As the real self (atman) remains unchanged throughout life, it likewise continues after death. This soul is carried within the subtle (astral) body to its next destination. The precise nature of the new body is determined by the state of mind at death and is specifically influenced by (1) the person’s desires, and (2) his karma.

Samsara refers to the process of passing from one body to another throughout all species of life. Hindus believe that consciousness is present in all life forms, even fish and plants. However, though the soul is present in all species, its potential is exhibited to different degrees. In aquatics and plants it is most “covered”, practically asleep, whereas in humans it is most alert. This progression of consciousness is manifest throughout six broad “classes of life, “namely (1) aquatics, (2) plants, (3) reptiles and insects, (4) birds, (5) animals and (6) humans, including the residents of heaven. Most Hindus consider samsara essentially painful, a cycle of four recurring problems: birth, disease, old-age, and death.

Key Points

  • At death the soul passes into another body.
  • It is carried within the subtle body.
  • The next body is determined by the state of mind at death, and by the soul’s desires and deserts.
  • The nature of the soul is the same, regardless of which body it resides in.
  • Samsara – passing through the six categories of lifeforms – is considered painful for the eternal soul.

Glossary Terms

Samsara: the perpetual cycle of repeated birth and death.

A Useful Analogy

Replacing old clothes with new

As the body wears clothes, the soul “wears” the body.

  • We discard clothes when they become old and useless, and buy and put on new ones.
  • We buy clothes on the basis of (1) what we want, and (2) what we can afford. Similarly, we get our next body according to (1) our desires and (2) our karma.
  • Just as a person wears layers of clothing, the soul wears a number of material coverings. They are primarily two:
    1. the subtle body, also called the astral or ghost body It consists largely of the mind and usually remains with the soul as it quits the gross body.
    2. the gross or external body, which the soul (with the subtle body) discards at death

Related Stories

Story of Maharaja Bharata (STO-103)

A story about reincarnation.

The Life and Death ofAjamila (STO-104)

The time of death.

Related Practices

The Hindu rites of passage at death, during and after the funeral ceremony, are to ensure the peaceful passage of the soul. They aim to prevent the person being “held up” in his or her spiritual evolution, and particularly to avoid the possibility of remaining in subtle form as a ghost (as yet without a new body).

In fact, many Hindus consider all rites of passage as preparation for inevitable death.

Scriptural Passages

“As the embodied soul continually passes in this body from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into a new body at death.”

“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, 0 son of Kunti, that state he will attain without fail.”

“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.”

Bhagavad-gita 2.13, 8.06, 15.9

See also: Bhagavad-gita 2.22, 8.06, 15.8–10

Meaning and Purpose

Why are we not born with equal opportunity despite attempts to accomplish this through social reform?

Related Values and Issues

The notion of a soul within all bodies is particularly relevant to the following issues:

  • abortion
  • animal welfare/rights
  • negative discrimination of all kinds (racism, ageism, sexism, nationalism, religious sectarianism, etc.)
  • empathy for others
  • non-violence (ahimsa)
  • questions of identity

Personal Reflection

  • We could explore our feelings towards animals. What similar features do they share with humans? What are the differences?
  • Could reincarnation relate to the phenomenon of those about to die seeing their entire lives passing before their eyes?
  • How can we explain out-of-body or near-death experiences, and spontaneous “past-life memories.”

Common Misunderstandings

Hindus believe that in the next life the soul becomes a different person or even an animal.

No, the soul retains its identity, and the same “real-self” passes into a new body. Any differences between the body we now have and that which we receive in the next life reflect the subtle (psychological) changes undergone in this chapter of life.