Reflections on Sri Aurobindo’s “The Reincarnating Soul”


Comparative World Philosophies

Sri Aurobindo’s The Reincarnating Soul is an attempt to find the proper point from which we should start our discussion of the possibility of reincarnation. He feels that “human thought” for most people has resorted to “a rough and crude acceptance of unexamined ideas.”  This observation holds even truer when the ideas require “subtle thinking” and “precision.” We can manage thought about evident, tangible things, but Sri Aurobindo feels that out of “impatience,” in almost a lazy manner, we are contented with accepting crude ideas.

Reincarnation is one such subject. Sri Aurobindo feels that the idea of reincarnation as popularized by contemporary thought has become popularized in a crude, misleading manner. The popular idea is that of a reincarnating soul, where “the soul is reborn into a new body.” The questions often stop here, with no thought given to the definition of a soul. Is the soul Purusha (Person, or Atman)? Does Purusha simply take up a new body and bring along with it the old personality of the “now discarded physical frame?”

The popular view, as seen by Sri Aurobindo, is that many feel that our identical souls infinitely waft into new bodies after the death of our present physical frame. The crude notion is that the personality is reborn into different “bodily circumstances.” This view satiates those who truly love life and are afraid of the loss of “their” personality at death, for it offers them a promise of survival—a form of immortality, and a way to cope with death. The “obvious non-survival of memory” of past lives, however, is the prime objection to this idea of an identical “I” leaving one body and entering another.

This has not always been the view held of reincarnation. Sri Aurobindo goes on to write of Buddhist and Vedantist thought, which does not attach importance to the survival of the identical personality. After all, what is an identical personality? Does my present personality persist for more than just a moment before it changes? Buddhist and Vedantist thinkers took this into consideration and determined that an “identical personality was a non-sense, a contradiction in terms.”

Buddhist thought concerning the self “denied any real identity.” As Sri Aurobindo puts it, “The identical ‘I’ is not, never was, never will be.” Rather, we more closely resembled flowing water in a stream—ever changing. Continuing the analogy, however, despite the continually changing water in the stream, the identity of the identical stream remains the same to us. Buddhist thought does not believe that this is an incarnating soul or personality, but a flow of Karma that persists down an “apparently uninterrupted channel.” A major distinction in Buddhist thought, however, is that there can be an end to the permanent flow of Karma with enlightenment, at which point we are brought to a state of non-being.

Vedantist thought is a bit different from Buddhist thought. It also comes to the conclusion that there can be an end to the cycle of rebirth. But according to Sri Aurobindo, the Vedantist “admits an identical, a self…—but other than my personality.” However, when the person achieves the knowledge—the enlightenment—of the real Person, Immortality is achieved. What separates the Vedantist conclusion from the Buddhist one is that there is a distinction in Vedantist thought between the Immortal life and the “constant passing from death to death,” while in Buddhism there is a cessation of being.

Sri Aurobindo asks the question, “Who creates the forms into which we reincarnate?” Vedantist thought ascribes “the Self, the Purusha…” as the answer to this question. Our “ego-sense” then goes on to distort the reality, giving us notions of identity and personality. Indeed, the Purusha is “imperishable, immutable, unborn, undying,” and as such does not exist in the body, but rather, we exist in the Self. We create the illusion of our identities, but we are really all part something much larger.

What, then, are we? What is it that takes form and has personality? Sri Aurobindo says that the changing personality can be called Prakriti, or “the totality of nature that is not Purusha.” This is an intricate, multi-level composite that is “all surface work.” Memories or burdens of the past are set aside allowing us to “concentrate on the work immediately in hand.” Sri Aurobindo sees the body simply as a convenience, and urges us to pay more attention to the Self: “To ignore it is to ignore the whole secret of our being.”

The desire for some sort of explanation of what happens after death is reasonable to me. It can help us cope with death and often also gives us encouragement to live a good life. Although I was raised as a Hindu, I have never felt the need to believe in reincarnation. Nor have I ever been inspired to actually follow any religious routes. I do not have very much patience when it comes to questions concerning the creation of the universe, and I am not ready to blindly hand it over to any given god. I prefer, instead, to accept that I am here—now—and will do as I find necessary and good.

I have no desire to live on forever, and I do not think that such a view makes this life worthless. Being alive, knowing of the impact that I can have on society however small it may be, rippling through human contact, has the most significant impact on how I choose to act. This brings to mind a quotation from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism, “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” I do not see this simply as a statement of individuality and free will, but rather as a statement that shows us that we are personally responsible for our actions and who we are. I am not a good person just because I was told that if I were not good I would suffer. As Sartre wrote concerning our free choices of action, “One should always ask himself, ‘What would happen if everyone looked at things that way?'” It is in such a manner that we should all be able, as rational beings, to police ourselves.

Understandably, this is a bit idealistic. To begin with, it makes the assumption of rationality. It also raises questions about governance and punishment. Sartre says of the non-existence of God, that this now leaves us responsible for our actions. “He can’t start making excuses for himself.”

Sri Aurobindo has a good point about the nature of human thought. I can easily use myself as evidence. On a subject such as God, where “precision and subtle thinking are most needed,” I want proof, something substantial to believe in. I am not very willing to make time for the analysis of such questions. Partially it is, as Sri Aurobindo states, a result of impatience, but more significantly, it is my “selfish” wanting to live for myself. It is my desire to be responsible for myself.


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