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Reincarnation ... or Serpents Of The Mind:
The Talking Stick Colloquium # 70





At the very last moment, one who thinks of wealth, and dies in such thoughts
Shall be reincarnated over and over again, in the form of serpents. ||1||
O sister, do not forget the Name of the Lord of the Universe. ||Pause||
At the very last moment, he who thinks of women, and dies in such thoughts,
Shall be reincarnated over and over again as a prostitute. ||2||
At the very last moment, one who thinks of mansions, and dies in such thoughts,
Shall be reincarnated over and over again as a goblin. ||4||
At the very last moment, one who thinks of the Lord, and dies in such thoughts,
Says Tirlochan, that man shall be liberated; the Lord shall abide in his heart. ||5||2||




This passage from gurbani evokes different - and occasionally - strong reactions. I would like to invite readers to comment on these lines.

On the face of it, Bhagat Tirlochan appears to be pointing to the notion of karam, reincarnation and transmigration - concepts that are central to Hindu thought. The terms are found in gurbani as well - leading, oftentimes, to the interpretation of gurbani along similar lines as well. (Am I giving away my bias!)?

What do readers think?

As you offer your thoughts, please try to think beyond the standard "Yes, Sikhi believes in reincarnation!" or "No, Sikhi does not believe in reincarnation!"

In discussions around this topic, both on this forum and elsewhere, the arguments have been couched in terms of the soul, which, being God-like, is immutable and untouched by human action; yet, is assigned to different bodies, depending on past actions.

How do we reconcile this?

What we have not considered enough, perhaps, is the mind (munn). I am not even sure that the term 'mind' from Western terminolgy is equal to the munn of gurbani (more on that for another day) but we use the terms interchangeably out of convenience.

What about the munn? Is Bhagat Tirlochan talking about the habits or conditioning (sanskar) that defines us and shapes the mind?

In the scheme of things, we are part of a large recycling process where energy and matter remain interchangeable and fixed.

Could it be that what reincarnates (or moves on) are our accumulated habits and unfulfilled desires - looking to play out in another form?

Just some thoughts.


[Translation of the shabad cited above is by Sant Singh Khalsa.]

December 19, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Bishen Singh (Ludhiana, Punjab), December 19, 2011, 10:28 AM.

The way I see it: Bhagat Tirlochan is conveying the following message, albeit in the language, idiom and imagery most familiar to his contemporaries - Keep God in your heart and mind at all times; especially during times that are conducive to quiet, repose and introspection, such as when you are alone with your thoughts at night and are ready to go to sleep. He points out, one by one, the different types of distractions that lure our thoughts away, and counsels us to make a conscious effort to turn our thoughts to spiritual matters. Warnings of dire consequences in your "next life" are no different than a mother chiding her child to be good, or else "the boogeyman will get you!"

2: Ravinder Singh  (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), December 19, 2011, 10:55 AM.

Thanks, Bishen Singh ji, for taking the lead in opening this discussion. What you say makes eminent sense. I am sure others will have a view. We are not trying to solve this riddle as much as we are trying to share our understanding. Personally, the one lesson I have imbibed over time is to stay away from literal interpretations.

3: Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, U.S.A.), December 19, 2011, 2:49 PM.

The translation of this shabad by Bhagat Tirlochan needs rethinking and needs an extended discussion not fitting this column set for brief comments. This shabad was commented upon earlier by I.J. Singh in his column on this very site and I like his ideas. There are several points. One is that even the literal translation that is prevalent is not correct. For example, a prostitute is not another joon, only another animal or human can be a joon. Secondly, the rewards and punishments that are paired do not make sense. Thirdly, Sikhi is to reform us in this life, the popular translation does not offer any guideline or incentive to do so. I think this is what Ravinder ji is suggesting in stimulating discussion in this column. That is, to interpret gurbani poetry as metaphors and consider serpents of the mind while translating this shabad. To contribute to this discussion, let me suggest that readers revisit I.J. Singh first and then fill in what needs to be filled in. Let me quote a few lines from his column. "What Tirlochan says to me is that if you were obsessed with mansions all your life, then you may as well be a ghost or a goblin that supposedly haunts such buildings. If money and treasures have defined your life, you may as well be a snake. (In the Indian culture, snakes are reputed to make their home where treasures are buried.) Why? Because your character traits have been defined by your preoccupations and values - that is the kind of a person you have become. I interpret all of the examples in his hymn similarly - it is metaphorical language, not to be literally translated. To my mind, what Tirlochan means here is to question what one has become over a lifetime of habits. 'Reincarnation', then, is used as a metaphor (this is poetry, right?), for the biological life cycle. So, until we get it 'right', we are going to embody the human (or animal) experience over and over again in this life. Put another way, until we learn to live without a personal stake (haumai), we are going to attach ourselves to desires which, unchecked, lead to addictive/ neurotic personalities, and so the cycle continues."

4: Harman Singh (California, U.S.A.), December 19, 2011, 5:04 PM.

I am confused. I thought reincarnation was accepted in Sikh theology. If not, how do we reconcile the concepts of "chaurasi lakh joon" and "gobind milan ki eho teri bariaa (only one chance)?" Please help!

5: R. Singh (Canada), December 19, 2011, 8:28 PM.

When we do not keep the core philosophical guidelines and start translating literally, we fall into this trap. Harbans Lal ji has done a great job in pointing out the perils of context-less interpretations. There is a great need to revisit and reinterpret without losing sight of the quintessence.

6: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), December 19, 2011, 11:45 PM.

Guru Nanak: "lLaykh na mit-ee hay sakhee jo likhi-aa kartaar" [GGS:937] - 'O! my friend, the record of your deeds cannot be erased, whatever the Creator has written for you.' Here, Guru Sahib spoke in the language best understood by the people. At times in the Guru Granth, our Gurus and Bhagats have employed traditional narratives as mere illustrations to pinpoint the truth.

7: Jugraj Singh (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), December 20, 2011, 9:53 PM.

I believe only gurbani can be used to understand gurbani. Which says that being reincarnated as a ghost is a joon, a prostitute is a joon, etc. Instead of fitting the shabad into our understanding, we need to expand our understanding to fit the shabad. There are 8.4 million joons ... not necessarily 8.4 million species.

8: Ravinder Singh (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), December 21, 2011, 6:45 AM.

Some excellent observations. Translations are inherently limiting; they also reveal the translator's bias. But we should not rush to any judgement, no matter how strong the temptation. Terms like reincarnation, transmigration, karam and fate are laden with cultural meanings and we should be clear about their usage. Needless to say, we should also rely on current knowledge and apply some logic. More in a moment.

9: Ravinder Singh (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), December 21, 2011, 7:12 AM.

The article Bhai Harbans Lal ji alludes to appeared quite a while back and in its essence is no different from Prof. Sahib Singh or Giani Harbans Singh - except that it is in English. We can safely accept that Bhagat Tirlochan is relying on common terminology and prevailing concepts to make a point, namely that you are what you think. Any fixation or obsession will define who you become. Even today, in common language, we refer to people as snakes, whores, etc. Tirlochan's recommendation, accordingly, is that we should practice the presence of Waheguru at all times. But we have side-stepped the issue of reincarnation. As one reader, Harman Singh ji from California, put it, "I am confused. I thought reincarnation was accepted in Sikh theology."

10: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey,U.S.A..), December 21, 2011, 12:04 PM.

When the body dies, the soul does not. It lives and leaves behind the body. Guru Nanak: "dayhee maatee bolai pa-un/ bujh ray gi-aanee moo-aa hai kaun/ moo-ee surat baad aha(n)kaar/ oh na moo-aa jo daykhanhaar"[GGS:152] - 'The body is mere earth in which air speaks. O wise man, what is it that dies? The life of pride and struggle is dead. But the soul that sees it all does not die." The body belongs to the material world but the soul in it is the essence of Waheguru. The soul itself is distinct but controls the actions of the body, the brain, the mind and the organs of perception. The contact of the soul with the objects of the senses produces effects which hang on to the soul of a person. And eventually the soul finds the body in accordance with karam of the past life. Japji Sahib: "karmee aavai kuprraa", meaning that the human body is the consequence of karam.

11: R. Singh (Caanda), December 21, 2011, 10:27 PM.

Language used in familiar terms is to address the pervading norms/ beliefs of the people. The Gurus were trying to set right misleading beliefs. For example the concept of 'Karam' was used by the Hinduclergy for eons to scare people into accepting their inferior status in life by hoping to improve it with good behaviour in following reincarnations. Our translators keep translating 'jio' as 'soul' instead of 'being' whose interpretational tool is the mind. When everyone is immersed in and sustained by the same source, it is outside the rigours of space and time, therefore outside of our perceptions of separateness. There is no leaving, or dying, going or coming, for that energy/ essence. Then the need for a 'soul' that supposedly does not perish is hardly required, for there is no separate existence for it anyway to begin with. The mind shuts down, the body dies: "maati maati hoi ek jyoti sung jyot ral jai." That is, the whole object of 'seeking', to overcome this dual vision, reach a state of mind - sehaj - when this duality is overcome and real oneness shines through, the IK ("One") is recognised.

12: Gurnam Singh Gill (Michigan, U.S.A..), December 21, 2011, 11:15 PM.

I think #1, #3 and previously, Dr. I.J. Singh, have explained beautifully the true meaning of this shabad. I would, however, like to comment on the concept of the existence of a soul and its reincarnation. Among all the species, we are the only ones who are 'fully' aware of our mortality, a fact we have a hard time swallowing. Given our fertile imagination, we came up with the idea of an immortal soul and superimposed on it cycles of reincarnation, etc., to account for the individual's deeds and misdeeds. To date, there is not an iota of experimental evidence to prove that a soul exists. Current research, in fact, points the other way. A recent write-up in the journal, "Nature" (December 8 issue, p 168) about the simulation of out-of-body experiences raises big question-marks about the old accepted views of the soul. This research was conducted in Henrik Ehrsson's lab in Sweden. Using virtual reality techniques, they are able to simulate the illusion where a subject experiences as if his self has moved out of his body and is floating a few feet behind the body. They can also make that self go into another body or occupy a doll and simulate the child-like feelings. Ehrsson's interpretation is that the illusion is, perhaps, created by multi-sensory neurons present in the brain. Another scientist summed up this work by saying: "Henrik's work speaks to the idea that there is no such thing as a soul or a self that is independent of the brain." I believe, it is much better to think of a soul in terms of consciousness. As for reincarnation, it takes place through our progeny who receive half the chromosomes or genes from each parent. Chances are, Ravinder ji, they might, thus, inherit some of our habits also.

13: Gurnam Singh Gill (Michigan. U.S.A..), December 21, 2011, 11:24 PM.

Ajit Singh ji, I think the word 'karmee' here is the Arabic/Persian word 'karam' meaning 'mehrbani' or kindness or even grace.

14: Prakash.Singh Bagga (India), December 22, 2011, 2:25 AM.

I find that in this shabad we are taking the meaning of the words 'ant kaal' as the very last moment. My understanding is that the words here refer to a period from the start to the last moment. That is, from birth to death. This shabad therefore says, in my reading, that anyone living with any type of thoughts, transforms himself accordingly, and remains so in the next continuity of life. And only one living with Naam in his thoughts will be freed of this continuum.

15: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), December 23, 2011, 3:53 PM.

Heredity and karam, they operate distinctly and even independently of each other. Heredity constitutes mental and physical traits which may or may not pass on to the children. All other actions, conscious or unconscious, are described poetically as being recorded by Chitra and Gupta (the mythological judges of justice). Guru Arjan: "chit gupat karmeh jaan" - GGS:838. And then Guru Nanak says that mind is the paper and actions are the ink. Good and bad are both recorded therewith. And a person's life constrains him/her because of accumulated acts determined by past karams: "karnee kaagad man masvaanee buraa bhalaa du-ay laykh pa-ay/ ji-o ji-o kirat chalaa-ay ti-o chalee-ai ta-o gun naahee ant haray" - GGS:990. If you read the whole hymn it clearly tells you that a person carries his/her whole past in the form of character and that becomes a part of his/her nature. Our Gurus did not go into detailed technique of this cycle of births and deaths but expressed it a general way. However for the purposes of living, it is enough to know that a person is bound up by past karams. He/she is shaped by them.

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The Talking Stick Colloquium # 70"

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