Department of Religion and Spirituality, Zefat Academic College, Safed 1320610, Israel
Abstract: This paper is engaged with the topic of reincarnation in the Bhagavad gītā, better termed “rebirth”. It first looks into the epistemological aspects of rebirth, and highlights the type of knowledge or terminology underlying the vision of rebirth, as opposed to a different type of knowledge that is not suitable for this purpose, and which leads to a different vision of reality. It then looks into the ontological aspects of rebirth, and having highlighted some Upaniṣadic sources, it highlights major Bhagavad gītā sections describing the soul and rebirth. Finally, it looks into the ethics derived from the concept of rebirth; it first characterizes these as “ethics of equanimity”, and then expands these into the “ethics of enlightened action”, which refer to action grounded in the idea of rebirth.
Before entering the topic of reincarnation, we would like to look into the underlying epistemological assumptions, as epistemology is engaged with the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope (Pearsall 1998, p. 620), which may be relevant for our study. The Bhgdefines three categories of knowledge. The first category is that by which the soul is to be understood, whereas the second and third categories are not conducive for the discussion of the soul and reincarnation:
18. 19 Knowledge, action and the agent are indeed of three kinds, divided according to the guṇas; hear now how is this division depicted through the guṇa doctrine. 20 Know that knowledge to be of the nature of goodness, through which one sees a single imperishable reality in all beings, unified in the diversified. 21 Know that knowledge to be of the nature of passion, through which one sees through division a variegated reality of many sorts in all beings. 22 Knowledge that attaches one to one kind of activity, as if it were all, which is not based on a reasonable cause, which does not aim at the truth, and which is minute and meagre, is said to be of the nature of darkness
Apparently, the first category of knowledge, which is defined as sattvic or transparent, is the relevant category. As such, according to this type of knowledge, the varieties of bodies seem secondary to the reality of the soul or self, which seems primary. As opposed to this category, according to the second category or type of knowledge, which is defined as rajasic or passionate, the varieties of bodies seem primary, whereas the soul seems secondary. The third type of knowledge, which is the tamasic or dark, is the lowest or most obscure; as such, it obscures the ability to see or to understand the soul and its reality, and is the least relevant for the study of the soul and rebirth. The present discussion may be approached from a different point of view, which considers: how does the self reflect upon itself when it thinks in terms of the first or sattvic category, or what kind of knowledge of itself does it have? In other words, the idea of the self implies a kind of detached vision, according to which one examines the working of the body from an external point of view. The Bhg offers a reflective vision according to which one thinks of oneself as detached from the body and mind, which are in actuality operated by prakṛti, or nature:
5. 7 He who is absorbed in yoga, who is a pure soul, who is self-controlled and has subdued his senses, and who is deeply related to all living beings, is never defiled even though he acts. 8–9 ‘I am not really doing anything’, reflects the knower of the truth absorbed in yoga. While seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, walking, sleeping, breathing, evacuating, receiving, opening or closing his eyes, he meditates and considers all these as nothing but the senses acting among their sense objects
3. 27 Although actions in every respect are performed by the guṇas of material nature, the spirit soul, confused by the ego thinks: “It is actually me who is the doer”
3. 36 Arjuna said: What is it that impels one to commit evil, even against his will, as if driven by force, O descendent of Vṛṣṇi? 37 The blessed Lord said: It is lust, it is anger, originating from the passion-guṇa, and it is the great evil and the great devourer; know that to be the enemy. 38 As fire is obscured by smoke, as a mirror is covered by dust, and as the embryo is enveloped in the womb, so the living being is obscured by lust. 39 This eternal enemy covers even the wise one’s knowledge, O Kaunteya, having taken the form of this insatiable fire—lust. 40 It is said to abide in the senses, the mind and the intelligence; through these it deludes the embodied soul and clouds its knowledge.
Having offered this epistemological discussion, we may look deeper into the various aspects highlighting the nature of the soul or self. In general, the Bhg no doubt shares the vision according to which the universe is perceived as a place of constant rebirth:
8. 16 All the worlds, up to Brahmā’s world, are subject to repeated births
Under Karmic laws, the soul in different bodies cycles through a universe that itself moves in endless cycles. On earth, one may observe cycles of days, night, and seasons, based on the cyclical motions of the earth, sun, moon, and other celestial bodies. The Bhg teaches that the entire universe, and the countless souls that populate it, move through grand cycles of cosmic creation and dissolution (Goswami 2015, p. 18). In doing that, it adopts the visions of both Vedānta and Sāṇkhya traditions by associating itself with both classical Sāṇkhya and the Brahmasūtra:
13. 1 The blessed Lord said: This body is known as the field, O Kaunteya, and one who knows it, is declared by the wise to be the knower of the field. 2 You should know me as the knower of the field as well, situated in all fields, O Bhārata. I deem knowledge of the field and of the knower of the field to be knowledge indeed. 3 Hear from me in summary what this field and its nature is, how it transforms and comes into being, who the knower of the field is, and what his powers are. 4 Seers have chanted this in many Vedic hymns in varied ways, as well as in the Brahmasūtra aphorisms, all of them authoritative and well-substantiated. 5–6 The great elements, the concept of ego, the intelligence and the unmanifest, the ten senses and the additional sense, the five sense objects, attraction and repulsion, happiness and distress, the aggregate, consciousness and inner conviction—all serve to sum up the nature of the field and its transformations
The Chāndogya Upaniṣad is one of the oldest and best known of the Upaniṣads; many important teachings are contained in it (Radhakrishnan and Moore 1989, p. 64), such as the statement:
7 Now, people here whose behavior is pleasant can expect to enter a pleasant womb, like that of a woman of the Brahmin, the Kṣatriya, or the Vaiśya class. But people of foul behavior can expect to enter a foul womb, like that of a dog, a pig or an outcast woman. Chāndogya Upaniṣad 5.10.7
The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad is one of the later Upaniṣads; in it, some of the ideas of the Sāṁkhya and Yoga philosophies—both of which are dualistic systems—and of Advaita (non-dualism) find clear expression (Radhakrishnan and Moore 1989, p. 89). The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, 5.9. offers a somewhat physical description of the soul’s size:
When the tip of a hair is split into a hundred parts, and one of those parts further into a hundred parts, the individual soul (jīva), on the one hand, is the size of one such part, and, on the other, it partakes of infinity
The Kaṭha Upaniṣad is perhaps the most philosophical of the Upaniṣads. Among its important features are: the dialogue between Nachiketas and Yama (the god of the world of departed spirits) on the question of the immortality of the self, in which Nachiketas chooses knowledge above all worldly blessings; the theory of the superiority of the good (śreyas) over the pleasant (preyas); the view that the ātman cannot be known by the senses, by reason, or by much learning, but only by intuitive insights or direct realizations; the doctrine of the body as the chariot of the self (Radhakrishnan and Moore 1989, pp. 42–43). The Kaṭha Upaniṣad indeed includes some important statements that later appear in a similar version in the Bhg:
2. 18 The wise one—he is not born, he does not die; he has not come from anywhere; he has not become anyone. He is unborn and eternal, primeval and everlasting. And he is not killed, when the body is killed. 19 If the killer thinks that he kills; If the killed thinks that he is killed; Both of them fail to understand. He neither kills, nor is he killed. 20 Finer than the finest, larger than the largest, is the self (ātman) that lies here hidden in the heart of the living being. Without desires and free from sorrow, a man perceives by the creator’s grace the grandeur of the self. Sitting down, he roams afar. Lying down, he goes everywhere. The god ceaselessly exulting—Who, besides me, is able to know? 22When he perceives this immense, all pervading self, as bodiless within bodies, as stable within unstable beings—A wise man ceases to grieve. 23 This self cannot be grasped, by teachings or by intelligence, or even by great learning. Only the man he chooses can grasp him, whose body this self chooses as his own. 24 Not a man who has not quit his evil ways; Nor a man who is not calm or composed; Nor even a man who is without a tranquil mind; could ever secure it by his mere wit. 25 For who the Brahmin and the Kṣatriya are both like a dish of boiled rice; and death is like the sprinkled sauce; Who truly knows where he is?
Upaniṣads are emphatic in their declaration that the two are one and the same. But what is the inmost essence of a human being? It seems that the term “self” itself involves some ambiguity, as it is used in a variety of senses. As such, the Upaniṣads deconstruct the human person into various layers, pointing at the pure self as the innermost essence of the human and apparently the non-human person. Thus, so far, one consists of the essence of food (i.e. the physical parts of men); he is called annamaya. But behind the sheath of this body, there is the other self that consists of the vital breath, which is called the self as vital breath (prāṇamaya ātman). Behind this again, there is the other self (consisting of will) called the manomaya ātman). This again contains within it the self “consisting of consciousness”, called the vijñānamaya ātman. But behind it, we come to the final essence; the self as pure bliss (the ānandamaya ātman) (Dasgupata 2000, p. 46). As mentioned, the Bhg not only adopts the vision of the Vedāntatradition, but also the dualistic vision of Sāṇkhya as well. Accordingly, the world represents a mixture of the living entity with nature, or puruṣa and prakṛti. As such, there are eight elements comprising nature, and besides them exist the spirit souls:
4. 7 Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intellect and ego—these eight comprise my separated lower nature. 5 But you should know that beside this lower nature, O mighty-armed one, there is another higher nature of mine, comprised of spirit souls, by which this world is sustained