Q: If everything is Brahman, is there really any such thing as an individual’s past life? Or is there really just a collective evolution?
Answer: Both exist, but we first need to understand that many systems of philosophy have appeared within India. There are different points of view, and different ways that Ultimate Reality is described in India, and even within the history of India. Within the school of Advaita Vedanta, which is the school to which we belong, it is indeed said that “All is Brahman.” All is that Absolute Reality, which is of the nature of existence, consciousness and bliss. There is only one reality, and there is nothing second to it. Within this teaching it is not accepted that there is Brahman, and also something else.
Nevertheless, even the teachers of this school, the school of Advaita Vedanta, had to acknowledge that they could not deny our common, conventional, empirical experience. Indeed, we experience multiplicity, variety, diversity. We experience duality. How can we deny our own experience? We cannot.
Therefore the teachers of this non-dualistic Vedanta spoke about two levels of reality: one level of reality, which they called conventional, or relative reality, and another level of reality, which they called Ultimate or Absolute Reality. Absolute Reality, according to the teaching of Advaita Vedanta, means there is no second to it; there is nothing else. It is also changeless, while the empirical reality is changeful.
It is something like the ocean and its various waves. The ocean is nothing but a simple, huge body of water; but there are a variety of waves – many, many waves. In spite of the experience of the many different waves, there is only one ocean, one body of water. There are not two realities there. In truth, you don’t have the ocean plus waves. The waves, truly, are not separate from the ocean. The very existence of the waves depends on the ocean. In reality, you can say, there is absolutely nothing there but water. This is what you would say. You don’t have water plus waves. It is simply not there. You just have water, and nothing but water, and only water.
Similarly, there is this infinite Ground of Being, or Existence, which we call Brahman. We call it the True Reality, the Absolute Reality. We say, “It alone exists.” Nothing else exists. Therefore, the world only appears to exist. It does not truly exist. Therefore, the individual, the jiva, only appears to exist; it does not truly exist. The jiva exists only as Brahman. The jiva does not exist as a jiva. In other words, the individual soul does not exist as an individual soul. As an individual soul, it’s not even real. It does exist as Brahman. If we go back to the analogy of the ocean, we say, “The wave does not exist as an independent entity.” The wave exists only as that body of water which we call ocean. The wave is nothing but water. In reality, there is nothing else there. So, if you say, “There is an independent entity, which we call the wave,” we would not agree with that.
We say that the world as a separate entity does not exist, and it is not even real. The world as Brahman, the world as the Self – the Ultimate Reality, which we call Brahman – that world, which is nothing but Brahman, is real, and it does exist. That jiva, that individual, which is nothing but Brahman, does exist, and it is real. The independent, separate individual does not exist, and it is not real. This is the position of the school called Advaita Vedanta. It does not accept duality; it does not accept multiplicity as an ultimate reality. It accepts them only as a relative, or empirical reality. That’s all.
Therefore, from the perspective of the school of Advaita Vedanta, this question relates to an appearance. That individual is just like an appearance within our dream. How real is this appearance? The individual within the dream is nothing but the mind of the dreamer, nothing else. The whole dream is nothing but the display of the mind of the dreamer. So that individual within the dream is nothing but the display of the mind of the dreamer. In reality, all you have there is just the mind of the dreamer, which displays all of these things which we call the dream world.
Then we ask the question, “What about reincarnation?” Someone in the dream asked the question: “According to the theory of Advaita Vedanta, what would you say about Swami Brahmananda? Does he have past lives and reincarnation?” We are talking now within the dream itself. Someone asks me, within the dream: “Swami Swaroopananda – this Swami Brahmananda, according to the theory of Advaita Vedanta, does he have such a thing as many lives and reincarnation?” Now, from the point of view of the dream world, I would say, “Yes.” From the point of view of the wakeful state, meaning I’ve awakened from the dream, I would say “No,” that in reality, he does not. In reality, that Swami Brahmananda, which I dreamed about, is not real; he does not even have an independent existence. It’s just the display of that one mind. That’s all. It’s an illusory Swami Brahmananda. What reincarnations are you talking about?
From the dream point of view, yes, he has many reincarnations. From the wakeful state point of view, no, he does not have them. Similarly, from the point of view of a realized being, there are not many reincarnations. None of these things exist. There is nothing but Brahman. Nothing else exists.
You may ask, “What’s the difference between Brahman and God?” which was a question put to the great Ramana Maharshi. “What’s the difference between the Self – the Atman – and God?” Ramana Maharshi answered, “That which the bhaktas are calling ‘God’ the jnanis are calling ‘Atma.’” That being which the devotees are calling by the name God is called by the Jnanis, by the men and women of knowledge, Atman or Self. We are talking about the same Reality. That Atman is not an individual self. That Atman is the one Self of all. So, therefore we say, “Atman is Brahman;” Atman is that Ultimate Reality.
When a person realizes the Self, he is like the person who wakes from the dream. From that point of view, he would say, “No, that Swami Brahmananda was just a fiction,” like a dream figure. That dream figure has no reincarnations at all because there is only mind there. It does not truly exist; it doesn’t have true, independent existence; it has no inherent existence at all. This would be the answer, but the answer depends on the point of view.
Let’s come back to our reality. If we are within the dream, and we believe this dream to be real, and we believe the dream figures to truly exist, from this point of view, I would say, “Yes, according to the philosophy of Yoga, and according to the philosophy of Vedanta, there is a Swami Brahmananda, and he is an individual, and he has many, many reincarnations.” In other words, he has many past lives. And this life is the result of past action that he has done. In fact, that Swami Brahmananda that you see is just a karmic result of past actions; he is a fruit of karmas. Besides those karmas, there is no Swami Brahmananda at all, you see? From this point of view, I would say, “Yes, yes, many, many reincarnations.”
But let’s assume I wake up from this dream. The scriptures of Advaita Vedanta compare the wakeful state to a dream. They call the wakeful state a long dream, and they call the dream at night a short dream. The only difference between the dream at night and the wakeful state that we are now in is that one is short and one is long. That’s all. From this philosophical point of view, since right now I am in a dream, within the dream I consider Swami Brahmananda to be real, existing and having many reincarnations. But, if it happens that I wake up from this dream of wakefulness, from that point of view, Swami Brahmananda is not even a real entity. Only Brahman exists; nothing else exists, and that Brahman that we talk about is your own Self. It is who you truly are. This is the point. You are Brahman, you are that Absolute Reality. You are not this little, limited being. From the point of view of the school of Advaita Vedanta, the little, limited being is a fiction of your imagination. You are not like this.