TRANSMIGRATION OF THE SOUL, doctrine of rebirth based on the theory that an individual soul passes at death into a new body or new form of life. Central to the concept is the principle of universal causality, i.e. a person must receive reward or punishment if not here and now then in a subsequent birth, for his actions in the present one. The soul, it is held, does not cease with the physical body, but takes on a new birth in consequence of the person's actions comprising thoughts, words and deeds. The cumulative effect of these determines his next existence. Attached to worldly objects, man will continue in the circuit of birth death-rebirth until he attains spiritual liberation, annulling the effect of his past actions.

        Belief in reincarnation is basic to the eschatology of all religions of Indian origin. Some Western philosophers of yore also believed, in the transmigration of soul, but for them it was associated with the concept of the immortality of soul. In Indian tradition, on the other hand, transmigration is an essential concomitant of the doctrine of karma, according to which every action, physical or mental, has its own consequence which must be faced immediately or in future, either in this life or in the hereafter, good actions leading to a favourable reward and bad actions entailing punishment. The individual soul (jīvātmā), so it is believed, does not perish with the physical body but dons a new corporeal vesture in a new birth which is determined by its karma in the preceding births. Every new birth in its turn necessarily involves new karma or action leading to further consequences. Jīvātmā is thus tied to a kārmik chakra or an endless cycle of birth-action-death-rebirth, until the chain is broken and kārmik accumulation is dissipated and the Jīva attains muktī or mokṣa, i.e. liberation or release from transmigration.

        The origin of the idea of transmigration is traced back to the post-Vedic period. The early Āryans simply believed that good men ascended to heaven to join company with the gods while the souls of the wicked sank down into the abyss of hell. The postulate that there is no unmerited happiness and unmerited misery and that the individual soul takes after death a new existence during which it reaps what, good or bad, it had sown earlier was first propounded in the Śatpatha Brāhmaṇa, one of the several commentaries that preceded the appearance of the Upanisads. Since then in India the highest spiritual goal has been the release of the jīvātmā from the cycle of birth and death or āvāgaman (lit. coming and going). Different traditions within the Indian religious systems offer different analyses and correspondingly different solutions. One view is that since transmigration is subject to karma or actions, the cycle can be broken only through the annihilation or karma. Various methods have been suggested to achieve this end such as renunciation, non-action, ritualism and giān (jñāna) or philosophical and metaphysical knowledge.

        The doctrines of transmigration of soul and karma are accepted in the Sikh system, but with significant individual shades and emphases. Karma, it is true, determines its own consequence : jehe karma kamāi tehā hoisī-- as one acts so shall one be (GG, 730). However, karma as part of the Divine Order (hukam) is a natural compulsion and hence is unavoidable. What is needed, therefore, is not annihilation of karma through non-action, but doing good deeds and avoiding evil ones. Men are naturally endowed with power to discriminate between good and evil. Human life is on this account a valuable chance not to be frittered away. Gurū Nānak warns : suṇi suṇi sikh hamarī sukritu kītā rahasī mere jīaṛe bahuṛi na āvai vārī--- Listen, listen to my advice, O my Mind! Only good deeds shall endure, and there may not be another chance (GG, 154). Says Gurū Arjan: "milu jagadīs milan kī barīā chiraṅkāl ih deh sañjarīā ---do meet the Lord of the Universe, for now is the time. After ages (passing through many different forms) have you attained the gift of human life" (GG, 176). Here in the world man has the opportunity to achieve ethical perfection, cherish the Lord and earn final release.

        Secondly, what lies at the root of the problem is not karma, but haumai, i.e, egoity or the sense of I-ness. Jīvātmā (individual soul) is a spark or ray of the Ineffable Spirit, Paramātmā, and its deliverance lies in its reunion with its source. What hinders such reunion is the jīva's egoism. The jīva confined in its narrow shell and devoid of understanding of the infiniteness of Reality claims for itself a separate, individuated existence. It is haumai that robs a jīva's karma or potential merit. Even the holiest of acts would not avail when accompanied by haumai or self-conceit. Says Gurū Arjan, Nānak V : "jo jo karam kīe hau haumai te te bhae ajāe--- All actions performed in ego go waste," (GG, 999) and "āpas kau karamvantu kahāvai, janami marai bahu joni bhramāvai-- As long as he jīvā) thinks he is the doer, so long shall he continue wandering through wombs and births" (GG, 278). What is needed is not annihilation of karma, but the conquest of haumai. This is done through right understanding of hukam (Divine Order), and the śabad (Divine Word) itself. As says Gurū Amar Dās, Nānak III, "ham kīā ham karahage ham mūrakh gāvār kārṇaivālā visariā dujai bhāī piāru--- Utterly misguided are they who, filled with ego lay out many claims for what has been done and for what remains to be done, forgetting the one who guides all of our actions, and falling a prey to illusion and duality" (GG,39). When haumai is overcome and actions are dedicated to God, individuation ceases and the soul merges into the Absolute Beings.

        Another Sikh principle having bearing on the concept of transmigration is that of nadar. Divine Order (hukam) although generally immutable is yet tempered by nadar or Divine Grace. The law of transmigration of soul, too, does not condemn a soul to irrevocable predestination and eternal kārmik chakra. God's nadar (lit. favourable glance) can at any stage redeem a soul and release it forever from the circuit of āvāgaman or transmigration. Muktī or deliverance from the bondage of birth and death, according to Sikh belief, is not contingent upon the end to the present life. With God's grace one can be a jīvan mukta, emancipated while still living. What is required of the seeker of nadar is to behave and act in such a way that he qualifies himself for His grace. Thus while karma is necessary and good deeds helpful, liberation finally comes through nadar. Says Gurū Nānak in the Japu, "karmī āvai kapṛā nadarī mokhu duāru--- body is determined by karma, but through nadar is found the door to liberation" (GG, 2).

        There is nothing dreadful as such about birth and death, i.e.transmigration, although to transcend the cycle is ever the soul's goal. Birth and death are part of hukam and are to be accepted as His razā or Will. Gurū Nānak says : "jammaṇu marṇā hukamu pachhāṇu--know that birth and death are by His hukam alone," (GG, 412). Again, “jammaṇu maraṇā hukamu hai bhāṇai āvai jāi-- birth and death are by His hukam ; by His Will does one come and go" (GG,472). Besides being in tune with the Divine Will and practising humility and truth, the jīva is urged, in Sikhism, to take shelter in nām or śabda. Without savouring nām one wanders endlessly from birth to birth. Says Gurū Nānak "gur kau jāṇi na jānai kiā tisu chaju achāru andhulai nāmu visāriā manmukhi andh gubāru āvaṇu jāṇu na chukaī mari janamai hoi khuāru-- They who have not cherished the Gurū nor realized nām will continue to transmigrate" (GG, 19).


  1. Śabadārth Srī Gurū Granth Sāhib. Amritsar,1959
  2. Jodh Siṅgh, Bhāī, Gurmati Nirṇaya. Lahore,1932
  3. Caveeshar, Sardūl Siṅgh, Sikh Dharam Darshan. Patiala, 1969
  4. Sher Singh, The Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944
  5. Wazir Singh, Philosophy of Sikh Religion. Delhi, 1981

K. T. Lālwānī