Everyone at some time in life wonders what happens after death. Throughout history, some of the most thoughtful minds have advocated that life does not end with the death of our body, but continues on via a process known as reincarnation. In the Western world, followers of the Orphic religion in ancient Greece were the first known exponents of reincarnation. They were succeeded by Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and a host of other philosophers.
The Vedic literature advocates that the soul, or atma, gives life to the body. Life does not arise from a particular combination of material elements as some modern scientists theorize. At the time of death, we leave one body and enter a new one. That is called reincarnation.
Reincarnation refers to living entities transmigrating through different bodies according to one’s desires and past activities (karma). Their desires, if materially motivated, require a physical body to enable them to continue to work out their material longings in various conditions of life.
The living entity forgetful of his eternal relationship with God, or Krishna, wants to enjoy independently in the material world, so Krishna affords him repeated opportunities to try to do so. Sometimes the living entity wants to experience the supposed enjoyment of flying, so Krishna may grant him the body of a bird. Sometimes he wants to enjoy eating without discrimination, so Krishna may give him the body of a pig.
In this way, the bewildered living being can repeatedly pursue—for unlimited lifetimes—the material enjoyments for which he has come to this material world. On the other hand, Krishna gives the living being repeated opportunities to turn away from the fruitless prospect of independent material enjoyment, attain spiritual self-realization, and regain the eternal relationship with Him.
Therefore we are being given repeated opportunities to attain spiritual realization, break free from material entanglement, and resume our eternal nature in the spiritual world. The Vedic writings are meant to guide us in achieving this goal.
We can observe that we change from one body to another throughout our lifetime. Our body at birth is completely
different from our adult body. Yet throughout these changes, the conscious self remains the same. Similarly, the conscious self remains the same at death and transfers from one body to the next in the cycle of reincarnation.
Our present body is the result of a long series of actions and reactions in previous lives. The law that governs this is
known as karma: every action has a reaction. Our previous actions have produced our present body, and our current actions will determine our next body.
Before a living entity is ready to incarnate as a human being on Earth, the soul may have gone through a whole series of lives in order to experience various levels of existence and consciousness, gradually working their way up until they reach the human form. The body is only the covering of the soul in which it appears.
All of our thoughts and actions throughout our life will collectively influence the state of being we are in at the time of death. This consciousness will determine what that person is thinking of at the end of one’s life. This last thought and consciousness will then direct where that person will most likely go in the next life because this state of being carries over from this life into the next.
After death, one continues the consciousness that was cultivated during life. One’s state of consciousness or conception of life exists in the subtle body, which consists of mind, intelligence and false ego. The soul is covered by this subtle body, which exists within the gross material form. When the physical vehicle can no longer function, the subtle body and soul are forced out of it. Then, when the time is right, they are placed in another physical frame which properly accommodates the state of mind of the living entity.
This is how the mental state which attracts the dying man determines how he begins his next life. If the dying man is absorbed in thoughts of material gain or sensual pleasures of wife, family, relatives, home, etc., then he must, at some point, get another material body to continue pursuing his worldly interests and thus satisfy his material desires.
After what can be millions of births and deaths through many forms of life, trying to satisfy all of one’s material desires, the soul may begin to get tired of these continuous attempts for happiness that turn out to be so temporary. Then the person may turn toward finding spiritual meaning in life by cutting the knots of attachment to materialistic life, and engaging in spiritual activities.
Why do not I remember previous lives?
Memory is such a thing that we put down our car keys and later can’t remember where. We can’t remember being in the womb. Were we there? Forgetting one’s previous birth upon taking the next appears to be a law of nature.
Srimad-Bhagavatam, a Vedic scripture, says that by the trauma of birth a child forgets his previous life.
It might also be said that if we could remember our previous births, the burden of the memories would be unbearable. The memories we carry around from just one life are sometimes sorely distressing. Multiply such memories manyfold, and they would surpass our ability to deal with them.
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