Jane Dillon. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.
According to the social historians Joseph Head and Sylvia Cranston (1977), one-half of the world’s population believes in some form of rebirth, and as of 1981, according to a Gallup poll conducted in that year, 23% of Americans also claimed a belief in reincarnation. Today, few analysts of religious institutions would doubt the significance such beliefs hold for the contemporary experience.
The importance of such statistics is demonstrated in the discussion of reincarnation and death that follows, which is based on sociological research that I conducted during a 13-year period at the University of California, San Diego (Dillon 1998). This qualitative ethnographic study was designed to focus on the meaning reincarnation has for Americans who believe deeply in this phenomenon and how a belief in reincarnation affects their daily activities of work, marriage, parenting, citizenship, social action, personal morality, and death. The data are based in part on extensive, in-depth interviews that I conducted with monastic and lay members of the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), one of the oldest and most firmly established “Eastern” religious groups in the United States.
In the following sections, I present portions of these interview data to provide the reader with an overview of the Western Yoga movement that brought the concept of reincarnation to America and the meaning of the reincarnationist worldview to people who have adopted it. In addition, I discuss the role of the reincarnationist perspective in the greater Western society.
The Reincarnationist Perspective
The concept of reincarnation has traversed the continents from Asia to Europe and the oceans from the Indian to the Atlantic. Mistaken for centuries as simply a core belief of the Hindu religion known as “transmigration of souls,” the representation of reincarnation as taught by Paramahansa Yogananda has attained authoritative status in the West with the universal appeal of Yogananda’s work. Fitting comfortably with Western scientific, religious, and philosophical traditions, Yogananda’s Kriya Yogic understanding of reincarnation has been widely accepted by millions of Westerners and is now being reintroduced to the peoples of India and Asia. Yogananda’s Self-Realization movement has gained significant attention in the West over the past eight decades and is currently experiencing phenomenal growth.
Issues that are frequently raised regarding reincarnation include the meaning of this important concept, how those who believe deeply in reincarnation live out their daily lives and confront the normal processes of living and dying, the process through which one is reincarnated and the form taken, whether it is possible to recall one’s past lives, and the future of the reincarnationist perspective. To begin this discussion, I present several noteworthy points pertaining to reincarnation and death as a foundation for understanding the reincarnationist worldview.
First, from a reincarnationist perspective, there is no death; there is only a transition to another life-form. The essential Self is eternal, part of Life Itself. As is known in the field of quantum physics, time and space are relative concepts, products of our perceiving what we see as one fixed reality from the perspective of our own particular fixed time and place. From a cosmic perspective on life, there is no separation, no division; all life “flows” in one continuum, one creation, within which are infinitely diverse multiple realities and multiple dimensions that take form on the physical plane. Death, as an end to Life, in such a system is simply a misnomer, the reflection of a misunderstanding of and about Life.
Second, for those who believe in reincarnation, dying is not the economic enterprise or moneymaking business it has become in American culture. The law of reincarnation undercuts dominant Western ideology by claiming an interconnectedness, interviolability, and infinite extension of all life in the physical and other worlds for each and every individual life-form, thereby eliminating, at least theoretically, any basis for fear, denial, or confusion about death. From a reincarnationist point of view, the simple, at-home enlightenment experience that death and dying represent renders any elaborate material endeavors irrelevant.
Third, within the reincarnationist system, reincarnation is not a belief, it is a law—the law of the evolution of human consciousness. Akin to the law of gravity, the law of evolution is also derived from the laws of magnetism that operate life in the physical world.
Fourth, reincarnation is not merely an “Eastern” concept. Rather, it represents an idea that is fundamental to all the religions of the world and is found in some form in all cultures (Head and Cranston 1977). To Americans, however, reincarnation is somewhat of a novelty, having been introduced recently into the cultural mainstream during the 1960s, after centuries of repression throughout most of the Judeo-Christian Western world (Dillon 1991).
Fifth, the law of reincarnation should not be confused with “New Age” philosophy, belief in the power of crystals, past-life regression, or psychic phenomena. Rather, the basis of the concept of reincarnation is simply the idea that human life, which most religions teach is eternal, repeats itself (or reincarnates) many times throughout the course of its spiritual journey (Dass 1970). The concept and the reality of reincarnation are simple and obvious when one examines them without prejudice, as demonstrated by the extensive scientific evidence gathered by researchers such as Drs. Ian Stevensen (1974) and Raymond Moody (1975), who have documented and verified hundreds of cases of people, from adults to small children, who have been able to describe the details of previous lives they have lived, including information about people, events, and things still in evidence today.
Sixth, reincarnation and karma are inextricably linked. They are corollary laws that effectively produce each other. In other words, one makes no sense without the other. Without reincarnation, an individual would have only one human lifetime—not enough time in which to fulfill his or her karma (that is, to reap all the good and bad consequences of the good and bad deeds—thoughts, words, and actions—he or she has produced). Conversely, without karma, reincarnation would be unnecessary, as there would be nothing to come back for—no pull, no magnetism, no desires.
Seventh, the laws of reincarnation (evolution) and karma (cause and effect) are essential factors for understanding quantum physics and for explaining why units of energy behave in the manner observed. However, because reincarnation is dependent on a linear space-time continuum as it is currently understood, some quantum scientists have challenged the reincarnation concept based on an expanding knowledge of the cyclical, multidimensional, nonlocal, and nonseparative elements of life. For example, paleontologist Philip Savage (1999) proposes instead the idea of “transcarnation,” a system of multiple identities within multiple dimensions, existing all at the same time.
Eighth, individuals can try to know about their past lives through intuition, meditation, hypnosis, and psychic experiences. The problem is that there is no reliable method for discerning whether what they learn or experience in seeking such knowledge is actually related to their past lives or some form of their own fantasies or delusional imaginations. Spontaneous past-life recollection or knowing is déjà vu, and sometimes instances of déjà vu can be very convincing to those who experience them. However, déjà vu experiences are completely subjective, usually rare, and generally only hint at the identity of the person during a previous lifetime.
Finally, although reincarnation is a satisfying and comforting system, being reborn repeatedly is actually not something to be desired; coming back forever and ever is not the goal. Breaking free of the physical phase of human existence—the “wheel of transmigration”—and moving up to a higher, nonphysical consciousness is the desirable and guaranteed result of all human evolution (MacGregor 1982).
Defining the Process of Reincarnation
The overwhelming conclusion of Head and Cranston’s comprehensive research on the history of the reincarnation concept is that all major civilizations and religious systems that have ever existed in the world have contained some version of reincarnation within their cultural tool kits. For example, Hindus who base their teachings on the earliest known human records of the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita cite many clear references to reincarnation in each of these sacred texts. Prominent philosopher and former president of India Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan claims an abundance of references to reincarnation even in the earliest Rig Veda. He writes, “The passage of the soul from the body, its dwelling in other forms of existence, its return to human form, the determination of future existence by the principle of Karma are all mentioned [in statements such as] ‘The immortal self will be reborn in a new body due to its meritorious deeds'” (quoted in Head and Cranston 1977:36). In the Upanishads, readers find many references to reincarnation; the translation of that text by Charles Johnston, professor at Columbia University, includes statements such as the following: “Through his past works he shall return once more to birth, entering whatever form his heart is set on” (quoted in Head and Cranston 1977:39). And in the celebrated Bhagavad Gita, the most famous part of the epic poem Mahabharata, which reports the Lord Krishna’s dialogue with his foremost disciple, Arjuna, a text studied by Western scientists (e.g., Oppenheimer), philosophers (e.g., Thoreau), and politicians (e.g., Hastings), students find not only innumerable references to reincarnation such as the one that follows, but also a full allegorical treatment of the doctrine itself.7
Such a man doth not perish here or hereafter. For never to an evil place goeth one who doeth good. The man whose devotion has been broken off by death goeth to the regions of the righteous, where he dwells for an immensity of years and is then born again on earth in a pure and fortunate family, or even in a family of those who are spiritually illuminated. But such a rebirth into this life as this last is more difficult to obtain. Being thus born again, he comes in contact with the knowledge which belonged to him in his former body, and from that time he struggles more diligently towards perfection, O son of Kuru. (Quoted in Head and Cranston 1977:47)
Many scholars would claim that in the Orient, the acceptance of reincarnation is simply “in the air”; reincarnation is tacitly accepted, without the necessity for words or explanation (see, e.g., Polanyi 1966). Experts in Buddhism and Taoism, however, also find abundant references to the concept in the sacred texts of these religions. Edward Conze, writing of the “Buddhist scriptures,” comments: “The state of a Buddha is one of the highest possible perfection. It seems self-evident to Buddhists that an enormous amount of preparation over many lives is needed to reach it” (quoted in Head and Cranston 1977:61).8 About Taoism, Chuang Tzu writes in The Musings of a Chinese Mystic: “To have attained to the human form must be always a source of joy. And then, to undergo countless transitions, with only the infinite to look forward to—what incomparable bliss is that! Therefore it is, that the truly wise rejoice in that which can never be lost, but endures always” (quoted in Head and Cranston 1977:111).
Head and Cranston (1977) document similar references to reincarnation in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Hermetic writings, the Persian Mithra, the writings of the Zoroastrians and the Manicheans, and also in the ancient Jewish traditions of the Essenes, the Kabala, the Zohar, and the Hasidics. They also note that widespread understanding of reincarnation by leading Western writers, scientists, philosophers, and religious advocates has been documented among the early Christians, the early Muslims, the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the Native peoples of the Americas, from the Middle Ages and on through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the ages of Enlightenment and Science. In the following subsections I offer definitions of the concepts of reincarnation, karma, magnetism, and scientific meditation and explain their meanings through reference to authoritative Western sources.
The Law of Reincarnation
Paramahansa Yogananda ( 1990) defines reincarnation as
the doctrine that human beings, compelled by the law of evolution, incarnate repeatedly in progressively higher lives—retarded by wrong actions and desires, and advanced by spiritual endeavors—until Self-realization and God-union are attained. Having thus transcended the limitations and imperfections of mortal consciousness, the soul is forever free from compulsory reincarnation. [In Revelation 3:12 it is noted,] “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out.” (P. 479)
This law of reincarnation means that all people are souls, reincarnated on earth, made in the image of God, and therefore essentially already saved (one with God). It means that human beings are attached to the world through unfulfilled material desires that force them to reincarnate in the physical plane. Souls reincarnate in order to satisfy or transmute (renounce) these desires until they consciously choose, as their only desire, union with the Divine. Reincarnation is the mechanism of evolution (change in consciousness)—the technology of death—and humans almost always (with rare exceptions) reincarnate in human form. Eventually, all souls attain Self-realization and liberation from the delusory identification of self with ego.
Reincarnationists understand that the reincarnated human soul is reborn again and again to the physical world in many different physical bodies, living in different physical environments and different social circumstances, depending on its karmic desires and needs accumulated over a very long period of time (i.e., hundreds, thousands, or perhaps even millions of lifetimes). Advanced souls reputedly choose their social and physical conditions at rebirth; less advanced souls are simply drawn to the conditions that satisfy the state of consciousness realized at the moment of previous physical death. The experience of life for the reincarnated human soul is largely determined by its own karma from that individual’s behavior in previous lives, combined with a certain degree of free will, depending on that soul’s stage of spiritual advancement.
All human beings exist at a high stage of evolution because, unlike other life-forms, human souls are given the gift of free will, which is simply the capacity to choose to move forward (closer to the Divine) or backward (away from the Divine). Reincarnation represents the law of evolution, the process of the upliftment of all souls from delusion to final liberation, which requires that souls reincarnate in different forms at different states of consciousness in all three vibratory worlds.
Reincarnationists view the system as a fair one in which all souls have certain things to learn and accomplish in each lifetime and all are given as many chances as they need or deserve to reincarnate until they “get it right.” Reincarnation also is seen as the only logical explanation for certain personal experiences, such as why individuals sometimes feel instantly comfortable with certain people and in certain places—they have been with those people or in those same places before. Reincarnation explains why individuals may have unusual or extreme fears, such as fear of flying or of motorcycles; a person who fears flying, for instance, may have died in a plane crash in a previous life. Reincarnation also explains why some children are “born” with particularly developed skills or abilities (e.g., musical talent) or with unusually difficult personality traits (e.g., nasty temper)—they learned such skills or developed those traits in their recent past lives.
The Law of Magnetism
The law of magnetism encompasses two forces: attraction and repulsion. Drawing from ancient Vedic teachings, Paramahansa Yogananda ( 1994) explains that human souls were originally projected as rays from the formless, nondualistic Transcendent Divine. From that moment on, the sole purpose of the human soul has been to return to God through a process of attraction. Through the process of repulsion, Spirit created the three vibratory worlds of form: the causal world of thought, the astral world of light, and the physical world of matter. Through the process of attraction, all Life is drawn back to Spirit.
Soul is the vibrationless image of Spirit manifest in the world. All aspects of the vibratory worlds, including the individual human being, are aspects of Spirit-in-form. Thus the underlying nature of all forms in all worlds is Spirit-in-form or vibration, that is, the Word of God—the Aum. Once it becomes a part of the vibratory worlds of Creation, the soul experiences delusion (maya) and eventually forgets its true identity and from whence it came (One with Spirit). Instead, the soul falsely identifies itself as separate from Spirit (which in reality it can never be) and engages in cycles of reincarnation.
Through the process of Self-realization, or when the soul realizes its true identity of Self made in the image of “God,” the soul becomes liberated from its delusion and consciously experiences its true Self as participating in the nature of the formless Spirit (i.e., God as ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new Bliss). As Spirit (Iswara) is ultimately formless and vibrationless, so too is the soul, even in the worlds of vibration. Thus transcendence or Selfrealization occurs when the soul truly identifies with (realizes) its vibrationless Self instead of with its vibratory body or ego.
The reincarnated soul seeks expression and happiness that it can ultimately attain only through reunion with Spirit, Self-realization. Thus the individual soul, regardless of in which body it resides, is seeking God (i.e., Self), whether consciously or not, and is therefore always on the spiritual path to God. When the soul realizes its true identity, thereby transcending the delusion (maya) that it is separate from God, the soul is instantly rejoined (as in “yoke” or yoga) with God. Practicing the scientific technique of Kriya Yoga is a process through which the realization of Self as one with Spirit is possible.
Souls inhabiting and constituting the physical world are involved in a process of evolution and involution whereby individual and collective consciousness is lifted or lowered according to the stage, or yuga, in which the world exists at any particular moment. The particular yuga influences how worlds are constituted and experienced by their inhabitants. This physical world, for example, evolves through 24,000-year cycles that are divided into four yugas: Satya Yuga (the highest or Golden Ages), Treta Yuga (the next highest), Dwapara Yuga (second lowest), and Kali Yuga (the lowest or Dark Age). The earth is now in the beginning of the Dwapara Yuga, the atomic age of electricity, continuing upward as consciousness evolves to higher states (Yukteswar  1977).
The physical world consists of four forms of matter: mineral, vegetal, animal, and human. These different forms represent fundamentally different vibrations of conscious energy. All are called soul (i.e., consciousness). Yogananda ( 1994) refers to mineral forms of soul as sleeping consciousness, vegetal forms as awakened consciousness, animal forms as conscious consciousness, and human forms as self-conscious consciousness. The individual human soul evolves from existence as all other physical forms, which means it has lived in previous incarnations as animal, vegetal, and mineral forms. The individual human soul is the highest manifestation of God on the physical plane because it is self-conscious. Only the human soul has the conscious capacity to accomplish the purpose of all creation, which is to realize self-consciously its true identity as Soul, part of Spirit (Christ-consciousness). No other physical form has this potential for soul expression. Having evolved from these previous forms of consciousness, human souls are responsible not only for their own individual human evolution, but for the general evolution of the collective soul in all other forms, the collective animal, vegetal, and mineral evolution, including the evolution of Mother Earth Herself.
Human souls rarely, if ever, revert through reincarnation to lower physical form unless they choose to learn specific lessons that emphasize the incomparable value of human incarnation. Such reversions take place only very occasionally and only temporarily. Reincarnation is the natural process through which the soul moves from one world to another on the journey back to Spirit (according to the laws of magnetism). Reincarnation from physical to astral bodies, and back again, takes place for the individual soul as many times as necessary and/or desired. Each incarnation marks the completion of some specific goal of the soul in the physical or astral world, a process that will eventually and inevitably lead to the attainment of Self-realization and Union with Spirit (Yoga).
The Law of Karma
Karma represents the law of cause and effect, action and reaction, sowing and reaping. Derived from the law of magnetism that created the physical realms, karma draws all souls back to the physical world while directing all action in the social world. Karma is the fruit of one’s actions. It is Newton’s third law of motion applied to the social world: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; for every thought, word, and deed there will be, in the future, an equal and opposite reaction.
Karma and reincarnation represent corollary principles. The Encyclopedia of Religion defines karma as follows:
Action, action-influence, deed. It is the dynamic manifestation of mental and physical energy in deeds, speech or thought, inevitably producing the good, evil or neutral effect, either immediately or in the future, according as the action is good, evil, or indifferent. The effect itself becomes the cause of further effect, making the self, in the case of an individual, a process of unceasing transformation from one life to another in the wheel of transmigration, and the world, in the case of the universe, a process of perpetual becoming. (Ferm 1945:119)
To receive the effects of one’s past actions, one must live long enough, perhaps through several lifetimes. And while living in the three vibratory worlds, souls forget their true identity as one with Spirit. Immersed in maya, or delusion, people develop desires that create more karma and thereby keep the cycles of reincarnation active until, through scientific techniques of meditation, the souls are freed from all desires except the desire to return to God.
Some view karma as a cosmic bank account, with a plus or minus balance, all created by one’s own doing. Wherever one is in life, it is the result of one’s own thoughts, words, and deeds, both positive and negative—whatever actions the individual put into the vibratory ether. The law of karma is the program whereby human beings reap what they sow and thereby get exactly what they deserve. Some of this is considered good karma, but much of it is experienced as bad karma, hence the statement offered by many reincarnationists, “I don’t like karma.”
How karma works depends upon individuals and their willingness to learn from their karmic situations, overcome the obstacles that karma brings, and eventually choose to do the right thing with the right attitude, thereby establishing either good or no karma for the future. As the Bhagavad Gita states, the goal is to act without concern for the fruits of action, without karma-creating attachment. One should perform an action only because it is the right thing to do; action performed for the fruits it produces (the results of action) represents attachment to things of this world and thereby creates more unfulfilled material desires that force the soul to reincarnate again and again. Statements such as “What goes around comes around,” “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” are all references to the law of karma, God’s Divine Law of Justice.
Scientific Techniques of Meditation
Because believers in reincarnation understand this karmic process, they are highly motivated to take responsibility for their own actions, to change their behavior, and to do always what is right. According to the law of reincarnation, individuals have as many opportunities as necessary to succeed, to regain their true status as Sons of God. By acting only on the thought of pleasing God, the soul finds liberation from karmic desires and is thus released from the cycle of reincarnation. The way to achieve this goal is to employ scientific techniques of meditation. As one successful adherent notes:
When you act for God, you are identified with Him … Do the best you can and be not overly concerned with results. Leave the fruits in God’s hands. If you are doing your best, your actions are bound to produce good fruit … Only God exists and every one of us is only His expression. Let us always be honest, sincere, truthful, humble expressions. Let us be sweet, fragrant, understanding, willing, devoted, dedicated, intelligent, serviceful expressions of God. That covers everything—but it is a big order, isn’t it? …The more you meditate and become anchored in the consciousness of God, the less importance you will give to externals … As you go on practicing, those moments of utter stillness become longer. (Daya Mata 1990:69-75)
By contacting God in the stillness of meditation, one becomes more truly the soul expression of God, moving progressively closer to final liberation, at which point all remaining karma is burned up, the cycle of reincarnation is completed, and, through the law of magnetism (the force of attraction), the individual returns to Spirit, from whence she or he came.
Self-realization, through successful meditation, brings final liberation from the laws of reincarnation and karma in all spheres of creation. The members of the Self-Realization Fellowship whom I interviewed explained that Kriya Yoga meditation is the scientific way—the fastest, surest, and most tested path—to realize that the soul is made in the image of God and already one with Spirit. Scientific meditation on God is a practice that requires control of the physical body and mind. Kriya Yoga meditation is the science of life-force control, and its techniques produce observable, measurable, and replicable effects on human beings. Results of Kriya Yoga meditation include the freedom to choose right action with the right attitude that leads to happiness, security, and satisfaction. Observable effects of the successful practice of Kriya Yoga include breathlessness and unblinking eyes, accompanied by feelings of peace, love, calmness, expansion, joy, bliss, and ecstasy, along with visions of light and experiences of nonphysical sound (i.e., the Aum vibration). One monk explained:
To operate God’s laws, the key to the meditation part is Kriya, because as we begin to practice Kriya Yoga we begin to feel the internal operation of the law of magnetism and we begin to feel those forces inwardly that we are learning about outwardly. You feel it in your spine and in your whole body … You feel the whole power of it operating inside you.
For example, through the practice of Kriya Yoga, the Kriyaban learns to interiorize his or her consciousness so that he or she can, at will, shut out the distracting delusory messages brought by the senses and instead concentrate the consciousness directly and solely on the vibration of God in creation (on the Word or Aum). The successful Kriyaban eventually experiences a state of complete and ultimate “breathless” stillness in which the presence of God as Bliss can be felt (i.e., a state of conscious Ecstasy). This personal experience of the presence of God within is the purpose of Yoga meditation (Yoga meaning union with God). As one interviewee said:
Actually, the soul is the presence of God within you. What you want to do in meditation is try to uncover that state of consciousness. That’s why you sit there, and the more you sit there, then the worldly consciousness begins to erode and the soul consciousness comes to the fore. That’s why Yogis meditate for years to get to that point. At times, without great faith, it seems useless for you sitting with your eyes closed. Sooner or later, that darkness and that restlessness starts to dissipate and other things come into view. It takes a long time.
The highest states of consciousness for the Yogi, where the soul is able to experience oneness with God, are calledsamadhi. These states of Yogic samadhi correlate with the Christian state of Ecstasy, the Buddhist state of Nirvana, and the general state of consciousness referred to as Enlightenment. The universal characteristics of all these states are unending Joy, Light, and Bliss Consciousness. To bring the advanced scientific techniques of the ancient Kriya Yoga tradition to the West was the specific mission of Paramahansa Yogananda, who was sent as the representative of his sacred lineage of Self-realized Masters. Students may receive these techniques, with Yogananda’s blessings, directly through the organization he founded, the Self-Realization Fellowship.
Who Am I In the System?
Paramahansa Yogananda ( 1981) concludes his poem Samadhi with these words: “A tiny bubble of laughter, I Am become the sea of mirth itself.” The meaning of such Soul-identity, as many SRF followers have learned, is complex. Until human beings realize themselves as Soul, they go through innumerable life experiences or lessons that eventually bring them to their knees before the Divine Presence. However, during this process, those who believe in reincarnation have a framework that provides them with the satisfaction and comfort they seek to identify who they are. For example, the monks of the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order provide fascinating accounts of their personal experiences “on the path” to their own long-awaited soul liberation. One monk, Brother T, related in an interview:
[Some years before I entered the monastic order in the 1970s], I was trying to approach an understanding of life and death and couldn’t accept the premise that there was nothing after life; that all there is is what you get and after that there’s a void, nothing. I also couldn’t accept any belief unless it was part of a total worldview. And I know after taking that [college] class I realized I wanted a belief and worldview that would leave no questions unanswered. That would answer everything and everything had to fit. So I went shopping around and I became depressed … All of a sudden, I started going into moods. Horrendous moods. I used to be carefree and free about life and not caring very much and very irresponsible. When I started approaching the subjects of life and death and realized how important it was and I wasn’t getting answers, I started every now and then slipping into a “blue funk,” … being so depressed. It was amazing because I would slip out of it and go back to my normal state and your consciousness would make excuses and you’d go back to having a good time and all of a sudden you’d get this funny feeling like things just aren’t right … and sink down again and boy, you’d just hit the bottom …
After I got in the ashram, I looked back objectively on what I had gone through and couldn’t believe that I was able to make it … [There have been] so many forces to keep me involved [in worldly attachments]. I had somehow, … suffered through it. After the ashram, I looked back and couldn’t believe how I was able to … hang on … I saw clearly that my seeming indifference in the world was actually a raft that took me across all these involvements and relationships and everything to get into the ashram …I don’t have to doubt now… I know that when I’m talking to people and doing counseling as a monastic, I have a sense of understanding of what people are going through. I know the attachments and the process of breaking the attachments … I’m fortunate…I know very specifically what I decided and why, and what the results were and why I came to those conclusions and there is a very powerful current of feeling behind that to back it up … The logic, the reason, and the feeling going in the same direction. And I’ve made sure those forces continue to go in the same direction.
Another monk, Brother J, noted:
I’m more myself. I’m more natural, more concerned. I feel more for others. I still see the injustices, but I know why they are there. I still feel the pain, but I understand the reasons behind it, the social reasons. I’m not saying the law of karma [should keep people from trying]. People [should] also try to help them[selves and others] and free themselves from the pain [in] which social conditions exist. So [I] don’t just observe them from a detached standpoint. I will also participate to help them because it makes more sense now. I know now why they are here and why they need help if they can accept it … When I took the brother vow [in the 1960s], … it is written as part of the vow: “[From now on] your only goal in life is to become Self-realized.” That’s it. And a second [goal], very closely, [is] to help others to obtain their own realization. For me, [there is] nothing bigger [and truer] than that …
I share what I found … because it leads you to what I have. It leads me, so it should lead you …Things come up [sometimes] and make you lose that Joy. But you know it is still there and you know it comes and goes. And when you know the ups and downs, you become more mature, you know what I mean? A person matures with age. Similarly, spiritually, you grow more mature on the spiritual path. So nothing shocks you [or disturbs you]. You understand. Everything’s okay. You know where you are, where you are going. Everything makes sense. There’s nothing to worry about. So you grow more in that state of consciousness [and Joy comes by itself].
Brother B made the following observation:
Having finally overcome bouts of sadness and doubts, I never felt sad, even though I had difficulties … You see, when you feel the bliss, you see the problem and then you work at it. In other words, the sadness comes when we allow the problem, the trouble, whatever anyone says, to enter our being. But if you keep it at a distance, keep it right there, you are not affected. You see, I used to practice in the early days [the 1940s and 50s], … being in a plastic cylinder, a Lucite cylinder. I could see out and others could see me. But, anything negative hit the cylinder and fell to the floor. I did not allow it to penetrate me or disturb me. So I practiced that and that helped to avoid being hurt by any negative remark or situation … I don’t feel anything but what I feel inside, bliss. I don’t let [other people’s] problems penetrate me. I know what the problems are. I give them the advice they need and that’s all. And I pray for them of course, [but] I don’t allow it to penetrate me …They usually say [they feel my love] and they feel so much better in every way. I don’t try to [express love] or anything. That’s up to God. I talk to them. And yes, sure, what I feel [the bliss] of course, has to come out … I’m just the instrument [of God].
For people who desire to learn of their past lives, there are methods of investigation, such as intuition, meditation, hypnosis, and psychic readings. Yogananda ( 1990) always cautions against paying too much attention to past lives, however, hinting that if God wanted us to know what we did before, He would make it easier for us to find out. Moreover, a great deal of pain can be associated with our past lives (as with our present lives), which suggests it may be preferable not to remember. Yogananda also points out that although many people might like to fantasize about their “glorious” pasts as famous historical figures, most people previously experienced ordinary and perhaps ignoble lives, immersed in the darkness of the lower age (the Kali Yuga) that immediately preceded the age in which they now exist. Yogananda cautions particularly strongly against using any form of hypnotism to learn about past lives, owing to the danger an individual faces in allowing someone else to control his or her conscious mind. In scientific meditation, which is central to soul liberation, the person must always consciously maintain the highest level of awareness, never relinquishing control of his or her mind to someone else.
Nevertheless, one male interviewee related how he had attempted to confirm the truth of reincarnation through hypnosis with a trusted colleague when they were new to the SRF in the early 1950s. Eventually this effort proved to be beneficial, but the pain this man experienced was considerable, as he relived a particularly violent death on a Viking ship during the Middle Ages. He was convinced, however, by this and other firsthand subjective experiences under hypnosis, that reincarnation is real, and he felt this knowledge was worth the effort and the pain he had to go through:
I talked with my friend. I said, the only way I can feel happy about the tapes of some regressions is to test it myself. They’re fantastic. People speaking in foreign languages and stuff, but it still bothers me… because I don’t know those people. Maybe they’re making it up. Maybe the hypnotist is giving the suggestions to say those things. I’m not completely happy with this. The only way I can be satisfied that this is genuine would be if I could play both those roles. If I could hypnotize people and get these things where I know there’s no monkey business … So my friend had me under hypnosis and he started jumping me ahead then about every 5 years. He’d hit an event and then go forward. Everything was going fine until one time we were in a sea battle with another Viking boat and I was fighting and had my leg cut off … It bled a lot, obviously. Then they took the sword and heated it and cauterized the wound to stop the blood flow because I lost so much blood. But I died about a day later and they dumped me overboard. But the fascinating thing was when that happened, I was living it … Did I feel the pain? I screamed at the top of my lungs. AHHHHHH! Then I went into shock. Can you imagine my friend? The first time he was successful with the regression, I’m dying on him. For a while he was a little panicky … Then …, fortunately, he had enough common sense to know what to do. He moved me ahead another 5 years …Well, I was up in the astral, of course. So, everything was cool up there.
Although curious about their past lives, these men, who were scientists by profession, were interested primarily in validating the reality of reincarnation. Because many SRF teachings assume the laws of reincarnation and karma, they felt a personal need to verify the reality of the laws with their own experiments.
Meaning of Reincarnation In Daily Life and Death
How one finds the purpose of one’s current incarnation, the effects reincarnation has on one’s life, how one’s present life will affect the future, and the importance of reincarnation as a part of one’s worldview—all of these are critical issues for the individual “seeker.” To document the meaning of reincarnation from the believer’s point of view, I employed the folk model methodology.10 My purpose was to analyze the interview data to determine the effects of a deep belief in reincarnation on individuals’ daily lives as they conducted the normal activities of raising children, engaging in personal relationships (including marriage and divorce), working to support their families, and managing everyday responsibilities.
In the following subsections I address several of these issues, describing how people who believe in the laws of reincarnation and karma conduct their daily living and experience dying. My intention was to interview “ordinary” members of the SRF who had practiced Kriya Yoga meditation techniques for at least 10 years, because I knew that such members would necessarily believe deeply in reincarnation and yet not necessarily represent any official position of the organization. My purpose was to assess the meaning of the reincarnationist perspective in the everyday lives of ordinary people. Those interviewed represent a cross section of the mainstream American population: male and female; young and old; Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish; lower-, middle-, and upper-class status; levels of education ranging from high school graduate to professional and graduate degrees; immigrants and individuals who can trace their families on American soil back to the Revolutionary War; artists, musicians, carpenters, teachers, architects, doctors, CEOs, and surfers. Although the SRF membership includes significant percentages of blacks, Asians, and homosexuals, all of the members with whom I conducted in-depth interviewees are white and heterosexual.
Reincarnationists believe that the soul has experienced many lives. When the soul is drawn to rebirth in the physical world, it chooses a specific time, place, gender, and family depending on the lessons desired or needed. The child born is thus on a specific course, with obstacles or karma to deal with. Parents are equally responsible for guiding and training their children by providing love, care, and discipline as well as by demonstrating appropriate moral and spiritual behavior.
For the study interviewees, children represent a priority, with the parents serving as God’s channel. Life is an educational experience, children are souls, and the highest role of parents is to teach children about God and assist them in developing spiritual consciousness. Because parents and their children are drawn together, children and parents alike receive appropriate training in partaking of the karmic lessons of life. Of course, as children bring with them the seeds of “good” and “bad” tendencies that distract them from the purity of soul expression, the parents’ role is to assist in the achievement of the child’s spiritual goal. As one parent indicated, “A father is not a judge or a disciplinarian; karma and reincarnation will take care of that. It is the parents’ duty to teach reality—karma, the law of cause and effect—because life will do this eventually, but with much less mercy.” Regarding the behavior of parents toward their children, another interviewee stated:
Be a friend. Don’t scold or accuse, or get angry and holler. Be interested. Talk calmly and lovingly with your arms around [your children] and assume they want to do the right thing. The parents’ attitude is the most important. Don’t blame or scold. You have to save the person’s face.
For believers in reincarnation, all human relationships are formed on a spiritual basis; each is a relationship between souls, and these are between equals, eternal, and eventually find fulfillment in merging with Spirit. Current friends were happy together in past lives; current enemies were enemies in the past. Social situations are designed for the individual’s spiritual progress. For this reason, friends and enemies find themselves together again until all karmic binds are resolved and relationships are ended in harmony. Differences in social situations are based on karma and provide the infinite variety of relationships, cultures, and lifestyles needed and desired by all souls involved. Friendship is the foundation for spiritual relationships; the highest friendship is between spiritual master and disciple.
According to this worldview, each world of vibration is fundamentally social, meaning that people (reincarnated souls) are always and by necessity in relationship (in community) with other reincarnated souls, from this life and past lives, in this and other worlds. Within each social sphere, people act in different roles and for various purposes, always moving toward or away from the spiritual goal of eventual liberation. Until all souls have achieved final liberation, there will be social worlds in which people can evolve and develop spiritually, through relationships with others. The underlying essence of all relationships is spiritual, manifesting only on the surface as physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, economic, political, or social.
All relationships are important to pursue. Karma guarantees that as one treats others, so one will be treated. It is prudent, therefore, to use one’s power wisely lest that same power be used against oneself. The law of karma also guarantees that by promoting love, peace, harmony, and kindness, one can guarantee the same in return.
Because the nature of the physical world is duality, souls, which are as One, are temporarily distinct and differentiated in social relationships. When souls reincarnate in the physical world, outward differences are apparent and particular roles are circumscribed. Social circumstances vary depending on the needs and desires that draw the souls to reincarnate. Hence the varieties of people, things, places, cultures, lifestyles, forms of government, and relationships that exist represent distinctions that people either favor or disfavor.
For reincarnationists, death is not an end, nor is it destruction. Death is a very important moment that signals a new role for the everlasting soul. Death represents an intermediate state prior to another reincarnation. One’s experience at death depends on one’s state of consciousness at the time of death. Thus death is simply another phase of life in which the individual changes from one form of existence to the next in order to work out karma. Therefore, there is no “death” at all, only the evolution of the soul, Life.
The SRF members I interviewed expressed the belief that at the event called death, the soul withdraws from the physical body and is born into a body of light, the astral world of light. The soul remains in the astral world until desires draw the soul back for another incarnation into a physical body. In the astral world, individuals work as they did on earth; they meditate, serve, sleep, work, and travel with the same goal of assessing their lives and determining how to continue to learn “lessons” according to their karmic desires and purposes. The soul also works out karma on the astral plane and thus can be very active, including spiritually active, seeking God and serving His work.
For most people, however, the astral world provides a time of rest and even deep sleep. In this state, the soul is not particularly aware or conscious of itself (comparable to the lives of most spiritually unadvanced people currently on the physical planet), until, as one interviewee stated, “some little desire you didn’t satisfy draws you back right away.” Desires that bring people back may be as minor as an addict’s desire for a cigarette or a drug, for which the individual needs the physical, material world for satisfaction. The soul is then drawn to parents and to the environment that best serves these needs and desires. Thus, as one man put it, “we are building our next life right now.” All is a continuum, and karma is the law that ensures that the soul evolves according to desires and choices made in the past and present.
However, it is willpower, in spite of karma, that allows for soul freedom. In this view, the soul is architect of its own destiny and can change things at any moment by exercising willpower with determination and attunement with God’s will. For advanced souls, death is joyous and something to look forward to. For others, there may be regrets or trepidations about their ability to let go of limitations completely. For all, however, death is actually life, and for most people life will continue in much the same way it has in the past, with another (or many other) rebirth(s) in the physical world.
A person’s consciousness at the moment of death determines the future life of the soul. This means that whatever state of consciousness one is in at the moment of death continues into the soul’s experience in the next world. Those thoughts, or state of consciousness, at death also determine where in the astral world the soul will be born. The astral world, like the physical and the causal worlds, has many planets (or “mansions”; see Cox 1988). To which of these the individual will traverse is dependent on the level of consciousness at the time of death, as well as the individual’s karma. Parts of the astral world of light are permeated with bliss and calm, filled with love and joy experienced among people who remember one another. Other parts are darker (in lesser light), with less desirable experiences that are sometimes referred to as hell. For most, the soul is happier in the astral world than it was in the physical world. Individuals existing on the darker planets experience sleep, torment by their own negative states of consciousness, unhappiness, or unawareness, depending on how they lived their lives in the physical world.
In turn, the manner is which one lives one’s present life often determines one’s state of consciousness or thoughts at the time of death. This is because an individual’s consciousness does not change at death; no one is made into an angel just by dying. (Angels, and saints, are made in this life on earth through conscious effort at realization of the Self as soul.) Thus the ability to hold on to the thought of God at the moment of death is important for the next life of the soul. This ability is cultivated and secured through the longtime habit of meditation, which prepares one for a high spiritual consciousness at the time of death. For these reasons, those who believe in reincarnation engage in what some observers may see as extraordinary spiritual effort.
One interviewee described death as “a graduation day,” noting that even though you have passed, it is also a reminder to get busy and stay busy. If you graduate, you will reincarnate into a more spiritual environment earlier in the next life, such as being drawn to parents who meditate. The goal for people who expect to return again to the physical world is to return to a better environment, where they hope for peace, less violence, greater joy, less tragedy, more success, less discouragement, good habits, and less temptation; they also hope to serve as better examples than they have in their present lives. They aspire to learn spiritual principles, to learn to meditate, and to “find” God sooner in their next lives.
For those I interviewed, the fear of death does not exist. Rather, they expressed an acceptance of death, including the death of loved ones. Not denying their own sadness and loneliness at loss, these people spoke of letting go of others, of lovingly allowing them to move on. One mother stated she and her husband hope to assist their children to live without the fear of death. If they succeed, these parents believe, their children will have a much greater chance to be happy. If they do not succeed, the kids may be miserable and attached to their bodies, which will require them to reincarnate again and again. One nun remembered the death of her father:
I cried and cried. My father had cancer which spread to his lungs. I had to accept it. I prayed and supported him on the phone and I was able to visit him. Then he died a couple years later. My mother waited [and then died]. There was a great joyous feeling of upliftment and joy. I cried and went to [my spiritual mentor] for comfort. She said, “Now he knows there’s a loving God.” I was ill and couldn’t go to the funeral, but I talk to them and they get these feelings. I want them to be happy. They were good people.
Another interviewee talked about when her mother passed away:
I was emotional. The phone rang and I burst into tears. She had been ill. My only thought was to be with Dad. I didn’t even think of Mother. I went home and did the arrangements. I was actually happy; I was the only one. I stayed with Dad a month. The neighbors were so loving and my sister was so sad—she had regrets. I knew where my mother was. I cried out of sentiment, not sadness.
For reincarnationists, the purpose of death is the evolution of the soul; it is an opportunity to broaden the individual. To understand the importance of death is to understand life in the world of duality: Life is sweet and death a dream. In reality, neither actually exists. Only God is, and God is Bliss Consciousness.
In Autobiography of a Yogi ( 1994), Yogananda writes about his posthumous encounter with his revered spiritual master, Sri Yukteswar. In this intense and loving dialogue, Yogananda learned some extraordinary details about the astral and causal worlds, in which Sri Yukteswar was now playing an integral role:
The earth-liberated astral being meets a multitude of relatives, fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, and friends, acquired during different incarnations on earth, as they appear from time to time in various parts of the astral realms. He is therefore at a loss to understand whom to love especially; he learns in this way to give a divine and equal love to all, as children and individualized expressions of God …
The span of life in the astral world is much longer than on earth. A normal advanced astral being’s average life period is from five hundred to one thousand years, measured in accordance with earthly standards of time … The astral world is free from unwilling death, disease, and old age. These three dreads are the curse of earth, where man has allowed his consciousness to identify itself almost wholly with a frail physical body requiring constant aid from air, food, and sleep in order to exist at all.
Physical death is attended by the disappearance of breath and the disintegration of fleshly cells. Astral death consists of the dispersement of lifetrons, those manifest units of energy which constitute the life of astral beings. At physical death a being loses his consciousness of flesh and becomes aware of his subtle body in the astral world. Experiencing astral death in due time, a being thus passes from the consciousness of astral birth and death to that of physical birth and death. These recurrent cycles of astral and physical encasement are the ineluctable destiny of all unenlightened beings. Scriptural definitions of heaven and hell sometimes stir man’s deeper-than-subconscious memories of his long series of experiences in the blithesome astral and disappointing terrestrial worlds … Man as an individualized soul is essentially causal-bodied. (P. 407)
A Universal Theodicy
For most people, the fear of death can be more terrifying than the experience of dying itself. Because death is a universal human condition, all religious philosophies and theologies include some version of a theodicy—that part of the doctrine that explains, for better or for worse, the ultimate questions of suffering and dying. According to sociologist Peter Berger (1969), a theodicy is religion’s attempt to make a pact with death:
The world of sacred order, by virtue of being an ongoing human production, is ongoingly confronted with the disordering forces of human existence in time (i.e. suffering, evil, chaos, and death) … Therefore every human society is, in the last resort, men banded together in the face of death. The power of religion depends in the last resort upon the credibility of the banners it puts in the hands of men as they stand before death or, more accurately, as they walk, inevitably, toward it. (P. 51; emphasis added)
Both Berger and Max Weber (1978) categorize the various theodicies proffered by the religions of the world. Berger (1969) does so in terms of their degree of rationality, or, in his words, “the degree to which they entail a theory that coherently and consistently explains the phenomena in question in terms of an overall view of the universe” (p. 54). Weber (1978:519-22) categorizes theodicies based on how believers psychologically relate to death in the physical world:
Justice will eventually prevail in the world.
Never mind, it will be better in heaven.
Retribution in this world or another is exact and inevitable.
Try to mollify God and improve one’s chances through good works.
Judgment Day will take care of everyone once and for all.
Noteworthy for this discussion is that both theorists argue that the most rational, convincing, and comprehensive theodicies are those systems that include the concepts of karma and reincarnation. Of retribution, for example, Weber (1978) states:
The most complete formal solution of the problem of theodicy is the special achievement of the Indian doctrine of karma, the so-called belief in the transmigration of souls. This world is viewed as a completely connected and self-contained cosmos of ethical retribution. Guilt and merit within this world are unfailingly compensated by fate in the successive lives of the soul, which may be reincarnated innumerable times … Each individual forgets his own destiny exclusively and in the strictest sense of the word. This thirst for life is the ineradicable basis of individuation and creates life and rebirth as long as it exists. Strictly speaking, there is no sin, but only offenses against one’s own clear interest in escaping from this endless wheel, or at least in not exposing oneself to a rebirth under even more painful circumstance. The meaning of ethical behavior may then lie . . . in improving one’s chances in his next incarnation or—if the senseless struggle for mere existence is ever to be ended—in the elimination of rebirth as such. (Pp. 524-25)
One of the most significant implications of the reincarnationist worldview is, thus, the rather substantial and comprehensive banner it provides in the face of death (Eliade 1954). For example, the reincarnationist theodicy that explains suffering, evil, and death is proven to be extraordinarily satisfying for those who believe it, especially in their greatest time of need, such as when a loved one dies. Believers describe feelings of love, connectedness, and joy, whereas nonbelievers experience sadness, regret, and fear. Reincarnationists also describe feelings of psychological peace and assurance in the idea that they, and all others, will attain liberation (salvation) of the soul from further incarnations, constituting a particularly significant personal religious experience (James  1961). These people know they are already liberated, if they would but realize it. They know that eventually all souls will be called back to Spirit. Until then, people will reincarnate over and over, according to their attachment to karmic desires, until they “learn” all the lessons their souls have chosen for them, and until they finally find God by realizing the Self within.
Reincarnationists hold a worldview that offers legitimation for certainty, surrender, acceptance, detachment, and joy when they are faced with the inevitable experiences of chaos in life, including so-called death. In a practical sense, implications of the reincarnation theodicy also mean that those who believe in reincarnation are less likely than others to support the traditional Western death industry (which includes hospitals, doctors, priests, funeral directors, grief counselors, cemetery monuments, hospice, and drugs). As the transformation of knowledge to include a reincarnationist worldview takes place in the Western world, Western institutions will begin to reflect a newly defined spiritual context, one that is structurally based on a knowledge of the scientific laws of reincarnation and karma.
Knowledge systems, whether classified as scientific, religious, or social, ultimately rest on belief—belief in “sacred” texts, teachers, and experience. Given the substantial literature on the transformation of knowledge, particularly the work of Kenneth Gergen (1982), Michael Polanyi (1958), and Thomas Kuhn (1962), the task for Western society becomes the restructuring of human institutions so that they befit reincarnated souls, rather than simply physical beings or even saved souls who transcend to heaven and those unsaved souls who, forever, descend to hell.
Indeed, by redefining universal human experiences such as death, afterlife, and evolution, the emergent reincarnationist worldview may lead to a new paradigm, a spiritual humanism that represents a historical point of convergence between the currently opposed and dominant salvationist (one-life, one-afterlife) and secular-humanist (one-life, no-afterlife) perspectives in Western culture, science, and religion.