From The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi
Edited by David Godman
Question:Is reincarnation true?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Reincarnation exists only so long as there is ignorance. There is really no reincarnation at all, either now or before. Nor will there be any hereafter. This is the truth.
[Note: Comments by David Godman: Most religions have constructed elaborate theories which purport to explain what happens to the individual soul after the death of the body. Some claim that the soul goes to heaven or hell while others claim that it is reincarnated in a new body.
Sri Ramana Maharshi taught that all such theories are based on the false assumption that the individual self or soul is real; once this illusion is seen through, the whole superstructure of after-life theories collapses. From the standpoint of the Self, there is no birth or death, no heaven or hell, and no reincarnation.
As a concession to those who were unable to assimilate the implications of this truth, Sri Ramana would sometimes admit that reincarnation existed. In replying to such people he would say that if one imagined that the individual self was real, then that imaginary self would persist after death and that eventually it would identify with a new body and a new life. The whole process, he said, is sustained by the tendency of the mind to identify itself with a body. Once the limiting illusion of mind is transcended, identification with the body ceases, and all theories about death and reincarnation are found to be inapplicable.]
Question: Can a yogi know his past lives?
Maharshi: Do you know the present life that you wish to know the past? Find the present, then the rest will follow. Even with our present limited knowledge, you suffer so much. Why should you burden yourself with more knowledge? Is it to suffer more?
When seen through the sight of the supreme space of Self, the illusion of taking birth in this mirage-like false world is found to be nothing but the egotistical ignorance of identifying a body as "I". Among those whose minds are possessed with forgetfulness of Self, those who are born will die and those who die will be born again. But know that those whose minds are dead, having known the glorious Supreme Reality, will remain only there in that elevated state of reality, devoid of both birth and death. Forgetting Self, mistaking the body for Self, taking innumerable births, and at last knowing Self and being Self is just like waking from a dream of wandering all over the world.
Question: How long does it take a man to be reborn after death? Is it immediately after death or some time later?
Maharshi: You do not know what you were before birth, yet you want to know what you will be after death. Do you know what you are now?
Birth and rebirth pertain to the body. You are identifying the Self with the body. It is a wrong identification. You believe that the body has been born and will die, and confound the phenomena relating to the body with the Self. Know your real being and these questions will not arise.
Births and rebirths are mentioned only to make you investigate the question and find out that there are neither births nor rebirths. They relate to the body and not to the Self. Know the Self and don’t be perturbed by doubts.
Question: Do not one’s actions affect the person in later births?
Maharshi: Are you born now? Why do you think of other births? The fact is that there is neither birth nor death. Let him who is born think of death and palliatives for it.
Question: What happens to a person after death?
Maharshi: Engage yourself in the living present. The future will take care of itself. Do not worry about the future. The state before creation and the process of creation are dealt with in the scriptures in order that you may know the present. Because you say you are born, therefore they say, yes, and add that God created you.
But do you see God or anything else in your sleep? If God is real, why does he not shine forth in your sleep also? You always are, you are the same now as you were in sleep. You are not different from that one in sleep. But why should there be differences in the feelings or experiences of the two states?
Did you ask, while asleep, questions regarding your birth? Did you then ask ‘Where do I go after death?’ Why think of all these questions now in the waking state? Let what is born think of its birth and the remedy, its cause and ultimate results.
Question: What becomes of the Jiva (Individual soul) after death?
Maharshi: The question is not appropriate for a Jiva now living. A dead Jiva may ask me, if he wishes to. In the meantime let the embodied Jiva solve its present problem and find who he is. Then there will be an end to such doubts.
Question: Is the Buddhist view, that there is no continuous entity answering to the ideas of the individual soul, correct or not? Is this consistent with the Hindu notion of a reincarnating ego? Is the soul a continuous entity which reincarnates again and again, according to the Hindu doctrine, or is it a mere mass of mental tendencies- samskaras?
Maharshi: The real Self is continuous and unaffected. The reincarnating ego belongs to the lower plane, namely, thought. It is transcended by Self-realisation.
Reincarnations are due to a spurious offshoot. Therefore they are denied by the Buddhists. The present state of ignorance is due to the identification of consciousness (chit) with the insentient (jada) body.
Question: Do not we go to heaven (svarga) as the result of our actions?
Maharshi: That is as true as the present existence. But if we enquire who we are and discover the Self, what need is there to think of heaven?
Question: Should I not try to escape rebirth?
Maharshi: Yes. Find out who is born and who now has the trouble of existence. When you are asleep do you think of rebirths or even the present existence? So find out from where the present problem arises and in that place you will find the solution. You will discover that there is no birth, no present trouble or unhappiness. The Self is all and all is bliss. Even now we are free from rebirth so why fret over the misery of it?
Ouestion: Is there rebirth?
Maharshi: Do you know what birth is?
Questioner: Oh yes, I know that I exist now, but I want to know if I’ll exist in the future.
Maharshi: Past!…Present!… Future!….
Questioner: Yes, today is the result of yesterday, the past, and tomorrow. The future, will be the result of today, the present. Am I right?
Maharshi: There is neither past nor future. There is only the present. Yesterday was the present to you when you experienced it, and tomorrow will be also the present when you experience it. Therefore, experience takes place only in the present, and beyond experience nothing exists.
Question: Are the past and future mere imagination?
Maharshi: Yes, even the present is mere imagination, for the sense of time is purely mental. Space is similarly mental. Therefore birth and rebirth, which take place in time and space, cannot be other than imagination.
Question: What is the cause of tanha, the thirst for life and the thirst for rebirth?
Maharshi: Real rebirth is dying from the ego into the spirit. This is the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus. Whenever identification with the body exists, a body is always available, whether this or any other one, till the body-sense disappears by merging into the source – the spirit, or Self. The stone which is projected upwards remains in constant motion till it returns to its source, the earth, and rests. Headache continues to give trouble, till the pre-headache state is regained.
Thirst for life is inherent in the very nature of life, which is absolute existence – sat. Although indestructible by nature, by false identification with its destructible instrument, the body consciousness imbibes a false apprehension of its destructibility. Because of that false identification it tries to perpetuate the body, and that results in a succession of rebirths. But however long these bodies may last, they eventually come to an end and yield to the Self, which alone eternally exists.
Questioner: Yes, "Give up thy life if thou wouldst live", says the Voice of the Silence of H.P.Blavatsky.
Maharshi: Give up the false identification and remember, the body cannot exist without the Self, whereas the Self can exist without the body. In fact it is always without it.
Questioner: A doubt has just now arisen in a friend of mine’s mind. She has just heard that a human being may take an animal birth in some other life, which is contrary to what Theosophy has taught her.
Maharshi: Let him who takes birth ask this question. Find out first who it is that is born, and whether there is actual birth and death. You will find that birth pertains to the ego, which is an illusion of the mind.
Question: Is it possible for a man to be reborn as a lower animal?
Maharshi: Yes. It is possible, as illustrated by Jada Bharata – the scriptural anecdote of a royal sage having been reborn as a deer.
Question: Is the individual capable of spiritual progress in an animal body?
Maharshi: Not impossible, though it is exceedingly rare. It is not true that birth as a man is necessarily the highest, and that one must attain realisation only from being a man. Even an animal can attain Self-realisation.
Question: Theosophy speaks of fifty to 10,000 year intervals between death and rebirth. Why is this so?
Maharshi: There is no relation between the standard of measurements of one state of consciousness and another. All such measurements are hypothetical. It is true that some individuals take more time and some less. But it must be distinctly understood that it is no soul which comes and goes, but only the thinking mind of the individual, which makes it appear to do so. On whatever plane the mind happens to act, it creates a body for itself; in the physical world a physical body and in the dream world a dream body which becomes wet with dream rain and sick with dream disease.
After the death of the physical body, the mind remains inactive for some time, as in dreamless sleep when it remains worldless and therefore bodyless. But soon it becomes active again in a new world and a new body – the astral – till it assumes another body in what is called a ‘rebirth’. But the jnani, the Self-realised man, whose mind has already ceased to act, remains unaffected by death. The mind of the jnani has ceased to exist; it has dropped never to rise again to cause births and deaths. The chain of illusions has snapped forever for him.
It should now be clear that there is neither real birth, nor real death. It is the mind which creates and maintains the illusion of reality in this process, till it is destroyed by Self-realisation.
Question: Does not death dissolve the individuality of a person, so that there can be no rebirth, just as the rivers discharged into the ocean lose their individualities?
Maharshi: But when the waters evaporate and return as rain on the hills, they once more flow in the form of rivers and fall into the ocean. So also the individualities during sleep lose their separateness and yet return as individuals according to their samskaras, or past tendencies. It is the same after death – the individuality of the person with samskaras is not lost.
Question: How can that be?
Maharshi: See how a tree whose branches have been cut grows again. So long as the roots of the tree remain unimpaired, the tree will continue to grow. Similarly, the samskaras (past tendencies) which have merely sunk in the Heart on death, but have not perished for that reason, occasion rebirth at the right time. That is how Jivas (individual souls) are reborn.
Question: How could the innumerable Jivas and the wide universe which they produce sprout up from such subtle samskaras sunk in the Heart?
Maharshi: Just as the big banyan tree sprouts from a tiny seed, so do the Jivas and the whole universe with name and form sprout up from the subtle samskaras.
Question: How does the Jiva (individual soul) transfer from one body to another?
Maharshi: When one begins to die, hard breathing sets in; that means that one has become unconscious of the dying body. The mind at once takes hold of another body, and it swings to and fro between the two, until attachment is fully transferred to the new body. Meanwhile there are occasional violent breaths, and that means that the mind swings back to the dying body. The transitional state of the mind is somewhat like a dream.
Question: How long is the interval between one’s death and reincarnation?
Maharshi: It may be long or short. But a jnani (Self-realised man) does not undergo any such changes; he merges into the universal being.
Some say that those who after death pass into the path of light are not reborn, whereas those who after death take the path of darkness are reborn after they have enjoyed the fruits of karma in their subtle bodies.
Some say that if one’s merits and demerits are equal, they are directly reborn here. Merits outweighing demerits, the subtle bodies go to heaven and are then reborn here; demerits outweighing merits, they go to hells and are afterwards reborn here.
A Yogabrashta (one who has slipped from the path of yoga) is said to fare in the same manner. All these are described in the sastras (scriptures). But in fact, there is neither birth nor death. One remains only as what one really is. This is the only truth.
Question: I find this very confusing. Are both births and rebirths ultimately unreal?
Maharshi: If there is birth there must be not only one rebirth but a whole succession of births. Why and how did you get this birth? For the same reason and in the same manner you must have succeeding births. But if you ask who has the birth and whether birth and death are for you or for somebody distinct from you, then you realise the truth and the truth burns up all karmas and frees you from all births. The books graphically describe how all would take countless lives to exhaust, is burnt up by one little spark of jnana (spiritual knowledge), just as a mountain of gunpowder will be blown up by a single spark of fire. It is the ego that is the cause of all the world and of the countless sciences whose researches are so great as to baffle description, and if the ego is dissolved by enquiry all this immediately crumbles and the reality or Self alone remains.
Question: Do you mean to say that I was never even born?
Maharshi: Yes, you are now thinking that you are the body and therefore confuse yourself with its birth and death. But you are not the body and you have no birth and death.
Question: So you do not uphold the theory of rebirth?
Maharshi: No. On the other hand I want to remove your confusion that you will be reborn. It is you who think that you will be reborn.
See for whom the question arises. Unless the questioner is found, such questions can never finally be answered.