Critique of the Popular Notions of Rebirth and Karma

Having described the prevalent ideas in the popular mind regarding rebirth, life after death and karmic consequences, Sri Aurobindo points out that these ideas clearly do not answer the many significant issues that need to be addressed if we are to truly understand the processes and the meaning behind them. He points out that the idea of undergoing the karmic consequences until such time as one can escape the process entirely does not provide any serious rationale for all of this manifestation to take place at all. “A vast world-system which exists only as a convenience for turning endlessly on a wheel of Ignorance with no issue except a final chance of stepping out of it, is not a world with any real reason for existence. A world which serves only as a school of sin and virtue and consists of a system of rewards and whippings, does not make any better appeal to our intelligence. The soul or spirit within us, if it is divine, immortal or celestial, cannot be sent here solely to be put to school for this kind of crude and primitive moral education; if it enters into the Ignorance, it must be because there is some larger principle or possibility of its being that has to be worked out through the Ignorance. If, on the other hand, it is a being from the Infinite plunged for some cosmic purpose into the obscurity of Matter and growing to self-knowledge within it, its life here and the significance of that life must be something more than that of an infant coddled and whipped into virtuous ways; it must be a growth out of an assumed ignorance toward its own full spiritual stature with a final passage into an immortal consciousness, knowledge, strength, beauty, divine purity and power, and for such a spiritual growth this law of Karma is all too puerile. Even if the soul is something created, an infant being that has to learn from Nature and grow into immortality, it must be by a larger law of growth and not by some divine code of primitive and barbaric justice. This idea of Karma is a construction of the smaller part of the human vital mind concerned with its petty rules of life and its desires and joys and sorrows and erecting their puny standards into the law and aim of the cosmos. These notions cannot be acceptable to the thinking mind; they have too evidently the stamp of a construction fashioned by our human ignorance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

Popular Conceptions of Reincarnation and Karma

“Reincarnation is commonly supposed to have two aspects, metaphysical and moral, an aspect of spiritual necessity, an aspect of cosmic justice and ethical discipline. The soul,–in this view or for this purpose supposed to have a real individual existence,–is on earth as a result of desire and ignorance; it has to remain on earth or return to it always so long as it has not wearied of desire and awakened to the fact of its ignorance and to the true knowledge. This desire compels it to return always to a new body; it must follow always the revolving wheel of birth till it is enlightened and liberated. It does not, however, remain always on earth, but alternates between earth and other worlds, celestial and infernal, where it exhausts its accumulated store of merit or demerit due to the enactment of sin or virtue and then returns to the earth and to some kind of terrestrial body, sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes even vegetable. The nature of this new incarnation and its fortunes are determined automatically by the soul’s past actions, Karma; if the sum of past actions was good, the birth is in the higher form, the life happy or successful or unaccountably fortunate; if bad, a lower form of Nature may house us or the life, if human, will be unhappy, unsuccessful, full of suffering and misfortune. If our past actions and character were mixed, then Nature, like a good accountant, gives us, according to the pitch and values of our former conduct, a well-assorted payment of mixed happiness and suffering, success and failure, the rarest good luck and the severest ill-fortune.”

Sri Aurobindo has succinctly summarized the essence of the most popular beliefs about reincarnation and karma in this brief exposition. He further points out that there is actually a double penalty or double reward because not only does the soul ostensibly suffer or enjoy the worlds it inhabits between births based on this karmic system, but then it also takes a new human birth to further be afflicted or rewarded on earth for the same past deeds.

Obviously this view of things is overly simplistic and dramatised and may be more the result of perceived needs within the social order than an expression of any ultimate metaphysical truth. We shall explore the concept of karma in relation to rebirth and other worlds in subsequent posts.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

The Dynamic Interplay of Forces of Consciousness in Manifestation

Sri Aurobindo affirms, along with the ancient Upanishadic seers of the Taittiriya Upanishad, that “man has within him not only the physical soul or Purusha with its appropriate nature, but a vital, a mental, a psychic, a supramental, a supreme spiritual being; and either the whole or the greater presence or force of them is concealed in his subliminal or latent and unformulated in his superconscient parts. He has to bring forward their powers in his active consciousness and to awake to them in its knowledge.”

There is a complex web of consciousness between the native planes or worlds of each of these powers of consciousness and their manifestation in the physical world. “For when we say that the soul on earth evolves successively the physical, the vital, the mental, the spiritual being, we do not mean that it creates them and that they had no previous existence. On the contrary, what it does is to manifest these principles of its spiritual entity under the conditions imposed by a world of physical Nature; this manifestation takes the form of a structure of frontal personality which is a translation of the inner self into the terms and possibilities of the physical existence.”

Each of these powers, manifesting in the being put forth by the soul in the world, is in communication with and interacts with its native plane from whence it derives its native strength and characteristic forms of action. The interaction is complex, necessarily, as we layer into the physical self, the successive powers of a vital world, a mental world, a spiritual and psychic world, each at various stages of development, each trying to bring about its own optimised realisation and each having to limit itself both by the limitations of the physical world, as well as by the limitations imposed by the other principles. The logic is “a dynamic logic of these finite workings of the Infinite.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

Assimilation and Preparation During the Inter-Natal Period

Between death and rebirth, there is an ongoing karmic impulsion that influences the direction and locale of the soul’s sojourn and can influence the next rebirth as well. But the development is not simply a straight-line carrying out of karmic forces, because the purpose of the soul and its evolutionary development requires the ability to exhaust certain tendencies, assimilate the results of the past lifetime, and then prepare for the needs of the next birth for the soul’s growth. Sri Aurobindo describes this process in more detail: “…for a new birth, a new life is not a taking up of the development exactly where it stopped in the last, it does not merely repeat and continue our past surface personality and formation of nature. There is an assimilation, a discarding and strengthening and rearrangement of the old characters and motives, a new ordering of the developments of the past and a selection for the purposes of the future without which the new start cannot be fruitful or carry forward the evolution. For each birth is a new start; it develops indeed from the past, but is not its mechanical continuation: rebirth is not a constant reiteration but a progression, it is the machinery of an evolutionary process. Part of this rearrangement, the discarding especially of past strong vibrations of the personality, can only be effected by an exhaustion of the push of previous mental, vital, physical motives after death, and this internal liberation or lightening of impedimenta must be put through on the planes proper to the motives that are to be discarded or otherwise manipulated, those planes which are themselves of that nature; for it is only there that the soul can still continue the activities which have to be exhausted and rejected from the cnosciousness so that it can pass on to a new formation. It is probable also that the integrating positive preparation would be carried out and the character of the new life would be decided by the soul itself in a resort to its native habitat, a plane of psychic repose, where it would draw all back into itself and await its new stage in the evolution. This would mean a passage of the soul progressively through subtle-physical, vital and mental worlds to the psychic dwelling-place from which it would return to its terrestrial pilgrimage.”

The next rebirth then would not be a straight line result of past lives, but potentially would have an entirely different character once the past formations had been discarded and assimilated, and the soul’s next stage of development determined.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

Relation Between the Higher Planes of Consciousness and the Soul Evolution

If we look at the analogy of the sun’s energy warming the soil, and thereby providing the force that allows a seed to germinate and grow, we can get a glimpse of the process that takes place whereby the higher planes of consciousness energize the latent potentialities involved in the material consciousness. These higher planes of spirit, mind and life exercise a pressure and influence to help the involved seed of consciousness break through the resistance of material nature and flourish and grow. “Our development takes place very largely by their superior but hidden action upon the earth-plane. All is contained in the inconscient or the subconscient, but in potentiality; it is the action from above that helps to compel an emergence. A continuance of that action is necessary to shape and determine the progression of the mental and vital forms which our evolution takes in material nature; for these progressive movements cannot find their full momentum or sufficiently develop their implications against the resistance of an inconscient or inert and ignorant material Nature except by a constant though occult resort to higher supraphysical forces of their own character. This resort, the action of this veiled alliance, takes place principally in our subliminal being and not on the surface: it is from there that the active power of our consciousness emerges, and all that it realises it sends back constantly into the subliminal being to be stored up, developed and re-emerge in stronger forms hereafter. This interaction of our larger hidden being and our surface personality is the main secret of the rapid development that operates in man once he has passed beyond the lower stages of Mind immersed in Matter.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

The Soul: Traveller Between Death and Birth

Sri Aurobindo briefly recapitulates the soul’s journey and steps from the time of death to its next rebirth, describing the various sheaths that need to be disposed of in the process:

“…it is the soul, the psychic being, and not the mind, that is the traveller between death and birth, and the mental being is only a predominant element in the figure of its self-expression. There must then be a final resort to a plane of pure psychic existence in which the soul would await rebirth; there it could assimilate the energies of its past experience and life and prepare its future. Ordinarily, the normally developed human being, who has risen to a sufficient power of mentality, might be expected to pass successively through all these planes, subtle-physical, vital and mental, on his way to his psychic habitation. At each stage he would exhaust and get rid of the fractions of formed personality-structure, temporary and superficial, that belonged to the past life; he would cast off his mind-sheath and life-sheath as he had already cast off his body-sheath: but the essence of the personality and its mental, vital and physical experiences would remain in latent memory or as a dynamic potency for the future.”

He points out that to the extent that sufficient development of the higher powers such as mind or spiritual awareness had not occurred in the lifetime, the soul would not be expected to be able to consciously participate in those levels in the after-death state. He therefore posits that “But if the development of mind were insufficient, it is possible that it would not be able to go consciously beyond the vital level and the eing would either fall back from there, returning from its vital heavens or purgatories to earth, or, more consistently, would pass at once into a kind of psychic assimilative sleep co-extensive with the internatal period; to be awake in the highest planes a certain development would be indispensable.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

Internatal Journey of the Soul Through Vital Or Mental Worlds

At the time of the separation of consciousness from the physical body at the time of death, there is the soul and its formed mental and vital sheaths which now become free of the physical impediment. Sri Aurobindo traces the potential journey of the soul through a series of planes or worlds that successively become more subtle and refined as they move further away from the physical and into the vital and mental ranges that have been developed as capacities during the physical embodiment.

The first possibility is for the soul to move temporarily into what Sri Aurobindo calls the “subtle-physical” which has many of the characteristics of the physical world, but without the limitations imposed by physical existence. There are also life-worlds which embody the vital principle that helped to form and fix the vital life and personality of the embodied soul. In the life-worlds one would see the vital power predominant and not limited by the physical limitations. The vital forces which held the attention of the evolutionary soul in life will clearly have strong influence on the direction and focus after death, and the soul may, for a time, get caught up in one of these vital realms as a result. Eventually the soul, however, cannot be totally limited by the physical or vital sheaths. To the extent there was a strong mental or mental-spiritual development, the soul may spend some time in one of the corresponding worlds between births. One may also find that the soul traverses some of these worlds but cannot consciously participate in them if there was insufficient vital, mental or spiritual development in the immediately past lifetime to create a capacity of resonance with what is going on in those worlds. “Any residence of the soul in annexes or in its own constructions could be only a transitional stage of the consciousness in its passage from the physical to the supraphysical state; it must pass from these structures into the true worlds of supraphysical Nature.” The driving force will in any case be the “influences which have shaped his earthly existence…” Eventually all of these intervening stages must be overpassed so that the soul can move to its next evolutionary phase.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

Imagination as a Creative Force For Post-Mortem Environments

Sri Aurobindo elucidates another possible location for the soul’s sojourn after death, at least temporarily, and that is to reside in an artificial construct built by either an extremely well formed mental conception or by a strong vital formation developed during the lifetime. Partially these constructs could be reflections of a higher world of mind or life, mirrored in the mental framework of the soul in whatever imperfect transcription is possible in the physical world. Then, the underlying impulsion of karma at subtle levels would guide the soul into these constructed places if there were a strong enough action of imagination, focus upon, or vital imaging of such places. This could in fact be heavens or hells of human making. Or it could be something less dramatic but nevertheless detailed in its organisation and intent. The soul could remain in such an artificial construct until such time as it could finally dissolve and thereby release itself from the hold of these imaginary (but nevertheless quite realistic seeming) locales.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “For the image-making power of the human mind, its imagination, which is in his physical life only an indispensable aid to his acquisition of knowledge and his life-creation, may in a higher scale become a creative force which would enable the mental being to live for a while amid its own images until they were dissolved by the soul’s pressure. All these buildings are of the nature of larger Life-constructions; in them his mind translates some of the real conditions of the greater mental and vital worlds into terms of his physical experience magnified, prolonged, extended to a condition beyond physicality: he carries by this translation the vital joy and vital suffering of the physical being into supraphysical conditions in which they have a greater scope, fullness and endurance. These constructive environments must therefore be considered, so far as they have any supraphysical habitat, as annexes of the vital or of the lower mental planes of existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

Determining the Dwelling Place of the Soul Between Births

If we recognize that the soul is separate from the physical body, and that there are also vital and mental sheaths that are independent of the physical body, the question arises as to what happens to the soul upon dissolution of its tie to the physical body. It is a common experience and built into our language “the soul departed….” to describe death. People throughout time from different cultures around the world have developed their own explanations for the location of the soul after death. Whether we look at the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which describes an intermediate location called the “bardo”, or the ancient Greek concept of the soul going into the “underworld” there to reside, based on various criteria, or to be washed in the waters of lethe (the river that eliminates past life memories) in preparation for returning to birth, we see the concept enunciated that the soul can go somewhere else, reside independent of the body for a time, and then prepare and return to a new birth in a new body.

Despite the signature strength of the mental development in Man, it would not be likely that the soul would reside in a mental world or plane, as it is separate from the mental being, as well as the vital being that it forms for its own evolutionary purposes.

Sri Aurobindo provides some guidance on the issue of how the soul’s location and focus is to be understood in the post-death environment: “For the post-mortal state of the soul must correspond in some way to the development of the being on earth, since this after-life is not a free upward return from a temporary downward deviation into mortality, but a normal recurrent circumstance which intervenes to help out the process of a difficult spiritual evolution in the physical existence. There is a relation which the human being in his evolution on earth develops with higher planes of existence, and that must have a predominant effect on his internatal dwelling in these planes; it must determine his direction after death and determine too the place, period and character of his self-experience there.”

Clearly the impulsion of the karmic forces at work through the life of the individual will provide the determining direction and focus for the next steps of the soul’s evolutionary path through time.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

Soul-Personality and the Process of Rebirth

Sri Aurobindo describes the conditions required for persistence after the dissolution and death of the physical body. “It is the soul-person, the psychic being, that survives and carries mind and life with it on its journey, and it is in the subtle body that it passes out of its material lodging; both then must be sufficiently developed for the transit.

If there is going to be a sojourn in a plane of Mind or of Life, the respective sheaths must be also sufficiently developed in their own right in order to have sufficient coherence and organisation to survive the dissolution of the material frame, and make the transference to the relevant worlds. Obviously this is not something that every soul undertakes to do, nor can we expect every soul to have a sufficiently well-organised Mind or Vital being to accomplish this.

It is also the case that the evolutionary process that the soul is undergoing does not actually benefit, in the main, from having a Mind or Life so well organised that it survives and coheres in its own right. The soul must be able to move beyond the past formulations of Mind and Life to take on and develop new frames of action in future lifetimes. “There must be an individuation of the psychic person itself sufficient for it not to depend on its past mind and life formations any more than on its past body, but to shed them too in time and proceed to a new formation for new experience.”

“For this discarding of the old and preparation of new forms the soul must dwell for some time between two births somewhere else than on the entirely material plane in which we now move; for here there would be no abiding place for a disembodied spirit.”

“A survival of the material body by the personality implies a supraphysical existence, and this can only be in some plane of being proper to the evolutionary stage of the consciousness or, if there is no evolution, in a temporary second home of the spirit which would be its natural place of sojourn between life and life,–unless indeed it is its original world from which it does not return into material Nature.”

We shall explore these questions further in the next post.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality