The following readings on death and the afterlife are excerpted from some of the most important works of literature and scripture in world history. One is a contemporary account of a near-death-experience by a psychiatrist. Look for similarities as well as differences. They include the following:
1. Near Death Experience of Dr. Dianne Morrissey
2. Buddhism: Tibetan Book of the Dead
3. Christian Resurrection: I Corinthians, Chapter 154. Ancient Greece: from Homer's Iliad and Odyssy
5. Greek Philosophy: Reincarnation in Plato's Republic & Phaedo6. Greek Mythology: Geography of the Afterlife
7. Rome: The Elysian Fields & Reincarnation in Virgil's Aeneid
8. Dante's vision of Paradise. (Paradiso, Canto 33)
9. Indian Philosophy: Reincarnation & Salvation in Bhagavad Gita
When Dianne Morrissey, PhD, was twenty-eight years old, she was electrocuted and had a very profound NDE: near-death experience. Modern medicine has shown increasing interest in this phenomenon, and we shall see in Plato an ancient account of the NDE.
Some take such accounts as verifying a consciousness surviving outside the physical body. Others believe the entire experience is a benign effect of the brain's chemistry at the time of death.
"I was electrocuted by 119 volts and dead for forty-five minutes. The doctors said they were amazed that I ever woke up.
When I first came out of my body I noticed that I was transparent and wondered how I could see so good without my glasses, because I saw them on the floor next to my lifeless body.
I moved through many dimensions and at one point I knew I was dead. I met an angel-like woman on the other side who explained much to me I will never forget the love that surrounded me at that moment, or the joy that ran through me.
In this rapturous place, I recognized that there were two aspects of "me." My soul was my consciousness, everything that had made me who I had been and what I had become. My spirit, on the other hand, was the part of me that was now transparent and glowing, dressed in white.
Within the light, I knew that everyone and everything is connected to it. God is in everyone, always and forever. Within the light was the cure for all diseases."
2. The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol)
The term Bardo refers to the "state in-between" death and rebirth. The term Dharma-Kaya means "truth-body," the very body of the Dharma. One who is liberated need not return to a physical body or even a subtle spiritual body in one of the many heaven worlds, for one simply recognizes the pure truth of supreme Consciousness, limitless and all-pervading, as one's only form.
"O nobly-born, that which is called death has come to thee now. Resolve thus: 'O this now is the hour of death. By taking advantage of this death, I will so act, for the good of all sentient beings, peopling the illimitable expanse of the heavens, as to obtain the Perfect Buddhahood, by resolving on love and compassion towards them, and by directing my entire effort tothe Sole Perfection.'
"Shaping the thoughts thus, especially at this time when the Dharma-Kāya of Clear Light [in the state] after death can be realized for the benefit of all sentient beings, know that thou art in that state; [and resolve] that thou wilt obtain the best boon of the State of the Great Symbol, in which thou art, [as follows]:
"'Even if I cannot realize it, yet will I know this Bardo, and, mastering the Great Body of Union in Bardo, will appear in whatever [shape] will benefit [all beings] whomsoever: I will serve all sentient beings, infinite in number as are the limits of the sky.'
"Keeping thyself unseparated from this resolution, thou shouldst try to remember whatever devotional practices thou went accustomed to perform during thy lifetime.
"In saying this, the reader shall put his lips close to the ear, and shall repeat it distinctly, clearly impressing it upon the dying person so as to prevent his mind from wandering even for a moment.
"After the expiration hath completely ceased, press the nerve of sleep firmly; and, a lāma, or a person higher or more learned than thyself, impress in these words, thus:
"Reverend Sir, now that thou art experiencing the Fundamental Clear Light, try to abide in that state which now thou art experiencing.
"And also in the case of any other person the reader shall set him face-to-face thus:
"O nobly-born (so-and-so), listen. Now thou art experiencing the Radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality. Recognize it. O nobly-born, thy present intellect, in real nature void, not formed into anything as regards characteristics or colour, naturally void, is the very Reality, the All-Good.
"Thine own intellect, which is now voidness, yet not to be regarded as of the voidness of nothingness, but as being the intellect itself, unobstructed, shining, thrilling, and blissful, is the very Buddha, the All-good Buddha, the essence of pure Consciousness itself. That thou art!
"Thine own consciousness, not formed into anything, in reality void, and the intellect, shining and blissful, -- these two, -- are inseparable. The union of them is the Dharma-Kāya state of Perfect Enlightenment.
"Thine own consciousness, shining, void, and inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light -- Buddha Amitābha.
"Knowing this is sufficient. Recognizing the voidness of thine own intellect to be Buddhahood, and looking upon it as being thine own consciousness, is to keep thyself in the [state of the] divine mind of the Buddha.
"Repeat this distinctly and clearly three or [even] seven times. That will recall to the mind [of the dying one] the former [i.e. when living] setting-face-to-face by the guru. Secondly, it will cause the naked consciousness to be recognized as the Clear Light; and, thirdly, recognizing one's own self [thus], one becometh permanently united with the Dharma-Kāya and Liberation will be certain.
(English translation by Lāma Kazi Dawa-Samdup, Edited by W. Y. Evans-Wentz)
3. Christianity: The Resurrection of the Dead
I Corinthians, Chapter 1512But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27For he "has put everything under his feet."[c] Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
29Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? 30And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31I die every day—I mean that, brothers—just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."[d]
33Do not be misled: "Bad company corrupts good character." 34Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.
The Resurrection Body
35But someone may ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?" 36How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.
42So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"[e]; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we[f] bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
50I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."[g]
55"Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?"[h]
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
4. Greece, 8th Century BCE
"Even in Hades some ghostly shade remains, but our true being is not there."
Homer's Iliad (book 23)
by sweetly flowing round him—for his splendid limbs
were tired out from hand-to-hand combat with Hector
by wind-swept Ilion—then poor Patroclus
came to him as a ghost, looking exactly like himself
in all respects—in stature, handsome eyes, and voice.
He stood there, above Achilles' head, body covered
with the same clothes he used to wear over his skin.
The ghost spoke to Achilles, saying:
"You're asleep, Achilles.
You've forgotten me. While I was alive,
you never did neglect me. But now I'm dead.
So bury me as quickly as you can.
Then I can pass through the gates of Hades.
The spirits, ghosts of the dead, keep me away.
They don't let me join them past the river.
So I wander aimlessly round Hades' home
by its wide gates. Give me your hand, I beg you,
for I'll never come again from Hades,
once you've given me what's due, my funeral fire.
We'll no more sit together making plans,
separated from our dear companions.
The jaws of dreadful fate are gaping for me,
ready to consume me—my destiny
from the day that I was born. You, too,
godlike Achilles, you have your own fate,
to die under the walls of wealthy Troy.
I'll say one more thing, one last request,
if you will listen. Achilles, don't lay your bones
apart from mine. Let them remain together,
just as they were when we grew up together
as best friends when we were boys....
So let the same container hold our bones:
that gold two-handled jar your mother gave you."
Swift-footed Achilles then replied:
"Dear friend, why have you come to me here,
telling me everything I need to do?
I'll carry out all these things for you,
attend to your request. But come closer.
Let's hold each other one short moment more,
embracing, weeping together."
Saying this, Achilles reached out with his arms,
but he grasped nothing. The spirit had departed,
going underground like vapor, muttering faintly.
Achilles jumped up in amazement, clapped his hands,
and then spoke out in sorrow:
"Ah! It's true!
Even in Hades' house some ghostly shade remains,
but our true being is not there at all. This night
the ghost of poor Patroclus stood beside me,
weeping, lamenting, asking me to do things,
in every detail—amazingly like him."
Achilles' words stirred the desire to keep mourning
in all his soldiers. When rose-fingered Dawn appeared,
they were still lamenting by that cheerless corpse.
Odysseus must go down to Hades and consult the dead prophet, Teiresias, to gain his directions for getting home to Greece as he returns from the Trojan War. He makes a blood offering to the dead, for they are lost in shadowy forgetfulness. But when they taste the animal's blood, they temporarily revive and briefly remember their previous lives....
* What is the significance of the fact that the hero must enter the realm of death before he can learn the way home?
Then came the ghost of Teiresias with his golden sceptre in his hand. He knew me and said, 'Ulysses, noble son of Laertes, why, poor man, have you left the light of day and come down to visit the dead in this sad place? Stand back from the trench and withdraw your sword that I may drink of the blood and answer your questions truly.'
So I drew back, and sheathed my sword, whereon when he had drank of the blood he began with his prophecy.
You want to know,' said he, 'about your return home, but heaven will make it hard for you....
I sat still where I was until my mother came up and tasted the blood. Then she knew me at once and spoke fondly to me, saying, 'My son, how did you come down to this abode of darkness while you are still alive? It is a hard thing for the living to see these places, for between us and them there are great and terrible waters.....'
(A) The Myth of Er, from Plato's Republic (Book 11)
Plato died in 348 BCE. He ends his great masterpiece of philosophy, The Republic, with a 'myth' that is the earliest recorded NDE (Near Death Experience) in Western literature. The soldier, Er, is left for dead on the battlefield. But he revives to tell his story, having seen into the afterlife. The doctrine of Reincarnation is clearly taught here as part of the Western tradition. Reincarnation is also mentioned in Pindar and attributed to Pythagoras. Herodotus also references the doctrine of Reincarnation, stating that the Greeks learned it from the Egyptians. We will see the doctrine again in the Roman Virgil's Aeneid.
* Why do you think the very rational Plato would end his greatest political and philosophical treatise with this 'myth'?
"This is the tale of a warrior, Er, the son of Armenius, by race a Pamphylian. He once upon a time was slain in battle, and when the corpses were taken up on the tenth day already decayed, was found intact, and having been brought home, at the moment of his funeral, on the twelfth day as he lay upon the pyre, revived, and after coming to life related what, he said, he had seen in the world beyond.
"He said that when his soul went forth from his body he journeyed with a great company and that they came to a mysterious region where there were two openings side by side in the earth, and judges were sitting between these, and that after every judgment they bade the righteous journey to the right and upward through the heaven with tokens attached to them in front of the judgment passed upon them, and the unjust to take the road to the left and downward, they too wearing behind signs of all that had befallen them, and that when he himself drew near they told him that he must be the messenger to mankind to tell them of that other world, and they charged him to give ear and to observe everything in the place...
"For he said that it was a sight worth seeing to observe how the several souls selected their lives. He said it was a strange, pitiful, and ridiculous spectacle, as the choice was determined for the most part by the habits of their former lives. He saw the soul that had been Orpheus', he said, selecting the life of a swan, because from hatred of the tribe of women, owing to his death at their hands, it was unwilling to be conceived and born of a woman. He saw the soul of Thamyras choosing the live of a nightingale, and he saw a swan changing the choice of the life of man, and similarly other musical animals. The soul of Ajax, the son of Telamon, because it remembered the injustices of battle, was unwilling to become a man. The next, the soul of Agamemnon, likewise from hatred of the human race because of its sufferings, substituted the life of an eagle.
"Drawing one of the middle lots, the soul of Atalanta caught sight of the great honors attached to an athlete's life and could not pass them by, but snatched at them. After her, he said, he saw the soul of Epeus, the son of Panopeus, entering into the nature of an arts and crafts woman. Far off in the rear he saw the soul of the buffoon Thersites clothing itself in the body of an ape.
"Then the great soul of Odysseus drew the last lot of all. From memory of its former toils, having flung away every ambition, it went about for a long time searching for the life of an ordinary citizen who minded his own business. With difficulty this fate was found lying in some corner, disregarded by the others. Upon finding it, the soul of Odysseus said that it would have chosen this same destiny even if it had drawn the first lot. He chose it gladly...
"After the souls had chosen their lives in the order of their lots, they were led to the daughters of Necessity, the Three Fates— Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos, whose spindle wove each their web of destiny. Then they journeyed to the Plain of Oblivion and drank at the River of Forgetfulness. And after they had fallen asleep and it was the middle of the night, there was a sound of thunder and a quaking of the earth, and they were suddenly wafted thence, one this way, one that, upward to their birth like shooting stars. Er himself, he said, was not allowed to drink of the water, yet how and in what way he returned to the body he said he did not know, but suddenly recovering his sight, he saw himself at dawn lying on the funeral pyre.
"And so the tale was saved. And it will save us if we believe it. We shall safely cross the River of Lethe, and keep our soul unspotted from the world. And guided by wisdom, we shall believe that the soul is immortal and capable of enduring all extremes of good and evil, and so we shall hold ever to the upward way and pursue righteousness with wisdom always. Let our souls be dear to ourselves and to the gods both during our sojourn here and when we receive our rewards, just as victors in the games gather theirs. Thus, both here and in that journey of a thousand years, we shall fare well."
(Republic, Book X: 614b-621d)
(B) From Plato's Phaedo, 13-14
Plato also gives a vision of the afterlife and judgment of the dead in his dialog, The Phaedo. Here we see an elaborate system of subterranean rivers that carry the dead to various realms of judgment, and back again to the outer world. At the deepest level is the abyss of Tartarus. These rivers and realms of judgment will be adopted by the medieval Christian poet, Dante, infused with Christian moral meaning, in his poem, The Inferno.
* Can you find in this vision some roots of Church concepts such as heaven, purgatory, and hell?
* What is the destiny of those who have lived the best kind of life? How do they attain the highest abode?
"Now when the dead have come to the place where each is led by his guiding spirit, first they are judged and sentenced, as they have lived well and piously, or not. And those who are found to have lived neither well nor ill, go to the River Acheron and, embarking upon vessels provided for them, arrive in them at the lake, There they dwell and are purified, and if they have done any wrong they are absolved by paying the penalty for their wrong doings, and for their good deeds they receive rewards, each according to his merits.
"But those who appear to be incurable, on account of the greatness of their wrongdoings, because they have committed many great deeds of sacrilege…are cast by their fitting destiny into the lowest abyss, called Tartarus, whence they never emerge.
"Those, however, who are curable, but are found to have committed great sins--who have, for example, in a moment of passion done some act of violence--must needs be thrown into Tartarus, and when they have been there a year, a wave casts them out: the homicides by way of River Cocytus, those who have outraged their parents by way of River Pyriphlegethon. And when they have been brought by the current to the Acherusian lake, they shout and cry out, calling to those whom they have slain or outraged, begging and beseeching them to be gracious and to let them come out….
"And if they prevail, they come out and cease from their ills. But if not, they are borne away again to Tartarus and thence back into the rivers, and this goes on until they prevail upon those whom they have wronged; for this is the penalty imposed upon them by the judges.
"But those who are found to have excelled in holy living are freed from these regions within the earth and are released as from prison. They mount upward into their pure abode…And of these, all who have duly purified themselves by philosophy live henceforth altogether without bodies, and pass to still more beautiful abodes which it is not easy to describe, nor have we now time enough."
6. Greek Mythology: Geography of the Afterlife
"I'd rather be a day-laborer on earth working for a man of little property than lord of all the hosts of the dead." --Achilles, in The Iliad
Hades was the universal destination of the dead in Greek religion until the latter half of the 5th century BCE. Hades was a cold, damp and dark realm that was guarded by the god of the same name. The "gates of Hades" were guarded by the fearsome hound Cerberus, who wags his tail for new arrivals but does not allow anyone to leave. Without proper burial, one cannot enter the gates of Hades. The river Styx is the boundary between earth and Hades, but Hades has other rivers as well (e.g. Phlegethon, Acheron, Cocytus). A similar concept is found in Japanese Buddhism in the Sanzu River, which the dead must cross on the way to the afterlife.
In Greek religion, Tartarus was the deepest region of the underworld, lower than Hades. Hesiod wrote that it would take an anvil nine days to fall from heaven to earth and another nine to fall from earth to Tartarus. Hades, not Tartarus, is the place of the dead but some especially wicked characters have been imprisoned in Tartarus to be punished. It is where Sisyphus, thief and murderer, must repeatedly push a boulder up a hill for eternity; where Ixion, who killed his father-in-law, is attached to a flaming wheel; and where Tantalus is kept just out of reach of cool water and grapes for sharing the secrets of the gods with humans. Tartarus is also where monsters and other enemies have been cast after being defeated by the gods, including the Cyclopes, the Titans and Typhus. In Roman mythology, Tartarus was the eternal destination of sinners in general.
Elysium (also called Elysian Fields or Elysian Plain) was a paradise inhabited at first only by the very distinguished, but later by the good. Elysium first appears in Homer's Odyssey as the destination of Menelaus. It is located at the western ends of the earth and is characterized by gentle breezes and an easy life like that of the gods. Closely related to Elysium is Hesiod's Isles of the Blessed, mentioned in his Works and Days, which was located in the western ocean.
The notion that the human soul enters another body upon death, though unfamiliar in popular Greek religion, was widespread in Greek philosophy. The doctrine of transmigration is first associated with the Pythagoreans and Orphics and was later taught by Plato (Phaedo, Republic) and Pindar (Olympian). For the former groups, the soul retained its identity throughout its reincarnations; Plato indicated that souls do not remember their previous experiences. Although Herodotus claims that the Greeks learned this idea from Egypt, most scholars do not believe it came either from Egypt or from India, but developed independently.
Entered more deeply into the ray
Of Truth's pure light: I mingled
My inward eye with Glory Infinite.
O grace abundant, I presumed
To fix my sight upon your Light Eternal.
I was consumed in pure seeing! I saw
In that groundless depth of Light
All the pages of the universe bound up
By love in a single book.
What seems so scattered in the world
Of multiple images is here refined
And focused in such singleness of seeing
That what I speak of is one simple light....
My mind this way was wholly suspended,
Steadfast, immovable, attentive, gazing
Where gazing kindles itself in deeper sight,
Because it is impossible to look away
When the good gathers all in One....
Within the deep and luminous substance
Of that single Light appeared to me three circles,
Of threefold color yet one dimension.
The first seemed reflected by the second,
As an eye within an eye, and the third
Seemed fire ignited equally by each.
O Eternal Light, dwelling wholly in thyself,
Knower of thyself, known unto thyself,
Loving and smiling on thyself through knowledge!
The circulation of these Three in One
Appeared in thee as a reflected light,
And seemed to me painted and colored
With a human likeness: all my sight
Strained to behold the beauty of that form.
As a mathematician tries to square
the circle and cannot discover how,
Even so I struggled to conceive
That new and wondrous apparition.
I wished to see how that form fit
Those circles, but the wings of vision failed
In vigor to remain aloft, and would
Have surely fallen were it not, in a trembling instant,
For a lightning flash of grace, that smote
My soul, and granted my wish to see.
My yearning and my will, it seemed,
Were turned as moving wheels are turned
By the Love that moves the sun and all the stars.
As Krsna begins to speak on the immortality of the soul, He tells Arjuna, "Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be." The Gita further instructs, "That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul." The soul -- here we speak of something so subtle that it is not immediately verifiable by the limited human mind and senses. Therefore, not everyone will be able to accept the existence of the soul. Krsna informs Arjuna, "Some look on the soul as amazing, some describe him as amazing, and some hear of him as amazing, while others, even after hearing about him, cannot understand him at all."
Accepting the existence of the soul is, however, not merely a matter of faith. Bhagavad-gita tries to appeal to the evidence of our senses and logic, so that we may accept its teachings with some degree of rational conviction and not blindly, as dogma.
It is impossible to understand reincarnation unless one knows the difference between the actual self (the soul) and the body. The Gita helps us see the nature of the soul by the following example. "As the sun alone illuminates all this universe, so doesconsciousness illuminate the entire body."
Consciousness is concrete evidence of the presence of the soul within the body. On a cloudy day, the sun may not be visible, but we know it is there in the sky by the presence of sunlight. Similarly, we may not be able to directly perceive the soul, but we may conclude it is there by the presence of consciousness. In the absence of consciousness, the body is simply a lump of dead matter. Only the presence of consciousness makes this lump of dead matter breathe, speak, love, and fear. In essence, the body is a vehicle for the soul, through which it may fulfill its myriad material desires. The Gita explains that the living entity within the body is "seated as on a machine made of the material energy." The soul falsely identifies with the body, carrying its different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas. Just as an automobile cannot function without the presence of a driver, similarly, the material body cannot function without the presence of the soul.
But if the soul is "not slain when the body is slain," then what becomes of it? The answer given in the Bhagavad-gita is that the soul enters another body. This is reincarnation. This concept may be difficult for some people to accept, but it is a natural phenomenon, and the Gita gives logical examples to aid our understanding: "As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change."
In other words, man reincarnates even in the course of one lifetime. Any biologist will tell you that the body's cells are constantly dying and being replaced by new ones. In other words, each of us has a number of "different" bodies in this very life. The body of an adult is completely different from the body the same person had as an infant. Yet despite bodily changes, the person within remains the same. Something similar happens at the time of death. The self undergoes a final change of body. The Gita says, "As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones." Thus the soul remains entrapped in an endless cycle of births and deaths. "One who has taken his birth is sure to die, and after death one is sure to take birth again," the Lord tells Arjuna.
According to the Vedas, there are 8,400,000 species of life, beginning with the microbes, rising through the fish, plants, insects, reptiles, birds, and animals to the humans and demigods. According to their desires, the living entities perpetually take birth in these species.
The mind is the mechanism that directs these transmigrations, propelling the soul to newer and newer bodies. The Gita explains, "Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, .. that state he will attain without fail [in his next life]." Everything we have thought and done during our life makes an impression on the mind, and the sum total of all these impressions influences our final thoughts at death. According to the quality of these thoughts, material nature awards us a suitable body. Therefore, the type of body that we have now is the expression of our consciousness at the time of our last death.
"The living entity, thus taking another gross body, obtains a certain type of ear, eye, tongue, nose, and sense of touch, which are grouped about the mind. He thus enjoys a particular set of sense objects." the Gita explains. Further, the path of reincarnation does not always lead uphill; the human being is not guaranteed a human birth in his next life. For example, if one dies with the mentality of a dog, then he will in his next life receive the eyes, ears, nose, etc., of a dog, thus allowing him to enjoy canine pleasures. Lord Krsna confirms the fate of such an unfortunate soul, saying, "When one dies in the mode of ignorance, he takes birth in the animal kingdom."
According to Bhagavad-gita, humans who do not inquire about their nonphysical, higher nature are compelled by the laws of karma to continue in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, sometimes appearing as humans, sometimes as animals, and sometimes as plants or insects.
Our existence in the material world is due to the multiple karmic reactions of this and previous lives, and the human body provides the only loophole through which the materially conditioned soul can escape. By properly utilizing the human form, one can solve all the problems of life (birth, death, disease, and old age) and break the endless cycle of reincarnation. If, however, a soul, having evolved to the human platform, wastes his life by engaging only in activities for sense pleasure, he can easily create sufficient karma in this present life to keep him entangled in the cycle of birth and death for thousands upon thousands of lives. And they may not all be human.
Lord Krsna says, "The foolish cannot understand how a living entity can quit his body, nor can they understand what sort of body he enjoys under the spell of the modes of nature. But one whose eyes are trained in knowledge can see all this. The endeavoring seekers, who are situated in self-realization, can see all this clearly. So strive for knowledge of the self!"