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The Belief in Reincarnation – Man-Made Theory or Sacred Truth?

Representation of a soul undergoing punarjanma...

Representation of a soul undergoing punarjanma. Illustration from Hinduism Today, 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Reincarnation usually involves ideas of karma and grace. After bodily death, the soul (or in some schools, temporary personality attributes) returns for another birth.

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

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice Gratiano suggests that Shylock is a reincarnated wolf. Shakespeare was widely read and often incorporated religion, myth, philosophy and physic into his plays.

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).

In Catholicism, St. Thomas Aquinas refutes reincarnation on the basis of Romans 9: 11-12:

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

The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg

The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 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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Samsara – Round and round and round we go?

Samsara (Sanskrit: wandering, flowing, meandering, and cyclic change) is philosophical word that stems back conceptually to the Veda. But it is not really articulated until the Upanishads. Later, it is more fully detailed in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain commentaries.¹

Most commonly, samsara refers to an alleged round of rebirths through gross and subtle planes in the reincarnation theories of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

According to the belief in reincarnation, when the soul (or as Buddhists would say, the illusion of one) is locked in ignorance and selfish craving for temporal pleasures, it has no choice but to reincarnate into an earthly, hellish or possibly a subtle, astral body.

The process is said to continue until the spiritual liberation of moksha (Hinduism and Jainism) or nirvana (Buddhism) is attained. Also, the process has been described in Buddhism as something without beginning nor end, whatever that means.²

My critique of this idea is pretty much in accord with what I’ve said here:


² Ibid.

Related » Arhat, Jane Roberts, Visistadvaita

  • “An exploration of the ocean of suffering, with alan watts as tour guide.”



Important to Buddhist belief are the five skandhas or “aggregates of attachment” said to be the source of all suffering. The skandhas are:

  1. matter or form (rupa)
  2. sensation (vedana)
  3. perception (samjna)
  4. mental formations (samskara)
  5. consciousness (vijnana)

Taken together, the five skandhas contribute to the impermanent personality and the illusion – so Buddhists believe – of individuality.

Impermanent and subject to change, skandhas may reappear from one life to another. But this reappearance is discontinuous, like an old candle burning out with a new candle being lit (a common Buddhist analogy used to try to illustrate the belief in discontinuity).

Whether or not one agrees with every aspect of Buddhist teaching, the skandhas offer a conceptual alternative that could be applied to a critique of the Hindu view of reincarnation.¹

The two religions of Buddhism and Hinduism may seem similar at a glance. However, Buddhism clearly differs from the Visistadvaita school of Hinduism because, for Buddhists, the soul too, and not just its attachments, is usually seen as illusory and without permanent existence.

¹ See, for instance, Reincarnation: A New Look at an Old Idea – Part 3.

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All Souls Night in Gdansk: Robin Hamman

All Souls Night in Gdansk by Robin Hamman

The idea of the soul is variously understood around the world and throughout history.

A distinction is often made between an individual soul and a world soul (anima mundi).

Some regard the soul as a multiple entity, as in ancient Egyptian religion or the contemporary views of the alleged trance channeler, Jane Roberts/Seth. Others insist the soul is single. And yet some say the soul is the conceptual “I” that apparently remains constant throughout one’s life (itself a highly debatable claim).

Plato viewed the soul as single but containing multiple functions.

Aristotle saw the soul as a partly rational and partly irrational function governing bodily needs, desires and actions that disappears at death.

Soul is also envisioned as a spiritual, self-motivating eternal agent or substance.

St. Thomas Aquinas insists the soul is united to the body but not of the body. For Aquinas it “operates through corporeal organs” with its “proper function” being “in the understanding.”

Deutsch: Thomas von Aquin

Deutsch: Thomas von Aquin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In much of Hinduism the soul reincarnates, ultimately to merge with God, as a drop of water returns to the ocean from whence it came. In this sense, individuality is temporary, at best.

However, Ramanuja‘s Visistadvaita school of Hinduism provides an important exception to this idea. For Ramanuja, individual souls (jivas) emerge from and ultimately rest within God (Brahman) but retain some aspect of their individuality, existence and, therefore, reality.

The anatman doctrine of Buddhism contends that the idea of a soul is just a conceptual illusion; for Buddhists, the soul does not really exist.

Catholics believe that the soul is created by God at the moment of human conception, a view that has sparked intense debate among pro-life and pro-choice groups. Concerning death and the afterlife, traditional Catholic believers say the soul might (a) rise to heaven (b) be purified in purgatory in preparation for heaven or (c) descend to eternal hell.

In pop culture “soul” refers to a musical form, originating in America, that blends gospel music with rhythm and blues. Although soul music was created by black Americans, its offshoots are composed and performed by anyone, anywhere.

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Reincarnated Celebrities via Tumblr

Traditional beliefs

Transmigration is the belief that the soul departs from the body at death and returns to another body to live another embodied life.

In Eastern religions, the equivalent term is reincarnation. In the Western tradition, the belief in transmigration first appears in Orphism (5-6th century BCE) and later with the Pythagoreans.¹ Western philosophy also uses the equivalent term, metempsychosis. And some New Age enthusiasts and laypersons advocate some form of transmigration, sometimes with a few more complexities added to reflect current theories derived from subatomic physics.

Many people claim to have flashback memories that they assume come from former lives. Documented cases tell of individuals in trance states dictating details about homes and places in distant countries that they have not visited. Some claim to be drawn for no apparent reason to certain ideas, interests or historical sites like the Egyptian pyramids.

Others strongly identify with a person who’s passed. The Canadian musician K. D. Lang apparently once toyed with the idea that she was a reincarnation of the American singer Patsy Cline. And John Lennon and Yoko Ono

consciously adopted the image of themselves as the reincarnation of Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning for Milk and Honey; the album jacket even reproduces verses by the Brownings next to lyrics by John and Yoko.² 

Alternative explanations

Many assume that unusual experiences or strong identifications with the dead are ironclad proof of a past life. But there are other possible explanations for these types of experiences, ranging from occult/paranormal, theological, relativistic and mystical:

1- So-called vampiric or tramp souls influence and even possess individuals in the present, infusing memories and past desires into the minds of sensitive or impressionable living persons. The upshot is that living persons believe they have reincarnated, without really reflecting on other possible causes for their experience.

2 – From the perspective of traditional theologies, Satan apparently uses supernatural trickery to deceive people into believing in reincarnation, which deflects them from the true path to heaven. Whether or not this deflection is permanent or temporary depends on the theological belief. For instance, Catholics believe in purgatory, so the severity of the distraction would be a factor.

3 – In a less traditional and malefic vein, it’s conceivable that some individuals psychologically pierce through the veil of space-time to connect with other souls from other times. But these individuals misinterpret their experience as proof of transmigration. This hypothesis assumes that the past, present and future somehow exists as an interactive field. Given the relativity theories of Albert Einstein, this idea might not be too far fetched. In fact, it might even be taken for granted, even capitalized on, by future generations. Distant future generations, that is…

4 – Another explanation could be that the living are not connecting with evil beings or with those living in other space-times, but merely with ordinary persons who’ve passed. And this experience is wrongly interpreted as proof for reincarnation.

A bigot is a bigot is a bigot


Image –

While these alternative theories are no easier to prove than the idea of transmigration, many seem to embrace transmigration as if it were not just another belief or theory, but fact. And when asked to consider alternative hypotheses, some reincarnation believers condescendingly act as if they know it all—there’s nothing left to say.

To me, that seems just as narrow-minded and bigoted as any other kind of religious fundamentalism. And the dynamic probably isn’t that different. People interpret some kind of numinous or unusual experience according to their cultural or intellectual biases. For whatever reasons, they’re unwilling to step back and question further.³

¹ For more historical examples see


³ For a good exposition on the benefits of Edward de Bono’s so-called lateral thinking see “Redesign my Brain”

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Rig vedic fire offerings – Indian Rituals by Srevatsan Muralidharan

The Veda (or Vedas) are the first group of ancient Hindu sacred books. Max Müller and most subsequent scholars date them to the 13th century BCE.

Ten in all, the Veda form a mandala (circle) of knowledge and are believed by some to represent directly revealed truth and therefore all that is necessary for spiritual liberation.¹

The more recent Upanisads are known as the Vedanta—that is, the end of the Veda.

As hindu-blog points out, however, both the Veda and the Upanisads are based on a longstanding oral tradition which makes precise dating open to debate:

The Upanishads and Vedas were rendered orally and were passed on for generations before being written. Nobody is sure about the actual dates of these texts.²

English: Student learning Veda. Location: Nach...

Student learning Veda. Location: Nachiyar Kovil, Kumbakonam, Tamilnadu. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fact that the Vedas were passed on orally is noted in Wikipedia:

Transmission of texts in the Vedic period was by oral tradition alone, preserved with precision with the help of elaborate mnemonic techniques. A literary tradition set in only in post-Vedic times, after the rise of Buddhism in the Maurya period, perhaps earliest in the Kanva recension of the Yajurveda about the 1st century BCE; however oral tradition predominated until c. 1000 CE.³

Recently, a Sanskrit rock band, “Shanti Shanti” has produced an album called “Veda.”

This CD titled “Veda”, produced by Ganesha Publishing BMI, contains shlokas (hymns) from all four Vedas-Rig-veda, Sama-veda, Atharva-veda, and Yajur-veda, some as old as 1,500 BCE. » Source

¹ From Wikipedia:

They are supposed to have been directly revealed, and thus are called śruti (“what is heard”),[6][7] distinguishing them from other religious texts, which are called smṛti (“what is remembered”). In Hindu tradition, the creation of Vedas is credited to Brahma.[8] The Vedic texts or śruti are organized around four canonical collections of metrical material known as Saṃhitās, of which the first three are related to the performance of yajna (sacrifice) in historical Vedic religion:

  1. The Rigveda, containing hymns to be recited by the hotar, or presiding priest;
  2. The Yajurveda, containing formulas to be recited by the adhvaryu or officiating priest;
  3. The Samaveda, containing formulas to be sung by the udgatar or priest that chants;
  4. The Atharvaveda, a collection of spells and incantations, apotropaic charms and speculative hymns.[9]



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Anatman / Anatta

DSC00012/Burma/Yangon/Shwédagon Temple/Novice'...

Burma/Yangon/Shwédagon Temple/Novice’s Monk by DANIEL JULIE via Flickr

Anatman (Sanskrit) and Anatta (Pali): “no self”

Anatta theory is generally held to be a Theraveda Buddhist theory stipulating the non-existence of the soul or eternal self. But like any philosophical theory about the self, there’s much room for debate as to just what this means.

At one extreme, we have those who say that the Buddha, himself, did not believe in any kind of permanent individual self. At the other extreme, we have interpreters like the Chán Buddhist, Nan Huaijin, who says that modern interpretations are too materialistic and “totally wrong.”¹

“When the Hīnayāna speaks of no self, it is in reference to the manifest forms of presently existing life; the intent is to alert people to transcend this level, and attain Nirvāṇa. But when this flowed into the world of learning, especially when it was disseminated in the West, some people thought that the Buddhist idea of no self was nihilism and that it denied the soul, and they maintained that Buddhism is atheistic. This is really a joke.”²

English: A photo of Nan Huaijin in 1945, after...

A photo of Nan Huaijin in 1945, after descending Mount Emei following his time as a hermit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part of the problem is trying to figure out what we mean by an eternal or everlasting self. For some, this includes all the changeable aspects of the entire personality. For others, like many Hindus, it refers to an eternal soul (atman) that grows in wisdom to ultimately become one or, depending on the school of Hinduism,³ in some kind of close relation with the ultimate soul (brahman). For others, for example Christians, it refers to a “seed” that is planted at baptism and which potentially grows into something worthy of everlasting heaven.

Aspects of anatman and anatta theory fit with or, to some extent resemble some of the ideas implied by the theory of reincarnation. But there are differences between anatman (Hindu) and anatta (Buddhist) theories.

In Buddhist anatta theory, a temporary seat of consciousness is often said to be exterminated like a candle flame at death, to be re-lit as a new candle at each succeeding birth. Personality characteristics (skandhas) reappear from one lifetime to another as a result of dependent origination. But the reappearance of these characteristics from one life to another is discontinuous. That is, they’re just a bunch of temporary aggregates that cluster around a new life, much like iron filings would cluster around a new electromagnet if the old one were turned off.

This opposes the popular Hindu view of reincarnation in which one soul (atman) repeatedly reincarnates (taking within itself all it has earned and learned) as it enters and departs from many bodies, until it achieves full identity with, or some close relation to, ultimate consciousness (brahman).


² Ibid.

³ Compare, for instance, Sankara vs. Ramanuja.