From Encyclopedia of Buddhism
Jump to: navigation, search
This article needs attention.
It is muddling the concept of rebirth with the concept of reincarnation

Reincarnation is the religious or philosophical concept that the soul or spirit, after biological death, can begin a new life in a new body. This doctrine is a central tenet of the Indian religions.[1] It is also a common belief of various ancient and modern religions such as Spiritism, Theosophy, and Eckankar and is found in many tribal societies around the world, in places such as Siberia, West Africa, North America, and Australia.[2]

Although the majority of sects within the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do not believe that individuals reincarnate, particular groups within these religions do refer to reincarnation; these groups include the mainstream historical and contemporary followers of Kabbalah, the Cathars, the Druze[3] and the Rosicrucians.[4] The historical relations between these sects and the beliefs about reincarnation that were characteristic of Neoplatonism, Orphism, Hermeticism, Manicheanism and Gnosticism of the Roman era, as well as the Indian religions, has been the subject of recent scholarly research.[5]

In recent decades, many Europeans and North Americans have developed an interest in reincarnation.[6] Contemporary films, books, and popular songs frequently mention reincarnation.

Conceptual definitions

Temple door depicting Dashavatar-the ten avatars, Sree Balaji Temple, Goa. (from leftmost upper corner, clock wise) Matsya, Narasimha, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Kalki, Vamana, Vithoba, Varaha and Kurma.

The word "reincarnation" derives from Latin, literally meaning, "entering the flesh again". The Greek equivalent metempsychosis (μετεμψύχωσις) roughly corresponds to the common English phrase "transmigration of the soul" and also usually connotes reincarnation after death,[7] as either human, animal, though emphasising the continuity of the soul, not the flesh. The term has been used by modern philosophers such as Kurt Gödel[8] and has entered the English language. Another Greek term sometimes used synonymously is palingenesis, "being born again".[9]

There is no word corresponding exactly to the English terms "rebirth", "metempsychosis", "transmigration" or "reincarnation" in the traditional languages of Pāli and Sanskrit. The entire universal process that gives rise to the cycle of death and rebirth, governed by karma, is referred to as Samsara[10] while the state one is born into, the individual process of being born or coming into the world in any way, is referred to simply as "birth" (jāti). Devas (gods) may also die and live again.[11] Here the term "reincarnation" is not strictly applicable, yet Hindu gods are said to have reincarnated (see Avatar): Lord Vishnu is known for his ten incarnations, the Dashavatars. Celtic religion seems to have had reincarnating gods also. Many Christians regard Jesus as a divine incarnation. Some Christians and Muslims believe he and some prophets may incarnate again. Most Christians, however, believe that Jesus will come again in the Second Coming at the end of the world, although this is not a reincarnation. Some ghulat Shi'a Muslim sects also regard their founders as in some special sense divine incarnations (hulul).

Philosophical and religious beliefs regarding the existence or non-existence of an unchanging "self" have a direct bearing on how reincarnation is viewed within a given tradition. The Buddha lived at a time of great philosophical creativity in India when many conceptions of the nature of life and death were proposed. Some were materialist, holding that there was no existence and that the self is annihilated upon death. Others believed in a form of cyclic existence, where a being is born, lives, dies and then is reborn, but in the context of a type of determinism or fatalism in which karma played no role. Others were "eternalists", postulating an eternally existent self or soul comparable to that in Judaic monotheism: the ātman survives death and reincarnates as another living being, based on its karmic inheritance. This is the idea that has become dominant (with certain modifications) in modern Hinduism.

The Buddhist concept of reincarnation differs from others in that there is no eternal "soul", "spirit" or "self" but only a "stream of consciousness" that links life with life. The actual process of change from one life to the next is called punarbhava (Sanskrit) or punabbhava (Pāli), literally "becoming again", or more briefly bhava, "becoming", and some English-speaking Buddhists prefer the term "rebirth" or "re-becoming" to render this term as they take "reincarnation" to imply a fixed entity that is reborn.[12] Popular Jain cosmology and Buddhist cosmology as well as a number of schools of Hinduism posit rebirth in many worlds and in varied forms. In Buddhist tradition the process occurs across five or six realms of existence, including the human, any kind of animal and several types of supernatural being. It is said in Tibetan Buddhism that it is very rare for a person to be reborn in the immediate next life as a human.[13]

Gilgul, Gilgul neshamot or Gilgulei Ha Neshamot (Heb. גלגול הנשמות) refers to the concept of reincarnation in Kabbalistic Judaism, found in much Yiddish literature among Ashkenazi Jews. Gilgul means "cycle" and neshamot is "souls". The equivalent Arabic term is tanasukh:[14] the belief is found among Shi'a ghulat Muslim sects.



The origins of the notion of reincarnation are obscure.[15] Discussion of the subject appears in the philosophical traditions of India (including the Indus Valley).[16] The Greek Pre-Socratics discussed reincarnation, and the Celtic Druids are also reported to have taught a doctrine of reincarnation.[17]

The ideas associated with reincarnation may have arisen independently in different regions, or they might have spread as a result of cultural contact. Proponents of cultural transmission have looked for links between Iron Age Celtic, Greek and Vedic philosophy and religion,[18] some[who?] even suggesting that belief in reincarnation was present in Proto-Indo-European religion.[dubious ][19] In ancient European, Iranian and Indian agricultural cultures, the life cycles of birth, death, and rebirth were recognized as a replica of natural agricultural cycles.[20]

Early Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism

Patrick Olivelle asserts that the origin of the concept of the cycle of birth and death, the concept of samsara, and the concept of liberation in the Indian tradition, were in part the creation of the non-Vedic Shramana tradition.[21] Another possibility are the prehistoric Dravidian traditions of South India.[22] Some scholars suggest that the idea is original to the Buddha.[23]

In Jainism, the soul and matter are considered eternal, not created and perpetual. There is a constant interplay between the two, resulting in bewildering cosmic manifestations in material, psychic and emotional spheres around us. This led to the theories of transmigration and rebirth. Changes but not total annihilation of spirit and matter is the basic postulate of Jain philosophy. The life as we know now, after death therefore moves on to another form of life based on the merits and demerits it accumulated in its current life. The path to becoming a supreme soul is to practice non-violence and be truthful.[24]

In Hinduism's Rigveda, the oldest extant Indo-Aryan text, numerous references are made to transmigration, rebirth (punarjanma), and redeath (punarmrtyu) in the Brahmanas.[25][26] One verse reads, "Each death repeats the death of the primordial man (purusa), which was also the first sacrifice" (RV 10:90).[27] Another excerpt from the Rig Veda states (10: 16. 1-4):

Burn him not up, nor quite consume him, Agni: let not his body or his skin be scattered. O Jatavedas, when thou hast matured him, then send him on his way unto the Fathers... let thy fierce flame, thy glowing splendour, burn him With thine auspicious forms, o Jatavedas, bear this man to the region of the pious... Again, O Agni, to the Fathers send him who, offered in thee, goes with our oblations. Wearing new life let him increase his offspring: let him rejoin a body, Jatavedas.[citation needed][28]

Indian discussion of reincarnation enters the historical record from about the 6th century BCE, with the development of the Advaita Vedanta tradition in the early Upanishads (around the middle of the first millennium BCE), Gautama Buddha (623–543 BCE)[29] as well as Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism.[30]

The systematic attempt to attain first-hand knowledge of past lives has been developed in various ways in different places. The early Buddhist texts discuss techniques for recalling previous births, predicated on the development of high levels of meditative concentration.[31] The later Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which incorporated elements of Buddhist thought,[32] give similar instructions on how to attain the ability.[33] The Buddha reportedly warned that this experience can be misleading and should be interpreted with care.[34] Tibetan Buddhism has developed a unique "science" of death and rebirth, a good deal of which is set down in what is popularly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Early Greece

Early Greek discussion of the concept likewise dates to the 6th century BCE. An early Greek thinker known to have considered rebirth is Pherecydes of Syros (fl. 540 BCE).[35] His younger contemporary Pythagoras (c. 570–c. 495 BCE[36]), its first famous exponent, instituted societies for its diffusion. Plato (428/427–348/347 BCE) presented accounts of reincarnation in his works, particularly the Myth of Er.

Authorities have not agreed on how the notion arose in Greece: sometimes Pythagoras is said to have been Pherecydes' pupil, sometimes to have introduced it with the doctrine of Orphism, a Thracian religion that was to be important in the diffusion of reincarnation, or else to have brought the teaching from India. In Phaedo, Plato makes his teacher Socrates, prior to his death, state: "I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, and that the living spring from the dead." However Xenophon does not mention Socrates as believing in reincarnation and Plato may have systematised Socrates' thought with concepts he took directly from Pythagoreanism or Orphism.

A 2nd-century Roman sarcophagus shows the mythology and symbolism of the Orphic and Dionysiac Mystery schools. Orpheus plays his lyre to the left

Classical Antiquity

The Orphic religion, which taught reincarnation, first appeared in Thrace in north-eastern Greece and Bulgaria, about the 6th century BC, organized itself into mystery schools at Eleusis and elsewhere, and produced a copious literature.[37][38][39] Orpheus, its legendary founder, is said to have taught that the immortal soul aspires to freedom while the body holds it prisoner. The wheel of birth revolves, the soul alternates between freedom and captivity round the wide circle of necessity. Orpheus proclaimed the need of the grace of the gods, Dionysus in particular, and of self-purification until the soul has completed the spiral ascent of destiny to live for ever.

An association between Pythagorean philosophy and reincarnation was routinely accepted throughout antiquity. In the Republic Plato makes Socrates tell how Er, the son of Armenius, miraculously returned to life on the twelfth day after death and recounted the secrets of the other world. There are myths and theories to the same effect in other dialogues, in the Chariot allegory of the Phaedrus, in the Meno, Timaeus and Laws. The soul, once separated from the body, spends an indeterminate amount of time in "formland" (see The Allegory of the Cave in The Republic) and then assumes another body.

In later Greek literature the doctrine is mentioned in a fragment of Menander[40] and satirized by Lucian.[41] In Roman literature it is found as early as Ennius,[42] who, in a lost passage of his Annals, 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 his satires (vi. 9) laughs at this, it is referred to also by Lucretius[43] and Horace.[44]

Virgil works the idea into his account of the Underworld in the sixth book of the Aeneid.[45] It persists down to the late classic thinkers, Plotinus and the other Neoplatonists. In the Hermetica, a Graeco-Egyptian series of writings on cosmology and spirituality attributed to Hermes Trismegistus/Thoth, the doctrine of reincarnation is central.

In Greco-Roman thought, the concept of metempsychosis disappeared with the rise of Early Christianity, reincarnation being incompatible with the Christian core doctrine of salvation of the faithful after death. It has been suggested that some of the early Church Fathers, especially Origen still entertained a belief in the possibility of reincarnation, but evidence is tenuous, and the writings of Origen as they have come down to us speak explicitly against it.<ref>The book Reincarnation in Christianity, by the theosophist Geddes MacGregor (1978) asserted that Origen

  1. The Buddhist concept of rebirth is also often referred to as reincarnation.see Charles Taliaferro, Paul Draper, Philip L. Quinn, A Companion to Philosophy of Religion. John Wiley and Sons, 2010, page 640, Google Books and is a belief that was held by such historic figures as Pythagoras, Plato and Socrates. .
  2. Gananath Obeyesekere, Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. University of California Press, 2002, page 15.
  3. Hitti, Philip K (2007) [1924]. Origins of the Druze People and Religion, with Extracts from their Sacred Writings (New Edition). Columbia University Oriental Studies. 28. London: Saqi. pp. 13–14. ISBN 0-86356-690-1
  4. Heindel, Max (1985) [1939, 1908] The Rosicrucian Christianity Lectures (Collected Works): The Riddle of Life and Death. Oceanside, California. 4th edition. ISBN 0-911274-84-7
  5. An important recent work discussing the mutual influence of ancient Greek and Indian philosophy regarding these matters is The Shape of Ancient Thought by Thomas McEvilley
  6. Template:PDFlink
  7. "Encyclopædia Britannica". Retrieved 2011-12-06. 
  8. Karl Sigmund. "Gödel Exhibition: Gödel's Century". Retrieved 2011-12-06. 
  9. "Heart of Hinduism: Reincarnation and Samsara". Retrieved 2011-12-06. 
  10. Brodd, Jefferey (2003). World Religions. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press. ISBN 978-0-88489-725-5. 
  11. Teachings of Queen Kunti by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Chapter 18 "To become Brahma is not a very easy thing.... But he is also a living entity like us."
  12. "Reincarnation in Buddhism: What the Buddha Didn't Teach" By Barbara O'Brien,
  13. "The Five Precepts". Retrieved 2011-12-06. 
  14. [1][dead link]
  15. Irving Steiger Cooper (1920). Reincarnation: The Hope of the World. Theosophical Society in America. p. 15. 
  16. Christopher Chapple. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions. SUNY Press. p. 4. 
  17. Diodorus Siculus thought the Druids might have been influenced by the teachings of Pythagoras. Diodorus Siculus v.28.6; Hippolytus Philosophumena i.25.
  18. one modern scholar has speculated that Buddhist missionaries had been sent to Britain by the Indian king Ashoka. Donald A.Mackenzie, Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain (1928:21).
  19. M. Dillon and N. Chadwick, The Celtic Realms, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London,[page needed]
  20. Ara, Mitra (2008). Eschatology in the Indo-Iranian traditions: The Genesis and Transformation of a Doctrine. Peter Lang Publishing Inc., New York, USA. ISBN 1-4331-0250-1. pp. 99–100.
  21. Flood, Gavin. Olivelle, Patrick. 2003. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Malden: Blackwell. pg. 273-4. "The second half of the first millennium BCE was the period that created many of the ideological and institutional elements that characterize later Indian religions. The renouncer tradition played a central role during this formative period of Indian religious history....Some of the fundamental values and beliefs that we generally associate with Indian religions in general and Hinduism in particular were in part the creation of the renouncer tradition. These include the two pillars of Indian theologies: samsara – the belief that life in this world is one of suffering and subject to repeated deaths and births (rebirth); moksa/nirvana – the goal of human existence....."
  22. Gavin D. Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University Press (1996), UK ISBN 0-521-43878-0 p. 86 – "A third alternative is that the origin of transmigration theory lies outside of vedic or sramana traditions in the tribal religions of the Ganges valley, or even in Dravidian traditions of south India."
  23. Arvind Sharma's review of Hajime Nakamura's A History of Early Vedanta Philosophy, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jul., 1987), page 330.
  24. T.U.Mehta,Path of Arhat – A Religious Democracy Pujya Sohanalala Smaraka Parsvantha Sodhapitha, 1993, Pages 7–8
  25. Krishnan, Yuvraj (1997). The Doctrine of Karma. Delhi, IN: Motilal Barnasidass. p. 13. ISBN 81-208-1233-6. 
  26. R.D.Ranade. Survey of Upanishadic Philosophy. Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. p. 108. “But the culminating point of the whole doctrine is reached when the poet tells us that he himself saw (probably with his mind’s eye) the guardian of the body, moving unerringly by backward and forward paths, clothed in collected and diffusive splendour, and that it kept on returning frequently inside the mundane regions. That this ‘guardian’ is no other than the soul may be seen from the way in which verse 31 follows immediately on verse 30 which mentions the ‘breathing, speedful, moving life-principle’; moreover, the frequentative (varivarti) tells us the frequency of the soul’s return to this world.” (Interpretation of Rig Veda 1:164.30–31) 
  27. P. 99 Religion and aging in the Indian tradition By Shrinivas Tilak
  28. Provide reference(s) if this refers to rebirth?
  29. "As is now almost universally accepted by informed Indological scholarship, a re-examination of early Buddhist historical material, ..., necessitates a redating of the Buddha's death to between 411 and 400 BCE." Paul Dundas, The Jains, 2nd edition, (Routledge, 2001), p. 24.
  30. Karel Werner, The Longhaired Sage in The Yogi and the Mystic, Curzon Press, 1989, page 34. Wayman... traces them particularly in the older Upanishads, in early Buddhism, and in some later literature."
  31. Paul Williams, Anthony Tribe, Buddhist thought: a complete introduction to the Indian tradition. Routledge, 2000, page 84.
  32. Karel Werner, The Yogi and the Mystic. Routledge 1994, page 27.
  33. Gavin D. Flood, The ascetic self: subjectivity, memory and tradition. Cambridge University Press, 2004, page 136.
  34. Joanna Macy, Mutual causality in Buddhism and general systems theory: the dharma of natural systems. SUNY Press, 1991, page 163.
  35. Schibli, S., Hermann, Pherekydes of Syros, p. 104, Oxford Univ. Press 2001
  36. "The dates of his life cannot be fixed exactly, but assuming the approximate correctness of the statement of Aristoxenus (ap. Porph. V.P. 9) that he left Samos to escape the tyranny of Polycrates at the age of forty, we may put his birth round about 570 BCE, or a few years earlier. The length of his life was variously estimated in antiquity, but it is agreed that he lived to a fairly ripe old age, and most probably he died at about seventy-five or eighty." William Keith Chambers Guthrie, (1978), A history of Greek philosophy, Volume 1: The earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans, page 173. Cambridge University Press
  37. Linforth, Ivan M. (1941) The Arts of Orpheus Arno Press, New York, OCLC 514515
  38. Long, Herbert S. (1948) A Study of the doctrine of metempsychosis in Greece, from Pythagoras to Plato (Long's 1942 Ph.D. dissertation) Princeton, New Jersey, OCLC 1472399
  39. Long, Herbert S. (16 February 1948) "Plato's Doctrine of Metempsychosis and Its Source" The Classical Weekly 41(10): pp. 149—155
  40. Menander, The Inspired Woman
  41. Lucian, Gallus, 18 et seq.
  42. Poesch, Jessie (1962) "Ennius and Basinio of Parma" Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 25(1/2): pp. 116—118, page 117, FN15
  43. Lucretius, (i. 124)
  44. Horace, Epistles, II. i. 52
  45. Virgil, The Aeneid, vv. 724 et seq.