There are those who try to understand the unique and powerful development of the human mind and spirit within the physical body by stating that the mental/spiritual personality waits for the development of the human being and then descends to occupy that formed instrument for its development and action from that point forward. That implies that the prior development that leads up to the human body, the physical and vital evolution, did not necessarily include a soul evolution. That evolution is said to begin with the descent once the human instrument has been prepared.
Sri Aurobindo inquires as to the mechanism and significance of this concept: “…what is it that brings about this connection of a spiritual being and higher mental nature and a physical being and lower animal nature? what necessitates this taking up of the lower life by the spirit which here becomes man? It would seem surely that there must have been some previous connection; the possessing mental or spiritual being must all the time have been preparing this lower life it thus occupies for a human manifestation. The whole evolution would then be an ordered continuity from the beginning and the intervention of mind and spirit would be no sudden inexplicable miracle, but a coming forward of that which was always there behind, an open taking up of the manifested life by a power which was always secretly presiding over the life evolution.”
In essence, then, if we were to adopt this concept, there would not be any essential difference other than the locus occupied by the mental or spiritual being while the physical being was being developed. Whether that is here on the earth, or in some mental or spiritual plane, the mechanism is relatively the same for the evolutionary process to take place.
Another theory that comes up is that the earth is somehow the penalty box for celestial beings who have “fallen” from their celestial status and they have the opportunity, through their efforts here to regain their celestial status. Even if there is some factual basis behind this supposition, clearly this still demands a past that influences the present circumstances, and a process, spanning potentially multiple rebirths, for the being to work through the “issues”, as it is clear that one lifetime cannot and does not afford the celestial being the opportunity to solve the concerns so obviously visible when we look at the general “issues” with which humanity is burdened.
Sri Aurobindo explains his view on the matter: “But it is evident that this one earthly life is not sufficient for all to effect that difficult return, but rather most may and do miss it entirely; and we have then either to suppose that an immortal soul can perish or be doomed to eternal perdition or else that it has more existences than this poor precarious one apparently given to it, lives or states of being which intervene between its fall and the final working out of a sure redemption.”
There are of course additional difficulties with this theory, not the least of which is the reason why this descent is necessary for all of these higher beings. There is also the rationale behind the differing conditions under which each of these beings is then asked to respond. “Each must surely have had a past which made him responsible for his present conditions, if he is to be held thus strictly to account for all their results and the use he makes of his often too scanty, grudging and sometimes quite hopeless opportunity. The very nature of our humanity supposes a varying constituent past for the soul as well as a resultant future.”
We take away from this that whether the evolutionary process is completely of the earth, or involves souls moving between this and other worlds, there still is required a process and a mechanism for this soul evolution, and this therefore supports the process of rebirth and the working of karma.
One widespread notion about the soul is that it is created with the birth in this lifetime, but then exists eternally into the future. In this view, there is no precedent for the circumstances into which we are placed, and it is nevertheless our responsibility to deal with these circumstances and make the best of them for the benefit of our (future) eternal existence (however that is envisioned).
The idea of an eternal future without a past is a logical inconsistency. Sri Aurobindo describes the issue as follows: “It involves the difficulty of a creature beginning in time but enduring through all eternity, an immortal being dependent for its existence on an act of physical generation, yet itself always and entirely unphysical and independent of the body which results from the generation. These are objections insuperable to the reason. But there is too the difficulty that this soul inherits a past for which it is in no way responsible, or is burdened with mastering propensities imposed on it not by its own act, and is yet responsible for its future which is treated as if it were in no way determined by that often deplorable inheritance….or that unfair creation, and were entirely of its own making. We are made helplessly what we are and are yet responsible for what we are,–or at least for what we shall be hereafter, which is inevitably determined to a large extent by what we are originally. And we have only this one chance. Plato and the Hottentot, the fortunate child of saints or Rishis and the born and trained criminal plunged from beginning to end in the lowest fetid corruption of a great modern city have equally to create by the action or belief of this one unequal life all their eternal future. This is a paradox which offends both the soul and the reason, the ethical sense and the spiritual intuition.”
Once we accept the idea of an eternal soul, it is essentially incumbent on us to recognize its past as well as its future. It is one thing to believe that life has no ultimate significance or future, and that the single birth is purely a chance of material creation, or an event in the All-Soul’s development, thus making the life ephemeral and transitory. It is quite another to start from a creation out of material forces at the time of birth, and then build onto it an eternity of future result.
Essentially, if there is a recognition of a future, there must be concurrently a recognition of a past, and this brings in a process and a mechanism which provides the underpinning for the theory of rebirth and karma.
When we begin to experience the higher spiritual parts of our nature, we recognize that here there is soemthing which is clearly beyond the physical material manifestation and independent from it. We thus have found the basis for accepting conclusively the need for and the reality of rebirth. Our spiritual nature can adopt a standpoint which is able to observe and either give consent, or withhold consent, to the actions of the mind, life and body. This portion of our being, which we may designate the “soul”, is not limited by physical heredity or by the influence of environmental factors. We can observe, and even participate in, the evolutionary development of the soul.
Sri Aurobindo points out: “Quite apart from any evidence of an after life on other planes or any memory of past births, this is sufficient warrant for a refusal to accept as sufficient any theory of the ephemeral being of the individual and the sole truth of the evolutionary Universal. Certainly, the individual being is not thereby shown to be independent of the All-Soul; it may be nothing but a form of it in time. But it is sufficient for our purpose that it is a persistent soul form, not determined by the life of the body and ceasing with its dissolution, but persisting independently beyond. For if it is thus independent of the physical race continuity in the future, if it thus shows itself capable of determining its own future soul evolution in time, it must have had secretly such an independent existence all through and it must have been determining in reality, though no doubt by some other and indirect insistence, its past soul evolution too in time.”
It is possible that the individual soul is either a portion of the All-Soul, or independent of it. Either way, as long as there IS an independent individual soul that evolves through time, the process of rebirth becomes a given. “But it is sufficient for the theory of rebirth that a secret soul continuity of the individual does exist and not alone a brute succession of bodies informed by the All-Soul with a quite ephemeral illusion of mental or spiritual individuality.”
The question of whether there is an individual soul that can grow, develop and evolve, or whether there is a universal soul of which each individual is simply a “data-point” is the next issue to be resolved before looking at the question of rebirth. Rebirth has no essential meaning if there is no individual soul to benefit from it.
If we overview the development of the physical and vital life, we can see the role of a process which scientists have identified as evolution. The physical characteristics are carried forward by the process called heredity and there has been established a well-developed framework for understanding this physical evolution. This does not preclude the action of some other motivating factor that uses the process, of course.
Where the processes of physical evolution seem not to be able to explain things as well is in the development of the higher mental, and spiritual, processes and capabilities. There is in fact a debate in the West about the varying impact of “nature” versus “nurture” (heredity vs. environment) as a shaping factor in the development of the individual personality and its characteristics including the higher mental, emotional and psychical responses.
This brings us then to the question Sri Aurobindo addresses at this point. The combination of the physical heredity with the environmental influences and pressures could represent the development of a “universal soul” as the central premise of existence. “…we may say that they are a phase of the universal soul, a part of the process of its evolution by selection; the race, not the individual, is the continuous factor and all our individual effort and acquisition, only in appearance, not really independent, ceases with death, except so much of our gain as is chosen to be carried on in the race by some secret will or conscious necessity in the universal being or the persistent becoming.”
If this is the ultimate truth of our existence, then, of course, there is no necessity of rebirth, as the forward development momentum is taking place in the universal being and each individual life is simply a cog or grain in a larger mechanism or existence.
If the physical world is the cause and mechanism of existence, with no further significance or higher development, the question of rebirth is unnecessary. Similarly, if there is an “all-soul” that develops without regard to the individual development specifically, rebirth is also unnecessary. In order to have a significance to the concept of rebirth, there must be some type of individual soul that evolves and develops, and thereby needs and utilizes the process of rebirth. The existence of an individual soul does not imply that rebirth actually takes place as there are other possible explanations, but without an individual soul, there is no sense in a process involving rebirth.
Sri Aurobindo addresses these questions: “Now the question of rebirth turns almost entirely upon the one fundamental question of the past of the individual being and its future. If the creation of the whole nature is to be credited to the physical birth, then the body, life and soul of the individual are only a continuation of the body, life and soul of his ancestry, and there is no room anywhere for soul rebirth. The individual man has no past being independent of them and can have no independent future; he can prolong himself in his progeny…but there is no other rebirth for him. No continued stream of individuality presided over by any mental or spiritual person victoriously survives the dissolution of the body. On the other hand, if there is any element in us, still more the most important of all, which cannot be so accounted for, but presupposes a past or admits a future evolution other than that of the race mind and the physical ancestry, then some kind of soul birth becomes a logical necessity.”
The Reason, in its clearest and widest operation, while unable to grasp ultimate Reality and ultimate Truth, is able to at least provide a framework for understanding of process in the physical world.
Sri Aurobindo points out that “For if there is one thing now certain it is that physical science may give clues of process, but cannot lay hold on the reality of things. That means that the physical is not the whole secret of world and existence, and that in ourselves too the body is not the whole of our being. It is then through something supraphysical in Nature and ourselves which we may call the soul, whatever the exact substance of soul may be, that we are likely to get that greater truth and subtler experience which will enlarge the narrow rigid circle traced by physical science and bring us nearer to the Reality.”
When we admit that there are supraphysical realities to the universe that cannot be directly or completely comprehended by the action of Reason, we can open to the possibilities offered by other forms of experience, for instance, spiritual experience. These experiences have an overwhelming and vivid impact on those who receive them, and they are the foundational experiences behind virtually all of the major religions throughout the world. Sri Aurobindo points out “…there is nothing to prevent us from proceeding firmly upon whatever certitudes of spiritual experience have become to us the soil of our inner growth or the pillars on our road to self-knowledge. These are soul realities. But the exact frame we shall give to that knowledge, will best be built by farther spiritual experience aided by new enlarged intuitions, confirmed in the suggestions of a wide philosophic reason and fruitfully using whatever helpful facts we may get from the physical and the psychic sciences. These are truths of soul process; their full light must come by experimental knowledge and observation of the world without us and the world within.”