Evolutionary Rebirth and the Meaning of Life

Sri Aurobindo’s guiding principle in his review of rebirth is to ensure that he answers the major issues and questions that revolve around both the process and the significance. This implies that we recognize the reality and purpose of the material universe and not simply try to dismiss it as an illusion or something that must be escaped from.

One of the greatest obstacles to finding a suitable solution is our tendency to remain fixated on the world as we see it today and to extrapolate both backwards and forwards in a static, rather than a dynamic, manner. Thus, we believe the current status of life and conscious awareness will continue as it is into the future and we have a hard time recognizing or visualizing a future that is greater than and significantly different than what we see as our opportunities and limits today.

Sri Aurobindo’s vision moves us out of these restrictions: “But what if rebirth were in truth no long dragging chain, but rather at first a ladder of the soul’s ascension and at last a succession of mighty spiritual opportunities? It will be so if the infinite existence is not what it seems to the logical intellect, an abstract entity, but what it is to intuition and in deeper soul experience, a conscious spiritual Reality, and that Reality as real here as in any far off absolute Superconscience. For then universal Nature would be no longer a mechanism with no secret but its own inconscient mechanics and no intention but the mere recurrent working; it would be the conscient energy of the universal Spirit hidden in the greatness of its processes, mahimanam asya.” And the soul ascending from the sleep of matter through plant and animal life to the human degree of the power of life and there battling with ignorance and limit to take possession of its royal and infinite kingdom would be the mediator appointed to unfold in Nature the spirit who is hidden in her subtleties and her vastnesses. That is the significance of life and the world which the idea of evolutionary rebirth opens to us; life becomes at once a progressive ascending series for the unfolding of the Spirit. It acquires a supreme significance: the way of the Spirit in its power is justified, no longer a foolish and empty dream, an eternal delirium, great mechanical toil or termless futility, but the sum of works of a large spiritual Will and Wisdom: the human soul and the cosmic spirit look into each other’s eyes with a noble and divine meaning.”

Sri Aurobindo,

Implications of the Tantric Viewpoint on Rebirth

Tantra focuses on the energy of creation, the Divine Shakti, and its manifestation through the world of forms. Tantra provides a first basis for a serious potential significance to life and rebirth. Sri Aurobindo describes the tantric perspective: “The Tantric solution shows us a supreme superconscient Energy which casts itself out here into teeming worlds and multitudinous beings and in its order the soul rises from birth to birth and follows its million forms, till in a last human series it opens to the consciousness and powers of its own divinity and returns through them by a rapid illumination to the eternal superconscience.”

We can see here the essence of the idea of an evolution of forms, and a progressive embodiment of ever higher levels of consciousness in these successively developed forms. We see here a real potential value and meaning to the life and struggle we experience in the universe. The tantric proposition thus approaches a solution that can answer all the questions and concerns.

Where the tantric approach is still incomplete is that it still posits as the eventual goal the abandonment of life into a supreme superconscience, so that eventually the significance it attributes to life is ephemeral and temporary in nature. Sri Aurobindo points out that “We find at last the commencement of a satisfying synthesis, some justification of existence, a meaningful consequence in rebirth, a use and a sufficient though only temporary significance for the great motion of the cosmos.”

The difficulty remaining is essentially that there is obviously so much consciousness, energy, effort and organization involved in the manifestation of the universe that we still cannot find it sufficient as a rationale for all of this, that the goal remains one of “escape”. As Sri Aurobindo points out: “…the supreme Energy constructs too long and stupendous a preparation for so brief and so insufficient a flowering.”

Sri Aurobindo,

Implications of the Vaishnava Viewpoint on Rebirth

We have seen the mechanical process of rebirth, and we have reviewed solutions that essentially treat the world as either an illusion or a field of suffering, to be escaped or liberated from. Neither of these solutions proposes any real and positive significance to the human life that we experience in this world of struggle. They each seek a solution that eventually avoids this world. Sri Aurobindo has pointed out that these solutions do not represent the complete key to our existence, and until we find a real significance to our life, we must assume that something is still missing from our understanding.

The Vaishnava path of Hinduism provides the first glimmer of a positive sense to existence, by proposing that life is a divine play of the divine Being and the goal is to manifest and experience that divine Bliss. Sri Aurobindo finds this positive affirmation to be both powerful and insightful. At the same time, he indicates that it has not gone quite far enough: “There is more here in the world than a play of secret delight; there is knowledge, there is power, there is a will and a mighty labour. Rebirth so looked at becomes too much of a divine caprice with no object but its playing, and ours is too great and strenuous a world to be so accounted for.”

Sri Aurobindo,

Implications of the Illusionist (Mayavada) Approach to Rebirth

The starting point for the illusionist view of rebirth is in many respects similar to the starting point of the Buddhist view. The mechanical process of rebirth, ever-repeating the same basic round of birth, life and death is the underlying experience. As with the Buddhist view, also, there is a sense that this mechanical round is something to be escaped or liberated from. Where it differs to some degree is the understanding it brings to what happens after successfully achieving that liberation. The illusionist view holds out that there is a Reality that exists separate and apart from this world of illusion and that upon liberation, we eternally partake of that Reality.

As with the Buddhist view, it treats the world of life that we normally experience as something either unreal and illusory, and our effort needs to be to disentangle ourselves from this present external life and world so as to achieve the liberation.

Sri Aurobindo points out that such a view does not provide any answer to the question of “why” there should be an external world within which we live if there is no ultimate meaning or reality to it. He quotes from the Koran when he cites: “Thinkest thou that I have made the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in a jest?”

While the soul, burdened by the experience of suffering and the sense of the unreality of the world, experiences a relief when it finally escapes, this does not actually resolve the cosmic riddle, simply avoids it.

Sri Aurobindo describes the issue: “But it gives no real, because no fruitful answer to the problem of God and man and the significance of life; it only gets away from them by a skilful evasion and takes away from them all significance, so that any question of the sense and will in all this tremendous labour and throb and seeking loses meaning. But the challenge of God’s universe to the knowledge and strength of the human spirit cannot in the end be met by man with a refusal or solved by an evasion, even though an individual soul may take refuge from the demand, as a man may from the burden of action and pain in unconsciousness, in spiritual trance or sleep or escape through its blank doors into the Absolute. Something the Spirit of the universe means by our labour in existence, some sense it has in these grandiose rhythms, and it has not undertaken them in an eternally enduring error or made them in a jest. To know that and possess it, to find and fulfil consciously the universal being’s hidden significances is the task given to the human spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo,

Implications of the Buddhist Approach to Rebirth

The Buddhist approaches recognizes rebirth as well as karma. It starts from the mechanical recurrence proposition for the physical existence, and recognizes that there is an energy that propels this rebirth process forward according to the chain of cause and effect, karma. Buddhism however does not accept nor recognize any eternity to the soul; rather it treats the soul much in the same way it treats the body, as a phenomenon of the mechanical cause and effect which acts based on the desire-will.

Sri Aurobindo describes it thus: “As this constant hereditary succession of lives is a prolongation of the one universal principle of life by a continued creation of similar bodies, a mechanical recurrence, so the system of soul rebirth too is a constant prolongation of the principle of the soul-life by a continued creation through Karma of similar embodied associations and experiences, a mechanical recurrence. As the cause of all this physical birth and long hereditary continuation is an obscure will to life in Matter, so the cause of continued soul birth is an ignorant desire or will to be in the universal energy of Karma. As the constant wheelings of the universe and the motions of its forces generate individual existences who escape from or end in being by an individual dissolution, so there is this constant wheel of becoming and motion of Karma which forms into individualised soul-lives that must escape from their continuity by a dissolving cessation. An extinction of the embodied consciousness is our apparent material end; for soul too the end is extinction, the blank satisfaction of Nothingness or some ineffable bliss of a superconscient Non-Being. The affirmation of the mechanical occurrence or recurrence of birth is the essence of this view; but while the bodily life suffers an enforced end and dissolution, the soul life ceases by a willed self-extinction.”

The Buddhist view is, in its own right, an enormous progress from the view that treats life and physical existence purely as consisting of an essentially meaningless procession of days ending in death with no purpose or significance; but it does not yet provide us any affirmative rationale for the existence of the universe and the entire structure of life and being.

Sri Aurobindo,

The Futility of a Purely Mechanical Process of Rebirth

If the entire meaning of rebirth is a physical reincarnation, with no other significance, goal or purpose, we eventually come to the point of asking “what for?”. Why go through the struggle, the suffering, the repeated births, lives and deaths, only to be reborn again into a similar circumstance, like a hamster running in a never-ending wheel. Many who achieve the recognition of the reality of rebirth, but who do not see any higher purpose, conclude eventually that the entire round of births and deaths and the chain of karma are futile, and they reach an existential crisis. This crisis in fact was the underlying force behind the rise of existentialism in the West, with its air of the unreality of our world, the meaninglessness of it, and the overwhelming physical revulsion expressed by them as “nausea”.

In the East, Buddhism focused on this repetitive round of births and deaths and the suffering that accompanied it, and determined that a solution was to free oneself from it entirely. Sri Aurobindo describes the view of the physical rebirth mechanism: “What we see in the material universe is a stupendous system of mechanical recurrences. A huge mechanical recurrence rules that which is long-enduring and vast; a similar but frailer mechanical recurrence sways all that is ephemeral and small. The suns leap up into being, flame wheeling in space, squander force by motion and fade and are extinct, again perhaps to blaze into being and repeat their course, or else other suns take their place and fulfil their round. The seasons of Time repeat their unending and unchanging cycle. Always the tree of life puts forth its various flowers and sheds them and breaks into the same flowers in their recurring season. The body of man is born and grows and decays and perishes, but it gives birth to other bodies which maintain the one same futile cycle. What baffles the intelligence in all this intent and persistent process is that it seems to have in it no soul of meaning, no significance except the simple fact of causeless and pruposeless existence dogged or relieved by the annulling or the compensating fact of individual cessation. And this is because we perceive the mechanism, but do not see the Power that uses the mechanism and the intention in its use. But the moment we know that there is a conscious Spirit self-wise and infinite brooding upon the universe and a secret slowly self-finding soul in things, we get to the necessity of an idea in its consciousness, a thing conceived, willed, set in motion and securely to be done, progressively to be fulfilled by these great deliberate workings.”

Sri Aurobindo,

A Soul Evolution Uses Rebirth As Its Mechanism of Fulfilment

Rebirth, if restricted to the physical mechanism, adds little meaning to our lives, as it becomes an endless repetition of births with no goal other than pure existence. This leaves the questions about the significance of life and the reason for existence unanswered. Once we couple this physical mechanism with the concept of a soul evolution, a continuously progressive development that utilizes rebirth as the means of achieving results that cannot be attained in any single birth, we have the key that fits virtually all the locks, and we open up a new understanding about why we are here, and what we have to do.

Sri Aurobindo states the case in a concise manner: “But the perception of rebirth as an occasion and means for a spiritual evolution fills in every hiatus. It makes life a significant ascension and not a mechanical recurrence; it opens to us the divine vistas of a growing soul; it makes the worlds a nexus of spiritual self-expansion; it sets us seeking, and with a sure promise to all of a great finding now or hereafter, for the self-knowledge of our spirit and the self-fulfilment of a wise and divine intention in our existence.”

Sri Aurobindo,

The Finality of Death Is Overcome By Rebirth

When we confront the issues of our bodily life, the prospect of rebirth provides us with a sense of continuity and at least some response to the finality of the death of the body. We gain a sense that we have been born before, and that after we die, something will continue and be born yet again.

The impact on our psyche of overcoming death in any manner should not be underestimated. This is the “great fear” that we carry with us all through our lives, and anything that promises us an extension or continuance in some form is generally welcomed.

Sri Aurobindo picks up on this theme: ” For the burden of death to man the thinking, willing, feeling creature is not the loss of this poor case or chariot of body, but it is the blind psychical finality death suggests, the stupid material end of our will and thought and aspiration and endeavour, the brute breaking off of the heart’s kind and sweet relations and affections, the futile convicting discontinuity of that marvellous and all-supporting soul-sense which gives us our radiant glimpses of the glory and delight of existence,–that is the discord and harsh inconsequence against which the thinking living creature revolts as incredible and inadmissible. The fiery straining to immortality of our life, mind, psyche, which can assent to cessation only by turning in enmity upon their own flame of nature, and the denial of it which the dull acquiescence of a body consenting inertly to death as to life brings in on us, is the whole painful irreconcilable contradiction of our double nature. Rebirth takes the difficulty and solves it in the sense of a soul continuity with a beat of physical repetition.”

There is, however, in this baseline analysis, not yet any sense of purpose of this mechanical repetition of birth, death, and rebirth; nor do we have any clear sense of “who” or “what” it is that experiences the rebirth. These questions continue to intrigue us.

“But simple persistence, mechanical continuity is not enough; that is not all our physical being signifies, not the whole luminous meaning of survival and continuity; without ascension, without expansion, without some growing up straight into light in the strength of our spirit our higher members toil here uncompleted, our birth in matter is not justified by any adequate meaning. We are very little better off than if death remained our ending; for our life in the end becomes then an indefinitely continued and renewed and temporarily consequent in place of an inconsequent, abruptly ended and soon convicted futility.”

Sri Aurobindo,

Seeking the Meaning of Human Life

Philosophy, religion and science all seek, in their own ways, for the meaning and purpose of our life on earth. The questions “why”, “what” and “how” are the basis of this existential questioning of our existence. Where do we come from? Is there life before birth? Is there any existence after death, and if so, what is it?

Even if we try to avoid these questions and live a practical life of survival, or hedonistic enjoyment, they continue to impress themselves on thinking humanity. In mamy cases, those who have spent a lifetime denying this search for meaning, come in the end, on their death-beds, to the ultimate question with fear, trepidation, hope and prayer.

Sri Aurobindo provides an answer which addresses the various issues that arise: “In the idea of evolutionary rebirth, if we can once find it to be a truth and recognise its antecedents and consequences, we have a very sufficient clue for an answer to all these connected sides of the one perpetual question. A spiritual evolution of which our universe is the scene and earth its ground and stage, though its plan is still kept back above from our yet limited knowledge,–this way of seeing existence is a luminous key which we can fit into many doors of obscurity.”

Sri Aurobindo places weight on the spiritual significance rather than the mechanical process. “The failure to do that rightly will involve us in much philosophical finessing, drive on this side or the other to exaggerated negations and leave our statement of it, however perfect may be its logic, yet unsatisfying and unconvincing to the total intelligence and the complex soul of humanity.”

Sri Aurobindo,

Rebirth and Soul Evolution

Whether one accepts the idea of a fallen celestial being working out its salvation, or the concept of a mental/spiritual being forming and developing a physical body to inhabit and utilize for its ongoing development, the concept of rebirth appears to be necessary as a mechanism for this development. But neither of these two concepts actually addresses the meaning of the physical world and its structured organization and the apparent evolution of consciousness that appears to be the underlying thread tying all the levels of physical, vital and mental manifestation which we can observe. We do not need to posit such other-worldly solutions, although we also need not deny the possibilities, in order to put the process of rebirth squarely into the center of the development.

It is difficult for any of the “other world” explanations that rely on a single human birth to explain the varying issues, struggles and concerns that we face in the one lifetime.

“A past terrestrial soul evolution sufficiently accounting for these variations and degrees of our mixed being and a future soul evolution that helps us progressively to liberate the godhead of the spirit, seem the only just and reasonable explanation of this labour of a matter-shackled soul which has attained a variable degree of humanity in the midst of a general progressive appearance of the life, mind and spirit in a material universe. Rebirth is the only possible machinery for such a soul evolution.”

Sri Aurobindo,