Also called metempsychosis and transmigration, reincarnation is a man-made theory usually presented as fact or sacred law by believers.
Elements of the theory can be found in diverse religions and philosophies, including ancient Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jain, African and New Age systems.
In most traditions the self is said to be on an evolutionary path from unconsciousness to consciousness—that is, from lower to higher or gross to subtle forms of being.
Some branches of contemplative Hinduism maintain that the soul begins in the mineral world and moves upward to the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Eventually it takes birth as a human being. After learning about and making good ethical choices from many human incarnations, the soul reincarnates in astral and heavenly realms before achieving ultimate liberation, awareness and bliss. At this point it never reincarnates into a body, gross or subtle.
Bad ethical choices reverse the process. If a person abuses their freedom, they may reincarnate backwards into the animal kingdom or possibly further down into a temporary hell, of which there are many.
Popular wisdom says God gives perfect punishments and rewards for our deeds. And generally speaking, this is found in reincarnation theory. Good ethical choices gain merit and one reincarnates into a better life next time around.
Bad ethical choices, however, lead to a less auspicious life. This idea is expressed in a Taoist tale, paraphrased as follows:
A man had led a dissolute life and reincarnates as a horse. After a few years the horse grows weary of being whipped by his masters, refuses to eat and dies. He then returns as a dog. Despising this incarnation the dog bites his master’s leg who has him destroyed. He returns in the form of a snake. By now he’s finally learned his lesson. One must play out the hand one is dealt, patiently seeing it through to learn how to be virtuous. As a reformed soul, the snake avoids doing harm to other animals by eating berries and tries to keep itself out of danger. But one day the snake mistakenly dies under the wheel of a cart. Pleading his case before the King of Purgatory, he finds himself reborn a man—a reward for his good intentions. ¹
According to this view, suicide is like skipping school (in the cosmic sense) and leads to a regression or less desirable rebirth.
But not all believers in reincarnation take this attitude toward suicide. Some say a similar life situation arises again, and the suicide is forced to repeat the cosmic classroom they didn’t graduate from the first time around.
In most Asian religions God’s grace can mitigate or even erase the effects of bad karma, a fact often overlooked in superficial critiques of reincarnation.
As mentioned, the alleged purpose of reincarnation is to instruct and prepare the soul for a blissful existence in eternity. However, the exact nature of this eternal perfection is outlined differently among schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Taoism.
African pre-colonial tribal beliefs about reincarnation differ from their Asian counterparts. African ancestors apparently reincarnate into one or several descendants to give their family more power. The African Ibo believe that one chooses between two bundles before birth – one bundle holds good fortune, the other bad. While the spirit tries its best to choose a favorable incarnation, a formerly evil person enters into a difficult incarnation as a human or animal.
More variants of reincarnation are found within ancestor cults.
In contrast to the belief in reincarnation, the Old Testament says that evil actions are repaid with evil, but not through reincarnation. Evil begets evil through one’s offspring:
The Lord…a God merciful and gracious…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 34:7).
For when they were not yet born, nor had done any good or evil…not of works, but of Him that calleth, it was said to her: The elder shall serve the younger.²
Some argue that the Catholic notion of purgatory was created as a Christian counterpart to the punishment and purification found in non-Christian beliefs in reincarnation.
In more recent times, some New Age thinkers say that every life is consciously chosen before birth.
Like most metaphysical speculation, we can’t know for sure one way or the other. It may be tempting to believe in reincarnation. As we go deeper in the spiritual life unconventional experiences may arise that seem to point to its reality. But I think we’d do well to stop, look and listen, as the American country western star Patsy Cline put it.³
- Stop and don’t jump to conclusions
- Look at what’s happening inside our heads and ask if there’s any other way to account for it
- Listen to our hearts – Are we really happy with the belief system we’ve invested ourselves in? Or is something leading or, perhaps, calling us to a greater vista than that offered by a mere, man-made theory?
¹Raymond Van Over, ed. Taoist Tales, New York: Meridian Classic, 1973, pp. 52-53.
² The New Testament view of the body and its relation to the afterlife is expressed in I Corinthians 15; 51-52; 2 Corinthians 5:1; I Thessalonians 4:14; John 3: 4-7.
³ I don’t know why that analogy came to me while revising this. But I do know that the Canadian singer K. D. Laing apparently thought she was the reincarnation of Patsy Cline, for a while anyhow. See http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/kd-lang-emc/ I don’t know how that would have worked considering Laing was born (November 2, 1961) while Cline was still alive (died March 5, 1963). Delayed entry?
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