The Reincarnation Paradox: Does Gurbani contradict itself?

At a glance

TLDR: Although on the surface it may seem like some Shabads contradict each other, in actuality this misunderstanding only arises if you fail to take into account the way Gurbani has been consciously designed by the Guru. Literalism is a poison to Gyaan. Shabads related to reincarnation in particular are not really trying to explain to you how it works, but instead the concept itself is being used as a tool to convey a deeper wisdom. In your pursuit of seeking "belief systems" to adhere to, don't miss the point! The specific concept is secondary to the meaning. Interprations will change from Sikh to Sikh, hence why the Guru is Jagat Guru.


  • This week I launched "Bunga Azaadi" — The Institute for Azadist Studies. This is a Sikh think tank set up to discuss, debate and do the necessary Vichaars to apply a Sikh perspective to the modern world. The aim is for this to be my "second brain" of sorts, and will host a variety of discussions to reach solid conclusions on many contemporary topics. Particularly, it will be used as a means to fill in the gaps of Azadism, which will form the basis of many of the Vichaars.
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The Reincarnation Paradox: Does Gurbani contradict itself?

Following on from the Sakhi explored last week (see here), Guru Arjan Dev elaborates further on their approach to disseminating knowledge:

The Guru assesses each of his Sikh’s individually, similarly to how a trained doctor also looks at each individual on a case-by-case basis. Just like the doctor, the Guru will not just prescribe only one type of teaching for the Sikhs, since he realises that humanity is diverse and each individual is unique. Hence why they are known as Jagat Guru. There is Sikhiya given dependent on each circumstance and relevant to all no matter what stage they are at.

This is also why the Guru can hold so many seemingly contradictory positions simultaneously in Bani. It is because not all of the concepts and teachings mentioned are completely relevant at each stage. Another example is reincarnation and karma. Only if you accept a sense of separateness can this work, otherwise on the level of wisdom (Gyaan), it’s God themselves accruing the karma and going through a cycle of rebirth. If you have no free-will then it is not up to you whether you will enter this cycle since there is no you in the first place to be blamed for the karma you collect. Nonetheless, the Guru still uses this concept many times throughout Gurbani. Repeated mention of the 8.4 Million species life cycle is apparent throughout Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

However, now consider this Bani from Bhagat Trilochan Ji in Raag Gujri:

What happened to the 8.4 million cycle now? Here it is skipped, and the unfortunate soul is constantly reincarnated as the relevant creature. However, a prostitute is still a human, perhaps they could still have a chance? But the serpents and pigs are damned, how can they escape from their situation now? The problem here is not of contradiction but of both literalism on the behalf of the reader and a misunderstanding of the Guru’s strategy.

The Guru employs these concepts as a technique to help progress to deeper understanding. Both these Shabads would be more or less relevant to different audiences, primarily those on the competency of karma.  It is understandable and provides a set of necessary incentives for them to behave in a certain way. As they progress this concept can be less relied upon and new understanding can develop. Essentially, at later stages it is realised that it is God reincarnating themselves. When the body dies and disintegrates, that matter which once made up a “you”, would go on to make up the soil, plants and animals. Reincarnation can then be seen as a great recycling of energy from one form to the next. When the atoms arrange themselves in a complex enough way, then the capacity to receive consciousness arises once again, and the “soul” re-emerges. This process is not just limited to after death either since the body is constantly undergoing decay and rejuvenation. Almost every cell in the body is replaced multiple times throughout the course of one’s life. The skeleton replaces itself every ten years, red blood cells every four months and the skin between two to four weeks. The human being at birth is completely different to the one at death. To even call this a human being is misleading as it suggests a static entity. Perhaps a more accurate term is human process. Not even the mind is safe, as it constantly changes its ideas and beliefs. Memories themselves can be updated, manipulated and distorted or simply forgotten. When asking the question what happens after death, first we need to establish what exactly is it that is dying? This does not mean that reincarnation or karma etc. is not true. These are simply concepts more relevant at a particular level of understanding.

Questions From Last Week:

(01) If ultimately I have no free-will, am I free from blame?

Imagine a puppet with strings attached and it performs all the actions that the puppeteer makes it do. In delusions of duality the puppet fools itself into thinking it is doing things (which the delusion itself has been set by the puppeteer). The seperate sense of self is Haumai. However, with the knowledge that this isn't the true picture, people often then assume that they are then blameless. This isn't that big of an issue on itself, the problem is it's implication. If they then imply that they can do what they want without consequence, then this is broken thinking. You would have contradicted yourself by first saying "I do not not have control", and then saying "I can do what I want then". You can't mix perspectives, you must be consistent. That being said, the "You" is still affected by "your" actions even if you are fundamentally blameless at the perspective of Gyaan. If the puppeteer maneuvers the puppet into a puddle, it will still get wet. This is karma. Cause and effect. Just because ultimately it is the will of Akaal playing this play, this does not absolve the actor being played from consequence.

(02) If we have no choice, what is the point?

Right, well you operate as if you do. The nihilism that arises makes little sense. You are again mixing perspectives. "oh I have no free will, so I'm going to decide to not do anything". This is nonsensical because in the same statement you are affirming two contradictory positions. So long as you are in the delusion, play the game. The same way you delude yourself that you are separate, the same way by extension pretend you have control. But in meditation break your pride by realising the truth. Overcome depression by realising things were always going to happen that way, combat anxiety by submitting to whatever is destined will be. Accept Hukum. But whilst playing the game of duality, play it well. Just like your conviction to do nothing, why not direct that same conviction to do something. You can't refuse to play the game and expect to win. With whatever illusion of free will and separate self you do have, you may as well direct it to appreciate the experience. The rest is Gurprasaad.

Let me know any questions about today's post that I can answer for next week!

Also remember to check out Bunga Azaadi:

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