The living entity, who has received his present body because of his past fruitive activity, may end the results of his actions in this life, but this does not mean that he is liberated from bondage to material bodies. The living entity receives one type of body, and by performing actions with that body he creates another. Thus he transmigrates from one body to another, through repeated birth and death, because of his gross ignorance.
-- Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.7.47
Sensationalistic U.S. weekly tabloids are rife with unscientific notions about reincarnation, presenting "startling new evidence" practically every week. And more and more paperback books claiming to tell the "real truth" about past lives glut the market. But who to believe? And what to believe? Can the National Enquirer and other similar publications really be accepted as authorities on the science of reincarnation?
Out-of-body experiences are one tangential aspect of reincarnation that has been widely publicized. While many of these out-of-body reports may well be true, they do not provide us with any really new information. Reports of such occurrences may help to convince readers that there is indeed another reality beyond the body -- consciousness, or the soul. But this is not new information, for this knowledge has been available for years. The Vedas explain that consciousness is a symptom of the soul, and therefore has a separate existence from the body. From even a cursory study of the more than five-thousand-year-old Bhagavad-gita and other Vedic literatures, the existence of the soul as distinct from the body becomes obvious. It is not surprising to a student of Vedic science to hear that the soul, carried by the subtle body (consisting of mind, intelligence, and false ego) may temporarily go beyond its material tabernacle during dreams or near-death experiences. False ego means accepting the body as oneself. The sense of "I am" is ego, but when the soul becomes contaminated or conditioned by matter, he identifies with the body and thinks that he is a product of material nature. when the sense of self is applied to reality, or the soul, that is real ego.
Reincarnation: The Real Out-of-Body Experience
Out-of-body experiences (OBEs) are really nothing new. Everyone has had them, for dreams are nothing less than an out-of-body experience. During sleep, we enter the dream state when our subtle body (consisting of mind, intelligence and ego) leaves the gross form and enjoys a different reality on the subtle plane. The subtle body is the vehicle which carries the soul out of the body and into another, new body at the time of death.
A fairly common type of OBE has been documented in cases of near death, when subjects describe how they seemed to hover above their own bodies at the scene of an accident or over the operating table, observing their own bodies without feeling physical pain or discomfort, although many had been declared clinically dead.
Even while the gross body is inactive, the subtle body is active. As already noted, the subtle body sometimes carries us into dreams while our gross body lies sleeping in bed. A similar phenomenon occurs when we go on mental journeys during the day as in daydreams.
In special circumstances, during a close brush with death, people enter a state researchers have termed the "near-death experience" (NDE). In some cases the terms NDE and OBE can be used interchangeably. During an NDE, the subtle body often hovers above the corporeal form. Since the soul is the elemental principle of life -- the very essence of life itself -- it can observe the body it belongs to. It can see, hear and smell, just as if it possessed all the physical faculties of the body.
When the subtle body hovers above the gross form during an NDE, the body may be compared to a car with the engine left running. The driver of the vehicle has stepped out for a moment, but if he does not return, the car runs out of fuel and the engine ceases to run. Similarly, if the soul does not return and reintegrate itself with the body during an NDE, the person dies, and the subtle body carries the soul to another physical body to begin a new life.
This fact is a fundamental principles expounded throughout the Vedic literature. One of the most famous and oft-quoted verses of Bhagavad-gita states: "As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change." (Bg. 2.13)
During our lifetime we are unknowingly creating the subtle form of our next physical body. Just as a caterpillar transports itself by taking hold of one leaf before giving up another, the living entity begins to prepare its new body before giving up the present one. At the moment of actual death the soul transmigrates to a new body rendering the body of its former habitation lifeless. The soul does not need the body to exist, but without the presence of the soul, the body is nothing more than a corpse. This transferral of the soul from one body to another is what we call reincarnation.
Although hundreds of recorded NDEs seem to present ample evidence that the mind and soul can exist while separate from the body, NDEs don't give us any definite information about the soul's final destination at death. Therefore, while literature on near-death-experiences can provide us with a basis for accepting reincarnation, it still leaves readers sadly uninformed about the true nature of reincarnation and the destiny of the soul after the death experience.
Hypnotic Regressions Do Not Give Us the Whole Picture
A number of popular books on reincarnation focus on cases of hypnotic regression in which subjects allegedly recall details of a past life or past lives. One such book, The Search for Bridey Murphy, became a best-seller in the 1950s. It was serialized in more than fifty newspapers and created something of a worldwide sensation. The book became a prototype for a whole genre of past-life regression paperbacks that appeared in the decades following the book. Such books still enjoy a modicum of popularity today. But this literature about reincarnation only skims the surface, giving us a bantam view of a vast subject, a view that in many ways can be misleading.
In The Search for Bridey Murphy, the author, a skilled hypnotist regressed his middle-aged American subject, Mrs. Virginia Tighe, to her last "incarnation," in which she claimed to be a girl named Bridey Murphy, who was born in Ireland in 1798, lived there all her life, and died at age sixty-six in Belfast.
Under hypnosis, Tighe disclosed details of "Bridey's" childhood home, gave the names of parents, friends, and relatives, and reported many other particulars of her "past life." The book reported that Bridey entered the "spiritual world" at death, only to be reborn again in America in 1923 as Virginia Tighe.
Investigators were able to verify some of the information Tighe supplied about Bridey Murphy but they also discovered parallels between Mrs. Tighe's childhood and that of the Bridey Murphy that she described under hypnosis. Research revealed, for example, that at the age of four Tighe lived with an aunt across the street from a woman named Bridey Murphy. As a result, the Bridey Murphy story is still vigorously debated and shrouded in controversy.
From this and many other similar cases, we can understand that even the most detailed and descriptive "past-life" memories may be events from the subject's childhood. Psychologists studying these cases have deliberately induced hypnotic states in which subjects come up with plausible yet entirely fictional accounts of their "former incarnations." This isn't to say that all hypnotically-induced "past-life" accounts are fabrications, but separating genuine memories from unconscious fantasies requires a great deal of effort and is often not possible.
Not only can childhood memories be mistaken under hypnosis for past lives, but also any thought -- a recollection of stories heard in childhood, books read in the past, or even purely imaginary episodes or situations -- can easily be mistaken for real past-life experiences. Therefore, the hypnotic regression approach to reincarnation often operates on shaky ground.
Another common fallacy with past-life regression is the inexplicable gap between the present life and the last incarnation. For example, the subject who thought she was Bridey Murphy claimed to have died in 1864 in her last life, leaving a sixty-year period before her "next incarnation" as Virginia Tighe. The book indicates that during this period the soul of Bridey Murphy lived in the "spiritual world."
According to the principle of reincarnation taught in the Vedas, we learn that this is quite impossible. The actual process of reincarnation is that the soul, after leaving a material body at death, enters another womb in some species of life in this or another universe, as directed by the immutable laws of karma and arranged by material nature. After death, the disembodied soul, unhindered by a physical body, is able to travel at the speed of the mind Therefore, there is a negligible time lapse between leaving one body and entering another However, only fully self-realized souls can attain the spiritual world beyond the cycle of reincarnation. This is not possible for the ordinary soul, who is conditioned by life in life in the material world. Every soul, however, has the potential to reach the spiritual world after undergoing the necessary spiritual practices which make this possible.
As Lord Krsna explains in Bhagavad-gita (4.9), "One who knows the transcendental nature of of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna." But the Lord further notes that the great souls alone, who are "yogis in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection." (Bg. 8.15.)
The laws of karma and reincarnation are so perfectly ordered that when each material body dies, nature has already arranged, exactly according to the soul's cumulative karma, another appropriate material body into which the departed soul will enter and take birth anew.
"Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, ..lthat state he will attain without fail." (Bg. 8.6.) A self-realized soul who enters the eternal, spiritual world would certainly not have an obligation, nor desire to reappear in this temporary material world of birth, death, disease, and old age.
The past-life regression approach to reincarnation occasionally yields evidence of the fact that the same soul inhabits different bodies at different times, and this knowledge is helpful. Many published cases confirm "past life" information revealed by hypnotized subjects to be remarkably accurate. Sometimes these hypnotic regressions elicit demonstrations of deeply felt emotions that are hard to doubt. The work of Ian Stevenson in the United States and Peter Ramster in Australia includes carefully documented reincarnation experiments -- in many cases involving independent observers to insure integrity. It is noteworthy that some of their subjects spoke fluently in languages with which, it had been proven, they had had little or no contact throughout their lives. A few even spoke in old dialects no longer extant but which were validated through historical records. Some of Ramster's subjects led him and independent observers to remote dwellings in foreign countries never before visited by their subjects. In several cases these buildings, or their remains, meticulously matched subjects' earlier accounts of their "past-life homes," accounts which were taped in Ramster's, office before his subjects went abroad to begin the verification phase of the experiment.
These types of carefully and scientifically conducted experiments seem to lead us almost unchallengeably to the conclusion that reincarnation must exist in some form. Unfortunately they do not give us any real in-depth knowledge or understanding as to how transmigration of the soul actually takes place. Therefore, the past-life regression approach to reincarnation is at best a rudimentary attempt to explain a highly evolved phenomenon. Moreover, the sensationalism, oversimplification, and even hucksterism that surround so much of this experimentation (most of which is not scientifically conducted), severely limit the regression method as a viable information source about the innumerable intricacies of reincarnation.
Once a Human, Always a Human?
Another popular reincarnation myth posits that the soul, once attaining a human form, always comes back in a human body in the next life and never reincarnates in a lower species. We may reincarnate as humans, but we could come back as dogs, cats, hogs, or lower species. The soul, however, despite entering higher or lower bodies, remains unchanged. In any case, the type of body one gets in his next life will be determined by the type of consciousness he develops in this life and by the immutable law of karma. Bhagavad-gita, the most authoritative sourcebook on reincarnation, spoken by God Himself, clearly states that "when one dies in the mode of ignorance, he takes birth in the animal kingdom." (Bg. 14.15) There is no scientific or scriptural evidence anywhere for this fanciful "once a human, always a human" notion, which runs contrary to the true principles of reincarnation, principles that have been understood and followed by millions of people since time immemorial.
Death Is Not a Painless Transition
Books that paint a rosy picture of death and assure man of a human birth in the next life are dangerously misleading. The authors attempt to portray death as a beautiful, painless transition, an opportunity to experience growth and to progress to newer and higher dimensions of awareness and tranquillity.
Most chic reincarnation theorists would have us believe that after a brief period of cosmic slumber, we will experience a warm, drifting, floating sensation as the soul slowly proceeds toward its next human body. Then, we are told, we enter a cozy human womb, where, protected from cruel outside elements, we lie comfortably curled up until the time when we emerge, freeing ourselves at last from the shelter of our mother.
All of this sounds wonderful, but the harsh truth is that birth and death are odious, agonizing experiences. The great sage Kapila Muni informs his mother about the true nature of the death experience: "In that diseased condition, one's eyes bulge due to the pressure of air from within, and his glands become congested with mucus. He has difficulty breathing, and there is a rattling sound within the throat... He dies most pathetically, in great pain and without consciousness." (Bhag. 3.30.16-18) The soul is so habituated to living in the body that it must be forced out by the laws of nature at the moment of death. Just as no one likes to be forcibly evicted from his home, the soul naturally resists eviction from the material body. Even the tiniest insects will display the most amazing abilities and techniques for avoiding death when their lives are threatened. But as death is inevitable for all living beings, so are the fear and pain associated with it.
Vedic literature informs us that only self-realized, liberated souls have the power to experience death without anxiety. This is possible because such highly elevated personalities are completely detached from their temporary bodies, fixed in the knowledge that they are spirit souls with an eternal, nonmaterial existence, independent of all material bodies. Such great souls remain in a state of continuous spiritual bliss and are not bewildered by bodily pains and changes at the time of death.
But taking birth in the material world is no picnic either. For months the human fetus lies cramped within the darkness of the womb, suffering severely, scorched by the mother's gastric fire, continually jolted by sudden movements, and feeling constant pressure from being contained in the small amnion, or sack, which surrounds the body in the womb. This tight, constricting pocket forces the child's back to arch constantly like a bow. Further, the unborn child is tormented by hunger and thirst and is bitten again and again all over the body by hungry worms in the abdominal cavity. Birth is so excruciating, the Vedas say, that the process eradicates any past-life memories one may have retained.
Vedic literature explains that a human birth is very rare. In other words, most living beings in the material world have assumed nonhuman forms. This happens when the soul, giving up the purpose of human life, namely self-realization, becomes entangled in animalistic desires. It must then take its next birth in the animal or lower-than-animal kingdoms.
Theories about reincarnation as described in popular literature should be seen for what they are -- beliefs, opinions, suppositions, and mere speculations.
The physical universe is governed by laws. Other sets of laws govern the subtle universe, including the laws of transmigration of the soul and karma. It is under these subtle but stringent laws of nature described in the Bhagavad-gita and hundreds of other Vedic literatures that the actual process of reincarnation operates. These laws did not spring into existence whimsically, but function under the control of the supreme controller, Sri Krsna, who confirms in the Gita (9.10), "This material nature .. is working under My direction...s Under its rule this manifestation is created and annihilated again and again."
Fashionable notions about reincarnation may be amusing and appealing, but our own destinies are much too important to put our faith and belief in frivolous, grossly simplified, inaccurate, and misleading speculations, no matter how attractive they may seem.
Vedic literature, on the other hand, has for thousands of years provided practical, comprehensive, and useful knowledge about the science of reincarnation. This wisdom makes it possible for intelligent persons to gradually approach higher and higher states of awareness, and at last escape completely from the endless cycle of birth and death. This is the real goal of human life.