By Swami Bhaskarananda
The idea of reincarnation in Hinduism is perhaps as old as Hinduism itself. To students of religion reincarnation is a theological doctrine. Most Hindus consider it a fact. The evidence in support of reincarnation comes from two sources: (1) Jatismaras–people who can remember their past birth or births and (2) the testimony of the scriptures or saints.
Hindu religious literature is full of numerous references to reincarnation. In The Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna, a Divine Incarnation, says to his student Arjuna, “Arjuna, both you and I were born many times in the past. You do not remember those births, but I remember them all.” In this particular context Sri Krishna can be called a Jatismara, a person who remembers his past births—but Arjuna is not.
Over the years people who are neither divine incarnations nor saints have also displayed the rare ability to remember their past lives. Their number is quite small. Nevertheless, the validity of many such cases has been proved in India after reliable and unbiased investigation.
The doctrine of reincarnation explains many things, which cannot otherwise be explained adequately. For instance, the genius of a child prodigy like Mozart cannot be satisfactorily explained by heredity or genes alone. Only the doctrine of reincarnation can explain this satisfactorily. Such a prodigy must have been a highly accomplished musician in his last birth, and he carried that talent over to this incarnation.
Why Do We Reincarnate?
Hinduism says that our unfulfilled desires are primarily responsible for our rebirth. To understand this position one should know Hinduism’s view about death and thereafter.
The Gross and Subtle Bodies
According to Hinduism, a human has two bodies, the gross and the subtle. The gross body is the physical body. The subtle body consists of the mind, intellect, sense organs, motor organs and vital energy. The physical eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin are not considered real sense organs. They are only offices used by the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch to establish contact with the external world. The real sense organs are extremely subtle.
Death and the Lokas—the Different Planes of Existence
When a person dies, his gross physical body is left behind and the soul with the subtle body, consisting of his mind, intellect, vital energy and his motor and sense organs, goes to a different plane of existence. Such a plane of existence is called a Loka in Sanskrit. According to popular understanding there are three Lokas. They are Swarga, Martya and Patala, but the scriptures speak of many more.
Other than this earth plane, Bhur-loka, there are innumerable Lokas. They are worlds of different sets of vibration. All of them, however, occupy the same space. Lokas constituting the other world are neither up above nor down below in relation to this earth plane. They have the same spatial existence.
The Scriptures of Hinduism mention other Lokas also. Kaushitaki Upanishad (1. 3.) mentions Brahmaloka, Prajapatiloka, Indraloka, Adityaloka, Varunaloka, Vayuloka and Agniloka as the seven higher Lokas.
It is not possible to produce an exhaustive list of the Lokas because the Lokas are innumerable. Nevertheless, Hinduism speaks of fourteen Lokas including this earthly plane (Bhurloka). They are Satyaloka, Tapoloka, Maharloka, Janaloka, Swarloka, Bhuvarloka, Bhurloka, Atalaloka, Vitalaloka, Sutalaloka, Rasatalaloka, Talatalaloka, Mahatalaloka and Patalaloka. Obviously, this is a selective list, not an exhaustive one. Among these Lokas the first six are considered the higher Lokas, and the last seven are considered the lower Lokas.
The adjectives higher or lower are used in comparison to conditions found in Bhurloka. In the higher Lokas, in ascending order, there is more and more enjoyment or spiritual bliss compared to what is usually found on this earth plane. Similarly, in the lower Lokas, in descending order, there is more and more suffering. All these joys or sufferings, however, are experienced by the departed soul only through the mind. The degree of purity of the mind determines where his or her soul along with the subtle body will go. Departed souls go to higher Lokas if their minds are pure. If their minds are not that pure, they goes to relatively lower Lokas. As determined by h past Karma, the departed souls remain in one of these Lokas for a certain period of time, either suffering or enjoying there.
Unfulfilled Desire Causes Rebirth
When people die with strong unfulfilled desires, which can only be fulfilled on earth, their minds—while they are in the other world—strongly yearn for the fulfillment of those desires. As every conscious action is prompted by a thought, those unfulfilled desires eventually bring them back to earth, thus causing their rebirth or reincarnation.
An analogy will explain this more clearly. Let us suppose you are extremely fond of a special exotic dish served by an exclusive restaurant in the city where you live. But the restaurant is ten miles away from your home. One day you develop a great craving for that dish. Your strong desire to enjoy that dish persuades you to get into your car and drive the ten miles to that restaurant. So also the urges of the departed souls to satisfy their unfulfilled desires will bring them back to earth until their desires are fulfilled.
Reincarnation—An Opportunity to Make Spiritual Progress
Reincarnation also gives us the opportunity to gradually evolve spiritually through the various valuable experiences we acquire in our different incarnations. Eventually we reach the acme of our spiritual progress through God realization. After realizing God we go beyond all desires, because we no longer lack anything. We transcend the chain of repeated births and deaths.
Such a person is called a liberated soul.
Transmigration of Souls
The idea of the transmigration of souls is also present in Hinduism. Generally speaking, a human soul evolves from incarnation to incarnation. Therefore, it is normal for a human soul to be born again and again only in human bodies until liberation. But there may be rare exceptions. In these exceptional cases a human soul may be born once or twice in a subhuman body to work out very bad Karma. When the bad Karma is worked out, the soul incarnates again in a human body and goes through the process of gradual spiritual evolution.
Reincarnation and the Idea of Evolution of Species in Hinduism
Those who do not accept the idea of reincarnation sometimes argue that the number of human beings should have decreased and not increased, considering the fact that many humans have been liberated from death and rebirth since the beginning of creation. Or, in other words, the doctrine of reincarnation is not a valid doctrine. But Hinduism refutes that objection by stating that many subhuman beings in the course of evolution are being born as human beings. Consequently, the number of human beings is on the increase. Hinduism also asserts that divinity is equally present in every soul, whether that be in a human or a subhuman body. Otherwise it goes against the idea of God’s omnipresence.
Patanjali, the founder of the Yoga system of philosophy, speaks of the transformation of one genus or species into another. In Sanskrit it is called Jatyantara-Parinama. According to Patanjali, one genus or species potentially has the ability to evolve into another genus or species when changing circumstances create a suitable environment for such evolution.