Deep in the remote thick jungles of Dandaka, there was a tribal village called Bhrashtakshi. It is said that two moons appear in the sky of that village. Ask any villager, child or adult and they can easily show the two moons when the sky is clear – one a little right to the other, same size but a little less bright. All their songs and school books have been singing of the two moons for generations. The moon-pair is worshiped as the Goddesses of the Twins. People pray to these Goddesses to beget children.
Dr. Sulochan, M.D., happened to go as a Health worker to that village. She was surprised to detect everyone had a double vision. Further investigations showed congenital issues and also deficiencies in their nutrition. But the villagers were not convinced. They were sure it was all a play by the powers of the City to take over their ancient properties. Their ancestors always said that there had been two moons in their sky. How can the knowledge coming from their forefathers be wrong? They have their texts to prove the two moons in their sky. They have seen and lived with two moons for centuries. It’s a huge huge conspiracy, resolved the Village elders – the City dwellers want to steal their moons.
The truth is, as we all know well, there is only one moon. Irrespective of what is fact, truth has no chance to prevail before the staunch belief of the villagers and their entrenched stories. There cannot be a second moon to the Earth. But that is a hard sell. Nobody wants your truth.
The problem with Rebirth is no different!
To say that there is rebirth, there has to be a birth first. But what we see as birth is equally due to a defective vision on our part. Our perception apparatus is inadequate to show what “IS” exactly, truthfully out there. It gives only a distorted picture. There is a Reality-Perception Disconnect, unknown to us.
Acharya Gaudapada (Shankara’s Guru’s Guru) declared in his writings that “Nothing ever is born. There is no scope or reason for anything to originate.” He even repeated these words once more in his kArikA on mANDUkya (at III-48; and again at IV-71).
How can there be rebirth for something that is not born? For what then is the ”rebirth” so many of us go ga ga about?
Yes, some scriptural references can be cited regarding the concept of rebirth and the next life. But all these are talked about only as a provisional hypotheses for someone who strongly identifies himself with the present life and is unable to comprehend Non-duality, the really real Reality. The scripture is known to adopt the method of adhyAropa – apavAda (superimposition and sublation) as its teaching technique. When once the full Advaita theory is ingested, the hollowness of all these intermittent steps will be realized and laughed away.
Secondly, the theory of rebirth was used as a reward and punishment mechanism to regulate behavior in the society in the good old days when there were no well-scripted civil and criminal procedural codes of conduct and penal laws duly legislated by governments. The concept of rebirth helped in establishing an order in the society. It came with the additional benefit of being a self-policing mechanism too for the citizens to monitor and control their actions by themselves.
As postulated by the Karma Theory, if one has to be born at all s/he has have some prArabdha. But the very concept of the existence of “prArabdha karma” itself is quite dicey. Shankara in his treatise titled aparpokAhAnubhUti made absolutely clear in verse 97 that “the shruti talks of prArabdha only for the understanding of the ignorant ones. Human body is a part of the world which itself is non-existing. How can there be any prArabdha for a non-existing body?” Existence of the prArabdha, therefore, is not possible like the existence of two moons in our opening story.
We have from Bhagavad-Gita that “on knowing the truth, the fire of Knowledge destroys all karma into ashes (Ch 4, verse 37).” Knowledge means just dropping the ignorance idea that “I am a separate self.” There is no need to acquire anything newly by anyone. It is only a question of giving up the false belief.
muNDaka Upanishad mantra II-ii-9 tells us that “the moment the truth is known (i.e. ignorance is dropped), the knot of the heart breaks, all doubts vanish, and all karma will perish.” Mind you, the shruti is using the words “all karmas,” which will include prArabdha too. What karma can exist for such a one to engender a birth?
Suppose I give you a lump of clay and take it back. I will mold the clay lump into the shape of a pot and give you again. What will you say if one asks you what is in your hand? You will say a pot. But is it so really? What you have is just the same lump of clay only but with a changed shape. Similarly you think you are perceiving a world; but what actually “IS” is the self-effulgent brahman only, as Shankara said in aparokShAnubhUti (verse 67).
Brahma sUtra IV-i-13 says: तदधिगम उत्तरपूर्वाघयोरश्लेषविनाशौ तद्व्यपदेशात् (The meaning of this aphorism is that the scripture declares that the effects of all the subsequent and previous actions done by an individual when s/he was still under ignorance, will be destroyed on the realization of the truth).
Commenting on the above sUtra, Shankara is very unequivocal in his emphasis as follows: People may think that the Law of Karma is inexorable. But “this sUtra says that when a seeker understands the Truth after learning the true Knowledge, the effects of the past deeds and the future deeds will not cling to him. It is so because on the realization of the truthful position, he will know that he never had been, is or will be a “doer” of things and therefore, he cannot be affected by any of the actions. No merit or demerit can cling to him like water does not cling to a lotus leaf. The Law of Karma will act on one who is deluded. All the shruti texts also confirm the same. Any smriti texts and a few of the shruti that do speak differently are addressed to only the one wallowing in ignorance.
Shankara is bold to say that if this is not so, there will be nothing like “Liberation” at all.
However, this certitude gets diluted as he proceeds to the commentary on the 15th sUtra. Here he admits prArabdha to operate till the body lasts.
We have to understand, IMHO this apparent contradiction, to mean that Shankara is talking here about the body that formerly housed the one who is now liberated. He says that it will live its life like so many other objects that also have been co-existing with it – the tree or rock or river, other creatures etc. etc. What is to be noted is the fact that that body will just live like all things without being claimed by anyone as “mine.” No ownership titles for that body.
Shankara dispels all doubts once again succinctly in the verse 91 in aparokShAnubhuti. He says that understanding the truth is like waking up from a dream. The dream body and its travails never cling to the person who dreamt that world during his/her sleep the previous night. Similarly, nothing of the awake world known to him/her when s/he was under ignorance will survive on knowing the truth. Referring back to our opening story, the second moon in the village Bhrashtakshi disappears the moment the villager knows what the truth is.
Shankara expands on this in greater detail in Vivekachdamani verses 453 onward till 463. In the verse at 63, he says: “To attribute prArabdha even to the body is decidedly an illusion. How can a superimposition have any existence? How can the unreal have a birth? And how can that which is never born, die? So how can prArabdha function for something unreal?”
Shankara explains to us in the verse 458: “The sage abiding in Eternal Reality in the form of the true Self does not perceive anything else. Just as one recollects the objects in the dream, the Realized one remembers his day-to-day acts (of the awake world) like eating, releasing etc.”
[Acknowledgements: I heartily thank Brahma Shri K. V. Krishna Murthy who helped me in obtaining clarity on various scriptural statements regarding the concept of rebirth.]