Memories of past lives

Other material related to rebirth:

(1) After death and before birth

(2) Circumstances of Ramakrishna’s birth

(3) How Mahavira was born

1 of 3: General introduction:

The Mother (of Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, India) says thus in answer to the following question:   “How is it that in newspapers one quite often reads stories of small children who remember their past lives and that the details have been verified? And it is the study of such events that leads parapsychologists to assert the existence of reincarnation. So are they not on a completely wrong track? And how can reincarnation be demonstrated scientifically in any other way?

  “The memories you refer to, which are mentioned in newspapers, are memories of the vital being that, exceptionally, has gone out of one body in order to enter another. It is something that can happen, but it is not frequent.

  “The memory that I refer to is that of the psychic being, and one is conscious of it only when one is in conscious relation with one’s psychic being. There is no contradiction between the two things.”

  The subject of death, states of after-death and rebirth is not simple for mind to understand because it deals with many states of consciousness that are totally foreign to ordinary human consciousness. However, modern science has now begun to taste the glimpse of these states by its own fanciful tools. One such tool is the application of hypnosis in the field of Psychiatry. Dr. Brian Weiss, a  psychiatrist, while he was treating his patient Catherine to rid her of the symptoms of fear-psychosis by the application of hypnosis, had a fascinating chance to peep into some of these consciousness’ states, which are alien to our own normal state of consciousness. He writes in his “Many Lives, Many Masters”:

  “Hypnosis is an excellent tool to help a person remember long-forgotten incidents. There is nothing mysterious about it… I instructed Catherine to lie on the coach with her eyes slightly closed and her head resting on a small pillow… After a while I began to regress her, asking her to recall memories of progressively earlier ages. She was able to talk and to answer my questions while maintaining a deep level of hypnosis.”

  Catherine recollected her past memories and described with graphic vivid details of events not only of her earlier lives that she had lived (in one case a life lived in 1863 BC) but also of what happened to her after her physical deaths in many such past lives. Most interestingly, she described as seeing many Master Spirits, in addition to many ordinary spirits, dwelling in those after-worlds and caused those Master Spirits through her deep hypnotized state to answer Dr. Brian’s questions. She said there were many people (spirits) living there in those worlds. There were also many Master Spirits (or more evolved spirits). The answers given by those Master Spirits are full of wisdom and echo the teachings of the founders of mankind’s religions. Catherine described the moments of her physical deaths in her previous many lives and what had happened thereafter. She said she came out of her physical body and floated out there after these deaths. Describing one such occasion, she says:

  “I am aware of a bright light. It is wonderful’ you get energy from this light.”

  “The soul… the soul finds peace here. You leave all the bodily pains behind you. Your soul is peaceful and serene.  It is a wonderful feeling … wonderful like the sun is always shining on you. The light is so brilliant! Everything comes from the light. Energy comes from this light. Our soul immediately goes there. It is almost like a magnetic force that we are attracted to. It is wonderful. It is like a power source. It knows how to heal.”

   It is the experience of Divine force guiding the Psychic Being. Catherine speaks of the Master Spirits (or more evolved psychic Beings) being present in those worlds. Catherine acted as instrument for these Spirits to speak words. These words are full of wisdom and reassert what has been said by great spiritual leaders of Mankind since ages. These spirits said:

  “Our task is to learn, to become God-like through knowledge. We know so little. “

  “We have no right to abruptly halt peoples’ lives before they have lived out their karma. And we are doing it. We have no right. They will suffer greater retribution if we let them live. When they die and go to the next dimension, they will suffer there. They will be left in a very restless state. They will have no peace. And they will be sent back, but their lives will be very hard. And they will have to make up to those people that they hurt for the injustices that they did against them. They are halting these peoples’ lives, and they have no right to do that. Only God can punish them, not us. They will be punished.”

  “Yes, we choose when we will come into our physical state and when we will leave. We know when we have accomplished what we were sent down here to accomplish. We know when the time is up., and you will accept your death. For you know that you can get nothing more out of this life time. When you have time, when you have had the time to rest and re-energize your soul, you are allowed to choose your re-entry back into the physical state…. “

  “Everybody’s path is basically the same. We all must learn certain attitudes while we are in physical state. Some of us are quicker to accept them than ohers. Charity, hope, faith, love … we must all know these things and know them well. It is not just one hope and one faith and one love – so many things feed into each one of these. There are so many ways to demonstrate them. And yet we have only tapped into a little bit of each one… People of the religious orders have come closer than any of us have because they have taken these vows of chastity and obedience. They have given up so much without asking for anything in return. The rest of us continue to ask for rewards – rewards and justifications for our behavior. .. when there are no rewards, rewards that we want. The reward is in doing, but doing without expecting anything…. Doing unselfishly. “

  “To be in physical state is abnormal. When you are in spiritual state, that is natural to you. When we are sent back, it is like being sent back to something we do not know. It will take us longer. In the spirit world you have to wait, and then you are renewed.  There is a state of renewal.”

  “Those are different levels of learning, and we must learn some of them in the flesh. We must feel the pain. When you are a spirit you feel no pain. It is a period of renewal. Your soul is being renewed. When you are in physical state in the flesh, you can feel pain; you can hurt. In spiritual form you do not feel. There is only happiness, a sense of well-being. But it is a renewal period for … us. The interaction between people in the spiritual form is different. When you are in physical state.. You can experience relationships.”

This is the (dismal) state of our knowledge about the subject of death, worlds where one may go after one’s death, memories of previous births etc. obtained by us through the so-called scientific methods! Hypnosis is not even recognized as a branch of a legitimate science because of its lack of regour of control. In comparison to this scientific hesitating groping and probing, the eastern wisdom on this subject is mature and tempered with the time and labor of ages of their spiritual masters. What does this wisdom say about the memories of one’s previous lives?

The Mother in answer to the question:   “Are the ‘soul’ and the ‘psychic being’ one and the same thing” says thus: “This depends on the definition you give to the words. In most religions, and perhaps in most philosophies also, it is the “vital being” which is called “soul”, for it is said that “the soul leaves the body”, while it is the vital being which leaves the body. One speaks of “saving the soul”… but all that applies to the “vital being”, for the “psychic being” has no need to be saved! It does not share the faults of the external person; it is free from all reaction.”

  Sri Aurobindo says:   “At a certain stage in the Yoga when the mind is sufficiently quieted and no longer supports itself at every step on the sufficiency of its mental certitude, when the vital has been steadied and subdued and is no longer constantly insistent on its own rash will, demand and desire, when the physical has been sufficiently altered not to bury altogether the inner flame under the mass of its outward ness, obscurity or inertia, an inmost being hidden within and felt only in its rare influences is able to come forward and illumine the rest and take up the lead of the Sadhana. Its action is like a searchlight showing up all that has to be changed in the nature; it has in it a flame of will insistent on perfection, on an alchemic transmutation of all the inner and outer existence. It sees the divine essence everywhere but rejects the mere mask and the disguising figure.”

  He further says: “What is meant by (the psychic’s) coming to the front is simply this. The psychic ordinarily is deep within. Very few people are aware of their souls – when they speak of their soul, they usually mean the vital + mental being or else the (false) soul of desire.

  “The psychic remains behind and acts only through the mind, vital and physical wherever it can. For this reason the psychic being except where it is very much developed has only a small and partial, concealed and mixed or diluted influence on the life of most men. By coming forward is meant that it comes from behind the veil, its presence is felt already in the waking daily consciousness, its influence fills, dominates, transforms the mind and vital and their movements, even the physical. One is aware of one’s soul, feels the psychic to be one’s true being, the mind and the rest begin to be only instruments of the inmost within us.”

  The Mother says:  “In the ordinary life there’s not one person in a million who has a conscious contact with his psychic being, even momentarily. The psychic being may work within, but so invisibly and unconsciously for the outer being that it is as though it did not exist. And in most cases, the immense majority, almost the totality of cases, it is as though it were asleep. Not at all active, (it is) in a kind of torpor.

  “It is only with the sadhana and a very persistent effort that one succeeds in having a conscious contact with his psychic being. Naturally, it is possible that there are exceptional cases – but this is truly exceptional, and they are so few that they could be counted – where the psychic being is an entirely formed, liberated being, master of itself, which has chosen to return to earth in a human body in order to do its work. …

  “In almost, almost all cases, a very sustained effort is needed to become aware of one’s psychic being. Usually it is considered that if one can do it in thirty years one is very lucky – thirty years of sustained effort, I say. It may happen that it’s quicker. But this is so rare that immediately one says, “This is not an ordinary human being”. That is the case of people who have been considered more or less divine beings and who were great yogis, great initiates.”

  The Mother says:  “In rebirth it is not the “external being”, that which is formed by parents, environment and circumstances – the mental, the vital and the physical being that is born again: it is only the “psychic being” that passes from body to body. Logically, then, neither the mental nor the vital being can remember past lives or recognize itself in the character or mode of life of this or that person. The psychic being alone can remember; and it is by becoming conscious of our psychic being that we can have at the same time exact impressions about our past lives.”

  She says:   “The psychic being may be made centre for self-unification: The work of unifying the being consists of:-

  1. Becoming aware of one’s psychic being.

  2. Putting before the psychic being, as one becomes aware of them, all one’s movements, impulses, thoughts and acts of will, so that the psychic being may accept or reject each of these movements, impulses or acts of will. Those that are accepted will be kept and carried out; those that are rejected will be driven out of the consciousness so that they may never come back again.”

   She again says:  “If we truly want to progress and acquire the capacity of knowing the truth of our being, that is to say, what we are truly created for, what we can call our mission upon earth, then we must, in a very regular and constant manner, reject from us whatever contradicts the truth of our existence, whatever is opposed to it. In this way, little by little, all the parts, all the elements of our being can be organized into a homogeneous whole around our psychic centre. This work of unification requires much time to be brought to some degree of perfection. Therefore, in order to accomplish it, we must arm ourselves with patience and endurance, with a determination to prolong our life as long as necessary for the success of our endeavor….

  “In various times and places many methods have been prescribed for attaining this perception and ultimately achieving this identification. Some methods are psychological, some religious, some even mechanical. In reality, everyone has to find the one which suits him best, and if one has an ardent and steadfast aspiration, a persistent and dynamic will, one is sure to meet, in one way or another – outwardly through reading and study, inwardly through concentration, meditation, revelation and experience – the help one needs to reach the goal. Only one thing is absolutely indispensable: the will to discover and to realize. This discovery and realization should be the primary preoccupation of our being, the part of great price which we must acquire at any cost.

  “Whatever you do, whatever your occupation and activities, the will to find the truth of your being and to unite with it must be always living and present behind all that you do, all that you feel, all that you think.”

  Sri Aurobindo says:   “There are a thousand ways of approaching and realizing the Divine and each way has its own experiences which have their own truth and stand really on a basis one in essence but complex in aspects, common to all but not expressed in the same way by all. There is not much use in discussing these variations; the important thing is to follow one’s own way well and thoroughly”.

2 of 3: The process of rebirth: 

The Mother says: To understand rightly the problem of what is popularly called reincarnation, you must perceive that there are two factors in it which require consideration. First, there is the line of divine consciousness which seeks to manifest from above and upholds a certain series of formations, peculiar to itself, in the universe which is its field of manifestation. Secondly, there is the psychic consciousness which climbs up from below, the seed of the Divine developing through time till it meets the Force from above and takes the impress of the supramental Truth.

This psychic consciousness is the inner being of a man, the material from which his true soul or jiva can be fashioned when, in response to its aspiration, the Supramental descends to give it a consistent personality.

The exterior being of man is a perishable formation out of the stuff of universal Nature — mental, vital, physical — and is due to the complex interplay of all kinds of forces. The psychic absorbs the essence, as it were, of the experiences of the various formations behind which it stands; but not being in constant contact with them it does not retain the memory of the lives in their totality to which it supplies the background.

Hence by merely contacting the psychic one cannot have the recollection of all those past lives: what commonly goes by the name of such recollection is, mostly, either deliberate imposture or a fabrication out of a few spasmodic hints received from within. Many people claim to remember their animal lives as well: they say that they were such and such a monkey living in this or that part of the globe. But if anything is certain, it is that the monkey has no contact whatever with the psychic consciousness and so transmits not one jot of his experiences to it. The impressions of his exterior monkey-nature vanish with the crumbling of his animal body: to pretend to a knowledge of them is to betray the grossest ignorance of the actual facts of the problem under consideration.

Even with regard to human lives, it is only when the psychic has come to the fore that it carries and preserves definite memories, but certainly not of all the details of life unless it is constantly in front and one with the exterior being. For, as a rule, the physical mind and the physical vital dissolve with the death of the organism: they disintegrate and return to the universal Nature and nothing remains of their experiences. Not until they have become united with the psychic, so that there are not two halves but a single consciousness, the whole nature unified round the central Divine Will and this centralised being is connected up with the divine line of consciousness which is above — not until this happens can one receive the knowledge belonging to that consciousness and become aware of the entire series of forms and lives which were upheld by it as its own successive means of gradual self-expression.

Before this is done, it is meaningless to speak of one’s past births and their various incidents. This precious oneself is just the present impermanent exterior nature which has absolutely nothing to do with the several other formations behind which, as behind the present one, the true being stands. Only the supramental consciousness holds these births as if strung on one single thread and that alone can give the real knowledge of them all. 


The Mother says:

This is what happens. Let us take a divine spark which, through attraction, through affinity and selection, gathers around it a beginning of psychic consciousness (this work is already very perceptible in animals — don’t think you are exceptional beings, that you alone have a psychic being and the rest of creation hasn’t. It begins in the mineral, it is a little more developed in the plant, and in the animal there is a first glimmer of the psychic presence). Then there comes a moment when this psychic being is sufficiently developed to have an independent consciousness and a personal will. And then after innumerable lives more or less individualised, it becomes conscious of itself, of its movements and of the environment it has chosen for its growth. Arriving at a certain state of perception, it decides — generally at the last minute of the life it has just finished upon earth — the conditions in which its next life will be passed. 

Here I must tell you a very important thing: the psychic being can progress and form itself only in the physical life and upon earth. As soon as it leaves a body, it enters into a rest which lasts for a more or less long time according to its own choice and its degree of development — a rest for assimilation, for a passive progress so to say, a rest for passive growth which will allow this same psychic being to pass on to new experiences and make a more active progress.

But after having finished one life (which usually ends only when it has done what it wanted to do), it will have chosen the environment where it will be born, the approximate place where it will be born, the conditions and the kind of life in which it will be born, and a very precise programme of the experiences through which it will have to pass to be able to make the progress it wants to make. I am going to give you quite a concrete example.

Let us take a psychic being that has decided, for some reason or other, to enter the body of a being destined to become king, because there is a whole series of experiences it can have only under those conditions. After having passed through these experiences of a king, it finds that there is a whole domain in which it cannot make a progress due to these very conditions of life where it is. So when it has finished its term upon earth and decides to go away, it decides that in its next life it will take birth in an ordinary environment and in ordinary conditions, neither high nor low, but such that the body which it will take up will be free to do what it likes. For I do not tell you anything new when I say that the life of a king is the life of a slave; a king is obliged to submit to a whole protocol and to all kinds of ceremonies to keep his prestige (it is perhaps very pleasant for vain people, but for a psychic being it is not pleasant, for this deprives it of the possibility of a large number of experiences). 

So having taken this decision, it carries in itself all the memories which a royal life can give it and it takes rest for the period it considers necessary (here, I must say that I am speaking of a psychic being exclusively occupied with itself, not one consecrated to a work, because in that case it is the work which decides the future lives and their conditions; I am speaking of a psychic being at work completing its development). Hence it decides that at a certain moment it will take a body. Having already had a number of experiences, it knows that in a certain country, a certain part of the consciousness has developed; in another, another part, and so on; so it chooses the place which offers it easy possibilities of development: the country, the conditions of living, the approximate nature of the parents, and also the condition of the body itself, its physical structure and the qualities it needs for its experiences. It takes rest, then at the required moment, wakes up and projects its consciousness upon earth centralising it in the chosen domain and the chosen conditions — or almost so; there is a small margin you know, for in the psychic consciousness one is too far away from the material physical consciousness to be able to see with a clear vision; it is an approximation. It does not make a mistake about the country or the environment and it sees quite clearly the inner vibrations of the people chosen, but there may happen to be a slight indecision. But if, just at this moment, there is a couple upon earth or rather a woman who has a psychic aspiration herself and, for some reason or other, without knowing why or how, would like to have an exceptional child, answering certain exceptional conditions; if at this moment there is this aspiration upon earth, it creates a vibration, a psychic light which the psychic being sees immediately and, without hesitation it rushes towards it. Then, from that moment (which is the moment of conception), it watches over the formation of the child, so that this formation may be as favourable as possible to the plan it has; consequently its influence is there over the child even before it appears in the physical world. If all goes well, if there is no accident (accidents can always happen), if all goes well at the moment the child is about to be born, the psychic force (perhaps not in its totality, but a part of the psychic consciousness) rushes into the being and from its very first cry gives it a push towards the experiences it wants the child to acquire. The result is that even if the parents are not conscious, even if the child in its external consciousness is not quite conscious (a little child does not have the necessary brain for that, it forms slowly, little by little), in spite of that, it will be possible for the psychic influence to direct all the events, all the circumstances of the life of this child till the moment it becomes capable of coming into conscious contact with its psychic being (physically it is generally between the age of four and seven, sometimes sooner, sometimes almost immediately, but in such a case we deal with children who are not “children”, who have “supernatural” qualities, as they say — they are not “supernatural”, but simply the expression of the presence of the psychic being). But there are people who have not had the chance or rather the good fortune if one may call it that, of meeting someone, physically, who could instruct them. And yet they have the feeling that every step of their existence, every circumstance of their life is arranged by some one conscious, so that they may make the maximum progress. When they need a certain circumstance, it comes; when they need to meet certain people, they come; when they need to read certain books, they find them within their reach. Everything is arranged like that, as if someone was watching over them so that their life may have the maximum possibilities of development. These people may very well say: “But what is a psychic being?”, for no one has ever used these words in speaking to them or they have not found anybody who could explain to them all that; but for them often just one meeting is sufficient, just one look, in order to wake up; one word suffices to make them remember: “But I knew all that!” This is exactly what happens to a psychic being which has reached the last stage of its development. After that, it will no longer be bound by the necessity of coming upon earth, it will have completed its development and will be able to choose freely either to consecrate itself to the divine Work or go elsewhere, that is, in the higher worlds. But generally, having come to this stage, it remembers all that has happened to it and understands the great necessity of coming to the help of those who are yet struggling in the midst of difficulties.

These psychic beings give their whole existence to the divine Work — this is not absolute, inevitable, they choose freely, but ninety times out of a hundred this is what they do. But in ordinary lives — and by that I mean the life of a certain elite of sufficiently well-developed people — the contact between the external being and the psychic is quite intermittent; it is the result of certain experiences or certain inner needs. At that moment the psychic being is “in front”, as Sri Aurobindo says, that is, it comes to the surface of the consciousness, it is in direct contact with material circumstances, with forms and words and sounds, etc., for a very short time; so it records all that like a photograph or a cinema, but it is just a minute, a few moments in a lifetime. These moments may repeat themselves several times, but they do not last; and it is this the psychic being remembers; and when you have real psychic memories, sincere, spontaneous, not fabricated by the mind or the vital, that is, purely psychic, exact, your memory is intermittent. And it is often very difficult to locate your past lives, to say: “I was this or that.” It is only when the psychic experience has taken place at a very important moment of your life and a whole set of circumstances gives you, so to say, the key to the story (dresses, spoken words, customs or an environment giving you the key) that you can say: “Oh! that life, I have lived it.” But if someone comes and narrates to you all his previous lives from the monkey onwards, with a mass of details, you may be sure that he is a humbug.” 

3 of 3: Memory of Past Lives 

The Mother says:

When you have the psychic memory you remember a set of circumstances at one moment of life, particularly of the inner emotion, of the consciousness that acted at that moment. And then that passes into the consciousness along with some associations, with all that was around you, perhaps a word spoken, a phrase heard; but what was most important was the state of the soul in which you were: for that indeed remains very clearly en-graved.

These are the landmarks of the psychic life, things that have left a deep impression and taken part in its formation.

Hence when you find your psychic being in you again constantly, continuously, clearly, it is things like these that you remember. There may be quite a few, but they are flashes in one’s life, and one cannot say: “I was such and such a person, I did such and such a thing, I was called by this name and I was doing this or that.” Or otherwise it would mean that at that moment (a rare one) there was a combination of circumstances good enough for one to be able to fix the date or the place, the country and the age. That can happen. Naturally the psychic takes a greater and greater part, and the larger does the set of memories grow. And then one can retrace one’s life, but not in all its details. One can say that at certain moments, “it was like this,” or “I was that.” Certain moments, yes, very important moments of a life…. What’s necessary is a being wholly identified with the psychic, one that has organised its whole existence around it, unified its whole being — all the tiniest parts, all the elements, all the movements of the being around the psychic centre — that has made of itself a single being, solely turned to the Divine; then, if the body falls off, that remains. It is only a completely formed conscious being that can remember exactly in another life all that has happened before. It can even pass consciously from one life to another without losing anything of its consciousness.

How many people upon earth have reached that state?… Not many, I believe. And usually they are not in the least inclined to narrate their adventures. 

6 May 1953 

She says: In rebirth it is not the external being, that which is formed by parents, environment and circumstances — the mental, the vital and the physical — that is born again: it is only the psychic being that passes from body to body.

Logically, then, neither the mental nor the vital being can remember past lives or recognise itself in the character or mode of life of this or that person.

The psychic being alone can remember; and it is by becoming conscious of our psychic being that we can have at the same time exact impressions about our past lives. Besides, it is much more important for us to fix our attention upon what we want to become than upon what we have been.

2 April 1935

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