Reincarnation — Keystone of the Spiritual Life

Is there a perfect design underlying the confusion and suffering of this world?

Is there a perfect design underlying the confusion and suffering of this world?

 

The scripture reading today is on reincarnation. I suspect it’s a subject we’re all interested in – especially if someone whose insight we trust has told us who we might have been in a former life – and especially if we were somebody interesting.

Of course, the odds of our having been more interesting in a previous life than we are now are not terribly great!

But for some people, the concept of reincarnation presents a major stumbling block to their acceptance of the teachings of Self-realization. Yet reincarnation is an absolutely fundamental and profoundly important feature of the spiritual life.

Reincarnation plays a central role in the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda. And in Jesus’ time, reincarnation was universally accepted as true – it was not a subject to be hotly debated. As Paramhansa Yogananda points out in his Bible commentaries, the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that Jesus spoke of reincarnation as a fact.

It was not until two or three hundred years after Jesus died that the church authorities decided to remove anything in the scriptures that touched on reincarnation, believing that if people felt they had many lives to improve, they might not make a sufficient effort now.

In the lives of the masters, there’s always a conflict between his original teachings, which pose a tremendous challenge, and people’s desire to whittle them down to a more comfortable level.

Swamiji said that he doubted many of us could have endured living in close proximity to Paramhansa Yogananda. When someone at Ananda would manifest a negative attitude or quality, he would sometimes say, “That quality could never have endured around Master.”

Meaning that the person wouldn’t have been able to cling to that delusion, in the presence of the blazing divine light that Master radiated, and that would expose their faults and weaknesses in stark detail.

The masters simply aren’t interested in supporting people in their delusions. And perhaps the greatest example is the story of Judas, which has been greatly misunderstood through the centuries.

People have held Judas up as history’s greatest villain – to be a Judas is to be capable of the worst kind of treachery. But what very few Christians have understood is that Judas was a saint of tremendous realization, and one of Jesus’ closest and most beloved disciples.

At least one ancient text suggests that on the eve of Judas’ betrayal, Jesus gave him loving counsel, telling him that although he would have to go through these events, he was nevertheless very dear to him, and one of his most spiritually advanced disciples.

(This ancient account is described in Reading Judas – The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, by biblical scholars Elaine Pagels of Yale and Karen L. King of Harvard.)

Paramhansa Yogananda said that Jesus appeared to Sri Ramakrishna in the late 1800s and asked him to free Judas. Yogananda said that he actually met Judas later on, in the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharshi.

Paramhansa Yogananda on right, with Ramana Maharshi and the author Paul Brunton. (Video clip; click to enlarge)

Paramhansa Yogananda on right, with Ramana Maharshi and the author Paul Brunton. (Video clip; click to enlarge)

Judas was finally able to expiate his great sin. But, quite apart from the hope-inspiring message of the story, that we can overcome even the worst of our karma in time, there’s an important lesson to be drawn from it, about the nature of the relationship between master and disciple.

Judas’ error was born of a delusion that he fell into, when he began to feel that he knew better than Jesus how his mission should unfold.

Because Jesus was a perfect expression of God’s consciousness, he could never be swayed from completing his mission as God intended. But Judas had his own ideas about how the teachings could be spread most effectively.

He was concerned with the opinion of the people of wealth and power, and he wanted Jesus to cultivate their favor, so that they would support his mission. But Jesus wasn’t the slightest bit interested in compromising the teachings to make them acceptable to the rich and powerful.

Judas became so enamored of his ideas that he tried to maneuver Jesus into a position where he would be forced to reveal his spiritual greatness. This was the reason for his great betrayal – that he had gotten it into his head that if the Roman soldiers would arrest Jesus, he would have to reveal himself as the Messiah, and that it would be an effective way to spread the work.

Judas had become impatient with Jesus’ teachings about the need for humility and the annihilation of the ego, because he felt they wouldn’t be acceptable to those in power, and he felt that Jesus needed to win them over by giving them a great demonstration that would prove he was the Messiah.

It was a terrible mistake, and it showed that Judas had failed to understand the real nature of Jesus’ mission. He had allowed himself to fall into the error of following his own reason, instead of humbly and receptively attuning his consciousness to the master’s.

It was a frighteningly easy trap to fall into. Judas began to think, “Jesus’ teachings are too otherworldly. We need to get the people in power on our side, and he needs to impress them by letting them see his spiritual stature.”

Meanwhile, Jesus knew that the work would unfold according to God’s will – not by enlisting the powers of this world, but by the divine light spreading from heart to heart.

Judas’ plan was bound to fail, because it is the greatest folly for the disciple to try to dictate to the master. And the reason Judas hung himself after Jesus was crucified is that he realized his great error and bitterly repented. And then he had to spend almost twenty centuries working to overcome the tendencies that had led him into that error, and to find the right understanding that would allow him to be freed.

Now, the reason Jesus taught about reincarnation is that it is simply a fact of God’s creation. And it’s extremely important for us to accept the role of reincarnation in our path to ultimate perfection. Because otherwise, it’s possible to draw some very wrong conclusions about the spiritual life.

If we believe that we have only this one life to live, we may conclude that there cannot possibly be a merciful God – otherwise, why must innocent people so often suffer terrible injustices? What possible fairness could there be in that?

What hope can we have of our own perfection, if we have only this one short life to achieve it? Consider how hard it is to overcome one or two small faults in our nature, and how many of us die without succeeding.

Think of the innocent children who die of dread diseases without having a chance to work for their salvation.

Consider how often evil people appear to get away with their crimes, without suffering the consequences in this life. And think of the criminals who die peacefully in their beds, seemingly without ever being punished.

There’s no denying that there are people living on this earth who feel that it’s their perfect right to take advantage of others, and to subject them to terrible treatment in order to extract an advantage for themselves.

It’s obvious that we’re living in a world that is very unfair. And how can we speak of a just and loving God?

These are some of the considerations that have led intelligent people to become atheists. Because if we look at the world from the perspective of reason and logic, and if we assume that we only have this one life, what other conclusion could we arrive at, than to think that if God exists, He must be a very cruel and indifferent being?

Let’s face it, this world is a miserable place. And yes, of course there are moments of great beauty, but they don’t outweigh the ugliness and suffering.

I had a friend who was a mathematician, and he told me that it had helped him come onto the spiritual path.

In mathematics, everything must be resolved in a balanced and beautiful way. In fact, this principle is so widely accepted that if the answer you arrive at isn’t elegant and beautiful and balanced, the sophisticated mathematician knows that it cannot be true.

Math looks at the laws of the universe at a certain level, and those laws are beautifully balanced and harmonious. And because my friend saw that there are no ugly aberrations in the laws of mathematics, they must reflect the higher laws of Spirit that govern all creation.

The spiritual law is perfect, although those of us who are still far from perfect must struggle hard to align ourselves with the higher law.

As Swami pointed out, many scientists who claim to be perfectly impersonal and objective in their work are perfectly capable of flying off the handle and becoming very emotional when their ideas are challenged.

We are all apt to become emotionally attached to our pet theories and prejudices. Because it’s only those who’ve gained a measure if inner detachment who can remain calmly unshaken in the face of challenges that would be very upsetting to the average person.

Swami told the story of an archeologist who had devoted his entire professional life to a theory about how a certain Mediterranean civilization had developed. And when he found artifacts that contradicted his theory, he moved them to a lower stratum, because he couldn’t bear to see his theory contradicted.

The poor archaeologist was suddenly confronted with facts that didn’t support the beautiful theory on which he had staked his reputation, and he couldn’t bear the truth, so he tried to hide it.

This is why it takes time to work on ourselves, and why one life is very far from long enough.

Here in the West, we have the strange idea that our feelings should fall in line with the cool calculations of logic, and that our emotions should be under the control of the rational mind. But as Swami pointed out, the human reality is that reason tends to support whatever feeling is uppermost in our hearts.

It’s why, when we have a hankering for ice cream, we find it extremely easy to come up with any number of logical reasons why we should go out for a quart of Haagen-Dazs.

Patanjali

Patanjali

It’s why Patanjali defined yoga as the neutralization of the vortices of emotional feeling in the heart. Because it’s those restless feelings that keep us from realizing the highest truth, which can only be experienced in the absolute stillness of deep meditation. And the Indian scriptures tell us that the process of freeing the heart from those vortices of restless feeling is a long and arduous one.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells us that a master doesn’t have to resort to careful reasoning to know that we’ve had many lives. By calming the restless vibrations of his heart, a master has expanded his consciousness to an extent that allows him to see his own and others’ past lives. As Krishna tells his disciple Arjuna, “The difference between you and me is that you don’t remember your past lives, but I do.”

The fact is that our past lives are constantly influencing our present actions, even if we aren’t aware of it.

We take an instant liking to someone we’ve met for the first time. And we give birth to a child that we’re certain we’ve known before.

People fall in love, and their beautiful love lasts a lifetime. And it’s because they’ve worked on the relationship in other lives, and they’re just starting up where they left off.

Why does God obliterate our memories of past lives? Because we can barely contend with this life, much less deal with the countless joys and sorrows of many lives.

We can barely keep our feelings and relationships straight this time around. Because there’s a tremendous amount to cope with, as we try to figure out who we are and what we’re feeling, and how it all fits with someone else’s feelings and needs and realities. And if we had to deal with the memories of our past lives, it would overwhelm us.

Perhaps you were enemies in the past, and now he’s your father, or she’s your mother, or your baby, or your spouse. And the purpose of coming back to the same issues is so that you can work on them, and resolve them with greater experience, and with God’s help.

Maybe there are two devotees living in the same ashram, and you love the one but you can’t stand the other.

That’s what happened to me in my early years at Ananda. I had two friends of former lives, and I loved one of them dearly, and I couldn’t stand the other. And I can firmly and truthfully state that my former enemy and I were friends in this life, even though we had a terrible time getting along. Because we were absolutely united in our spiritual commitment. Our values were exactly the same, but this friend had been an enemy, and it was extremely exasperating to me that I couldn’t extricate myself from the memory of our having been bitter foes in the past.

There was nothing in this life to support the feeling – on the face of it, there was no obvious reason why we shouldn’t be able to get along. Yet whenever we were together, there was an undercurrent of distrust and suspicion, and a resentment at having to put up with this or that quality in the other, and we were always battling it out.

We would get a little separation, and our feelings would warm toward one another, but then we would find ourselves working together and rubbing against each other like sandpaper. And all the while there was a wonderful heart feeling. But as soon as we would come together, the resentment of the past would overwhelm the goodwill.

Now, what happens if you die with all of these unresolved issues hanging in the balance? If you’re a traditional church-goer, and you believe that reincarnation is a complete myth, maybe you imagine that you’ll end up in a misty heaven where all these things will be magically taken away, and all of your karmic battles will somehow be resolved for you. And, for your part, all you have to do is hang out in heaven for a while, and everything will be happily lifted off your shoulders and taken care of.

The trouble is that there’s the absolutely ridiculous implication that you can die a very mean-spirited person, but if you’ve gone to church and fulfilled the letter of the law, doing all of the little outward acts and rituals, then bingo, you’ll go to heaven and you’ll be magically “saved.”

The problem is that it makes no sense, and it’s why intelligent people find it impossible to endorse such a nonsensical and extremely silly teaching.

We can change ourselves quite a bit in one life by working hard on ourselves. And it makes no sense to believe that it’s all to no avail, because we’ll either be annihilated, as the atheists believe, or we’ll go to heaven where all our hard work will be null and void, since God will take over and magically make us perfect.

Given the spirit of this scientific age which insists on verifying every claim by the hard test of experience, it’s easy to understand why thinking people have lost all respect for that kind of simpleminded religion, and why they’re leaving in droves.

I once tried to get Swami to quantify this for me. I wanted to know how much of our spiritual growth we can expect to carry over from one life to the next.

I asked him, “How much of what I know is the result of my simply having lived for almost sixty years, and how much have I changed as a result of working on myself?”

In other words, when I’m reborn, will I have to start over? Will I be as ignorant as I was when I was born this time around, or will some of what I’ve learned stick with me and carry over to the next life? And Swami said, “Asha, ask me a question I can answer. What a question!”

Of course, it will stick, to the extent that we’ve changed our consciousness.

I had an interesting conversation with a Jewish rabbi who came to me for counseling. He was feeling very confused, because he had run up against the limitations of his faith. He couldn’t quite figure out how to articulate what it meant to be a Jew, and he didn’t know how to explain it to people. In the Jewish tradition there’s a strong sense of justice and honor and family. But he couldn’t define it on a deeper level.

The conversation took us in some interesting directions, and I think we have the same problem in the Christian churches, but for different reasons. Because it creates a big problem for the believer, if you don’t have the idea that we can improve ourselves over many lifetimes, and if you don’t have the idea of liberated masters who’ve achieved the ultimate perfection by their own self-effort combined with Gods’ grace over many lives.

What the Jewish people did was to take the avatars out of their official teachings. They still have the tradition of wise rabbis, but in the Jewish tradition you don’t have saints. You have no incarnations of God, or the idea that there are people who’ve achieved their freedom through many lifetimes of spiritual effort. And when Jesus came to live among them, they decided that he wasn’t the Messiah, so they’re still waiting for the Messiah to come. And they don’t have a clear idea of what a Messiah looks like, much less the idea that his purpose in coming is to show us our own perfection.

They don’t have a picture of what it looks like when the avatar is living here among us, and we’re able to see with our own eyes the fulfillment of many lifetimes of spiritual effort.

To put it differently, there’s no goal that you can work toward, using the scientific tools of prayer and devotion and meditation and grace. In other words, there’s no possibility of Self-realization.

Now, the Christians were fortunate to have Jesus living among them and giving them the teaching of reincarnation and the truths of Sanaatan Dharma – the eternal truths that are the foundation of all religions, including the methods by which they could achieve their salvation by their own self-effort with God’s grace.

But it’s a far cry from what Christians are told to believe today. And it’s why Paramhansa Yogananda came to restore Jesus’ original teachings and to make those liberating methods available to his disciples today.

Jesus taught that the soul evolves through many lives, by divine grace and the practices of prayer and meditation, including Kriya Yoga.

This is Jesus’ teaching in its original form, which was distorted by the church authorities, and was almost completely lost in the centuries of Kali Yuga, the dark age of materialism that ended around 1700. It’s also the deepest truth of Judaism from the time of Moses, the avatar who brought Sanaatan Dharma to the Jewish people.

(The cycles of human history are described in an illuminating and engrossing book by Joseph Selbie and David Steinmetz: The Yugas – Keys to Understanding Our Hidden Past, Emerging Energy Age, and Enlightened Future.)

Jesus didn’t come to start a new tradition, but to restore the original teachings of Moses, as a correction to the worldliness and doctrinal distortions of the priests.

And then, as always happens, Jesus’ teachings became corrupted over the centuries, in accordance with the consciousness of people who were living in a period when human consciousness was at the lowest point in the great cycle of ascending and descending ages.

People wanted to make Christ’s teachings fit within the scope of their limited understanding, which could only grasp that matter is the ultimate reality. And in keeping with their fixed and solid concept of the world, they wanted to surround Christ’s image and teachings with rigid forms.

This is why the authorities decided that they needed to portray Jesus as unique and special among the world’s great spiritual teachers. Because to their narrow understanding it didn’t seem right that he should be just one of many world-redeeming teachers that God has sent to the world. It was a reflection of their rigid way of thinking, which couldn’t conceive of there being more than one perfect son of God.

So they turned Jesus into a special creation. And because he said that he was the only son of God, they interpreted it according to their narrow understanding, and they turned him into the only son of God for all eternity.

Whereas, in fact, as Paramhansa Yogananda explained, Jesus was talking very impersonally, telling them that his consciousness was one with the “only son” of God – the consciousness of God that creates and sustains this creation, and through which every true master has found his salvation.

They removed any suggestion of a process by which ordinary people could work toward their own perfection. And to prevent people from making the attempt, they created the Inquisition, which lasted for seven hundred years and was specifically designed to persecute and murder anyone who dared to try to seek an inner experience of Christ, separate and apart from the church authority.

As a result of centuries of priestly ignorance and suppression and misinterpretation, all that’s left for the Jews and Christians is to love God, do good works, pray for grace, and try to live a good life.

I don’t mean that it’s literally all that’s left, because we do find Jews and Christians who’ve dug beneath the surface and formed a living relationship with the divine light of God that dwells in their souls.

Judas Kiss, 12th century.

Judas Kiss, 12th century.

But the dogmas of the mainstream churches give us a thoroughly eviscerated version of Jesus’ teachings. And when he says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect,” thinking Christians are left with the unavoidable, though rarely expressed suspicion, “This can’t possibly be true.” Because they’ve lost the methods that would enable them to experience their own inner perfection, and their oneness with the Father.

If we decide that Christ is calling us to become perfect, it takes no great intelligence to realize that it’s going to take a while. It’s going to take longer than a single life, because there’s a great deal of work to do. And lacking the broad vistas of reincarnation, we end up having to draw a very weird picture of the world.

This is how the unenlightened church authorities were able to winnow Jesus’ teachings down to a few fragments that were acceptable to their own narrow understanding, and throw out the rest. But they didn’t realize that they were dismantling the underpinnings of the whole structure. And it’s why you find so many extremely sincere people in the churches who are trying to squeeze the dry rind for something that will nourish their hearts and satisfy their craving for spiritual comfort and understanding.

It’s why so many people are turning to the teachings of Self-realization in various forms, after failing to find a living relationship with Christ in their own paths. Because if you stay there, you aren’t going to be given the methods to form that inner relationship, and if you try, you’ll be thrown out.

I accompanied a friend to the Christmas Eve service at a popular church in this area. It was a nice service, but it struck me that the best they could do was to project a kind of anguished longing for something better. Someone had chosen a nice selection of readings, but they all struck me as having only a rather thin and meager power to inspire and nourish our hearts.

Frankly, the word that came to mind is hopelessness. As if to say, wouldn’t it be lovely if everybody in the world were nicer? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all be focused on peace, and then maybe we could have something really good here on this earth.

But there was nothing in the teachings that told them how they could change their consciousness and bring it in line with the living presence of God and Christ. And it left us with a dry and hopeless feeling that we were on our own, and that we were expected to fly “on a wing and a prayer.”

Now, what Sanaatan Dharma tells us, and what Christ and Moses tell us, is the bald-faced truth that you, too, in your deepest nature are infinite. As the Festival of Light tells us, we can find the infinite presence of God “in the farthest depths of being, in your own Self.”

As Jesus said, “Why do you call me Master? That which I do, even so shall you do, and even greater things.” And he wasn’t simply putting on an attitude of humility. He was teaching them a wonderful truth: that this life is meant for seeking the greatest happiness, and for getting away from sorrow and suffering forever.

St. Paul said, “By the rejoicing that we have in Christ Jesus, I die daily.” And it was a veiled reference to Kriya Yoga, and to the experience of samadhi in which we are able to stop the breath and heartbeat in deep meditation, and escape the limitations of this human consciousness.

The so-called miracles of the saints are simply demonstrations of our own higher potential. And once we accept that Self-realization is the goal, we discover a beautifully wise and balanced design beneath the seeming unfairness and meaninglessness of this world.

We find that all of the joys and sorrows of our many lives are simply part of the natural process of unfoldment that is designed to bring us to the greatest freedom and joy.

Think of how children can get so terribly worked-up about their examinations. They experience the “test stress” that we all feel when we’re expected to perform. Because if you fail, you’ll just have to repeat the course.

We watch our children struggle, and because we have more experience, we know that it’s just a necessary step toward a worthwhile end.

We want our children to do well, and we know that they need to learn to discipline themselves and study hard, as a step toward a greater happiness and fulfillment. But at this point we don’t expect them to be perfect, because we know that they’ll get it right eventually, and they’ll be able to overcome their challenges and move on.

This is how God views our struggles, and how He teaches us. We’re challenged to find answers to the deepest questions on which this life is continually testing us: Where does happiness come from? How can I escape from suffering? What is real?

I was deeply inspired by a line of dialogue in a movie that I watched recently. The movie is about a nun who brings her sister nuns on a visit from France. They’re all staying in the little house of a woman who is kind of a dipsy character, and she’s making a big fuss, worrying: “Where are they all going to sleep? What are they going to do all day? Where will the father confessor stay?” And the nun cheerfully tells her, “Oh, the father will be perfectly happy anywhere, because he spent years in a concentration camp.”

The father had been to the depths, and he had come to view the world very differently. He knew that the only thing he owned and that really mattered was his consciousness.

This is the test that life continually places on our little school desks. Will we cling to our present reality, or will we do whatever it takes to awaken to our real Self, which is one with God?

Jesus said, “Even the foxes have holes, but I, the Son of Man, have no place to lay my head.” Now, Jesus was rejoicing. He wasn’t whining, “Poor Son of Man – he has no place to lay his head! Won’t somebody please give him a bed and a blanket?”

He was saying, “Who needs any of it?” Because his consciousness was everywhere, and he was perfectly merged with a bliss that made all of these small considerations irrelevant.

Yet it strikes us as a great renunciation, because the issues in our lives tend to revolve around whether we should go out for ice cream. And this is why God gives us time to find out what really matters. Because, just imagine the vastness of the freedom that we’re aspiring to.

I was walking up the stairs in my home, and I don’t remember what was bugging me – perhaps it was my knee or my back, and perhaps I was a little sleepy or crabby – God knows, it was just all of the little aches and pains of being human. And as I started up the stairs, I glimpsed one of the pictures of Paramhansa Yogananda that I have in my house, and I thought, “What would it be like to be absolutely free?” And I tried to project my consciousness away from all the fussy little realities that were binding me – the bodily aches and pains, and the memories and disappointments and anxieties about an endless parade of little things.

We say, “I believe in God.” And we affirm, “Thy will be done.” And then we lie awake fretting over our anxieties. And we worry endlessly about our physical ailments, wishing that they could be magically taken away.

It’s very good if, in the midst of it all, we can remember our highest goal. We are committed to truth, and as Swami often told us, our aspirations define us much more than our faults and weaknesses, and whatever we presently are.

Our limitations at this fixed moment in time do not define us. From one moment to the next, we’ve changed and become something else, and in seven years all the cells in our body will be replaced by new cells.

When we think about ourselves, what is it that we are actually thinking about? We are nothing but an expression of the limitless energy and intelligence of God. And that highest aspect of ourselves is what we most truly are in every circumstance.

When Swamiji was a young monk, some fraternal organization in Los Angeles invited him to play the part of Jesus Christ in a Christmas tableau, because he was one of the few people in LA in the early 1950s who wore a beard.

Afterward, when Master asked him how it had gone, Swami said, “Well, Sir, I’d rather be like Jesus than play the part.” And Master replied quite matter-of-factly, “That will come.”

We don’t have to worry about it. A little time, maybe a few million years, but it will be a lot sooner if we give our hearts to God, and if we meditate and devote ourselves to His service, and if we discipline ourselves to focus and pray. And then it’s absolutely guaranteed that it will come.

God bless you all.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on November 20, 2005.)

 

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