The leading Aurobindo biographer, Peter Heehs, joined the Survival conference for the first time in May 2006. On Wednesday morning Heehs followed Eric Weiss's overview of Aurobindo's cosmology with a presentation that first provided some brief background to different cultural views of reincarnation and then gave a nice overview of Aurobindo's own perspective on the topic.
Heehs started by noting that reincarnation is accepted by cultures representing roughly half of the world's population. He noted that even the arch-metaphysical skeptic from the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, reasoned that if one accepts the immortality of the soul, then rebirth is a logical and natural result. Heehs said that anthropological research has shown that many indigenous and preliterate cultures believe in reincarnation. Several ancient cultures did as well. The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras is well known for his remarks on the transmigration of the soul. And there are records of pre-Upanishadic shamanic traditions in
that also referred to something like rebirth or reincarnation. Heehs made a distinction between "reincarnation" and "transmigration". Most non-South Asian cultures that accept rebirth do not admit any individual karma or purposive logic to the process. This belief may be called "transmigration", while the term "reincarnation" is reserved for the belief that there is a larger purpose or logic to the overall process. Turning to Buddhism, Heehs said that for most Buddhist schools there is no soul. Instead, there is only a continuation of sanskaras or tendencies in what might be thought of as streams of karma. In contrast, the Abrahamic religions of the West place a great deal of emphasis on the survival of the individual soul. This trend runs through early Christianity, Gnosticism, and Jewish Kabbala. Lastly, Heehs pointed out that even thought many traditions espouse rebirth, very few (if any) of them give detailed accounts of how it works or what is like on the "other side." India
Turning to Aurobindo's views on the topic, Heehs said that Aurobindo's understanding of reincarnation was embedded in his broader view of the evolutionary purpose of the universe. Aurobindo thought of reincarnation as a necessary feature of an evolving world. He recognized a positive purpose for individualized souls as part of this larger evolution, namely to fully embody Divine being in life. This view is in contrast to those of Buddha and Shankara, who saw no developmental significance to the process of rebirth.
Aurobindo viewed the physical body as a one of several human "bodies." When one dies, the core Divine spark in each soul (called the psychic being) starts to shed these other sheaths or layers one by one. The first to go after the death of the physical body is the vital sheath. After that, the mental sheath dissolves, and the psychic being is left. On the return back to incarnated life, this process reverses itself. The incarnating soul will take on mental, vital, and physical bodies before birth.
Heehs clarified that according to Aurobindo, what survives bodily death is not the full and easily recognizable personality, but rather more rudimentary elements or tendencies from one's various lives. These are then shuffled together again in the process of making a new personality. In an unpublished letter Aurobindo wrote, "But after all, it is a line of consciousness and not a personality that returns." Aurobindo's thinking on the subject departed from the notion that a specifically identifiable person or personality was what reincarnated. In short, there is no survival of the complete personality, only a set of surviving tendencies organized around the spark of the Divine. This is not individualized in terms of the specific personality traits or facial features, etc., of past embodied lifetimes. This undermines the popular idea that John Smith (or Napoleon) is reincarnated as Ramesh Sharma (or the writer of the latest reincarnation saga).
Aurobindo retained a scientific and experimental attitude about the topic. He took a scientific-like interest in children who reported past life memories. He thought these reports merited investigation. In fact, some of his statements lend credence to one possible interpretation of the research of scholars like Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker, which is that violent deaths often result in a quick re-entry back into this world. In his main text The Life Divine Aurobindo wrote, "There are cases in which there is a rapid rebirth of the exterior being with a continuation of the old personality and even the manner of the memory of the past life."
Heehs also made a few comments about the notion of other realms or worlds (cf. the bardos of Tibetan theory) where a reincarnating soul might go before coming back to this particular world. Although we tend to think of "worlds" as physical places, Heehs made clear that Aurobindo thought of them as particular states or statuses of consciousness rather than physical places. To use an aesthetic metaphor, worlds are like different harmonies when compared to the harmony of the physical world. According to Aurobindo, such worlds exist, but they are non-evolutionary. In Aurobindo's epic poem Savitri, there are mythic-like gods and demons that inhabit these worlds. But in an important sense, these heavens and hells can also been understood as subjective states created by the individuals who inhabit these worlds. (This lends support to the Tibetan idea that the bardos are to a great extent self-created worlds.) Heehs mentioned that Sri Aurobindo's life partner, the Mother, was a sophisticated initiate into the capacity to travel through such worlds. When she was in
, she received an occult-like training to travel to different planes or worlds. Heehs noted that the Mother made major contributions to Aurobindo's own thought and that this was not inconsistent with the larger Indian tradition of acknowledging a leading role for the feminine and Divine Mother. Algeria
Overall, Heehs said that Aurobindo's view on rebirth was thoroughly teleological. As he once wrote: "The soul assumes birth in order to manifest Divine perfection, to manifest the Divine in life. That is all we can say."