Swami Abhedananda.

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_Author of "India and her People", "Self-Knowledge", "How to be a
Yogi", "Divine Heritage of Man", etc._








The visible phenomena of the universe are bound by the universal law
of cause and effect. The effect is visible or perceptible, while the
cause is invisible or imperceptible. The falling of an apple from a
tree is the effect of a certain invisible force called gravitation.
Although the force cannot be perceived by the senses, its expression
is visible. All perceptible phenomena are but the various expressions
of different forces which act as invisible agents upon the subtle and
imperceptible forms of matter. These invisible agents or forces
together with the imperceptible particles of matter make up the subtle
states of the phenomenal universe. When a subtle force becomes
objectified, it appears as a gross object. Therefore, we can say,
that every gross form is an expression of some subtle force acting
upon the subtle particles of matter. The minute particles of hydrogen
and oxygen when combined by chemical force, appear in the gross form
of water. Water can never be separated from hydrogen and oxygen, which
are its subtle component parts. Its existence depends upon that of its
component parts, or in other words, upon its subtle form. If the
subtle state changes, the gross manifestation will also change. The
peculiarity in the gross form of a plant depends upon the peculiar
nature of its subtle form, the seed. The peculiar nature of the gross
forms in the animal kingdom depends upon the subtle forms which
manifest variously in each of the intermediate stages between the
microscopic unit of living matter and the highest man. The gross human
body is closely related to its subtle body. Not only this, but every
movement or change in the physical form is caused by the activity and
change of the subtle body. If the subtle body be affected or changed a
little, the gross body will also be affected similarly. The material
body being the expression of the subtle body, its birth, growth, decay
and death depend upon the changes of the subtle body. As long as the
subtle body remains, it will continue to express itself in a
corresponding gross form.

Now let us understand clearly what we mean by a subtle body. It is
nothing but a minute germ of a living substance. It contains the
invisible particles of matter which are held together by vital force,
and it also possesses mind or thought-force in a potential state, just
as the seed of a plant contains in it the life force and the power of
growth. According to Vedanta, the subtle body consists of
_Antahkaranam_, that is, the internal organ or the mind substance
with its various modifications, mind, intellect, egoism, memory, the
five instruments of perception: the powers of seeing, hearing,
smelling, tasting and touching; the five instruments of action, such
as the powers of seizing, moving, speaking, evacuating, and
generating, and the five _Prânas. Prâna_ is a Sanskrit word which
means vital energy or the life-sustaining power in us. Although
_Prâna_ is one, it takes five different names on account of the
five different functions it performs. This word _Prâna_ includes
the five manifestations of the vital force: First, that power which
moves the lungs and draws the atmospheric air from outside into the
system. This is also called _Prâna_. Second, that power which
throws out of the system such things as are not wanted. It is called
in Sanskrit _Apâna_. Third, it takes the name of _Samâna_,
as performing digestive functions and carrying the extract of food to
every part of the body. It is called _Udâna_ when it is the cause
of bringing down food from the mouth through the alimentary canal to
the stomach, and also when it is the cause of the power of speech. The
fifth power of _Prâna_ is that which works in every part of the
nervous system from head to foot, through every canal, which keeps the
shape of the body, preserves it from putrefaction, and gives health
and life to every cell and organ. These are the various manifestations
of the vital force or _Prâna_. These subtle powers together with
the non-composite elements of the gross body, or the ethereal
particles of subtle matter, and also with the potentialities of all
the impressions, ideas and tendencies which each individual gathers in
one life, make up his subtle body. As a resultant of all the
different actions of mind and body which an individual performs in his
present life, will be the tendencies and desires in his future life;
nothing will be lost.

Every action of body or mind which we do, every thought which we
think, becomes fine, and is stored up in the form of a _Samskâra_
or impression in our minds. It remains latent for some time, and then
it rises up in the form of a mental wave and produces new
desires. These desires are called in Vedanta, _Vâsanâs_. Vâsanâs
or strong desires are the manufacturers of new bodies. If Vâsanâ or
longing for worldly pleasures and objects remains in anybody, even
after hundreds of births, that person will be born again. Nothing can
prevent the course of strong desires. Desires must be fulfilled sooner
or later.

Every voluntary or involuntary action of the body, sense or mind must
correspond to the dormant impressions stored up in the subtle
body. Although growth, the process of nourishment and all the changes
of the gross physical body take place according to the necessarily
acting causes, yet the whole series of actions, and consequently every
individual act, the condition of the body which accomplishes it, nay,
the whole process in and through which the body exists, are nothing
but the outward expressions of the latent impressions stored up in the
subtle body. Upon these rests the perfect suitableness of the animal
or human body to the animal or human nature of one's impressions. The
organs of the senses must therefore completely correspond to the
principal desires which are the strongest and most ready to
manifest. They are the visible expressions of these desires. If there
be no hunger or desire to eat, teeth, throat and bowels will be of no
use. If there be no desire for grasping and moving, hands and legs
will be useless. Similarly it can be shown that the desire for seeing,
hearing, etc., has produced the eye, ear, etc. If I have no desire to
use my hand, and if I do not use it at all, within a few months it
will wither away and die. In India there are some religious fanatics
who hold up their arms and do not use them at all; after a few months
their arms wither and become stiff and dead. A person who lies on his
back for six months loses the power of walking. There are many such
instances which prove the injurious effects of the disuse of our limbs
and organs.

As the human form, generally, corresponds to the human will,
generally, so the individual bodily structure corresponds to the
character, desires, will and thought of the individual. Therefore the
outer nature is nothing but the expression of the inner nature. This
inner nature of each individual is what re-incarnates or expresses
itself successively in various forms, one after another. When a man
dies the individual ego or _Jîva_ (as it is called in Sanskrit),
which means the germ of life or the living soul of man, is not
destroyed, but it continues to exist in an invisible form. It remains
like a permanent thread stringing together the separate lives by the
law of cause and effect. The subtle body is like a water-globule which
sprang in the beginningless past from the eternal ocean of Reality;
and it contains the reflection of the unchangeable light of
Intelligence. As a water-globule remains sometimes in an invisible
vapory state in a cloud, then in rain or snow or ice, and again as
steam or in mud, but is never destroyed, so the subtle body sometimes
remains unmanifested and sometimes expresses itself in gross forms of
animal or human beings, according to the desires and tendencies that
are ready to manifest. It may go to heaven, that is, to some other
planet, or it may be born again on this earth. It depends on the
nature and strength of one's life-long tendency and bent of mind. This
idea is clearly expressed in Vedanta. "The thought, will or desire
which is extremely strong during lifetime, will become predominant at
the time of death and will mould the inner nature of the dying
person. The newly moulded inner nature will express in a new form."
(Bhagavad Gîtâ.) The thought, will or desire which moulds the inner
nature has the power of selecting or attracting such conditions or
environments as will help it in its way of manifestation. This process
corresponds in some respects to the law of "natural selection."

We shall be better able to understand that process by studying how the
seeds of different trees select from the common environments different
materials, and absorb and assimilate different quantities of
elements. Suppose two seeds, one of an oak and the other of a
chestnut, are planted in a pot. The power of growth in both the seeds
is of the same nature. The environments, earth, water, heat and light
are the same. But still there is some peculiarity in each of the
seeds, which will absorb from the common environments different
quantities of elements and other properties which are fit to help the
growth of the peculiar nature and form of the fruit, flower, leaves of
each tree. Suppose the chestnut is a horse-chestnut. If, under
different conditions, the peculiar nature of the horse-chestnut
changes into that of a sweet chestnut, then, along with the changes in
the seed, the whole nature of the tree, leaves, fruits will also be
changed. It will no more attract, absorb or assimilate those
substances and qualities of the environments which it did when it was
a horse-chestnut. Similarly, through the law of "natural selection"
the newly moulded thought-body of the dying person will choose and
attract such parts from the common environments as are helpful to its
proper expression or manifestation. Parents are nothing but the
principal parts of the environment of the re-incarnating
individual. The newly moulded inner nature or subtle body of the
individual will by the law of "natural selection" involuntarily
choose, or be unconsciously drawn to, as it were, its suitable parents
and will be born of them. As, for instance, if I have a strong desire
to become an artist, and if after a life-long struggle I do not
succeed in being the greatest, after the death of the body I will be
born of such parents and with such environments as will help me to
become the best artist.

The whole process is expressed in Eastern philosophy by the doctrine
of the Reincarnation of the individual soul. Although this doctrine
is commonly rejected in the West, it is unreservedly accepted by the
vast majority of mankind of the present day, as it was in past
centuries. The scientific explanation of this theory we find nowhere
except in the writings of the Hindus; still we know that from very
ancient times it was believed by the philosophers, sages and prophets
of different countries. The ancient civilization of Egypt was built
upon a crude form of the doctrine of Reincarnation. Herodotus says:
"The Egyptians propounded the theory that the human soul is
imperishable, and that where the body of any one dies it enters into
some other creature that may be ready to receive it." Pythagoras and
his disciples spread it through Greece and Italy. Pythagoras says:
"All has soul; all is soul wandering in the organic world, and obeying
eternal will or law."

In Dryden's Ovid we read: -

"Death has no power the immortal soul to slay,
That, when its present body turns to clay,
Seeks a fresh home, and with unlessened might
Inspires another frame with life and light."

It was the keynote of Plato's philosophy. Plato says: "Soul is older
than body. Souls are continually born over again into this life." The
idea of Reincarnation was spread widely in Greece and Italy by
Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato, Virgil and Ovid. It was known to the
Neo-Platonists, Plotinus and Proclus. Plotinus says: "The soul leaving
the body becomes that power which it has most developed. Let us fly
then from here below and rise to the intellectual world, that we may
not fall into a purely sensible life by allowing ourselves to follow
sensible images...." It was the fundamental principle of the religion
of the Persian Magi. Alexander the Great accepted this idea after
coming in contact with the Hindu philosophers. Julius Caesar found
that the Gauls had some belief regarding the pre-existence of the
human soul. The Druids of old Gaul believed that the souls of men
transmigrate into those bodies whose habits and characters they most
resemble. Celts and Britons were impressed with this idea. It was a
favorite theme of the Arab philosophers and many Mahomedan Sufis. The
Jews adopted it after the Babylonian captivity. Philo of Alexandria,
who was a contemporary of Christ, preached amongst the Hebrews the
Platonic idea of the pre-existence and rebirth of human souls. Philo
says: "The company of disembodied souls is distributed in various
orders. The law of some of them is to enter mortal bodies, and after
certain prescribed periods be again set free." John the Baptist was
according to the Jews a second Elijah; Jesus was believed by many to
be the re-appearance of some other prophet. (See Matt, xvi, 14, also
xvii, 12.) Solomon says in his Book of Wisdom: "I was a child of good
nature and a good soul came to me, or rather because I was good I came
into an undefiled body."

The Talmud and Cabala teach the same thing. In the Talmud it is said
that Abel's soul passed into the body of Seth, and then into that of
Moses. Along with the spread of the Cabala this doctrine (which was
known as Transmigration and Metempsychosis) "began to take root in
Judaism and then it gained believers even among men who were little
inclined towards Mysticism. Juda ben Asher (Asheri) for instance,
discussing this doctrine in a letter to his father endeavored to place
it upon a philosophical basis." (Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. XII,
p. 232.) We also read, "The Cabalists eagerly adopted the doctrine on
account of the vast field it offered to mystic speculations. Moreover
it was almost a necessary corollary of their psychological system. The
absolute condition of the soul is, according to them, its return,
after developing all those perfections, the germs of which are
eternally implanted in it, to the Infinite Source from which it
emanated. Another term of life must therefore be vouchsafed to those
souls which have not fulfilled their destiny here below, and have not
been sufficiently purified for the state of union with the Primordial
Cause. Hence if the soul, on its first assumption of a human body and
sojourn on earth, fails to acquire that experience for which it
descended from heaven and becomes contaminated by that which is
polluting, it must reinhabit a body till it is able to ascend in a
purified state through repeated trials." This is the theory of the
Zohar, which says: "All souls are subject to transmigration; and men
do not know the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He! They do not know
that they are brought before the tribunal both before they enter into
this world and after they leave it; they are ignorant of the many
transmigrations and secret probations which they have to undergo, and
of the number of souls and spirits which enter into this world and
which do not return to the palace of the Heavenly King. Men do not
know how the souls revolve like a stone which is thrown from a
sling. But the time is at hand when these mysteries will be
disclosed." (Zohar, II, 99 _b_.)

Like many of the Church Fathers the Cabalists used as their main
argument in favor of the doctrine of metempsychosis the justice of
God. But for the belief in metempsychosis, they maintained, the
question why God often permits the wicked to lead a happy life while
many righteous are miserable would be unanswerable. Then too the
infliction of pain upon children would be an act of cruelty unless it
is imposed in punishment of sin committed by the soul in a previous
state. Isaac Abravanel sees in the commandment of the Levirate a proof
of the doctrine of metempsychosis for which he gives the following
reasons: (1) God in His mercy willed that another trial should be
given to the soul, which having yielded to the sanguine temperament of
the body had committed a capital sin, such as murder, adultery, etc.;
(2) it is only just that when a man dies young a chance should be
given to his soul to execute in another body the good deeds which it
had not time to perform in the first body; (3) the soul of the wicked
sometimes passes into another body in order to receive its deserved
punishment here below instead of in the other world where it would be
much more severe. (Commentary on Deuteronomy, XXV, 5.)

Christianity is not exempt from this idea. Origen and other Church
Fathers believed in it. Origen says: "For God, justly disposing of his
creatures according to their desert, united the diversities of minds
in one congruous world, that he might, as it were, adorn his mansion
(in which ought to be not only vases of gold and silver, but of wood
also and clay, and some to honor and some to dishonor) with these
diverse vases, minds or souls. To these causes the world owes its
diversity, while Divine Providence disposes each according to his
tendency, mind and disposition." He also says: "I think this is a
question how it happens that the human mind is influenced now by the
good, now by the evil. The causes of this I suspect to be more ancient
than this corporeal birth." The idea of Reincarnation spread so fast
amongst the early Christians that Justinian was obliged to suppress it
by passing a law in the Council of Constantinople in 538 A.D. The law
was this: "Whoever shall support the mythical presentation of the
pre-existence of the soul, and the consequently wonderful opinion of
its return, let him be Anathema." The Gnostics and Manichaeans
propagated the tenets of Reincarnation amongst the mediaeval sects
such as the Bogomiles and Paulicians. Some of the followers of this
so-called erroneous belief were cruelly persecuted in 385 A.D.

In the seventeenth century some of the Cambridge Platonists, as
Dr. Henry More and others, accepted the idea of rebirth. Most of the
German philosophers of the middle ages and of recent days have
advocated and upheld this doctrine. Many quotations can be given from
the writings of great thinkers, like Kant, Scotus, Schelling, Fichte,
Leibnitz, Schopenhauer, Giardano Bruno, Goethe, Lessing, Herder and a
host of others. The great skeptic Hume says in his posthumous essay on
"The Immortality of the Soul," "The metempsychosis is therefore the
only system of this kind that philosophy can hearken to." Scientists
like Flammarion and Huxley have supported this doctrine of
Reincarnation. Professor Huxley says: "None but hasty thinkers will
reject it on the ground of inherent absurdity. Like the doctrine of
evolution itself, that of transmigration has its roots in the world of
reality." ("Evolution and Ethics," p. 61.)

Some of the theological leaders have preached it. The eminent German
theologian Dr. Julius Müller supports this theory in his work on "The
Christian Doctrine of Sin." Prominent theologians, such as Dr. Dorner,
Ernesti, Rückert, Edward Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher, Phillips Brooks,
preached many a time touching the question of the pre-existence and
rebirth of the individual soul. Swedenborg and Emerson maintained
it. Emerson says in his essay on Experience, "We wake and find
ourselves on a stair. There are stairs below us which we seem to have
ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and
out of sight."

Almost all of the poets, ancient or modern, profess it. William
Wordsworth says in "Intimations of Immortality:" -

"The soul that rises with us, our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar."

Tennyson writes in the "Two Voices;"

"Or, if through lower lives I came -
Tho' all experience past became,
Consolidate in mind and frame -
I might forget my weaker lot;
For is not our first year forgot?
The haunts of memory echo not."

Walt Whitman says in "Leaves of Grass:"

"As to you, Life, I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths,
No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before."

Similar passages can be quoted from almost all the poets of different
countries. Even amongst the aboriginal tribes of Africa, Asia, North
and South America, traces of this belief in the rebirth of souls is to
be found. Nearly three-fourths of the population of Asia believe in
the doctrine of Reincarnation, and through it they find a satisfactory
explanation of the problem of life. There is no religion which denies
the continuity of the individual soul after death.

Those who do not believe in Reincarnation try to explain the world of
inequalities and diversities either by the one-birth theory or by the
theory of hereditary transmission. Neither of these theories, however,
is sufficient to explain the inequalities that we meet with in our
everyday life. Those who believe in the one-birth theory, that we have
come here for the first and last time, do not understand that the
acquirement of wisdom and experience is the purpose of human life; nor
can they explain why children who die young should come into existence
and pass away without getting the opportunity to learn anything or
what purpose is served by their coming thus for a few days, remaining
in utter ignorance and then passing away without gaining anything
whatever. The Christian dogma, based on the one-birth theory, tells us
that the child which dies soon after its birth is sure to be saved and
will enjoy eternal life and everlasting happiness in heaven. The
Christians who really believe in this dogma ought to pray to their
heavenly Father for the death of their children immediately after
their birth and ought to thank the merciful Father when the grave
closes over their little forms. Thus the one-birth theory of Christian
theology does not remove any difficulty.

Two great religions, Judaism with its two offspring - Christianity and
Mahomedanism - and Zoroastrianism, still uphold the one-birth theory.

The followers of these, shutting their eyes to the absurdity and
unreasonableness of such a theory, believe that human souls are
created out of nothing at the time of the birth of their bodies and
that they continue to exist throughout eternity either to suffer or to
enjoy because of the deeds performed during the short period of their
earthly existence. Here the question arises why should a man be held
responsible throughout eternity for the works which he was forced or
predestined to perform by the will of the Lord of the universe? The
theory of predestination and grace, instead of explaining the
difficulty, makes God partial and unjust. If the omnipotent personal
God created human souls out of nothing, could He not make all souls
equally good and happy? Why does He make one to enjoy all the
blessings of life and another to suffer all miseries throughout
eternity? Why is one born with good tendencies and another with evil
ones? Why is one man virtuous throughout his life and another bestial?
Why is one born intelligent and another idiotic? If God out of His own
will made all these inequalities, or, in other words, if God created
one man to suffer and another to enjoy, then how partial and unjust
must He be! He must be worse than a tyrant. How can we worship Him,
how call Him just and merciful?

Some people try to save God from this charge of partiality and
injustice by saying that all good things of this universe are the work
of God, and all evil things are the work of a demon or Satan. God
created everything good, but it was Satan who brought evil into this
world and made everything bad. Now let us see how far such a statement
is logically correct. Good and evil are two relative terms; the
existence of one depends upon that of the other. Good cannot exist

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