Rebirth and the Individual

How do we imagine our past, or future, existences? What about past life regression therapy? Is there a reality to the experience and if so, what does it mean to us? Many who believe in a future reincarnation have no conception of any past lifetime at all. They accept the reality of their current existence, and believe that at some future ‘day of judgment’ they will be reborn and joined once more with their family and loved ones. In this view of the world, they see their future existence as one in which they enjoy the prime of life, not burdened by disease, old age, or death. Those who accept the reality of past lives tend to romanticize them with stories of lifetimes as great people in key civilisations of the past, such as being an Egyptian priest or priestess, or a famous figure of the past. They nevertheless believe that it is the same personality that moves from life to life, body to body, and when they project this into the future, they expect to be reborn as they are now, perhaps in a different outer circumstance, but joined once again with the karmic bonds of individuals with whom they have contact. Some believe that they carry with them across the boundary of death all the karmic results, rewards and punishments, they earned in the present lifetime, just as in this lifetime they attribute their good and bad fortune to past karmic consequences brought forward.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “You must avoid a common popular blunder about reincarnation. The popular idea is that Titus Balbus is reborn again as John Smith, a man with the same personality, character, attainments as he had in his former life with the sole difference that he wears coat and trousers instead of a toga and speaks in cockney English instead of popular Latin. That is not the case. What would be the earthly use of repeating the same personality or character a million times from the beginning of time till its end? The soul comes into birth for experience, for growth, for evolution till it can bring the Divine into Matter. It is the central being that incarnates, not the outer personality — the personality is simply a mould that it creates for its figures of experience in that one life. In another birth it will create for itself a different personality, different capacities, a different life and career. …”

“As the evolving being develops still more and becomes more rich and complex, it accumulates its personalities, as it were. Sometimes they stand behind the active elements, throwing in some colour, some trait, some capacity here and there, — or they stand in front and there is a multiple personality, a many-sided character or a many-sided, sometimes what looks like a universal capacity. But if a former personality, a former capacity is brought fully forward, it will not be to repeat what was already done, but to cast the same capacity into new forms and new shapes and fuse it into a new harmony of the being which will not be a reproduction of what was before. …”

“Another thing. It is not the personality, the character that is of the first importance in rebirth — it is the psychic being who stands behind the evolution of the nature and evolves with it. The psychic when it departs from the body, shedding even the mental and vital on its way to its resting place, carries with it the heart of its experiences, — not the physical events, not the vital movements, not the mental buildings, not the capacities or characters, but something essential that it gathered from them, what might be called the divine element for the sake of which the rest existed. That is the permanent addition, it is that that helps in the growth towards the Divine. That is why there is usually no memory of the outward events and circumstances of past lives — for this memory there must be a strong development towards unbroken continuance of the mind, the vital, even the subtle physical; for though it all remains in a kind of seed memory, it does not ordinarily emerge.”

“But too much importance must not be given to past lives. For the purpose of this yoga one is what one is and, still more, what one will be. What one was has a minor importance.”

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


The Soul’s Journey Through Life, Death and Rebirth

One level of the deep ignorance within which we live and act is our bondage to the specific individual life, personality and situation that we inhabit. We are generally unaware of anything prior to our birth or which occurs after our death. Some even take the view that there is no “meaning” and that birth and death are simply beginning and ending points of a meaningless existence. If that were true, however, we would be left with the question of how and why this enormous mechanism of the universal creation exists and why we need to experience, learn and grow at all.

We occasionally get hints that show there is both a “before” and an “after” and if we reflect on this we begin to recognise that there are patterns that not only justify, but demand the existence of a series of lives for a developing soul, transcending the individual lifetime we have now, and carrying on the stream of consciousness growth that underlies the general evolution of forms and the specific soul-evolution of the psychic being.

Intriguing cases of young children being able to speak languages they have never learned, or bringing highly developed skills into their young lives in particular areas, certainly imply that some souls are able to carry more than the soul-spark with them beyond death and into new birth. In some cases, a person is able to describe a locale in another country, at another time, without ever having any direct contact in this life. Similarly, the reincarnation events of highly advanced Lamas, and their ability to unfailingly recognise implements and people they have experienced in the prior lifetime, provide us further evidence. Those who have a near death experience also come ‘face to face’ with their soul and return in many cases with a new understanding and appreciation of the value and significance of life.

While the soul grows, develops, gathers experiences and understanding from life to life, it does not generally carry with it the burden of its past lives in the form of specific relationships, specific skill sets or specific circumstances. We recognise that a child will play with certain toys, but as it grows, it moves on and leaves the childish pursuits behind to take up new tasks, interests and relations. A similar process takes place as the soul leaves behind one particular lifetime and, with the fruits of its experience in that life, evolves into a next level or phase of its development.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Each person follows in the world his own line of destiny which is determined by his own nature and actions — the meaning and necessity of what happens in a particular life cannot be understood except in the light of the whole course of many lives. But this can be seen by those who can get beyond the ordinary mind and feelings and see things as a whole, that even errors, misfortunes, calamities are steps in the journey, — the soul gathering experience as it passes through and beyond them until it is ripe for the transition which will carry it beyond these things to a higher consciousness and higher life. When one comes to that line of crossing, one has to leave behind one the old mind and feelings. One looks then on those who are still fixed in the pleasures and sorrows of the ordinary world with sympathy and wherever it is possible with spiritual helpfulness, but no longer with attachment. One learns that they are being led through all their stumblings and trusts to the Universal Power that is watching and supporting their existence to do for them whatever is the best. But the one thing that is really important for us is to get into the greater Light and the Divine Union — to turn to the Divine alone, to put our trust there alone whether for ourselves or for others.”

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

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

The Action of Karma and the Nature of Suffering

“What goes around comes around” and “karma” both basically indicate that there is a factor in existence that rewards good deeds and punishes bad deeds. But do we really see that things work this way? Is there some divine entity sitting up in the clouds, watching our good and bad actions, and giving us presents when we are ‘good’ and punishments when we are ‘bad’? How do we define good and bad, after all? Is it a moral judgment that varies based on the religion we follow or the culture to which we belong? When we reflect on these questions we can easily see that the simple explanations we tend to favor simply do not work.

We may ask, why does it look like people who do ‘bad’ things look like they are being rewarded, while those who are moral, ethical and upright look like they are being punished? Karma is in essence a law of ’cause and effect’ but it is not targeted or attached to an individual solely. When one unleashes an action in the world, it has its effect, which may indeed rebound on the individual, but may also spread out and affect others, both immediately and through time. The soul utilizes action and its consequences to learn and grow and all along, the consciousness is evolving and developing.

The field of physics holds that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The movement of energy, whether physical energy as studied in physics, or vital, emotional, mental, psychic or spiritual energy, has its effects and consequences. This is not a moral question, per se, but an energetic question.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “Note that the idea of rebirth and the circumstances of the new life as a reward or punishment of punya or papa is a crude human idea of ‘justice’ which is quite unphilosophical and unspiritual and distorts the true intention of life. Life here is an evolution and the soul grows by experience, working out by it this or that in the nature, and if there is suffering, it is for the purpose of that working out, not as a judgment inflicted by God or Cosmic Law on the errors or stumblings which are inevitable in the Ignorance.”

“Suffering is not inflicted as a punishment for sin or for hostility — that is a wrong idea. Suffering comes like pleasure and good fortune as an inevitable part of life in the ignorance. the dualities of pleasure and pain, joy and grief, good fortune and ill-fortune are the inevitable results of the ignorance which separates us from our true consciousness and from the Divine. Only by coming back to it can we get rid of suffering. Karma from the past lives exists, much of what happens is due to it, but not all. For we can mend our karma by our own consciousness and efforts. But the suffering is simply a natural consequence of past errors, not a punishment, just as a burn is the natural consequence of playing with fire. It is part of the experience by which the soul through its instruments learns and grows until it is ready to turn to the Divine.”

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

The Modes of Nature and the Ego Personality

The normal experience we have as human beings leads us to believe that we are exercising our own will and thereby exerting control over our actions and responsible for our destiny. Of course, the normal human experience also holds that the sun rises in the East, rotates around the earth and sets in the West–proving thereby that the normal human perception does not always capture the actual reality of the situation because of the limitations of our standpoint.

When one delves deeper into the question of our exertion of will, one finds that the decisions we take, the actions we engage in are actually part of the elaborate mechanism of Nature working through the three Gunas, or modes, Tamas, Rajas and Sattva. In fact, a close examination shows us that what we believed to be “free will” is very much being determined by the interaction and play of these Modes, and that to find free will one must achieve an independent standpoint outside the action of Nature.

Sri Aurobindo describes the relationship between the predominant Guna and the action of the ego-personality: “It may be a tamasic action, and then we have an inert personality subject to and satisfied with the mechanical round of things, incapable of any strong effort at a freer action and mastery. or it may be the rajasic action, and then we have the restless active personality which throws itself upon Nature and tries to make her serve its needs and desires, but does not see that its apparent mastery is a servitude, since its needs and desires are those of Nature, and while we are subject to them, there can be for us no freedom. Or it may be a sattwic action, and then we have the enlightened personality which tries to live by reason or to realise some preferred ideal of good, truth or beauty; but this reason is still subject to the appearances of Nature and these ideals are only changing phases of our personality in which we find in the end no sure rule or permanent satisfaction. We are still carried on a wheel of mutation, obeying in our circlings through the ego some Power within us and within all this, but not ourselves that Power or in union and communion with it. Still there is no freedom, no real mastery.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 24, The Gist of the Karmayoga, pg. 243

Conclusions Regarding Rebirth and Karma

We have completed our review of Rebirth and Karma by Sri Aurobindo.

The customary view of rebirth clearly leaves much to be desired. It is based, generally, on the idea that a specific personality will be reborn, and join up with the friends and family experienced in the current birth in another lifetime. It misses the inner rationale behind the entire process of rebirth, the growth, manifestation and evolution of the soul as a spark and “representative” of the Spirit involved in Matter for the expression of ever-greater forces of consciousness.

Similarly, the customary view of karma is also clearly flawed. The idea of either a machinery that metes out precise responses to an individual’s actions, or some high tribunal measuring actions and meting out justice, across this life and future lives, clearly is a distortion of the process that is truly taking place.

What we eventually see is that there is a vast intertwined movement of different forms of energies, physical, vital, mental and spiritual, each having their own characteristic power and action, but also impacting one another and creating a new result that represents the force of each line of action, but also takes into account the effect of the interaction. A cause and effect relationship exists within this framework, but not in the mechanically simplistic manner that we have tended to ascribe to it.

This process takes place, not solely on an individual basis, but also for the characteristic action of each species of being, and for the interaction between all life forms and the environment within which they live and act, and the movement of Time in the process of manifestation. We see, not a precise machinery, but a living, breathing Being manifesting through the Oneness of the universal life.

Rebirth is seen as part of a process of soul evolution. Karma as the cause and effect relationship between an output of energy and its result and the return it provides. The individual soul, as it grows and develops, through various forms and lives, is able to gain a deeper insight and understanding of the action of Karma, and thereby adjust its action to achieve the evolutionary goal of consciously integrating the spiritual consciousness into the world of mind, life and matter.

The benefit of understanding this deeper and more complex reality is that it points the way toward the spiritual evolution that is the true sense and meaning of our lives, and provides us a way to escape the artificial and limited perspectives of physical, vital and mental impulsions that hamper our growth. This viewpoint also helps us to understand and reconcile the apparently incongruous results that tend to mystify us, answering the questions of why do those doing evil prosper, or why do the good suffer, by providing the context and meaning that is secretly hidden in the entire universal life.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma,

Clarifications Regarding Purusha and Prakriti In the Understanding of Karma


There is a passage in the Upanishads, relevant to the discussion of rebirth and karma, which raised a question in the mind of one of the students of Sri Aurobindo’s text Rebirth and Karma. The Upanishad refers to “mind, leader of the life and body”. The student wonders how the mental being can take on this central role when it is part of the manifested lower nature of body, life and mind.

Sri Aurobindo clarified that the Upanishad referred to the “manomaya purusha” and not mind in the sense of the instrumentation of nature we commonly consider to be “mind”. There is a distinction of the concepts of “purusha” and “prakriti“. The first is the witness consciousness, not acting but providing support and sanction. The second is nature, which acts. In this case, the Upanishad is referring to the purusha. It specifically is referring to human beings as essentially being led by their characteristic as mental beings; while animals, for instance, would be led by their characteristic as life beings, in Upanishadic terms “pranamaya purusha“.

The Taittiriya Upanishad in the Brahmananda Valli goes through an extensive review of the issue, as it successively refers to a series of ever more subtle inner selves that inform and control the more external forms. There is a self of matter, which is then informed by a self of vital energy. This in turn is informed by a self of mind. The sequence continues beyond that inner self of mind. The issue here, however is not related to the matter, life energy or mind that makes up the instrumental being in nature, but an essential inner self that provides the basic “way of being” or characteristic of the being controlled by that “self”.

Sri Aurobindo discusses this issue: “It is described as manomaya by the Upanishads because the psychic being is behind the veil and man being the mental being in the life and body lives in his mind and not in his psychic, so to him the manomaya purusha is the leader of the life and body,–of the psychic behind supporting the whole he is not aware or dimly aware in his best moments.”

He goes on to explain that the manomaya purusha guides the human nature (prakriti) consisting of the instrumental mind, life and body. Similarly in the animal world, it would be the pranamaya purusha (the essential consciousness of the vital life energy) that would be the leader or guide for the animal nature consisting of instrumental life and body.

It is this level of subtlety and detail that has made a complete understanding of the processes and significance of Karma so mysterious and difficult to follow throughout mankind’s attempts to get an overview of it.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Appendix 2, Question and Answer: A Clarification, pp. 160-161, <a href=”; title=”Rebirth and Karma”></a&gt;

The Supramental Consciousness Is Key To Transcending the Limitations of Mind, Life and Matter

The mental, vital and physical levels of consciousness are fundamentally limited by their basis in division and fragmentation. They see and categorize their understanding in a way that emphasizes the separateness of the forces at work and the consequences. This makes it impossible to understand the action of Karma in any comprehensive way, as such an understanding requires an integrating vision that can both see the parts and the whole of which they are elements.

Sri Aurobindo elucidates this point: “The secret reason of man’s failure to rise truly beyond himself is a fundamental incapacity in the mind, the life and the body to organise the highest integral truth and power of the spirit. And this incapacity exists because mind and life and matter are in their nature depressed and imperfect powers of the Infinite that need to be transformed into something greater than themselves before they can escape from their depression and imperfection; in their very nature they are a system of partial and separated values and cannot adequately express or embody the integral and the one, a movement of many divergent and mutually non-understanding or misunderstanding lines they cannot arrive of themselves at any but a provisional limited and imperfect harmony and order.”

To the extent that we can develop any kind of harmony of interaction, it is based on the action of the secret influence of the higher supramental consciousness which holds the whole in its vision while simultaneously recognising the role and place for each of the disparate parts. “That force and knowledge is the self-possessed supramental power and will and the perfect and untrammelled supramental gnosis of the Infinite. It is that which has fixed the precise measures of Matter, regulates the motive instincts and impulsions of Life, holds together the myriad seekings of Mind; but none of these things are that power and gnosis and nothing therefore mental, vital or physical is final or can even find its own integral truth and harmony nor all these together their reconciliation until they are taken up and transformed in a supramental manifestation. For this supermind or gnosis is the entire organising will and knowledge of the spiritual, it is the Truth Consciousness, the Truth Force, the organic instrumentation of divine Law, the all-seeing eye of the divine Vision, the freely selecting and generating harmony of the eternal Ananda.”

And it is from this standpoint that the entire process of rebirth, and the action of Karma can finally be integrated and understood, both in the individual lines of action of each level of consciousness and in the complex interaction that provides the framework for the evolutionary journey of the soul through time, space and circumstance in the manifestation of the secret meaning of existence.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Appendix 1, The Tangle of Karma, pp. 158-159,

Interaction of the Physical, Vital, Mental and Spiritual Lines of Energy

It is not possible to fully understand the action of Karma solely by looking at the specific lines of energy of the physical, vital, mental and supramental levels. In the world we inhabit, these are always inextricably intertwined. While specific individuals may take their stand primarily within the framework of one or another of these levels, it is nevertheless obvious that they still must take into account the impact of the others. Focusing on the mental principles, for instance, does not absolve anyone from the demands and realities of the physical body or the vital impulsions.

It is therefore important to recognize the effects of this interaction and realize that we cannot truly understand Karma by analytical abstraction. The difficulties of the attempt to integrate the higher levels of consciousness into the world dominated by the physical and the vital forces has led the spiritual seeker to attempt to cut off or abandon that outer life of action. Sri Aurobindo describes the predicament: “The moment he tries to get at the absolute of the spirit, he feels himself obliged to reject body, to silence mind, and to draw back from life. It is that urgent necessity, that inability of mind and life and body to hold and answer to the spirit that is the secret of asceticism, the philosophical justification of the illusionist, the compulsion that moves the eremite and the recluse.”

The alternative is based on attempting to bring the higher forces of mind and spirit into life: “If on the other hand he tries to spiritualise mind and life and the body he finds in the end that he has only brought down the spirit to a lower formulation that cannot give all its truth and purity and power.”

This has led to the degradation of these higher energies, as the lower powers clearly water down the effect of the higher in action. “He has never yet spiritualised the body, at most he has minimised the physical by a spiritual refusal and abstinence or brought down some mental and vital powers mistaken for spiritual into his physical force and physical frame.”

Thus, we see the lines of Karma interwoven into a complex web of impacts that are not a straight, unbroken and direct line that can be teased out through mental process. The predominant lines must be seen, the intensity of the movement of that energy must be gauged, and the interaction with other parts of our being must be calculated to get at a more precise view of karmic action. These again must be taken in context of the larger movements of these energies across the entire world movements of energy.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Appendix 1, Chapter 17, The Tangle of Karma, pp. 156-158,

A New Understanding of the Action of Karma

The basic tendency and characteristic of the mind is to divide, analyze and classify. We use this power to great advantage in our attempt to harness powers of Nature, but we must also recognize that this power has its disadvantages, particularly when we try to address the meaning of life and our own spiritual development, things which require a unifying rather than a dividing intelligence.

We have used our fragmenting and characterizing capabilities to try to understand the working of the law of Karma, but we have now had to recognize that this has led to over-simplification and, at last, to a failure to appreciate the vast, manifold and flexible movement that actually is the basis for what we call Karma.

Sri Aurobindo sets about to re-set our understanding, and thereby move us beyond the limits of the mechanical view we have had of Karma to a much more dynamic view: “Let us then call Karma no longer a Law, but rather the many-sided dynamic truth of action and life, the organic movement here of the Infinite.”

“Action of Karma follows and takes up into its flexible sweep and surge many potential lines of the Spirit; it is the processus of the creative Infinite; it is the long and many-sided way of the progression of the individual and the cosmic soul in Nature. Its complexities cannot be unravelled by our physical mind ever bound up in the superficial appearance, nor by our vital mind of desire stumbling forward in the cloud of its own longings and instincts and rash determinations through the maze of the myriad favoring and opposing forces of the visible and the invisible worlds. Nor can it be perfectly classified, accounted for, tied up in bundles by the precisions of our logical intelligence in its inveterate search for clear-cut formulas.”

A true understanding of Karma can only come about when we are able to see with the vision of the integrating intelligence which Sri Aurobindo has called the supramental consciousness. This consciousness holds together all the apparently opposing and disparate parts in a complex, interacting, complete Oneness while simultaneously recognising the individual strands and streams of action and manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Appendix 1, Chapter 17, The Tangle of Karma, pp. 155-156,