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Reincarnation: View of Different Religions
Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism:
In India, the ancient holy land of Krishna, Rama, Buddha, and countless incarnations of the Lord, reincarnation is a reality as self-evident to a humble farmer as it is to a learned scholar or a saintly person. Several references could be cited from the Atharva Veda, the Manu Samhita, the Upanishads, the Vishnu Purana, the Bhagavata Purana, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and many other texts. This vast body of Vedic wisdom that explains the subtleties of life in minute details is the foundation that leads to the unshakeable acceptance of reincarnation in the follower of Sanatana dharma. A few direct examples will make this clear: O learned and tolerant soul, after roaming in waters and plants, a person enters the womb and is born again and again. O soul, you are born in the body of plants, in trees, in all created animate objects, and in waters. O soul, blazing like the sun, after cremation, having reached the fire and the earth for rebirth, and residing in the belly of your mother, you are born again. 0 soul, having reached the womb, again and again, you lay in your mother's body, as a child sleeps in her mother's lap. (Yajur Veda, 12.36-37)
The 'Brihadaranyaka Upanishad" (4.4.1-4) goes still further in outlining just how reincarnation occurs: (At the time of death) the area of his (the soul's) heart becomes lit and by that light the soul departs either through the eye, the head, or through other apertures of the body. And when he departs, the pranas (various life airs) follow him to his next destination... His knowledge and his deeds follow him, as does his previous wisdom.... Just as a caterpillar, when it reaches the end of one blade of grass, and after having properly approached another one, draws itself together toward the new blade, so the soul, after having thrown away the prior body and its ignorance, draws itself together, and latches onto the new body. And as the goldsmith, taking a piece of gold, turns it into another, more beautiful shape, even so does this soul, after having thrown away the old and useless body, makes unto himself newer and, hopefully, better bodies, according to his previous actions, ability and desires.
The 'samsara view' is the matured Hindu explanation of death, the culmination of the Vedic and Puranic concepts. 'Samsara' teaches that, immediately after death, the soul is reborn into the material world and continues the cycle over and over again till he achieves purified consciousness, free from material desires. At that time, the purified soul returns to the spiritual realm, the spawning ground from which all souls originally come. There, one resumes one's natural, constitutional life in the company of God. Contemporary Hinduism, as well as Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and a host of other popular East-Indian traditions, hold this perspective, seeing it as the essential truth of all previous teachings.The complexity of these subjects and the immense detail afforded by Vedic texts and commentaries are staggering. Related ideas, such as life in the womb, are explained so completely that the Vedas - by sheer volume of data - are considered by many to be the most authoritative and complete source of information on the subject of reincarnation. To give but one small example, the Bhagavata Purana, considered the essence of Indian holy books, offers an elaborate explanation of the development of consciousness from fetus to death:
Having gone through all the miserable, hellish conditions and having passed in a regular order through the lowest forms of animal life prior to human birth, and having thus been purged of his sins, one is reborn again as a human being on this earth. (3.30.34) Under the supervision of the Supreme Lord and according to the result of his work, the living entity, the soul, is made to enter into the womb of a woman through the particle of male semen to assume a particular type of body. (3.31.1) On the first night, the sperm and ovum mix, and on the fifth night the mixture ferments into a bubble. On the tenth night it develops into a form like a plum, and after that, it gradually turns into a lump of flesh. (3.31.2) In the course of a month, a head is formed, and at the end of two months the hands, feet and other limbs take shape. By the end of three months, the nails, fingers, toes, body hair, bones and skin appear, as do the organ of generation and the other apertures in the body, namely the eyes, nostrils, ears, mouth and anus. (3.31.3) Within four months from the date of conception, the seven essential ingredients of the body, namely chyle, blood, flesh, fat, bone, marrow and semen, come into existence. At the end of five months, hunger and thirst make themselves felt, and at the end of six months, the fetus, enclosed by the amnion, begins to move in the abdomen - on the right side if the child is a male and on the left side if female. (3.31.4)
Although compiled thousands of years ago by sages, the aforementioned details conform to modern scientific research. The "Bhagavata' goes on to explain that while the womb is a safe, nurturing place for the newly embodied soul, this same soul must also experience various types of pain in the womb, and that the trauma of this experience allows the soul to forget its previous lives.
Five Steps to Enlightenment
All the sages and devotees alike have summarized ancient India's process of liberation from 'samsara' as a movement through five basic steps to enlightenment:
(1) Each of us is a living soul within a material body
Our consciousness is spread all over our body. Everyone is conscious of the pains and pleasures of the body in part or as a whole. This spreading of consciousness is limited within one's own body. The pains and pleasures of one body are unknown to another. Therefore, each and every body is the embodiment of an individual soul, and the symptom of the soul's presence is perceived as individual consciousness. This soul is described as one ten-thousandth part of the upper portion of the hair point in size. The Shvetashvatar Upanishad (5.9) confirms this:
balagra-sata-bhagasya satadha kalpitasya ca,
bhago jivah vijneyah sa canantyaya kalpate
"When the upper point of a hair is divided into one hundred parts and again each of such parts is further divided into one hundred parts, each such part is the measurement of the dimension of the spirit soul."
The fact that the atomic soul is within the body of a gigantic animal, in the body of a gigantic banyan tree, and also in the microbic germs,millions and billions of which occupy only an inch of space, is certainly very amazing. Men with a poor fund of knowledge and men who are not austere cannot understand the wonders of the individual atomic spark of spirit. Owing to a gross material conception of things, most men in this age cannot imagine how such a small particle can become both so great and so small.Since every living entity is an individual soul, each is changing his body every moment, manifesting sometimes as a child, sometimes as a youth, and sometimes as an old man. Yet the same spirit soul is there and does not undergo any change. This individual soul finally changes the body at death and transmigrates to another body; and since it is sure to have another body in the next birth - either material or spiritual -there is no cause for lamentation when someone dies. We acquire a new body according to our desire and karma - this constitutes our "means" for establishing future states of existence.
(2) Souls first devolve, then evolve, through the species
The soul, desiring to be the lord of its own domain, leaves the spiritual realm, where God is Supreme, and becomes an angelic being in Brahma's world (Satyaloka, the highest heavenly planet). From there, a small quantity of souls may return to their original spiritual state. The majority, however, due to unlawful passion and desires associated with the body, fall to the lowest species of life, in lower planets, and gradually go through each of the 8,400,000 forms. The Vedic literature describes 8,400,000 species of life: aquatics, plants, insects, reptiles, birds, four-legged beasts and various kinds of human beings. The soul eventually evolves to the human species of which there are 400,000 varieties. While being born and reborn several times as humans with various levels of consciousness, the soul can either accrue fresh karma that continues its transmigration or can learn his lessons and become liberated. The purpose behind this rotation in various births is the latter - to awaken the soul to its original constitutional position of servitorship to the Lord and prepare for returning to His kingdom.
The soul may make specific sacrifices to attain specific heavenly planets and consequently reach them. When the merit of sacrifice is exhausted, the living entity descends to earth in the form of rain, then takes on the form of grains, and the grains are eaten by man and transformed into semen, which impregnates a woman, and thus the soul once again attains the human form. Again he performs fresh good and bad acts and achieves results accordingly. In this way, the soul perpetually comes and goes on the material path.
(3) Actions we perform in this body determine our next body
The soul is transmigrating from one body to another just as a person changes his dress. This change of dress is due to his attachment to material existence. As long* as he is captivated by this false manifestation, he has to continue transmigrating from one body to another. Due to his desire to lord it over material nature, he is put into such undesirable circumstances. Under the influence of material desire, the soul is born sometimes as a demigod, sometimes as a human being, sometimes as a beast, as a bird, as a worm, as an aquatic, as a saintly man, as a bug. And in all cases the soul thinks himself to be the master of his circumstances, yet he is under the influence of material nature.
(4) One must know the two souls that pervade the body
The Vedic texts explain that there are two souls within every material body. The first is the atomic soul (the jiva-atma i.e.souls like you and me), who has acquired the body as per his past desires and activities. And the other is the Supersoul (the Paramatma), who is an expansion of the Supreme Lord and who accompanies the atomic soul as his guide throughout his journey through various bodies in the material world. The atomic soul is conscious of only his body, whereas the Supersoul is conscious of all bodies of all living beings.
The Vedas, like the Mundak Upanishad, as well as the Shvetashvatar Upanishad , compare the soul and the Supersoul to two friendly birds sitting on the same tree. One of the birds (the individual atomic soul) is eating the fruit of the tree, and the other bird (the Supersoul) is simply watching His friend. Of these two birds - although they are the same in quality, the atomic soul is captivated by the fruits of the material tree, while the Supersoul is simply witnessing the activities of His friend, bird. Although they are friends, the Supersoul is still the master and the atomic soul is the servant. Forgetfulness of this relationship by the atomic soul is the cause of his changing his position from one tree to another, or from one body to another. The atomic soul is struggling very hard on the tree of the material body, but as soon as he agrees to accept the other bird as the supreme spiritual master - as Arjuna agreed to do by voluntary surrender unto Krishna for instruction - the subordinate bird immediately becomes free from all lamentations. Both the Mundaka Upanishad (3.1.2) and Shvetashvatar Upanishad (4.7) confirm this:
samane vrkse puruso nimagno 'nisaya socati muh yamanah
justam yada pasyaty anyam Isam asya mahimanam iti vlta-sokah
"Although the two birds are in the same tree, the eating bird is fully engrossed with anxiety and moroseness as the enjoyer of the fruits of the tree. But if in some way or other he turns his face to his friend who is the Lord and knows His glories - at once the suffering bird becomes free from all anxieties."
(5) The soul can escape rebirth by cultivating consciousness of God
The Supersoul is the dearest friend of the living being -escorting him, sanctioning his desires, maintaining him and eventually sending him a genuine guru who can teach him the intricacies of spiritual life. Studying scripture in the association of other aspiring devotees, under the guidance of a qualified preceptor, is the fundamental Vedic program for enlightenment. The results of such training are 'ruchi' (taste for spiritual life) and 'vairagya' (the sense of detachment necessary to sustain spiritual practices); and eventually 'prema' (love of God), which guarantees freedom from repeated birth and death.
One thus situated in transcendence no longer hankers or laments for anything, but lives in this world simply in service to God. Although he is in the realm of matter, he resides in the spiritual kingdom of God. He enjoys unlimited bliss by remembering the Lord and by engaging in His service. Such devotees have unlimited compassion for less evolved souls and devote their lives to helping them acquire a similar elevated state of spiritual consciousness. With this single-minded determination to work on behalf of the Lord, they are freed from the reaction to all karma, and at the end of this life, they do not return to this world but, instead, go to reside with the Lord of their heart. Regardless of social status, caste, creed, age, gender - among the wide diversity of sects, sub-sects, philosophical schools, the doctrine of reincarnation and faith in karma remains as one of the most pervasive common denominators in the tradition of Sanatana dharma.