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.”
Sri Aurobindo continues his exploration of the human reason as a preliminary to the review of the issues surrounding the concept of rebirth. It is essential to understand the powers and limitations of the reason depending on the starting point of the individual exercising this power, so that we can understand the rationale that leads to reactions or responses and adjust for them. Sri Aurobindo describes the characteristic stance of the religious, philosophical and sceptical minds.
“…the religious mind accepts the theory or assumption…with faith, with a will of belief, with an emotional certainty, and finds its verification in an increasing spiritual intuition and experience.”
“The philosophic mind accepts it calmly and discerningly for its coherent agreement with the facts and necessities of being; it verifies by a pervading and unfailing harmony with all the demands of reason and intellectualised intuition.”
“But the sceptical mind–not the mind of mere doubt or dogmatic denial which usually arrogates that name, but the open and balanced mind of careful, impartial and reserved inquiry,–gives a certain provisional character to its hypotheses, and it verifies by the justification of whatever order or category of ascertainable facts it takes for its standard of proof and invests with a character of decisive authority or reality.”
Sri Aurobindo not only recognizes the validity in its own type of each of these three, but he points out that ideally we should be able to utilize all three in our review of facts and questions, in order to optimize the potential result. “For if the sceptical or provisional attitude makes us more ready to modify our image of Truth in the light of new material of thought and knowledge, the religious mind also, provided it keeps a certain firm and profound openness to new spiritual experience, can proceed faster to a larger and larger light, and meanwhile we can walk by it with an assured step and go securely about our principal business of the growth and perfection of our being. The philosophic mind has the use of giving a needed largeness and openness to our mentality,–if it too does not narrow itself by a close circle of metaphysical dogma,–and supports besides the harmony of our other action by the orderly assent of the higher reason.”
Sri Aurobindo describes the issues surrounding the limitation of the Reason when it comes to the ultimate questions of life: “Nowhere are these disabilities more embarassing than in those fundamental questions of the nature of the world and of our own existence which yet most passionately interest thinking humanity because this is in the end the thing of utmost importance to us, since everything else, except some rough immediate practicality of the moment, depends on its solution. And even that, until this great question is settled, is only a stumbling forward upon a journey of which we know not the goal or the purpose, the meaning or the necessity.”
Religion, philosophy and science all attempt to provide solutions to these questions. Despite each one’s claims to have a monopoly on the ultimate truth of their viewpoint, they all suffer from the self-filtering bias and from the overall limitations of the faculty of Reason and thus, they too fail to provide any final and definitive answers, as evidenced by the numerous different answers provided by them throughout mankind’s history.
Whether based on speculation, reason, or some type of revealed experience, we find the same type of limitations in science, philosophy and religion. The underlying problem is the inability of the faculty of Reason to encompass and comprehend the complexity and enormity of the universal creation. The method of “knowing” makes it impossible to provide a comprehensive answer from this standpoint.
Sri Aurobindo briefly recounts the issues for each of these paths: “The religions profess to solve these grand problems with an inspired or revealed certainty; but the enormity of their differences shows that in them too there is a selection of ideas, separate aspects of the Truth…and a construction from a limited spiritual experience.” “The philosophical systems are very obviously only feasible selective constructions of great reflective ideas. More often these are possibilities of the reason much rather than assured certainties or, if founded on spiritual experience, they are still selective constructions, a sort of great architectural approach to some gate into unknowable Divine or ineffable Infinite.” “The system of science seems to be itself only another feasible and fruitful construction of the reason giving a serviceable account to itself of the physical world and our relations to it, and it seems to be nothing more. And its knowledge is fatally bound by the limitation of its data and its outlook.”
Inasmuch as the question of rebirth is not easily viewed from the surface of our lives, we need to involve the faculty of Reason to come to an understanding of this issue. We then are faced with understanding the limitations that the Reason has in terms of its ability to observe and understand what it is observing. Sri Aurobindo separates two types of Reason, the practical intelligence that is concerned primarily with results in the world, and the more abstract reasoning intelligence that attempts to understand principles, concepts and significances.
The practical Reason is essentially incapable of attaining a deeper understanding as it is willing to accept anything that allows it to succeed at its immediate task or focus. Sri Aurobindo points out that “Whether it corresponds to or is directly in touch with any real reality of things seems to be very much a matter of accident. It seems to be sufficient if we can persuade our facile and complaisant reason of its truth and find it serviceable and fruitful in consequences for thought, action and life-experience.”
The second type of Reason does seek after greater things and tries to look behind the surface appearances, but it is limited by its connection to the practical intelligence as well. “But the workings of this calmer greater reason are hampered by two tremendous difficulties. First, it seems next to impossible to disengage it entirely from the rest of ourselves, from the normal intellectuality, from the will to believe, from that instinct of the intelligence which helps the survival, by a sort of subtle principle of preference and selection, of the way of thinking that suits our personal bent or the accomplished frame of our nature. And again, what is the Truth that our reason mirrors? It is after all some indirect image of Truth, not her very self and body seen face to face; it is an image moulded from such data, symbol, process of Reality,–if any real Reality there is,–as we can gather from the very limited experience of self and existing things open to the human mind.”
The human mind is not actually suited nor capable of directly knowing and apprehending Reality. It takes other and greater faculties to move beyond the mind’s limitations. So when we rely on the mind, we are left with both our pre-determined self-selection of facts and ideas that favor our practical and ideational bent, and with a faculty that itself has strict limits to its powers.