While contemplating various aspects of what happens to the memories during reincarnation I must admit I have totally forgot about the sukshma sharira, the subtle body. There are reasons for that, though – I never thought it mattered enough.
Linga sharira, sukshma sharira – all the same thing, the subtle body. There are probably some differences but they are not essential at the moment. What is essential is that subtle body means many things to many people and that, I believe, accounts for all the confusion in the case of missing memories.
We know subtle body as the combination of the mind, intelligence and the false ego – three subtle material elements, the other five, earth, water, fire, air and ether are gross material elements. That’s all there is to the world, according to Bhagavat Gita. Other vedic sources, however, count a lot more things, altogether twenty six including the soul itself, if my memory serves me right.
According to other vedic sources composition of the subtle body is related to five koshas, or sheaths around the soul. The first one of those, anamayakosha, is where we deposit the food – the gross body, the next three are related to prana, mind, and intelligence, and form the subtle body. The last one, anandamayakosha, is treated differently in different schools so I’ll leave it out.
Notice how false ego is missing from this classification but there’s an addition of prana, a very important element that we don’t normally pay any attention to in our society. I’m not saying that we should but prana is always out there, everybody has it, and it’s mentioned a few times in our books but we just never try to correlate it to other elements of the subtle body.
Yet there’s another system of counting subtle body elements that includes all kinds of senses and sense related stuff and the total runs up to seventeen.
All of those dichotomies can be found in Prabhupada’s books, here and there, and so it’s not clear what he meant exactly when he said in the purport to Bhagavat Gita 15.8:
It is stated here that the subtle body, which carries the conception of the next body, develops another body in the next life.
If we look at what is stated in the verse it isn’t clear either – Krishna probably referred to the “six senses including the mind” mentioned earlier. That is yet another classification of what the subtle body is, the forth one.
I’ve also seen further divisions of the mind and, possibly, other subtle elements, I don’t remember, something about conscious, subconscious etc etc.
All of these definitions are pretty authoritative and all of them must be true, I believe all of them could be reconciled if we consider possible approaches to the subject. Sometimes mentioning mind, intelligence and false ego is enough, sometimes we need to differentiate further. The only real problem is prana – it’s hard to see where should it go in a simple three element subtle body, but if Krishna mentioned only three subtle elements prana must fit somewhere there, He couldn’t be wrong, could He?
Now, what is relevant to the discussion of reincarnation here? We know that the soul leaves the body via several possible exits and the subtle body follows it. At the moment of death there’s separation of the gross and subtle bodies. Then come Yamadutas and take the soul away, still with the subtle body.
From all accounts I’ve heard the subtle body at that point is still pretty much the same as the gross body it just left. It feels different but it has the same shape, same memories, same desires – it’s still ME, I don’t have arms of legs anymore but it’s still me, why can’t anybody hear me?
When the soul is taken to Yamaraja it still maintains the same subtle body. There it is given a list of reasons why it should go to hell and it remembers all or most of the transgressions from the recent life.
I don’t know if it maintains the same subtle body while the actual punishment is administered. Some said that souls are made to suffer in their subtle bodies, in other places they take forms of worms or other creatures according to the hellish planets they’ve been sent to.
At this point they might remember what they are being punished for, or they might not.
Some souls don’t go to hell, they get born on the heavenly planets, then they come down to Earth as rain, then they enter grains, then they are eaten my men, then they become semen, then they are impregnated into a female womb, and a few weeks later they finally wake up and start praying.
I don’t believe that most of this journey they maintain the subtle bodies of the demigods, more likely their astral forms take shape of the particular gross vessels they happen to be carried in.
That is an important point – the subtle bodies change. They change throughout our lives, the grow and then shrivel as we become old, and they keep familiar forms for as long as they can, before new gross bodies reshape them.
It’s said in the Bhagavatam that the soul within a human embryo prays for Lord’s mercy but forgets about it as soon as it gets born, and we all know that it doesn’t get the capacity to pray again for another few years. It doesn’t say that the soul prays for the mercy to be eaten when it’s confined inside the grains of rice, too.
I would also go with Bhagavat Gita – the soul discards old bodies and takes on new ones just as we put on new clothes, and that the soul is the only unchangeable, eternal element. Krishna didn’t say that the subtle body containing the soul takes on new gross bodies and discards old. He didn’t say that the soul and the subtle body stay the same through all these changes either.
That leads me to a conclusion – even though there always are some material elements surrounding the soul, they are not constant in shape and they change, sometimes completely, under the influence of the material nature and higher powers.
Thus I’m extremely doubtful that they carry all the memories of all past lives at all times. One reason is that at no point in its history the subtle body displays capacity, another reason is that the subtle body doesn’t need to remember everything, only the last snapshot of the mind at the time of death.
That is actually an interesting point – why is the last memory so important? The subtle body can think, it can desire things at all times, all the ghosts want something. They can’t act on their desires but the last thought is not an action of a gross body – it’s a thought, it’s an action of the mind or intelligence which are parts of the subtle body and so is not particularly different from thinking while gliding above the operating table watching your body dying, thinking, for example, that you should have shaved that morning to make a better impression on that cute nurse.
Maybe it’s the rules – thoughts while in a gross body count, thoughts without a gross body don’t, or maybe there’s a principal difference between the mind of an incarnated man and the mind of the subtle body carrying the soul between births. Maybe they are not quite the same thing, maybe they function differently, maybe they have different capacities.
Maybe the last thought counts more because it’s literally the last thought – all other memories are going to be wiped after getting through purgatory. After that you are born as new, your last desires are recorded, you can resume from where you left off, with the new gross body, but all that happened before that is gone, your memory slate is clean.
Either way, it doesn’t sound good for the argument that we all carry all our memories from all our births at all times.
Why am I trying to prove that? To soothe my wounded pride, and also for the sake of the argument. And also I believe it makes sense. And also because I don’t know any better, I have no humility, I have argumentative nature, and I’m going to hell to find out how it works for myself.
Can’t find any proper reasons, really, so I’ll leave it at that.