The following comment appeared on my blog in 2008:
I’ve wondered if jnanis ever reincarnate, but then it occurred to me, that all jnanis are the same jnani because they are all the Self, so in a sense they are all incarnations of the same sage. Every jnani is Maharshi.
I gave the following brief response:
‘There are no jnanis. Jnana alone is.’ A remark of Bhagavan recorded by Narayana Iyer. Jnanis do not reincarnate.
Had I elaborated a bit more I might have also commented that, in my opinion, jnanis are not ‘all incarnations of the same sage’. Jnanis are not ‘incarnations’ at all; they are beings who know by direct experience that incarnations never really happened. Incarnations are a delusion that is sustained by the ‘I’-thought’s habit of associating and identifying with a form. This is what some Guru Vachaka Kovai verses have to say on this subject:
Birth and death attach themselves to you solely through the delusion of regarding the alien body as your true being. Therefore, the moment this powerful delusion is destroyed, immortality, your own true nature, is attained.
Although, in truth, nothing exists apart from the Self, through inner delusion we imagine that the body alone is the Self. It is this connection [the body with the Self] that is responsible for the way in which we slip from the immortality that is the blissful non-dual state of reality, thus becoming involved in birth and death.
Forgetting the Self, one takes oneself to be the body and then passes through countless births, finally realising the Self and becoming the Self. Know that this is akin to waking up from a dream of wandering all over the world.
The Self abides motionless because of its all-pervasive fullness. Because the apparent connection between the Self and the mind-limitation seems to exist on account of ignorance – which is the jiva-perspective, the reflected consciousness that rises as ‘I’ – the Self too appears to have experienced movement through the motion of the mind. But the movement of samsara that comprises birth and death, bondage and liberation, and so on, is only for the jiva and never for the Self, the transcendental reality.
That is to say, if there is a jiva or an ‘I’-thought, illusory births and deaths will come and go, but when the ‘I’-thought is definitively eradicated one will understand that, from the standpoint of the Self, birth and death are not real, and that in fact, they never really happened. As Bhagavan himself commented, summarising the famous ajata (no creation) lines of Gaudapada:
Nothing exists except the one reality. There is no birth or death, no projection [of the world] or drawing in [of it], no sadhaka, no mumukshu [seeker of liberation], no mukta [liberated one], no bondage, no liberation. The one unity alone exists ever.
(Day by Day with Bhagavan , 15th March, 1946, afternoon)
In a subsequent comment on the ‘Open Thread’ Ravi took exception to my line ‘Jnanis do not reincarnate’ by declaring, ‘“Last birth” for the jnani is an oxymoron’.
He then backed up this assertion by quoting the well-known lines from the Gita which deal with Krishna’s avatars (chapter 4, verses 5-10):
Krishna said: ‘Both you and I have taken many births. I remember them all, O Arjuna, but you do not remember. Though I am eternal, imperishable, and the Lord of all beings; yet I manifest by controlling my own material nature, using My Yoga-Maya. Whenever there is a decline of dharma and the rise of adharma, O Arjuna, then I manifest Myself. I incarnate from time to time for protecting the good, for transforming the wicked, and for establishing dharma, the world order. The one who truly understands My transcendental birth and activities is not born again after leaving this body and attains My abode, O Arjuna. Freed from attachment, fear, and anger; fully absorbed in Me, taking refuge in Me, and purified by the fire of Self-knowledge, many have attained Me.
I suspect that I am going to tread on the toes of some Krishna bhaktas here, but I will do it while hiding behind two other key verses from Guru Vachaka Kovai:
Though Guru Ramana, who appeared as God incarnate, expounded numerous doctrines, as befitted the different states and beliefs of the various devotees who sought refuge at his feet, you should know that what we have heard him affirm to intimate devotees in private, as an act of grace, as his own true experience, is only the doctrine of ajata [non-creation].
The truth of this pre-eminent state [ajata] was taught to Arjuna by Lord Krishna in the beginning [in chapter two of the Bhagavad Gita ]. Krishna spoke of other doctrines in the following chapters because of Arjuna’s bewilderment [that arose from] his inability to assimilate it.
This was Bhagavan’s usual response when he was asked about the avatars of Krishna. He would say that the truth of ‘no birth’ was expounded earlier in the Gita , but since Arjuna could not assimilate it, he later gave out the famous lines which Ravi quoted.
Here is Bhagavan again, telling another devotee the same thing:
Bhagavan: The truth was revealed even at the start [of the Gita]. For the very first sloka of Sri Krishna’s upadesa starts: ‘No birth and no death, no change, etc.’
Question: Sri Krishna also says, ‘We have had many rebirths. I am aware of them; but you are not.’
Bhagavan: That was only because the question arose how Sri Krishna could claim to have taught the eternal truth to Aditya. The truth was stated even at the start. Arjuna did not understand it. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 611)
Though there are many occasions in the Ramana literature where it is said that liberation ends the illusory cycle of births and deaths, the clearest answer I have found which supports my contention that Bhagavan taught that it is impossible for a Jnani to reincarnate comes from the following exchange in Guru Ramana , pages 101-2:
The Vision (of Anandashram, Kanhangad) for June contains an article by Sri Bhagavan. It is a Preface to his translation into Tamil of Vivekachudamani of Sri Shankaracharya which has been translated by Mr S. Krishna into English for the Vision. Mr Cohen reads it to himself in the Hall. Struck by the following statement, he reads it aloud to Sri Bhagavan: ‘The liberated man is free indeed to act as he pleases, and when he leaves the mortal coil, he attains absolution, but returns not to this birth which is actually death.
Cohen: This statement gives the impression that although the Jnani takes no birth again on this plane, he may continue to work on subtler planes, if he so chooses. Is there any desire left in him to choose?
Bhagavan: No, that was not my intention.
Cohen: Further, an Indian philosopher, in one of his books, interpreting Shankara, says that there is no such thing as videhamukti, for after his death, the mukta takes a body of light in which he remains till the whole humanity becomes liberated.
Bhagavan: That cannot be Shankara’s views (he opens Vivekachudamani and points to verse 566 which reads that after the dissolution of the physical sheath the liberated man becomes like ‘water poured into water and oil into oil’). It is a state wherein there is neither bondage nor liberation. Taking another body means throwing a veil, however subtle, upon reality, which is bondage. Liberation is absolute and irrevocable.
I questioned Papaji on this topic while I was collecting material for Nothing Ever Happened. This is the dialogue we had:
David: It is my understanding that Self-realisation puts an end to the possibility of any future birth. This is the teachings of all the major Hindu scriptures, and it is a teaching which has been confirmed by a long succession of enlightened Masters, including your own. Ramana Maharshi repeatedly said that once a river has discharged itself into the sea, it never takes the form of a river again. Similarly, he said that a mind which has completely dissolved in the Self can never reappear and attach itself to a form again. I presume that this is your view also. Although this is the traditional teaching, many famous teachers of modern times have been saying otherwise. Sathya Sai Baba, for example, says that he has one more life to go, and that in his next life, which will be his last, he will be called ‘Prem Baba’.
Papaji: I know that there are other teachers whose views are quite different from my own, and from the teachers of the Upanishads . But the traditional teachings are very clear and they have been verified and expounded by generations of great Masters: if there is an unfulfilled desire, there will be a rebirth in which that desire can be fulfilled. And if there is rebirth, there is no enlightenment. Therefore, any teacher who says that he is going to be reborn has unfulfilled desires and is not enlightened. There are no exceptions to this rule.
‘Prem’ means ‘love’. If Sathya Sai Baba has an unfulfilled desire to give or receive love, he will come back in a form in which that experience can be enjoyed. That is how rebirths take place.
Then, one by one, I offered him the following claims:
Swami Muktananda said that after his death he would go to Siddha Loka to be with Nityananda Swami.
Ma Amritananda Mayi says that she was fully enlightened in her last life, but took a conscious decision to reincarnate again for the benefit of her devotees.
The Mother of Aurobindo Ashram said that she would reappear on the streets of Pondicherry as a seventeen-year-old girl.
Swami Yukteswar, the Guru of Swami Yogananda, reappeared after his death, saying that he had moved to one of the astral worlds and was functioning as a teacher there.
In each case Papaji’s answer was the same: if, after you die, you take form in this or any other world, you are not enlightened. Enlightenment and a desire to reappear in any form cannot co-exist together.
David: So you would say that it is not possible to be born in an enlightened state? Ananda Mayi Ma, for example, claimed that she was born in an enlightened state, and that she never did any sadhana in this life.
Papaji: If you take form, you have desires to fulfill, and while they remain unfulfilled, you are not enlightened. An enlightened man will never have any kind of desire to continue in another form after his death. When you have had all possible incarnations from the worm in the shit of a pig up to a human being, you will have had all the experiences possible. You won’t want any more.
David: There is one further possibility that is not covered by any of the above examples. I have heard it said that if a devotee has an intense love for his Guru, and if he has a great desire to be with his Guru again, then that love and that desire will compel the Guru to take birth again so that the devotee can be with him. Is this possible? Can the power of a devotee’s love compel even an enlightened Guru to take birth again?
Papaji: I don’t agree with this. It is not possible at all.
The real Guru is the one who shows the light to his devotees. The other so-called gurus are either magic-mongers or spiritual businessmen. The big ashrams that these people build around themselves are just manifestations of the uncontrolled desires that are swirling around inside them. How can such people benefit others?
The power of a devotee’s love compels a Guru to give grace here and now, in this life. If the love is really there, there will be no need to postpone it till a later life. It will happen instantly. (Nothing Ever Happened, pp. 414-7)
Another Guru I have sat with, Lakshmana Swamy, was just as categorical about the impossibility of jnanis taking birth again. I can’t remember who asked the questions in this dialogue, but they were not from me:
Question: If the jnani has so much power why can’t he take a new body when he dies in order to help successive generations of devotees? Why must the birth in which he realises the Self be his last birth?
Swamy: It is the mind which takes birth in a new body. The jnani has no mind, so there is no question of rebirth for him.
Question: Some Gurus say that after they die they will take a subtle body in one of the astral worlds.
Swamy: To take a body, even a subtle body in the higher regions, an ‘I’ is necessary. When the ‘I’ is still present, rebirth is inevitable. When the ‘I’ has died, rebirth is impossible.
Question: But why can’t a jnani choose to be reborn? He makes choices while he is alive, so there must be some mental faculty in him which he can use to bring about a rebirth.
Swamy: The jnani has no mind at all. All his actions are performed through the power of the Self. Other people see him acting and apparently taking decisions, and they assume that he must have a mind because they cannot imagine how this can be done without a mind.
Question: But the mere fact that he is alive means that the jnani has decided to live after Self-realisation. Can’t the jnani use the faculty he uses to stay alive to continue his life after death?
Swamy: The jnani has no mind and no body. He is the formless Self. He only appears to be alive in the sight of those who identify him with a body. There is no question of birth or death for the jnani because he has already transcended them both…
When an advanced devotee dies, his ‘I’-thought may take birth in a subtle body which associates itself with his samadhi shrine. Such a subtle body may have some power which it can use to help devotees who worship at the shrine to fulfil their desires. A jnani cannot assume a subtle body like this after his death because his ‘I’-thought is no longer existing…
Question: You say that when a jnani dies he does not exist in any perceivable form. Some people still see visions of Ramana Maharshi. Does this not prove that his presence still remains even though he is no longer in the body?
Swamy: These visions are only in the mind. Since Ramana Maharshi is not the mind, how can these visions be him? The mind brings them into existence, and apart from the mind they do not exist.
Question: Some people have dreams and visions of Ramana Maharshi without ever having heard of him before. If Ramana Maharshi is not now existing in any way, how can this happen?
Swamy: This is still only a product of the imagination. Whatever you perceive cannot be Ramana Maharshi because Ramana Maharshi is now the formless Self, and the Self cannot be perceived. One’s vasanas [mental habits, inclinations or tendencies] may cause an image of Ramana Maharshi to appear, even if one has never heard of him before, but he is neither the image nor the cause of the image. (No Mind – I am the Self, pp. 76-7)
There are not, so far as I can recollect, any published comments by Mathru Sri Sarada on this subject, but I do remember listening to the following comments sometime in the 1980s:
Saradamma: Some people think that jnanis are omniscient, that they have access to all the information in the world. The jnani doesn’t have all this information, or need it. If someone came up to me and said that Hyderabad is the capital of India, I might believe him if I didn’t already know that it is Delhi. There is nothing in jnana that reveals whether things that people say about the world are correct or not. But if someone tells me something about the Self, then this is something I really know about. If someone says, for example, that he has met a jnani who says he is going to reincarnate, I immediately know that this person is not a jnani. There is something about jnana that contains within itself the absolute certainty that rebirth in any form is not possible. Jnana is the ending of all births. If that knowledge, that jnana, is there, there is also the knowledge that another birth is impossible.
So, Ravi, I am going to have to disagree with you on this one. None of the teachers I have been fortunate to be with has ever claimed that rebirth for jnanis is possible; and all have quite vehemently upheld the opposite view. I know that there are those who believe in avatars – fully enlightened beings who manifest again and again whenever they are needed – but I am not one of them.
In conclusion, and not entirely off-topic, here are some gorgeous verses by Muruganar (from Sri Guru Ramana Prasadam, translated by Robert Butler) on how Bhagavan ended all his births:
Sundering the [fusion of] consciousness and the insentient that is the perplexed wandering mind, the acute grace-bestowing gaze of the great jewel, guru Ramana, was consummated in me as the expanse of grace, rare mauna, such that the sorrow of birth that stems from Self-forgetfulness was entirely abolished.
Through the grace of my Lord the highest reality unfolded within my devotee’s heart as his holy feet [the Self] flourished in the place of my head [the ego]. And through that grace the irreversible nature of my allegiance to him became manifest as liberation from birth and as inexhaustible bliss.
Through the joyous power of the true love that took as its goal the feet of my guru, a life lived in the vast space of the Self that shines fearlessly within the heart burgeoned forth within me, while the unfailing awareness that is mauna grew stronger and stronger. Birth’s suffering was abolished and my eye became fearless as I obtained the vision of grace.
The great excellence of his holy feet, which illuminate the hearts of those who have attained equanimity, is that they have brought me to the verdant mountain shore of liberation, and through their grace I have escaped the waves of the ocean of rebirth.
The sorrow of birth proliferates due to vasanas, based as they are upon the delusion of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, the very nature of the ego, all its sorrows and apparent limitations. But when I attained the blessed state of grace wherein I was embraced by the supreme bliss of realisation of the Self, that majestic firmament manifested within my heart putting an end to that sorrow.
Through the Sadguru who embodies the all-encompassing greatness of dwelling as That, a river of celestial nectar and honey merged with my heart, conferring its riches upon me, and I attained the experience of jnana wherein I dwelt as That. And through that experience the sorrow of vile birth vanished like a dream in sleep.
The pure eternal expanse of grace beyond the taint of mind flared up within my heart, so that it became my real nature through and through. The reward I gained was the victorious experience of the Self as Brahman, and in that victory the bitter suffering of birth and death was vanquished.
No sooner had I sought asylum in the protecting embrace of the Self, whose glorious form shines with the noble radiance of the Supreme, than the sorrowful delusion of birth and death receded from me, for I had tasted the nectar of the experience of Sivam.
In the state of realisation that shines as pure consciousness, where there is neither birth nor death, separation nor union, thinking nor forgetting, joy nor sorrow, all other associations became meaningless and disappeared.
This is a talk I recorded at one of the many temples that Ramana Maharshi lived in during his early years in Tiruvannamalai. In one of the sections entitled ‘Who were you Ramana?’ I mention all the various theories that devotees had about who Bhagavan might have been in his previous births. In conclusion I say that from Bhagavan’s perspective none of those births ever really happened.