Does some aspect of our personality survive bodily death?
Some say no. But there are strong reasons for thinking it does. You’ll find some of them discussed later in this article. Meanwhile, here are the basic teachings of the Vedic philosophy, the teachings given by the ancient wisdom literature of India.
According to the Vedic literature, the psychophysical entity with which we now identify ourselves is not our true self. The true self is neither the body nor the mind, nor a combination of both. The Vedic sages tell us that the body and mind are but gross and subtle coverings of the self.
Underlying these temporary coverings, the real self is a spark of spiritual consciousness, eternal and unchanging but temporarily misidentifying itself with matter in the form of the body and mind. And this real self, the Vedic sages tell us, survives the death of the body and lives on.
If it does survive, where does it go?
- Eternal heaven or hell?
- Or perhaps we merge into some sort of spiritual oneness.
- At the end of one lifetime, do we embark upon another?
The explanatory value of the Vedic point of view
The Vedic teachings about reincarnation offer us an opportunity to understand our material circumstances more deeply, and those teachings answer questions that might otherwise yield no suitable answers.
- Why are living beings born in such a multiplicity of forms and circumstances? Not by chance but because of their previous acts.
- How is it that some people have extraordinary skills, even at an early age? How is it, for example, that Mozart was composing symphonies by the age of four? If we accept the Vedic point of view, those skills may have persisted from a previous life.
- Even with ordinary abilities—some of us are good at mechanics, others at math—reincarnation offers explanatory value.
- Why do some of us have particular fears, others particular objects of fondness? One contributing reason may be the circumstances of a previous life.
- Why do some people feel they’ve got “the wrong gender”? Some men feel like they “should be” women, some women like they should be men. Why? Feelings persisting from a previous life offer, again, a contributing answer.
The Vedic answer also virtually solves “the problem of evil.”
Why do the innocent suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? How can a just God permit injustice in the world? As soon as we accept the Vedic view, the problem virtually dissolves. For no longer is anyone “innocent.” None of us is merely a blank slate. Each of us has to suffer or enjoy the results of our own past acts.
Who gives credence to this?
In much of the civilized world, the idea of reincarnation, or transmigration of the soul, is the prevailing point of view. More than a third of the world’s people accept reincarnation as a fact of life.
And even in the West, the doctrine of reincarnation has a long list of distinguished adherents.
- Pythagoras (Greek philosopher and mathematician, c.582–c.500 BC)
- Socrates (Greek philosopher, 469–399 BC)
- Plato (Greek philosopher, 427–347 BC)
- Plotinus (Greek philosopher, founder of Neoplatonism, 204–270)
- Giordano Bruno (Italian philosopher, 1548–1600)
- François Voltaire (French philosopher, 1694–1778)
- Benjamin Franklin (US statesman, philosopher and inventor, 1706–1790)
- Gotthold Lessing (German philosopher and dramatist, 1729–1781)
- John Adams (Second president of the United States, 1735–1826)
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German poet and dramatist, 1749–1832)
- August Wilhelm von Schlegel (German poet, critic and translator, 1767–1845)
- William Wordsworth (English poet, 1770–1850)
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (US philosopher and writer, 1803–1882)
- Robert Browning (English poet, 1812–1889)
- Richard Wagner (German composer, 1813–1883)
- Henry David Thoreau (US social critic, writer and philosopher, 1817–1862)
- Walt Whitman (US poet, 1819–1892)
- Thomas Huxley (English biologist and writer, 1825–1895)
- Leo Tolstoy (Russian novelist and social critic, 1828–1910)
- Mark Twain (US writer, 1835–1910)
- George Bernard Shaw (British writer, 1856–1950)
- Gustav Mahler (German composer, 1860–1911)
- Rudolf Steiner (Austrian philosopher, 1861–1925)
- David Lloyd George (British Prime Minister, 1863–1945)
- Henry Ford (US automobile pioneer, 1863–1947)
- Rudyard Kipling (English writer, 1865–1936)
- Somerset Maugham (English writer, 1874–1965)
- Carl Jung (Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist, 1875–1961)
- Sir Hugh Dowding (British Air Marshal during the Battle of Britain, 1882–1970)
- George S. Patton (US general, 1885–1945)
- Albert Schewitzer (Alsatian writer, missionary, doctor, and musician. 1875–1965)
- Robert Graves (English poet, 1895–1985)
- Erik Erikson (US psychoanalyst, 1902–1994)
- Isaac Bashevis Singer (US novelist and short-story writer, 1904–1991)
If reincarnation is a fact, how does it work?
According to the Bhagavad-gita, whatever we think of at the time of death determines what sort of body we’ll take next. And of course what we think of at death depends largely on what we thought about and what we did during our life. The process is subtle, because the mind is subtle.
The Bhagavad-gita explains that the mind, at death, carries with it subtle conceptions, just as the air carries aromas. And these subtle thoughts are what shape the next body. They determine what sort of eyes one will have, what nose, ears, and tongue, what sort of hands and legs and other bodily features. These all assemble around the mind.
The Vedic writings tell us, also, that our karma— we deserve for our past acts— not only from what we have done in the present life but from past lives as well. My present birth, then, is an outcome of what I have thought and what I have done in the past.
Are human beings always reborn as human beings? According to the Vedic literature, no. Some are, but others are promoted to still higher forms, forms beyond our present experience, and others are degraded to lower species.
Sometimes, for example, we see a person living just like a pig—, sloppy, gluttonous. We may think he even looks like a pig. According to the Vedic teachings, such a person, already practically a pig in consciousness, may get the body of a pig in his next life.
The Vedic writings say that there are 8,400,000 species, most of them lower than human. In the lower species, the living beings always act precisely as nature dictates. They have no choice. A horse always acts like a horse, a tree like a tree. You never see a tiger stealing oranges.
And so the living beings in lower species always advance to species higher. Slowly, one step at a time, they are promoted by nature from one species to the next.
But human life affords us greater choice. We can live in harmony with nature’s laws, or we can violate them. And accordingly we may be promoted or degraded. The human life is therefore meant for spiritual realization and for gaining freedom from the cycle of birth and death. No other species offers us this opportunity.
Why reincarnation? What’s the purpose?
The Vedic literature offers two answers.
First, we’re being given a chance to live out our desires. You want to fly? Take the body of a bird. You want to swim? Take the body of a fish. You want to drink blood? The body of a tiger. Fool around and have sex all day? The body of a monkey.
Second: We’re being given repeated opportunities to attain spiritual realization, break free from material entanglement, and resume our eternal nature in the spiritual world. The Vedic writings are meant to guide us in achieving this goal.
What about scientific evidence for reincarnation?
There are various sorts of empiric evidence offered in support of the idea of reincarnation. Much of it is weak or useless, some of it strong.
- Déjà vu
- Channeling, or mediumistic communication
- Past-life regressions under hypnosis
- Spontaneous experiences of past lives
- Spontaneous past-life memories in children
Objections to the idea of reincarnation
- If I’ve had past lives, why don’t I remember them?
- What could be the use of lives we don’t remember?
- If reincarnation is a fact, why is the population increasing?
- Well, if you believe in it, I suppose it could be true for you
- How could I enter someone else’s body and become someone else?
- But the Bible denies reincarnation
- Clearly, the idea of reincarnation proceeds from wishful thinking
- But personality is but a product of the higher nervous system and the brain.
Here are some books you can refer to for further information.