“Incarnation” means us, the spiritual soul, inside the material body. The concept of reincarnation means that before I was in this body in this life I was in a previous body and a previous life. The time we are in this body, we call that “our life”. “Oh, he lived 35 years,” on the tombstone. You start to count those years, “Oh, he was 60 years old, he lived 60 years.”
So according to the concept of reincarnation – before we were in this body and this life we were in a previous body and a previous life. Then when we leave this body at death we enter into another body and have a future life, so many before and many after. This is called “the wheel of birth and death” or “the cycle of birth and death.”
Now of course not everybody accepts this. Some people say it is not true. One of their main arguments is, “You cannot prove it.” But actually, if this skeptical person could observe what he can see around him, he could actually see reincarnation taking place.
In the great Vedic Scripture Bhagavad-gita it is stated, “As the soul continually passes in this lifetime from boyhood to youth to old age, in the same way the soul passes into another body at death.” But a self-realized person is not bewildered by such a change. We watch kids grow up, now they are no longer kids, now they are adults, then they are old and then…changing bodies all the time. Then the final change at death.
In nature there is a little living entity known as a caterpillar. Everybody has seen a caterpillar. Some of them have nice colors, but basically because of their body we leave them alone. Very few people have a pet caterpillar. But we also know at one point this caterpillar spins a cocoon around itself and disappears from our view. Then later out of this cocoon comes a beautiful butterfly. Everybody likes butterflies – symbol of spring, symbol of summer, symbol of freedom. People have magnetic butterflies on their refrigerators, etc. Nobody likes caterpillars but everybody likes butterflies. Yet we all know it is the same life. Nobody thinks that in the middle of the night the caterpillar secretly left the cocoon, the butterfly came in and then came out the next day to fool us. It’s a very different body – the same life, reincarnation.
It is the only philosophy that makes sense. Remember we are eternal. When we leave this body we have to go somewhere. We cannot die, we have to go somewhere. As long as we are in material consciousness we stay in the material world. All living entities in the material world are in material bodies. In fact we are called “embodied souls”, souls in bodies.
Think of it like this. Let’s say you are living in an apartment complex. One day you receive a notice in the mail, that in one month they are going to come and demolish your building. In one month a demolition team arrives and destroys your building. But do you cease to exist? Of course not. You just move out of that apartment, move into another apartment and life goes on.
When that demolition team comes for this apartment (in the form of an accident or disease, or old age) and destroys this building (our body), do we cease to exist? No, we just move out of this apartment, move into another apartment and life goes on.
If you have been following this, maybe you have a question like, “Well, gee, how does it work? Who or what decides what body I get.” After all there are so many different bodies. In the Vedas we learn there is 8 400 000 species of life. So how does it work? Is it just an accident? Is it random? Is it like the lottery? I win one… Is there some higher intelligence up there deciding, “Okay, this time you will be a fish, you will be a dog, you will be a human.” Is there anything I can do about it? Do I have any control? Well, fortunately there is answers to all these questions.
There is actually three main factors that determine what body we get. These are: material desire, material attachment and karma. We are going to look at each one of these and see what part it plays. Before we do this I would like to mention that the soul by nature has certain inherent characteristics. That means these characteristics are always part of the soul. Wetness is an inherent characteristic of water. You cannot separate wetness from water. Whether it comes from the tap, from the sky, from the river – it doesn’t matter. Water is always wet.