The concept of reincarnation
Life after death? the concept of reincarnation
Reincarnation, in a literal sense means “to be made flesh again”. Yet, even though it may sound novel to some, the belief in reincarnation has a strong connection to the majority of religions and philosophies that attempt to deal with the age old quest for answers to the mystery of life.
For instance Hindus believe in a soul (atman) that is immortal whereas the body is simply a shell that houses that soul and which is subject to birth and death. As such the soul takes different bodies and goes repeatedly through the stages of birth and death each time the soul has the desire to enjoy worldly pleasures and the only way to do so is through a body. Hindus believe that there is nothing wrong with worldly pleasures, just that we cannot achieve lasting peace or happiness that way. Being trapped by desires without understanding the true nature of existence will lead to suffering. Once a person realizes their own divine nature the desire for rebirth will have vanished and they have finally realized freedom from birth and death and therefore salvation.
Similarly Sikhs believe that every creature has a Soul. Once dead that soul passes form one body to another until salvation has been achieved. The journey of the Soul depends on what the person did through his or her lifetime.
Taoists too believe that: “Birth is not a beginning; death is not an end. There is existence without limitation; there is continuity without a starting-point. Existence without limitation is Space. Continuity without a starting point is Time. There is birth, there is death, there is issuing forth, there is entering in.”
Western religions and reincarnation
Ancient Greek philosophy
However, reincarnation is not just a belief of the Asian cultures. The ancient Greeks like Socrates, Pythagoras and even Plato were all convinced that reincarnation was indeed the way through which life would express itself. In fact, Socrates is quoted as saying “I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, and that the living spring from the dead.”
Judaism The idea of reincarnation appeared in Jewish belief some time after the Talmud which is the collection of ancient rabbinic writings on Jewish law and tradition. For instance the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534 –1572) describe the laws of reincarnation in a book that has been compiled by his disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital and which is named ‘The Gate of Reincarnations’.
Christianity today overwhelmingly rejects the concept of reincarnation however, there is evidence that the earlier Christian sects such as the Sethians and the Gnostic Church of Valentinus believed in reincarnation and they were subsequently persecuted by the Romans for their beliefs. There are writings which point out that people need to ‘learn to be good through various lifetimes in order to attain a level of goodness after which salvation can eventually be acquired’.
Similar to Christianity, mainstream Islam principally rejects the concept of reincarnation. However, some Sufi groups believe in reincarnation and point towards the Koran which says:
“How can you deny God, when you were dead and God gave you life? Then God will cause you to die, and then revive you, and then you will be returned to God.” (Quran 2:28)
They also point out that poets in the Islamic tradition have celebrated this belief such as the Persian Sufi Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi (1207 – 1273 A.D) who said:
“I died as mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was man.
Why should I fear?
When was I less by dying?”
Native American Nations
Reincarnation also forms an intrinsic part of most Inuit and American Indian traditions. In fact the concept of reincarnation is enshrined in Inuit language.
It is assumed that the Vikings believed in reincarnation if we believe the Poetic Edda (13thcentury) which is a collection of very old Norse poems and Germanic heroic legends and which states that ‘It was believed in olden times that people were born again’ and ‘Of Helgi and Sigrun it is said that they were born again; he became Helgi Haddingjaskati, and she Kara the daughter of Halfdan, as is told in the Lay of Kara, and she was a Valkyrie’.
Reincarnation played also on the minds of modern thinkers such as Goethe, Lessing Schoppenhauer, Bonnet, Hume and Herder. Irish poet and Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats (1865 –1939) had probably the most interesting view of the concept. He proposed that reincarnation does not occur within a framework of linear time. In his writing ‘The Vision’ (1925) he projected that a person’s past and future lives are actually all happening at once. And this is all happening in a never ending and eternal ‘now’ moment. Furthermore, whenever we make a decision ‘now’ it will influence all other lives and which in turn will be influenced by them.
The German born Literary Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse (1877 –1962) too believed in reincarnation. He saw the concept as “… a mode of expression for stability in the midst of flux.”
Benjamin Franklin, the American president stated his view of reincarnation in a letter written in 1785 to his friend George Whately:
I say, that, when I see nothing annihilated, and not even a Drop of Water wasted, I cannot suspect the Annihilation of Souls, or believe, that [God] will suffer the daily Waste of Millions of Minds ready made that now exist, and put himself to the continual Trouble of making new ones. Thus finding myself to exist in the World, I believe I shall, in some Shape or other, always exist; and, with all the inconveniencies human Life is liable to, I shall not object to a new Edition of mine; hoping, however, that the Errata of the last may be corrected.
Henry Ford, the first man to mass produce cars believed that he had lived before. His view of reincarnation was printed in a newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner in 1928. In it he says:
I adopted the theory of Reincarnation when I was twenty-six. Religion offered nothing to the point. Even work could not give me complete satisfaction. Work is futile if we cannot utilise the experience we collect in one life in the next. When I discovered Reincarnation it was as if I had found a universal plan I realised that there was a chance to work out my ideas. Time was no longer limited. I was no longer a slave to the hands of the clock. Genius is experience. Some seem to think that it is a gift or talent, but it is the fruit of long experience in many lives. Some are older souls than others, and so they know more. The discovery of Reincarnation put my mind at ease. If you preserve a record of this conversation, write it so that it puts men’s minds at ease. I would like to communicate to others the calmness that the long view of life gives to us.