Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Reincarnation and Advaita Vedanta – Page 2

P.J.Mazumdar


Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

4.3.36:

When this body becomes thin– is emaciated through old age or disease, then, as a mango, or a fig, or a fruit of the peepul tree is detached from its stalk, so does this infinite being, completely detaching himself from the parts of the body, again go, in the same way that he came, to particular bodies, for the unfoldment of his vital force.

4.4.2:

..Through the brightened top the self departs, either through the eye, or through the head, or through any other part of the body. When it departs, the vital force follows; when the vital force departs, all the organs follow. Then the self has particular consciousness, and goes to the body which is related to that consciousness. It is followed by knowledge, work and past experience.

4.4.3:

Just as a leech supported on a straw goes to the end of it, takes hold of another support and contracts itself, so does the self throw this body aside – make it senseless – take hold of another support, and contract itself.

4.4.5:

That self is indeed Brahman, as also identified with the intellect, the manas and the vital force, with the eyes and ears, with earth, water, air and ether, with fire and what is other than fire, the absence of desire, with anger and the absence of anger, with righteousness and unrighteousness, with everything – identified in fact, which this (what is perceived) and with that, (what is inferred). As it does and acts, so it becomes; by doing good it becomes good, and by doing evil it becomes evil – it becomes virtuous through good acts and vicious through evil acts...

4.4.6:

Regarding this there is the following pithy verse: ‘Being attached he together with the work, attains that result to which his subtle body or mind is attached, exhausting the results of whatever work he did in this life, he returns from that world to this for fresh work.’ Thus does the man who desires transmigrate. But the man who does not desire never transmigrates, of him who is without desires, who is free from desires, the objects of whose desire have been attained, and to whom all objects of desire are the Self – the organs do not depart, being but Brahman, he is merged into Brahman.

These sutras give a definitive description of the reincarnation theory. All other descriptions of reincarnation follow this basic pattern. Here we see that an independent soul is described, that takes body after body depending on its previous work, till it attains a consciousness which does not desire, and then it is merged into Brahman. It is followed by knowledge, work and past experience, that is, it takes these with it into the next body. It continues in this way till all the results of its work is exhausted. But when a man does not have desire, then he is merged into Brahman and is not reborn again.

In 4.4.5, it says, this self is indeed Brahman, as well as identified with the intellect, manas, etc. that is, it is both the Brahman and the body–mind, intermediate between the two, as it were.

The next two sutras describe how the souls either reach the world of gods depending on their actions, or return back to be born again.

6.2.15:

Those who know this as such and those others who meditate with faith upon the Satya – Brahman in the forest, reach the deity identified with the flame, from him the deity of the day, from him the deity of the fortnight in which the moon waxes, from him the deities of the six months in which the sun travels northwards, from them the deity identified with the world of the gods, from him the sun, and from the sun the deity of lightning. Then a being created from the mind of Hiranyagarbha comes and conducts them to the worlds of Hiranyagarbha. They attain perfection and live in those worlds of Hiranyagarbha for a great many superfine years. They no more return to this world.

6.2.16:

While those who conquer the worlds through sacrifices, charity and austerity, reach the deity of smoke, from him the deity of the night, from him the deity of the fortnight in which the moon wanes, from him the deities of the six months in which the sun travels southward, from them the deity of the world of the manes, and from him the moon. Reaching the moon they become food. There the gods enjoy them as the priests drink the shining soma juice (gradually saying as it were), ‘Flourish, dwindle.’ And when their past work is exhausted, they reach (become like) this ether, from the ether air, from the air rain, and from rain the earth. Reaching the earth they become food. Then they are again offered in the fire of man, thence in the fire of woman, whence they are born (and perform rites) with a view to going to other worlds. Thus do they rotate. While those others who do not know these two ways become insects and moths, and these frequently biting things.

These two sutras show up the arbitrariness and uncertainty of the reincarnation theory. The path of the different souls that is described here is beyond the bounds of belief. The souls as they go up meet such beings as ‘deity of the fortnight in which the moon waxes or wanes’ (from full moon to new moon and vice versa), ‘deity of the six months in which the sun moves northwards or southwards’(from the summer equinox to the winter equinox and vice versa), ‘the sun or moon’, the deity of lightning, etc. Granted that these may be only analogies, but one is hard pressed to think what they could possibly imply. The souls of those persons who have meditated on Brahman itself ultimately reach Brahman, as described in the first sutra. But the souls of those who have only practiced rites and austerities go through a much harder fate. They become food and are enjoyed as such by the gods. What this could mean is next to impossible to understand. They then become like ether or air and merge with rain, are eaten as food by a man and then come out in the semen, and then into the womb, and finally into the human body. Those that have not practiced even rites and austerities of course become mosquitoes.

The description of these two sutras are enough to turn one against reincarnation forever. It is impossible to believe in such an account of death. This shows that reincarnation is little more than a fanciful legend, possibly stemming from a much earlier folklore when the core philosophy of the Upanishads had not yet been conceived. There would be no harm in discarding a theory associated with such myths as this.


However, there are many sutras in the Upanishads which discuss what happens on death without dealing with reincarnation. Such sutras usually speak of the person merging directly into the Brahman on death.

Chandogya Upanishad

3.14.3:

This self of mine within the heart, is the performer of all actions, is possessed of all good desires, is possessed of all good smells, is possessed of all good essences, pervades all this, is devoid of speech, and is without hankering. This is Brahman. After departing from here (this body), I shall become identified with This. He who has this belief truly, and has no doubt, he will attain Brahmanhood. This is what Sandilya said in days of yore. Sandilya (said this).

Here, it is said directly, ‘after departing from here , I shall become identified with This.’ Here there is no talk of reincarnation.

6.8.6:

O good looking one, of this person when he departs, the organ of speech is withdrawn into the mind, mind into the vital force, vital force into the fire, and fire into the supreme Deity.

Here also, the sutra speaks of direct merger into the supreme Deity on death, there is no mention of anything like reincarnation.

6.15.1 (Chandogya) is a nearly identical sutra. A previous sutra is similar:

6.8.4:

O good looking one, all these beings have Existence as their root, Existence is their abode, Existence is their place of merger.

Here, merger is for ‘all these beings. The next sutras in this part of the Chandogya Upanishad also speak of a similar merger.

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