November 10, 2010

Yoga and Reincarnation: To Believe or Not to Believe?

Like Krishna, I’m a born-again-and-again kind of guy!

The belief in reincarnation—that souls migrate from life to life, body to body—is not, as many believe, just yogic, Buddhist and Eastern. It’s also been part of the Greek neo-platonic tradition and is also an integral aspect of Judaism, even the Viking tradition.

“According to his deeds, the embodied self assumes successively various forms in various conditions.”

Shvetashvatara Upanishad

The idea of reincarnation—that our mind and its unexhausted karmic (or samskaric) reactions keeps assuming new bodies in order to fulfill its destiny until final enlightenment—was hardly on my mind at the beginning of my yogic journey.

Only when I arrived in India and Nepal, where this wild idea is as common as basmati rice, did reincarnation become part of my vocabulary. And, one fine day, it became part of my deeper identity.

It happened one sunny afternoon, when I received initiation into tantric dhyan meditation at the banks of the Bhagmati river in Nepal. I was sitting there relaxed and thinking of nothing-in-particular. My meditation teacher, Sumitrananda, was meditating in front of me, and I looked past the men bathing their elephants in the river, across to the other side where steep Himalayan mountains towered into a cobalt blue horizon.

Suddenly, it struck me like a lightening bolt: I have been here before. I have lived here before. I have even sat here on this bank before, learning meditation, just like I am doing right now.

It was not the dizzy and vague feeling of déjà vu. It was a feeling of palpable certainty: I knew this place. I was familiar with these people, these languages, these practices. I had returned back home.

A few seconds after these thoughts crossed my mind; my teacher opened his eyes and said: “Yes, I think you are right, you have been here before.”

The origins of the notion of reincarnation appear in the philosophical traditions of India and Greece from about the 6th century BCE. During the Iron Age, the Greek Pre-Socratics discussed reincarnation, and the Celtic Druids also taught a doctrine of reincarnation.

The origin of the Indian reincarnation idea lies in the non-Vedic and oral sramana (Buddha, Mahavir) and tantric (Shiva) traditions. This, many scholars believe, would explain why the concept enters historical, written records rather late, with the adaptation of ideas such as karma, samsara and moksha in the Upanishads and other scriptures.

Some scholars suggest that the idea is original to the Buddha. But a more likely possibility is its origin in the much more ancient, native tribal Shiva-religions of the pre-Indo-Aryan Ganges valley, and in the prehistoric Dravidian traditions of South India.

Some scientists, such as the late psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, former head of the Department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, have studied reincarnation and concluded it is a real possibility, not just a belief.

Stevenson, the author of Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect, studied over 3000 cases of “possible reincarnations” in Africa, Alaska, Europe, India and both North and South America.

He reported that the children he studied generally started to speak of their past lives between the ages of two and four. They then ceased to do so by age seven or eight. The children had often died a violent death, and they had clear memories of how they had died.

My guru used the term “extra-cerebral memory” to describe this kind of non-brain dependent memory of a past time when the soul lived in another human, or even non-human, body.

After interviewing the children, their families, and others, Stevenson would identify if there had been a living person who satisfied the various claims and descriptions collected, and who had died prior to the child’s birth.

Stevenson collected over 40 cases with physical evidence relating to birthmarks and birth defects of children, which he claimed matched wounds recorded in the medical or post-mortem records for the individual identified as the past-life personality. Hence, the title of his compelling book.

One of the most dramatic examples of reincarnation stories I have heard was told to me recently on my trip to Copenhagen by my Danish friend Carl Henrik. Since he was young, he had recurring dreams and memory flash-backs from a life as a member of the Nazi party during World War II.

He has extra-cerebral memories of helping French Jews escape their ultimate fate of being sent to the gas chambers. He also “remembers” that he was finally executed by hanging for these and other renegade actions.

These dark and disturbing memories were fatefully re-awakened by a mysterious meeting Carl Henrik had with a beautiful Greek woman named Helena. She was working in a restaurant in Iceland, where he lived with his family for about 15 years. Helena was the daughter of a Greek shipping magnate who had recently gone bankrupt. Destitute, she ended up as a waitress in Iceland.

One day, while Carl Henrik was leaving the restaurant where he usually dined with business clients, Helena asked him: “Do you remember me?” Puzzled by the question, he simply responded: “Of course. I come here all the time.”

But that was not what Helena meant. She took him aside and told him that they had known each other in a previous life. He had helped her during World War II, she claimed. She was a Jew, living in Paris, and he was a Nazi.

Carl Henrik was stunned. But, strangely, these startling claims made complete sense to him.

For months, before this fateful meeting with Helena, he’d actually started to believe he’d been Carl Heinrich von Stulpnagel in a previous life. Stulpnagel was a German general and a member of the July 20 Plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and although responsible for atrocities against Jews, he also apparently did help some Jews escape during the war.

And when he found out that Stulpnagel was hanged for treason on August 30, 1944, his chronic neck and back pain indeed took on a new, historical and fateful significance.

Over time, Carl Henrik and Helena became very close friends. Today, Carl Henrik is a kriya yogi, writer and filmmaker working on a documentary about meditation. Helena has become a well known photographer and lives in an ashram in India. Even though they live on two different continents, they still keep in touch.

“Just as the body casts off worn out clothes and puts on new ones, so the infinite, immortal self casts off worn out bodies and enters into new ones.”

–Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita

But is it possible that a former Nazi, even though he wanted to destroy Hitler’s regime, can become a yogi in his next incarnation? Difficult question, indeed. Yogic believers in reincarnation will counter by saying that it is not only our karma from one life that determines our destiny in the next. In other words, Stulpnagel could have been a real good guy, even a yogi in a long ago, previous life.

Because of all these philosophical conundrums, I understand why many contemporary yogis do not care about the doctrine of reincarnation, and why many even think it is superstitious and totally bunk. Moreover, even though reincarnation is a part of yoga philosophy, a belief in reincarnation is not a prerequisite for doing a proper headstand or to sit in lotus position repeating a mantra.

What does Patanjali, the great philosophical authority on yoga say about reincarnation? Actually not much. But without “Reincarnation Patanjali’s Aphorisms are worthless,” writes William Q. Judge in his 1889 translation of the Yoga Sutras.

“Take No. 18, Book III, which declares that the ascetic can know what were his previous incarnations with all their circumstances; or No. 13, Book II, that while there is a root of works there is fructification in rank and years and experience. Both of these infer reincarnation. In Aphorism 8, Book IV, reincarnation is a necessity.”

But whether you believe you’ve been born again and again, it really does not matter much to your practice, either way.

However, as both a Viking and a yogi who strongly feel I have lived in India before, I guess I am fated to be a believer in this born-again-and-again doctrine.

For reincarnation also appears in Norse mythology, you see.

Indeed, the belief in reincarnation was probably commonplace among the Vikings since the annotator of the Poetic Edda wrote that people formerly used to believe in it:

Sigrun was early dead of sorrow and grief. It was believed in olden times that people were born again, but that is now called old wives’ folly. Of Helgi and Sigrun it is said that they were born again; he became Helgi Haddingjaskati, and she Kara the daughter of Halfdan, as is told in the Lay of Kara, and she was a Valkyrie.

But these days, I am more yogi than Viking, more Indian in my ways than Norwegian. So I cannot but help becoming inspired, uplifted and awed by cosmic and timeless words like these from Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita:

“The soul is birthless, eternal, imperishable and timeless and is never terminated when the body is terminated.”

In other words, we never really die. Only the body dies. Then the body is recycled and becomes part of the earth. Then the mind is also recycled and becomes part of the cosmic sky-cycle of birth after birth.

I don’t know about you, but this cosmic recycling program, in which our karmic repositories sail on and on, makes total yogic sense to me. Totally!

Read 52 Comments and Reply

Read 52 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Ramesh Bjonnes  |  Contribution: 10,290