According to Hinduism a soul reincarnates again and again on earth till it becomes perfect and reunites with it Source. During this process the soul enters into many bodies, assumes many forms and passes through many births and deaths. This concept is summarily described in the following verse of the Bhagavad gita:
"Just as a man discards worn out clothes and puts on new clothes, the soul discards worn out bodies and wears new ones." (2.22)
According to Hinduism a being has to live many lives and under go many experiences before it attains perfection and becomes one with the Divine. The Hindu theory of creation suggests that creation begins when the individual souls becomes separated from the undifferentiated One. It continues as the evolution of life and consciousness in matter progresses. During this process some of souls journey back to God through the transformation of matter or prakriti in which they were hidden. The remaining souls continue their existence and rejoin Him in the end, not through transformation but through a process of great destruction. Thus the great cycle of creation, stretching over millions of years, comes to its logical end.
Once the creative process is switched on, the individual soul hides behind the false personality called jiva, the subtle body and an outer personality called the mind and the body or the ego. The is made up of the subtle body, the subtle mind and a little bit of discretionary intelligence called buddhi. The ego is made up of the gross physical body, the surface consciousness consisting of innumerable desires and impulses. Since the Jiva and the ego have no idea of Truth or reality, they suffers from ignorance and illusion. They succumbs to illusion and suffer from the delusion of the outer mind. They behave selfishly as if they are different from the rest of creation and end up with suffering, indulging in acts of self perpetuation.
At the end of each life, the physical body and the gross mind return to the elements of the earth. But the Jiva and the soul survive death. Depending upon the nature of their past deeds, and the number of subtle bodies it has developed, the Jiva either ascends to the heaven or descends into the hell. Hiding the indwelling spirit in its core, the Jiva stays in these worlds till it exhausts the fruits of its good or bad actions. Having learned some new lessons, it then returns to the earth again to take another birth.
Thus the Jiva undergoes innumerable births and deaths. It becomes bound to the mortal life and the laws of nature. Death provides temporary relief, but exposes the individual Jiva to the risk of falling into greater depths of suffering. Even the Buddha who founded Buddhism did not discard this theory, though he was silent on the existence of God and did not confirm the existence of soul. The Buddha preached that not soul but the ever changing individual character, which moves from one birth to another birth, till all changing and becoming comes to an end, through the transformation of character on the lines of the Eightfold path.
Hinduism speaks of the existence of heavens above and hells below. The former are sun filled, inhabited by gods and innumerable divine souls. The latter are dark worlds (asurya lokas) and populated by all the dark and demonic forces. The individual souls go into these worlds according to their deeds. But they do not stay there permanently till the end of destruction. They go there basically as a consequence of their actions, either to enjoy or to suffer. In either case they learn the lesson and come back to earth to start a new earthly life all over again.
Thus according to Hinduism, life in heaven may be longer, but still it is a mortal life only. There, a Jiva may enjoy extreme pleasures, but it would not last for ever. Once its karma is exhausted, the Jiva is thrown back from the heights of heavenly glory into the turmoil of unstable earthly life .
The Hindu concept of reincarnation is alien to western people. It is mostly misunderstood and misinterpreted, partly because of ignorance and partly because of some inherent mental blockage natural to the single minded pursuit of religious faith along rutted paths. It generated a lot of controversy because it directly challenges the western notion of one life, one heaven and the final day of judgement. Today this fundamental concept of Hinduism is finding many new adherents and believers all over the world. The reasons are many. Firstly, a great mass of evidence is gathering in favour of reincarnation through the personal experiences of many who chanced to remember their past lives and were able to record their experiences in stunning details for the posterity. Secondly the modern theories of hypnotic regression are gaining acceptance in many parts of the world. There are now many institutions, which help interested individuals to remember their past lives as a part of their spiritual awakening. Thirdly many enlightened psychic masters like Edgar Cayce confirmed beyond doubt that reincarnation is not just a theory or imagination, but a definite reality.
The Hindu concept of reincarnation is based upon the logical notion that life on earth did not emerge suddenly, but evolved gradually, involving great epoch of time and a vast multitude of beings. During this process the static and inert consciousness of matter yielded place to the dynamic movement of life and consciousness. The animal tendencies gave way to human reason and humane thoughts. Extending the same logic we may further say that in future, from this part animal, part human and part divine being, there would emerge a spiritual man of divine consciousness, the Superman of Sri Aurobindo, with supra mental consciousness. If you look at the personality of an ordinary human being, you will realize that there is a lot in him, that is grosser and denser which cannot be purified and transformed in the shorter time of one life span. What is a hundred years or less than a hundred of life on a scale of millions of years of continuous evolution of life on earth ? Does not it sound illogical to say that we would remain static from the evolutionary point of view, while change is the nature of life and every thing else all around us is changing and evolving constantly?
Hinduism does not accept the premise that under normal circumstances an individual soul can free itself completely from the entanglement with Samsara and unite with its Creator in just one life time. The Jiva has to progressively evolve through the cycle of innumerable births and deaths before the soul can liberate itself. From inert matter to inert consciousness and then to dynamic consciousness, from ignorance to semi awareness and then to self awareness, from attachment to detachment and then to complete freedom, from illusion to awareness and then to reality, from darkness to dawn and then into light, from mortality to immortality: this is the forward movement of life in the whole creation. And all this cannot happen just in a few hundred years.
It is very obvious that God did not create the worlds and the beings in His likeness, but in exact opposite to it. If He would have created everything in His true likeness then there would have been no differentiation and no possibility of any movement. Creation would have remained static, without an aim and purpose, offering no scope for movement and change. It is true that God is hidden in every aspect of His creation. But that which is visible and sensible is not His true self. It is His negative and false self, which tries to compete with Him and fight for its own individuality, and finally, having lost the battle, would move towards Him in total obedience.
Thus the whole drama of creation seems to start with the creation of His individual selves that hide themselves in His negative selves so that a movement away from Him and then again back to Him can be initiated and sustained. The Hindu scriptures describe this process variously with such expressions as:
"the true self hides behind the false self, God enters into Prakriti, self becomes enveloped with ignorance".
The awakening comes after wards. When the soul stirs and makes its vibrations felt by the ignorant consciousness, the seeds of spiritualization of the being are sown. The movement that began away from God now becomes reversed. It then starts moving away from illusion and ignorance towards God and Truth.
The inexorable law of karma operates through out this grand drama. Karma is the correction mechanism, the chisel with which the negative self, the inert stone, is chiselled away till the hidden deity comes out of it and enters the temple of God. In the ordinary circumstances, awakening of a sleeping self cannot take place through miracles but through trial and error. Good actions lead to good future, and bad actions to the opposite. An awareness of this very law is the first great awakening and the first sure leap towards the Light.
All this cannot take place in one simple life, but over a period of time involving many lives. It cannot happen on the strength of a life time's learning but in the light of a great mass of accumulated wisdom. It cannot happen if the purpose of whole life is to move towards light and truth. This is where the idea of reincarnation of soul perfectly fits in. If we accept the whole creation as a grand process stretching over a vast period of time, we cannot over look the importance and the role of man in it. Man cannot make a brief appearance on earth, live just one life and then disappear forever into the cozy corners of some safe heaven, or the vast dungeons of some burning hell, leaving creation, God and Nature to themselves.
At the individual level, the movement of creation and evolution need not universally progressive. Since the whole movement is regulated on the principle of trial and error, of learning and improvement through such learning, some times, a retrogressive movement may also take place. Due to some unfortunate error of judgment, instead moving towards the light, a being may move away from it.
Thus depending upon the merits of the previous deeds, a being may evolve into higher life forms or regress temporarily into a lower life form. However, due to some peculiar circumstances, if an individual takes birth as a lower life form, he can still reverse the process. He can change his present actions and establish a basis for his forward movement again. The Jiva thus drifts, sailing in the boat of his own karma, in a sea of worldly illusion (samsara sagaram), towards the shores of liberation, through trial and error, self effort and assisted by invisible laws and mysterious forces, with the soul remaining as its silent, witnessing companion. That the theory of reincarnation is not a mere theory, but an actual fact is being now established beyond reasonable doubt. Many instances have now come to light where individuals were able to recollect their past lives through a process of regression or by other means. The theory still baffles many, while many others refuse to acknowledge it because of intense prejudice.