Rebirth and Research

Swami Yogakanti Saraswati

How much do we remember the concept of the Law of Karma governing our lives? This is thought of as a truism in most eastern cultures. There is some debate on how much is destined, and how much can be changed by effort, but generally speaking this resolves into a discussion of how one can skilfully adjust to or manage one’s responses and behaviour within the general framework and force of karma. Dr Hiroshi Motoyama, a research scholar from Japan specializing in designing equipment to measure subtle energy flows, comments that although karma controls life, one can change the way the past manifests in one’s life. For him, the point of a spiritual consultation is to teach ways to dissolve a specific karma that is manifesting problematically.

One might expect that an astrologer would definitely be on the side of karma causing unalterable destiny, but in fact that seems not to be the case. Vedic astrology is called jyotisha, meaning ‘the eye of the Veda’. The science is subtle, and awareness is considered to be a force in itself. Being able to accept and understand why a particular thing is going to happen means one can deal with it more skilfully, and the results or the ensuing karma will therefore be more auspicious.

Karma and rebirth

Most people do not know the time they will die – often they don’t really believe they will die either – and in the West, many doubt that they will be reborn. This uncertainty and rejection in the face of death is not a world-wide phenomenon. The Tibetan culture has been based on the sure and certain knowledge that the Dalai Lama will be reborn, and will give directions so that his new incarnation can be found. The present Dalai Lama is the 14th, and was recognized at the age of two as replacing the 13th Dalai Lama. People often ask questions wanting a particular sort of reply, but the answer may rather provoke a lot questions that one has to answer for oneself. For example, in April 2007 Swami Niranjanananda was asked:

Does rebirth exist?

Maybe it happens and maybe it does not happen. What I would like to look at however is the drawbacks and the merits of someone deciding that it happens or that it does not happen.

Let us say it does not happen. What are the merits and demerits of rebirth not happening? Think about that. If you believe that rebirth does not happen, then this is the only life that you live. In infinite time, this is the only one time when you appear, like a flash, and then disappear again. Therefore, in this life it might be better to just enjoy it; earn money, take loans and enjoy the good life before you die, because you are not accountable to anything or anyone and nobody is going to bug you after you die, anyway. This non-believing attitude gives birth to an aggressive, materialistic mentality which is known in India as the charvak philosophy, a system that accepts only what one can see as valid.

The merit in this idea is, ‘Enjoy this life and that’s it, nothing more to it’. The demerit is the aggressive, materialistic tendency which gives rise to the negative traits of personality: anger, possessiveness, hatred, the search for power. It distances you from the balancing and positive qualities of life such as sympathy, compassion and affection. The mind and heart become very hard and instead of living the life of a human being, you will be living life in a different manner.

Now let us suppose that reincarnation happens. I see this as the check and control of life – the belief that one’s consciousness is evolving continuously. If rebirth did not happen, if you only had to live one life and there was no rebirth, then there would be no ongoing evolution. Evolution is perceived as the changes that you observe in consciousness, it is a continuing process.

Look at the DNA helix for example. Is the information contained in the DNA helix acquired in one lifetime only, or is there something at the physical level that has come with you through all the generations? Genetic information has come down through all the generations of parents to you; their memories, their knowledge, their understanding, their impressions and their samskaras. If this is happening at the physical level, just imagine the mental DNA helix. Imagine the DNA helix of consciousness, which goes back into infinity. This continuity is the evolution of consciousness that everybody speaks about. The body may not be the same, that is all right, but the inner substance will continue.

If you know that you are going to be around tomorrow, then you will improve your behaviour today and you will become better. However, if you believe that you are not going to be here tomorrow, then you might do anything you wish under the sun. sure you will still rest in peace after death, totally unaffected by your behaviours here today. That is my understanding, and from my perspective I can see that understanding about rebirth has a valid role to play in our lives and should not remain an intellectual, philosophical or religious debate.

Knowledge of past lives

The traces of past lives are perceivable in advanced forms of meditation, known as samyama, where one oscillates between dharana, dhyana and samadhi, and is enabled to dive deep into the unconscious and return with the information – rather than losing it as novices do. Patanjali first mentions a technique for understanding past life impressions in his discussion on yama and niyama, and in particular, on the fruits of aparigraha, non-possessiveness.

On becoming steady in non-possessiveness, there arises the knowledge of how and from where birth (comes). (Yoga Sutras 2:39)

Swami Satyananda comments:

The samskaras of possessiveness must first be completely washed away and then one can start a new life. Thus aparigraha is a temporary course of sadhana in an aspirant’s life. If this particular sadhana is continued beyond reasonable limits, it gives rise to weakness and obsession. However, it is necessary to practise in the beginning in order to break the old habits. When they are broken, one can have different things which are needed for social work and service to humanity. When this sadhana is firmly established, the aspirant comes to know about the previous birth – its kind, its time and its reason. Similarly, one can even know the next birth. Just as by seeing a cloud you know that there will be rain, similarly, you know about the previous or the next birth by being firmly established in aparigraha.

Being aware of one’s own samskaras means you become aware of the subtle residual impressions left behind in the consciousness during various births. You may choose to explain this as ‘genetic impressions’ or ‘instincts’, but definitely when one is first born, there are impressions or tendencies in the unconscious mind. They remain in a very subtle form throughout life, guiding our perceptions, inclinations and actions unconsciously. Children in particular, often remember details from past lives spontaneously. As adults, we can turn round and really focus on these recordings from our own past nature, but it is not advised; Patanjali is just mentioning milestones that indicate we are indeed going along the path, he’s not advocating we hang the milestones round our necks.

Published in Life and Death – Full Circle