Vanity thought #219. Born again.

This subject gave me considerable grief in the past couple of days – what happens when one dies and gets born again. What does the soul carry from one life to the next.

Actually, I don’t care that much, it’s not something we, as devotees, should be overly concerned about – we should be preparing ourselves NOT to be born again, ever, and we shouldn’t be making plan B in case that doesn’t work out. All these things are better left to Krishna, man proposes, God disposes, there’s no practical application in knowing the exact procedure of reincarnation.

There’s a matter of pride, however, I staked mine on saying that the soul goes alone, it turns out I’m most probably wrong and I want to make it right. Not by accepting the correct version, proving that I didn’t make a mistake. Such a fool.

I’ve learned quite a few things along the way, however, so there was some benefit from my stubbornness in the end.

My understanding always has been that the soul leaves one body and goes to the next. All that we accumulated in our lives becomes lost, all our possessions, all our family ties, all our expertise, experience – everything. Surely our present situation affects our next appearance but, basically, when you die you leave everything behind.

Turns out there’s an alternative version – that we take our subtle body with us, too. Outrageous, was my first reaction.

It all started with competition for the best answers to a common question – if there’s reincarnation then how come I don’t remember anything from my previous lives? A common answer is that these memories stay hidden so as not to overwhelm our gentle psyche. Basically the same reason we don’t know our future that is predetermined by the laws of karma – too much to bear.

I always thought it was a lame argument. Some people can deal perfectly well with predictions of their future, some people should be able to deal well with memories of the past lives, too. Maybe not at each and every moment of their lives but occasionally, when they’ve been told they have only a few months left to live or when they go through some allegedly traumatic experiences and need a real eye-opener to put their trivial problems in perspective.

Instead, the memories of our past lives are shut out for us forever regardless of the state of our minds. There are people who remember something from their previous incarnations and they don’t go crazy, too.

There must be another reason, I always thought. Recently I found one – when we die and get born again we do not carry any physical connections from one life to another, no receptacles for the memories. Even if there was no restriction on remembering our past lives we still have no means to carry the data from one life to the next. Sounds plausible to me but, as I said, some people say that we indeed carry something – our subtle bodies.

I didn’t remember ever reading anything like that so I set out to scout all relevant pages in Bhagavat Gita and finally found some – verse 15.8:

The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas. Thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another…

In the purport Prabhupada says “It is stated here that the subtle body, which carries the conception of the next body, develops another body in the next life.”

The commentaries by acharyas in other vaishnava sampradayas are unequivocal, Keshava Kashmiri of Kumara sampradaya being a but more direct than others:

The purport is that wherever the jiva departs from a body and whenever it is compeled to accept another body the atma or immortal soul migrating from one body to another, arrives with the subtle forms of the mind and senses in tact to perform their functions through the physical body which has been allotted due to karma or reactions to previous actions.

This looks like a total defeat for my little theory, or does it?

I’ll leave the acharyas out of it for the moment and concentrate on Prabhupada. He said that the soul carries “different conceptions of life”, nothing about mind and senses at all. Different conceptions of life could be impressions the mind leaves on the soul’s consciousness at the time of death.

That’s how I always thought it worked – the mind affect the consciousness, consciousness can’t be separated from the soul, however polluted it is, it’s inseparable part of the soul itself. In the next life a new body develops according to this particularly polluted consciousness, and it develops from the scratch, no need to carry anything physical, gross or subtle. In fact, the new mind develops according to the present material conditions – DNA, parenting, education, at least the mind as we know it. The living entity has been put into these conditions according to his consciousness and karma but I don’t see why the old mind should be present, too.

The reference to mind and senses come from the previous verse, Krishna doesn’t mention them here at all, he just says etani – all these, referring to the content of the previous sloka, 15.7:

The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind.

Krishna talks about several things here – living entities are His fragmentary parts, living entities are conditioned, living entities are eternal, living entities struggle with six senses including mind.

When He says “all these” – what exactly does He mean? It’s not very clear. Prabhupada didn’t translate it as “six senses including mind” at all. He just said “different conceptions of life” as that follows logical progression of the thought. Logical in the sense that Krishna wasn’t concentrating on a particular composition of the material bodies, it was just one little aspect of what He was saying – my fragmentary parts, eternal, conditioned, and suffering. Six senses including mind was only one example of what our sufferings here are.

If Krishna was really enumerating all the reasons we suffer here He could have mentioned suffering caused by our bodies, other beings and the nature, or sufferings due to birth, death, old age and disease, sufferings due to the modes of passion and ignorance – there are so many reasons to be unhappy here.

If Krishna was preparing to describe what a living entity carries over to the next life he would have described our bodies in greater details – what senses, jnanendriyas or karmendriyas, and what of intelligence and false ego? It just doesn’t sound like it was His intention at all, not the subject of His concern at that particular point.

Following that logic I agree with Prabhupada not mentioning any details specifically, just “different conceptions of life”. Or maybe Krishna referred to eternal struggles in conditional life – in English they could also be covered by saying “all those”. Prabhupada didn’t want to commit one way or another – the point Krishna was making was about the way to reach His abode, not about specifics of reincarnation.

Other acharyas chose to focus on mind and senses, good for them.

This calls for some kind of reconciliation. Reconciliation between commentaries and reconciliation between current interpretations, too, but, most importantly, reconciliation between my pride and the truth…

Maybe the soul does take something with him when he travels from one body to another, however I don’t think we should take OUR literal meaning of what the senses and the mind are in this context. Literally speaking, taking senses with you does not make any sense at all.

Does taking the mind mean taking all the memories, all the skills, all the experience? No one is born with a mind of a grown man, no one is born with the memories of an old man either, and it’s not just because the new body is too small for all these things – when it grows up it doesn’t display them either, it collects new memories and skills.

Material science has largely proved that memories are stored in the brain – they might not be able to manipulate them yet but they can do crude things like enabling and disabling access to the memory areas via surgical or chemical interventions. Brain is not carried over, that much is clear.

Personally, I think that having consciousness is enough – all new body elements, gross and subtle, are supplied by the material nature according to the laws of karma and these new elements enable the consciousness to develop the new body.

Gosh, but then Prabhupada said that it’s the subtle body that develops the next body! Something must be carried over.

What about ghosts and going to hell? Ghosts, as far as we know, exist outside their bodies and they have memories of their lives. People having near death out of body experiences also don’t need brains to know what’s going on. Subtle bodies must have some kind of storage, too.

When people go to hell they, I presume, remember what they are being punished for. I’ve been told that Yamadutas torture people in their subtle bodies there and they get gross bodies only upon new birth.

Fine, but isn’t it also the common theme about the “point of no return” in all ghost stories? Wouldn’t it mean the point after which people lose their identities? The point where they are stripped of their subtle bodies and eventually get reborn?

At this point I’m leaning towards the theory that memories do not get carried over. I don’t see the need, I don’t see the evidence, and I see only a weak reference in the Gita that could mean a lot of things, the whole bank of memories from thousands and millions of lives is the last possibility, in my opinion.

The living entity itself who lived through all these lives must have the memories in its own, spiritual form anyway. Normally we don’t have access to this “spiritual” storage but that is not surprising – in the conditioned state we don’t know who we are, after all, and all remembrance and forgetfulness is controlled by the Supersoul. Sometimes these memories might come to the surface and manifest through our material bodies, like when people remember their past lives or start speaking in ancient languages.

On a related topic – when Krishna talked about being the cause of forgetting things He probably didn’t mean the functions of our material minds. Our minds can be trained to remember and they can be trained to forget. They can be trained to recollect things faster and they can be distracted to slow them down. That kind of manipulation doesn’t have any direct connection to Krishna, remembering something stored in our spiritual memory is another thing altogether – no one but Krishna has a control over that facility.

I guess He can easily remind us where we dropped our keys even if our minds resign in desperation, who can claim that such little miracles never happened to them? There are other cases that could be explained by the Supersoul unlocking some of our memories and forcing us to make some surprising connections and discoveries. To scientists it happens all the time – the solutions just appear our of the blue, or they dream them up.

Anyway, the definite resolution of this matter requires more references from the scriptures. Either answer to the question of not remembering our past lives is fine, I guess. I’m not comfortable with “You don’t remember because your weak mind wouldn’t be able to deal with it” explanation but it’s me, I don’t use it very often, if ever, maybe people who give this answer themselves find that it works just fine, I don’t know, I’m not in the position to tell them how to preach anyway.

If only I could subdue my pride and admit I had no clue what is really going on with reincarnation, the spiritual ABC. That’s my real problem, not the correct answer per se.