Vivekananda on the Reincarnation of the Soul
(Part of the Series of Lectures Delivered in New York 26th Jan 1896)
( an abridged version )
(Paper Presented in Vivekananda Study Circle, Madras e. Chapter to Commemorate his 150th Birthday.)
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Sometimes people get frightened at idea, and superstition is so strong that thinking men even believe that they are the outcome of nothing, and then, with the grandest logic, try to deduce the theory that although they have come out of zero, they will be eternal after wards. Those that come out of zero will certainly have to go back to zero. Neither you, nor g nor any one present, has come out of zero, nor will go back to zero. We have been existing eternally, and will exist, and there is no power under the sun or above the sun which can undo your or my existence or send us back to zero. Now this idea of reincarnation is not only nota frightening idea, but is most essential for the moral will-being of the human race. It is the only logical conclusion that thought full men can arrive at. It you are going to exist in eternity hereafter, it must be that you have existed through eternity in the past: it cannot be otherwise. I will try to answer a few objections that are generally brought against the theory… The first objection is, why do we not remember our past? Do we remember all our past in this life? How many of you remember your early childhood, and if upon memory depends your existence, then this argument proves that you did not exist as babies, because you do not remember your babyhood. It is simply unmitigated nonsense to say that our existence depends on our remembering it why should we remember the past. That brain is gone, broken into pieces, and a new brain has been manufactured. What has come to this brain is the resultant, the sum total of the impressions acquired in our past, with which the mind has come to inhabit the new body.
I, as I stand here, am the effect, the result, of all the infinite past which is tacked on to me. And why is it necessary for me to remember all the past? When a great ancient sage, seer or a prophet of old, who came face to face with the truth, says something, the modern men stand up and say, “Oh, he was a fool!” But just use another name, “Huxley says it, or Tyndall”; then it must be true, and they take it for granted. In place of ancient superstitions, they have erected modern superstitions, in place of the old popes of religion they have installed modern popes of science. So we see that this objection as to memory is not valid, and that is about the only serious objection that is raised against theory. Although we have seen that it is not necessary for the theory that there shall be the memory of past lives, yet at the same time we are in a position to assert that there are instances which show that this memory does come, and that each one of us will get back this memory in that life in which he will become free. Then alone you will find that this world is but a dream, then alone you will realize in the soul of your soul that you are but actors and the world is a stage; then alone will the idea of non-attachment comes to you with the power of thunder; then all this thirst for enjoyment, this clinging on to life and this world will vanish for ever; then the mind will see clearly as daylight how many times all these existed for you, how many times you had fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, relatives and friends, wealth and power. They came and went. How many times you were on the topmost crest of the wave, and how many times you were down at the bottom of despair. When memory will bring all these to you, then alone you will stand as a hero and smile when the world frowns upon you. Then alone you stand up and say, “I care not for thee even, O Death; what terror has thou for me?” This will come to all.
Are there any arguments, any rational proofs for this reincarnation of the soul? So far we have been giving the negative side, showing that the opposite arguments to disprove it are not valid. Are there any positive proofs? There are; and most valid ones, too. No other theory except that of reincarnation accounts for the wide divergence that we find between man and man in their powers to acquire knowledge. First, let us consider the process by means of which knowledge is acquired. Suppose I go into the street and see a dog. How do I know it is a dog? I refer it to my mind, and in my mind are groups of all- my past experiences, arranged and pigeon-holed, as it were. As soon as a new impression comes, I take it up and refer it to some of the old pigeon-holes, and as soon as I find a group of the same impressions already existing, I place it in that group, and I am satisfied. I know it is a dog, because it coincides with the impressions already there. When I do not find the cognates of the new experience inside, I become dissatisfied, this state of the mind is called “ignorance” but, when, finding the cognates of an impression already existing, we become satisfied, this is called “knowledge.” When one apple fell, man became dissatisfied. Then gradually they found out the group. What was the group they found? That all apples fell, so they called it “gravitation.” Now we see that without a fund of already existing experience, any new experience would be impossible, for there would be nothing to which to refer the new impression. So, if, as some of the European philosophers think, a child came into the world with what they call “Tabula Rasa” such a child would never attain to any degree of intellectual power, because he would have nothing to which to refer his new experiences. We see that the power of acquiring knowledge varies in each individual and this shows that each one of us has come with his own fund of knowledge. Knowledge can only be got in one Way, the Way of experience; there is no other way to know. If we have not experienced it in this life, we must have experienced it in other lives. How is it that the fear of death is everywhere? A little chicken is just out of an egg and an eagle comes and the chicken flies in fear to its mother. There is an old explanation (I should hardly dignify it by such a name). it is called instinct. What make that little chicken just out of the egg afraid to die? How is it that as soon as a duckling hatched by a hen comes near water, it jumps into it and swims? It never swam before, nor saw anything swim. People call it instinct. It is a big word, but it leaves us where we were before. Let us study the phenomenon of instinct. A child begins to play on the piano. At first she must pay attention to every key she is fingering and as she goes on and on for months and years, the playing becomes almost involuntary, instinctive- what was first done with conscious will does not require later on an effort of the will. This is not yet a complete proof. One half remains, and that is that almost all the actions which are now instinctive can be brought under the control of will. Each muscle of the body can be brought under control. This is perfectly well known. So the proof is complete by this double method, that what we now call instinct is degeneration of voluntary actions; therefore, if the analogy applies to the whole of creation, if all nature is uniform, then what is instinct in lower animals, as well as in men, must be the degeneration of will.
Applying the law we dwelt upon under macrocosm, that each involution presupposes an evolution, and each evolution an involution, we see that instinct is involved reason. What we call instinct in men or animals must therefore be involved, degenerated, voluntary actions, and voluntary actions are impossible without experience. Experience started that knowledge, and that knowledge is there. The fear of death, the duckling taking to the water and all involuntary actions in the human being which have become instinctive, are the results of past experiences. So far we have proceeded very clearly and so far the latest science is with us. But here comes one more difficulty. The latest scientific men are coming back to the ancient sages, and far as they have done so, there is perfect agreement. They admit that each man and each animal is born with a fund of experience, and that all these actions in the mind are the result of past experience. “But what” they ask, “is the use of saying that that experience belongs to the soul? Why not say it belongs to the body, and the body alone? Why not say it is hereditary transmission?” This is the last question. Why not say that all the experience with which I am born is the resultant effect of all the past experience of my ancestors? The sum total of the experience from the little protoplasm up to the highest human being is in me, but it has come from body to body in the course of hereditary transmission. Where will the difficult be? This Question is very nice, and we admit some part of this hereditary transmission. How far? As far as furnishing the material. We, by our past actions, conform ourselves to a certain birth in a certain body, and the only suitable material for that body comes from the parents who have made themselves fit to have that soul as their offspring.
The simple hereditary theory takes for granted the most astonishing proposition without any proof, that mental experience can be recorded in matters, that mental experience can be involved in matter. When I look at you, in the lake of my mind there is a wave. That wave subsides, but remains in fine form, as an impression. We understand a physical impression remaining in the body. But what proof is there for assuming that the mental impression can remain in the body, since the body goes to pieces? What carries it? Even granting it were possible for each mental impression to remain in the body, that every impression, beginning from the first man down to my father, was in my father’s body, how could it be transmitted to me? Through the bio plasmic cell ? How could that be? Because the father’s body does not come to the child “in toto”. The same parents may have a number of children; then, from this theory of hereditary transmission, where the impression and the impressed (that is to say, material) are one, it rigorously follows that by the birth of every child the parents must lose a part of their own impressions, or if the parents should transmit the whole of their impressions, then, after the birth of the first child, their minds would be a vacuum.
Again, if in the bio plasmic cell the infinite amount of impressions from all time has entered, where and how is it? This is a most impossible position, and until these physiologists can prove how and where those impressions live in that cell, and what they mean by a mental impression sleeping in the physical cell, their position cannot taken for granted. So far it is clear then, that this impression is in the mind, that the mind comes to toke its birth and rebirth, and uses the material which is most proper for it, and that the mind which has made itself fit for only a particular kind of body will have to wait until it gets that material. This we understand. The theory then comes to this, that there is hereditary transmission so far as furnishing the material to the soul is concerned. But the soul migrates and manufactures body after body and each thought we think, and each deed we do, is stored in it in fine forms, ready to spring up again and take a new shape. When I look at you a wave rises in my mind. It dive down, as it were, and becomes finer and finer, but it does not die. It is ready to start up again as a wave in the shape of memory. So all these impressions are in my mind, and when I die the resultant force of them will be upon me. A ball is here, and each one of us takes a mallet in his hands and strikes the ball from all sides; the ball goes from point to point in the room, and when it reaches the door it flies out. What does it carry out with it? The resultant of all these blows. That will give it its direction. So what directs the soul when the body dies? The resultant, the sum total of all the works it has done, of the thoughts it has thought. If the resultant is such that it has to manufacture a new body for further experience, it will go to those parents who are ready to supply it with suitable material for that body. Thus from body to body it will go, sometimes to a heaven, and back again to earth, becoming man, or some lower animal. This way it will go on until it has finished its experience, and completed the cycle. It then knows its own nature, knows what it is, and ignorance vanishes, its powers become manifest, it becomes perfect; no more is there any necessity for the soul to work through physical bodies, nor is there any necessity for it to work through finer, or mental bodies. It shines in its own light, and is free, no more to be born, no more to die
We will not go now into the particulars of this. But I will bring before you one more point with regard to this theory of reincarnation. It is the theory that advances the freedom of the human soul. It is the one theory that does not lay the blame of all our weakness upon somebody else, which is a common human fallacy. We do not look at our own faults; the eyes do not see themselves, they seethe eyes of everybody else. We human beings are very slow to recognize our own weakness, our own faults, so long as we can lay the blame upon somebody else. Men in general lay all the blame of life on their fellow- men, or, failing that, on God, or they conjure up a ghost, and say it is fate. Where is fate, and who is fate? We reap what we sow. We are the makers of our own fate. None else has the blame, none else has the praise. The wind is blowing; those vessels whose sails are unfurled catch it, and go forward on their way, but those which have their sails furled do not catch the wind. Is that the fault of the wind? Is it the fault of the merciful father, whose wind of mercy is blowing without ceasing, day and night whose mercy knows no decay, is it His fault that some of us are happy and some unhappy? We make our own destiny. His sun shines for the weak as well as for the strong. His wind blows for the saint and sinner alike. He is the lord of all, the father of all, merciful, and impartial. Do you mean to say that He, the lord of creation, looks upon the petty things of our life in the same light as we do? What a degenerate idea of God that would be! We are like little puppies, making life and death struggles here, and foolishly thinking that even God Himself will take as seriously as we do. He knows what the puppies’ play means. Our attempts to lay the blame on Him, making Him the punisher, and the re warder, are only foolish. He neither punishes, nor rewards any. His infinite mercy is upon every one, at all times, in all places, under all conditions, unfailing, unswerving. Upon us depends how we use it. Upon us depends how we utilize it. Blame neither man, nor God, nor any one in the world. When you find your selves suffering, blame your selves, and try to do better.
This is the only solution of the problem. Those that blame others… are generally miserable with helpless brains; they have brought them selves to that pass through their own mistakes and blame others, but way. This attempt to throw the blame up on others only weakens them the more. Therefore blame none for your own faults, stand upon your own feat, and take the whole responsibility upon your selves. Say, “This misery that I am suffering is my own doing and that very thing proves that it will have to be undone by me alone”. That which I created I can demolish; that which created by some one else I shall never be able to destroy. There fore stand up, be bold, be strong. Take the whole responsibility on your own shoulders, and know that you are the creator of your own destiny. All the strength and succor you want is within your selves. Therefore, make your future. “Let the dead past bury its dead”. The infinite future is before you, and you must always remember, that each word, thought, and deed, lays up a store for you and that as the bad thoughts and bad works are reads to spring upon you like tigers, so also there is the inspiring hope that the good thoughts and good deeds are reads with the power of a hundred thousand angels to defend you always and for ever.