Reincarnation is a concept which is tolerated by some religious traditions, strongly embraced by others, and vehemently denied as a form of blasphemy by a few. The concept of reincarnation is fairly simple: the non-material essence, sometimes called a soul, continues after the physical death of the body and is reborn in another body. In his entry on reincarnation in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, R. Joseph Hoffmann writes:
“At the most basic level, the belief involves speculation about a non-material essence or ‘soul’ which survives the body at death and which may be reincarnated or reborn in plant or animal life, or in the form of other human beings.”
Reincarnation is an ancient human concept, which pre-dates the emergence of the Abrahamic religions by many thousands of years. In ancient Greece, for example, Robert Garland, in his entry on afterlife in the Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece, reports:
“The Pythagoreans also taught that the soul migrated to another body at the moment of death, since it is on a journey that will ideally lead it to a state of moral perfection. Attaining that state of perfection might therefore be expected to take several incarnations. The belief in transmigration (metempsychosis) seems to have been confined to philosophical circles.”
Reincarnation is a common feature in many shamanistic traditions. It is considered by some scholars to be one of the elements of the earliest human religious beliefs and may in fact pre-date the first Homo sapiens some 200,000 years ago. While reincarnation appears to answer the basic question: “What happens when we die?” it also generates lots of other questions.
For early humans, the origins of the idea of reincarnation, of a cycle of birth-life-death-rebirth seems apparent through the observation of the natural world: the cycle of the seasons seems to suggest a kind of reincarnation with new plants appearing in the spring, maturing during the summer, dying in the fall, and then reappearing again in the spring. There are a number of scholars who feel that reincarnation may be one of the earliest religious concepts.
Reincarnation is sometimes called transmigration or metempsychosis. Thomas Williams, in an article in Skeptic, describes it this way:
“When you die, your spirit, your soul continues to live. You pass on to another body, another world, another life.”
Transmigration is one of the core beliefs of some religions, such as Hinduism. In Hinduism, the concept of transmigration is one of the fundamental concepts of the caste system. In his book A Profile of Primitive Culture, Elman Service reports:
“Transmigration and multiple rebirths are firm beliefs among the Hindus—life is a never-ended process of linked existences. A person who behaves ethically will go to heaven or become reborn into a family of high caste. Persons who behave badly will go to hell or be reborn into a lower caste, or, if their actions were quite reprehensible, into one of the lower animal species.”
According to Hindu beliefs, the soul is kept prisoner in the body. In his book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—And Why Their Differences Matter, Stephen Prothero reports:
“As long as we inhabit flesh and bones, we are destined to suffer. Yet death offers no release either because, after we die, we will be reborn in other bodies and repeat again and again the sorrowful cycles of life, death, and rebirth.”
In his book Religions, Philip Wilkinson explains the Hindu worldview this way:
“Hindus believe that life consists of a continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This cycle is governed by the doctrine of karma, which asserts that a good life will be rewarded with a favorable reincarnation, whereas a life of sinfulness, selfishness, or indulgence will lead to reincarnation as a lower being in the next life.”
Writing about a Hindu Indian village in his ethnography Gopalpur: A South Indian Village, Alan Beals describes the villagers’ concept of reincarnation this way:
“People who lead good lives are reborn as men. If their previous lives were very good, they become great kings and sit on thrones. A really perfect man can be considered to be an earthly reincarnation of one of the gods.”
Alan Beals also reports:
“One’s birth as a god or man or animal is determined by one’s behavior.”
About 2,500 years ago, Buddhism developed in northern India as a rebellion against the Hindu caste system and like the other religions in this region, reincarnation became part of its core teachings. R. Joseph Hoffmann writes:
“Belief in spiritual rebirth has been an integral part of Buddhism as well, although the imagery and vocabulary used in the Buddhist tradition differs somewhat from the Hindu system.”
R. Joseph Hoffmann also writes:
“In Buddhist speculation, each individual is born with characteristics from a variety of past lives and other karmic sources, in the same way a new house might be assembled from the wreckage of many houses.”
One of the oldest religions in India is Jainism, whose current form dates back to the sixth century BCE. In his book Religions, Philip Wilkinson reports:
“Like the followers of other Indian religions, Jains believe life is a series of deaths and rebirths, and that a person’s actions throughout life attract karma (a spiritual credit and debit system), which influences the way in which a person is reborn after death.”
Like Buddhism, the goal of Jainism is to free the soul from the cycle of reincarnation. In an article in Smithsonian, Maura Moynihan writes:
“Jainism, whose origins lie in Indian prehistory, teaches that all souls are bound by karma, which is accumulated by deeds good or bad. Freeing one’s soul from the cycle of reincarnation is the supreme goal, and it can only be achieved through strict discipline, renunciation of the material world and understanding how to purify karma.”
To free themselves from reincarnation, some Jain clergy fast until they die, believing that this act will free them from the cycle.
There are some references to reincarnation found in Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion which originated in Persia (modern day Iran) in the seventh century BCE and which had an influence on the Abrahamic religions. There are also some indications of reincarnation in Mithraism, an Indo-Iranian monotheistic religion. While some of the early Greek writers, such as Herodotus, mention reincarnation in Ancient Egypt, there appears to be no mention of it in the ancient Egyptian writings.
While there are some individual followers of the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—who believe in reincarnation, theologians of these religions generally feel that reincarnation is not compatible with the Abrahamic beliefs regarding death. With regard to Christianity, R. Joseph Hoffmann writes:
“As a textual matter, the Bible does not teach the rebirth of souls. Nevertheless, at various times in the history of the church, particular passages have been interpreted by some theologians to support a belief in reincarnation.”
While early Christian writers explored the idea of reincarnation, Christianity did not officially declare belief in reincarnation to be a heresy until the sixth century.
And with regard to Islam, R. Joseph Hoffmann reports:
“As a result of its grounding in biblical eschatology, the orthodox mainstream of Islam has disavowed reincarnation, adhering to the orthodox Judeo-Christian concept of the resurrection of the dead and a Day of Judgement. It is sometimes maintained that the mystical wing of Islam, the Sufis, whose beliefs incorporate considerable oriental teaching and practice, have been believers in reincarnation since their inception.”
The concept of reincarnation is found among many American Indian groups, ranging from tribes in the Eastern Woodlands culture area, such as the Lenni Lenape, to tribes in the Great Plains, such as the Sioux, to the Indian peoples of the Northwest Coast, such as the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Gitxsan.
Do only humans experience reincarnation?
While the focus of many religious traditions is on human reincarnation, there are some traditions which view the souls of animals as also reincarnating. In some of these traditions, humans are reborn as humans while animals are reborn as animals. In some traditions it is possible for a human to be reborn as an animal and vice versa.
Among many Native American hunting and gathering peoples, a hunter will thank the spirit of the deer that has just been killed so that the deer spirit will be born again as a deer with a favorable attitude toward the hunter. Failure to thank the spirit of the deer may result in the deer spirit being reborn as a grizzly bear or rattlesnake with resentment toward the hunter.
In some cultural traditions, it is possible for the human soul to be reborn as an animal. Among the Haida and Tsimshian, Native American cultures on the Pacific Northwest Coast of British Columbia, people who are drowned at sea have their souls reborn as killer whales.
The Jivaro are an indigenous South American group living in the Amazon Basin. In his book A Profile of Primitive Culture, Elman Service reports: “The Jivaro believe that the dead are reborn as some form of animal life.”
Can some people remember their previous lives?
There are many stories about people, particularly young children, who claim that they have memories of earlier lives. While some of these stories have been debunked, others seem to be fairly accurate accounts of past lives. Among children, these stories appear both in cultures in which reincarnation is accepted and in those in which reincarnation is rejected.
With regard to American Indians, nineteenth century Sioux physician Charles Eastman in Light on the Indian World writes:
“Many of the Indians believed that one may be born more than once, and there were some who claimed to have full knowledge of a former incarnation.”
Among the Haida and the Tsimshian in the northern region of the Pacific Northwest Coast, all children were regarded as being the reincarnation of a deceased ancestor. The identity of the ancestor could be seen in birthmarks, physical characteristics, personality traits, and/or statements by the child indicating memories of previous lives. With regard to death among the Gitxsan on the Northwest coast, Shirley Muldon, in a chapter in Listening to Our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life Along the North Pacific Coast, writes:
“We believe in reincarnation of people and animals. We believe that the dead can visit this world and that the living can enter the past. We believe that memory survives from generation to generation. Our elders remember the past because they have lived it.”
Writing in 1817 about one Lenni Lenape man, Christian missionary John Heckewelder, in his book History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States, reports:
“He asserted very strange things, of his own supernatural knowledge, which he had obtained not only at the time of his initiation, but at other times, even before he was born. He said he knew that he had lived through two generations; that he had died twice and was born a third time, to live out the then present race, after which he was to die and never more to come to this country again.”
In European traditions, in the sixth century BCE the Greek philosopher Pythagoras taught a doctrine of reincarnation or transmigration of the soul. Pythagoras claimed that he had once lived as the Trojan Euphorbus who had been slain at Troy.
How is reincarnation controlled?
In some religious traditions, such as that of Hinduism and Buddhism, reincarnation is controlled by a natural law often called karma which refers to the actions, works, and deeds of a person’s life. As a person acts in one life, so he or she enjoys happiness or sorrow in the next.
In some religious traditions, reincarnation is controlled or directed by supernatural entities such as gods. For example, with regard to reincarnation, one Umbanda manual states:
“Reincarnation is a divine precept of the Father, through which he rewards or punishes, according to each person’s merit, since reincarnation has the following as its predetermined ends: to rescue the individual from errors and sins committed in previous lives; to furnish spiritual development for the individual; and to impose on each new arrival certain missions of great importance which must be fulfilled while on Earth.”
Regarding the African-based Yoruba religion, religion professor Stephen Prothero, in his book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—And Why Their Differences Matter, writes:
“Before we are reborn (the Yoruba affirm reincarnation), one of our souls (we have two or more, depending on who is doing the counting) appears before the High God Olodumare to receive new breath. Olodumare then allows us to choose our own destiny, which includes the day we will return to heaven, our personality, our occupation, and our own measure of good and bad luck. With birth comes forgetting, however. So we wander through life veiled from our true purposes, sidetracked by pursuits, in love and work, foisted on us by parents, friends, coworkers, and spouses.”
In Yoruba religion, the spirit world, which was generally associated with a location in the sky, was the destination of the souls of the deceased. With regard to the Yoruba concept of reincarnation, Bruce Trigger, in his book Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study, writes:
“The chief aim of an ancestral soul living in the sky was to be reborn, preferably back into its patrilineal extended family as a grandchild of its previous incarnation. It could be reborn as the same or opposite sex in successive lifetimes.”
With regard to the Hindu concept of reincarnation, Vasudha Narayanan, in his chapter on Hinduism in World Religions writes:
“While it is clear that one’s karma accumulated from previous lifetimes is believed to influence what sort of life will follow, the holy books offer no theories about how long it takes before a soul is reincarnated. Nor is there any discussion or explanation of why people do not remember their past lives, although in popular belief it is claimed that many people do indeed recall small pieces of previous existence.”
Vasudha Narayanan also writes:
“A soul that has achieved liberation and will not be reborn may enter the abode of Shiva or Vishnu.”
Among modern Neo-Pagans, reincarnation is a popular view of what happens after death. Neo-Pagans generally view what happens as a simple cause and effect. They do not see the outcome determined by a supernatural judging process.
Religion 101/201 is a series of essays about religion in which the concept of religion is not confined to the Abrahamic religions, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, nor is it confined to religions which are concerned with the worship of a god or gods. Religion 201 is an expansion of an earlier essay. More essays from this series:
Religion 101: God-Given Morality
Religion 101: Theism, Pantheism, Panentheism
Religion 101: Hidden Blasphemy
Religion 201: Heresy
Religion 201: Apostasy
Religion 101: Secularism