Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Reincarnation and Advaita Vedanta

P.J.Mazumdar


The reincarnation theory essentially says that, there is a ‘soul’, called variously ‘atman’ or ‘purusa’ (‘jiva’ in the Brahma Sutras) which exists in our heart, and which is the real master of our consciousness. This soul can exist apart from the consciousness, and after death, this soul comes out of the body and takes a different consciousness which may be higher or lower depending on its karma. When the consciousness with which it was associated is exceptionally clear, then the soul does not have any more rebirths and merges with the Brahman.

However, a soul defined in this way, as existing apart from the consciousness and undergoing rebirth, suggests that there are three levels of existence, Brahman at one end, the soul in the middle and the body–mind complex at the other end.

This leads to logical and ontological problems for Advaita, as it is then difficult to explain the nature of the soul, and there fore the Upanishads in some sections strives to say that this ‘soul’ is ultimately non–different from Brahman. This point is also repeatedly emphasized by Sankaracharya. However, this explanation does not work, as the soul necessarily has to be separate from Brahman as long as it is undergoing the cycle of rebirth.

If we discard the theory of reincarnation, then we need not regard the soul as a separate entity and can consider our consciousness itself as our soul or ‘atman’, as our ‘purusa’ and ‘jiva’. We then have only two levels of existence, the relative body–mind complex and the absolute Brahman. This theory is logical from all fronts and is a clear and unambiguous structure. However this cannot be accepted by traditional Advaita as reincarnation is not supported by such a theory.

In the Upanishads, as already discussed, the majority of sutras support a two level existence, and three level existence with a soul is brought in only when reincarnation is discussed.

If we are to accept the soul as consciousness, we also have to discard reincarnation. Most parts of the Upanishads which discuss death accept the theory of reincarnation. However, there are some sutras in which reincarnation is not so clearly stated, and which can support a philosophy which does not accept reincarnation.

In this section, I will bring forward some examples of the sutras which discuss reincarnation and also the sutras through which we can find support for an Advaita philosophy without reincarnation theory.

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