14 – Tattva Bodha: On Karma, Rebirth, Reincarnation – Material & Efficient Cause of Physical Body


Discourse 14 speaks about the Material and Efficient Cause of your physical body (sthula-sharira).

Source: Tattva Bodha


Purpose of life is not to get everything right or perfect, because that's impossible since world is mithya (everything is changing since it's dependent on so many other things). We've seen in texts like Mahabharata, that even evolved beings  like Yuddhishir make errors; such as his rigid sense of dharma which allowed Duryodhana to continue sinning. The purpose for an adhikari (deserving recipient of this knowledge and who is ready for moksha) shifts to looking into one's subjectivity/biases in response to oneself and the world, and slowly undo them.

Adhikari's efforts also includes noticing how 5 koshas (discussed previous session) keep offering themselves as locus for committing a mistake. Each time you notice this, you're objectifying them, thereby training to not place your “I” in them. This helps your mind gain composure as it's not so caught up in subjective stories and complaints.

Complaints reveal unconscious dissatisfaction in one's mind. We also don't want superficial positivity. But generally operating from objective, solution oriented, productive composure, thereby not feeling so stuck.

And how to NOT feel stuck? For every 1 minute of concern/anxiety, half of it is deliberately bringing in the teaching that there's a larger picture here. Such as “my 5 layers are a functional mechanism, populated by various thoughts/emotions/desires, but they don't define Me”.

Verse: (What is the Gross or Physical Body?)

sthūlaśarīraṃ kim?
pañcīkṛta-pañcamahābhūtaiḥ kṛtaṃ satkarmajanyaṃ
sukhaduḥkhādi-bhogāyatanaṃ śarīram
asti jāyate vardhate vipariṇamate apakṣīyate vinaśyatīti
ṣadvikāravad-etat sthūlaśarīram

That which is made up of the five great elements that have undergone the process of pañcīkaraṇa, born as a result of the good actions of the past, the counter of experiences like joy, sorrow and so on and subject to the six modifications namely – to exist, to be born, to grow, to mature, to decay and to die – is the gross body.

  • MATERIAL CAUSE OF BODY (pañcīkṛta-pañcamahābhūtaiḥ): Your physical body is made by what?
    • Take your shirt for example. It's made up of cotton, wool, linen, polyester, etc. Similarly the body is made up of flesh, bones, water, etc. But what is water made of? Hydrogen and oxygen. So body is actually made up of hydrogen and oxygen atoms.  This is a biological/scientific model of Western thought. However, Upanishads use a different model, called the “5 Elements” model (pancha-maha-bhuta). The 5 Elements are Space (ākāśa), Air (vāyu), Fire (agni), Water (jala / āpaḥ), Earth (bhūmi / pṛthivī). It's important to recognize that Upanishads treat the “5 elements” as a MODEL only. It's not an absolute. A model is only meant to help you understand universe. Therefore don't get caught up in the model.
    • Examples Showing 5 Elements:
      1. Throughout Your Body:
        • Body is in SPACE element. AIR element is in form of oxygen in the blood and lungs. FIRE element manifests as temperature of the body. WATER element makes up 80%+ of your body shape. And EARTH element constitutes more dense matter like minerals, carbon, calcium, phosphorous, bones, flesh, etc.
      2. Throughout the Physical Universe:
        • After big-bang (space), first was hydrogen (simplest atom) and Helium. They were inert gas states (air). Both fused under extreme heat (fire). The fusion created lithium. Then came formation of denser elements (water/Earth) thorough nucleosynthesis. 
      3. How to Fit Vedic “5 Elements” Model Into “Periodic Table of Elements” Model:
        • All periodic table of elements can be put into 3 categories: solids (Earth), liquids (Water), gasses (Air). Vedic “Fire” refers to subtler energy (EG: gravity, photons) that’s measurable by science instruments, but can’t be classified as a gross elements on the periodic table. And Vedic “Space” refers to that which accommodates all periodic table of elements. So Vedic 5 model is actually more inclusive then Periodic model because it also includes Space (which also includes time).
      4. FUTHER READING: How Vedic “5 elements” model supports science of big bang.
    • pañcīkṛta:
      • 5 Elements is divided into 2 categories: 5 Subtle Elements & 5 Gross Elements. 5 Subtle Elements undergo grossification process called “pancikaranam“, where each of the 5 Subtle Elements gets portion of other 4. For example, after subtle Fire gets little bit of Subtle Space, Subtle Air, Subtle Water, and Subtle Earth — then subtle Fire element becomes gross Fire element — which is what we experience in this physical universe as phenomena of fire, warmth, temperature, nuclear fission.
        • ORDER: First were 5 Subtle Elements (before big-bang) > they underwent grossification process (called pancikarana) > which generated 5 Gross Elements that comprise time-space, this physical universe, including your physical body.
      • So word “pañcīkṛta” means: Your physical body is made from 5 Gross Elements (pañca-mahā-bhūtaiḥ) that have undergone grossification as explained above.
  • EFFICIENT CAUSE OF BODY (karmajanyaṃ): Your physical body is made by whom?
    • Any creation (including your body) has 2 causes. Material cause and Efficient cause. For example, material cause of Pot is clay. And it's Efficient cause is the Potter. In same way, material cause of your gross body (sthula-sharira) is 5 Elements as explained above. And Efficient cause is results of your past actions. Therefore…
    • Gross Body is born of good karma (result of past causes that were performed in past lives). Because you have a certain track-record, you were given this human body with which you're reading these words, helping you to understand yourself and reality. Having a human brain, you are offered the possibility of freewill and moksha.
    • KARMA: By the way, the word “karma” has two definitions:
      1. It can means “action“. For example writing or thinking is a karma (action).
      2. Karma can also means “result of action“, which can also be called destiny or fate.
        • For example, “My noble karmas (actions) have given me this favorable karma (result of actions)”.
        • These two definitions should be kept in mind, as the word “karma” gets used frequently, and you need to discern which definition is referred to.
    • Human vs. Devata vs. Animal vs. Plant:
      1. To be born with mixture of meritorious (punya) and sinful (papa) results of past actions, is to receive a human body.
      2. To be born entirely of punya, is to enjoy a devata body (angel). 
      3. To be born from papa, is to receive an animal body. Insects are born from even more papa
        • Animal world is cruel. It's based on survival-of-fittest and privileges are limited, depending on where it stands in the food chain. For example, a dog can show signs of injury on the road, and nobody will care or feel compelled to help. Whereas when a human shows illness, their punya compels others to take notice and assist. 
      4. To be born from majority of papa (even more then of insect) is to receive a plant body.
    • In short, your Gross body is fashioned out of karma pool. And what determine what's inside the karma pool? Quality of your actions. If actions are noble, karma pool will be a lot more favorable, then if actions are selfish, discount the wellbeing of others and irresponsible. Your karma pool determines your parentage, genes, country of birth, body type (male/female), inclinations towards certain interests. 
    • KARMA IS A BELIEF — HOWEVER A USEFUL ONE: We acknowledge Past lives or reincarnation remains a belief. It can't be proven. However it puts things into perspective and explains many unresolvable issues. Such as…
      1. Continuation of life / Reincarnation or Rebirth supports “Law of conservation of energy”, which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only converted from one form of energy to another.
      2. LOGIC: Human experience consists of physical body and subjective experience of “I am”. We know after death physical body doesn’t go out of existence. It’s returned to 5 elements. So it’s converted, not into nothing, but into something.  Similarly, subject experience of “I am” can’t go onto nothing (out of existence), because “I am” is something. And something opposes “nothing”. So question is, what happens to the “I am” after death. It has to continue. Continue how? By continuing to have a subjective experience. How is that made possible? Only with a physical body. 
      3. Without reincarnation belief, you'll question why are some born in terrible circumstances (without clean water, abusive parents, sexual abuse, or baby is born with disability) — and others are born healthy and privileged (in certain skills or naturally talented). Only way you could explain it without  past live continuity is by stating it's a random act of universe or God. In that case you can't trust the universe nor the scriptures, nor possibility of liberation. Because if God randomly selects who will be born privileged, that means God also randomly selects who will attain moksha. If that was the case, what motivation would you have to attain Brahman! What if God rejects you!  However with karma, we understand there is an intelligent order and predictability in this universe between Cause-effect. Every effect perfectly reflects it's causes.  Yes, effect is the body. Cause are parents. However Vedanta says, parents are not the only cause. 
      4. By accepting karma (continuity of life), there is reassurance that your efforts in this life are not going to waste. Good efforts will perfectly reflect in the next life. 
      5. By rejecting rebirth, it may produce irresponsibility and selfishness, thinking this life is the end of it.
      • Besides Hinduism and Buddhism openly accepting reality of rebirth/reincarnation, the early Gnostic Christian texts which were not officially recognized by  mainstream Christian church, also clearly mention of reincarnation. For example…
        • Early Christian Gnostic Texts:
          1. The Secret Book of John (Apocryphon of John): This text suggests multiple reincarnations until one gains the knowledge (gnosis) to return to the divine realm. Reincarnation is described as cycle of forgetfulness and ignorance that needs to be overcome. That's exactly the the Vedas have stated.
          2. The Pistis Sophia: This Gnostic text speaks of transmigration of souls (subtle-bodies per Vedantic language), which have not achieved Gnosis (gaining knowledge of oneself). It speaks how unrighteous souls get thrown into a “sphere” and then recycled into different bodies on earth.
        • Bhagavad Gita Verses on Rebirth:
          1. 2.22: Just as a person gives up old clothes and takes up new ones, so does the self, the one who dwells in the body, gives up old bodies and takes others which are new.
          2. 2.13: Just as, for the jiva, the indweller of this body, there is childhood, youth and old age, similar is the gaining of another body. With reference to that, a wise person does not come to grief.
          3. 4.5: Many births have passed for Me and for you too, Arjuna! I know them all (whereas) you do not know.
          4. 15.8: When he obtains a new body, he goes, taking these (the sense organs and the mind) with him just as the wind (would carry) the fragrance from their sources (the flowers).
          5. 16.19-20: Those who are hateful and cruel, who are the lowest who are wrongdoers, I dispatch them repeatedly life of transmigration only in lower-lifeform wombs.  Entering into such wombs, birth after birth, they sink to the lowest state without ever reaching Me.
    • SUMMARY: Vedanta says that your karma-account makes you (Atma whose “I” is placed in Causal & Subtle-body) come back.


  1. According to the verse, what is the material cause of your physical body?
  2. According to the verse, what is the efficient cause of your physical body? 
  3. What are the 5 elements? And in one sentence, what is their purpose?

Keywords:  pancikrta, pancamahabhuta, akasa, akasha, vayu, agni, apah, bhumi, prthivi

Credit for help in Tattva Bodha to Chinmaya Mission's Swami Advayananda, and Arsha Vidya's Swami Dayananda.

Recorded 27 Aug, 2023


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *