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Doctrine of Reincarnation

by Swami Sivananda

The doctrine of reincarnation is accepted by the majority of mankind of the present day. It has been held as true by the mightiest Eastern nations. The ancient civilisation of Egypt was built upon this doctrine, and it was handed over to Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato, Virgil and Ovid who scattered it through Greece and Italy. It is the keynote of Plato's philosophy when he says that all knowledge is reminiscence. It was wholly adopted by the Neo-Platonists like Plotinus and Proclas. The hundreds of millions of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains have made this doctrine the foundation of their philosophy, religion, government and social institutions. It was a cardinal point in the religion of the Persian Unagi. The doctrine of metempsychosis was an essential principle of the Druid faith and was impressed upon the Celts, the Gauls and the Britons. Among the Arab philosophers it was a favourite idea. The rights and ceremonies of the Romans, Druids and Hebrews expressed this faith forcibly. The Jews adopted it after the Babylonian captivity. John the Baptist was to them a second Elijah. Jesus was thought to be a reappearance of John the Baptist or one of the old prophets. The Roman Catholic purgatory seems to be a makeshift, contrived to take its place. Philosophers like Kant, Schelling and Schopenhauer have upheld this doctrine. Theologians like Julius Muller, Dorner and Edward Beecher have maintained it. And today it reigns over the Burmese, Siamese, Chinese, Japanese, Tartar, Tibetan, East Indian and Ceylonese including at least 750 millions of mankind or nearly two thirds of the human race. Is it not wonderful than that this great and grand philosophical education which the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains gave to the world centuries and centuries before the Christian era should or could be blotted out of existence from the Western and European world by the soul-blighting and absurd dogmas of the dark ages that supervened? By the persecution of the wise men and destruction of innumerable works in the library of Constantinople, the Church hierarchy managed to plunge the whole of Europe into mental darkness which has given the world the black record of the inquisition and the loss of millions of human lives through religious wars and persecutions.

Here is a challenge to the non-believers of the Hindu theory of transmigration. Recently a little girl Santi Devi gave a vivid description of her past lives in Delhi. There was a great sensation in Delhi and Muttra, nay, throughout the United Provinces. There was a great assembly of persons to hear her statements. She recognised her husband and child of her previous birth who are living in Muttra. She pointed out the place where money was kept, and an old well in the house which is covered now. All her statements were duly verified and corroborated by respectable eye-witnesses. Several cases like this have occurred in Rangoon, Sitapur and various other places. They are quite common now. In such cases the Jiva takes immediate rebirth with the old astral body or Linga Sarira. That is the reason why memory of previous birth comes in. He did not stay in the mental world for a long time to rebuild a new mind and astral body according to his previous experiences of the world.

Transmigration made its appearance in the early Christian church. Elijah was reborn as John the Baptist. "Did the blind man sin, or his parents, that he was born blind?" ask the believers in transmitted retribution. There is a period of anxiety immediately after death, when angels contend with demons for the possession of the departing soul on its way to purgatory.

Pythagoras and others obtained their belief in metempsychosis from India only. Pythagoras who flourished in the sixth century also taught a doctrine of transmigration; and, curiously enough, prescribed abstinence from the eating of flesh.

The suckling of a child and the act of swimming of a duckling-these instinctive acts are proofs of memory which must be the result of their corresponding and inseparable impressions left by the same acts in a previous incarnation, never mind when and where. Every act leaves Samskaras in the Chitta, which causes memory. Memory in its own turn leads to fresh actions and fresh impressions. This cycle or Chakrika goes on from eternity like the analogy of the seed and tree.

There is no beginning for them, the desire to live being eternal, 'for them', i.e., for the desires. Desires have no beginning or end, every being has clinging to this physical life (Abhinivesa). This "will to live" is eternal. Experiences are also without beginning. You cannot think of a time when this feeling of 'Aham' or 'I' has not existed. This 'I' exists continuously without interruption. From this we can very easily infer that there have been previous births for us.

Now, could there be fear of death to avoid pain in any being who has only been born, if he has had no experience of liability to death, it being understood that desire to avoid anything is only caused by remembrance suffered in consequence thereof? Nothing which is inherent in anything stands in need of a cause. How could it be that a child, who has not experienced this liability to death in the present life, should, as he is falling down from the mother's lap, begin to tremble and hold with his hands tightly the necklace hanging on her breast? How is it that such a child should experience the fear of death, which can only be caused by the memory of the pain consequent upon aversion to death, whose existence is conferred by the trembling of the child?

We have boy-geniuses. A boy of five becomes an expert on the piano or violin. Sri Jnanadev wrote his commentary "Jnaneshwari" on the Gita when he was fourteen years old. There have been boy-mathematicians. There was the boy-Bhagavatar in Madras who conducted Kathas when he was eight years old. How could you explain these strange phenomena? They are not freaks of nature. The theory of transmigration only could explain all these things. If one man gets deep grooves in his mind by learning music or mathematics in this birth, he carries these impressions to the next birth and becomes a prodigy in these sciences even when he is a boy.

According to the Christian faith, the ultimate fate of the righteous is life eternal; of the evil, everlasting fire or eternal damnation. How could this be? No opportunity is afforded to the sinner to purify himself in later births.

The doctrine of reincarnation is common to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. What is reincarnation? Reincarnation is the doctrine that the soul enters this life not as fresh creation, but after a long course of previous existences, and will have to pass through many more before it reaches its final destination. What possible motion in the brain causes the idea 'I am I'? This recognition of a real unit does not vary from the cradle to the grave. From childhood to old age, during the whole course of the total change of all brain-molecules the idea 'I am I' is undisturbed. This 'I am I' is the soul. It is this soul which makes memory possible. It has its own consciousness and not the consciousness of anyone else, therefore it is a unit existing by itself. The law of the conservation of energy is true in the physical as well as in the spiritual world. Therefore, as no atom can be created or destroyed, so also no soul-entity can be created or destroyed. What becomes of the soul then after what we call death? No powers in the universe can annihilate it.

Reincarnation is the only doctrine which gives a complete solution to the much disputed question of original sin. There cannot be greater injustice in the world than the fact that I am now suffering for the transgression of my ancestor. Adonis responsibility for our sin is only a makeshift of the theologians. No one but the individual himself can be blamed for his wrong doing. Are not the courts of law of the United States founded on the ideas of justice? Will any judge sitting on the throne of justice be justified in accepting the death-the voluntary suicide of Mr. B-as the proper retribution for the murder committed by Mr. A? And if he does that, will not the same judge be arraigned before a superior court having knowingly abetted the suicide of B? And still we are asked to believe that the guilt of one man can be washed by the suffering of another.

But the doctrine of reincarnation assists most when we look at the inequality and injustice and evil in the world and seek the solution. Why is one man born rich and another poor? Why is one man born in Central Africa among the cannibals and the other in a peaceful part of India? Why is Queen Victoria born to rule over the territories on which the sun never sets and why is a labourer in Burma to work as a slave, in an Englishman's tea-garden. What is the cause of this apparent injustice? Even those who have belief in the personal creator of the universe must believe in this doctrine of reincarnation in order to exonerate God from the charge of maliciousness.

Even in the New Testament there is sufficient evidence for reincarnation. In St. John IX-2 a question is put to Jesus by his disciples: Which did sin, this man or his parents that he was born blind? This refers to two popular theories of the time-one, that of Moses who taught that the sins of fathers would descend on children to the third and the fourth generation, and the other that of the doctrine of reincarnation. Jesus merely says that neither the man's sin nor his father's sin was the cause of his blindness; he does not deny the pre-existence of that man. Lord Jesus also means that John reincarnated as Elijah.

But people may ask that if this doctrine is true, how is it that we do not remember our past incarnations. I will ask such people in what way do we exercise the faculty of memory. Certainly, so long as we are living in a body we exercise it through the brain. In passing from one incarnation to the other, the soul does not carry its former brain in the new body. Even during the course of one life, do we always remember our past doings? Can anyone remember that wonderful epoch, the infancy?

If you have knowledge of the Raja Yogic technique of perceiving the impressions directly through the process of Samyama (Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi at one time), you can remember your past lives. In Raja Yoga philosophy of Patanjali Maharishi, you will find:

Samskarat Sakshat Karanat Purvajati Jnaanam.

"By perceiving the impressions, comes the knowledge of past life."

All experiences that you have had in various births remain in the form of impressions or residual potencies in the Chitta or subconscious mind. They remain in a very, very subtle form, just as sound remains in a subtle form in a gramophone record. These subtle impressions assume the forms of waves and you get memory of past experiences. Therefore if a Yogi can make a Samyama on these past experiences in the Chitta, he can remember all the details of all his past lives.

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