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Chpater IV The Principle of Reincarnation
By Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami


The scientific study of reincarnation may shed new light on many subtle phenomena inexplicable by currently accepted theories-phenomena such as the wide variety of living forms, innate abilities clearly not acquired from the environment, and near-death experiences. In recent years scholars in various disciplines have shown great interest in studying reincarnation, but to study it meaningfully we must first know whether life is an eternal entity that transcends the temporary, physical body or merely a combination of molecules moving according to the laws of physics and chemistry.


The Reductionist Approach: Atoms and the Void

Modern science deals primarily with the objective aspects of nature. Relying on an experimental approach based on limited sensory data, it has pursued the goal of unfolding the hidden laws of nature, and ultimately of finding the original cause of the world we perceive. Most modern scientists now believe that blind physical laws and the laws of chance govern the cosmos. They say there is no designer, no creator, no God-no intelligence behind the whole cosmic phenomenon. Following this hypothesis, they attempt to reduce everything, including life, to the interactions of atoms and molecules, the familiar objects of study of physics and chemistry.

What Is Life?

Basing itself on a mountain of laboratory data, the currently predominant scientific theory holds that life is a coordinated chemical reaction. This theory involves the basic assumption that the various life forms we see today originated by chance in an ancient chemical environment, the "primordial soup," and that they have developed by the influence of chance and blind mechanical laws acting over a long time period. In the words of Jacques Monod, "Chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, is at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact."1 This is the neo-Darwinian concept. According to this idea, as time passed, the action of various forms of energy (ultraviolet rays from the sun, lightning, ionizing radiation, and heat) caused the small and simple molecules to combine together to form the biomonomers (amino acids, for example), and these biomonomers in turn gave rise to biopolymers (such as proteins and nucleic acids). It has been assumed that by the proper interactions, the self-organization of these molecules took place, and life eventually arose.

Unfortunately, this theory, however attractive it may be, will remain only a theoretical model until its propounders can actually produce some form of life in the laboratory by chemical reactions. But just how likely is this? Assuming that the primitive atmosphere was of a reducing kind, Stanley Miller passed an electric discharge through a gaseous mixture of ammonia, water vapor, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen.2 The reaction product was found to contain aldehydes, carboxylic acid, and some amino acids. Since amino acids are the basic building blocks of protein molecules, which in turn are the fundamental components of living cells, Miller's experiment has been regarded as a landmark in the case for chemicals' being the origin of life. Subsequent experiments in the study of the origin of life involved some changes in the components of the reactants. When the simple molecules of hydrogen cyanide (HCN) were subjected to ultraviolet radiation, the basic building blocks of nucleic acids (the purines adenine and guanine) were synthesized. In experiments simulating the earth's presumed primitive atmosphere, the simple molecules of formaldehyde (CH2O) were generated, and these simple formaldehyde molecules in turn underwent various base-catalyzed condensation reactions to produce innumerable sugars. These are regarded as the progenitors of biological sugars. The action of ultraviolet light and ionizing radiation on solutions of formaldehyde produced the sugar molecules ribose and deoxyribose, which are the components of nucleic acids.

Practically speaking, then, at this stage of scientific knowledge most of the important chemicals found in the living cell (including the gene) can be synthesized in the chemical laboratory. And those in the forefront of microbiology and biochemistry have made a vigorous effort to put all the necessary chemicals together and prepare the first synthetic life in the test tube. Unfortunately, there are no life symptoms visible when all these chemicals are combined. Even without taking so much trouble to synthesize all these chemicals, scientists can actually isolate the necessary chemicals from an already living body and then recombine them. If life were a chemical combination, scientists could actually make life in the test tube by assembling all these important chemicals. They cannot do this, however. Thus there are abundant reasons for doubting that life is a chemical process.

Undoubtedly, in the last few decades great advancements have been made in the fields of cell biology, molecular biology, and biochemistry. Indeed, the discovery of the genetic code and many metabolic pathways of the living systems are products of brilliant and dedicated researchers. Because of the great successes of science and technology in many areas of human endeavor (medicine, agriculture, space science, and so on), inquisitive and enthusiastic scientific minds are tempted to believe that the brilliant ambition to synthesize life in the test tube will one day be fulfilled. Scientific and popular journals have thus reported many claims that certain molecular arrangements might give rise to life. They present, for example, the coacervate droplets of Oparin and the protenoid microspheres of Fox as forerunners of a living cell. But a close look at these entities reveals them to be purely physico-chemical phenomena. Coacervate droplets are wholly explicable in the realm of micellar chemistry, and Fox's microspheres are explicable in terms of the chemistry of peptides and polypeptides.

Therefore, despite great scientific discoveries and achievements, the bright hope and enthusiasm for understanding life in molecular terms seem to be losing ground, and many prominent scientists in various fields are beginning to doubt the validity of this concept. In a book called Biology Today, Nobel-prize-winning chemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi remarked, "In my search for the secret of life, I ended up with atoms and electrons, which have no life at all. Somewhere along the line, life ran out through my fingers. So, in my old age, I am now retracing my steps...."

Not only do molecules, atoms, and electrons lack life symptoms, but also the chemical view of life fails to correspond with life's observed subtleties-human beings' unique feeling, willing, and thinking capacities, for example. If life were an interplay of molecules, we should be able to explain these subtle aspects of life in terms of molecules only. What will be the genetic component or molecule that induces the friendly feeling of love and respect among people? Which molecule or genetic code will be responsible for the subtle artistic nuances in Hamlet or Bach's Mass in B Minor? Can a mechanistic view of life account for life's value- and goal-oriented nature, especially among human beings? That there are no plausible molecular mechanisms to explain these subtle aspects of life makes it reasonable to propose that life transcends physics and chemistry.

A New Paradigm for Life and the Absolute Truth

If life were accepted as a totally temporary, material phenomenon, then the idea of a previous or future life of a living being would be eliminated, and with it the question of reincarnation. Of course, as we have seen, there is every reason to believe that life is transcendental to matter and thus independent of the physico-chemical laws that govern matter. What we need now, to study reincarnation scientifically, is a new scientific paradigm that will explain the origin of life, its characteristics, and how it behaves in the world of matter.

Before discussing this new scientific paradigm, we will find it useful to briefly discuss the nature of the Absolute Truth. As mentioned earlier, according to modern science the Absolute Truth (defined as "the ultimate cause of all phenomena") seems to be vaguely incorporated into the physical laws called the laws of nature. In other words, modern science posits the Absolute Truth as blind, impersonal, and wholly within the framework of the push-pull mechanisms of atoms and molecules. Now, if nature were simply an array of particles moving according to mathematical equations, it would be possible to predict events such as birth, death, accidents, and wars with the help of these equations. Indeed, it should be possible to understand all the intricacies of life-past, present, and future-in terms of mathematical equations. However, all careful thinkers, especially the scientists, know that this is impossible-that a purely mathematical approach to the understanding of life is too restrictive and very unsatisfying. Therefore we need a new paradigm for the origin and nature of life.

The new scientific paradigm we are proposing, which accounts for both the subtle complexities of life and the apparently nonphysical character of the Absolute Truth, comes basically from the scientific and theological background of the Vedas. According to the ancient wisdom outlined in the Bhagavad-gita (a basic Vedic text), the Absolute Truth is the supreme person, possessing supreme consciousness and supreme intelligence. In other words, the Absolute Truth is a supremely sentient being. The Absolute Truth emanates two energies: the inferior energy, called prakriti in Sanskrit and characterized by inanimate matter; and the superior energy, which is composed of atmas, living entities. The atmas are called the superior energy because they possess consciousness, which is the main feature that distinguishes life from matter.

The behavior of inanimate matter can be described to some extent in terms of the push-pull mechanisms operating on molecular, atomic, and subatomic levels, and these push-pull mechanisms can in turn be described by using simple mathematical equations. As we have already pointed out, however, there are no mathematical laws that can describe the phenomena of life and its variegated activities. Therefore, life is clearly transcendental to material laws and can be defined, according to the Vedas, as "the nonphysical, fundamental particle called the atma, which is characterized by consciousness."

Since life is nonphysical and nonchemical, the mathematical laws that govern the activities of inert matter do not apply to life. However, it is reasonable to suppose that there must be some laws that govern life. According to the Bhagavad-gita, these are higher-order natural laws incorporating free will. (As we shall see, free will plays a very important role in reincarnation.) It is clear that the existing scientific models and tools cannot grasp these higher-order natural laws, but it is conceivable that the parapsychological experiments now underway in many quarters may provide at least some clue as to the nature of these laws. Thus there is a vast area for further research in the fields of parapsychology and psychology that may help us understand the science of life and its variegated activities.

The Properties of Life (the Ätmä)

AaThere are innumerable ätmäs (living entities), each being a quantum of consciousness. Each ätmä resides temporarily in an ephemeral biological form, according to the ätmä's consciousness. This consciousness is due to the ätmä alone, but the content of the ätmä's consciousness is due to its interactions with the particular body it occupies. The material body can be divided into two categories: the gross and the subtle. The subtle body is made up of mind, intelligence, and the apparent self (or the false identification of one's self with the material body). The gross body is made up of the five gross elements-solid matter, liquids, radiant energy, gases, and ethereal substances. The interaction of the individual ätmä with the gross and subtle bodies produces inconceivably complex reactions, which cannot be explained by simple chemistry and physics in the living cell. That is why chemistry and physics cannot explain why there is so much difference between a living body and a dead one. Simply put, when the individual living being leaves the body, the live body becomes dead matter-although all the chemicals necessary for the functioning of the living organism are still present.

Consciousness and the Biological Forms

According to the information given in the Vedas, the varieties of life forms are products of the combinations and permutations of the three modes of material nature (goodness, passion, and ignorance). The life forms are just like temporary houses or apartments of various sizes, shapes, and colors, in which the eternal self, or living being, resides temporarily. The biological forms, governed by the three modes, put a constraint on the qualities and activities of the living beings' consciousness. Thus the individual being in a tiger's body will roar loudly and kill animals for food, while the living being in a swan's body will fly gracefully and swim on the surface of lakes. Even in the same family we see differences caused by the activities of the three modes of nature. Although all animals are in the mode of ignorance, they are influenced by the modes of goodness and passion in varying degrees. Cows, for example, are very simple, and their behavior is very mild; they are influenced by the mode of goodness to some extent. The ferocious nature of lions and tigers, on the other hand, reveals their passionate consciousness, while camels are almost completely in the mode of ignorance. In a similar manner, in the family of birds the swans are very noble and gracious, showing symptoms of goodness; hawks, eagles, and peacocks are predominantly in the mode of passion; and vultures and crows are predominantly in the mode of ignorance. Although the biological forms in the same family are similar in nature, the consciousness and behavior of these birds and animals are different. Thus there are millions of forms where the eternal self, or living being, temporarily resides, displaying its behavior according to how the three modes of material nature affect its consciousness.

Reincarnation and the Change of Body

Now the question arises: "What determines the particular biological form and type of consciousness that a living being acquires?" To answer this question, let us first investigate the transformations of form and consciousness that occur within one lifetime.

As mentioned earlier, consciousness and biological form are interrelated, due to the influence of the modes of nature. Thus a child's body and its conscious development are different from those of its youthful stage, and so on. In principle, then, as the body changes from boyhood to old age, the living being, or ätmä, actually passes through many bodies of various ages and varieties of conscious development. Thus the body changes, but the eternal living being within the body-the self-remains the same. Biological science confirms this. In his book The Human Brain, John Pfeiffer points out, "Your body does not contain a single one of the molecules that it contained seven years ago." The movement of the living entity through numerous bodies within one lifetime-something we can all verify by a little introspection-can be termed internal (or continuous) reincarnation or transmigration.

But what about the living being's passage to a new body at the time of death? To the author's knowledge, reports in the literature on the study of reincarnation are based primarily on some scattered data regarding some children's memories of previous lives. This information comes mainly from northern India, Shri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and some areas of western Asia.
4 Although this information certainly supports the theory of reincarnation, it does not provide us with a scientific foundation from which to study it, because the vast majority of people cannot remember their past lives. Therefore we must consult a source of information more reliable than haphazard memory. That information is available in the Vedas. In the Bhagavad-gitä Lord Krishna very clearly explains reincarnation to His friend and devotee Arjuna. The Lord says, "Just as a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly the individual living entity accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones." (Bg. 2.22) ''Just as the embodied living entity passes, in one body, from boyhood to youth to old age, so the living entity similarly passes into another body at death." (Bg. 2.13) Lord Krishna further explains that the mind is the mechanism underlying all these transmigrations: "Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail in his next life." (Bg. 8.6) So, the living entity in a man's body could go into the body of an animal, a bird, an insect, a plant, another human, and so on. This journey of the self, or living entity, into different bodies can be referred to as external (or discontinuous) reincarnation or transmigration.

To illustrate how external reincarnation works, we will briefly relate the story of King Bharata, one of the great personalities in Vedic history, from the Shrimad-Bhägavatam, the foremost of the eighteen Puränas.

One day, after King Bharata had taken his bath as usual in the River Gandaki, he was chanting his mantra when he saw a pregnant deer come to the riverbank to drink water. Suddenly the thundering roar of a lion resounded throughout the forest. The deer was so frightened that it immediately gave birth to its calf. It crossed the river, but then died immediately thereafter. Bharata took compassion on the motherless calf, rescued it from the water, took it to his äshrama, and cared for it affectionately. He gradually became attached to the young deer, and he always thought of it lovingly.
As it grew up, the deer became Bharata's constant companion, and he always took care of it. Gradually he became so absorbed in thinking of this deer that his mind became agitated, he reduced his meditative disciplines, and he fell away from his mystic yoga practice. Once, when the deer was absent, Bharata was so disturbed that he began to search for it. While searching and lamenting the deer's absence, Bharata fell down and died. Because his mind was fully absorbed in thinking of the deer, he naturally took his next birth in the womb of a deer. (Bhäg. 5.8)

As has been mentioned earlier, there is a subtle body, made up of mind, intelligence, and apparent self. In either kind of reincarnation, internal or external, the living being is carried by the subtle body under the laws of karma. The word karma is a Sanskrit term that can be defined as "the function and activity of the living entity within the framework of his free will and under the influence of the three modes of material nature over a span of time." For every action that an individual living being performs, he must undergo an appropriate reaction. For example, if someone is very charitable toward educational institutions, in his next life he may be very wealthy and receive an excellent education. On the other hand, if one performs or has an abortion, he or she will suffer the same fate in the next life. Thus we arrive at a definition of reincarnation, or transmigration, according to the Vedic information: "the continuous journey of the living entity, from one body to another, either internally or externally, under the stringent laws of his individual karma.

Evolution and Devolution of Consciousness

Darwinian evolution, or in modern times chemical evolution, assumes that it is strictly the morphology of an organism that evolves. The Vedic literatures, however, give us the information that it is not the body that evolves but rather the living being's consciousness. And this evolution of consciousness takes place by the process of the living being's transmigration from one body to another. Those living entities that are below the human form of life never violate the laws of nature; they have no choice but to follow them. So their transmigration is strictly unidirectional-from less conscious forms to more conscious forms. Thus microbes, plants, birds, and animals all evolve until they reach the human form of life.


However, when the individual living being comes to the human form of life, his consciousness is fully developed, and along with it his free will. Thus the individual being in the human form can be obstinately rebellious against the laws of nature, or he can be completely harmonious with the laws of nature. In other words, he can exercise his free will either to evolve to a higher plane of consciousness or to revert to a lower stage. From the human form of life, if the individual living being desires, he can escape the continuous cycle of transmigration from one form of body to another. This can be done by using his free will properly. On the other hand, if he exercises his free will improperly, then he can go back to the lower species. And this is called devolution of consciousness-the passage of the living being from higher consciousness to lower consciousness-which intelligent men wish to avoid.

Reincarnation and the Science of Self-realization

The eternal wisdom of the Vedas instructs us that the goal of all knowledge is to break free from the repeated cycle of birth and death. The intelligence of all forms of life below human beings is insufficiently developed to understand the science of self-realization. Therefore the Vedänta-sutra says that in the human form of life one must inquire into the nature of the Absolute Truth.

We must begin by asking such questions as these: "Who am I?" "Where do I come from?" "What is the purpose of my existence?" "How can I get out of the cycle of repeated birth and death?" We should investigate the answers to all these questions very thoroughly. This is the beginning of the science of self-realization, or the science of the study of life.

The Process for Breaking the Chain of Birth and Death

The systematic process for studying the self is called bhakti-yoga. Bhakti-yoga is, once again, a Sanskrit term meaning "the spiritual discipline by which one links up with the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Person, in love." The basic tenet of bhakti-yoga is that in order to get accurate knowledge concerning the Absolute Truth, one must train the mind properly so that it is eligible to receive the knowledge coming from the higher source. We have already discussed how our new scientific paradigm describes the Absolute Truth as supremely sentient, and that everything-matter, life, knowledge, and so on-comes from that absolute source. In order to receive real knowledge, one's mind must be free from the contamination of the lower modes of nature. One of the main impurities is the false pride, or hubris, that impels us to believe we can understand everything by the process of experimental knowledge. We must give up this hubris, control the mind, and make it harmonious with nature. To control and train the mind, we must follow certain disciplines, one of the most basic of which is to hear proper sound vibrations. These sound vibrations are called mantras, which literally means ''sound vibrations that can deliver the mind." The most important mantra given in the Vedas is the Hare Krishna mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Räma, Hare Räma, Räma Räma, Hare Hare. Chanting this mantra regularly is the easiest and most effective method for purifying the mind of all influences of the lower modes of nature.

The gold we obtain from a gold mine is usually in a very impure state, but by a purificatory chemical process we can refine pure gold from it. Similarly, when the mind is contaminated by the material modes of nature, it becomes impure. We have to remove these impurities by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. Gradually our consciousness will become purer and purer, and our real identity will be revealed to us.

Thus, by developing pure consciousness we can revive our original identity as purely spiritual beings, uncontaminated by the modes of nature. In this stage we do not identify ourselves any longer with the body, gross or subtle, and we are on the plane of God consciousness, or Krishna consciousness. Thus we are free of reincarnation once and for all.
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