The doctrine of Karma and rebirth dates back to ancient times and therefore its origin is not well known. Sri Aurobindo is one of the major contributors and proponents of this doctrine. At this point, it is important to note that, I will evaluate the doctrine alongside its function ability. In a nutshell, the doctrine perceives and explains human suffering as a result of action of wrongdoing in the past or present life. This essay will thus, dwell mostly on rebirth and Karma, and its implication for understanding ourselves and nature in general.
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First and foremost, it is essential to understand the literal meaning of both rebirth and Karma. Rebirth connotes the process of being born over and over again. A person may be born severally at different times and in different situations. What this means in essence is that, one person can be born many thousand times. Karma on the other hand means action. Taken in this context, the word means volitional acts coupled with all forces that emanate from these acts. Another word we need to look into is the rebirth of a soul which simply refers to incarnation. According to Sri Aurobindo, the birth of a soul means the soul getting out of one case of flesh into another case.
The concept of rebirth according to Sri Aurobindo is a concept of psychology and therefore better explained by psychological evidence rather than physical tangible evidence. He clearly states that modern science views rebirth as mere speculation and is simply a theory that cannot be proved. In addition he views modern science as lacking the apparatus to ascertain the truth or lack of it in rebirth. Sri Aurobindo asserts that:
“Rebirth of modern minds no more than speculation and a theory; it has never been proved by the methods of modern science or to the satisfaction of the new critical mind formed by a scientific culture. Neither has it been disproved; for the modern science knows nothing about a before-life or an inter-life for the human soul, knows nothing indeed about a soul after all, nor can know; brain and nerve, the embryo and its formation and development. Neither has modern criticism any apparatus by which the truth or untruth of rebirth can be established” (Aurobindo, 3).
Therefore, in our quest to understand ourselves, and our current state of life, it is important for us to put into consideration the fact that; rebirth accounts for some mysteries that are not explained in earnest and many other aspects of psychology. Rebirth therefore justifies the fact that, human suffering is brought about by past ill action. It goes further to illustrate how past good deeds and virtues are rewarded by fortune and a life full of success. Well, according to Sri Aurobindo, past crimes never go unpunished or unrewarded.
The fundamental ideology in rebirth is soul evolution. The most important belief held in the rebirth doctrine is that, the soul, in a given time comes out of ignorance and becomes enlightened about its external mutable movement. It is through this self-finding that it also becomes aware of the ages contributing to the present organization of movement. Through this well thought idea about soul evolution, we are able to understand the fact that the soul does not die but forever lives on.
Sri Aurobindo’s reincarnating soul is an important base to lay the foundation of the possibility of reincarnation. He argues that, human thinking has completely resorted to crude acceptance of facts that have not been critically evaluated. He makes an observation that, ideas and facts need “subtle thinking and precision”. Sri Aurobindo further asserts that, humans feel contented and hence end up accepting crude ideas because of laziness and impatience.
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Reflecting on how reincarnation has been viewed and popularized, Sri feels that, it is misleading. He sites for instance the popular idea of the reincarnating soul where it is believed that, the soul is reborn into a new body; He says that, no thought is given as to the definition of the soul. He simply poses the question of whether the soul is Purusha (person or atman). He further begs to know whether Purusha only gets into a new body but brings along the personality of the old frame that has been discarded. According to Sri Aurobindo, the popular view that people have is that, their identical souls move to new bodies immediately after the death of their physical bodies. What he sees as the crude notion is that, personality is perceived as being reborn into different cases of flesh. Sri Aurobindo strongly disputes this argument by writing about the Buddhists and the Vedantist’s thoughts. Sri Aurobindo in his book, Rebirth and Karma advocates for two thoughts that do not give importance to the survival of the identical personality when he writes:
“They were not attached to the survival of personality; they did not give that survival the high name of immortality; they so that personality being what it is, a constantly changing composite, the survival of an identical personality was nonsense, a contradiction of terms. They perceived indeed that there is a continuity and they sought to discover what determines the continuity, and whether the sense of identity which enters into it is an illusion or the representation of fact, of a real truth, and, if the latter, then what that truth may be. The Buddhists denied any real identity…..” (Aurobindo, 14)
Both the two thoughts do not give importance to the survival of the identical personality. Buddhists and Veda mist’s on the contrary considered the identical person as non-sense and a contradiction of terms. Sri Aurobindo feels that, “The identical person, I, is not, never was and never will be”. Buddhist thought is based on the belief that, uninterrupted flow of a River is an incanting soul or personality and a persistent flow of Karma. On the Buddhist thought however there can be an end to the continuous flow of Karma. This however can be brought about when the soul is enlightened and at this point we are brought to a state of none being. The Vedamist thought on the other hand, suggests the contrary to the Buddhist thought. It argues for, the immortal life and the ever passing from death to death.
When analyzing the concept of the reincarnating soul according to Sri Aurobindo, it is essential to note that, there is no birth of a soul. What usually happens is that, a new body is born to the world with an existing old personality. This personality remains unchanged, that is, it is still the one that ones left the now thrown away frame or case of flesh. In a bid to understand ourselves, this notion helps us to know that the soul living in us today will one day live in another body when we die. Sri Aurobindo asks as to who creates the form in which we reincarnate. The Buddhist offered the answer of Purusha but later distorts its meaning. He accepts the answer but affirms that; Purusha is imperishable, immutable, unborn, and undying and therefore does not exist in the body but rather in the self. Sri Aurobindo says;
But the self is imperishable, immutable, unborn, undying. The self is not born and does not exist in the self. For the self is one everywhere…. (Aurobindo, 16)
Rebirth of the soul, when discussing the issue of reincarnation follows in terrestrial bodies. Sri Aurobindo argues that, the soul after the death of the old frame does not remain on earth but alternates itself between the earth and other celestial worlds that exist. It is in these worlds that the soul shades out its accumulated ill deeds or virtue. Due to the aspect of sin and virtue, the soul may come back on earth and take up some terrestrial body. The terrestrial body may be: human, animal or even vegetable. The form that is taken by the soul is usually determined by the deeds showed in the past life. For example, if the deeds in the previous life were good, the birth will be of a higher form. The higher form is characterized by fortune, happiness and good luck. If the deeds in the previous life were bad, the birth will be of lower form. This means that, the life will be characterized by suffering and struggling.
The above-described scenarios are a result of Karmic law, which states that, each being is bound to reap what he saws; it is from one’s deeds that he profits or suffers. The law simply rewards a tooth for a tooth. The Karmic law is arithmetic in nature and is a measure that: calculates measures and ascertains the penalty for past deeds. It is also important to mention that there is a double punishment for sin and virtue. This is so because, if one was a sinner he will be tortured in hell and then subjected to another suffering in the next life. On the other hand if one was of good deed, he is rewarded with celestial joys and in his next life he will experience fortune and happiness. It can also be concluded that, man is the creator of himself and the determiner of his fate. The soul is the one that determines its own evolution and Karma is only an aid for it to do so. Sri Aurobindo also asserts that there is law but this should not be taken in totality because there is also spiritual freedom. This is so because the law only rules the outer mind, life and body. Thus, when our minds intervene it means that there is an inner freedom.
According to Sri there is usually continuity of life in nature. At this point of the discussion, it is important to highlight the implications or the significance of rebirth. First, it is through rebirth that we are reminded of our past. This can be easily seen by the kind of life we lead today. If we are happy it means that we had a good past and vice versa. Second, rebirth enables the people by shouldering the difficulty and solves it through soul evolution. Third, rebirth allows us to respect and conserve our environment and nature in general because we already know that some souls take the form of animals and even vegetation. Lastly, rebirth enables us to understand ourselves in the sense that, what we are is a soul in constant evolution.
To sum up the issue of reincarnating soul, Sri Aurobindo describes the unchanging personality as Prakriti which denotes the totality of nature that is beyond Purusha. He further asserts that Prakriti is the ultimate multi-composite that is basically surface work. In addition, he looks at the body as only convenience and urges the people to pay more attention to self. As Aurobindo puts it:
“The body is a convenience, the personality is a constant formation for whose development action and experience are the instruments; but the self by whose will and for whose delight all this is, is other than the action and experience, other than the personality which we develop” (Aurobindo, 19).
When we analyze the above, it is eminent that it is of paramount importance to concentrate more on our spiritual nourishment rather than our bodily pleasures. What this means is that, our soul lives on and therefore needs more care than our bodies which will one day die and be discarded.
When Sri Aurobindo analyses rebirth, evolution and heredity he makes very harsh comments about modern science. To him evolution and heredity are unquenchable light bestowed upon the people. He also describes it as the lamp of constant luster. Sri Aurobindo in his opinion perceives modern science as narrow and only looking for tangible physical evidence and trying to explain even the supra-physical aspects in a physical manner. He further questions whether the concept of evolution is exclusively physical and biological. According to Sri Aurobindo, heredity is a constant transmission of both the physical form and biological characteristics from past lives to the future. He even illuminates that, even within the genus itself the hereditary force is transmitted. He illustrates this aspect by saying that the offspring of a lion can only be a lion and not anything else.
In conclusion, Sri Aurobindo has given a great insight into the subject not so talked about. Through his contributions to rebirth and Karma, people can understand the psychological aspects that cannot be explained by science. In addition he challenges mankind to question things beyond their physical tangible existence. Moreover, his thoughts on soul incarnation help us understand that the soul lives on and that it can take up other forms other than human beings. This therefore demands us to both respect and conserve nature and our environment. Moreover, his arguments also remind us not only to tend to our bodies but also our soul which lives forever. Lastly, it is through his insight that we are able to understand human suffering and happiness because he simply tells us that we either suffer or rejoice because of our past deeds.