Q: As you know, all spiritual traditions in Tibet, many in India and even the early Christians took reincarnation for granted.
In Advaita however the idea is blatantly refused. Balsekar says, since there is no ego and the idea of an individual person is an illusion, what or who is there to be reincarnated?
Does this mean that the other traditions are wrong or is it a question of understanding, meaning that the people who argue differently do so from a different level of understanding / consciousness?
A (Sitara): One has to understand that within the Advaita teachings there are differences. All agree that ultimately there is only non-duality. But the ways in which they try or do not try to help the seeker gain that knowledge differ.
On one side we have Neo-Advaita, which claims that because ultimately there is no seeker and nothing to be found, any attempt to help the non-existent seeker to walk the non-existent path is absurd. Therefore in Neo-Advaita there is no teaching, just proclaiming the ultimate truth from the rooftops again and again.
Traditional Advaita Vedanta on the other hand has developed a whole teaching methodology that accommodates seekers at all stages. If a seeker firmly believes that he is the body he will not be able to understand ultimate truth. TAV builds bridges between his truth and the ultimate truth – in the most elaborate and skilful way. There is a whole edifice of thought that concerns itself with how the seeker can proceed from one provisional truth to the next that may contain a little more of the ultimate truth, until he is ready to listen to, understand and absorb the ultimate truth without any concessions.
How does the law of karma come in here? The seeker needs concepts that help him explain the reality he perceives. His erroneous perception requires concepts that at the same time explain his reality to him and also prepare his mind eventually to move beyond his perception and provisional truths (i.e. concepts). One of those provisional truths or concepts is the law of karma. It is useful in many ways, even if it is not ultimately true.
A teacher like Ramesh Balsekar has a strong leaning towards Neo Advaita, and that’s why his statements seem to clash with some statements of Traditional Advaita Vedanta. But the clash is only in the teaching approach, not in the understanding.
In between those two views – Neo-Advaita and Traditional Advaita Vedanta – we find Western Advaita Satsang-Teaching with no methodology but the strong attempt to help the seeker. So the teaching is individualistic, differing from teacher to teacher. Also it is highly improvised.
Another in-between Advaita approach is the Direct Path Teaching in the manner of Atmananda Krishna Menon. It is less improvised and has more of a methodology, which is based on logic. Also teachers usually are familiar with Vedanta even though they do not teach it and use it mainly as a background to their teaching.
In neither of these two, reincarnation has a place because it is not required for their teaching approach.
A (Peter): Here are some views on reincarnation:
1. Personal recollection:
… According to these accounts, when she was about four years old, she told her parents that her real home was in Mathura where her husband lived, about 145 km from her home in Delhi. Discouraged by her parents, she ran away from home at age six, trying to reach Mathura. Back home, she stated in school that she was married and had died ten days after having given birth to a child. Interviewed by her teacher and headmaster, she used words from the Mathura dialect and divulged the name of her merchant husband, “Kedar Nath”. The headmaster located a merchant by that name in Mathura who had lost his wife, Lugdi Devi, nine years earlier, ten days after having given birth to a son. Kedar Nath traveled to Delhi, pretending to be his own brother, but Shanti Devi immediately recognized him and Lugdi Devi’s son. As she knew several details of Kedar Nath’s life with his wife, he was soon convinced that Shanti Devi was indeed the reincarnation of Lugdi Devi. When Mahatma Gandhi heard about the case, he met the child and set up a commission to investigate. The commission travelled with Shanti Devi to Mathura, arriving on November 15, 1935. There she recognized several family members, including the grandfather of Lugdi Devi. She found out that Kedar Nath had neglected to keep a number of promises he had made to Lugdi Devi on her deathbed. She then travelled home with her parents. The commission’s report concluded that Shanti Devi was indeed the reincarnation of Lugdi Devi.
2. Taking Balsekar as the representative voice of advaita is very partial (and misrepresents the true situation). Here’s what Swami Dayananda, the convenor of the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, and a renowned teacher of traditional advaita Vedānta says:
“The jīva is a person who looks upon himself as the physical body, mind and senses… due to ignorance. And because of this ignorance the jīva continues to be born as a jīva. Out of ignorance, the person continues to perform actions that produce punya and pāpa that result in yet another birth. This, of course, is from a particular point of view. As a jīva, you look at the world and at yourself, seeing difference where there is none. This is the standpoint from which all these discussions and arguments takes place, the standpoint of the empirical reality, not Absolute Reality.” (My italics).
3. Here’s what Bhagavān Kṛṣṇa says in the Gītā (with which every traditional advaita teacher would agree):
“O Arjuna, many lives of mine have passed, and so have yours. I know them all, (but) you know not, O scorcher of enemies!” (BhG. 4.5) (My italics).
4. Regarding your assertion that “all spiritual traditions in Tibet, many in India and even the early Christians took reincarnation for granted” here’s one Buddhist point of view on reincarnation:
“A gross misunderstanding about Buddhism exists today, especially in the notion of reincarnation. The common misunderstanding is that a person has led countless previous lives, usually as an animal, but somehow in this life he is born as a human being and in the next life he will be reborn as an animal, depending on the kind of life he has lived… This notion of the transmigration of the soul definitely does not exist in Buddhism…” http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/reincarnation.htm (BuddhaNet is a non-sectarian organisation, offering its services to all Buddhist traditions).
(One can find several similar refutations of the Gnostic Christian view of reincarnation by the orthodoxy, as well as any suggestion that Sufis – the Gnostic equivalent in Islam – believe in reincarnation.)
5 The scientific/rational perspective:
Right this moment in your body you have a million atoms that were once in the body of Christ. Based on radioactive isotope studies and mathematical computations it can easily be shown that in this moment of your existence you have a million atoms that were once in the body of Christ, in the body of Gautama Buddha or Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo or Mr. Saddam Hussein. You can’t separate yourself from anything physically or anybody that has ever existed… In just the last 3 weeks, a quadrillion atoms, 10 to the power of 15 atoms, have gone through your body that have gone through the body of every other species on this planet… And the DNA that holds memories of millions of years of evolutionary time, in fact hundreds of millions of years; the actual raw material of it comes and goes every six weeks. Those atoms drift in and out like migratory birds every six weeks.
(From a Talk Given by Dr. Deepak Chopra, M.D. at the Seattle Centre on May 18, 1991. http://ascension-research.org/reality.html) (This is a very literal view of reincarnation based on the scientific principle that matter is neither created nor destroyed. Everything that exists today was around yesterday.)
Given these different perspectives on reincarnation, which one resonates with you? How are you going to choose (instead of asking someone else to crunch the information for you)? I suggest asking yourself which perspective contributes most to the discovery of the truth of yourself and then proceed from there.
A (Ramesam): Rebirth or reincarnation is quite a bewitching concept. It has its genesis in our mindset and draws its strength from two of our hidden tendencies:
(i) A desire to perpetuate ourselves with a wish to continue forever in body (Latin carn-, flesh) and/or spirit;
(ii) To look for an antecedent cause for everything that happens in our experience under the assumption that there had to be a cause for all that happens and a ‘purpose’ behind the cumulative happenings.
The above two traits get amazingly well-encompassed by the concept of rebirth with a great additional advantage to boot, camouflaging successfully the naked truth of our failure to conquer death of the body and our inability to accept the absence of a ‘purpose’ for life.
The added benefit of the concept of rebirth I mentioned above is that it proved itself to be an effective social-engineering tool (at least in the olden times) for imposition of ‘morality’ on the society through institutionalizing a ‘reward-punishment mechanism’ under the cover of divine dispensation. If and when the promised reward or punishment does not take place within one’s life time, it is assured to happen on a deferred temporal scale in the next or a future birth – a situation which is neither verifiable nor falsifiable.
The concept of rebirth was very handy and convenient to the Head-person for the ‘command and control’ of his flock. It also indirectly helped him to protect and to perpetuate his own power and authority. So the ‘meme’ of rebirth took root, spread and became ineluctable for the ordinary folk.
Religions could hardly let go the opportunity. One religion that does not subscribe to the concept of rebirth instituted such a severe system of justice right in this life that a number of people consider the punishment meted out to the wrong doers as inhuman.
All the above statements can be contested and torn apart if one wishes to, because by their very nature the issues involved are extremely controversial and a place like this forum of Q&A is highly inappropriate to delve in greater detail beyond the very concise expression made above.
Some teachers may take the stand that rebirth does not exist from an absolute perspective but has a validity in the transactional reality of our world. But if we examine critically taking into consideration the space-time dynamics of our universe, those very principles of physics do not support the karma theory based on which the concept of rebirth is developed. I have written about this way back in 2004. Dennis was kind to publish a slightly altered version at his site (Link: http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/teachers/karma_ramesam.htm ), where it is dated July 2012, but it actually goes back by several years.
Biologically speaking, our bodies (carni) are derived from the division of a single cell called zygote with the union of the haploid male and female reproductive cells of our parents. From the way the reproductive cells split in half, one can visualize that they never suffer death; they perpetually continue (at least the ones which succeed in fertilization) immortally. That is to say that the haploid cells of our parents are the continuation of the haploid cells of their parents and so on all the way back without ever having faced death. There are ways to working backwards to locate our primary ancestors using the energy manufacturing cell parts (called mitochondria) within our body cells. We derive mitochondria only from our mothers. Biologists have been able to source the Mother of all our mothers, the primitive hominid dating back to 3.2 to 3.6 million years ago by this method. She is named ‘LUCY’ and found to have inhabited the region that falls under present Ethiopia.
So we are all re-incarnations of Lucy, our Mother of all Mothers.
Working still backwards, we can arrive at the first possible single cell which must have divided to give rise to all living creatures. It is called LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor). It is more than 3 billion years old. All bacteria, plants and animals are derived from it. So we are all its re-incarnations!
Based on the developments in theoretical physics and nucleosynthesis at the core of collapsing stars, it can be argued that the chemical elements that make up our bodies are all derived from exploding supernovae. These elements get recycled from one body to the other. The carbon atoms in your eye perhaps were sitting in the gut of a roach in the distant past or may have belonged to a dog that died in your neighborhood. So also elements from your body may have been taken over by a plant in your yard and later by an ant on the tree. Who knows? In one sense, these are all your reincarnations at the chemical elemental level.
Developing the arguments further on the basis of the theory of relativity and quantum physics, everything in the universe ultimately comes down to one single force field christened General Unified Field. All of us get our forms and bodies from that single source through gradual cosmological evolution.
Advaita dispenses all these arguments of cosmological or biological evolution as well as theories of Divine creation as mental fantasy. Advaita declares the visible world is not an outcome of evolution or creation but is simply an illusion – a phantasmagoria for which no rule or rhyme can exist. Any other argument is merely an explanatory artifact or an appeasement to the mind.
A (Dennis): It is a question of the level of understanding. Advaita certainly does teach reincarnation. The theory of karma is fundamental. Cause and effect operate at the level of empirical reality as you know from your own experience. It is from the level of absolute reality that there is no reincarnation, because there is no world, no individual etc.
The entire teaching of advaita proceeds via what is called adhyAropa – apavAda. In the early stages, a particular explanation might be given for some problem that is relevant at that time. Once the problem has been resolved, what has been said may be admitted to be false and a more sophisticated explanation is given. Explanations are provided to suit the present level of understanding of the seeker. An example is in respect of creation itself. To begin with, there are elaborate explanations of how the elements proceed from God. Later it is admitted that creation is actually a product of mAyA, like the illusion in a magic show. Only ultimately is it explained that there is in fact no creation at all. This is why Advaita is such a powerful teaching system. It caters for the whole spectrum of seekers, taking you from total immersion in the wrong beliefs that you are the body in an objective world to the ultimate realization that there is only Brahman, and you are That.
It is the subtle body, sUkShma sharIra, that is said to be reincarnated. So the accumulated saMskAra from past actions is carried over to ‘bear fruit’ in future births as per the theory of karma, satisfying the principle of cause and effect. But this is from the empirical, worldly viewpoint. From the absolute point of view, all this is mithyA only.