Today many people around the world accept and understand the concept of reincarnation — the journey of the soul through different bodies over the course of multiple lifetimes. In Sanskrit, this repeating cycle of birth and death is known as samsara.
In this article, we take a deep dive into how reincarnation works and why souls are placed into different types of bodies. Ultimately, it is up to us to choose how we wish to live our present life, knowing that the actions in this lifetime will pave our path to our next birth.
What exactly does samsara mean?
The word samsara karma comes from the Sanskrit verbal root “sri” — to wander or roam about. The prefix “sam” means that this wandering is a complete cycle through all the various species of life, including plants, insects, aquatics, animals, human beings, and even in lives on other planets as higher-dimensional beings, known as devas. The Vedas explain that there are 8,400,000 different prototypical lifeforms (akin to the modern concept of “species”), and we can assume that we have had at least one or two lives in each one of them!
The Difference Between the Soul and the Body
In order to grasp the concept of reincarnation and the cycle of samsara, it is essential to understand the fundamental difference between the soul and the body. The soul, known in Sanskrit as the atma, is the actual self — it’s who you are! This atma is the source of consciousness in the body. When the atma leaves the body, we say the body has “died.”
In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna explains that the soul is always changing bodies, although we may not notice it. What we commonly refer to as growth, as the body ages from childhood to adulthood is, in fact, a change of body:
“As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.” (Bhagavad-gita 2.13)
In another analogy, Lord Krishna compares the change of body to a change dress:
“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” (Bhagavad-gita 2.22)
Many elderly people can attest to the feeling of shock and awe when they look in the mirror and wonder, “What happened to me? How did my body become so old?!” Actually, the soul is eternal and ever-youthful. For the soul, there is no such thing as birth, death, or old age. These are all merely different states of the material bodies we currently inhabit.
Our Present Body is the Result of Past Karma
Karma is the Sanskrit word for activity and its consequences. Whatever we do has some result, and that result, good or bad, is known as karma. Even our present body is the consequence of our past actions. The body reflects the kind of consciousness we cultivated in past lives.
Souls who cultivate a violent, murderous kind of mentality are placed into bodies of predatorial species, like tigers, lions, cobras, bears, birds of prey, and so on. Souls that cultivate a humane, peaceful, thoughtful, and moral mentality are given human bodies, so that they can continue to elevate their consciousness and attain higher and higher stages of self-realization.
Lord Krishna explains that our state of mind at the time of death determines our next life. As air carries aromas, he says, the mind carries various desires and conceptions of life from one lifetime to the next. When people say someone is an “old soul,” it just means that they have a certain degree of wisdom carried over from previous lifetimes as a human being. Other humans, who behave more like animals, following their base instincts, are “new” to the human form of life, and may have had a recent lifetime as an animal, insect, bird, or plant.
Reincarnation and the Gradual Evolution of Consciousness
The soul sits within the body like a driver within a car. The external body that we see with our eyes — made of skin, hair, muscle, fat, etc. — is like the car frame and tires. The body’s organs, such as the heart, lungs, and stomach, are like the car engine, heating and cooling system, and other internal parts that enable the car to function. And our mind, intellect, and ego, which enable us to think, feel, and make decisions, can be compared to the car’s computer system and instrument display, which provide essential information to the driver.
When we get a new body, it can be compared to upgrading our vehicle. However, our essential self, the soul, remains the same.
Different species of life provide us with a more complete experience of consciousness. In a tree body, for example, our consciousness is severely restricted, but in a human body, consciousness is almost fully manifest. That’s why the Vedas constantly encourage us to make the best use of our human life and strive for self-realization. For example, the great boy sage Prahlad once told his school friends:
kaumāra ācaret prājño
dharmān bhāgavatān iha
durlabhaṁ mānuṣaṁ janma
tad apy adhruvam arthadam
“One who is sufficiently intelligent should use the human form of body from the very beginning of life — in other words, from the tender age of childhood — to practice the activities of devotional service, giving up all other engagements. The human body is most rarely achieved, and although temporary like other bodies, it is meaningful because in human life one can perform devotional service. Even a slight amount of sincere devotional service can give one complete perfection.”
Five Sheaths of Conscious Experience
The Vedas explain that the soul is covered by five sheaths, known in Sanskrit as koshas. The different species of life limit a soul to one of these sheaths.
1. ANNA-MAYA: MERE SURVIVAL
For some living beings, the purpose of life is mere survival. This is known as anna-maya consciousness, or the pursuit of food. Insects, plants, germs, and other basic life-forms exist solely for the purpose of eating and reproducing. When animals are desperate, they will fight to the death over a scrap of food—sometimes human beings even display this kind of behavior.
2. PRANA-MAYA: SOCIAL LIFE
However, upon attaining higher forms of life, the soul gets the chance to elevate its consciousness. Gradually, we come to the next stage known as prana-maya consciousness, or the pursuit of life, family, and relationships. Mammals and other species that care for their young, travel in flocks and packs, and exhibit social awareness, operate on this second stage of conscious development. In human life, also, we find most people are preoccupied with their social life—especially now in the age of social media!
3. MANO-MAYA: RELIGIOUS LIFE
When we souls attain the human form of life, we finally have the opportunity to evolve our consciousness through moral inquiry and a virtuous lifestyle. Gradually, we come to the next stage known as mano-maya consciousness, or the cultivation of dharma, also known as righteous conduct or religious life. The natural instinct to act morally, to avoid harming others, to inquire about the purpose of life, and so on, are all manifestations of this third stage of conscious development.
4. VIJNANA-MAYA: ENLIGHTENED LIFE
As a person becomes more and more accomplished in their pursuit of moral and religious perfection, they come closer and closer to transcendence. They begin to understand the difference between the soul and the body, and the need to cultivate our eternal, spiritual life, beyond this temporary realm of the three modes. This fourth stage is known as vijnana-maya consciousness, or the cultivation of spiritual existence. It is the natural culmination of the third stage of ethical practice.
5. ANANDA-MAYA: PURE SPIRITUAL LIFE
When one factually achieves enlightenment, they understand that the soul exists in perpetuity and has an eternal life of spiritual activities. This is known as bhakti, the life of devotion. The soul is a minute spark of the divine conscious source, Lord Krishna, and we can experience unlimited bliss, known in Sanskrit as ananda, by serving Him with love and devotion. This final, stage is known as ananda-maya consciousness, and it is the soul’s natural state in pure, spiritual existence.
Evidence for Reincarnation
Over the years many Western researchers have attempted to provide empirical evidence for reincarnation. One notable example is the late Dr. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia, who spent decades studying claims of reincarnation and past life memories in children all over the world. In the course of his career, he interview more than three thousand children and family members in over a dozen countries.
In Dr. Ian Stevenson’s opinion, the evidence he collected strongly supports the theory of reincarnation described in the Vedic literature. Here are some key findings from his research:
- Children who have past life memories often speak about them early on, as soon as they are able to speak at all, from the age of two onwards.
- The memories often included specific details which Stevenson was able to later verify through reliable third parties, or by direct confirmation (for instance, the name of a landmark).
- Children often display unique idiosyncrasies, such as phobias, matching those of the person they claim to have been in a past life.
- Other children possess birthmarks on parts of the body where in their previous life they had suffered an injury or wound.
Another significant discovery was that reports of past life memories occur throughout the world, even in countries where the predominant religion does not believe in reincarnation, such as Christianity and Islam. Thus, this shows the universal nature of reincarnation from a scientific point of view.
Why don’t we remember our past lives?
People often ask this question when they first learn about reincarnation. In modern science, researchers in the field of psychology have discovered that when someone undergoes a trauma, they tend to repress or forget memories related to that event. This phenomenon is known as dissociative amnesia.
Of all traumatic events the soul experiences, death is the most intense and painful. Think about it—in a single moment, often without any warning whatsoever, one is torn apart from the body, identity, and life that one holds so dear. The Vedas describe that the pain of death exceeds the pain of a thousand scorpion stings.
Actually, every living entity has an innate recollection of death, which manifests in the form of extreme fear. Even a tiny ant, who has hardly any cognitive capacity whatsoever, attempts to preserve its life when facing danger. The fear of death is a universal experience across all species of life.
Memory is considered a mysterious thing to modern researchers, and there is much they still don’t understand about how memory works. The Vedas explain that memory is provided to the soul’s conscious experience via the Supersoul, or paramatma, within the heart, who is also the voice of inspiration, conscience, and so on.
Another reason we don’t remember past lives is because such memories would interfere with our karma in the present lifetime. Dynamics of interpersonal relationships are always changing from one lifetime to the next, and people who are karmically entangled often take birth together and interact again in subsequent lives. For instance, a husband and wife may, in their next lifetime, take birth as mother and son. Or two enemies may take birth in the same family as brothers. Imagine how strange and confusing it would be for such people if they had vivid memories of their past lives together!
Instinct or Samskara?
Unfortunately, Wilhelm Wundt and Sigmund Freud introduced a non-scientific, catch-all term to explain this fear of death and other innate behaviors: “instinct.” However, the concept of instinct falls short when it comes to explaining complex behaviors such as constructing habitats, like nests, webs, dams, and so on.
The concept of instinct also fails to explain the phenomenon of child prodigies, who display an “instinctive” mastery of art, mathematics, or music, with almost no prior training in their present lifetime. Reincarnation provides a perfect and clear explanation for such cases.
The Vedic texts describe that there are different layers of memory stored within the citta, or subtle body of the living being. This includes recent memories, which are readily available to us, as well as memories from long ago that have sunk into our subconscious mind. These memories are known in Sanskrit as samskaras, or impressions.
Because every living being has experienced death countless times, there is a strong samskara formed in the subtle body, and this is why we have such a strong, emotional reaction to death. This also explains why overcoming fear of death is such a challenge for embodied souls. However, by the cultivation of bhakti-yoga, anyone can gradually spiritualize their consciousness and overcome fear, hate, and all other negative qualities.
Accessing Past-life Memories
The Vedas provide several different means for gaining access to past-life memories. First, through the practice of aṣṭāṅga yoga, one can expand their consciousness and develop the ability to tap into the memories stored deep within their subtle body. An accomplished yogi can, if they desire, recall to mind not only their most recent life, but also all other previous lives they have ever experienced!
Another method used in Vedic culture for gaining insight into past lives is astrology. A skilled astrologer can understand a person’s previous life just by looking at the birth chart and other derivative charts, known in Sanskrit as amśa charts.
What’s so Bad about Samsara?
The great irony of the material world is that everyone is struggling so hard to obtain happiness, but they have forgotten that the pleasure they seek exists eternally within their own souls. The materially-conditioned soul is like a poor person who goes out begging on the streets every day, enduring criticism and humiliation, rain, snow, and excessive heat, and all other trials and tribulations, but who has forgotten that he has millions of dollars in a bank account that he never uses. He has simply forgotten all about it. He never looks there. And if someone tells him, “Hey! You’re rich! Why are you out here begging?” He simply laughs and ignores them, thinking that they are the ones who are crazy!
Samsara is miserable! Death is miserable! Disease is miserable! In first-world countries, where the standard of living is high, some people may feel like their lives are practically perfect. But then some tragedy strikes unexpectedly—a terminal illness, a financial catastrophe, or perhaps the sudden death of a loved one. Then we realize that, actually, life is full of suffering. The soul, however, is not meant to live in this way. We are meant to exist in the pure, spiritual reality, Vaikuntha.
The Buddha taught four fundamental truths to all mankind, and the first one consisted of a single word: duhkha. “Material life is suffering!” The Vedas compare material life in samsara to a blazing forest fire. We are constantly being burned by the various miseries of this world, but we cannot find a way to escape them. Therefore, in frustration, many people simply give up the struggle and accept that “this is just the way life is.” In doing so, however, they miss the opportunity to experience true happiness.
How to Break Free from the Cycle of Samsara
The Vedas teach us how to free ourselves from the cycle of repeating birth and death, and this state of freedom is known as moksha. The ultimate form of liberation is a life dedicated to spiritual activity in service to the Supreme Person, Sri Krishna, and this is known as bhakti-yoga.
On the material plane of existence, all forms of happiness have a beginning and an end. Lord Krishna explains this to Arjuna in the following verse:
ye hi saṁsparśa-jā bhogā
duḥkha-yonaya eva te
na teṣu ramate budhaḥ
An intelligent person does not take part in the sources of misery, which are due to contact with the material senses. O son of Kuntī, such pleasures have a beginning and an end, and so the wise man does not delight in them. (Bhagavad-gita 5.22)
Therefore, the wise seek pleasure on the transcendental plane of pure spiritual activity, which is the natural life of the soul. By engaging in the various practices of bhakti, such as hearing about Krishna, chanting His names, and so on, we activate our innate spiritual existence and very quickly experience a relief from material misery along with the positive feeling of spiritual happiness.
Therefore, at Popular Vedic Science we are teaching everyone how to practice bhakti-yoga and experience practical enlightenment in their present lifetime.
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