The wisdom of how a Jiva is born and where the Jiva ends up after death are enshrined in Hindu Thought. Two texts that speak about this are Chandogya Upanishad and Brahma Sutras. However Chandogya Upanishad is the source of further deliberation of this topic in the Brahma Sutras. In this article, let me delve on how or the process by which the Jiva is born as a human being. Though I have written about it in different contexts in nearly a dozen blogs so far, what provoked me to write this as an exclusive topic now is an article in the Speaking Tree of Times of India published on 19th July 2016 (reproduced at the end of this blog). In my opinion that article missed out the important idea of birth of a Jiva that Chandogya Upanishad explains through a process which also addressed the question of why births in other forms such as plants, animals and even insignificant creatures such as virus and bacteria happen.
This process of birth of a Jiva is known as Panchagni Vidya (Knowledge of Five-fires). Till the time of Svetaketu, this knowledge was known only kshatriyas (warrior class) and not to others. It was only when Svetaketu was confronted with questions on what happens to the Jiva after death, what region / realm the Jiva reaches after death and why that realm is never full, the first ever teaching of that knowledge to someone outside the warrior class was made and through that to the entire mankind of all times to come.
The curious question here is why the warrior class had known it in the first place. It may be due to the reason that embracing death in the process of discharging Kula dharma / swa dharma as warriors had necessitated them to seek the knowledge about death and after death. The knowledge of after death helped in understanding the reverse process namely knowledge of ‘before birth’.
The discussion in Chandogya Upanishad takes this route only – that of tracing what happens after death after espousing the Knowledge of the Fire and then reversing it to show how the Jiva takes birth.
Everything in Nature works in a chain process of one begetting the other. When one is offered to the other, that is ‘yajna’ which returns the thing offered in some other way. The popular version of Water cycle is a series of Yajna which Shri Krishna explains in Gita in the sloka starting as “Annaath Bhavanthi Bhoothaani parjanyaath anna sambhavaha....” (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3- verses 14 & 15). When every act is done as an offering to the other, that is the ultimate way of acquiring knowledge that releases one from suffering and rebirths.
It is in the spirit of Yajna, creation of a birth of a human being is facilitated by the higher realms of the cosmos identified as the Sun, the foremost Fire / Agni. What is born is Moon, the mind (of the Jiva) that helps in defining / discerning thought and then action. Now the Jiva driven by mind is ready to go the next level.
The next and the 2nd level is Parjanya, the rains. The rain is an Agni because water is considered as Agni. As water is capable of dousing fire, it is said to absorb heat and therefore it is Agni / fire. The Moon / Mind (of / and the Jiva) is offered as an oblation in rains / parjanya. What results is that earth absorbs the rain and also the Jiva.
The earth is the 3rd level in this chain and earth is known as Agni as it traps heat. The rain water (as also the Jiva) is the oblation given to earth and the result is food that is formed in a variety of plants.
The food is consumed by man in whom the food and the Jiva enter the semen. The Man is the 4th Agni in the chain of Panchagni (Five fires). In the semen, the man creates his own replica as sperm.
It can be said that this man himself becomes the 5th oblation when he offers the food / Jiva that entered him through this process from the Sun, to the woman. The Woman is the 5th agni when she receives the oblation that finds a physical form in her womb.
Throughout the process of Panchagni, some element of Nature enters into another at each level and undergoes successive transformation and evolution until it becomes suitable to form the basic elements of human body. In all this the Jiva is a passive traveller to whom the elements cling or who clings to the elements. Once the ultimate seed of human body is reached, the Jiva starts reacting – propelled by karma and vasanas (attitudes and attributes acquired from previous experiences in previous births) it is carrying. The human body that grows within the 5th Agni is designed and defined by Karma and vasanas carried by the Jiva.
The 5th Agni is the woman / MOTHER who is the ultimate Homa kunda in the process of Creation as her body does the wonderful job of the Creator in giving a shape and sheath to the Jiva. The Mother is therefore apt to be called as the Prathyaksha Deiva – the visible God. She is just one step below the Creator God and no wonder Thirumangai Alwar recognises this in his verse “Pettra thaayinum aayina seyyum” Narayana! Narayana, the Creator God can do what one’s mother can’t do. By this the Alwar brings mother closer to God and that only God can do what a mother can’t do.
This is the knowledge of Panchagni.
Those who had the knowledge of this understood the vanity of births and suffering and therefore aimed to reach a state of no return through this Panchagni. Their level of awareness and the subsequent care in not accumulating karma and vasanas led them to the ultimate Brahman.
Those who fail to realise the chain process of the birth through these fires, are re-born. Here the Upanishad explains the route of birth for the Jiva.
Birth of Jiva through Panchagni process.
"Having dwelt there in the lunar world till their good works are consumed, they return again the same way they came.
They first reach the akasa and from the akasa the air. Having become air, they become smoke; having become smoke, they become mist;
"Having become mist, they become cloud; having become cloud, they fall as rain−water.
Then they are born as rice and barley, herbs and trees, sesamum and beans.
Thence the exit is most difficult; for whoever capable of begetting children eats that food and injects semen, they become like unto him.” (Chand- Part 5 -10 Verses 5 & 6)
Brahma Sutras (part 3) give further elaboration of this passage from Chandogya Upanishad.
From clouds to rain to earth, the Jiva travels down. Once it enters the earth, the reversal or return to previous location is difficult. That means if the Jiva does not want to be born when it is in the previous states, it is possible to go back. But once it has entered the earth through the rain water, it cannot go back. It has to necessarily pass through the chain till it reaches the 5th agni, the woman’s womb.
The idea of the Jiva passing through the clouds and rains finds resonance in modern day's experiments on after-life experiences and hypnotic regression. Many people who have had hypnotic regression have recounted that they were floating with the cloud and were fused with the cloud. They could not remember what happened after mixing with the cloud. A kind of trance sets in once the process of descent begins.
Once inside the earth, the Jiva gets into the plants along with the water and gets fixated in the fruits / edible parts some of which the Upanishad mentions – as rice, barley, sesame, herbs etc. In all this, the Jiva is not attached to the plants nor does it undergo any karma on account of that.
This information from the Upanishad is an important one as Plants become an important carrier for the Jiva to take birth. Further movement of the Jiva into a man’s body cannot happen without the man eating the edible part of the plant. This is something the non- vegetarian lovers must take into account before finding fault with vegetarian food as being violent (himsa). The plant having its own Jiva is not killed. Only the edible part of the planet which will be ultimately shed by the plant carries the Jiva. Man has to eat that part to facilitate the movement of the Jiva into his body and to settle down in a sperm.
Elsewhere in the same Upanishad a dialogue comes on where Atman / Jiva resides. If someone strikes at the root of a large tree, water oozes out, but the tree continues to live on. If the middle part is struck, then also the tree survives as only water oozes out. If the top of the tree is struck then also the tree would continue to live. Because it is pervaded by the Jiva, the tree continues to live by drinking water. But if a branch is cut off, the Jiva of the tree leaves the branch but continues to live in the tree. The tree does not suffer death. (Chand- 6 -11-1)
In the same way, the edible part housing the Jiva (many times not housing the Jiva), when plucked off, the tree / planet does not suffer death. There is no himsa to the tree / plant when the edible parts are cut for consumption. Therefore it is absolutely ridiculous on the part of the non-vegetarian lovers to accuse vegetarianism as subscribing to himsa. In the case of non-vegetarianism, the jiva of the animal is made to leave the body forcefully by the act of killing the animal for human consumption.
The above passage from Chandogya Upanishad also shows how plants are an integral part of not only the food chain of man but also the birth chain of the Jiva.
This is the same Upanishad and the only sruti text that says that Himsa (violence) is allowed only for the purpose of Vedic austerity. When we read these passages in the light of Panchangni Vidya, we understand why the Upanishad has incorporated both the ideas - on Jiva of the tree and the exception clause on himsa to Jiva.
Continuing with the passage on Panchagni Vidya, the Upanishad says that those with good conduct will be born in good families / people etc. Those having bad conduct will be born as animals. There is a discussion on ‘good conduct’ of this passage in the Brahma sutras. What is being talked here - good karma or good conduct? There is a difference of opinion between sages Krishnajina and Baadari. In real life we find that even people of good conduct / nature suffer a lot due to their bad Prarabdha karma. By their good conduct they overcome the bad karma in the right spirit (of sthitha prajna etal) and continue to rise in their spiritually evolving ladder. Therefore good conduct / good thought is a must for getting birth in good wombs / or being born to exalted parents.
The Upanishad continues to say that
“Those who neither practise meditation nor perform rituals do not follow either of these ways. They become those insignificant creatures which are continually revolving and about which it may be said: ‘Live and die.’ This is the third place. "Therefore that world never becomes full. Let a man despise this course.”
The insignificant creatures mentioned here are life at lower level of evolution such as insects and micro organisms that keep forming and dying endlessly. There is no 5th oblation in them. Man is the 5th oblation according to this Upanishad. The lowly life forms end up with food produced by earth. They follow the birth chain of 4 fires – until earth and food.
It is in the context of births like this (of those who have not lived righteous lives and not done austerities) Brahma Sutras speak about the seven hells. (3-1-15). These beings are under the sway of Yama. Their abode is identified as “the third place” by the Upanishad (quoted above). The first two places are Devayana and Pitruyana. The former is the solar path / light achieved by the knowledgeable ones who are engaged in meditation and austerity and who never return to earth for rebirth. The latter is the lunar path / smoke which is attained by people who are aware of good and bad and try to engage in austerities.
The third place is attained by evil doers who cause sufferings to others and do not follow the path of dharma. They don’t get the 5th oblation, which means they don’t get a body that can feel pain and pleasure. Their evolution stops at the food level of the 4th Agni. The births they take are supposed to be in the 7 hells. For example there is a kind of bacteria living under the ground in an environment of very hot temperatures. The heat of that environment is harmful for man but these organisms thrive in those temperatures. They are like hell but they thrive – to work out the effect of the evil karma.
Millions of other life forms are undergoing the effect of hells described in scriptures. Most of them are killed or skinned alive or roasted alive in the way the scriptures describe hellish experiences. All this is being done by wanton act of man to satiate his appetite or just in blind faith. Let those who consume such life forms after subjecting them to hellish experience, think about themselves what is in store for them in future - in the third place or in the other places.
The same verse also replies the query faced by Svetaketu why the ‘that world’ (Devayana) is never full. It is because the evil-doers do not ascend from the world of the Moon to the Sun but instead move within the lower fires of rain and earth. They also do not depend on the 5th oblation which is Man to get a body through which they can know about austerities and what is good and what is bad. The Brahma sutras further elaborate this point and say that getting a body is possible in plant life, viviparous and oviparous life and from moisture. But there is the absence of 5th oblation (Man) in their births which makes them belong to ‘the third place’.
In this context, the Brahma sutras analyse the karmic effect of killing animals in yajna and uphold the Chandogya Upanishad statement of exemption only for Vedic purpose. In the current age of Kali, even that is not sanctioned as there is none capable of austerities and meditation of the kind that can hold such Yajnas in the highest order.
Given below is the relevant passage from Chandogya Upanishad on Panchagni Vidya.
Chapter IV − The Five Fires (I)
1 "Yonder world is the sacrificial fire, O Gautama, the sun the fuel, the rays the smoke, daytime the flame, the moon the embers and the stars the sparks.
2 "In this fire the gods offer faith as libation. Out of that offering King Moon is born."
Chapter V − The Five Fires (II)
1 "Parjanya (the god of rain), O Gautama, is the fire, the air the fuel, the cloud the smoke, lightning the flame, the thunderbolt the embers and thunderings the sparks.
2 "In this fire the gods offer King Moon as libation. Out of that offering rain is born."
Chapter VI− The Five Fires (III)
1 "The earth, O Gautama, is the fire, the year the fuel, the akasa the smoke, the night the flame, the quarters the embers and the intermediate quarters the sparks.
2 "In this fire the gods offer rain as libation. Out of that offering food is born."
Chapter VII− The Five Fires (IV)
1 O Gautama, is the fire, speech is the fuel, the prana the smoke, the tongue the flame, the eye the embers and the ear the sparks.
2 "In this fire the gods offer food as libation. Out of that offering semen produced."
Chapter VIII − The Five Fires (V)
1 "Woman, O Gautama, is the fire, her sexual organ is the fuel, what invites is the smoke, the vulva is the flame, what is done inside is the embers, the pleasures are the sparks.
2 "In this fire the gods offer semen as libation. Out of that offering the foetus is formed."
Chapter IX − Birth and Death
1 "Thus in the fifth libation water comes to be called man. The foetus enclosed in the membrane, having lain inside for ten or nine months, or more or less, is born.
2 "Having been born, he lives whatever the length of his life may be. When he is dead, they carry him to the fire of the funeral pyre whence he came, whence he arose."
Chapter X − The Various Paths followed after Death
1−2 "Those who know this and those who, dwelling in the forest, practise faith and austerities go to light, from light to day, from day to the bright half of the moon, from the bright half of the moon to the six months during which the sun goes to the north, from those months to the year, from the year to the sun, from the sun to the moon, from the moon to lightning. There a person who is not a human being meets him and leads him to Brahman. This is the Path of the Gods (Devayana).
3 "But those who, living in the village, perform sacrifices, undertake works of public utility and give alms go to smoke, from smoke to night, from night to the dark half of the moon, from the dark half of the moon to the six months during which the sun goes to the south. But they do not reach the year.
4 "From those months they go to the World of the Manes, from the world of the Manes to the akasa, from the akasa to the moon. This is King Soma. They are the food of the gods. Them the gods eat.
5−6 "Having dwelt there in the lunar world till their good works are consumed, they return again the same way they came. They first reach the akasa and from the akasa the air. Having become air, they become smoke; having become smoke, they become mist; "Having become mist, they become cloud; having become cloud, they fall as rain−water. Then they are born as rice and barley, herbs and trees, sesamum and beans. Thence the exit is most difficult; for whoever capable of begetting children eats that food and injects semen, they become like unto him.
7 "Those whose conduct here on earth has been good will quickly attain some good birth−birth as a brahmin, birth as a kshatriya, or birth as a vaisya. But those whose conduct here has been evil will quickly attain some evil birth−birth as a dog, birth as a pig, or birth as a chandala.
8 "Those who neither practise meditation nor perform rituals do not follow either of these ways. They become those insignificant creatures which are continually revolving and about which it may be said: ‘Live and die.’ This is the third place. "Therefore that world never becomes full. Let a man despise this course. To this end there is the following verse:
9 ‘ "A man who steals the gold of a brahmin, he (i.e. a brahmin) who drinks liquor, he who dishonours his teacher’s bed and he who kills a brahmin−these four fall, as also a fifth who associates with them.’ "
10 "But he who knows these Five Fires is not stained by sin even though associating with Part 5 48 them. He becomes pure and clean and obtains the world of the blessed−he who knows this, yea, he who knows this."
Jul 19 2016 : The Times of India (Chennai)
The speaking tree
A King Becomes Guru To The Brahmin-Sage
The Chhandogya Upanishad lays down a unique template which maps out each activity in the universe through the prism of chants. The term `chandogya' is etymologically derived from chhanda, poetic metre. Even as it presents a five-to-seven fold chant structure, through which all human and natural phenomena are seen, the Chhandogya, at another level, goes deep into the metaphysical dimension of the empirical world. The Chhandogya posits the Panchagni Vidya, the theory of the Five Fires, central to the understanding of the laws of the universe.
The doctrine of Panchagni is presented through the story of Svetaketu, the highly learned and educated son of Sage Uddalaka, who, in the course of his travels, turns up at the court of King Pravahana Jaivali. Having welcomed the learned young man, the King poses some questions to Svetaketu to comprehend how much the young man has learned.
His first question, “Do you know where mortals go to after death?“ perplexes Svetaketu, who is at a loss for words. The second question, “Do you know from where people come when they are reborn?“ confuses Svetaketu. The third and fourth question, “Are you aware of the two paths through which the soul ascends?“ and “What is the reason this world is able to contain so many people, yet not overflow?“ further stumps the young scholar.
The last question, “Are you aware of the five oblations that are offered, and how the fifth as water liquid becomes a human?“ leaves Svetaketu at his wit's end. He realises that there are fundamental principles of which he is unaware, despite his learning and scholarship. He turns back to his father, but Uddalaka too has no insight into such matters. Uddalaka turns to the King for answers.
The King initiates Uddalaka into the principle of the Five Fires, in which the cosmos sky is in itself metaphorically seen as a great altar, into which the fuel of the burning sun is offered, from which rises the moon. The Upanishad lays down this as the first Fire, stating that all existence follows this cycle of fire. The next altar is of clouds, where the fuel is the air from which arises rain.
The third altar is Earth, where the fuel is time, from which arises food. The fourth man, where the fuel is food, from altar is man, where the fuel is food, from which arises semen, seed. The fifth and last altar is woman, to who the seed is offered as oblation, and from whence arises the foetus.
The Chhandogya views Creation at all levels as a sort of yajna, sacrifice, where every activity is interconnected. The birth of a child is not just a simple outcome between man and woman. The Chhandogya states that a child is conceived from every cell of the universe. The notion of “my child“ and “your child“ is a misunderstanding of the basic laws of the universe. The Upanishad states that the interconnectedness of the universe and contemplation of this principle through the theory of the Five Fires, is true meditation into the essence of things. It prompts us to look beyond the obvious, to delve deep into the fundamentals of whatever we see, hear or touch.
Tat Tvam Asi is the grand chant of the Chhandogya, the Mahavakya that each of us comes from, and are that Self, the Atman, nothing less.