The soul is the great guide within, the inner voice, the conscience. Its purpose is to perpetually engage in inspiring, counseling and messaging, softly, unobtrusively and without compulsion of any kind, the correct path of righteous action, our duties and responsibilities - right from wrong. The most creative and compassionate acts, like the works of art by Michel Angelo, inspirational discoveries and inventions and the humanitarian labours of Mother Teresa and other saints, take place when the 'Host' fully heeds the souls counseling. Thus, the 'Host' body hears it all, may take heed, or as is generally the case, ignore or rationalize the advice of the inner voice, to suit its ego generated compulsions and purposes or worse dismiss the inner voice as an irrelevant thought. Having stirred the conscience the souls purpose is completed. The rest is up to 'You'. The soul is therefore the compass on the corporeal boat and yet many 'ships' are lost on the high seas of life.
We now arrive at the theory of reincarnation. Though Hindu, Buddhist and Jain cosmologies are entirely different from one another, the common denominator in all three faiths is the belief in rebirth. Here of course we shall solely be examining the concept of reincarnation in the Hindu context and more particularly as expounded by the Gita.
Let us begin by asking, whose rebirth? When we say 'your' rebirth we do not mean rebirth only of the personality-ego complex which represent you in your subtle body, now modified for the next lifetime at the moment of rebirth. What is also meant is the rebirth of the entrapped soul force within you, the 'indweller', the one who during the lifetime was shrouded by your body, ego and personality. The eternal soul now sheds the deceased body/personality and assumes a new one. Here let us see what the Gita has to say:
''It (the soul) is neither born nor does it die. Coming into being and ceasing to be, do not take place in it. Unborn, eternal, constant and ancient, it is not killed when the body is slain.'' ''As a man casting off worn out garments puts on new ones, so the embodied one (the soul), casting off worn out bodies, enters others that are new.''
The analogy is aptly one of shedding an old garment and wearing a new one. But the new garment, to extend the analogy further, is not one which the soul can choose. It cannot demand an exquisite garment from a designer shop. On the contrary it lies before the soul, tailor-made according to Karmic specifications. The traces, effects and 'odours' registered in the Subtle Body ( discussed in earlier - The subtle body and the law of Karma) determine the kind of new garment the soul is obliged to 'wear' - the new body/personality which will embody the soul for the next lifetime. Thus rebirth takes place with a new modified entity as the host of the soul.
This process of rebirth can go on indefinitely until all Karmic debts and obligations are fully discharged. We may wonder what is the purpose of this exercise. The purpose is the evolution of man on the earthly plane. The Karmic law ensures, by designing a new personality and body that lessons which earlier incarnations failed to learn may well be learnt in the new life. Thus eventually, slowly but inevitably, the process of evolution begins to gather momentum after several false starts and hicups and the shroud that was a thick coarse blanket begins to refine.
The shining spark of divinity within, the soul, is the supreme standard to which the physical entity has to aspire in the course, if necessary, of hundreds of thousands of life-times. As it begins to approximate the perfection of the 'indweller and reflect in some measure the divinity within, the shroud gets refined, until in its very last incarnation the personality/body has shed all ego with its attendant grave failings and stands out as a shining, altruistic star totally reflecting the divinity and perfection of the soul within. Such a state would have been achieved by the personality/body of the Buddha in his last incarnation or innumerable other prophets, sages, ] Picture the role or function of a Buddha: to enlighten the path for other people to follow, so they too can cross the stream of samsara and reach Nirvana.
At this point of enlightenment, the 'shroud' finally slips away and there is total identity between the soul and the person in question. Karmic effects have now dissolved, there is no debt left in the subtle body ('History' in the PC now stands deleted) and at this last death, reincarnation ceases with 'Moksha;, 'Nirvana', enlightenment - whatever one calls it and the soul finds ultimate release from the cycle of reincarnation, merging back into the divine source from which it emerged, even as the drop of water that had been thrown up from the ocean by the tidal wave, falls back into the ocean and becomes one with it.
In India people are enjoined to meditate on the divinity within and seek to sense the presence of the soul, as an exercise in evolution. The purpose of life is to get to know ones 'true' nature (Svabhav in Sanskrit), which is the perfection of the indwelling soul, itself an extension of the Universal Essence. The goal is to recognize and access this divinity within. This is enabled by prayer, contemplation and meditation but above all through dispassionate, compassionate and altruistic action. However, the scriptures mention the great difficulty of sensing the soul. The Gita cautions that the soul is indeed quite inconceivable and difficult to access. It is shown as dwelling within the gross body, divine, eternal, blissful and inactive, mysterious and virtually unfathomable. The Gita speaking of the soul says for instance:
''Some look upon the Self as a marvel, as a marvel another speaks of it and as a wonder another hears of it but though all hear of it none know it.''
According to seers, the difficulty of sensing the soul, divinity within, is so great that people find it easier to objectify divinity by worshipping or admiring a prophet, an Avatar, a Guru, a saint, or even an idol as a sacred symbol.
The Hindu concept of the ubiquitous presence of the Universal Essence, as souls in every individual, generated the idea of 'Same - sightedness' (Sama Darshinah in Sanskrit) - seeing the same essence in the highest and the lowest in creation - a democracy of the spirit. The Gita underlines this concept thus:
'' Men of self-knowledge see the Eternal equally in a wise and courteous Brahmin (man of learning), a cow, an elephant, a dog and an outcast.''
One then sees that the Divine essence is in all, and all are in it. This supreme egalitarianism becomes possible because the essence of the creator is present in every minute atom of his material creation.
This sense of the universal presence of divinity is further explained in the Gita in the following verses:
''He who sees me everywhere and sees all in me, he never becomes lost to me, nor do I become lost to him.''
''He who established in oneness, worships me abiding in all beings, that yogi lives in me....''
Such a mind-set creates the right attitude for engaging in the welfare of all, a humanitarianism which is concerned for the well-being not only of mankind but of the animal world as well and beyond to inanimate objects comprising nature (equally imbued with divinity) - an attitude that would encourage the environmental consciousness of today.
The placing of a vermillion dot or mark on the forehead at religious ceremonies among Hindus and by women as a cosmetic adornment, become a daily reminder of the existence of the soul within. The vermillion mark indicates the location of the seat of the soul.
The presence of the soul as a divine fragment in every individual is further highlighted through the customary Indian salutation and greeting of one another with folded hands. People often wonder why Indian culture has adopted this mode of greeting which elsewhere is reserved for prayer in places of worship. The salutation with folded hands is not to the ego-personality you happen to meet but to his soul, the divinity within him. That explains why it looks more like a gesture of prayer than a greeting.
Likewise in Hindu temples the priest after worshipping the deity on the altar with waving wicker lamps turns to the gathering of worshippers and waves the light at them in a second gesture of worship. Here he is acknowledging the divinity within the gathered congregation. God is both on his high altar as the worshipped and in the congregation as the worshippers.
Indian culture employs these varied devices, cosmetic, religious and through the mode of greeting, to underline the presence of divinity within every individual.
Mystics and saints in India have sought through song and dance to help ordinary people to sense the presence of the soul within, over the centuries. They did not utilize theological dialectic, esoteric philosophical conundrum, demanding yogic meditative practice or incomprehensible discourses to do so. They sought simply to move the heart of peasant and king alike, to feel and sense mystically what was for ordinary folk something beyond their understanding.
The Bhakti (worship through devotion and love) movement of the sixteenth century became the vehicle for passing on such difficult concepts to every hearth and home, taking the land by spiritual storm. The songs of the great mystic poet-saints of the period - Tulsi ( philosopher - poet), Sur (blind musician), Raidas (cobbler), Kabir ( weaver, muslim mystic), Mira (princess turned mendicant), Guru Nanak (founder of the Sikh faith), Bulle Shah ( Sufi poet), Shankaracharya ( Vedantic scholar and sage), Ramanujan (Philosopher poet) and a host of others, carried the concepts through poetry and devotional songs to the masses. The songs became as popular as Bollywood hits are today and are widely sung and heard morning and evening right to this day. Difficult concepts, carried on the wings of faith and emotion, became a part of popular folk music through soul-stirring renditions in verse.
A song for instance spoke of a man searching for the divine, looking everywhere in places of worship and pilgrimage centres but found Him nowhere, till he sat quietly dejected at home and suddenly found Him glowing in his heart. Another song speaks of a musk deer roaming the forest relentlessly in search of the heady aroma, wondering where it was coming from, little knowing that the musk was indeed within him. Kabir in his poem sang of his great amusement that the fish was thirsty though immersed in water. Raidas in his songs tells God that He is the sandalwood paste and Rai is the water, together fragrant or that Rai is the wick on which the lord is the flame, that Rai is the thread on which the Lord as a pearl is strung. All similes and metaphors conveying that the Universal spirit, through the soul, was within the individual and all he needed to do was to seek him there.
Like the poet saints, temple and court dancers in the classical traditions of Bharatnatyam (Tamil), Kuschpudi (Orrisa), Kathakali (Kerala), and the Mughal Kathak (entire north India) sought to convey the same message through movement, gesture (Mudra) and stylized eye movements. Folk dancers, village theatre, pantomime. puppetry and bardic couplets conveyed the same esoteric message simplified through the means of entertainment. Today Gurus, seers, yogis and Swamis address vast congregations assisted by television and the media to convey the same message of the presence of the soul within through analogy and metaphor.