Is Reincarnation Real? What Can We Do About It?

Paramhansa Yogananda spoke freely of his former lives, including the fact that he had been William the Conqueror — shown here in a panel from the Bayeux Tapestry. R-L: Bishop Odo of Bayeux, Duke William, and Count Robert of Mortain.
Paramhansa Yogananda spoke freely of his former lives, including the fact that he had been William the Conqueror — shown here in a panel from the Bayeux Tapestry. L-R: Bishop Odo of Bayeux, Duke William, and Count Robert of Mortain.

The theme of today’s Sunday service reading couldn’t be simpler – in a word, it’s “reincarnation.”

In the reading, Swami Kriyananda doesn’t bother giving reincarnation a big build-up or a long explanation. He isn’t arguing for or against it, weighing the pros and cons, but simply stating it as a fact of the spiritual life that we need to take account of, and challenging us to consider how we might think about it in the most useful ways.

Years ago, I watched a documentary on how doctors deal with their terminally ill patients. At one point, the conversation turned to how the patients so often cling desperately to life.

It’s a tendency that I think was aptly expressed by Dannion Brinkley, a well-known author of bestselling books on the after-death experience. Brinkley calls it “greed for life” – the fear that when this earthly life is over, we’ll be annihilated, and extinguished forever.

I watched another documentary, on the crisis in health care, in which it was pointed out that fully seventy percent of the money we spend on medical care gets spent in the last six months of our life. It all goes to helping us stay alive, as Dannion Brinkley puts it, for the most miserable six months of our existence.

The doctors were hoping to shift the conversation about death – one of them confessed that he felt tempted to tell his dying patients, “You are not immortal! Get over it!”

Of course, the message becomes infinitely more palatable if we can say with conviction: “I’ve lived before and I’ll live again. I’ve simply got to accept it and learn to deal with it wisely.” And in this room, I suspect that most of us are fully open to the possibility.

I remember someone saying to Swamiji, years ago, “You may choose to incarnate, but I prefer not to.” Swamiji was ggreatly amused by the comment, because it’s fine if you can manage it, but the scriptures tell us that reincarnation is an inescapable reality. So the real issue isn’t whether it’s true, but what we can do about it.

When Krishna speaks about reincarnation in the Bhagavad Gita, he doesn’t talk about it as a theory, but as a fact. And in the Bible, we find Jesus clearly indicating that he taught the truth of reincarnation. It’s clear from those Bible passages that his disciples were in full agreement, and that they didn’t question it in the slightest degree.

When Jesus said to the disciples, “Who am I?” they immediately began naming various prophets of the past that they thought he might have been in his previous lives. The discussion wasn’t at all about whether it was possible for him to have lived before, but which of the prophets he might have been.

Jesus told them that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of the prophet Elijah. He said, “And he (Elijah) has returned, but they knew him not.” And the Bible tells us that the disciples immediately understood that he was talking about John the Baptist.

When Jesus was on his way to the home of a man who had been blind from birth, the disciples asked him, “Was it his sins that caused him to be born blind, or was it the sins of his parents?” And Jesus didn’t correct them. He didn’t say, “No, no – how can you say that he lived before? We only have this one life to live!” Reincarnation was such an accepted part of the conversation that it didn’t merit any special comment or discussion.

There’s well-documented evidence that it wasn’t until 563 A.D. that the church elders got together and decided to remove all mention of reincarnation from the Bible. The church authorities felt that it wasn’t a convenient teaching, because if people felt that they had many lives to work on their salvation, they might not try hard enough in this life. Also, they feared that the authority of the church would be weakened, if people imagined that they might be reborn at a time when the church might not have as much authority over them.

Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople. This is where all the trouble started.
Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople painting by Vasili Cyrikov, 1876. This is where all the trouble started.

So the elders took the obvious references to reincarnation out of the Bible. But they left a few, whether because they were subtle, or because they didn’t dare remove them.

But, again, does it really matter if reincarnation is true?

It matters enormously. Because once we accept that we must work toward our salvation, the first thing we’ll need is a road map – we’ll need to understand how our past, present, and future lives are woven together.

It may sound presumptuous, but I believe that Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings will have every bit as much impact as the teachings of Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and Moses.

Throughout all my years at Ananda I’ve been keenly aware that we’re living at the start of a great mission that is destined to change the world. And because we’re living in the very early years, we need be careful to preserve this work in its original, undistorted form for the seekers to come.

Looking back, I can see how I’ve misinterpreted the teachings in subtle ways that threatened to become dogma in my own lifetime.

I remember how, out of sheer high spirits and youthful ignorance, I changed Master’s healing prayer.

Master’s original prayer says, “Divine Mother, manifest Thy healing presence in their bodies, minds, and souls.” And I thought it would be nice to have some more words. So I began saying, “Divine Mother, manifest Thy energy, light, and joy.”

It sounds pleasant enough, doesn’t it? It sounded nice to me, and I would insert those words whenever I said the prayer. And because I’m an enthusiastic person, other people began saying it that way. And then twenty-five years along I realized that people were saying it that way throughout Ananda’s work.

And then I happened to read Master’s teachings on healing, and I came to a passage where he says, “Where Divine Mother is present, no illness can exist.”

And I realized that “Manifest Thy healing presence” gives it a very specific meaning.

There’s nothing wrong with “energy, light, and joy.” But when we say it like that, we lose the intended meaning. Master’s wish was that we recognize Divine Mother’s healing presence as the real power that effects a healing in response to our prayers. And it isn’t that She stands off at a distance and shoots off a ray of Her energy, light, and joy.

Those extra words change the meaning from a devotional prayer to Divine Mother to come and heal us by Her loving presence, to something more distant and removed: “Divine Mother, we know You’re very far away and probably quite busy, but please send us a bit of your energy, light, and joy.”

So I had to write a global letter of apology. And fortunately I was able to make the correction before the revised “Asha” version had a chance to become the accepted dogma for all time.

I had to say, “Guess what, this is the gospel according to Asha, and I don’t think it’s the gospel we want to follow. So let’s go back.” And most people had no idea that I had changed the prayer in the first place.

At Ananda Village in the early days, many of us wore little plastic earplugs that had baffles on them, with a string that you could hang around your neck and carry your ear plugs so you wouldn’t drop them.

You would see people walking around with these little baffle-shaped plastic things hanging around their necks. And I had a mental picture of people in the future who had seen photos of the early Ananda folks wearing these little plastic curlicues, and how they would begin to believe that it was a necessary part of the ritual practice of Kriya Yoga. So they would start to make them out of brass, then silver and gold, and you would have to put these little baffles around your neck when you did Kriya, even though nobody had the slightest idea where the practice had come from.

I remember another amusing instance of how such trivial things can evolve into dogmas. Years ago, it struck my attention that Swami Kriyananda always signed his name with a lowercase “s” and “k.” Sometimes he would write “kr.” But it would always be in lowercase letters.

And then a handwriting expert told him that people who write their signature with small letters are just suppressed egotists, and they’re using lowercase letters to pretend that they’re humble. She was panic-stricken that Swami was representing himself as a suppressed egotist, and she pleaded with him to put a capital “S” and “K” in his name. And whether her interpretation was correct, it certainly didn’t apply to Swamiji, and in fact he ignored it.

Later, I asked him, “Sir, why do you use a small “s?” And he explained, “Because it saves one keystroke. When you type as much as I do, every keystroke counts.” In other words, it saved him having to press the shift key twice to type two capital letters every time he wrote his name.

Okay, so I type a lot, too, and my name has two “a’s” in it, and I like the symmetry of those two small “a’s.” So I began typing my name “asha.” And then I began to see this little habit popping up all over Ananda worldwide – because¸ after all, Swamiji used lowercase letters, didn’t he?

So I recently had to write another global letter and explain that Swami had done it to save a couple of keystrokes. Yet in our official documents I still see people signing their names with lowercase letters. And, okay, go ahead, if you like it. Because these are small things, but let’s understand where they come from, and not let them evolve into dogmas.

At any rate, the church elders decided that we have only this one life to work out our salvation. So you’d better pay attention to the church, because there’s a very big issue hanging in the balance, of whether you’ll be saved or if you’ll go to hell.

Now, Jesus taught that as ye sow, so shall ye reap, and he who lives by the sword will die by the sword. In other words, your karma is absolutely certain to come back to you. But the undeniable fact is that we see lots of people who live by the sword, and who end up dying comfortably in their beds, surrounded by their loved ones.

So we have the problem that if we deny reincarnation, it’s very unfair that so many people seem to get away with their sins.

And maybe it’s true that people won’t try hard enough if they think they have more than one lifetime. But it’s really a non-issue. Because, as those of us here are only too aware, there’s a point where we realize that we can never escape our karma, whether it comes back to us in this life or some other.

But now the church elders came along and declared that we’d better behave, because we only have one go-round, and if we want to be saved we’d better listen to what the church is telling us.

But then there’s a new problem, of deciding who’s going to be saved. And, well, the church is here to tell us. The church will give us the rules, and if we obey them faithfully, the church will stamp our passport and tell us that we’re doing okay, and that we’ll be saved.

So it’s very convenient for the church to deny reincarnation, because it shifts the responsibility for people’s salvation to the church, and it increases the authority of the church enormously.

But what if you die as an infant, before you have a chance to be baptized? It’s obvious that you aren’t going to be saved, because you haven’t learned the rules. And, well, what about all the people who’ve never heard of Jesus Christ? And, again, I guess we’d better rush out and tell them about Jesus, because otherwise they’re all going to be damned.

And, well, what about all those little babies who are too small to make a decision? Okay, we’ll declare that they’ll be put in “limbo” when they die – rather like placing them in cold storage until they can come back and have a full life.

Someone in one of our classes asked, “What happens to all the little babies who get stuck in limbo?” And Nirmoha piped up and said that when he was a Protestant minister, they used to joke that they give them to the Hindus so they can be reincarnated!

I’m not trying to be rude. But really, if you don’t have more than one lifetime, your whole theology falls apart. And if you’re even the slightest bit intelligent, you can see that it doesn’t hang together, and it doesn’t make any sense.

In fact, it’s nonsense. And to a great extent this is why people are losing heart for these institutional religions. Because it’s all so legalistic and rule-bound, and it doesn’t resonate with our common sense, or our deep longing for an intimate relationship with our Heavenly Father.

It takes many incarnations to learn the lessons that these human lives are meant to teach us, and to expand our awareness to the point where we can receive God’s light. And if we can manage to overcome even a single inner obstacle in this lifetime, we’re doing pretty well.

Many people become addicted to alcohol or drugs. It’s a major, all-consuming battle for them, and if they can free themselves from just one of these serious addictions, they’ll be fully justified in setting aside their other issues for that life.

Yet these are very far from being the only areas where we need to improve and grow. And when we die, it’s inconceivable that all our opportunities for growth will suddenly be taken away.

But when we think of these lives as an ongoing story, and when we begin to understand that, as Swamiji says, we’re as old as God, because we’ve emerged from His being, it gives us tremendous hope that God will never give up on us, and that the shining goal of Self-realization will always be beckoning to us.

In Conversations with Yogananda, Swamiji tells how one of his brother monks said that if a soul doesn’t make enough progress in this life, God will cast him aside. And Swamiji said it was deeply disturbing to him, because he had a great fear that he wouldn’t be good enough. But when he repeated the man’s statement to Master, he said very emphatically, “Every soul is a part of God. There is no way that a soul could be destroyed or lost, because it’s already part of the Infinite.” And Swamiji writes, “I know it may sound incomprehensible to others, but this was an enormous comfort to me.”

Yogananda said that the great Himalayan yogi Babaji was Krishna in a former life. Click to enlarge.
Yogananda said that the great Himalayan yogi Babaji was Krishna in a former life. Click to enlarge.

It’s extremely comforting to know that our story will continue until we’ve merged our consciousness in God, and that we’re given as many opportunities as we need to improve our knowing, until we’ve gained our freedom.

I was in my late teens when I learned about reincarnation. I didn’t give it much thought, but it was an interesting theory, and I didn’t reject it. And when I came on this path and realized that we’re living in the middle of the story and not the end, I began to understand that reincarnation made a great deal of sense.

When you’re looking at the middle of the story, you might not know how the characters got there, or where they’re going, but it’s tremendously reassuring that this present life doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. And if you’re told that God only gives us one life to achieve our final perfection, you might be justified in deciding that this God isn’t a very fair-minded or intelligent fellow.

Because it’s obvious that we aren’t all given the same opportunities. Some people are born to lives of great privilege, while others are born crippled or poor. Some appear to get away with murder, and many innocents are persecuted. And if this is the whole story, becoming an atheist begins to look like a reasonable option.

Every atheist I’ve met has had perfectly reasonable arguments for their position. And if my concept of the Divine were of a being who is as repulsively unfair as the atheists imagine, I wouldn’t buy into the dogmas of the traditional churches, either.

But our hearts aren’t satisfied with that view, because there’s a longing in our hearts for something higher – a ceaseless, God-implanted longing that can never be satisfied, short of finding its fulfillment in Him.

I had the unfortunate experience of participating in a panel discussion hosted by the local atheist society. I accepted the invitation because it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it turned out to be one of the weirdest experiences of my life.

The panel consisted of a protestant minister, an evangelical minister, and me. And other than us, the panel members and the audience were atheists.

The protestant minister was trying to build bridges, and I felt that he was selling his soul to the devil. Meanwhile, the evangelical guy and I, who normally wouldn’t have agreed with each other by a country mile, were huddled together – we literally kept pushing our chairs closer, and I felt that we were the only people in the room who understood what was going on. And I can think of no other way to describe it than to say that I knew I was in the presence of evil.

Among the advocates for the atheist position, one of the leaders was a caricature of himself. Generally speaking, I admire people who are so committed that they become caricatures, because they have lots of energy. And not only was this man dressed totally in black, with a sort of gaunt and bloodless appearance, but he had died his long hair a deeper shade of black so that he could be a better personification of darkness.

Ego is something that you can feel in your skin, and this man’s ego was impressive – he was strutting around, prancing across the stage because he was so proud of being the king of the atheists. But there was no joy in his eyes.

There was absolutely no light in his eyes. And I thought, “What do you do when you’re alone, and when you aren’t strutting around the room? Who are you?”

I didn’t like him very much, but most of all I felt sorry for him. And do you know what I thought in that moment? “Thank God for reincarnation.” Because if this were the end of the story for that poor sap, where would he end up? All he could think of to do with his life was to walk around destroying. He was trying in as many ways as he could think of to take people’s faith and hope away, all in the name of “reality.”

But what kind of reality was it? It wasn’t a reality that the heart could respond to, or that anybody with the slightest sensitivity to the finer things in life could embrace.

The atheist leader imagined that he was being scientific and objective about the nature of this life. But was he?

I remember how, at nineteen, I began to catch on to the idea that we’re in the middle of a long and wonderful story. And I began to try out that theory and test it, like a scientist in a laboratory.

Every time I saw something inexplicable happening in people’s lives, I would think of how it only made sense in the context of a long, dramatic story with reincarnation at its core.

I had a friend with a severely disabled child. And I was able to imagine a story, with this lifetime at its center, that made perfect sense in the context of that man’s journey of many incarnations.

My friend has accepted his karma with nobility. And if your child is mentally or physically incapacitated, your life is confined to being a parent and caretaker, and you can never take a day off.

Now, why would that happen? And why do so many seemingly unfair things happen?

“We have four children, and my wife is no longer attractive, and our kids are rotten, and it’s a drag to go home. But, wow, my secretary is really attractive…” And – bingo! You’re suddenly free of that situation, and you’re so happy because you think you’ll never have to look back.

But do you think the intelligence that’s inherent in cosmic creation doesn’t notice? Do you think that you can do whatever you like, and indulge your selfish desires, and nothing will happen?

And then, you see, the spiritual life begins to make sense, when we realize that our actions, good and bad, have consequences. This life begins to make sense, as it gradually dawns on us: “I’m having these experiences because there are lessons I need to learn for my own growth – for the gradual expansion of my consciousness into ever-greater happiness.”

I remember a time, years ago, when I was accused of fairly ignoble behavior. I was absolutely innocent of the things I was accused of. I hadn’t done any of them, but people seemed to think that I had. And one day, when I was being brutally honest with myself, I said, “But I could have.”

It isn’t that I would have done them, but I had to admit that the tendency was in me. And I thought, “Okay, maybe I got away with it at some time in the distant past, and the karma is just catching up with me.”

The more I understand reincarnation and accept it in the marrow of my bones, the more relaxed I become about everything that happens in this life – the weaknesses and virtues, the mistakes and triumphs, the joys and sorrows. Relaxed in two ways, the first being, “Well, honey, you might as well buckle down and do the right thing, because you’re going to have to do it sooner or later.”

And maybe “now” isn’t pleasant, but it isn’t going to be any more pleasant later, so I might as well accept what I have to do. Because “later” might as well be now.

I sometimes have a wistful feeling that there have been quite enough trials in this lifetime, thank you very much, and I really don’t want to spend another life that looks like this one. But if I were allowed to take time off from the struggle, would it really be helping me resolve my karma?

That’s one side, where you realize that you really don’t want to quit, because you’d rather get it out of your system forever. And the other side is where you decide: “This is too much – I’m completely incapable of handling it, and I’m going to set it aside for the time being.”

Master said, “If you know that a trial is coming to you, and you know that you can’t be victorious, and defeat is assured – if at all possible, run away!”

I’m paraphrasing, but it’s an interesting comment. Master said, “You don’t want to have the experience of constantly being defeated, because then you start to think of yourself as someone who can’t triumph.”

There are times when you have to accept, “I can’t deal with this.”

“This person in my life is so much more negative than my ability to remain calm in their presence, and I think I’ll avoid them for the sake of my own peace of mind.”

“This person that I’m trying to convert is putting up a powerful resistance, and it’s making me doubt my own convictions. I think I need to stop trying to persuade them.”

Reincarnation has become an increasingly accepted fact of the spiritual life in the modern world.
Reincarnation has become an increasingly accepted fact of the spiritual life in the modern world.

Very often, we’ll have no choice but to face our karma squarely, but there are times when we do have a choice. And reincarnation gives us the comfort of knowing that we can put our tests on the shelf until we can gather the strength to deal with them.

Years ago, I had a difficult karmic battle that suddenly left my life. I said to Swamiji, “It feels like I don’t have to face it.” And he said, “Well, maybe that karma is over.” And I was just about to start exulting, “Yippee!” when he added – “But I don’t think so. It’s too much for now.”

He said, “Just go and live your life. You’ll come back to it either later in this life when you’re stronger, or in another life.”

I remember how, years ago, I was running the publications department at Ananda Village and doing a really bad job of it, and how Swami fired me. It was a complicated situation, but the short version is that he fired me on a Friday, and he gave my job to Shivani, and we ended up switching jobs.

I said, “Sir, I know there’s a lot that I have to learn, and I’d like to hear your reasons. But why don’t you give me the weekend off, so I can spend it enjoying the fact that I don’t have to do this job anymore. And on Monday we can talk about what I was supposed to learn.”

He said, “Okay.” And for the weekend I was very happy. And then on Monday I had to come back and talk with Swamiji about my shortcomings.

I think that every once in a while God gives us an incarnation where we’re allowed to say, “I’ve had it. This time around I’m going to live in Hawaii and dance the hula and eat coconuts and live in a grass hut, and in my next life I’ll get back to work.”

And that’s fair, because it’s dealing with our present reality. And in any case, we’re bound to get it straightened out sooner or later.

God always gives us the freedom to decide how much we want to strive and how much we want to suffer, and how long we want to wait. And let’s welcome our lessons gratefully, and pray to be able to choose wisely.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on November 23, 2014.)

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