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According to their karma, jīva-souls may receive a human birth again or may revolve through the 8,400,000 varieties of species in this world. No one can stay in their present body forever. Everyone must change bodies according to the laws of karma. No one knows where their karma will take them, where they will stay, what they will do, or what their future will be. They only know that the karma-chakra, the wheel of karma, must push them forward. “To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.” Within the material environment the karma-chakra is always cycling, and the reactions to everyone’s previous actions are happening automatically.
Leaving the body
The waves of birth and death are always flowing within this environment, carrying away the jīva-souls. Some people think that dying in a plane crash is very terrible, but actually it is not an unhappy way to die. Before a plane crashes, when it is falling towards the earth, people lose their senses. When they die they do not feel what happened. They only later realise, “I am out of my body”, and wonder, “Where is my body? Where is my leg?” When their awareness returns to them after they die, they immediately recognise, “I am detached from my body”. Then they begin to search for their body. When they see one body part over here and one body part over there, they think, “How could I ever live in that body again? It is not possible.”
After jīva-souls depart from a body, they often try to enter back into it. But when a jīva-soul leaves a body there is no power for the body to run, and because of that the heart does not beat and the body stops functioning. When this happens, the body begins to degrade, and after it has degraded it cannot work again properly. In this way it becomes impossible for jīva-souls to re-enter their previous bodies. After trying to re-enter his former body and being unsuccessful, a departed jīva-soul becomes very sad and finally begins following his body around. Even though he can’t enter back into his body, he cannot forget his body. Until his body is cremated a departed jīva-soul follows his body, and again and again tries to enter into his body. But once a jīva-soul has left his body, and the body degrades, the jīva-soul cannot enter into his body again. It is like Paradise Lost.37
Disembodied life
When a jīva-soul follows his body to its cremation ground or grave, he thinks, “What are my relatives doing? Why are they burning my body? They should keep my body for some more time so I can try again to enter back into it.”
When his body is finally burned or buried, the jīva-soul feels very helpless. He wonders, “Where should I go now?” After his body is cremated the jīva-soul visits his house, his old bedroom, and the homes of his relatives. He sees his son or mother or father crying, and he also feels very sad. He wants to show himself to his relatives, but he cannot. He tries to talk to his relatives, but they cannot hear him talking. Frustrated, he may go back to the cremation ground where his body was. Left without shelter the jīva-soul wanders around and around restlessly. He may stay at the cremation house thinking of his body, and other souls who were also cremated the same day may be there as well. He will see those souls and talk with them. They may be the souls of rickshaw wallahs, or kings, or anything else. In life a rickshaw wallah cannot speak with a king, but when they have left their bodies, they may live together in a tree near their cremation ground.
In this way the departed soul lives after his body is cremated, and he feels very hungry and thirsty, although he is unable to eat or drink. The departed soul still has his subtle body, his mental body, which contains all his feelings and desires. So he lives in a very helpless condition: full of desires with no way to satisfy them.
Vedic rites for the departed
It is a Vedic rule that three days after a jīva-soul departs his relatives on his daughter’s side offer him some water and milk. This is done through mantram after his body’s cremation.
sasa naṣṭo nirālambho vāyu-bhūto nirāśrayam
idaṁ kṣīra idaṁ nīra śraddhayā diya te ’pi mām
This mantram means, “You are living now in this cremation field. You have no place to rest and your soul has no formation (nirālambho). Your form is now like a vāyubhūta, an air form like a ghost, and you have no shelter (nirāśrayam). I am your daughter and I am offering you this water and milk. Through this mantram you will receive it and you will feel peaceful.”
Mentally the departed jīva-soul then drinks that water and milk. Later his sons offer piṇḍa, traditional sacrificial articles. His sons will become the proprietors of his land, so they must do something good for their father. Ten days after his departure they shave their heads, take a bath in the Ganges or a body of water, put on new cloth, and make an offering to their father or whichever relative of theirs has departed. The departed soul accepts all the offerings through mantram. Through mantram there is communication on the mental plane. The departed soul then feels peaceful, “I have no body or I have no existence among my relatives, but they are still remembering me and they are still doing something good for me. I am not so helpless. Help is coming to me from my relatives.” In this way the departed soul feels some mental peace.
After offering piṇḍa the departed soul’s relatives perform a śrāddha ceremony. In remembrance of his necessities—maybe a pair of shoes, an umbrella, some cloth, or some food—they make an offering in his name to a group of brāhmaṇs. There are sixteen items used in this offering. When the departed soul’s relatives supply brāhmaṇs in the ceremony with these necessities, the departed soul receives a year’s supply of his necessities mentally.
In this way, on the mental level, the departed soul’s subtle body receives ten or twelve years of food when a group of ten or twelve brāhmaṇs is fed. In his name his relatives feed a group of brāhmaṇs, and all the property they offer is enjoyed by him mentally. Each of his relatives bears witness, “This śrāddha ceremony is the Vedic practice for departed jīva-souls, and I am offering these articles for the benefit of my father”, or mother, or other relative, according to their relationship. Then the śrāddha ceremony is finished. The brāhmaṇs from the ceremony take responsibility for the departed soul’s spiritual advancement and bring some light to him. Within a few days he feels the darkness of his situation leave, and he feels detachment in his mind.
The ghost plane
This is the traditional Vedic process. If a departed soul is a Vaiṣṇava, then all of this is not necessary. The best thing that can be done for him is to offer some preparations to the Lord in His Deity form and then serve the Vaiṣṇavas with that prasādam. Serving the Vaiṣṇavas in the name of the departed soul is the best way to help him, and no problems will come to that Vaiṣṇava if a traditional śrāddha ceremony is not held.
Anyhow, after his death a departed soul wants to speak with his relatives, but he cannot. At that time his experience is very bitter. Some days after the ceremony for his passing the grief of his relatives begins to fade and the departed soul thinks, “What is this? Now they are forgetting me. I need to move on and choose my future path. Where shall I go?”
When a jīva-soul is not embodied he can move very quickly over the earth. The departed soul begins to search for his previous connections who still may be on the mental plane. He searches for his forefathers or persons from his past life that have already departed. He searches for his former associates and maybe he finds his grandfather seated under a tree meditating in the Himalayas. Even if he finds some of his previous connections, none of them say to him, “Oh, there you are! Come here! Come here!” No one responds to him like that. The other departed jīva-souls he meets in the mental plane look at him innocently. They advise him, “It is natural, your feelings. Our feelings were the same as yours when we first left our previous bodies. Now you should try to understand our sober mood and try to proceed towards a higher destiny.”
Question: Mahārāj, there is an Indian lady here who lost her son a few months ago. She is still grieving very much as though it happened yesterday. Will the soul of her son suffer because of this?
Śrīla Govinda Mahārāj: That soul may or may not suffer. That soul knows his mother is foolishly crying for him. He knows he cannot go back to her and she cannot see him. Sometimes in that situation a departed soul may avoid his mother. But if he has much affection for her, he may continue to live near her. Also, sometimes a departed soul may take on a shadow form through great concentration with his subtle body. That means he may become a bhūt [ghost]. Through concentration a soul may take the form of a ghost because of his attachment for his previous worldly life and relatives, but he cannot exist in that form for a long time.