Death, Soul, Karma, Maya and Samsara !
Ancient rishis concluded that change was the only constant in the physical
As sentimental beings, we don't want things to end, especially if it is something we are "enjoying". Life, with its ups and downs, is something we certainly don't want to end. From experience, we know that life, once its "over", its "over" !! Not wishing "life" to finish, humans have thought long about how to make it last forever ! Immortality is the goal of most theories on life, death, soul and its place in the universe.
Day follows night, spring follows winter, famine and flood are all part of the natural order of things. Life and death were equally an essential part of this cycle. From their observations of the natural world, they found that the physical demise of an object (animal or plant) usually gave rise to new life and once that life matures, it too dies, only to give life to others.
Astounded by this cycle of life and death, they asked themselves a very fundamental question – “What is it that “lives” ?”
It can’t be the body.
After “death”, the body is still there.
hasn't gone anywhere. It is still there, as solid as it was
Yet, it no longer breaths, though there is plenty of air around it.
It no longer eats, though there is plenty of food around it.
It no longer responds to emotions, though there are plenty around it who are pouring out their emotions around it.
The body that was once fragrant and beautiful, soon becomes putrid and decays beyond recognition.
So, they reasoned, that the ever changing body cannot be what “lives”.
So what is it that “lives” ?
What "lasts" after a person dies ?
Money is soon spent.
Fame is soon forgotten.
Memories fade over time.
Empires crumble as quickly as they were made.
Karmas, actions, are spent once they have borne fruit.
If body and all that it gave rise to is "mortal", what is "immortal" ?
After much deliberation and lengthy discussion on logic and reason (read the shastras and mimansas for details) they came to a conclusion that there must be some subtle essence that resides in the body which “lives”. It is by the power of this subtle essence that the physical body moved, breathed, loved and was loving while it "lived". Once this essence leaves the body, the body is unable to do anything on its own. The subtle essence must have used the body, very much like we use a house, or a garment. It lovingly tended to this body while it lived in it, but once it abandoned it, “it” left without leaving a trace of its presence ! No emotion, no feeling or movement was left in that body. Like a discarded garment, the body was left on the floor and “it” just left !
The discarded body than became a matter for the natural world to absorb and recycle. Natural world seems to be constantly on the move and recycles everything, so it must recycle the body too ! The "resident" and the "residence" of 75 years parted with such ease ! Who is that "resident" of the body ? They named “it” – atma – the soul.
This subtle essence, atma, must live, going from body to body without changing itself. Rishis reasoned that this soul must be non-perishable. Though the “body” it inhabits decays, “it” doesn’t. Though the body it resides in is hurt, “it” is not hurt. The body it once lived in, may be burnt, but “it” does not burn. These ideas are the basis of what is expressed at length in the shastras and succinctly in the Shrimaad Bhagvad Gita.
The atma, soul, is the eternal substance that “lives” and gives “life”. Soul is the matter that pervades the universe, and yet, it is untouched by it ! It is the essence that moves from body to body, animating that which was inanimate before its arrival and will once again be inanimate once it leaves it.
But why ?
Why does a soul move from body to body ?
Why does it inhabit a body and then abandon it ?
What happens to the soul after it has left a body ?
What does the soul take with it, if anything, from its time in any particular body/ form/ species?
What prompts a soul to take up a “life”, with all its entanglements of relations and emotions ?
All these questions prompted much debate, introspections, observation, experimentation and lots and lots of meditation. These ideas are discussed in the Upanishads. Various sages, like Nichketa, are shown discussing these very ideas with such worthies as Yama - the god of Death, Brahma – God of creation and Shiva Himself !
Three main theories came into being as a result.
1) Reincarnation. Due to our karmas (actions), we are bound in an eternal cycle of birth and rebirth. The only way to escape the wheel of samsara, is to cut out unnecessary karmas and pay up the dues of past karmas without complaint. Once the balance of good and bad karmas is exhausted and becomes nil, the soul will return to its free state.
2) Maya. All that we see is an illusion ! The universe around us is transitory, and therefore “unreal”. Reality is that which does not change, no matter where or when you come to it. As the world around us is constantly changing, it cannot be “real”. If it is unreal, illusionary, that what is the reality that resides behind this illusion ? They concluded that the soul must be the reality behind this illusionary samsara. Soul is the only “real” entity.
So, what is it that “I” can feel right now ?
Just as a dream feels “real” enough to the sleeper, and causes him to laugh or cry as a result, the samsara feels “real” to the un-initiated. Once we have realised the true nature and potential of the soul, we are no longer bound in the mire of samsara. Indeed, for those who have awakened, the dream / nightmare has no more power to make them laugh / cry. Similarly, once the soul “realised” itself, is enlightened, “it” is no longer fettered by karmas or the samsara.
3) Lila. This is all part of divine play ! Being a play, it has the ups and downs, sadness and happiness, but, all this is part of the play and hence not be taken seriously. Enjoy the universe as it is, for, all the world is a stage and the universal spirit is the author, director, players, audience and the orchestra ! Enjoy !
The central tenant of these ideas is karma.
Actions performed by the body impact that body and sometimes, others around it. Often, the soul that inhabits the body leaves before the karmas have had the time to mature and bear fruit. What happens to those karmas ? Do these karmas get wasted ? Do they perish with the body ? Do they bind with the soul ? Do karmas transmigrate with the soul ? When / how can the soul break this constant migration from body to body, from this circle of life and death.
Actions performed by a soul can sometimes bear fruit in one body, sometimes, in another. Some karmas, binding different souls, in different life times, bear only fruit when all their relative karmas come together !!!! Such are the complex calculations of lives, life times, karmas and their implications !
Soul takes on a body and acts out its wishes through the body. Actions it performs, give rise to emotions. Sometimes, it’s the emotions that give rise to actions and these actions lead to further emotions ! The cycle continues !! Emotions bind the soul to the body and its actions bind it to others. Actions, performed over a lifetime, bind that soul to thousands of other souls and these actions bear fruit at different times.
Some actions, such as eating and drinking, bear fruit straight away.
Some actions, such as giving birth to a child, take months.
Some actions, such as education take years to bear fruit.
Some actions, such as building a nation, take years, beyond one or two generations.
Some actions, such as spreading an idea take several generations to bear fruit.
How is the universe held together if its so complex ? Does anyone sit in judgement over it all and makes sure its run as it should ?
The ancient seers surmised that there indeed was an overall being who was in charge of the universe, but this divine being is not involved with the day-to-day running of the universe. Just as a king does not concern himself with the daily operation of the municipal services, God does not get mired in the judgement of karmas. Once the rules and regulations are put in place, the universe will run itself. Just as the laws of gravity, once established, do not "need" anyone to monitor them, rules of karma play out without constant supervision. Like a well structured society in which everyone knows his / her place, and acts in unison for the good of the community, the universe is perfectly structured and runs by itself.
So, who rules over the soul and its transmigration ? The sages concluded that the soul is a self regulating entity and “it” bears all the karmas and their fruits. It carries these from one life time to another. Soul’s transmigration from one body to another depends on a number of factors, karma being one of them.
The other main reason is “kama / desires” or “emotions” that the soul has during a life time. These emotions lead it to one life form or another. Emotions, cultivated during a lifetime, often lead the soul to a body / life form / life style that it desired in its former life. However, karma is like a bank balance. Depending on what you have, you can either buy a small economy car, or a fast and furious sports model ! So, depending on what karmic balance the soul has, it enters the body of a beggar or a millionaire. Sometimes, a soul maybe born as a beggar due to its karmic bonds to particular set of parents, but later through its own karmas, the beggar can become a millionaire.
So, the karmas we are committing now, are they new ones, or are we paying up for
the old ones ?
When or how do we know we are creating new karmas or paying for old ones ?
We don’t know !
Most of us are not rational enough to know when we are acting or reacting. Only those who are astute enough and have clarity of mind, can truly tell when we are creating or destroying karmas and their fruits. Hence, the sages advised us not to worry too much about it. To act is your eternal duty and right, but to dwell on enjoying its fruits, is a pointless task, so don’t bother with it ! Krishna says this very elegantly in the Bhagvad Gita, – “Karmaye vadhikarestu, maphechu kadachane”.
Bound by karmas, and desires, the soul goes through the cycle of births before it decides it wants to break the cycle and “liberate” itself. To break free of this cycle, it has to start to shed its karmas and desires. Once the soul starts to loose its desires, it will start to loose its grip on the physical world. To be liberated, the soul has to finish off all its karmas, positive and negative. Once it has done this, the soul will leave the cycle of birth and death with ease.
The whole world is an illusion !
Transitory world is as unreal as the rising and setting of the Sun. Sun neither rises nor sets. From the perspective of earthlings, this may be the reality they have experienced, as the run seems to rise out of the earth and sets into the horizon. But we know the sun does not rise not set into any known horizon !
Hence, "reality" is different from different perspectives !
Does the train move or does the scene ? For those sitting in the train, it’s the scene that seems to move. To the person standing outside, it’s the train that is moving ! To an independent viewer, far above the earth, both are moving ! albeit at different speeds !!
In a universe that is filled with illusions, what is real ?
Even an illusion has to have a reality for it to mould itself on. So, what is reality ?
But first - What is "reality" ?
Reality is that which does not change. It is eternal and beyond time and space. E.g. 2 + 2 = 4. This is true, was true and will always be true. It is true whether you ask it in Chinese, Sanskrit or English. Truth is the only reality and truth is that which does not change.
The we address a person changes depending on the relationship
you have with them - Employer, employee, child, parent, friend or foe.
What a person does changes, depending on time and space - hub - husband, father, handy-man, task-master, lover, advisor etc
So, the body / person that is constantly changing cannot be "real".
Yet, something is “real” within the body.
Without that reality, the body would not be able to walk, talk or grow.
So what is that reality ?
The sages concluded that that reality is the soul !
It is this soul which gives this ever changing body the illusion of reality. Just as a puppeteer gives the illusion of "life" to the puppet, the soul gives illusion of life to the body. Once that soul leaves the body, the body slumps down like a puppet, left on the floor with no one to pull its strings.
This soul is not bound by anything. Not the physical body or its various constituents, it is not bound by the ego, mind or its vagaries, souls is not bound by emotions of love or hate, it has no pride or jealousy, “it” performs no actions and hence has no karma, the soul has no parents or relationships of any sort with anyone, the eternal soul is not afraid of birth or death ! Like the universal spirit, the soul is as immense or as minute as it wants to be. It is not bound by life, death, karma or any desires of any sort. It is eternally free !
So why does the “free” soul bind itself with the illusionary universe ? Like a person who watching a movie, knowing it to be totally false, is so absorbed by it that they laugh or cry, the soul, knowing this samsara to be totally false, is so absorbed into it, that it “feels” the pain and pleasure of the samsara. However, like the person watching a movie, the soul can switch off and leave at any point.
In this way, self-realisation is the point at which the soul remembers this universe is totally illusionary and leaves it of its own free will ! That can happen in an instance !!
While the soul is mired in the samsara, it is said to be "asleep / ignorant / delusional". Once it has realised who / what it is capable of, the soul is said to be "awakened / enlightened". An enlightened soul realises it is free and hence is unfettered by karmas or desires even if it enters a body or engages in karma or not. Like an actor, all its actions are totally “for the moment” and are not binding on the soul.
The whole world is a stage !
To see the universe as a divine lila, play, is a wonderfully bold way to see the
Some seers concluded that if the universal spirit is "real", the universe it created must also be "real".
In any case, we can feel it as real, so it must be real !
So who is behind this reality ?
The universal spirit is the reality.
It pervades the entire universe and hence this universe “feels” real.
“It” is the source of this play, its author, its director, its actor and its audience.
The singular Sun is reflected in the vastness of the ocean,
each wave carrying a slightly different image of the Sun.
The singular Sun is reflected in the rivers and streams, sparkling in the fast flowing waters as they cascade over rocks and boulders.
The singular Sun is reflected in the muddy pools by the road, its reflection dulled and sullied.
The singular Sun is reflected in the many pools, pots and cups of water sitting open under the canopy of the sky.
Does that singular Sun get affected if one of those cups spills
or a pool dries up or river changes its course or by the rise and fall of the
Whatever happens to the reflection has no impact on the Sun !
Similarly, the universal spirit that sports with its innumerable reflections is not impacted by what happens to a singular reflection. The reflection of the "real" is "unreal" and hence the life or death of the "reflection" does not affect the "reflected" !!
Like a child playing with its image in a multi faceted mirror, the universal spirit is sporting with itself in the universe. All the souls are its reflection. It is free and can start, stop or change any part of the “play” at will !!! The universal spirit is uninhabited by karmas or mired by desires. Like the innocent play of a child, the universe is immersed in the innocence of the universal spirit. It is only due to our misunderstanding the motives of the universal spirit, that we see the universe as a place of pain rather than pleasure.
Like any play, the main rule here is to enjoy !
Enjoy without being arrogant.
Enjoy without malice.
Enjoy without attachment.
Enjoy the lila of the Lord !
Remember, these are theories. Like
all theories, they are based on human experiences.
Depending on where, when and how you lived, you would have a different view on life.
Like the story of the elephant and five blind men, each describing the elephant according to his own examination.
Ancient seers / prophets / wise men / shamans from around the world, have explained amd expressed the world as they saw it.
© Bhagwat Bhagwat_s@Yahoo.com
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