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Its meaning and consequences

by Ernest Valea


The concept of reincarnation seems to offer one of the most attractive explanations of humanity’s origin and destiny. It is accepted not only by adherents of Eastern religions or New Age spirituality, but also by many who don’t share such esoteric interests and convictions. To know that you lived many lives before this one and that there are many more to come is a very attractive perspective from which to judge the meaning of life. On the one hand, reincarnation is a source of great comfort, especially for those who seek liberation on the exclusive basis of their inner resources. It gives assurance for continuing one’s existence in further lives and thus having a renewed chance to attain liberation. On the other hand, reincarnation is a way of rejecting the monotheistic teaching of the final judgment by a holy God, with the possible result of being eternally condemned to suffer in hell. Another major reason for accepting reincarnation by so many people today is that it seems to explain the differences that exist among people. Some are healthy, others are tormented their whole life by physical handicaps. Some are rich, others at the brink of starvation. Some have success without being religious; others are constant losers, despite their religious dedication. Eastern religions explain these differences as a result of previous lives, good or bad, which bear their fruits in the present one through the action of karma. Therefore reincarnation seems to be a perfect way of punishing or rewarding one’s deeds, without the need of accepting a personal God as Ultimate Reality.


Given the huge interest in this topic today, let us examine it under the following headings:

A) Reincarnation in world religions;
B) Past-life recall as proof for reincarnation;
C) Reincarnation and cosmic justice;
D) Reincarnation and Christianity.


Part A:

Reincarnation in world religions

Reincarnation in Hinduism
Immortality in the Vedic hymns and the Brahmanas
Reincarnation in the Upanishads
Reincarnation in the Epics and Puranas
Who or what reincarnates in Hinduism?
Reincarnation in Buddhism
Reincarnation in Taoism
Reincarnation in modern thinking

The reincarnation of an entity which is the core of human existence (atman or purusha) in a long cycle that implies many lives and bodies, is not so old a concept as it is claimed today. Neither is it a common element for most of the oldest known religions, nor does its origin belong to an immemorial past.

The classic form of the reincarnation doctrine was formulated in India, but certainly not earlier than the 9th century BC, when the Brahmana writings were composed. After the Upanishads clearly defined the concept between the 7th and the 5th century BC, it was adopted by the other important Eastern religions which originated in India, Buddhism and Jainism. Due to the spread of Buddhism in Asia, reincarnation was later adopted by Chinese Taoism, but not earlier than the 3rd century BC.

The ancient religions of the Mediterranean world developed quite different kinds of reincarnationist beliefs. For instance, Greek Platonism asserted the pre-existence of the soul in a celestial world and its fall into a human body due to sin. In order to be liberated from its bondage and return to a state of pure being, the soul needs to be purified through reincarnation. In stating such beliefs Plato was strongly influenced by the earlier philosophical schools of Orphism and Pythagoreanism. The first important Greek philosophical system that adopted a view on reincarnation similar to that of Hinduism was Neo-Platonism, in the 3rd century AD, under certain Eastern influences.

In the case of ancient Egypt, The Egyptian Book of the Dead describes the travel of the soul into the next world without making any allusions to its return to earth. As it is well known, the ancient Egyptians embalmed the dead in order that the body might be preserved and accompany the soul into that world. This suggests their belief in resurrection rather than in reincarnation. Likewise, in many cases of ancient tribal religions that are credited today with holding to reincarnation, they rather teach the pre-existence of the soul before birth or its independent survival after death. This has no connection with the classic idea of transmigration from one physical body to another according to the demands of an impersonal law such as karma.


Reincarnation in Hinduism


The origin of samsara must be credited to Hinduism and its classic writings. It cannot have appeared earlier than the 9th century BC because the Vedic hymns, the most ancient writings of Hinduism, do not mention it, thus proving that reincarnation wasn’t stated yet at the time of their composition (13th to 10th century BC). Let us therefore analyze the development of the concept of immortality in the major Hindu writings, beginning with the Vedas and the Brahmanas.


Immortality in the Vedic hymns and the Brahmanas


At the time the Vedic hymns were written, the view on afterlife was that a human being continues to exist after death as a whole person. Between humans and gods there was an absolute distinction, as in all other polytheistic religions of the world. The concept of an impersonal fusion with the source of all existence, as later put forth by the Upanishads, was unconceivable. Here are some arguments for this thesis that result from the exegesis of the funeral ritual:

1. As was the case in other ancient religions (for instance those of Egypt and Mesopotamia), the deceased were buried with the food and clothing that were seen as necessary in the afterlife. More than that, the belief of ancient Aryans in the preservation of personal identity after death led them to incinerate the dead husband together with his (living) wife and bow so that they could accompany him in the afterlife. In some parts of India this ritual was performed until the British colonization.

2. Similar to the tradition of the ancient Chinese religion, the departed relatives formed a holy hierarchy in the realm of the dead. The last man deceased was commemorated individually for a year after his departure and then included in the mortuary offerings of the monthly shraddha ritual (Rig Veda 10,15,1-11). This ritual was necessary because the dead could influence negatively or positively the life of the living (Rig Veda 10,15,6).

3. According to Vedic anthropology, the components of human nature are the physical body, ashu and manas. Ashu represents the vital principle (different from personal attributes), and manas the sum of psycho-mental faculties (mind, feeling and will). The belief in the preservation of the three components after death is proved by the fact that the family addressed the departed relative in the burial ritual as a unitary person: "May nothing of your manas, nothing of the ashu, nothing of the limbs, nothing of your vital fluid, nothing of your body here by any means be lost" (Atharva Veda 18,2,24).

4. Yama, the god of death (mentioned also in old Buddhist and Taoist scriptures) is sovereign over the souls of the dead and also the one who receives the offerings of the family for the benefit of the departed. In the Rig Veda it is said about him: "Yama was the first to find us our abode, a place that can never be taken away, where our ancient fathers have departed; all who are born go there by that path, treading their own" (Rig Veda 10,14,2). Divine justice was provided by the gods Yama, Soma and Indra, not by an impersonal law such as karma. One of their attributes was to cast the wicked into an eternal dark prison out of which they could never escape (Rig Veda 7,104,3-17).

The premise of reaping the reward of one’s life in a new earthly existence (instead of a heavenly afterlife) appeared in the Brahmana writings (9th century BC). They spoke of a limited heavenly immortality, depending on the deeds and the quality of the sacrifices performed during one's life. After reaping the reward for them, humans have to face a second death in the heavenly realm (punarmrityu) and thereafter return to an earthly existence. The proper antidote to this fate came to be considered esoteric knowledge, attainable only during one’s earthly existence.


Reincarnation in the Upanishads


The Upanishads were the first writings to move the place of one’s "second death" from the heavenly realm to this earthly world and to consider its proper solution to be the knowledge of the atman-Brahman identity. Ignorance of one’s true self (atman or purusha) launches karma into action, the law of cause and effect in Eastern spirituality. Its first clear formulation can be found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4,4,5): "According as one acts, according as one behaves, so does he become. The doer of good becomes good. The doer of evil becomes evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action." Reincarnation (samsara) is the practical way in which one reaps the fruits of one's deeds. The self is forced to enter a new material existence until all karmic debt is paid: "By means of thought, touch, sight and passions and by the abundance of food and drink there are birth and development of the (embodied) self. According to his deeds, the embodied self assumes successively various forms in various conditions" (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 5,11).

We can therefore witness a fundamental shift in the meaning of afterlife from the Vedic perspective. The Upanishads abandoned the goal of having communion with the gods (Agni, Indra, etc.), attained as a result of bringing good sacrifices, and came to consider man’s final destiny to be the impersonal fusion atman-Brahman, attained exclusively by esoteric knowledge. In this new context, karma and reincarnation are key elements that will define all particular developments in Hinduism.


Reincarnation in the Epics and Puranas


In the Bhagavad Gita, which is a part of the Mahabharata, reincarnation is clearly stated as a natural process of life that has to be followed by any mortal. Krishna says:

Just as the self advances through childhood, youth and old age in its physical body, so it advances to another body after death. The wise person is not confused by this change called death (2,13). Just as the body casts off worn out clothes and puts on new ones, so the infinite, immortal self casts off worn out bodies and enters into new ones (2,22).

The Puranas develop this topic in greater detail, so that specific destinies are worked out according to each kind of "sin" one commits:
The murderer of a brahmin becomes consumptive, the killer of a cow becomes hump-backed and imbecile, the murderer of a virgin becomes leprous - all three born as outcastes. The slayer of a woman and the destroyer of embryos becomes a savage full of diseases; who commits illicit intercourse, a eunuch; who goes with his teacher’s wife, disease-skinned. The eater of flesh becomes very red; the drinker of intoxicants, one with discolored teeth.... Who steals food becomes a rat; who steals grain becomes a locust... perfumes, a muskrat; honey, a gadfly; flesh, a vulture; and salt, an ant.... Who commits unnatural vice becomes a village pig; who consorts with a Sudra woman becomes a bull; who is passionate becomes a lustful horse.... These and other signs and births are seen to be the karma of the embodied, made by themselves in this world. Thus the makers of bad karma, having experienced the tortures of hell, are reborn with the residues of their sins, in these stated forms (Garuda Purana 5).

Similar specific punishments are stated by The Laws of Manu (12, 54-69). As the karmic debt one recorded in the past is considerably large, a single life is not enough to consume it. Therefore, in order to attain liberation, many lives become a necessity. The external intervention of a god or a human guru is useless since it would compromise the role of karma.


Who or what reincarnates in Hinduism?


According to the Upanishads and Vedanta philosophy, the entity that reincarnates is the impersonal self (atman). Atman does not have a personal nature, and so the use of the reflexive pronoun "self" is not suitable. Atman can be defined only through negating any personal attributes. Although it constitutes the existential substrata of human existence, atman cannot be the carrier of one’s "spiritual progress," because it cannot record any data produced in the illusory domain of psycho-mental existence. The spiritual progress one accumulates toward realizing the atman-Brahman identity is recorded by karma, or rather by a minimal amount of karmic debt. The whole physical and mental complex a human being consists of is reconstructed at (re)birth according to one’s karma. At this level, the newly shaped person experiences the fruits of "his" or "her" actions from previous lives and has to do his best to stop the vicious cycle avidya-karma-samsara.

As a necessary aid in explaining the reincarnation mechanism, Vedanta adopted the concept of a subtle body (sukshma-sharira) which is attached to atman as long as its bondage lasts. This is the actual carrier of karmic debts. However, this "subtle body" cannot be a form of preserving one’s personal attributes, i.e., of any element of one's present conscious psycho-mental life. The facts recorded by the subtle body are a sum of hidden tendencies or impressions (samskara) imprinted by karma as seeds that will generate future behavior and personal character. They will materialize unconsciously in the life of the individual, without giving one any hint at understanding his or her actual condition. There can be no form of transmitting conscious memory from one life to another, since it belongs to the world of illusion and dissolves at death.

In the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas, the entity that reincarnates is purusha, an equivalent of atman. Given the absolute duality between purusha and prakriti (substance), nothing that belongs to the psycho-mental life can pass from one life to another because it belongs to prakriti, which has a mere illusory relation with purusha. However, the Yoga Sutra (2,12) defines a similar mechanism of transmitting the effects of karma from one life to another, as was the case in Vedanta. The reservoir of karmas is called karmashaya. It accompanies purusha from one life to another, representing the sum of impressions (samskara) that could not manifest themselves during the limits of a certain life. In no way can it be a kind of conscious memory, a sum of information that the person could consciously use or a nucleus of personhood, because karmashaya has nothing in common with psycho-mental abilities. This deposit of karma merely serves as a mechanism for adjusting the effects of karma in one’s life. It dictates in an impersonal and mechanical manner the new birth (jati), the length of life (ayu) and the experiences that must accompany it (bhoga).


Reincarnation in Buddhism


Buddhism denies the existence of a permanent self that reincarnates from one life to the next. The illusion of an existing self is generated by a mere heap of five aggregates (skandha), which suffer from constant becoming and have a functional cause-effect relation: 1) the body, also called the material form (rupa), 2) feeling (vedana) - the sensations that arise from the body’s sense organs, 3) cognition (sanna) - the process of classifying and labeling experiences, 4) mental constructions (sankhara) - the states which initiate action, and 5) consciousness (vijnana) - the sense of awareness of a sensory or mental object. The five elements are impermanent (anitya), undergo constant transformation and have no abiding principle or self. Humans usually think that they have a self because of consciousness. But being itself in a constant process of becoming and change, consciousness cannot be identified with a self that is supposed to be permanent. Beyond the five aggregates nothing else can be found in the human nature.

However, something has to reincarnate, following the dictates of karma. When asked about the differences between people in the matters of life span, illnesses, wealth, etc., the Buddha taught:

Men have, O young man, deeds as their very own, they are inheritors of deeds, deeds are their matrix, deeds are their kith and kin, and deeds are their support. It is deeds that classify men into high or low status (Majjhima Nikaya 135,4).

If there is no real self, who inherits the deeds and reincarnates? The Buddha answered that only karma is passing from one life to another, using the illustration of the light of a candle, which is derived from another candle without having a substance of its own. In the same manner there is rebirth without the transfer of a self from one body to another. The only link from one life to the next is of a causal nature. In the Garland Sutra (10) we read:
According to what deeds are done
Do their resulting consequences come to be;
Yet the doer has no existence:
This is the Buddha’s teaching.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes in detail the alleged experiences one has in the intermediary state between two incarnations, suggesting that the deceased keeps some personal attributes. Although it is not clear what actually survives after death in this case, it mentions a mental body that cannot be injured by the visions experienced by the deceased:
When it happens that such a vision arises, do not be afraid! Do not feel terror! You have a mental body made of instincts; even if it is killed or dismembered, it cannot die! Since in fact you are a natural form of voidness, anger at being injured is unnecessary! The Yama Lords of Death are but arisen from the natural energy of your own awareness and really lack all substantiality. Voidness cannot injure voidness! (Tibetan Book of the Dead, 12)

Whatever the condition of the deceased after death might be, any hypothetical personal nucleus vanishes just before birth, so there can be no psycho-mental element transmitted from one life to another. The newborn person doesn’t remember anything from previous lives or trips into the realm of the intermediary state (bardo).

Another important element is the extreme rarity of being reincarnated as a human person. The Buddha taught in the Chiggala Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 35,63):
Monks, suppose that this great earth were totally covered with water, and a man were to toss a yoke with a single hole there. A wind from the east would push it west, a wind from the west would push it east. A wind from the north would push it south, a wind from the south would push it north. And suppose a blind sea-turtle were there. It would come to the surface once every one hundred years. Now what do you think: would that blind sea-turtle, coming to the surface once every one hundred years, stick his neck into the yoke with a single hole?
It would be a sheer coincidence, lord, that the blind sea-turtle, coming to the surface once every one hundred years, would stick his neck into the yoke with a single hole.
It's likewise a sheer coincidence that one obtains the human state. It's likewise a sheer coincidence that a Tathagata, worthy and rightly self-awakened, arises in the world.

If one tried to calculate the probability of obtaining the human state according to this text, and consider the surface of "this great earth" as being just the surface of India, the odds would be once in a timespan of 5 x 1016 years (5 followed by 16 zeros). This is 5 million times the age of the universe.


Reincarnation in Taoism


Reincarnation is a teaching hard to find in the aphorisms of the Tao-te Ching (6th century BC), so it must have appeared later in Taoism. Although it is not specified what reincarnates, something has to pass from one life to another. An important scripture of Taoism, the Chuang Tzu (4th century BC), states:

Birth is not a beginning; death is not an end. There is existence without limitation; there is continuity without a starting point. Existence without limitation is space. Continuity without a starting point is time. There is birth, there is death, there is issuing forth, there is entering in. That through which one passes in and out without seeing its form, that is the Portal of God (Chuang Tzu 23).


Reincarnation in modern thinking


Once the Eastern concept of reincarnation arrived in Europe, its meaning changed. During the Middle Ages it was a doctrine reserved for the initiates of some occult traditions such as Hermetism and Catharism, who had taken it over from Neo-Platonism. A wider acceptance of reincarnation was promoted in the Western world beginning only in the 19th century, by Theosophy, and later also by Anthroposophy. Then came the Eastern gurus, the New Age movement, and as a result we witness a wide acceptance of reincarnation in our society today. However, its modern version is substantially different from what Eastern religions affirmed. Far from being a torment out of which man has to escape by any price through abolishing personhood, New Age thinking sees reincarnation as an eternal progression of the soul toward higher levels of spiritual knowledge. Thus what reincarnates is not the impersonal atman, but an entity which is currently called the soul, an entity which preserves the attributes of personhood from one life to the next. This compromise obviously emerged from the desire to adapt the reincarnation doctrine to Western thought. The concept of an impersonal atman reincarnating was too abstract to be easily accepted, so Westerners needed a milder version of this doctrine. Although this tendency may offer evidence for the soul’s yearning for a personal destiny, it doesn’t bear too much resemblance to classical Eastern spirituality, which rejects it as a perverted view.

The above information on the meaning of reincarnation in the Eastern religions and the nature of the entity which is reincarnating will be helpful in examining the modern proofs for it which are so popular today. While analyzing them, we need to remember that according to the Eastern concept of reincarnation there cannot be any personal element that could travel from one life to the next.


Past-life recall as proof for reincarnation;
Reincarnation and cosmic justice;
Reincarnation and Christianity.

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Copyright Ernest Valea. No part of this work will be used or reproduced by any means without prior permission from the author.