A slayer of an embryo is like the slayer of a priest.
Krishna Yajur Veda 6.5.10
Conception And Birth
I am often asked, “What is the point at which a soul enters into a new incarnation?” Many advanced souls choose their parents long before conception, electing to live in their homes, especially if the parents worship. Especially if they were relatives in a past life, they want to be born back into those families to work out their karmas. Therefore, a soul may become connected with his mother-to-be long before conception. An unreligious couple that does not seek the inner forces at the moment of conception or slightly before, depending on wherever they are — in a hospital or hotel — may attract and draw into the process of incarnation anybody who is magnetized to them. I call this “potluck off the astral plane,” even the lower astral. Someone could die in a hospital and, in a motel three blocks down the street, be immediately conceived. If the husband and wife had been fighting and arguing, this could magnetize a child that would not help the family, but instead would disrupt the household. The difference between the two situations is that one family is thinking of the Divine at the time of conception and the other is living an ordinary life with no contact with the inner, spiritual forces.
In either case, when the fetus starts to move in the womb, the soul simultaneously enters and occupies physical life, fully incarnates, or enters flesh. That’s when the soul is totally “hooked in,” around three or four months. It’s there before, hovering near the mother, but not fully connected. The 2,200-year-old Tirumantiram of Rishi Tirumular tells us in verses 453-455 that from the moment of conception a soul is associated with the growing physical form of the infant. He says that at the instant of conception, as vital fluids are released and flow from both parents, the embryo is formed; the twenty-five tattvas rush in and lie concealed within its third eye, ajna chakra. At this point, life begins. For nine months, the embryo, then fetus, develops physically, and the soul that will inhabit the physical form gradually awakens to First-World embodied consciousness, becoming more or less fully conscious of its new physical form at birth.
It is good to understand that the soul exists in the macrocosm within the microcosm. It has no need of traveling to or from; it is where its awareness is. Outward forms, even physical bodies, do not depend on the soul’s awareness being present constantly, just as you are not dead when you are asleep. As you might say, “I was not in my body,” after you find yourself day dreaming, in the same sense, the soul is not constantly in the infant body while it is growing in the womb.
The life of the body is odic, and it runs on by itself. The spiritual energies and presence of the soul dominating the physical, emotional and mental elements is what makes us human. As Rishi Tirumular says, the moment life departs the body, the cherished friend becomes merely a bad smell. The soul’s association with the body — the “nine-holed bag of skin” — is life. It begins at conception and continues until the moment of death. In summary, the soul is psychically connected and increasingly aware of its physical body in the womb throughout the pregnancy, just as the soul is connected with the physical body outside the womb until the moment of death.
At the time of birth, the previous astral body is still there. The new astral body grows within the child, and the old astral body is eventually sloughed off. It’s not immediate. Like moving into a new house, it takes time to get settled. A newborn baby sometimes looks like an old person right from the beginning. This is because it has an old astral body. As the child gains its new identity, a new astral body is formed from the ida of the mother and the pingala of the father, and that development is enhanced by harmony between the parents. It is a slow transition.
Just as the former physical body finally disintegrates, its old astral body does also. It takes time for these things to happen. For older souls it takes a shorter time. Still, it’s a gradual transition. As one astral body develops, the other goes. Once in Virginia City I inwardly saw a young girl running around dressed in the old Western style clothing as an adult, and I knew that this was her old astral body. A child may be able to remember who he was in his last life until the old astral body dissipates.
When Does Life Begin?
The question of when human life begins is often asked with the modern-day controversy over abortion in mind. In speaking of this delicate subject with my devotees, I have explained that conceiving a child is like planting a seed in the ground. Although you may not see anything for a while, there are life forces building which will one day appear before your physical eyes, emerging out of the microcosm into the macrocosm, or First World. If you interrupt or cut off that process, for whatever reason, the consequences fall to you, according to the law of karma propounded by our Saiva faith.
Abortion is definitely a concern, not only to wives and daughters but to husbands as well. The aborted child, if allowed to live, may have become the husband’s heir, a preeminent member of society, and tenderly cared for him and his wife in their elder years. But they will never know and will always wonder, wonder.
Abortion is a concern all over India, where it is legal. Doctors there and elsewhere have developed an inexpensive version of the French “abortion pill.” Many see this as a blessing for India’s population problem and a safer alternative to the thousands of surgical abortions performed each month, from which many women die or suffer infections. It is perhaps a good time to reflect on another side of this issue, on the karma and on dharma.
Wives often please their husbands by aborting an unwanted girl — which she is blamed for, when, in fact, it is the male sperm that determines the child’s gender — but secretly wonder, “Who is she? Who was she in her past life? Will she find another womb to incarnate through? Would she perhaps have become a Florence Nightingale, Madame Curie or Anandamayi Ma, a saint like Auvaiyar or Mirabai?” The subliminal subjective sadness that abortion brings, with all the “maybes” that lie unanswered, in itself is a sign from the soul that abortion is wrong; a new bad karma, a kukarmaphala, has been created. It did not have to be, but it was. After all, the still, small voice of the soul sometimes speaks loudly when a wrong is committed, and doesn’t stop talking until a counterbalancing punya, merit, is achieved and solace sought for.
Atonement For Abortion
Built within the great Hindu religion is the process of atonement. What is the prayashchitta, the penance, to be done to atone for abortion? One that works very well in this modern age is to adopt a child, raise it with tender loving care, believing this soul is akin to the aborted soul who sought to take refuge within one’s family. This, then, atones. Mahatma Gandhi utilized this principle when one day he counseled a Hindu man who said he had slain a Muslim in revenge for his son’s killing at the Muslim’s hands. He was deeply troubled about his crime. Gandhi advised him to adopt and raise a Muslim boy as penance for the deed.
One becomes his own psychiatrist by utilizing the psychology that when something has gone wrong, it has to be fixed. Why would it have to be resolved? Because the persons involved don’t feel good about the action, or karma. Resolution is not only mending and healing, it is eradicating the memory of the event — not actually a total forgetfulness, but the emotions that come up with the memory are eradicated. This can be done in various ways. Write to the person who was aborted and burn the letter in a fire. Explain how sorry you are, how miserable you are feeling, and attest that you will never do it again. This is a great way to unload a subconscious mind that is filled with guilt.
Accepting reincarnation, punarjanma, we acknowledge souls existing in subtle form in astral bodies waiting to incarnate through a womb. When that womb is disturbed, this is recorded as a sense of eviction for the conscious fetus; and it has similar empty effects on the potential mother’s life and all those connected to her in the family. It is a kukarma that affects all, is felt by all and must be paid for by all.
So, we can see the consequences. This does not mean that anyone is cursed or that there is any “mortal sin” involved. Hinduism is a free-flowing religion. It threatens no everlasting it preaches no mortal sin, as a transgression that, if unexpiated in this one and only life, would deprive the soul from closeness to God for eternity. Hinduism accepts life the way it is, even its flaws and frailties. It teaches us the right path but knows we may not always follow that path and thus gives the remedies to correct whatever bothers us at every stage of the great journey to moksha, liberation from rebirth.
Abortion brings with it a karmic force of destruction that will come back on the mother and father who set it in motion. They may be denied a dwelling. They may be denied a noble child. They may beget a child who will persecute them all the days of their life. The parents, the abortionist and the nurses will suffer difficulties in attaining another birth, perhaps by experiencing as many abortions as they participated in while on Earth. The price is high for abortion, much higher and more costly than giving birth, raising and educating the child and establishing him or her in life.
Life must go on. It is said that children often bring great fortune to their parents. They pay their own way. Nevertheless, abortions do happen, have happened and will happen in the future. Men and women who have participated, and their doctors and nurses, are involved in the deep kukarmic consequences. The action’s reaction, which is karma, must be resolved in some way for a peace of mind, a quiescent state, to persist. The Hindu religion forbids abortion because of the laws of personal dharma, social dharma and ahimsa — noninjury to any living creature, physically, mentally or emotionally.
The Sanatana Dharma states that abortion is sanctioned only if the life of the mother would be lost by the birth of the child. Hindu scripture speaks strongly against the deliberate attempt to kill a embryo/fetus, telling us life starts at conception, when the astral body of the newborn child-to-be in the Antarloka is hovering over the bodies of the mother and father. The Kaushitaki Upanishad (3.1) counts abortion among such heinous sins as killing one’s parents. The Atharva Veda (6.113.2) lists the fetus slayer, brunaghni, among the greatest of sinners.
Our research among scholars and swamis tells us there is nothing within Hinduism that opposes contraceptives or birth-control methods. However, if conception occurs, the man and woman have already taken on the karmic responsibility. It is dharma’s path to then open the doors of their hearts to receive the incarnating soul. A miscarriage is something different — an unintentional action of nature, shall we say. Try again and the same soul may come through.
What about rape, incest, adultery or premarital pregnancies? Mothers are the life-givers of the planet. Even in these most terrible conditions, scripture gives no permission to injure, and certainly not to kill. However, it would be a sin upon the child to be born and kill his mother in the process. This is why abortion to save the life of the mother is the one and only exception which tradition allows. Yet, even that exception must not be resorted to lightly by some clever doctor or a husband falsely saying, “She might die,” or “My wife’s life is in peril,” or by a devious wife herself claiming, “I am going to die if I don’t abort this child.” It must be an honest and competent diagnosis, not for the sake of money, not for the sake of saving face in the community, not for the sake of repudiating an infant girl. It must be an honest diagnosis made by compassionate, dharmic doctors.
The central principles at work here are ahimsa, noninjury; the energy of God everywhere; the action of the law of karma; the strict rules of dharma defined in our holy scriptures; and the belief in reincarnation. These five make a Hindu a Hindu and make not committing abortion an obvious decision.
Questions On Suicide
Another very serious issue faced today in every society is suicide. The percentages are too high to ignore the problem that exists in far too many Hindu communities. Well, we can advise, as many elders do: “Don’t kill yourself.” After all, they became elders by avoiding such extreme solutions. But do those who are all wrought up with emotion and confusion listen to such advice? No. Many die needlessly at their own hand. How selfish. How sad. But it is happening every day. Suicide does not solve problems. It only magnifies future problems in the Antarloka — the subtle, nonphysical astral world we live in before we incarnate — and in the next life. Suicide only accelerates the intensity of karma, bringing a series of immediate lesser births and requiring several lives for the soul to return to the evolutionary point that existed at the moment of suicide, at which time the still existing karmic entanglement that brought on the death must again be faced and resolved. Thus turns the slow wheel of samsara. To gain a fine birth, one must live according to the natural laws of dharma and live out the karma in this life positively and fully.
Suicide is termed pranatyaga in Sanskrit, “abandoning life force.” It is intentionally ending one’s own life through poisoning, drowning, burning, stabbing, jumping, shooting, etc. Suicide has traditionally been prohibited in Hindu scripture because, being an abrupt escape from life, it creates unseemly karma to be faced in the future.
However, in cases of terminal disease or great disability, religious self-willed death through fasting, prayopavesha, is sometimes permitted. Hinduism is not absolutely black and white in this matter. Rather, it takes into account the broader picture. How will this affect the soul? How will it affect humanity? How will it affect one’s future incarnations? All that must be taken into account if a wise and compassionate, right decision is to be made on so serious a matter.
There are very few extraordinary situations in which self-willed death is permitted. It is not enough that we are unhappy, disappointed, going through a temporary anguish, such as loss of loved ones, a physical injury, a financial loss or the failure to pass an exam and the fear of an angry thrashing from parents when they find out. That is called life. It is not enough that we are filled with sorrow. None of these reasons is enough to justify suicide, and thus it is in such cases an ignoble act. It is not necessarily even enough that we are suffering a serious, terminal illness, one of the thousands that beset human beings on this planet.
Expiring By Fasting
In their love, their wisdom of the meaning and purpose of life, the rishis, the divine lawmakers, provided an alternative for extraordinary human suffering. They knew that excruciating suffering with no possible end in view is not conducive to spiritual progress and that it is best to have a fully conscious death in a joyous, religious mood, meditating or listening to scripture and sacred songs to the Gods. So, the Vedic rishis gave, in rare circumstances, the anguished embodied soul a way to systematically, nobly and acceptably, even to loved ones, release itself from embodiment through fasting. They knew, too, that life is more than a body, that the soul is immortal, that a proper exit can, in fact, be elevating. Death for Hindus is a most exalted human experience, a grand and important departure, mahaprasthana.
The person making such a decision declares it publicly, which allows for community regulation and distinguishes the act from suicide committed privately in traumatic emotional states of anguish and despair. Ancient lawgivers cited various stipulations: inability to perform normal bodily purification; death appears imminent or the condition is so bad that life’s pleasures are nil; and such extraordinary action must be done under community regulation.
The gradual nature of prayopavesha is a key factor distinguishing it from sudden suicide, svadehaghata, for it allows time for the individual to settle all differences with others, to ponder life and draw close to God, even to change his mind and resume eating, as well as for loved ones to oversee his gradual exit from the physical world. One begins this highly ritualized practice by obtaining forgiveness and giving forgiveness. Next a formal vow, mahavrata marana, “great vow of death,” is taken before one’s guru, following a full discussion of all karmas of this life, especially confessing one’s wrongdoings fully and openly. Thereafter, attention is focused on scripture and the guru’s noble teachings. Meditation on the innermost, immortal Self becomes the full focus as one gradually abstains from food. At the very end, as the soul releases itself from the body, the sacred mantra is repeated as instructed by the preceptor.
To leave the body in the right frame of mind, in the right consciousness, through the highest possible chakra, is a key to spiritual progress. The seers did not want unrelenting pain and hopelessness to be the only possibilities facing a soul whose body was failing, whose only experience was pain without reprieve. So they prescribed a kindly way, a reasonable way, especially for the pain-riddled, disabled elderly and the terminally diseased, to choose a righteous release. What wonderful wisdom. No killer drugs. No violence. No involvement of another human being, with all the karmic entanglements that inevitably produces. No life-support systems. No loss of the family wealth for prolonged health care or into the hands of unscrupulous doctors. No lapsing into unconscious coma. No loss of dignity. No unbearable anguish. And no sudden or impulsive decision — instead, a quiet, slow, natural exit from the body, coupled with spiritual practices, with mantras and tantras, with scriptural readings, deep meditation, reflection and listening to favorite religious songs, with joyous release, with all affairs settled, with full self-awareness and with recognition and support from friends and relations. But don’t try it unless you meet up to the qualifications and, above all, have community support.
From our cyberspace congregation through the Internet came a question about the thirty-one-day period of seclusion that a family observes following a death or a birth in the family. The traditional practice is to not go to the temple, to not visit swamis and gurus, and to put white cloth over the Deities in the shrine room. An understanding of the esoterics behind traditions is very important in order to fulfill them. When someone is born or dies, a door, to either the higher or lower inner worlds, is opened for all who share a psychic bond, depending on where the soul has come from or has gone. For thirty-one days a psychic passageway of vulnerability persists, which is particularly magnetic in instances of death. “Still,” the devotee asked, “isn’t a birth especially a happy, sacred event? If so, why can’t we go into the shrine room? Why can’t we go into the temple?”
Yes, birth is a very sacred and happy event for the entire family and should be regarded as such. However, it is also a very inner time for the family. Inner worship, meditation, singing songs, doing japa are totally acceptable. A primary reason behind this tradition is to protect the health and well-being of the newborn. Secondly, it is observed so that the baby can become adjusted to the big experience of birth, which is a tremendous experience for the soul, to come into a physical body. During this first month, the astral body of the child is getting accustomed to its tiny new physical body and is experiencing leaving that body and reentering that body. This is an important time of astral, physical adjustment for the newly born. Often when a baby is crying uncontrollably, we can assume that the astral body is out of the physical body, trying to reenter. Also, to bring a newborn child during his first month to a temple would be unwise, as everyone would crowd around, relatives and strangers and friends, breathing into his face, and the baby could contract a disease. Thirty-one days is given to keep the child protected from disease and allow him or her full entrance into the physical body.
The observance of the thirty-one day period immediately after a death in the family is the same traditional practice: closing up the shrine room, putting white cloth over all the Deity pictures and refraining from visiting temples, and from approaching swamis or other holy persons. Cases of a birth and a death are mystically very similar, in that the door of the inner world is open. We want to help that door close, not keep it open by worshiping in the shrine or going to the temple. Spiritual practice is curtailed to avoid the pitfalls that could result in inadvertently drawing forth the energies of beings of the lower worlds rather than the higher.
Visiting the shrine room at this time would also open the door for uncontrollable crying by members of the family. Crying upsets the astral body of the departed one, because he or she is still connected to the loved ones, and yet is having happy experiences. So, during this particular time of thirty-one days after a birth or death, slowly the inner doors of the higher world as well as the lower worlds are allowed to close.
This does not restrict relatives and friends from bringing food to the family, which is very helpful, because the natural routine of the home has been disrupted. Especially in the event of the death of a dear family member, there are many, many things to do — funeral arrangements, disposing of clothing and belongings, attending to wills — so it helps if the family is free from its usual chores and religious duties. After the period of retreat, which does not exclude, of course, personal meditation and japa, worshiping within, normalcy may recommence.