Reincarnation and Rebirth


One morning last fall, while sipping my chai, I tapped the TOI app on my iPad, and the Times of India appeared. The top story was startling. The Dalai Lama “put to rest all speculations about his reincarnation by issuing a clear declaration here on Saturday, stating that ‘the person who reincarnates has the sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized.’ The declaration further states, ‘Reincarnation is a phenomenon which should take place either through the voluntary choice of the concerned person or at least on the strength of his or her karma, merit, and prayers. It is a reality that no one else can force the person concerned, or manipulate him or her.’”

These statements are part of a lengthy declaration issued by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in response to the Chinese government, which, in effect, is insisting the Dalai Lama cannot reincarnate without its official permission. Amazing! The Chinese government has superhuman powers and can control His Holiness’ fate in the next life. What’s next? A Western government fixing the time and place for the second coming of Christ? The Indian government issuing a decree telling Vishnu when he can incarnate as Kalki?

It’s not clear—at least not to me—whether the Chinese government is ridiculing the concept of reincarnation or if they actually believe they can control it. If they are ridiculing it, they fail to grasp why people from a variety of cultures have such profound faith in reincarnation. And if they believe they can control it, they are (to put it bluntly) ignorant.

The idea of reincarnation—the continuation of one’s identity, along with all one’s merits, powers, and privileges, from one life to the next—has captured the human imagination since we began pondering our origin and final destination. Theories identifying an aggregate of matter as the source of life do not resonate with our gut feeling about ourselves. We instinctively reject the idea that humanity emerged from a chemical collision in nature—that we are born from a random combination of chemicals and then pulled and pushed by the urges of hunger, sleep, sex, and self-preservation merely to be consumed by old age and death.

What is the powerful internal force that places a boundless value on life, struggles to preserve it at any cost, and is adamant to reclaim it even after death?

There is within us a force that seeks meaning and purpose in life. What is that force? What in us is so deeply averse to injustice? What yearns to leave a legacy and works hard to build a future, which by definition cannot be seen? What is that powerful internal force that places a boundless value on life, struggles to preserve it at any cost, and is adamant to reclaim it even after death?

Our belief in the existence of that force is more than a religious concept. It is a necessity. For this belief gives us the vision and motivation to discover who we are, how we happened to come here, what the future holds for us, and how we can find fulfillment both here and hereafter. This belief has its own life, its own shakti. Understanding the basis for our belief in this internal life force helps unravel the mystery of reincarnation.

The Purpose of Life

In yoga, the life force is called prana. Prana is not the result of an interaction between various forms of matter. Prana has its own independent existence: call it being (atman), non-being (anatta), individual soul (jiva), or intelligence (buddhi). Prana travels along the pathways of time and space. The word for this is “transmigration” (samsara)—traveling from one point in time and space to another. When in the course of its journey, prana associates itself with matter, matter becomes animate—birth. When the life force disassociates itself from matter, matter becomes inert—death. This process—the life force coming into manifestation and returning to its unmanifest state—is the anatomy of birth and death.

The life force, prana shakti, is indestructible. Once awakened and in motion, the life force is unstoppable. Like a river, it can cut through solid rock, creating deep gorges to reach its destination. The life force associates itself with matter for a specific purpose: to experience fulfillment (bhoga) and to attain freedom (apavarga). Individuals are born in a body to achieve this twofold goal.

For those who know the purpose behind their birth, life is the gateway to freedom. Such people are not attached to the body, mind, senses, and worldly possessions. They know these are merely tools to achieve the goal of life, not goals themselves. They use these tools wisely and leave them behind when they are no longer needed. This is the way of yogis and bodhisattvas.

But for those who do not know the purpose behind their birth, life is the gateway to sorrow. Not knowing any better, they become attached to the body, mind, senses, and their worldly possessions. Lacking wisdom, they have little or no inclination to use these tools to achieve the main goal of life but become preoccupied with preserving these tools, only to lose them to death. This is the way of ordinary people.

Both extraordinary people—high-caliber yogis and bodhisattvas—and ordinary people are imbued with the life force. Both categories of people come to this world and leave it again. Both have an enormous potential to be what they wish to be and become what they wish to become. The difference is that one category is aware of this inherent potential and the other is not. Thus, one makes the best use of life and the other lives in fear of losing it. Eventually both die. And both return—one with the knowledge that birth is an opportunity and the other ignorant about the purpose of life. Extraordinary people use the opportunity afforded by life to attain ultimate freedom from all forms of sorrow, including the sorrow that accompanies birth, sickness, old age, and death. Ordinary people waste this opportunity and lose it to death, only to be born again and again.

Each of us—in both categories—is an embodiment of the life force. The life force must reach its goal—the experience of fulfillment (bhoga) and ultimate freedom (apavarga). Therefore it is up to each of us to decide whether to allow ourselves to remain caught in this seemingly endless cycle of rebirth or to take the shortcut of reincarnation.

The Privileged Class

In order to comprehend the dynamics of reincarnation and rebirth, it is helpful to understand two important terms used in the yoga tradition—bhoga yoni and karma yoni. Bhoga yoni is a life form or species (yoni) fated to undergo a certain range of experiences (bhoga). Nature leads these species through a range of experiences, none of which they have any ability to alter.

Plants, insects, birds, and animals belong to this category. Their intelligence is diffused; therefore their understanding of life and its purpose is extremely limited. Their willpower is subdued; therefore their determination to achieve or let go of something is tightly circumscribed. They operate within the narrow scope of their instincts. In order to survive, they must adapt themselves to their surroundings. Philosophers consider bhoga yonis to be part of the natural world rather than distinct individuals. They belong to Darwin’s world and fall outside the domain of reincarnation and rebirth.

As humans, we belong to the second category, karma yoni. Karma yoni is the life forms or species endowed with the freedom to perform actions (karma) at its own discretion. We—as karma yonis—are an embodiment of the life force with a well-defined sense of self-identity and individuality.

Our highly developed intelligence tells us what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. Our intelligence also tells us what our current strengths and weaknesses are and what we must do and not do in order to succeed in our endeavors. Thus, we have the ability to discern, decide, and then act. Our unfettered willpower feeds our determination, infusing it with enthusiasm and courage—necessary ingredients for overcoming obstacles. In other words, the life force (prana) manifesting as a human is immensely potent. That potent life force is who we are—we are that life force.

We have freedom of choice—freedom is our innate privilege. We have the freedom to think and express our thoughts. We have freedom to act on our thoughts or to stop at the level of thought. How aware we are of this freedom and how wisely we exercise it determines where we stand on the ladder of our personal evolution. Awareness of our innate freedom and the wisdom to put it to good use also determines whether we will live with purpose, die with vision, and reincarnate to attain the ultimate freedom, or whether we will live aimlessly, die with regret, and be reborn only to die again.

The Path of Freedom

We are born to become the creator of our own destiny. Because we have the capacity to conceive the idea of past, present, and future, as well as the capacity to see the connection between cause and effect, we have the ability to bring a desirable change in life here and hereafter. Those who use this capacity to their advantage are destined to reincarnate, while those who are careless remain subject to rebirth.

In other words, those who make a sincere effort to identify and awaken their potential live, die, and return to this world as they choose. They are designers of their own destiny, not victims of destiny. They bring their destiny with them as their conscious decision and use it to complete the task left incomplete in their previous lifetime. They reincarnate.

The literal meaning of “incarnation” is “to give bodily form and substance to; to give concrete or actual form to.” In other words, the potent life force—which is what we are—takes a physical form. Reincarnation carries with it a sense of empowerment, the ability to voluntarily assume a body. The word for reincarnation in the yoga tradition is avatara, literally “descending into a body, thus assuming name and form.”

Individuals who reincarnate are able to descend only because they once ascended. They rose above the world of short-lived pleasure and pain. They clearly saw the transient nature of worldly objects and achievements. They realized the value of life and made a sincere effort to free themselves from the bondage of samsara. They cultivated a clear, calm, and tranquil mind, sharpened their intellect, and acquired the power of discernment. They concluded that their body and senses are tools to identify and awaken their inner potentials, and they used these tools vigilantly. Upon seeing the body and senses falling into the grip of old age and disease, and realizing that these tools no longer served any purpose, they willfully and happily left them behind. This is called ascending instead of dying helplessly.

Such extraordinary people thus have the privilege of descending—reincarnating. When they reincarnate, their knowledge and experience return with them. It may remain dormant for a while, but when the time is right, this knowledge and experience awaken, and these extraordinary people resume their journey at the point where they left it.

The Path of Pain

Then there are ordinary people, which is the majority of us. We are only vaguely aware of our inner potentials. We cannot entertain the idea of becoming the creator of our own destiny. We see through our own eyes how the past, present, and future relate to each other, and we also see the connection between cause and effect; yet designing the course of our lives here (let alone hereafter) appears an impossible task. We leave that task to God, karma, or providence. We have more faith in the reality of the material world than we have in ourselves. This is because we do not know that we ourselves are the potent force that breathes life into the material world.

We see through our own eyes how the past, present, and future relate to each other. We also see the connection between cause and effect. Yet designing the course of our lives appears an impossible task.

In our ignorance, we let the material world define us, dictate to us, and set goals for us. Acquisition of worldly objects becomes our goal. We live for worldly success. We identify ourselves with our achievements. We become attached to what we have achieved, and the prospect of losing it makes us fearful. That is pain. Seeing others competing for the same thing we are trying to achieve fills our heart with animosity. That is pain. Finding others more successful than ourselves makes us jealous. That is pain. Seeing our competitors fail in their endeavors pleases us. That is pain. When our loved ones violate our trust, we feel betrayed. That is pain. When our conscience tells us we have betrayed our loved ones, we feel guilty. That is pain.

This is the life of ordinary people. Ordinary people see life as painful. They seek moksha (liberation). To them, liberation means freedom from pain, freedom from the cycle of birth and death, but their attachment to this world and worldly experiences holds them back. They do not want to live this kind of painful life, yet they do not know how to live differently. This is the only world they know. After death, they return again to the same familiar world. This is rebirth (punarjanma).

Exercising Our Privileges

Reincarnation is a rare privilege. By its very nature, it commands respect and carries an aura of glory. But what we forget is that to be born as a human is itself a great privilege. While it is good to seek inspiration and guidance from those who seem to have earned the privilege to reincarnate, we must not undermine the wonder that we are. We are karma yonis. Every one of us, in our own right, is an incarnation of the potent life force, whose unswerving purpose is to find fulfillment and ultimate freedom. Each of us is special. Each of us has the potential to reincarnate. Each of us can reach where Buddha and Patanjali reached.

Buddha and Patanjali are reincarnations because they recognized themselves as the very embodiment of the life force. More important, they made a sincere effort to move forward. That is what enables us to recognize them as reincarnations. On the path of inner fulfillment and ultimate freedom, they were more determined and focused than we normally are. They saw the evanescent nature of worldly charms and temptations much more clearly than we see them. They were deeply committed to experiencing the wisdom they had received and sharing it untiringly with others. That’s what makes them extraordinary.

Rebirth and reincarnation are a continuum, not two completely separate phenomena. We are in the habit of making comparisons, usually with the intention of discovering what is superior and what is inferior. We are also hero worshippers. This is what makes us admire reincarnation and denigrate rebirth.

But every reincarnation began with rebirth. Each rebirth is an opportunity to move forward. Those who make no attempt to recognize and refine their inherent virtues—highly developed intelligence, power of discernment, and indomitable will—continue in the cycle of birth and death. Those who recognize their inherent virtues, work to refine them further, and put them to proper use are able to pull themselves out of this cycle and elevate themselves to the next level—reincarnation. Both rebirth and reincarnation are thus in our own hands.

Seeing into the Future

How confidently we can predict our next life depends on how well we know the dynamics of the life force, which gave our existence its current shape. It depends on how connected we are with the inherent intelligence of the life force; how clearly we remember our past endeavors and their effect on our present life; how much mastery we have gained over the mind and its modifications, and thus how able we are to remain established in our inner self. Finally, it depends on how spontaneous, effortless, and brightly lit our intuition is.

In speaking about himself, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, said, “The person who reincarnates has the sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized. It is a reality that no one else can force the person concerned, or manipulate him or her.” His Holiness can make this statement with confidence because he has already reincarnated 14 times. How clearly he knows the future and how successful he will be in designing his next life, he alone can tell.

If we want to know ourselves as the potent and inexhaustible life force that we are, we must prepare the ground, cultivate endurance, and learn to triumph over the trials and tribulations that come our way.

What we can tell by observing his present life is that he is seriously committed to following his path. Despite the glamour that surrounds him today, he was born as an ordinary child. Once he was recognized as the incarnation of the Dalai Lama, his desire to know and experience his deeper self awakened. He committed himself to intense study and practice. While discharging his duties, he faced many challenges, just as any other person might. As the result of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, he had to abandon his palace, leave his country, and live as a refugee in a foreign land. Yet he never compromised his sadhana—his study, practice, teaching, and service to his people. He has a clear vision regarding himself and his work in this world and he has the will to accomplish it. Even if he were not the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, his fierce dedication to the cause he is serving has itself earned him the power and privilege to reincarnate as he wishes. His heart is set on treading the path of the bodhisattvas and reaching Buddhahood. It is the intensity of focus on a goal that makes it easy for a person like His Holiness to predict his future and reincarnate at will.

His Holiness can reincarnate. So can we. But if we are to do so, we must abandon our deeply ingrained cultural practice of outsourcing the task of discovering the mystery of life to an agent outside ourselves: our churches, temples, priests, ministers, or gurus. We must take charge of lighting our own lamp and experience truth directly. To know ourselves as the potent and inexhaustible life force that we are, we must prepare the ground, cultivate endurance, and learn to triumph over the trials and tribulations that come our way. We must give up the fantasy that someone else will find the truth for us, that someone else will grant us salvation.

We are living beings: the life force in us is immensely potent and inexhaustible and our intelligence is imbued with the power of discernment. Knowing and embracing this truth wholeheartedly infuses us with the confidence that we can pull ourselves out of the normal cycle of birth and death and begin to tread the path of reincarnation.

About the Teacher

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Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, Pandit Tigunait is the successor of Swami Rama of the Himalayas.... Read more