Reincarnation in Eastern Religious Traditions

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Last updated: April 3, 2019

Eastern religious traditions are the spiritual believes prevalent in Asia. These traditions are mostly evident in India, Japan and china. They are most common in India revealing the reason why the term eastern religion is also used to refer to the Indian religion.

The most common eastern religions are Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. These four religions have a number of aspects that cuts across them. Some of these elements are dharma, karma, samsara and maya (Atkinson, p.25). One of the doctrines that are common among the eastern religions is reincarnation.

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Reincarnation is a concept that refers to the coming back of the soul or the spirit after death.They believe that after the body dies, the soul returns back to the earth in a new form, depending with the kind of life the person led before death. Reincarnation is also known as the transmigration of the soul. Apart from the Indian religions, the idea of reincarnation was also evident in the ideologies of the Greek philosophers. It is still evident in some few regions around the world such as Siberia, North America, Australia and West Africa. While the eastern religions have upheld their belief in reincarnation, most of the Christians, Judaists and Muslims have completely done away with it.

While majority in the East still believe in the doctrine of reincarnation, only about 20% of the West still believe in it. Whenever this concept is referred to, eastern or Indian religious traditions are what come to mind. It is a doctrine that is almost characteristic to the religious beliefs of the west (Markham and Ruparell, p.18).DefinitionThe term reincarnation emanates from a Latin term. The term in Latin means “entering the fresh again.” There is also a Greek equivalent of the term that relates to the English version, “transmigration of the soul.” All these phrases represent the idea of coming back to life or reincarnating after one dies.

Reincarnation refers to coming back to life as either a human being or animal. The emphasis of this doctrine is the continuing of the soul, rather than the body. The general process that produces the cycle of dying and being reborn, controlled by karma is known as Samsara in the eastern religious traditions. Birth is the state that a person is reborn into. The term also refers to the single process of coming back to the earth. According to the eastern religious traditions, even gods can die and become reborn again. In this case however the term reincarnation is not firmly appropriate. Nevertheless, Hindus claim that their gods do reincarnate.

For example, Lord Vishnu whom they claim has reincarnated ten times. Celtic religion also tends to believe that their gods also reincarnate. Most of the Christians tend to believe as a holy incarnation. These Christians and majority Muslims hold to the belief that Jesus and some of the prophets may be incarnated again (Coogan, p. 34).Origin of reincarnation doctrineReincarnation is a concept that is central to human life. The origin of this doctrine is not very clear, as it is not evident in the world’s oldest religious traditions. The doctrine is not as old as some of the other doctrines in religion like deity, nor is it a current concept.

It is most common in the history of India and Greece. The recorded history of the term is in the first millennium BCE. The doctrine is likely linked to the early eremitical (sramana) era in India. The concept was later used by the Brahmin orthodoxy. In India the concept was employed along with others like karma, Samsara and Moksha. The term was later developed in various ways and applied in many traditions both in India and other parts of Asia.

It was used by Upanishads, Mahavir and in yoga sutras (Atkinson, p.52).There are scholars who claim that the dourine in India might have its origins in the pre-Aryan non-Vedic culture. Other scholars claim that the doctrine has a connection between Druid, Vedic culture and ancient Greek. They suggested that the doctrine was there in proto-indo-European religion. Diodorus Siculus believed that the Druids might have had influence from the ideas of Pythagoras. One contemporary philosopher has claimed that some missionaries of Buddhism went to Britain as an order from king Ashoka. Some ancient literatures have confirmed that Pythagoras argued that he has reminiscence of his past life.

This is the ancient revelation of the fact that there might be existence in more than one life. Some of the philosophers have claimed that Buddha found out the idea for himself (Coogan, p. 67).The characteristic structure of reincarnation was developed in India. This took place not prior to the ninth century BC.

This is the time when the Brahmana writings were established. The concept was properly defined between the seventh and the fifth century BC. After the definition of the term it was adapted in majority of the eastern religious traditions. After the use of the concept spread in India, it was later accepted by Taoism in china. This is probably later in the third century BC (Atkinson, p.83).Reincarnation in HinduismThe source of this doctrine is accredited to Hinduism.

There were no ideas of reincarnation in the Vedic Hymns. During the time there was the belief in continuity of life in the same body after death. There was a clear distinction between human beings and gods. This was the reason why the dead were buried with everything they would require in the afterlife.

There was also the belief that the dead would be reunited with their relatives who were already dead. They also believed that the dead has some form of influence on the living (Markham and Ruparell, p.74). The whole person was also preserved after death and this is the reason why as a ritual the family members addressed the dead as though they were listening and understanding.

The god of death, Yama received the offerings of the relatives in place of the dead. These offerings were offered as a plea for pardon on behalf of the dead. This god was believed to be the ruler over the souls. The idea of reincarnation in Hinduism began with Brahmana writings. This is where the idea of penalty and reward in a new form on earth came up.

The writings revealed restricted heavenly immortality which depends on the kind of life that one led. Still in heaven, one has to die the second time, after which he would come back to earth again. The answer of this to this destiny came to be deemed obscure knowledge that would only be attained in the life on earth (Coogan, p. 123).The writings that moved the idea of the second death from heaven to the earth were Upanishads. This is what the writings deemed right according to the understanding of the atman-Brahman identity.

In this writings it was believed that one becomes what he behaves. The person who does good becomes good, and the one who does evil becomes evil. According to these writings reincarnation is the definite way where people receive the fruits of their actions.

The soul is made to enter into another form into existence until such a time when all the debts are paid. Depending on the kind of actions of the person, the self enters into various forms depending with the circumstances. Hinduism believed that reincarnation was a way of man paying for the kind of life he lived in the previous life (Coogan, p. 102).Reincarnation is explained as a process of life that is inevitable. This is the explanation offered in the Bhagavad Gita.

Krishna says in verse 2: 13 “Just as the self advances through childhood, youth and old age in its physical body, so it advances to another body after death. The wise person is not confused by this change called death” (Valea, 1999, para 15). In verse 2:22, “Just as the body casts off worn out clothes and puts on new ones, so the infinite, immortal self casts off worn out bodies and enters into new ones” (Valea, 1999, para 15).

The Laws of Manu (12, 54-69) establishes the fact that it is as a result of large karmic debts that one life cannot be sufficient in repaying it. As a result many lives become essential so that one can be freed from the debts. There is the belief that nothing can liberate one from coming back to repay karmic debts. Any form of intervention from gods or gurus it unnecessary for it would go against the work of karma (Markham and Ruparell, p.84).

According to Upanishads and Vedanta ideology, it is atman that is involved in the reincarnation. Atman refers to the impersonal permanent self. It can be described solely through counteracting personal attributes of a being. This element of a being does not carry any spiritual progress. This is recorded by karma or by a certain amount of karmic debt. The whole being is reconstructed during reincarnation according to karma.

It is at this point that the new being is ready to repay its karmic debt. From this point a human can do everything possible to avoid a repetition of the cycle. This can be achieved by payment of all the karmic debts (Atkinson, p.105).Reincarnation in BuddhismUnlike Hinduism, Buddhism does not support the idea that there is an impersonal permanent self that keeps on reincarnating. The idea of a permanent self is brought about by the existence of five elements: the body (rupa); feeling (vedana); cognition (sanna); mental constructions (sankhara); and consciousness (vijnana).

The five are not constant and have no permanent uniting factor or self. Due to the fact that they are always changing, they cannot be identified with the unchanging self. Buddha argues that it is only karma that moves from one life to the next. This means that according to the Buddhists there is no self that undergoes reincarnation. This is explained as reincarnation without passage of self from one form to the next.

There is a somewhat detailed explanation of reincarnation in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This book explains that the dead retains some human attributes as he reincarnates. In Buddhism, there is no reminiscence of the past life. This is due to the fact that there is no psych-mental attribute that is passed from one form to the next (Coogan, p. 83).Reincarnation in TaoismReincarnation in the Chinese religious beliefs, might have appeared later in Taoism. This is why there is no teaching in the Tao-te Ching concerning the doctrine. However, the doctrine is not properly explained, for example the element that reincarnates is not known.

What is clear is they believe that there is something that passes from one life to another. Chuang Tzu, scripture of Taoism reveals this. In Chuang Tzu 23, “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. That through which one passes in and out without seeing its form, which is the Portal of God” (Valea, 1999, para 28).Modern view of reincarnationThe meaning of reincarnation changed once the idea reached Europe.

During the middle ages, it was an idea that was common with a few sect traditions like Hermetism and Catharism. In the west the concept of reincarnation began gaining popularity in the nineteenth century. During the time of the New Age Movement, there was a wide approval of the doctrine. Regardless of the fact that the idea of reincarnation has gained roots in the modern society, it is not similar to the ideas adapted in the eastern religious traditions. The current notion of reincarnation is the progress of the soul to a higher degree of religious understanding.

From this point of view, the element that reincarnates is the soul. While trying to marry reincarnation with the western religious traditions, the idea of atman was too obscure to be accepted. As a result the western regions accepted the milder notion of reincarnation. This is why they adapted the idea of the soul as the element that underwent reincarnation (Markham and Ruparell, p.92).

SummaryReincarnation explains the kind of differences that are evident in people. People are different in many aspects and there has never been any satisfying explanation of these differences. While some people are born health, others have deformities. While some are rich, others live in poverty.

Some people are successful while unreligious, and others are always suffering despite the fact that they are religious. The eastern religious traditions have provided answers to these questions. They have explained that people are born the way they are as a result of how they lived their past life. It is their life, either good or bad, that determine how they are reborn through the process of karma. From this point of view, reincarnation offers a perfect explanation of punishment and rewards for one’s actions, without acceptance of the almighty God as the final reality (Coogan, p. 25).

ConclusionThe concept of reincarnation is one that provides a very interesting explanation on the origin and destiny of man.  Knowledge of the fact that one lives many lives before the current one and that there are many more lives that one will live, is definitely an interesting point of view. Additionally, reincarnation brings comfort in knowing that death is not the end of life. It offers a consolation in continuity of life and thus providing liberation. It is also a way of opposing the idea of final judgment by the almighty, whose likely consequence is eternity in the fires of hell.


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