Excerpt: A Story about Rebirth and Karma

In The Dream Narrative, Wendy Doniger, one of the great scholars of Hindu texts and myths, unravels the dream adventure that encompasses dreaming, forgetting, rebirth and karma. With captivating stories from the Yogavasishtha (regarded as the greatest text ever written on the subject), the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata Purana and the Matsya Purana, Doniger explores ideas that catapult us into new understandings of our waking life.

Here’s an excerpt from her dazzling essay:

For this is not just a story about rebirth, it is a story about karma. What are these karmic memory traces? In classical Indian philosophy, on which [Yogavasishtha] constantly draws, they are the bits of experience that adhere to the transmigrating soul and that predispose it to act in one way or another in its new life. They may also be experienced as inexplicable, tantalizing memories, the uneasy aftermath of a dream that has been forgotten by the conscious mind but that continues to haunt the deeper mind—the subconscious or unconscious mind, as the Freudians and Jungians would term it. It was the karmic memory traces that kept alive the knowledge that returned to the princess when she came of age, like swans returning to the Ganges in autumn. Our text tells us, for example, that after the bee had become an elephant and was then reborn as a bee, he went back to the same lotus pond where he had previously met with his unfortunate accident, ‘because people who are not aware of their karmic traces find it hard to give up their bad habits.’ So too, when the beautiful woman becomes a doe, because she envies the beauty of the doe’s eyes, Rudra remarks, ‘Alas, the delusion that results from the karmic traces causes such misery among creatures.’ All of the people in the dream-chain are reborn in a particular form because they want something. There is a hunger left unsated in their present lives, and this propels them across the barrier of death into a new birth, where that still unfulfilled longing leads them to do what they do. The link between dream illusions and the compulsions that make us fall again and again into the trap of rebirth is carefully forged by our text:

One’s own soul, making separate what is in fact a unity, becomes fragmented in rebirths;

every single creature dies and experiences, as a separate existence, a life that is like a dream. It is not only the monk whose soul quickens from a previous life; our own living souls go from one delusion to another delusion, every day. Just as a cloud, that seems hard as a rock, is shattered on the tip of a mountain, so the living soul is shattered upon the Supreme Soul.

The one thing that is real—firm and hard—is the universal soul, the Godhead. The experience of the individual soul, by contrast, is entirely soft, a cloud of karmic traces. The individual soul is a dream, but there is something firm in the universe, something real—the universal soul of which each living soul is a fragment.

Featured image: ‘A sculpture of Sleeping Vishnu from Aihole, Karnataka’, by Jean-Pierre Dalbera, 2015, at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai. Source: Wikimedia Commons.





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