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Rebirth According to the Bhagavad-gita; Epistemology, Ontology and Ethics

Saturday, 01 December 2018 / Published in Articles / 2,042 views

By Ishvara Krishna Das (Dr Ithamar Theodor)
Department of Religion and Spirituality, Zefat Academic College, Safed 1320610, Israel

Abstract: This paper is engaged with the topic of reincarnation in the Bhagavad gītā, better termed “rebirth”. It first looks into the epistemological aspects of rebirth, and highlights the type of knowledge or terminology underlying the vision of rebirth, as opposed to a different type of knowledge that is not suitable for this purpose, and which leads to a different vision of reality. It then looks into the ontological aspects of rebirth, and having highlighted some Upaniṣadic sources, it highlights major Bhagavad gītā sections describing the soul and rebirth. Finally, it looks into the ethics derived from the concept of rebirth; it first characterizes these as “ethics of equanimity”, and then expands these into the “ethics of enlightened action”, which refer to action grounded in the idea of rebirth.


In a previous work, I have offered the metaphor of a three-storey house in order to describe the structure of the Bhagavad gītā (Theodor 2010, p. 5). Accordingly, the Bhagavad gītā1 is divided into three metaphysical tiers or layers that could each be described in terms of epistemology, ontology and ethics. The lower level is humanistic and may be termed “the world of dharma“; the second level is spiritualistic and may be termed “the world of yoga”, and the third level is liberated and may be termed “the world of mokṣa“. The aim of this paper is to expand upon the middle level, which is grounded in the concept of rebirth or reincarnation. It aims at highlighting the epistemology or type of knowledge in which the idea of rebirth is grounded in the Bhagavad gītā (Bhg), and then looking at the ontology of the self or soul, which forms the foundation of rebirth. Finally, it aims at highlighting the type of ethics derived from the concept of rebirth, which is the ethics of equanimity.2
In general, while Hinduism does not necessarily denote a religion with clearly defined boundaries, it nevertheless denotes a group of traditions united by certain common features, such as shared ritual patterns, shared revelation, belief in reincarnation (saṁsāra), liberation (mokṣa), and a particular form of endogamous social organization or cast (Flood 2003, p. 2). The Bhagavad gītā is one of the central doctrinal texts for Hinduism, and serves as a major source for doctrines and ideas concerning reincarnation. It is one of the three founding texts of the Vedānta tradition, known as prasthānatrayī, along with the Brahmasūtra and the Upaniṣads. The Bhg propounds, among other things, doctrines underlying the Vedānta traditions, of which the concept of reincarnation is central. In examining the topic of reincarnation or rebirth, the terms used by the Bhg to indicate the transmigrating entity may be examined; these are dehin, śarīrin, dehabhṛt, dehavat, and kalevera. All of these terms indicate a soul clearly distinct from its material body (Goswami 2015, p. 50). One may also look into the term bhūta, whose origin is in the verbal root bhū, which means to be, but also often means to become. In this sense, bhūta means one who has come-to-be, i.e., one who has become. The Bhg makes clear early on that the individual souls have always existed. Thus, what comes to be is not the soul itself, but rather the soul’s ephemeral persona, produced when the soul enters the body. A different way of stating this would be to say that bhūta arises when matter and spirit combine (Goswami 2015, p. 48).

1. Epistemology

Before entering the topic of reincarnation, we would like to look into the underlying epistemological assumptions, as epistemology is engaged with the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope (Pearsall 1998, p. 620), which may be relevant for our study. The Bhg defines three categories of knowledge. The first category is that by which the soul is to be understood, whereas the second and third categories are not conducive for the discussion of the soul and reincarnation:

18. 19 Knowledge, action and the agent are indeed of three kinds, divided according to the guṇas; hear now how is this division depicted through the guṇa doctrine. 20 Know that knowledge to be of the nature of goodness, through which one sees a single imperishable reality in all beings, unified in the diversified. 21 Know that knowledge to be of the nature of passion, through which one sees through division a variegated reality of many sorts in all beings. 22 Knowledge that attaches one to one kind of activity, as if it were all, which is not based on a reasonable cause, which does not aim at the truth, and which is minute and meagre, is said to be of the nature of darkness
Apparently, the first category of knowledge, which is defined as sattvic or transparent, is the relevant category. As such, according to this type of knowledge, the varieties of bodies seem secondary to the reality of the soul or self, which seems primary. As opposed to this category, according to the second category or type of knowledge, which is defined as rajasic or passionate, the varieties of bodies seem primary, whereas the soul seems secondary. The third type of knowledge, which is the tamasic or dark, is the lowest or most obscure; as such, it obscures the ability to see or to understand the soul and its reality, and is the least relevant for the study of the soul and rebirth. The present discussion may be approached from a different point of view, which considers: how does the self reflect upon itself when it thinks in terms of the first or sattvic category, or what kind of knowledge of itself does it have? In other words, the idea of the self implies a kind of detached vision, according to which one examines the working of the body from an external point of view. The Bhg offers a reflective vision according to which one thinks of oneself as detached from the body and mind, which are in actuality operated by prakṛti, or nature:

5. 7 He who is absorbed in yoga, who is a pure soul, who is self-controlled and has subdued his senses, and who is deeply related to all living beings, is never defiled even though he acts. 8–9 ‘I am not really doing anything’, reflects the knower of the truth absorbed in yoga. While seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, walking, sleeping, breathing, evacuating, receiving, opening or closing his eyes, he meditates and considers all these as nothing but the senses acting among their sense objects
As opposed to this detached self-reflection, which is grounded in the first or sattvic type of knowledge, one would think of himself differently while seeing through the rajasic or second category of knowledge.
3. 27 Although actions in every respect are performed by the guṇas of material nature, the spirit soul, confused by the ego thinks: “It is actually me who is the doer”
Apparently, this vision of oneself as the doer of actions is the rajasic vision, and it expands into a system of knowledge that identifies the self with the body, gross or subtle, as opposed to the sattvic vision, which expands into a system of knowledge that sees the self as a detached entity residing in the body but not directly operating it. This may raise the question of what is the differentiating element between the two types of knowledge, or wording the question differently: how is it that one person sees the self as detached from the body and mind, whereas another person sees the self as identical with the body and mind? The Bhg addresses this question and considers lust or kāma to be the degrading force, i.e. that which, when absent, determines whether one is able to maintain a dispassionate vision of reality, and when present, clouds one’s knowledge in such a way, so that the vision of the detached self is lost and replaced by the vision of the body and mind as the self.
3. 36 Arjuna said: What is it that impels one to commit evil, even against his will, as if driven by force, O descendent of Vṛṣṇi? 37 The blessed Lord said: It is lust, it is anger, originating from the passion-guṇa, and it is the great evil and the great devourer; know that to be the enemy. 38 As fire is obscured by smoke, as a mirror is covered by dust, and as the embryo is enveloped in the womb, so the living being is obscured by lust. 39 This eternal enemy covers even the wise one’s knowledge, O Kaunteya, having taken the form of this insatiable fire—lust. 40 It is said to abide in the senses, the mind and the intelligence; through these it deludes the embodied soul and clouds its knowledge.
Considering the removal of lust, the cloud that obscures the knowledge of rebirth, the question may be raised: what is the self’s role in the process of knowing? Apparently, the self is manifested in the knowing operation itself, and could be considered as self-manifesting or self-revealing (sva-prakāśa). The existence of the self can thus be perceived by its self-luminous nature. The self is the cognizer of the objects only in the sense that under certain conditions of the operation of the mind, there is the mind-object contact through a particular sense, and, as the result thereof, this object appears in consciousness (Dasgupata 2000, p. 69). As such, ideas of the mind, concepts, volitions, and emotions appear in consciousness and themselves appear as conscious states, as consciousness seems to be a natural and normal character of a person.
The Bhg indirectly speaks of knowledge, as seeing when it states that the soul possesses knowledge by nature (jñānin), but that ignorance covers or conceals it. Thus, five times in the Bhg it is stated that knowledge is covered or concealed (āvṛtam): by lust and anger3, by one’s eternal enemy lust4, by “unknowledge” (ajñāna) or ignorance5, and by darkness6. Light discovers what darkness covers, thus by dispelling the world’s darkness. The sun enables one to see, and as such the Bhg twice compares knowledge in the sense of awareness to the sun; when knowledge destroys ignorance, then that knowledge, like the sun, illumines all around it7. Just as one single sun illumines this entire world, so the knowing soul, owner of the field representing the body, illumines the entire field with consciousness8. Nature’s lower guṇas of rajas and tamas cover the soul’s innate knowledge, but in contrast, the highest guṇa of virtue or goodness (sattva) permits the light of knowledge to shine, enabling one to actually see. Thus, four verses explicitly link virtue or goodness to higher knowledge: goodness, being unsullied, enlightens9; when all the body’s gates (senses) are illumined, when there is knowledge, then one should know that goodness prospers10; when the converse occurs—when there is no light- , then the darkness mode prospers11; indeed, the light of knowledge symphonizes virtue12 (Goswami 2015, pp. 99–100).

2. Ontology

Having offered this epistemological discussion, we may look deeper into the various aspects highlighting the nature of the soul or self. In general, the Bhg no doubt shares the vision according to which the universe is perceived as a place of constant rebirth:

8. 16 All the worlds, up to Brahmā’s world, are subject to repeated births
Under Karmic laws, the soul in different bodies cycles through a universe that itself moves in endless cycles. On earth, one may observe cycles of days, night, and seasons, based on the cyclical motions of the earth, sun, moon, and other celestial bodies. The Bhg teaches that the entire universe, and the countless souls that populate it, move through grand cycles of cosmic creation and dissolution (Goswami 2015, p. 18). In doing that, it adopts the visions of both Vedānta and Sāṇkhya traditions by associating itself with both classical Sāṇkhya and the Brahmasūtra:

13. 1 The blessed Lord said: This body is known as the field, O Kaunteya, and one who knows it, is declared by the wise to be the knower of the field. 2 You should know me as the knower of the field as well, situated in all fields, O Bhārata. I deem knowledge of the field and of the knower of the field to be knowledge indeed. 3 Hear from me in summary what this field and its nature is, how it transforms and comes into being, who the knower of the field is, and what his powers are. 4 Seers have chanted this in many Vedic hymns in varied ways, as well as in the Brahmasūtra aphorisms, all of them authoritative and well-substantiated. 5–6 The great elements, the concept of ego, the intelligence and the unmanifest, the ten senses and the additional sense, the five sense objects, attraction and repulsion, happiness and distress, the aggregate, consciousness and inner conviction—all serve to sum up the nature of the field and its transformations
Apparently, the author of the Bhg is drawing on teachings that were current in certain philosophical schools that made the ontological distinction between a mortal body and an immortal entity functioning as the owner of the mortal body. Ownership was based upon the idea of transmigration, or rather re-embodiment, characteristic of the older Upaniṣads and early Sāṁkhya philosophy. Upaniṣadic ideas are recalled when death is described as a chance to acquire a new body and compared with ‘weaving a new cloth’ (BĀU13 4.4.5; cf. BhG 2.22). Sāṁkhya notions seem to be behind the emphasis of the transformational character of physical existence, such as the change between appearance (birth), disappearance (death), and various modifications in between (vikāra). This terminology is used in Bhg 2.25, when the immortal being is described as being the opposite of the products of nature (prakṛti): it is ‘unmanifest’ (avyakta), ‘unthinkable’ (acintya), ‘not modifiable’ (avikārya). Another connection with Sāṁkhya is established by emphasizing that death is not ‘non-being’ (asat), but only a change in appearance, because nothing that (truly) is (sat) can vanish into non-being (asat) (Malinar 2007, p. 66). As the idea of the soul or the self (ātman, jīva) is grounded in the Upaniṣads, before looking into the Bhg’s descriptions of the soul and the way it transmigrates from body to body, some Upaniṣadic sources may be quoted.
The Chāndogya Upaniṣad is one of the oldest and best known of the Upaniṣads; many important teachings are contained in it (Radhakrishnan and Moore 1989, p. 64), such as the statement:

7 Now, people here whose behavior is pleasant can expect to enter a pleasant womb, like that of a woman of the Brahmin, the Kṣatriya, or the Vaiśya class. But people of foul behavior can expect to enter a foul womb, like that of a dog, a pig or an outcast woman. Chāndogya Upaniṣad 5.10.7
The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad is one of the later Upaniṣads; in it, some of the ideas of the Sāṁkhya and Yoga philosophies—both of which are dualistic systems—and of Advaita (non-dualism) find clear expression (Radhakrishnan and Moore 1989, p. 89). The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, 5.9. offers a somewhat physical description of the soul’s size:

When the tip of a hair is split into a hundred parts, and one of those parts further into a hundred parts, the individual soul (jīva), on the one hand, is the size of one such part, and, on the other, it partakes of infinity
The Kaṭha Upaniṣad is perhaps the most philosophical of the Upaniṣads. Among its important features are: the dialogue between Nachiketas and Yama (the god of the world of departed spirits) on the question of the immortality of the self, in which Nachiketas chooses knowledge above all worldly blessings; the theory of the superiority of the good (śreyas) over the pleasant (preyas); the view that the ātman cannot be known by the senses, by reason, or by much learning, but only by intuitive insights or direct realizations; the doctrine of the body as the chariot of the self (Radhakrishnan and Moore 1989, pp. 42–43). The Kaṭha Upaniṣad indeed includes some important statements that later appear in a similar version in the Bhg:

2. 18 The wise one—he is not born, he does not die; he has not come from anywhere; he has not become anyone. He is unborn and eternal, primeval and everlasting. And he is not killed, when the body is killed. 19 If the killer thinks that he kills; If the killed thinks that he is killed; Both of them fail to understand. He neither kills, nor is he killed. 20 Finer than the finest, larger than the largest, is the self (ātman) that lies here hidden in the heart of the living being. Without desires and free from sorrow, a man perceives by the creator’s grace the grandeur of the self. Sitting down, he roams afar. Lying down, he goes everywhere. The god ceaselessly exulting—Who, besides me, is able to know? 22 When he perceives this immense, all pervading self, as bodiless within bodies, as stable within unstable beings—A wise man ceases to grieve. 23 This self cannot be grasped, by teachings or by intelligence, or even by great learning. Only the man he chooses can grasp him, whose body this self chooses as his own. 24 Not a man who has not quit his evil ways; Nor a man who is not calm or composed; Nor even a man who is without a tranquil mind; could ever secure it by his mere wit. 25 For who the Brahmin and the Kṣatriya are both like a dish of boiled rice; and death is like the sprinkled sauce; Who truly knows where he is?
Upaniṣads are emphatic in their declaration that the two are one and the same. But what is the inmost essence of a human being? It seems that the term “self” itself involves some ambiguity, as it is used in a variety of senses. As such, the Upaniṣads deconstruct the human person into various layers, pointing at the pure self as the innermost essence of the human and apparently the non-human person. Thus, so far, one consists of the essence of food (i.e. the physical parts of men); he is called annamaya. But behind the sheath of this body, there is the other self that consists of the vital breath, which is called the self as vital breath (prāṇamaya ātman). Behind this again, there is the other self (consisting of will) called the manomaya ātman). This again contains within it the self “consisting of consciousness”, called the vijñānamaya ātman. But behind it, we come to the final essence; the self as pure bliss (the ānandamaya ātman) (Dasgupata 2000, p. 46). As mentioned, the Bhg not only adopts the vision of the Vedānta tradition, but also the dualistic vision of Sāṇkhya as well. Accordingly, the world represents a mixture of the living entity with nature, or puruṣa and prakṛti. As such, there are eight elements comprising nature, and besides them exist the spirit souls:

4. 7 Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intellect and ego—these eight comprise my separated lower nature. 5 But you should know that beside this lower nature, O mighty-armed one, there is another higher nature of mine, comprised of spirit souls, by which this world is sustained

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