Chapter 4 Beyond Death Pt 4: Recollections of Past Life – the Soul’s Choice – Mukti or Transformation

Recollections of Past Life

“Recollections last only for a time, not till rebirth otherwise the stamp would be so strong that remembrance of past births, even after taking a new body, would be the rule rather than the exception.

“You say ‘Relationships of one birth persist in successive births, the chances depending on the strength of the attachment’. This is possible, but not a law — as a rule the same relationship would not be constantly repeated — the same people often meet again and again on earth in different lives, but the relations are different. The purpose of rebirth would not be served if the same personality with the same relations and experiences are incessantly repeated.”[1]

Recollections of past life have often been reported even by the most sceptical individuals and under the most unassuming circumstances. What we have to understand about these recollections of past lives is that memory (any memory for that matter) is a function of the state of consciousness. We recollect things best by reverting to the state of consciousness in which we experienced them. That is why it is sometimes so difficult to remember extremely painful events (unless under hypnosis) since the mind does not want to relive it. To relive is actually to recollect. But we live and experience life on several levels simultaneously. Therefore too there are several types of recollections. Of these the most rare are the recollections of the soul. The soul does not care so much about the outer details as about the essence of things. The mind and vital however get engaged more with outer details of an event since they live so completely projected outwards. Genuine soul memories therefore relate to some exceptional soulful moments and movements of our life and not necessarily of our outer personality and name unless these too participated in the soul’s experience. What normally passes off as past life recollections are usually fragments of the vital or mental consciousness and its corresponding memory attaching itself to some person’s consciousness through affinity, or even to one’s own if the rebirth is very soon after death or before these formations get dissolved. Such rapid rebirth would however mean a relatively undeveloped consciousness with very few soul moments to assimilate. Most human beings would require a longer period of assimilative rest before a return to earth for any vital, emotional or mental memory to sustain itself.

Often this blotting out of the tablets of past memories is held as an argument against the existence of rebirth. We might as well say that we did not exist as a one-year-old since we do not remember much of it! But thank God we do not remember past lives! We do not realise what a grace this Ignorance is at times. Imagine handling the problems and attachments of past lives when we find ourselves so incompetent to handle the present itself. The law that makes us forget is a law of wisdom. It is another proof of the karmic law not being one of mere retribution. Nature makes us forget the past so that we may move into the future having gathered the essence of past experiences necessary for our evolution. Besides there are gaps in our consciousness and in our transit from one life to another, through one layer of consciousness to another, through one state of consciousness to another, and we tend to become oblivious of that which is left behind due to selective concentration. This happens in dreams as well. We forget our dreams except those that happened just close to our waking state. It is due to the gaps of consciousness during transit from one inner world to another. Interestingly the dream may repeat itself when in sleep we once again enter the same domain. All the same, we can recover the past memory through a special process of reverse concentration as is used in hypnotic regression therapies or by tearing the veils between different states and becoming conscious of the gaps as through yogic development.

“There is no rule of complete forgetfulness in the return of the soul to rebirth. There are, especially in childhood, many impressions of the past life which can be strong and vivid enough, but the materialising education and influence of the environments prevent their true nature from being recognised. There are even a great number of people who have definite recollections of a past life. But these things are discouraged by education and the atmosphere and cannot remain or develop; in most cases they are stifled out of existence. At the same time it must be noted that what the psychic being carries away with it and brings back is ordinarily the essence of the experiences it had in former lives, and not the details so that you cannot expect the same memory as one has of the present existence… ordinarily, it is only by yogic development or by clairvoyance that the exact memory of past lives can be brought back.”[2]

Thus, what is of real significance is not the outer details of our life but our inmost hopes and aspirations, what we deeply and truly aspired, worked and struggled for. The other and outer details have only a secondary significance. In fact, each part of us carries its own memories and it is possible for something of this to attach itself to the new formation. But by its very nature, the soul memories will be very few and they alone have the capacity to endure the tides of time. Linked with the immortal essence in us, they can outstrip death. The experience of soul memory is more as a soul state, a fleeting glimpse or an inmost feeling, beautiful and true, thrown up suddenly against the backdrop of some minor and incidental outer detail. The mind and vital catching upon that minor outer detail can well build up a romantic tale out of it. The real greatness however does not lie in our outer appearance but in our inmost aspiration, not as much in what we were or are in our outer self but much more in what we inwardly are and can become. The psychic being or the true individual soul in us is the repository of this authentic inner story, concealed often to our outer view but self-revealed and remembered by the inner eye.

What applies to the individual applies to nations and groups as well. Just like the individual, there are group souls that participate in a collective action and destiny. Born from age to age, under different forms and names, they take up the thread of the work left undone. Nations (collectivity of people in a certain clime and of a certain psychological type) are also born, rise high and then fall, only to rise again and resume the unfinished journey. The earth itself, according to the tradition of the yugas or cycles dies (since all upon it is destroyed) and is reborn. It then quickly recollects and gathers the past merits (and problems as well) to move further towards a new age.

“There is such a thing as yugadharma, the right institutions and modes of action for the age in which we live. For action depends indeed on the force of knowledge or will that is to be used, but it depends, too, on the time, the place and the vessel. Institutions that are right in one age are not right in another. Replacing social system by social system, religion by religion, civilisation by civilisation, God is perpetually leading man onwards to loftier and more embracing manifestations of our human perfectibility. When in His cosmic circling movement, He establishes some stable worldwide harmony, that is man’s Satya Yuga. When harmony falters, is maintained with difficulty, not in the nature of men, but by an accepted force or political instrument, that is his Treta. When the faltering becomes stumbling and the harmony has to be maintained at every step by a careful and laborious regulation, that is his Dwapara. When there is disintegration, and all descends in collapse and ruin, nothing can stay farther the cataclysm that is his Kali. This is the natural law of progress of all human ideas and institutions. It applies always in the mass, continually though less perfectly in the detail. One may almost say that each human religion, society, civilisation has its four Ages. For this movement is not only the most natural, but the most salutary. It is not a justification of pessimism nor a gospel of dumb fate and sorrowful annihilation. It is not, as we too often think in our attachment to the form, a melancholy law of decline and the vanity of all human achievements. If each Satya has its Kali, equally does each Kali prepare its Satya. That destruction was necessary for this creation, and the new harmony, when it is perfected, will be better than the old. But there is the weakness, there is the half success turning to failure, there is the discouragement, there is the loss of energy and faith which clouds our periods of disintegration, the apparent war, violence, ragging, tumult and trample to and fro which attends our periods of gradual creation and half-perfection. Therefore men cry out dismally and lament that all is perishing. But if they trusted in God’s Love and Wisdom, not preferring to it their conservative and narrow notions, they would rather cry out that all is being reborn.

“So much depends on Time and God’s immediate purpose that it is more important to seek out His purpose than to attach ourselves to our own nostrums. The Kala Purusha, Zeitgeist and Death Spirit, has risen to his dreadful work — lokakshayakritpravriddhas — increasing to destroy a world, and who shall stay the terror and mightiness and irresistibility of Him? But He is not only destroying the world that was, He is creating the world that shall be; it is therefore more profitable for us to discover and help what He is building than to lament and hug in our arms what He is destroying. But it is not easy to discover His drift, and we often admire too much temporary erections which are merely tents for the warriors in this Kurukshetra and take them for the permanent buildings of the future.

“The Pandits are therefore right when they make a difference between the practice of the Satya and the practice of the Kali. But in their application of this knowledge, they do not seem to me to be always wise or learned. They forget or do not know that Kali is the age for a destruction and rebirth, not for a desperate clinging to the old that can no longer be saved.” [3]

 

The Soul’s Choice

The important thing to understand here is that it is not our outer personality that is reborn but our inmost soul. Our name and form in this life to which we are so attached is nothing more than an outer contrivance put up by the soul. The real person is within, the personality is a mere mask. The word persona in fact means just that — a mask. It is this inmost person that chooses the next formation of its personality and the environment it would like to be born in, the kind of parentage, the experience it needs, etc. It is the soul that chooses our next fate and not some arbitrary force. And unlike our ignorant personality which is always seeking for pleasure and success, the soul may well choose a difficult life if it feels that is what will ensure its progress. Thus the soul inhabiting a king’s body may choose to be born as an ordinary man or a commoner in its next life.

After a long or short period of assimilative rest (depending upon whether the previous birth entailed few or many soul experiences), the soul decides about its next agenda and then waits for an opportune moment and appropriate circumstance (not with a mental knowledge but a soul-vision) to plunge again into the great evolutionary adventure. And for its further experiences it uses as much of its accumulated energy of past experiences or karma stored in the true mental, true vital and true physical, all of which are part of the psychic being. A new tale begins, a greater climb under a different form and name.

“As regards the stage at which the soul returning for rebirth enters the new body no rule can be laid down, for the circumstances vary with the individual. Some psychic beings get into relation with the birth-environment and the parents from the time of conception and determine the preparation of the personality and future in the embryo, others join only at the time of delivery, others even later on in the life and in these cases it is some emanation of the psychic being which upholds the life. It should be noted that the conditions of the future birth are determined fundamentally not during the stay in the psychic world but at the time of death — the psychic being then chooses what it should work out in the next terrestrial appearance and the conditions arrange themselves accordingly…

“The psychic being’s choice at the time of death does not work out the next formation of personality, it fixes it. When it enters the psychic world, it begins to assimilate the essence of its experience and by that assimilation is formed the future psychic personality in accordance with the fixation already made. When this assimilation is over, it is ready for a new birth; but the less developed beings do not work out the whole thing for themselves, there are beings and forces of the higher world who have that work. Also, when it comes to birth, it is not sure that the forces of the physical world will not come across the working out of what it wanted — its own new instrumentation may not be strong enough for that purpose; for, there is the interaction of its own energies and the cosmic forces here. There may be frustration, diversion, a partial working out — many things may happen. All that is not a rigid machinery, it is a working out of complex forces. It may be added, however, that a developed psychic being is much more conscious in this transition and works out much of it itself. The time depends also on the development and on a certain rhythm of the being — for some there is practically immediate rebirth, for others it takes longer, for some it may take centuries; but here, again, once the psychic being is sufficiently developed, it is free to choose its own rhythm and its own intervals.”[4]

Life therefore is a real adventure where the only things certain are the Goal and the Guide but it is up to each one to choose the path for reaching it. As is the will and faith, so is the man and so is his destiny. It is in this deepest sense that we can say that man is his faith:

श्रद्धामयोऽयं पुरुषो यो यच्छ्रद्धः स एव सः॥३॥
Whatever the nature of a man’s faith, that is the type of man he is.[5]

The Guide is the inmost soul and the sure compass in us and not the outer superficial soul of desire that misguides. The whole mystery of life is solved when this inner guide is found and we can consciously listen to it. Till then life remains a slave to the outer circumstances and inner forces.

Our destiny is written in double terms. Most of us regard the theory of karma in very outward terms. That is to say the outer actions are given predominant importance and so also the outer consequences. But just as there is a large unseen dimension of karma (the inner motives, intentions, faith, thoughts, feelings, past links, present evolution, constitution, etc. — things unseen by man but marked by the gods) so also there is a large unseen dimension of inner consequences (like inner growth, maturity, development of strength, perseverance, determination, soul growth, etc.) that often run even in seeming contradiction to the observed outer consequences.[6]

“It is not the personality, the character that is of the first importance in rebirth — it is the psychic being who stands behind the evolution of the nature and evolves with it. The psychic when it departs from the body, shedding even the mental and vital on its way to its resting place, carries with it the heart of its experiences, — not the physical events, not the vital movements, not the mental buildings, not the capacities or characters, but something essential that it gathered from them, what might be called the divine element for the sake of which the rest existed. That is the permanent addition, it is that, that helps in the growth towards the Divine. That is why there is usually no memory of the outward events and circumstances of past lives — for this memory there must be a strong development towards unbroken continuance of the mind, the vital, even the subtle physical; for though it all remains in a kind of seed memory, it does not ordinarily emerge. What was the divine element in the magnanimity of the warrior, that which expressed itself in his loyalty, nobility, high courage, what was the divine element behind the harmonious mentality and generous vitality of the poet and expressed itself in them, that remains and in a new harmony of character may find a new expression or, if the life is turned towards the Divine, be taken up as powers for the realisation or for the work that has to be done for the Divine.”[7]

Death thus seen is a means to assimilate the experiences of a particular lifetime and work out the future, much like a strategist would plan out the next day’s war when the sun sets. Death is also the final anvil on which our being is tested. All that is linked to the Divine Truth survives and continues enhancing us with each life while all that was given to the ego and its childish desire is destroyed thankfully by the dark and ruthless god. Therefore is death also a great liberator and its experience sobering to the restless desire-soul in us. All eyes we may deceive, but not the eyes of death. For there in that grim and sombre night, only the light of the soul and all that has gathered around it can survive. The rest is eaten up and swallowed by the darkness and returns to the uncertain and ambiguous fields of our collective Ignorance.

 

The Cessation of the Cycle of Birth and Death

The Ideal of Mukti/ Salvation/ Nirvana/ Moksha

Life, seen from the surface appears as a ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’[8] Few can ever escape the sting of life which is also a sting of death. Death seems to put a final seal upon the futility of all human effort. So much has this surface orientation preoccupied the human mind that even mystics and saints have declared that the only real utility of human life is to somehow find a door of escape from this impermanent, unhappy world. Called mukti in India, salvation and nirvana elsewhere, the highest goal kept for the human soul so far has been a final cessation from the cycle of birth and death and rebirth. This philosophy is based upon an obvious error that sees human birth and creation as an unfortunate accident or else the work of a dark and diabolic power before which even God stands helpless! The only solution proposed therefore is to somehow find a permanent release from the clutches of this dark mystery of God. But we do not pause to think as to what is this dark mystery. Is it a veil that the One has put upon Himself by His own choice; is it a shadow of His castaway past? Or is it a dark intrusion that is even more powerful than the One Himself, a dual being forever separate who can never meet and reconcile, only oppose and mar each other’s work? And what could possibly persuade the Almighty God to suffer a downfall or a veiling as if a captive of His own mystery. There is obviously an important link missing that we need to discover.

There is no easy answer but if it is God or the One Divine who created this universe and all else in it, then there must be a purpose in this dark mystery as well. The purpose cannot obviously be to terrorise people into seeking escape into some nirvana since then the very act of apparent bondage becomes absurd and meaningless! Were the souls not already free before creation? Then why allow a fall in the first place (if it is a fall at all) and then say, “I’m sorry, but this is a mistake. Nevertheless I will rectify it by sending my angels to help you come out of the dark void.” Karma is obviously not the force compelling the soul to assume birth for in the beginning there was no karma, nor can a cessation of karma and of birth be the last word of creation. Omar Khayyam, the great mystic, questions this in a meaningful verse:

O thou, who with pitfall and with gin,
beset the road I was to travel in,
Woulds’t thou with predestination around,
impute me for my fall to sin.

The Ideal of Divine Life and an Evolutionary Transformation

The answer comes from Sri Aurobindo. He affirms that life upon earth is not an unfortunate accident but a field of evolution of the soul and its manifestation in material terms. The cycles of death and rebirth serve a definitive purpose. This purpose is no doubt first and foremost, the growth of the individual soul within us. Having thus grown through the varied experiences of many lives, the soul arrives at a great point of departure. It is fully formed and therefore it is free, free to decide whether it wants to come back upon earth or not. It is not compelled anymore to do so since the first purpose of the cycles of death and birth are over. However it can also choose another line of development or work upon earth. This work is the transmutation of earthly life into life divine. To this we can turn later. But when can it be said that the soul has arrived at its freedom and what exactly does this freedom mean? Is this freedom only for the exceptional few or is it a state to which all would eventually arrive one day and towards which all of us are inevitably moving? Here is the Mother’s answer to this:

“The closer one is to the beginning of the formation, the closer are the reincarnations; and sometimes even, altogether at the lower level, when man is quite near the animal, it goes like this (gesture), that is, it is not unusual for people to reincarnate in the children of their children, like that, something like that, or just in the next generation. But this is always on a very primitive level of evolution, and the psychic being is not very conscious, it is in the state of formation. And as it becomes more developed, the reincarnations, as I said, are at a greater distance from one another. When the psychic being is fully developed, when it no longer needs to return to earth for its development, when it is absolutely free, it has the choice between no longer coming back to earth if it finds that its work lies elsewhere or if it prefers to remain in the purely psychic consciousness, without reincarnating; or else it can come when it wants, as it wants, where it wants, perfectly consciously. And there are those who have united with forces of a universal order and with entities of the Overmind or elsewhere, who remain all the time in the earth atmosphere and take on bodies successively for the work. This means that the moment the psychic being is completely formed and absolutely free — when it is completely formed it becomes absolutely free — it can do anything it likes, it depends on what it chooses; therefore one can’t say, ‘It will be like this, it will be like that’; it does exactly what it wants and it can even announce (that has happened), at the moment of the death of the body, what its next reincarnation will be and what it will do, and already choose what it is going to do. But before this state, which is not very frequent — it depends absolutely on the degree of development of the psychic and the hope formulated by the integral consciousness of the being — there is still the mental, vital and physical consciousness, united with the psychic consciousness; so at that moment, the moment of death, the moment of leaving the body, it formulates a hope or an aspiration or a will, and usually this decides the future life.”[9]

Life upon earth is therefore a field of growth, a great opportunity to progress, an opportunity that even the gods covet. Birth, death, rebirth, and all our struggle and pain, even deep disasters help us in this development, which for the most part takes place unconsciously (unconscious for the surface mind). A point however comes when this secret is known and the soul can then progress freely using every event and circumstance consciously as a means for its growth.


[1] Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, p. 435.
[2] Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, pp. 437, 445-46
[3] Sri Aurobindo: Essays Divine and Human, pp. 57-58
[4] Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, pp. 440-41, 444.
[5] The Gita: Ch. 17, Verse 3
[6] Refer to Appendix III: Beyond Death for the story A Dream
[7] Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, p. 452
[8] Shakespeare: Macbeth, Act V, Scene V
[9] The Mother: CWM Vol. 7, 16 March 1955, pp. 86-87

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