Reincarnation, also called metempsychosis or transmigration of souls, is the rebirth in another body (after physical death), of some critical part of a person's personality or spirit. Its occurrence is a central tenet of Hinduism, Jainism, some African religions, as well as various other religions and philosophies. Most modern Pagans also believe in reincarnation.
It has traditionally also been understood to be akin to the Buddhist concept of Rebirth, but it has always been clear that the two concepts are very distinct - Buddhism teaches that there is no self to reincarnate. There is an alternate view, based on a different set of inherent assumptions, that the teachings of Buddhism as a religion might stress one aspect, the teachings of Hinduism might stress another aspect, but that an advanced Buddhist and an advanced Hindu would directly perceive the phenomenon of reincarnation identically.
Origin of the belief
This doctrine has its roots far back in primitive culture. According to some scholars, this idea developed out of three common beliefs: (1) that man has a soul, connected in some vague way with the breath, which can be separated from his material body, temporarily in sleep, permanently at death; (2) that animals and even plants have souls, and are possessed to a large extent of human powers and passions; (3) that souls can be transferred from one organism to another. (This idea still has adherents in many schools of Hinduism, the oldest of extant modern religions)
Alternatively, some consider that reincarnation as a phenomenon (not simply a belief) has been occurring through history, and has been discovered and re-discovered by societies both primitive and advanced.
Transmigration of human souls into non-human bodies is implied in totemism.
Reincarnation in Eastern religions and traditions
In India this doctrine was thoroughly established from ancient times. While metempsychosis was not established in the older sections of the Vedas, it was explicated first in the Upanishads (c. 1000 BC - AD 4), which are philosophico-mystic texts held to be the essence of the Vedas.
The idea that the soul reincarnates is intricately linked to karma, whose first explication was also seen in the Hindu books of the Upanishads. The idea is that individual souls, jiva-atmas pass from one plane of existence carry with them samskaras (impressions) from former states of being. These karmic agglomerations on the soul are taken to the next life and result in a causally-determined state of being. In Hinduism, liberation from samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth, is considered the ultimate goal of earthly existence. This is known as Moksha, mahasamadhi (or nirvana) in Hinduism.
Even greater philosophical depth was reached as Buddhism and Vedanta (in particular Advaita Vedanta) conversed following the advent of the great Hindu sage Adi Shankaracharya. The idea that stilling one's karmas (actions) and becoming at one, harmonious, with all would free one, ultimately, from reincarnation, became a central tenet of Hinduism. It displaced more complex Puranic systems positing the gradual progression of a soul through 8,400,000 (sometimes more) lives until eventual awakening. Instead, it relied more on the idea of self-growth and enlightenment through Yoga. Buddhism differed in that it felt there was no soul to reincarnate and developed an elaborate complex of metaphysical explanations for temporary states of ego to explain rebirth.
Since according to Buddhism there is no permanent and unchanging soul there is no metempsychosis in the strict sense. However, Buddhism never rejected samsara, the process of rebirth or reincarnation; there is debate, however, over what is transmitted between lives.
See also: Rebirth (Buddhist)
In spite of the doctrinal beliefs against the idea of a soul, Tibetan Buddhists do believe that a new-born child may be the reincarnation of someone departed. In Tibetan Buddhism the soul of an important lama (like the Dalai Lama) is supposed to pass into an infant born nine months after his decease.
In Jainism, gods reincarnate after they die. A Jainist, who accumulates enough good karma, may become a god; but, this is generally seen as undesirable since gods eventually die and one might then come back as a lesser being.
Reincarnation in the First American Nations
Reincarnation is an intrinsic part of many Native American and Inuit traditions. Regardless of the actual religious beliefs and practices of today's Native Americans, with varying religious beliefs, the idea has survived for centuries. In the now heavily Christian Polar North (now mainly parts of Greenland and Nunavut), the concept of reincarnation is enshrined in the Inuit language. The survival of the concept of reincarnation applies across the Nations in varying degrees of integrity. The Nations are, of course, now sandwiched between Eastern [Native] and Western traditions.
Reincarnation in Western religions and traditions
Classical Greek Philosophy
Some ancient Greek philosophers believed in reincarnation; see for example Plato's Phaedo and The Republic. Pythagoras was probably the first Greek philosopher to advance the idea.
We do not know exactly how the doctrine of metempsychosis arose in Greece; most scholars do not believe it was borrowed from Egypt or that it somehow was transmitted from from ancient Hindu thinkers of India. It is easiest to assume that earlier ideas which had never been extinguished were utilized for religious and philosophic purposes. The Orphic religion, which held it, first appeared in Thrace upon the semi-barbarous north-eastern frontier. Orpheus, its legendary founder, is said to have taught that soul and body are united by a compact unequally binding on either; the soul is divine, immortal and aspires to freedom, while the body holds it in fetters as a prisoner. Death dissolves this compact, but only to re-imprison the liberated soul after a short time: for the wheel of birth revolves inexorably. Thus the soul continues its journey, alternating between a separate unrestrained existence and fresh reincarnation, round the wide circle of necessity, as the companion of many bodies of men and animals." To these unfortunate prisoners Orpheus proclaims the message of liberation, that they stand in need of the grace of redeeming gods and of Dionysus in particular, and calls them to turn to God by ascetic piety of life and self-purification: the purer their lives the higher will be their next reincarnation, until the soul has completed the spiral ascent of destiny to live for ever as God from whom it comes. Such was the teaching of Orphism which appeared in Greece about the 6th century BC, organized itself into private and public mysteries at Eleusis and elsewhere, and produced a copious literature.
The earliest Greek thinker with whom metempsychosis is connected is Pherecydes; but Pythagoras, who is said to have been his pupil, is its first famous philosophic exponent. Pythagoras probably neither invented the doctrine nor imported it from Egypt, but made his reputation by bringing Orphic doctrine from North-Eastern Hellas to Magna Graecia and by instituting societies for its diffusion.
The real weight and importance of metempsychosis in Western tradition is due to its adoption by Plato. Had he not embodied it in some of his greatest works it would be merely a matter of curious investigation for the Western anthropologist and student of folk-lore. In the eschatological myth which doses the Republic he tells the story how Er, the son of Armenius, miraculously returned to life on the twelfth day after death and recounted the secrets of the other world. After death, he said, he went with others to the place of Judgment and saw the souls returning from heaven and from purgatory, and proceeded with them to a place where they chose new lives, human and animal. He saw the soul of Orpheus changing into a swan, Thamyras becoming a nightingale, musical birds choosing to be men, the soul of Atalanta choosing the honours of an athlete. Men were seen passing into animals and wild and tame animals changing into each other. After their choice the souls drank of Lethe and then shot away like stars to their birth. There are myths and theories to the same effect in other dialogues, the Phaedrus, Meno, Phaedo, Timaeus and Laws. In Plato's view the number of souls was fixed; birth therefore is never the creation of a soul, but only a transmigration from one body to another. Plato's acceptance of the doctrine is characteristic of his sympathy with popular beliefs and desire to incorporate them in a purified form into his system. Aristotle, a far less emotional and sympathetic mind, has a doctrine of immortality totally inconsistent with it.
In later Greek literature the doctrine appears from time to time; it is mentioned in a fragment of Menander (the Inspired Woman) and satirized by Lucian (Gallus 18 seq.). In Roman literature it is found as early as Ennius, who in his Calabrian home must have been familiar with the Greek teachings which had descended to his times from the cities of Magna Graecia. In a lost passage of his Annals, a Roman history in verse, Ennius told how he had seen Homer in a dream, who had assured him that the same soul which had animated both the poets had once belonged to a peacock. Persius in one of his satires (vi. 9) laughs at Ennius for this: it is referred to also by Lucretius (i. 124) and by Horace (Epist. II. i. 52). Virgil works the idea into his account of, the Underworld in the sixth book of the Aeneid (vv. 724 sqq.). It persists in antiquity down to the latest classic thinkers, Plotinus and the other Neoplatonists.
Judaism and kabbalah
Classic works of the Kabbalah, Shaar ha Gilgulim ("Gate of Reincarnations") of Arizal or Isaac Luria, describes complex laws of reincarnation gilgul and impregnation ibbur of 5 different parts of the soul. It shows many references of reincarnation in Hebrew Bible (the Tanach).
The notion of reincarnation, the transmigration of a soul after death into a new body, is not openly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The classical rabbinic works (midrash, Mishna and Talmud) also are silent on this topic. These beliefs originally existed among the gnostics and other non-Jewish faiths. Although how this occurred is still a matter of debate among Jewish historians, the doctrine of reincarnation eventually made its way into the mainstream of Jewish mysticism.
In the eighth century these ideas had found their way into the beliefs that the belief of reincarnation existed among some Jews despite the inherent "nonsense and stupidities" of such beliefs. The concept was elucidated in an influential mystical work called the Bahir (Illumination) (one of the most ancient books of Jewish mysticism) around 1150. After the publication of the Zohar in the late 13th century, the idea of reincarnation spread to most of the general Jewish community.
While ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Socrates attempted to prove the existence of reincarnation through philosophical proofs, Jewish mystics who accepted this idea did not. Rather, they offered explanations of why reincarnation would solve otherwise intractable problems of theodicy (how to reconcile the existence of evil with the premise of a good God.)
Rabbis who accepted the idea of reincarnation include Levi ibn Habib (the Ralbah), Nahmanides (the Ramban), Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher , Rabbi Shelomoh Alkabez and Rabbi Hayyim Vital . The argument made was that even the most righteous of Jews sometimes would suffer or be murdered unjustly. Further, children would sometimes suffer or be murdered, yet they were obviously too young for them to have committed sins that God would presumably punish them for. Jewish supporters of reincarnation said that this idea would remove the theodicy: Good people were not suffering; rather, they were reincarnations of people who had sinned in previous lifetimes. Therefore any suffering which was observed could be assumed to be from a just God. Yitzchak Blua writes "Unlike some other areas of philosophy where the philosophic battleground revolves around the truth or falsehood of a given assertion, the gilgul debate at points focuses on the psychological needs of the people." (p.6)
Other rabbis who rejected the idea of reincarnation include Hasdai Crescas, Yedayah Bedershi (early 14th century), Joseph Albo, Abraham ibn Daud and Leon de Modena . Crescas writes that if reincarnation was real, people should remember details of their previous lives. Bedershi offers three reasons why the entire concept is dangerous: (a) There is no reason for people to try and do good in this life, if they fear that they will nonetheless be punished for some unknown sin committed in a past life. (b) Some people may assume that they did not sin in their past life, and so can coast on their success; thus there is no need to try had to live a good life. In Bedershi's view, the only psychologically tenable worldview for a healthy life is to deal with the here-and-now. (c) The idea presents a conundrum for those who believe that at the end of days, God will resurrect the souls and physical bodies of the dead. If a person has lived multiple lives, which body will God resurrect? Joseph Albo writes that in theory the idea of gilgulim is compatible with Jewish theology. However, Albo argues that there is a purpose for a soul to enter the body, creating a being with free will. However, a return of the soul to another body, again and again, has no point. Leon De Moden thinks that the idea of reincarnation make a mockery of God's plans for humans; why does God need to send the soul back over and over? If God requires an individual to achieve some perfection or atone for some sin, then God can just extend that person's life until they have time to do what is necessary. de Modena's second argument against reincarnation is that the entire concept is absent from the entire Bible and corpus of classical rabbinic literature.
The idea of reincarnation, called gilgul, became popular in folk belief, and is found in much Yiddish literature among Ashkenazi Jews. Among a few kabbalists, it was posited that some human souls could end up being reincarnated into animal bodies. These ideas can be found in a small number of Kabbalistic works from the 1200s, and even existed among a few mystics at least into the late 1500s.
"Over time however, the philosophical teaching limiting reincarnation to human bodies emerged as the dominant view. Nonetheless, the idea that one can reborn as an animal was never completely eliminated from Jewish thought, and appears centuries later in the Eastern European folk tradition". [Simcha Paull-Raphael,Jewish Views of the Afterlife, p.319]
While many Jews today do not believe in reincarnation, the belief is common amongst Orthodox Jews, particularly amongst Hasidim; some Hasidic siddurim (prayerbooks) have a prayer asking for forgiveness for one's sins that one may have committed in this gilgul or a previous one.
Many Gnostic groups believed in reincarnation. For them, reincarnation was a negative concept: Gnostics believed that the material body was evil, and that they would be better off if they could eventually avoid having their 'good' souls reincarnated in 'evil' bodies.
The Gnostic Gospel of the Nazirenes - Chapter 69:
- 1. As Yeshua sat by the west of the temple with his disciples, behold there passed some carrying one that was dead, to burial, and a certain one said to Him, "Master, if a man die, shall he live again?"
- 2. He answered and said, "I am the resurrection and the life, I am the good, the beautiful, the true; if a man believe in me he shall not die, but live eternally. As in Adam all (1997 = are bound to cycles of rebirth) die, so in the Messiah shall all be made alive. Blessed are the dead who die in me, and are made perfect in my image and likeness, for they rest from their labors and their works do follow them. They have overcome evil, and are made pillars in the temple of my God, and they go out no more, for they rest in the eternal."
- 3. "For them that persist in evil there is no rest, but they go out and in, and suffer correction for ages, till they are made perfect. But for them that have done good and attained to perfection, there is endless rest and they go into life everlasting. They rest in the eternal."
- 4. "Over them the repeated death and birth have no power, for them the wheel of the eternal revolves no more, for they have attained to the center, where is eternal rest, and the center of all things is God."
The texts contains several parallels to the Gospels, which are, though, traditionally interpreted differently in their context:
- "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. John 11:25f RSV
- Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. Revelation 3:12 (NIV)
Also see Bible and Reincarnation.
Parallels to reincarnation are often seen by outsiders in the Christian concepts of rebirth and resurrection which are taught by all mainstream branches of Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) as well as most non-traditional branches (Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.). But these groups reject the concept of reincarnation, though some smaller groups (Christian gnostics, the Liberal Catholic Church, and the Christian Community) do include the concept of reincarnation in their doctrine.
In related groups it is frequently maintained, based on certain Bible texts and church fathers (especially Origen), that the early Christians did believe in reincarnation and that the reincarnation proofs had been destroyed by the church later on.
Bible verses used as proof texts for the reincarnation teachings of early Christians are, e.g. Mt 11:14 and 17:12f and John 9,1 ff. Read with a new-age worldview, these texts can indeed be interpreted as referring to reincarnation. :Jesus identifies John the Baptist as the returning prophet Elijah in Matthews 11:14.
- When the disciples ask Jesus about a blind man who had sinned: John 9:2 (NIV) His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
- John 9:34 (NIV) To this they replied, "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out.
- In the Old Testament, David writes:
- Psalms 51:5 (NIV) Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
It is also maintained that the 3rd century church father Origen had been an adherent of reincarnation. Origen stood for the pre-existence of the soul -- the concept that the human soul existed already before birth. "The soul has neither beginning nor end... [They] come into this world strengthened by the victories or weakened by the defeats of their previous lives" (De Principiis). He knew the teachings of reincarnation and mentions them in his writings. In his exegesis of the above Bible verses, he discusses how they are interpreted by adherents of reincarnation. Origen, Comment on the Gospel of John, Book VI, Chapter 7.
Contemporary movements and thinkers
New Religious Movements
At the Renaissance we find the doctrine in Giordano Bruno, and in the 17th century in the theosophist van Helmont. During the classical period of German literature metempsychosis attracted much attention: Goethe played with the idea, and it was taken up more seriously by Lessing, who borrowed it from Charles Bonnet, and by Herder. It has been mentioned with respect by Hume and by Schopenhauer. Modern theosophy, which draws its inspiration from India, has taken metempsychosis (or rather reincarnation as a cardinal tenet; it is, says a recent theosophical writer, "the master-key to modern problems," and among them to the problem of heredity. The idea of reincarnation is also part of the New Age culture.
Today, among newer movements, belief in reincarnation is widespread in New Age and Neopagan circles. It is an important tenet of Theosophy, and central to Spiritism, founded by Allan Kardec.
Similarly, Scientology holds that the people of earth have been brainwashed into believing that they cannot exist without a physical body, and that the resulting fear of death and compulsive need to reincarnate immediately after death are responsible of much of their misery. The Church of Scientology's Sea Org has been known to issue employment contracts with a duration of one billion years and a clause specifically stipulating that the contractual obligations continue after death.
Toward the Light is an example of a contemporary work originating in the western world, which very detailed accounts for reincarnation.
Reincarnation in contemporary thought
Evidence of reincarnation
The most detailed collections of personal reports in favor of reincarnation have been published by Dr. Ian Stevenson in works such as Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects, which documents thousands of detailed cases where claims of injuries received in past lives sometimes correlate with atyptical physical birthmarks or birth defects.
Perhaps the most significant anecdotal evidence in this regard is the phenomenon of young children spontaneously sharing what appear to be memories of past lives, a phenomenon which has been reported even in cultures that do not hold to a belief in reincarnation. Upon investigating these claims, Stevenson and others have identified individuals who had died a few years before the child was born who seem to meet the descriptions the children provided.
In the most compelling cases, autopsy photographs reveal that the deceased individuals have fatal injuries that correspond to the unusual marks or birth defects of the child; for example, marks on the chest and back of a child line up precisely with the bullet entry and exit wounds on the body of an individual who has been shot.
However, Stevenson cautions that such evidence is suggestive of reincarnation, but that more research must be conducted.
Objections to reincarnation
Objections to metempsychosis include: that personal identity depends on memory, and we do not remember our previous incarnations. An answer given by Hindu philosophers (like Swami Vivekananda) is that though we do not remember our infanthood, we cannot deny its reality.
The second is that the soul, whatever it may be, is influenced throughout all its qualities by the qualities of the body. Modern psychology discredits the idea that the soul is a metaphysical essence which can pass indifferently from one body to another. If the soul of a dog were to pass into a man's body it would be so changed as to be no longer the same soul; and so, in a less degree, of change from one human's body to another.
A great number of scientists and skeptics, such as Paul Edwards, have analyzed many of these anecdotal accounts. In every case they found that further research into the individuals involved provides sufficient background to weaken the conclusion that these cases are credible examples of reincarnation.
Others, such as philosopher Robert Almeder , having analyzed the criticisms of Edwards and others, say that the gist of these arguments can be summarized as "we all know it can't possibly be real, so therefore it isn't real."
Critics who claim that reincarnation is impossible often espouse the alternate theory that a large number of mental phenomena such as memory and ability are already accounted for by physiological processes; and may point to moral and practical inconsistencies in the various theories of reincarnation. To the materialistic mind, Occam's Razor would then seem to dictate that the critical view is to be preferred, as it demands no extraordinary new evidence beyond what is already known to science.
A more skeptical view is that without solid evidence showing that reincarnation exists (regardless of the current state of science), the theory of reincarnation cannot be considered to be a valid scientific theory regarding the real world.
Some skeptics explain the abundance of claims of evidence for reincarnation to originate from selective thinking and the psychological phenomena of false memories that often result from one's own belief system and basic fears, and thus cannot be accounted as empirical evidence.
Another argument often made is that claims of reincarnation by casual adherents are usually of having been some famous historical figure instead of being another animal or an insignificant person. This argument, however, is seldom substantiated with a quantitative count of famous and non-famous reincarnation claims.
Another theory of reincarnation
A belief in reincarnation does not discount the existence of heaven, hell, or a final judgment. There are a number of small children who have reported having memories of past lives prior to their present life, and some also report being able to recall a time between lives (see books by Dr. Ian Stevenson, Carol Bowman, and Elisabeth Hallett). In some cases these children have also reported being in a place like heaven between lives, and sometimes that they were given some degree of choice as to whether and when to be reborn, and even in selecting their future parents.
Some of these children claim that being reborn is not necessarily a punishment for past bad "karma", but rather an opportunity for a soul to grow spiritually. Additional lifetimes could give individual souls a greater opportunity to accomplish more for God, if that is a person's goal, and to develop better character traits. Eastern views of reincarnation vary and several parallels with this idea are to be found in certain branches of Hinduism and Buddhism.
Quote: "So convincing is the evidence in favor of past life influences that one can only conclude that those who refuse to consider this to be an area worthy of serious study must be either uninformed or excessively narrow-minded." -- Stan Grof M.D., Holotropic Mind
In the Seth series of books Jane Roberts talks about reincarnation and life after death. Seth believed that time and space are basically illusions. Consistent with this view, Seth argues not only that each person lives several lives (in what only appear to be different time periods) in physical reality simultaneously, but also that only parts of each person incarnate (appear in physical reality). This last argument is part of Seth's view that man is a multi-dimensional entity simultaneously alive in many contexts.
Hinduism, Hindu philosophy, Atman (Hinduism), karma, tantra, yoga
Buddhism, Anatta, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Theravada, Rebirth (Buddhist), Tulku
Edgar Cayce -- Carol Bowman
Afterlife -- Bible and Reincarnation -- Death -- Life
- Ian Stevenson, Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects ISBN 0275952835
- Paul Edwards, Reincarnation: A Critical Examination ISBN 1573929212
- Many Mansions: The Edgar Cayce Story on Reincarnation by Gina Cerminara
- Joseph Head and S.L. Cranston, editors, Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery ISBN 0-517-56101-8
- Elizabeth Clare Prophet, Erin L. Prophet, Reincarnation: The Missing Link in Christianity ISBN 0922729271
Last updated: 08-17-2005 01:06:27