There are many ideas about rebirth, how it works, and the relationship of suffering to an individual’s life and, through operation of karma, potential future lifetimes. Much of this is based on an underlying implicit assumption that the self-awareness that an individual holds in this lifetime carries forward into future lifetimes. While the individual may forget individual details undergoing the death and rebirth process, the same basic ‘person’ carries forward and with him goes the karmic consequences of past actions.
Others hold that there is no soul that moves from body to body, but there is essentially a stream of conscious energy that moves continuously along certain lines and develops along the way. For these individuals, there is no real question of rebirth per se.
Still others hold that there is nothing after death but dissolution, and some hold that the soul, after one lifetime, is judged forever and either enjoys heaven or is relegated to hell for his deeds.
The question of suffering is intimately tied to how one understands the meaning of the individual life and the evolution of consciousness that is taking place on the scale of the creation. As Sri Aurobindo has described elsewhere, the idea that a specific individual moves from life to life with the same personality and carries specific karmic consequences through from life to life is a vast over-simplification and distortion of the actual reality. The soul gathers the fruit of experience, development of consciousness, but leaves behind the specific life and relationships through the death and rebirth process. There is thus no “one to one” correspondence between actions in a particular lifetime and a specific karmic recompense in the next.
Suffering is primarily caused, therefore, not by some karmic retribution being exacted on a specific individual due to specific past lifetime actions, but by fixation on the ego-consciousness and its response to the pressures of existence. As the consciousness shifts from the ego-standpoint to the Divine standpoint, the experience of suffering also changes and diminishes. Karma, the chain of cause and effect, does help direct the movement of the soul beyond death and rebirth, and also has implications for the present life, but may impact others, not solely the individual who carries out the action. In terms of societal karma, there may be forces that impact all individuals who live in that society. (The impacts of pollution, global warming, chemical contamination, income inequality, war, migration, etc. are macro level events that impact everyone and in most cases are much stronger and thus, more relevant, forces to determine karmic consequence and potential suffering than the actions generated by any one individual in one lifetime).
Sri Aurobindo observes: “,,, a life is only one brief episode in a long history of spiritual evolution in which the soul follows the curve of the line set for the earth, passing through many lives to complete it. It is an evolution out of material inconscience to consciousness and towards the Divine Consciousness, from ignorance to Divine Knowledge, from darkness through half-light to Light, from death to Immortality, from suffering to the Divine Bliss. Suffering is due first to the Ignorance, secondly to the separation of the individual consciousness from the Divine Consciousness and Being, a separation created by the Ignorance –when that ceases, when one lives in the Divine and no more in one’s separated smaller self, then only suffering can altogether cease.”
Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 12, Other Aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Rebirth, Karma and Destiny, pp. 343-347