See J. Head and S. L. Cranston, ed., Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology (1961) and Reincarnation in World Thought (1967).
Doctrine of the rebirth of the soul in one or more successive existences, which may be human, animal, or vegetable. Belief in reincarnation is characteristic of Asian religions, especially Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. All hold to the doctrine of karma, the belief that actions in this life will have their effect in the next. In Hinduism, a person may be freed from the cycle of birth and rebirth only by reaching a state of enlightenment. Likewise in Buddhism, discipline and meditation may enable a seeker to reach nirvana and escape the wheel of birth and rebirth. Manichaeism and Gnosticism accepted the concept of reincarnation, as do such modern spiritual movements as Theosophy.
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Reincarnation, literally "to be made flesh again", is a doctrine or metaphysical belief that some essential part of a living being (in some variations only human beings) survives death to be reborn in a new body. This essential part is often referred to as the spirit or soul, the "higher" or "true" self, "divine spark", or "I". According to such beliefs, a new personality is developed during each life in the physical world, but some part of the self remains constant throughout the successive lives.
Belief in reincarnation is an ancient phenomenon. This doctrine is a central tenet within the majority of Indian religious traditions, such as Hinduism (including Yoga, Vaishnavism, and Shaivism), Jainism, and Sikhism. The idea was also entertained by some ancient Greek philosophers. Many modern Pagans also believe in reincarnation as do some New Age movements, along with followers of Spiritism, practitioners of certain African traditions, and students of esoteric philosophies such as Kabbalah, Sufism and Gnostic and Esoteric Christianity. The Buddhist concept of Rebirth although often referred to as reincarnation differs significantly from the Hindu-based traditions and New Age movements in that there is no "self" (or eternal soul) to reincarnate.
During recent decades, a significant minority of people in the West have developed a belief in reincarnation. Feature films, such as Kundun and Birth, contemporary books by authors such as Carol Bowman and Vicki Mackenzie, as well as popular songs, regularly mention reincarnation.
Some researchers, such as Professor Ian Stevenson, have explored the issue of reincarnation and published evidence of children's memories of earlier lives. Skeptics are critical of this work and say that more reincarnation research is needed.
According to the scriptures, the Buddha taught a concept of rebirth that was distinct from that of any known contemporary Indian teacher. This concept was consistent with the common notion of a sequence of related lives stretching over a very long time, but was constrained by two core Buddhist concepts: anattā, that there is no irreducible ātman or "self" tying these lives together; and anicca, that all compounded things are subject to dissolution, including all the components of the human person and personality. At the death of one personality, a new one comes into being, much as the flame of a dying candle can serve to light the flame of another.
Since, according to Buddhism, there is no permanent and unchanging self (identity) there can be no transmigration in the strict sense. Buddhism teaches that what is reborn is not the person but that one moment gives rise to another and that this momentum continues, even after death. It is a more subtle concept than the usual notion of reincarnation, reflecting the Buddhist concept of personality existing (even within one's lifetime) without a "soul".
Buddhism never rejected samsara, the process of rebirth, but suggests that it occurs across five or six realms of existence. It is actually said to be very rare for a person to be reborn in the immediate next life as a human. However, Tibetan Buddhists do believe that a newborn child may be the rebirth of some important departed lama.
Skeptic Carl Sagan asked the Dalai Lama what would he do if a fundamental tenet of his religion (reincarnation) was definitively disproved by science. The Dalai Lama answered. "If science can disprove reincarnation, Tibetan Buddhism would abandon reincarnation... but it's going to be mighty hard to disprove reincarnation.
In India the concept of reincarnation is first recorded in the Bhagavad Gita. According to Hinduism, the soul (atman) is immortal, while the body is subject to birth and death. The Bhagavad Gita states that:
Worn-out garments are shed by the body;
Worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller within the body. New bodies are donned
by the dweller, like garments.
The idea that the soul (of any living being - including animals, humans and plants) reincarnates is intricately linked to karma, another concept first introduced in the Upanishads. Karma (literally: action) is the sum of one's actions and the force that determines one's next reincarnation. The cycle of death and rebirth, governed by karma, is referred to as samsara.
Hinduism teaches that the soul goes on repeatedly being born and dying. One is reborn on account of desire: a person desires to be born because he or she wants to enjoy worldly pleasures, which can be enjoyed only through a body. Hinduism does not teach that all worldly pleasures are sinful, but it teaches that they can never bring deep, lasting happiness or peace (ānanda). According to the Hindu sage Adi Shankaracharya the world - as we ordinarily understand it - is like a dream: fleeting and illusory. To be trapped in samsara is a result of ignorance of the true nature of our existence.
After many births, every person eventually becomes dissatisfied with the limited happiness that worldly pleasures can bring. At this point, a person begins to seek higher forms of happiness, which can be attained only through spiritual experience. When, after much spiritual practice (sādhanā), a person finally realizes his or her own divine nature—i.e., realizes that the true "self" is the immortal soul rather than the body or the ego—all desires for the pleasures of the world will vanish, since they will seem insipid compared to spiritual ānanda. When all desire has vanished, the person will not be reborn anymore.
When the cycle of rebirth thus comes to an end, a person is said to have attained moksha, or salvation. While all schools of thought agree that moksha implies the cessation of worldly desires and freedom from the cycle of birth and death, the exact definition of salvation depends on individual beliefs. For example, followers of the Advaita Vedanta school (often associated with jnana yoga) believe that they will spend eternity absorbed in the perfect peace and happiness that comes with the realization that all existence is One (Brahman), and that the immortal soul is part of that existence. The followers of full or partial Dvaita schools ("dualistic" schools, such as bhakti yoga), on the other hand, perform their worship with the goal of spending eternity in a loka, (spiritual world or heaven), in the blessed company of the Supreme being (i.e Krishna or Vishnu for the Vaishnavas and Shiva for the dualistic schools of Shaivism). The principal Hindu Gods are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and their consorts Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati. While there is hardly any text describing reincarnation of Brahma and Saraswati, the rest of the Gods are known to have reincarnated in various forms under different circumstances. Lord Vishnu is known for his ten reincarnations, namely Dashavtaaras. 1. Matsya (the fish) 2. Kurma (the turtle) 3. Varaha (the boar) 4. Narasimha (half human half lion) 5. Vaamana (the dwarf brahmin) 6. Parshurama (the warrior sage) 7. Rama (the prince of Ayodhya) 8. Krishna (the king of Dwarka) 9. Buddha (the king of Kapilavastu who renounced the world) 10. Kalki (the warrior) is yet to appear. Each of these reincarnations has a specific purpose and a legend behind it.
The fundamental Taoist belief on reincarnation is Liudu Lunhui (六度輪回) or the six grades of reincarnation for sentient beings who were once yuanling beings. The six types vary from humans to beasts and insects where each denotes a level of more severe incarceration for beings whose sins in previous lives are yet to warrant an outright damnation to Diyu. This is a realm of life which in practice is akin to purgatory. Human incarnates may purify their previous lives' fate or karma until their internal core, Jing Qi Shen, is pristine, or until an involuntary process of absolution called Souyuan occurs.
Among the ancient Greeks, Socrates, Pythagoras, and Plato may have believed in or taught the doctrine of reincarnation. Several ancient sources affirm that Pythagoras claimed he could remember his past lives. An association between Pythagorean philosophy and reincarnation was routinely accepted throughout antiquity.
According to Plato's fictionalized dialogue Phaedo, at the end of his life Socrates said, "I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, and that the living spring from the dead." However, Xenophon, our other main informant of Socrates' life, does not mention the latter as believing in reincarnation.
Plato presented detailed accounts of reincarnation in his major works. It may be questioned whether Plato's accounts, such as the Myth of Er, which also contain many fabulous details irrelevant to reincarnation, were intended to be taken literally. Marsilio Ficino (Platonic Theology 17.3-4) argued that Plato's references to reincarnation were intended allegorically.
The overwhelming majority of mainstream Christian denominations reject the notion of reincarnation and consider the theory to challenge basic tenets of their beliefs. Many churches do not directly address the issue, but indirectly, through teachings about death (see Particular judgment). A few consider the matter open to individual interpretation due to the few biblical references which survived the purging of texts considered to be heretical in the founding years of Christianity as a church. New Age Christians contend that reincarnation was taught by the early Christian church, but due to bias and mistranslations, these teachings were lost or obscured. Many of the philosophies associated with the theory of reincarnation focus on "working" or "learning" through various lifetimes to achieve some sort of higher understanding or state of "goodness" before salvation is granted or acquired. Basic to Traditional Christianity is the doctrine that humans can never achieve the perfection God requires and the only salvation is total and complete forgiveness accomplished through the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross wherein he took the sins of mankind. There seems to be evidence however that some of the earliest Christian sects such as the Sethians and followers of the Gnostic Church of Valentinus believed in reincarnation, and they were persecuted by the Romans for this.
A number of Evangelical and (in the USA) Fundamentalist Christian groups have denounced any belief in reincarnation as heretical, and maintain that any phenomena suggestive of it as deceptions of the devil. Although the Bible never mentions the word reincarnation, there are several passages through New Testament that Orthodox Christians interpret as openly rejecting reincarnation or the possibility of any return or contact with this world for the souls in Heaven or Hell (see Hebrews 9:27 and )
The Bible contains passages in the New Testament that could be interpreted to allude to reincarnation. In Matthew 11:10-14and 17:10-13, John 1:21, the Jews ask John the Baptist if he is Elijah and John replies clearly that he is not, implying that Jesus' reference was meant in a figurative sense (which is what most Christians accept). It should be noted that Elijah never actually "died," but was "raptured" in a chariot of fire. Furthermore, the prophetic texts stated that God would send Elijah back to Earth, as a harbinger of Jesus Christ. As cousins they were born respectively to barren Elizabeth and Zacharias; Jesus, firstborn of Mary and Joseph, was the first to rise from the dead visibly demonstrating his power over death.
There are various contemporary attempts to entwine Christianity and reincarnation. Geddes Macgregor, wrote a book called Reincarnation in Christianity: A New Vision of Rebirth in Christian Thought, Rudolf Steiner wrote Christianity as Mystical Fact and Tommaso Palamidessi wrote Memory of Past Lives and Its Technique which contains several methods which are supposed to help in obtaining memories from previous lives.
Several Christian denominations which support reincarnation include the Christian Community, the Liberal Catholic Church, Unity Church, The Christian Spiritualist Movement, the Rosicrucian Fellowship and Lectorium Rosicrucianum. The Medieval heretical sect known variously as the Cathars or Albigensians who flourished in the Languedoc believed in Reincarnation, seeing each soul as a fallen angel born again and again into the world of Matter created by Lucibel (Lucifer). Only through a Gnostic 'Rebirth' in the Holy Spirit through Christ could the soul escape this process of successive existences and return to God.
Reincarnation appeared in Jewish thought some time after the Talmud. There is no reference to reincarnation in the Talmud or any prior writings. 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 non-human bodies. These ideas were found in a number of Kabbalistic works from the 1200s, and also among many mystics in the late 1500s. Martin Buber's early collection of stories of the Baal Shem Tov's life includes several that refer to people reincarnating in successive lives.
Among well known (generally non-kabbalist or anti-kabbalist) Rabbis who rejected the idea of reincarnation are Saadia Gaon, David Kimhi, Hasdai Crescas, Yedayah Bedershi (early 14th century), Joseph Albo, Abraham ibn Daud, the Rosh and Leon de Modena. Saadia Gaon, in Emunoth ve-Deoth, concludes Section vi with a refutation of the doctrine of metempsychosis (reincarnation). While refuting reincarnation, the Saadia Gaon further states that Jews who hold to reincarnation have adopted non-Jewish beliefs.
Crescas writes that if reincarnation were real, people should remember details of their previous lives.
The belief is common in Orthodox Judaism. Indeed there is an entire volume of work called Sha'ar Ha'Gilgulim (The Gate of Reincarnations) , based on the work of Rabbi Isaac Luria (and compiled by his disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital). It describes the deep, complex laws of reincarnation. One concept that arises from Sha'ar Ha'gilgulim is the idea that gilgul is paralleled physically by pregnancy.
Many Orthodox siddurim (prayerbooks) have a nightly prayer asking for forgiveness for sins that one may have committed in this gilgul or a previous one, which accompanies the nighttime recitation of the Shema before going to sleep.
Most Islamic authorities rejects this interpretation of the verse, claiming that it refers to the worldly human life and the consequent resurrection in the hereafter.
It is claimed by some sufi groups that the mystics and poets in the Islam tradition have celebrated this belief:
Modern Sufis who embrace the idea of reincarnation include Bawa Muhaiyadeen (see his To Die Before Death: The Sufi Way of Life). However Hazrat Inayat Khan has criticized the idea of reincarnation as unhelpful to the spiritual seeker's quest for unity with God, as it focuses the aspirant's attention on the past and the future, rather than achieving spiritual transcendence in the present moment.
Reincarnation has also been used to reconcile the Quran's apparent identification of Miriam, the mother of Isa as the sister of Aaron and daughter of Amran, all of whom lived well before the first century CE.
Another verse of the Qur-an that may support the theory of reincarnation is: "Thou [God] makest the night to pass into the day and Thou makest the day to pass into the night, and Thou bringest forth the living from the dead and Thou bringest forth the dead from the living, and Thou givest sustenance to whom Thou pleasest without measure." (Quran 3:27) Some verses of Quran that seem to discount repeated lives:
The belief in reincarnation was probably commonplace among the Vikings since the annotator of the Poetic Edda wrote that people formerly used to believe in it, but that it was in his (Christian) time considered "old wife's folly":
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.
Irish poet and Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats proposed a novel theory of reincarnation in his occult treatise A Vision. According to Yeats’ view reincarnation does not occur within a framework of linear time. Rather, all of a person’s past and future lives are happening at once, in an eternal now moment; and the decisions made in any of these lifetimes influence all of the other lives (and are influenced by them).
Hermann Hesse, Literary Nobel Prize, 1946, expressed a viewpoint of "...reincarnation as a mode of expression for stability in the midst of flux."
Anthroposophy describes the present as being formed by a tension between the past and the future. Both influence our present destiny; there are events that occur due to our past, but there are also events that occur to prepare us rightly for the future. Between these two, there is space for human free will; we create our destiny, not only live it out, just as we build a house in which we then choose to live.
Anthroposophy has developed various spiritual exercises that are intended to develop the capacity to discern past lives and the deeper nature of the human being. In addition, Steiner investigated the karmic relationships of many historical individuals, from Karl Marx to Julian the Apostate.
First, the soul descends from its sublime, free, spiritual realms, to inhabit a baby form. While living in a human form, it gathers experience through its effort to express itself in the world. After the lifetime is over, there is a withdrawal from the physical plane to successively higher levels of Reality, in what we call death. It involves a process of purification and assimilation of the wisdom from its past life experience. Finally, having completely withdrawn and cast off all instruments of personal experience, it stands again in its spiritual and formless nature. After that process is finished, the soul is ready to begin its next rhythmic manifestation and to descend into matter in a new effort to unfold its spiritual nature and to gain consciousness of its divine origin and nature.
From such a view point, which covers vast periods of time, what is called a lifetime is as a day in the life of the true spiritual human being. This spiritual entity moves forward on a vast pilgrimage, every lifetime bringing it closer to complete self-knowledge and self-expression. According to Theosophy, then, that which reincarnates is the part of man which belongs to the formless non-material and timeless worlds. It is neither the physical body and all of its characteristics, nor the emotional nature, with all its personal likes and dislikes, nor the mental nature, with its accumulated knowledge and its habits of thinking, that will reincarnate. That which is above all these aspects is that which reincarnates. However, when the formless essence of a human being begins its process of reincarnation, it attracts the old mental, emotional, and energetic karmic patterns to form the new personality. Thus the soul with the added powers developed during its previous lives and the post-mortem process of assimilation, deals with the old hindrances or shortcomings it was not able to work out in its previous lifetimes.
Past reincarnation, usually termed "past lives", is a key part of the principles and practices of the Church of Scientology. Scientologists believe that the human individual is actually an immortal thetan, or spiritual entity, that has fallen into a degraded state as a result of past-life experiences. Scientology auditing is intended to free the person of these past-life traumas and recover past-life memory, leading to a higher state of spiritual awareness. This idea is echoed in their highest fraternal religious order, the Sea Organization, whose motto is "Revenimus" or "We Come Back", and whose members sign a "billion-year contract" as a sign of commitment to that ideal. L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, does not use the word "reincarnation" to describe its beliefs, noting that: "The common definition of reincarnation has been altered from its original meaning. The word has come to mean 'to be born again in different life forms' whereas its actual definition is 'to be born again into the flesh of another body.' Scientology ascribes to this latter, original definition of reincarnation.
The first writings in Scientology regarding past lives date from around 1951 and slightly earlier. In 1960, Hubbard published a book on past lives entitled Have You Lived Before This Life. In 1968 he wrote Mission Into Time, a report on a five-week sailing expedition to Sardinia, Sicily and Carthage to see if specific evidence could be found to substantiate L. Ron Hubbard's recall of incidents in his own past, centuries ago.
General George S. Patton was a staunch believer in reincarnation and, along with many other members of his family, often claimed to have seen vivid, lifelike visions of his ancestors. In particular, Patton believed he was a reincarnation of Carthaginian General Hannibal.
Reincarnation seems to have captured the imagination of many in the West, and the idea of reincarnation receives regular mention in feature films, popular books, and popular music. A great many feature films have made reference to reincarnation, and notable films include:
Notable popular songs or albums which refer to reincarnation include:
Thomas Huxley, the famous English biologist, thought that reincarnation was a plausible idea and discussed it in his book Evolution and Ethics and other Essays. The most detailed collections of personal reports in favor of reincarnation have been published by Professor Ian Stevenson, from the University of Virginia, in books such as Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation and "Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects Volume 1: Birthmarks" and "Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects Volume 2: Birth Defects and Other Anomalies".
Stevenson spent over 40 years devoted to the study of children who have apparently spoken about a past life. In each case, Professor Stevenson methodically documented the child's statements. Then he identified the deceased person the child allegedly identified with, and verified the facts of the deceased person's life that matched the child's memory. He also matched birthmarks and birth defects to wounds and scars on the deceased, verified by medical records such as autopsy photographs.
A boy in Beirut spoke of being a 25-year-old mechanic, thrown to his death from a speeding car on a beach road. According to multiple witnesses, the boy provided the name of the driver, the exact location of the crash, the names of the mechanic's sisters and parents and cousins, and the people he went hunting with – all of which turned out to match the life of a man who had died several years before the boy was born, and who had no apparent connection to the boy's family.
Stevenson believed that his strict methods ruled out all possible "normal" explanations for the child’s memories. However, it should be noted that a significant majority of Professor Stevenson's reported cases of reincarnation originate in Eastern societies, where dominant religions often permit the concept of reincarnation. Following this type of criticism, Stevenson published a book on European cases suggestive of reincarnation.
There are many people who have investigated reincarnation and come to the conclusion that it is a legitimate phenomenon, such as Peter Ramster, Dr. Brian Weiss, Dr. Walter Semkiw, and others. Professor Stevenson, in contrast, published dozens of papers in peer-reviewed journals.
Some skeptics, such as Paul Edwards, have analyzed many of these accounts, and called them anecdotal. Philosophers like Robert Almeder, having analyzed the criticisms of Edwards and others, suggest 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" - an argument from personal incredulity.
The most obvious objection to reincarnation is that there is no evidence of a physical process by which a personality could survive death and travel to another body, and researchers such as Professor Stevenson recognize this limitation.
Another objection is that most people do not remember previous lives. Possible counter-arguments are that not all people reincarnate, or that most people do not have memorable deaths. The vast majority of cases investigated at the University of Virginia involved people who had met some sort of violent or untimely death.
Some skeptics explain that claims of evidence for reincarnation 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 counted as empirical evidence. But other skeptics, such as Dr Carl Sagan, see the need for more reincarnation research.