All beings are born and, in time, all die. According to the Vaishnava tradition, all beings are then born again. The idea of reincarnation the cyclical round of births and deaths that are experienced but not remembered - and the closely related concept of karma ("for every action there is a corresponding reaction") have been an integral part of Indian culture since time immemorial. Indeed, one of the most ancient Vedic texts, the Shatapatha Brahmana (10.4.3.1), states, "Whoever knows the truth conquers recurring death and attains a full life." The exact words punar mrityu ("recurring death") traditionally refer to reincarnation, for, according to the original Sanskrit, they indicate being born, dying, and being born again (only to die again). The Vaishnava understanding of reincarnation and its related concepts can be summarized in the following three priciples:
1. Each living entity is a soul within a material body. Vedic texts are precise regarding the soul within the body: "When the upper point of a hair is divided into one hundred parts, and each part is further divided into one hundred parts, each such part is the dimension of the spirit soul." (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 5.9) Accordingly, the tradition
teaches that the universe contains innumerable particles of spiritual atoms souls measured as one ten-thousandth of the upper portion of a hair. Knowledge of the soul's dimensions is augmented by information regarding the position of the soul in the body: "The soul is atomic in size and can be perceived by perfect intelligence. It is situated within the heart and spreads its influence all over the body of the embodied living entities. When the soul is purified from the contamination of the five kinds of material air (prana, apana, vyana, samana,
), its spiritual influence is exhibited. (Mundaka Upanishad
3.1.9) The soul is thus caught in the body, and from the moment of its birth falsely identifies with the body. In one an individual passes through many different bodies - baby, child, youth, adult, and so on - but remains the same person. The soul does not change; it is the body that changes. The Bhagavad-gita
(2.13) states: "As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, so at death the same soul passes into another body."
2. Actions performed in this body determine the next body. Vaishnava texts assert that the soul's transmigration from body to body does not take place in a random way. The soul's journey is instigated by subtle desires and facilitated by karma, or prior actions, wether earlier in this life or in previous existences. It is for this reason that the various species are created - each type of body is equipped with a particular sensual forte. Individuals inhabit bodies according to their tastes and desires. For example, for a human being inclined to sluggishness and sleep the body of a bear (who sleeps for months at a time) may be more appropriate.
The soul can escape rebirth by developing consciousness of God. Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita
(8.15), "After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogis in devotion, are never born again...." Thus, the Vaishnava tradition teaches that the process of bhakti-yoga
(devotional yoga) can free one from the cycle of birth and death.
As stated in the Brahma-samhita
(5.59), "The highest devotion is attained by constant endeavor for self-realization with the help of scriptural evidence, theistic conduct, and perseverance in practice."
A.L. Herman, professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, explains the importance of bhakti-yoga
in the following manner:
"Bhakti-yoga, 'the way of Adoration,' offers a way out of the problem of reincarnationby showing the path of selfless devotion to God. In other words, Bhakti-yoga...produces actions without karmic residues as the Bhakta (devotee) dedicates his actions and their consequences to an adored God; as a result, the karma generated by the act becomes God's and not the bhakta's. The conclusion is that the problem of suffering is solved once again, as the cause of dukha, desire, is crushed in the surrendering to God of all the fruits of one's labors. And, once again, the way to heaven is open."
Krishna states, "From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery, wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode...never takes birth again." (Bhagavad-gita