Hinduism philosophy states that a soul reincarnates through births again and again until it becomes perfect suitable to reunite with its Source. During this process, the soul enters into many bodies, assumes many forms, and passes through many births and rebirths. This concept is summarily described in the following verse of the Bhagavad gita:
“Just as a man discards worn out clothes and
puts on new clothes, the soul discards worn out
bodies and wears new ones.” (2.22)
The Hindu concept of reincarnation is based upon the logical notion that life on earth did not emerge suddenly, but evolved gradually, involving great epochs of time and a vast multitude of beings. During this process, the static and inert consciousness of matter yielded place to the dynamic movement of life and consciousness. The animal tendencies gave way to higher faculties such as perception, reason, intelligence, and self-awareness. Extending the same logic we may further conclude that in future, from this part animal, part human and part divine being, may emerge a spiritual man of divine consciousness, the Superman of Sri Aurobindo, with supra mental consciousness.
The concept of reincarnation, which is common to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, is alien to people who practice Judeo-Christian religions. It is mostly misunderstood and misinterpreted in the western world, partly because of ignorance and partly because of some inherent mental blockage natural to those who practice dogmatic religions and who are conditioned to the single minded pursuit of religious faith along rutted paths. It generated a lot of controversy in the past because it directly challenges the western notions of one birth, one God, one heaven and the Day of Judgment.
Today, belief in reincarnation is gaining ground among many people from all over the world and from diverse religious backgrounds. A few reasons are worth mentioning for this development. Firstly, a great mass of evidence has accumulated over the years in favor of reincarnation in the form of personal experiences and recollection of past lives with great detail. These people were able to not only recollect their past lives, but also point out the places and the people with whom they lived in the past. Secondly, hypnotic regression made it possible for people to travel back in time in their subconscious minds and unearth the hidden memories of their past lives. Thirdly, many people, endowed with psychic abilities, like Edgar Cayce, confirmed beyond doubt that reincarnation was not just a theory or imagination, but a real phenomenon that could be conclusively proved through psychic means and even used to cure some physical and mental ailments.
If you examine the personality of an ordinary human being, you will realize that there is a lot in that, which is grosser and denser and cannot be purified or transformed in a shorter time or one life. What is a hundred years or a few decades of life upon earth on a scale of millions of years of continuous evolution of life that has been happening upon our planet? Does not it sound illogical to say that we would remain static from the evolutionary point of view, while change is the nature of life and ever thing else around us has been changing and evolving constantly?
Hinduism does not accept the premise that a human being can overcome all imperfections in just one lifetime and return to its creator as a liberated soul. It may happen only in exceptional circumstances. According to Hinduism, a being has to live many lives and undergo many experiences before it attains perfection and becomes one with the Divine. The Hindu theory of creation suggests that creation begins when the individual souls become separated from the undifferentiated One. It continues as the evolution of life and consciousness in matter progress upon earth in phases. During this process some souls manage to return to God, their source, through the transformation of matter or Prakriti in which they remain hidden and bound. The remaining souls continue their existence and return to Him in the end, not through transformation but through the great destruction that happens at the end of each time cycle. Thus the great cycle of creation, stretching over millions of years, comes to its logical end.
Therefore, life has to continue along the ordained path until the end of the time cycle. During this period, each Jiva has to struggle and find its way through trial and error until it finds the rare opening to the immortal world. Each Jiva has to evolve progressively through the cycle of innumerable births and deaths before it reaches perfection from inert matter to inert consciousness and then to dynamic consciousness, from ignorance to semi awareness and then to self-awareness, from attachment to detachment and then to complete freedom, from illusion to awareness and then to reality, from darkness to dawn and then into light, from mortality to immortality: this is the forward movement of life in creation. And all this cannot happen just in a few hundred years.
The awakening comes afterwards. It happens, when the mind and body are purified, when virtues are cultivated, when the senses and the mind are restrained and stabilized, and when the soul stirs out of its distractions and radiates its light in the discriminating intelligence. When the mind and body become pure like glass, with the predominance of sattva, the Self shines through. Each word of that being then becomes the word of God. Each stirring a movement of Him. Each decision a manifestation of His supreme will. It is then ignorance is returned to ignorance, karmic debts are squared, the seeds of liberation germinate and one becomes filled with the light of the soul. With that, the outgoing movement of the individual soul that happened as part of His creation begins to reverse and return to its source. The individual being now begins to look to the heaven rather than the earth, to the life immortal rather than transient pleasures of the earthly life
The inexorable law of karma operates throughout this grand drama. Karma is the correction mechanism, the chisel with which the negative self, the inert stone, is chiseled away until the hidden deity comes out of it and enters the temple of God. In the ordinary circumstances, awakening of a sleeping Self cannot take place through miracles but through trial and error. Good actions lead to good future, and bad actions to its opposite. An awareness of this very law is the first great awakening and the first sure leap towards the Light.
Thus, the whole drama of creation seems to start with innumerable individual selves that become enveloped by the principles (tattvas) and modifications (vrittis) of Nature and suffer from temporary distraction until they overcome their delusion and remember their true nature. The Hindu scriptures describe this process variously with such expressions as bondage, true self hiding behind a false self, self becoming enemy of the self, God entering into Nature and remaining united with it in a tight embrace or Self suffering from delusion or becoming enveloped by ignorance and impurities.
All this cannot take place in one simple life, but over a period of time involving many lives. It cannot happen on the strength of a lifetime’s learning but in the light of a great mass of accumulated wisdom. It cannot happen unless the purpose of the whole life is to move towards light and truth.
This is where the idea of reincarnation of soul perfectly fits in. If we accept the whole creation as a grand process stretching over a vast period, we cannot overlook the importance and the role of human beings in it. Human beings cannot appear for a brief span upon earth, live just one life and then disappear forever into the cozy corners of some safe heaven, or the vast dungeons of some burning hell, leaving creation, God and Nature to themselves.
At the individual level, the movement of creation and evolution need not be universally progressive. Since the whole movement is regulated on the principle of trial and error, of learning and improvement through such learning, sometimes, a retrogressive movement may also take place. Due to some unfortunate error of judgment, instead moving towards the light, a being may move away from it.
Thus depending upon the merits of the previous deeds, a being may evolve into higher life forms or regress temporarily into a lower life form. However, due to some peculiar circumstances, if an individual takes birth as a lower life form, he can still reverse the process. He can change his present actions and establish a basis for his forward movement again.
The Jiva thus drifts, sailing in the boat of his own karma, in a sea of worldly illusion (samsara sagaram), towards the shores of liberation, through trial and error, self-effort and assisted by invisible laws and mysterious forces, with the soul remaining as its silent, witnessing companion.
That the theory of reincarnation is not a mere theory, but an actual fact is being now established beyond reasonable doubt. Many instances have now come to light where individuals were able to recollect their past lives through a process of regression or by other means. The theory still baffles many, while many others refuse to acknowledge it because of intense prejudice.
Many thanks to Jayaram for sharing valuable knowledge.