Puzzles of the Soul, Reincarnation and Karma
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 14 Aug 2017
14 Aug 2017 – Most religions believe in the concept of soul or a spirit that resides in our bodies. It is also generally accepted that it is the soul that gives life to the body which it enters and then resides in. If the soul leaves the body, the person dies — in other words life is terminated. For this reason, life and soul are often considered synonymous.
A few questions arise about these concepts. The questions consist of what happens to the soul as it leaves its previous body? Another question that comes up is when — at what instant does the soul leave a body?
A further point — why does the soul leave the body of a person? Does it know that a body is old and weak and it is a good time to leave the body? In this limited sense, this idea appears to make sense. It is as if we are standing in a building engulfed by fire. We quickly try to run away from there to safety.
But let us say the person is physically fit but either meets with a fatal accident or is fatally shot by a pistol or gun. As a result the person who was physically fit a little while earlier, dies instantaneously or a little while later. Does the soul understand the fatal nature of the accident or shooting and thus leaves the body?
The question as to what happens to a soul as it leaves its previous abode is generally answered by the belief that it enters another body that has been conceived in its mother’s womb. With this answer we say that the soul or any soul for that matter, is never without an abode — it always finds a new body to live in and be housed.
This belief or answer also has some puzzles. Is the soul indivisible or an entity that can be divided? If indivisible, what happens when the human population keeps increasing? How do those human beings who are now born and have added to the increase of population, get their souls? This would necessitate the concept that new souls are being generated to accommodate the increasing number of human bodies.
A possible answer to this puzzle can perhaps be understood if we understand a little better the nature of the soul. Originally the soul is considered as a spiritual entity that moves around like a river and meets many objects – human, non-human, non-living. Just as a mighty river flows, coming into contact with several obstacles without changing its pre-determined path, so a free soul moves around. But it is also ordained to enjoy a material form and then it enters the body of a human (or non-human) being. As stated earlier, a soul resides in a body and when the body dies it finds another abode. The abode may be that of a human being, a plant, fish, animal or bird or any other living entity. In this essay I shall confine myself to a soul of only human beings.
During the life time of an individual, if the person behaves well or does not resort to any evil activity, the soul will find another human being to reside after the first person dies. This can continue indefinitely. However as per the Vedic philosophy/ Srimad Bhagwatam, the soul or this living entity would like to free itself from the material world and to become free of bondage of any living being – human or non-human. It wants the process of transmigration to cease.
To carry this argument further many spiritual beings over the centuries that man has lived on this planet, have led spiritual and healthy lives and therefore their souls have become unshackled – i.e. free of bondage to any human body. Thus we have many unshackled souls existing in the world. So when the population increases, these free unbound souls can enter into the new populations. In other words there are enough number of souls to be accommodated in newer bodies of human beings.
The above argument is a mechanical one and may not be acceptable to many people. It is based on the indivisibility of a soul. On the other hand, if the soul can be divided — is divisible, then the divisible parts of a soul can enter newer bodies that are adding to the population increases.
However this answer poses other dilemmas. These revolve around the concept of Karma which roughly means the acts, good or evil that one performs in one’s lifetime, have consequences in the next reincarnated body. In other words, when a person is born again (as a human body) its behaviour or conditions are governed by the actions or Karma of its previous life/lives. This concept tacitly believes that it is the soul that is the messenger or courier of the actions of the previous life to its new avatar.
If this is so, what happens to the divisibility of the soul to enter additional newer bodies? Do the actions of a person or his Karma also divide into constituent parts to enter additional bodies? Logically this would appear to be so if we accept the fact that the soul is the carrier of one’s karma. This would then imply that one of the newer bodies may be good and the other may be evil with resultant consequences.
These are logical puzzles that result from our beliefs of soul and reincarnation and karma. A possible answer to the above riddles is not to believe in the ideas of reincarnation or karma. There are many people who are sceptical to the above notion. However, most religious people are not so sceptical and would not like to believe that there is nothing – really a total void, after death.
Some people feel death is like a dream. While we dream we forget who we are, where we are located and whom we meet – living people or those who have died such as one’s dead father or grandmother etc. But after the dream is over we come back to our previous condition. Similarly death is considered like a dream and after death we take another form – possibly human if our karma has been good and just.
How is a dead body disposed of? Hindus cremate or burn the body. Christians and Muslims bury the body. In the Baha’i faith, the body is left on a tower for vultures to eat the dead human flesh. In all cases, the idea is that the body that consists of the five elements – earth, air, water, fire and ether returns to the soil either as ashes or a decomposed form.
The puzzles that I have briefly tried to discuss above have been with us from times immemorial. A rationalist may argue why waste one’s time and energy on these imponderables because there can be no factual answers that can be tested in some experiment. But the human nature being such, we cannot but ponder over these questions and try to answer them to the best of our ability.
Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, an educationist and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 14 Aug 2017.
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