The Mechanism of the Soul’s Evolutionary Development Through Death and Rebirth

The human being is actually composed of a number of “sheaths” as described in the Taittiriya Upanishad. The outer form is the physical sheath. Informing the physical sheath with energy and responsiveness is the vital sheath. More subtle than the vital sheath is the mental sheath that provides cognition on an individual level. Then comes the ‘knowledge’ sheath that brings a wider understanding and awareness, and then comes the ‘bliss’ sheath which integrates the individual into the universal manifestation and which then brings the bliss of existence into the individual frame.

Upon death, as these other levels depart the physical body, the physical body decomposes. If buried, this may take some amount of time; alternatively if cremated, it turns into ash right away. But what happens to the other sheaths? The Tibetan Book of the Dead provides an extensive analysis of the systematic movement of these other levels and their step-by-step dissolution through a period of up to around 40 days’ time. Depending on how well-formed and cohesive each sheath is, it will tend to dissolve after departure from the body.

The lynch-pin of interaction of all of these sheaths is the soul or psychic being as Sri Aurobindo calls it. The psychic being chooses the conditions of formation of its body and integration of the other sheaths in a particular lifetime. It absorbs the lessons for its growth and development from the experiences of the lifetime and then, when it drops the body, it moves on until it is ready to take on a new form. For the most part, it does not tend to bring with it, from life to life, the specific vital, emotional, mental formations that it had in a prior lifetime, although certainly, as we see in the case of reincarnated Lamas for example, it is possible to bring a highly developed formation into a new life, although this does not imply a repeat of the personality or continuation of the former life existence in a straight line from the prior lifetime.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The soul takes birth each time, and each time a mind, life and body are formed out of the materials of universal nature according to the soul’s past evolution and its need for the future.”

“When the body is dissolved, the vital goes into the vital plane and remains there for a time, but after a time the vital sheath disappears. The last to dissolve is the mental sheath. Finally the soul or psychic being retires into the psychic world to rest there till a new birth is close.”

“This is the general course for ordinarily developed human beings. There are variations according to the nature of the individual and his development. For example, if the mental is strongly developed, then the mental being can remain; so also can the vital, provided they are organised by and centred around the true psychic being; they share the immortality of the psychic.”

“The soul gathers the essential elements of its experiences in life and makes that its basis of growth in the evolution; when it returns to birth it takes up with its mental, vital, physical sheathes so much of its Karma as is useful to it in the new life for further experience.”

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

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