). Pure love of God is the only object of pure devotion and anything less is tainted.

Scope for further questions on reincarnation in Hinduism

When human intelligence assists shraddha (faith) instead of unsettling it, the former transforms into divine intelligence. Reincarnation in Hinduism is one such subject where empiric intelligence has no entrance. However, only by co-operation between shraddha and good reason, the understanding of the inconceivable is possible. Shraddha wants to believe, while reason protects it from deception, or confirms and solidifies the proposition. Reason wants to doubt, while shraddha provides assurance of authority.

Some of the most crucial questions on reincarnation in Hinduism have been dealt with in this article. Readers are welcome to correspond with the author or leave a comment for more elucidations or further questions

The Land Of Dedication

© 2014 Arun Ramchandramurthy

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    • C.V.Rajan profile image

      Disillusioned 22 months ago from Kerala, India

      Another good article. However, there is scope for improvements in the presentation of some of the concepts here. For example the role of vasanas in creating birth. If vasanas are totally eradicated, there is no more birth as one's sanchita karmas are no longer effective to cause next birth (as per Ramana Maharshi).

      Further, it is the belief of Hinduism that liberation is possible from the Bhulokha itself (being a karma bhoomi) and there is indeed no necessity to raise up stage by stage in the higher lokhas (which are at the best products of mind, according to Ramana).

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      saisarannaga 3 years ago from Chennai in Tamilnadu, India.

      No words to describe this hub. Simply superlative and mind boggling.

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      pancavati108gmail.com 3 years ago

      so clear and straight and nice flow in the writing.

    • rayasa profile image
      Author

      Arun Ramchandramurthy 3 years ago

      Thank you Swami. Appreciation from a monk lends authority to the write-up.

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      Swami Giri 3 years ago

      Excellent article. Well written, and informative. It answers many questions and explains many concepts of Vedic philosophy.

    • rayasa profile image
      Author

      Arun Ramchandramurthy 3 years ago

      Thanks Nila. Yeah, I read many articles on reincarnation in Hinduism, but I did not find a solid conclusion as to how to get out of it. This article is a product of my search for answers.

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      Nila Newsom 3 years ago

      Fantastic article. The philosophy of the Vedas needs to be clarified for the general public and this article does a great job.

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      Kishore Kumar 3 years ago

      Very nice article.

    • rayasa profile image
      Author

      Arun Ramchandramurthy 3 years ago

      Thank you very much.

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      DHIRALALITA 3 years ago

      A superb article, well presented, nicely designed and very informative!