About the Book
The atman (soul), in the Eastern belief system, is eternal, immortal. The phenomenon of (physical) death is, thus, nothing but its disembodiment and its 'reincarnation' in a new body. And what determine as atman's choice of a new body is the law of karma - the merits and demerits of one's actions in the present life.
The notions of karma and reincarnation constitute the fundamental tenets of Indian thinking; though these, like many other doctrinal beliefs, are hard to prove/disprove in purely rationalistic or even empirical terms. Swami Muni Narayana Prasad looks afresh at these-age-old doctrinal beliefs - from the view point of an Advaitin (non-dualist), developing stimulating insights from his studeies of the Upanisads, the Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras and, these besides, the works of his mentor: Narana Guru. Contextually, among other questions, his book also dwells on Ultimate Reality, Birth and Death, and the Two Paths: Devayana (the path of gods) and Pitryana (the path of manes), which either the souls take to after death.
About the Author
Swami Muni Narayana Prasad is presently the Regulating Secretary of the Narayana Gurukula, a Guru-Disciple foundation founded by Nataraja Guru, the disciple-successor of Narayana Guru. He has spent three years in Fiji teaching Indian philosophy and has traveled round the world giving classes. Became a disciple of Nataraja Guru in 1960 and was initiated as a reunciate in 1984. Has been editor of the philosophical magazine 'The Gurukulam' for twelve years and still continues to be one of its chief contributors. His published works in English include, Functional Democracy - A Failure in India; Basic Lessons on India's Wisdom; Commentaries on the Katha, Kena, Prasna, Mundaka, Taittiriya and Aitereya Upanisads. The book Vedanta Sutras of Narayana Guru is in the making.
THE Tao, through the unpredictable creative unfoldment of its infinite potentials, gave me a chance to spend more than two years in the tiny island country of Fiji in the South Pacific. Reading and writing were my main engagements there except for a few classes which I gave every week.
In Fiji I used to give a class on the Bhagauad Gita every Saturday evening. As I studied the Gita with the intention of teaching it, the overall philosophy of the Gita and the way it is developed chapter by chapter became somewhat clear to me. But the eighth chapter presented me with a stumbling block. I could not fit the reference to the two paths of the departed souls into the philosophy which is developed up to that point. The class went on very well through the seventh chapter. But I hesitated to enter the next chapter because I did not want to teach something that was not clear to me. I postponed the class for one week. But the next Saturday also it was not clear what I should teach. Yet something in me was prompting me to go on with the class. The class began with the usual prayer. While I was scanning through the beginning verses of the chapter after the prayer, to my great surprise it flashed into my mind that the answer to my doubt was in the third verse. The third and fourth verses discriminate what is imperishable from the perishable. Birth and death are relevant only in the realm of the perishable. Absolute Reality is not perishable; it is the imperishable brahman. What is perishable is unreal. The question of death and the two paths of the departed souls are described in the section which Deals with the world of the perishables. The final teaching of the Gita does not pertain to what is unreal and perishable, but to what is real and imperishable. At the very end of the eighth chapter Sri Krsna tells Arjuna that a yogi's mind will never be confounded by these twin paths. He recommends to Arjuna that he be a yogi. Slowly a clearer picture started corning into my view.
The third verse of Chapter VIII also gives a precise definition of Karma, perhaps the only definition of karma in all the scriptures of India. It makes it clear beyond all doubts that karma belongs to the imperishable Reality and not to any particular individual. The third chapter of the Gita further clarifies this idea when it says: "It is praktri (nature) according to its guunas(modalities) that does all karmas (actions)" and "Only those who are deluded by their own ignorance think of themselves as the doers or agents of actions".
Prior to reaching Fiji, I had made a comparative study of the philosophies of Sankara,Ramanuja and Madhva as part of the 'Introduction' to my extensive commentary on Narayana Guru's Vedanta Siitras. One section of that was devoted to 'karma and Reincarnation'. After the Gita class on Chapter VIII, I found that it had to be rewritten, because I found myself in a better position to make my original ideas clearer and more precise, in the light of the new insights I had gained. After rewriting the whole chapter, I found it good enough for publishing as an independent book.
All of us are born, live and die as part of nature. All the laws of nature are applicable to all of us without any discrimination. One's birth and death happen according to these laws, whether one is a jnanin (wise person) or an ajnanin (ignorant person). If this is so how can one go to one world through one path after departing and another through another path to another world? Don't all people die according to the same laws of nature? Is it possible that there is one law for a jnanin and another for an ajnanin? Did both of them not come into being from the same Reality or brahman, according to Vedanta? Do they not go back to the same Reality, also according to Veda1lta? How can then they have two different paths to two different worlds? All these problems had been puzzling me for a long time. The answers I found to these questions in the Upanisads, the Bhagavad Glta and the works of Narayana Guru are summarized in this small book. The absence of any mention of this topic in any of the works of Narayana Guru was the best guiding torch for me in the present study. In one sense, reincarnation is more a religious problem than a philosophical one. It is not based on any serious thinking, but merely on belief. It has thus become an article of faith in Eastern religions. This is perhaps the reason why Narayana Guru avoided this topic. The present study is an attempt to show how an Advaitin (non-dualist) looks at it.
The problem is an intriguing one which arises out. Of ignorance about one's own real existence, therefore the final solution to the problem is to know Reality. It is with the hope that this study will help people to turn their attention to knowing the Reality in themselves.
I am very grateful to Mrs. Sheilah Johns of England who edited the manuscript of this book. The cooperation of the inmates of Narayana Gurukula at Varkala, such as Swami Mantra Chaitanya, Br. Sudhakara Saukumarya, Rejikumar, Sasidharan and Surendran also helped to make this book possible. My gratitude is beyond words to Messrs. D.K. Printworld of New Delhi who have undertaken the responsibility of publishing this. It is my hope that the entire commentary on Narayana Guru's Vedanta Sutras may also be brought to the readers through them.
It is the kindly love and attention poured on me by Nataraja Guru in my younger days that has made me bold enough to enter such fields of unanswered and unanswerable problems. I prostrate before him before offering this to the readers.
THE belief that a soul reincarnates after death by getting another body is common in all the religions of Eastern origin. The nature of the next birth, according to this belief, depends on the merits and demerits of one's actions in the present life. This belief is also one of the domains of thought where uncertainty and even doubtfulness prevail in spite of all the philosophising of the great teachers and the preachings of religious authorities. At the same time this belief is so deep rooted in the Indian mind that it is impossible to uproot it, even with all the findings of modem science. Even Buddhism, which does not believe in the existence of souls, has this belief as one of its basic tenets.
To the scientifically minded Indians of yore, any doctrine was acceptable only if it had the concurrence of three tests, namely, scriptural evidence (sruti), reasonableness (yuktl) and actual experience (anubhava). Undoubtedly, the present problem concerns something no one has ever actually experienced. That means the third test will not work in the present case. Reasoning is always based on actual experiences. No reasoning is possible on anything which has not been experienced by anyone in actual life. Thus the second test also fails in the present case. The only remaining source of knowledge, then, is scriptural evidence. The acceptance or non-acceptance of any scriptural teaching about something, which can never be verified in actual life, is merely a matter of belief. In short, the topic we are dealing with is such that indefiniteness can never be completely eliminated from it.
The Vedic literature is the only source material available for us to help study the variety of ideas about the hereafter and how the idea of reincarnation took root in the mind of the commonn man in India. Historians have found ample evidence of the prevalence of belief in life after death, even in the pre- Vedic culture of India. There was a practice of encasing the dead bodies of infants in womb-like earthen pots and of burying them inside their home or very near to it. According to the assumption of historians, this practice had behind it the belief that the dead children would come back in a new body in the same family. However, it may be, it is certain that, whether among the barbarians or civilised people, an inquisitiveness about what will happen after death is quite common and natural. Man's irresistible quest for attaining immortality is also equally universal and natural. Biologically this immortality is assured through procreation. It is one's own self that continues through one's offspring. Those who have attained the higher realms of knowledge rea1ise immortality by visualising the immortal Reality or atman as enduring in and through all the transient visible forms. It is not our aim here to judge the validity of these two ways of attaining immortality. Rather we would like to see for ourselves at which degree or level of understanding these two different concepts of immortality become relevant.
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