Understanding Reincarnation: Hindu philosophy and scientific perspective

What is inevitable on this earth is death, and then the question arises is what is death. In today’s world, doctors pronounce individual dead and issue death certificates. They decide an individual’s death by checking the cardiovascular system i.e. when the pulse and respiration of an individual stops which is called Clinical Death. However, a person can survive if an artificial support system is made available at right time. Another type of death known as Brain Death refers to the case in which brain regions, namely cerebrum, cerebellum and brainstem stop working leading to the loss of the person’s consciousness. A brain dead individual’s organs can work on life support system. For a better understanding of the difference between ‘Clinical Death’ and ‘Brain Death’ I am mentioning the following incident which occurred in 1992, in the city of Erlangen, Germany. A girl met a traumatic brain injury during a car accident and at the time of accident she was 15 weeks pregnant that means she was carrying a baby. She was declared brain dead in hospital but her internal organs were still functioning so doctors tried to save the life of the unborn baby. The baby died after 40 days in a miscarriage (spontaneous abortion) but baby was alive in womb for those 40 days: this case is referred as Erlangen baby.

Image Source: Himalayan Academy Publications, Kapaa, Kauai, Hawaii.

Most of us are aware about death but we don’t know what happenes after death. Different religions have different opinion about after-death. As per Islam there is life after death (known as akhirah) and a dead person will be in their grave till the day of judgement (yawm as-din). Jannah (heaven) or jahannum (hell) will be granted to a person as per his/her deeds. Most of the other Abhramic thought have the similar point of view. According to Hindu belief there is another life after death that is called reincarnation or punarjanm. All life goes through the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth and this is known as the cycle of Saṃsāra. As per Hindu believes all living things have an atman, which is a piece of Brahman, or a spirit or soul. It is the atman that moves on into a new body after death. As said in Bhagavad Gita 2.13

dehino ’smin yathā dehe kaumāraṁ yauvanaṁ jarā

tathā dehāntara-prāptir dhīras tatra na muhyati

Meaning: Just as the embodied soul continuously passes from childhood to youth to old age, similarly, at the time of death, the soul passes into another body. The wise are not deluded by this.

Then the question arises what is atman, to understand let’s have a story from Chandogya-upanishad Verse 6.13. A child asked his father what is Atman/aatma? Father replied; ‘Place this salt in water, and come to me tomorrow morning.’ The son did as he was told. Next morning the father said, ‘Bring me the salt you put in the water.’ The son looked for it, but could not find it, for the salt, of course, had dissolved. The father said, ‘Taste some of the water from the surface of the vessel. How is it?’ ‘Salty.’ ‘Taste some from the middle. How is it?’ ‘Salty.’ ‘Taste some from the bottom. How is it?’ ‘Salty.’ The father said, ‘Throw the water away and then come back to me again.’ The son did so; but the salt was not lost, for the salt existed forever. Then the father said, ‘Here likewise in this body of yours, my son, you do not perceive the truth, but there, in fact, it is. An atman can go into the body of any living thing, such as a plant, animal or human. Once a living being dies, its atman will be reborn or reincarnated into a different body depending on its karma from its previous life.

Scientists too tried to understand what happens to a person after death. So they interviewed people who were cardiac arrest survivors (meaning patients revived from no pulse, no respiration, and fixed dilated pupils) or in another term faced near-death experience (NDE). NDE is a stage between clinical death and resuscitation (the action or process of reviving someone from unconsciousness or apparent death). They named this experiment AWARE-AWAreness during REsuscitation. Majority of survivors had no near death experience at all during this phase, a few said memories flowing in, a few felt detachments from the body or visuals of landscapes or a bright light as it is coming from the end of a tunnel etc. Some reported a great feeling of happiness, others experienced states of fear or panic. In another study by cardiologist Pim Van Lommel, some patients had an out of body experience i.e. the patient was able to recall all the events during the time of cardiac arrest. Although, some scientists tried to explain these phenomenon at physiological, psychological as well as at spiritual level. Some scientist even termed afterlife claim of near death experience as a pseudoscientific. Renowned British scientist Sam Parnia describe ‘mind or consciousness -our self -is produced from organized brain activity. However, nobody has ever been able to show how brain cells, which produce proteins, can generate something so different i.e. thoughts or consciousness. Maybe your mind, your consciousness, your psyche, the thing that makes you, may not be produced by the brain. The brain might be acting more like an intermediary’.

But if we comparatively study scientific research and Hindu philosophy, both emphasise consciousness as a separate entity. So, is consciousness soul or atman? The concept of consciousness existing outside the body (e.g. near-death and out-of body experiences) could not be explained by conventional science because of an apparent lack of rational explanation. Mostly because conventional science is based entirely on classical physics and cannot account for the normal in-the-brain consciousness as proposed by Prof. Stuart Hameroff. That’s why many quantum physicists now believe that like particles which have both wavelike and particle-like characteristics there is a dualism between body and soul. Nobel Prize winner Roger Penrose proposed The Penrose-Hameroff ‘Orch OR’ model is a quantum approach to consciousness, connecting brain processes to fluctuations in fundamental space-time geometry, the fine scale structure of the universe. According to Orch OR theory consciousness originates at quantum level inside neurons unlike general believe that it originates because of neuronal connections. They suggested microtubules are suitable for quantum computations inside neurons and which was further experimentally supported by detection of vibrations in microtubules by Anirban Bandyopadhyay research group at NIMS, Japan and thus term ‘Quantum Soul’ is laid by Stuart Hameroff and Deepak Chopra. To answer the ultimate question, does soul exists and migrate from one body to another; we need more scientific evidence to ascertain its existence and transmigration till then we could rever the verse 2.29 of Bhagavad Gita

āśhcharya-vat paśhyati kaśhchid enan āśhcharya-vad vadati tathaiva chānyaḥ āśhcharya-vach chainam anyaḥ śhṛiṇoti śhrutvāpyenaṁ veda na chaiva kaśhchit

Meaning: Some see the soul as amazing, some describe it as amazing, and some hear of the soul as amazing, while others, even on hearing, cannot understand it at all.

Image: In the picture Nataraj statue in the CERN campus depicting Shiva performing the Tandava, a dance believed to be the source of the cycle of creation, preservation and destruction. Physicist Carl Sagan drew the metaphor between the cosmic dance of the Nataraj and the modern study of the 'cosmic dance' of subatomic particles.

Author: Rajeev Raman

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