In the Bhagavad Gita, human beings—and all worldly creatures—have two components, which are variously described as matter and mind, the body and the eternal self (atman), or the “sacred ground” and that which knows the sacred ground. An eternal self sheds various bodies but in fact remains unchanged, as this absolute component is born from Krishna (as a conduit for Vishnu) and destined to return to him after completing the cycle of reincarnation known as samsara. Krishna shows Arjuna that humans should aim precisely to advance their souls along this cycle by shedding their attachment to the gunas (the constituent parts of matter that bind this soul to various bodies) and reincarnating into progressively holier bodies until they transcend reincarnation altogether and are reincorporated into absolute being.
Krishna explains that all beings are the union of an eternal self and a body. The body, which he also calls the “sacred ground” of knowledge, involves the senses, desires, self-awareness, pleasure, and even thought. It is a mere vessel, which is why Krishna sees nothing wrong with Arjuna killing his family members in accordance with his dharma. All matter, including bodies, is composed of three material forces called gunas: sattva, which brings joy and wisdom; rajas, which brings passion and greed; and tamas, which brings confusion, laziness, and neglect. The more sattva composes a body, the closer the eternal self occupying that body gets to reincarnation. This higher, “supreme self” is pure, free from sensory pleasures and desire, averse to a “sense of ‘mine,’” and eternal—it approximates the Western notion of an immortal soul.
In reincarnation, the eternal self continues from body to body unchanged, carrying its past attachment to gunas with it. By entering different bodies, the eternal self partakes in the gunas, although it is not composed of them. One is only reborn at all because the eternal self clings to various gunas from past lives; Krishna compares the way the eternal self sheds bodies to the way people shed old clothing. Krishna governs reincarnation, placing those who lived demonically in demonic wombs and offering the wise progressively purer bodies as they move toward enlightenment—for instance, he suggests that someone dedicated to yoga can be reborn in a family of yoga practitioners, which would offer them a better opportunity to practice yoga in the next life and move closer still to the divine. As a result of reincarnation, one need not achieve enlightenment in one’s present life to be rewarded for their devotion to God; rather, one can move progressively closer to him, finding a purer body in each new cycle of life.
By living well and eventually achieving this divine purity, a soul eventually supersedes reincarnation altogether: it becomes liberated from any material body and moves entirely outside the cycle of death and rebirth to join Krishna in an “imperishable place” beyond life and death. Once one is purified of rajas and tamas (the lower gunas), the self eventually dissolves into pure Brahman, losing all sense of individuality. According to Krishna, this dissolution brings endless pleasure and the cessation of consciousness, allowing the soul to overcome all dualities. Notably, this transcendence is desirable because it follows logically from basic features of the Gita’s worldview—namely, the nonidentity between the true self and the body, the ephemerality of such bodies, and the inevitability of destruction and death—rather than because it is “good” in any conventional moral sense. Instead, pursuing the good—which includes embodying virtues like patience and humility—is a mere means to these ultimate truths. Krishna uses this promise of transcendence through virtue to persuade Arjuna to return to battle. At the beginning of the Gita, Arjuna worries that killing his family will doom his ancestors to fall from heaven, but Krishna convinces him that fighting actually offers his own only chance at heaven (even if he dies, he will be reincarnated in a superior body).
By centering reincarnation and the promise of eventual transcendence, Krishna shows Arjuna—and other wavering mortals—that they stand to become divine themselves if they learn to live morally. Since the Gita, this belief in reincarnation and its ultimate transcendence through moral ways of life has remained a staple of Hindu religious tradition. Regardless of one’s present ethical composition, there is always something to be gained by turning to the divine and ridding oneself of the vicious lower gunas, even if doing so only promises to move the soul one step closer to transcendence.
Reincarnation and the Self ThemeTracker
Reincarnation and the Self Quotes in The Bhagavad Gita
The form of the ashvattha
is not to be discerned here,
neither its end,
nor ongoing life.
When its fully grown roots
are cut by the strong axe
then that place must be sought
where, once they have gone,
they will not turn back again,
and they think,
‘I take refuge
in the first spirit
where activity flowed forth
in ancient times.’