“My dear Lord, I had a great desire that someday I might be able to see You personally. I think that my tendency to perform ritualistic and charitable activities, combined with this great desire to see You personally, has enabled me to retain the memory of who I was in my former life, even though I became a lizard.” (King Nriga, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 9)
Upon learning of the truth of reincarnation, as beautifully explained in the Bhagavad-gita by Shri Krishna, it is natural to wonder about past experiences.
“Where was I in a past life? How many of them were there exactly? I am assuming they all weren’t in the human species. Is this the first time in the human form for me? That would be something.”
To ponder the future next:
“Wait a second. What will happen moving forward? Will I be able to remember everything from this life? So many important principles. So many worthwhile experiences. What will become of my memory?”
The living entity is spirit soul [atma]. This is an important distinction to state because the tendency is to think in the opposite direction. My hand. My leg. My body. My family, my neighborhood, etc.
At the time of death, the atma carries forward. It actually never ceases to exist and neither is there a date of inception. This is the meaning to sanatana. Without beginning and without end.
Shri Krishna explains that the conceptions come along for the ride. They are part of the entourage in the spirit soul’s travels. This accounts for the variety in tendencies and abilities at the time of birth. One child learns to walk rather quickly, while another requires more practice. One person is adept at musical composition, while another excels at sports.
शरीरं यद् अवाप्नोति
यच् चाप्य् उत्क्रामतीश्वरः
वायुर् गन्धान् इवाशयात्
śarīraṁ yad avāpnoti
yac cāpy utkrāmatīśvaraḥ
vāyur gandhān ivāśayāt
“The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.8)
The three aspects of the subtle body tag along with the spirit soul. These are mind, intelligence and ego. Still, seldom are the past experiences remembered. We see evidence based on our present witnessing capacity. We can’t remember everything from this lifetime, so how would the selectivity apply to past lives, if that memory were possible?
From consulting Vedic literature, we see that there are certain cases where a person remembers the past. There is always a high purpose served by this gift from nature known as jati-smara.
1. King Bharata as a deer
Previously a king, Bharata developed strong affection for a deer. The conception in the mind was fixed to the point that the future life was in the form of a deer, proving the truth presented in the Bhagavad-gita.
यं यं वापि स्मरन् भावं
त्यजत्य् अन्ते कलेवरम्
तं तम् एवैति कौन्तेय
yaṁ yaṁ vāpi smaran bhāvaṁ
tyajaty ante kalevaram
taṁ tam evaiti kaunteya
“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.6)
The memory was helpful since it reminded the individual of the proper focus in life. After retiring from working life, as an ascetic the proper focus should be on the needs of the soul. Attachment to the Almighty, which qualifies as liberation if maintained through the end of life.
2. The two sons of Kuvera as trees
They were in a high position. Sons to one of the important demigods managing the creation, Nalakuvara and Manigriva were one time so intoxicated that they failed to show proper respect to a visiting Narada Muni. Showing his mercy upon them, Narada declared a curse. The brothers would have to take birth as trees.
The punishment was proper, since they would now be free to remain naked for a long period of time. No intoxication required to remove the shame from the situation. They would remember the past transgression because of the future meeting with the Supreme Lord.
Shri Krishna knocked down those two trees as part of His Damodara-lila, which is glorified particularly in the month of Kartik in the annual Vedic calendar. The past mistake turned out to be a fortunate occurrence. It is not every day that a person meets Shri Krishna and gets to offer Him heartfelt prayers.
3. King Nriga as a lizard
This was an accident. The king had the right intentions. He was not trying to offend anyone. He accidentally got the property of brahmanas mixed up. A cow belonging to one was donated to another. The priestly figures were so angry that they cursed him.
Nriga was born as a lizard in the next life. Stuck in a well, he had the good fortune of meeting the Supreme Lord. Shri Krishna liberated him, and so the past mistake was actually a blessing.
From these incidents we see that there is a way to sort of time-travel. Not that we revisit a past situation in person, but we can change the nature of a mistake. What was once a regrettable incident turns into part of the successful journey of meeting life’s objective.
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