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My Understanding Of Reincarnation In Eastern Religions

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Posted by Harvey on December 21, 2004 06:23:01 UTC

I admit, my knowledge is not very sophisticated on Eastern religions, however I did say some Eastern religions...

Here's an article on that discusses reincarnation in Eastern religions (I'm sorry, I don't know much about Tibetian Buddhism):

"Reincarnation in Eastern religions
The reincarnation of an entity defined as the core of human existence (atman or purusha) following a cycle that implies many lives and bodies, is not such an old concept as it is pretended today. It is neither a common element for most of the oldest known religions, nor does its origin belong to an immemorial past.

The classic form of the reincarnation doctrine was formulated in India, but certainly not earlier than the 9th century BC, when the Brahmana writings were composed. After the Upanishads (7th to 5th century BC) clearly defined the concept, it was adopted by the other important Eastern religions which originated in India, Buddhism and Jainism. Due to the spreading of Buddhism, reincarnation was later adapted in Chinese Taoism, but not earlier than the 3rd century BC.

The ancient religions of the Mediterranean world developed quite different kinds of reincarnationist beliefs. For instance, Greek Platonism stated the pre-existence of the soul in a celestial world and its fall into a human body due to sin. In order to be liberated from its bondage and return to a state of pure being, the soul needs to be purified through reincarnation. In stating these beliefs Plato was strongly influenced by the earlier philosophical schools of Orphism and Pythagoreanism. The first important Greek philosophical system that adopted a similar view on reincarnation to Hinduism was Neo-Platonism, born in the 3rd century AD, under certain Eastern influences.

In the case of ancient Egypt, The Egyptian Book of the Dead describes the travel of the soul into a next world without coming back to earth. As it is well known, the ancient Egyptians embalmed the dead in order that the body might be preserved and accompany the soul into that world. This rather suggests their belief in resurrection than in reincarnation. Likewise, in many cases of ancient tribal religions that are credited today with holding to reincarnation, it is rather a belief in the pre-existence of the soul before birth or its independent survival after death that is taught. This has no connection with the classic idea of transmigration from one physical body to another, according to the demands of an impersonal law such as karma.

Reincarnation in Hinduism
The origin of samsara has to be searched for in Hinduism and its classic writings. It cannot have appeared earlier than the 9th century BC because the Vedic hymns, the most ancient writings of Hinduism, do not mention it, proving that reincarnation wasnít stated yet at the time of their recording (13th to 10th century BC). Let us therefore analyze the development of the concept of immortality in the major Hindu writings, beginning with the Vedas and the Brahmanas.

Immortality in the Vedic hymns and the Brahmanas
At the time the Vedic hymns were written, the belief was that man continues to exist after death as a whole person. Between man and gods was stated an absolute distinction, as in all other polytheistic religions of the world. The concept of an impersonal fusion with the source of all existence, as later stated in the Upanishads, was far away. Here are some arguments for this thesis that result from the exegesis of the funeral ritual:

1. As was the case in other ancient religions (for instance those of Egypt and Mesopotamia), the deceased was buried with food and clothing necessary in the afterlife. More than that, the belief of ancient Aryans in the preservation of personal identity after death led them to incinerate the dead husband together with his (living) wife and bow so that they could accompany him in the afterlife. In some parts of India this ritual was performed until the British colonization.

2. Similar to the tradition of ancient Chinese religion, the departed relatives constituted a holy hierarchy. The last one deceased was commemorated individually for a year after his departure and then included in the mortuary offerings of the monthly shraddha ritual (Rig Veda 10,15,1-11). This ritual was necessary because the dead could influence negatively or positively the life of the living (Rig Veda 10,15,6).

3. According to Vedic anthropology, the components of human nature are the physical body, ashu and manas. Ashu represents the vital principle (different from personal attributes), and manas the sum of psycho-mental faculties (mind, feeling and will). The belief in the preservation of the three components after death is proved by the fact that the family addressed the departed relative in the burial ritual as a unitary person: "May nothing of your manas, nothing of the ashu, nothing of the limbs, nothing of your vital fluid, nothing of your body here by any means be lost" (Atharva Veda 18,2,24).

Yama, the god of death (mentioned in old Buddhist and Taoist scriptures too) was sovereign over the souls of the dead and also the one who received the offerings of the family for the benefit of the departed. In the Rig Veda it is said about him: "Yama was the first to find us our abode, a place that can never be taken away, where our ancient Fathers have departed; all who are born go there by that path, treading their own" (Rig Veda 10,14,2). Divine justice was provided by the gods Yama, Soma and Indra, not by an impersonal law such as karma. One of their attributes was to cast the wicked into an eternal dark prison out of which they can never escape (Rig Veda 7,104,3-17).

The premise for reaping the reward of oneís life in a new earthly existence (instead of the heavenly afterlife) appeared in the Brahmana writings (9th century BC). They stated a limited heavenly immortality, depending on the deeds and the quality of the sacrifices performed during life. After reaping the reward for them, man has to face a second death in the heavenly realm (punarmrityu) and therefore return to an earthly existence. The proper antidote against this situation came to be considered esoteric knowledge, attainable only during oneís earthly existence.

Reincarnation in the Upanishads
The Upanishads were the first writings to move the place of oneís "second death" from the heavenly realm to this earthly world, considering its proper solution the knowledge of the atman-Brahman identity.

Ignorance of oneís true self (atman or purusha) launches karma into action, the law of cause and effect in Eastern spirituality. Its first clear formulation can be found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4,4,5): "According as one acts, according as one behaves, so does he become.The doer of good becomes good. The doer of evil becomes evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action." Reincarnation (samsara) is the practical way in which one reaps the fruits of his deeds. Therefore, the self is forced to enter a new material existence until all karmic debt is paid: "By means of thought, touch, sight and passions and by the abundance of food and drink there are birth and development of the (embodied) self. According to his deeds, the embodied self assumes successively various forms in various conditions" (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 5,11).

There can be observed a fundamental mutation in the meaning of afterlife in comparison with the Vedic perspective. Abandoning the desire to have communion with the gods (Agni, Indra, etc.), attained as a result of bringing good sacrifices, the Upanishads came to consider manís final destiny to be the impersonal fusion atman-Brahman, attained exclusively by esoteric knowledge. In this new context, karma and reincarnation are key elements that will mark from now on all particular developments in Hinduism.

Reincarnation in the Epics and Puranas
In the Bhagavad Gita, which is a part of the Mahabharata, reincarnation is clearly stated as a natural process of life that has to be followed by any mortal. Krishna says:

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 (2,13). 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 (2,22).

In the Puranas the speculation on this subject is more substantial and therefore specific destinies are figured for each kind of "sin" one performs:

The murderer of a brahmin becomes consumptive, the killer of a cow becomes hump-backed and imbecile, the murderer of a virgin becomes leprous - all three born as outcastes. The slayer of a woman and the destroyer of embryos becomes a savage full of diseases; who commits illicit intercourse, a eunuch; who goes with his teacherís wife, disease-skinned. The eater of flesh becomes very red; the drinker of intoxicants, one with discolored teeth.... Who steals food becomes a rat; who steals grain becomes a locust... perfumes, a muskrat; honey, a gadfly; flesh, a vulture; and salt, an ant.... Who commits unnatural vice becomes a village pig; who consorts with a Sudra woman becomes a bull; who is passionate becomes a lustful horse.... These and other signs and births are seen to be the karma of the embodied, made by themselves in this world. Thus the makers of bad karma, having experienced the tortures of hell, are reborn with the residues of their sins, in these stated forms (Garuda Purana 5).

Similar specific punishments are figured by The Laws of Manu (12, 54-69).

Who or what reincarnates in Hinduism?
According to the Upanishads and Vedanta philosophy, the entity that reincarnates is the impersonal self (atman). Atman lacks any personal element, reason for which the use of the reflexive pronoun "self" is not quite right. Atman can be defined only through negating any personal attributes. Although it constitutes the existential substrata of manís existence, atman cannot be the carrier of oneís "spiritual progress", because it cannot record any data produced in the illusory domain of psycho-mental existence. The spiritual progress one accumulates toward realizing the atman-Brahman identity is recorded by karma, or rather by a minimal quantity of karmic debt. According to oneís karma, at (re)birth the whole physical and mental complex man consists of is reconstructed, all that pertains to the world of illusions. At this level, the newly shaped person experiences the fruits of "his" actions from previous lives and has to do his best to stop the vicious cycle avidya-karma-samsara.

As a necessary aid in explaining the reincarnation mechanism, Vedanta adopted the concept of a subtle body (sukshma-sharira), attached to atman as long as its bondage lasts, which actually records the karmic debts and transmits them from one life to another. However, this "subtle body" cannot be a form of preserving oneís personal attributes, as it does not offer any actual data belonging to previous lives to the present conscious psycho-mental life. All this kind of data is erased, so that the facts recorded by the subtle body are a sum of hidden tendencies or impressions (samskara) imprinted by karma. They will materialize unconsciously in the life of the individual, without giving him any hint for understanding his actual condition. There is no possible form of transmitting conscious memory from one life to another, because its domain belongs to the world of illusions and dissolves at death.

In the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas, the entity that reincarnates is purusha, an equivalent of atman. Given the absolute duality stated between purusha and prakriti (substance), nothing that belongs to the psycho-mental life can pass from one life to the other because it belongs to prakriti, which has a mere illusory relation with purusha. However, in the Yoga Sutra (2,12) is defined a similar mechanism of transmitting the effects of karma from one life to another, as was the case in Vedanta. The reservoir of karmas is called karmashaya. It accompanies purusha from one life to another, representing the sum of impressions (samskara) that could not manifest themselves during the limits of a certain life. In no way can it be a kind of conscious memory, a sum of information that the person could consciously use or a nucleus of personhood, because karmashaya has nothing in common with psycho-mental abilities. This deposit of karma merely serves as a mechanism for adjusting the effects of karma in oneís life. It dictates in an impersonal and mechanical manner the new birth (jati), the length of life (ayu) and the experiences that must accompany it (bhoga).

Reincarnation in Buddhism
Buddhism denies the reality of a permanent self, together with all things pertaining to the phenomenal world. The appearance of human existence is generated by a mere heap of five aggregates (skandha), which suffer from constant becoming and have a functional cause-effect relation: 1) the body (rupa) - that consists of material form and senses, 2) feeling (vedana) - the taste of any experience, 3) cognition (sanna) - the process of classifying and labeling experiences, 4) mental constructions (sankhara) - the states which initiate action, and 5) consciousness (vijnana) - the awareness of a sensory or mental object. The five elements, as the whole assembly they construct, are impermanent (anitya), undergo constant transformation and have no abiding principle or self. Man usually thinks that he has a self because of consciousness. But being itself in a constant process of becoming and change, consciousness cannot be identified with a self that is supposed to be permanent. Beyond the five aggregates nothing else can be found in the human nature.

However, something has to reincarnate, following the dictates of karma. When asked about the differences between people in the matters of life span, illnesses, wealth, etc., the Buddha taught:

Men have, O young man, deeds as their very own, they are inheritors of deeds, deeds are their matrix, deeds are their kith and kin, and deeds are their support. It is deeds that classify men into high or low status (Majjhima Nikaya 3,202).

If there is no real self, who inherits the deeds and reincarnates? Buddha answered that only karma is passing from one life to another, using the illustration of the light of a candle, which is derived from other candle without having a substance of its own. In the same manner there is rebirth without the transfer of a self from one body to another. The only link from one life to the next is of a causal nature. In the Garland Sutra (10) we read:

According to what deeds are done
Do their resulting consequences come to be;
Yet the doer has no existence:
This is the Buddhaís teaching.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes in detail the alleged experiences one has in the intermediary state between two incarnations, suggesting that the deceased keeps some personal attributes. Although it is not clear what actually survives after death in this case, there is mentioned a mental body that cannot be injured by the visions experienced by the deceased:

When it happens that such a vision arises, do not be afraid! Do not feel terror! You have a mental body made of instincts; even if it is killed or dismembered, it cannot die! Since in fact you are a natural form of voidness, anger at being injured is unnecessary! The Yama Lords of Death are but arisen from the natural energy of your own awareness and really lack all substantiality. Voidness cannot injure voidness! (Tibetan Book of the Dead, 12)

Whatever the condition of the deceased after death might be, any hypothetical personal nucleus vanishes right before birth, so there can be no psycho-mental element transmitted from one life to another. The newborn person doesnít remember anything from previous lives or trips into the realm of intermediary state (bardo).

Another important element in the Buddhist theory of reincarnation is the extreme rarity of being reincarnated as a human person. The Buddha taught in the Chiggala Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 35,63):

Monks, suppose that this great earth were totally covered with water, and a man were to toss a yoke with a single hole there. A wind from the east would push it west, a wind from the west would push it east. A wind from the north would push it south, a wind from the south would push it north. And suppose a blind sea-turtle were there. It would come to the surface once every one hundred years. Now what do you think: would that blind sea-turtle, coming to the surface once every one hundred years, stick his neck into the yoke with a single hole?
It would be a sheer coincidence, lord, that the blind sea-turtle, coming to the surface once every one hundred years, would stick his neck into the yoke with a single hole.
It's likewise a sheer coincidence that one obtains the human state. It's likewise a sheer coincidence that a Tathagata, worthy and rightly self-awakened, arises in the world.

If one would try to calculate the probability of obtaining the human state according to this text, and consider the surface of "this great earth" as being just the surface of India, the odds would be one chance in a time span in years of 5 followed by 16 zeros. This is 5 million times the age of the universe.

Reincarnation in Taoism
Reincarnation is a teaching hard to find in the aphorisms of the Tao-te Ching (6th century BC), so it must have appeared later in Taoism. Although it is not specified what reincarnates, something has to pass from one life to another. An important scripture of Taoism, the Chuang Tzu (4th century BC), states:

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, that is the Portal of God (Chuang Tzu 23).

Reincarnation in modern thinking
Once the Eastern concept of reincarnation arrived in Europe, its meaning changed. During the Middle Ages it was a doctrine reserved for the initiates of some occult traditions (Hermetism, Catharism, etc.), who have taken it over from Neo-Platonism. A larger acceptance of reincarnation was promoted in the Western world only beginning with the last century, by the efforts of Theosophy, and later Anthroposophy. Their intense ministry, combined with that of many Eastern gurus, and especially the efforts of the New Age movement, determined a wide acceptance of reincarnation in our society today, so that this concept became one of the most fascinating doctrines in explaining the origin and meaning of life.

However, its modern version is substantially different from what Eastern religions stated. Far from being a torment out of which man has to escape by any price through abolishing personhood, New Age thinking considers reincarnation as an eternal progression of the soul toward higher levels of spiritual existence. Influenced by the Christian cultural context but totally opposing Eastern classic ideology, many consider today that the entity that reincarnates is our soul, which preserves the attributes of personhood from one life to another. This compromise obviously emerged from the desire to adopt the reincarnation doctrine to Western thought. The concept of an impersonal atman reincarnating was too abstract to be easily accepted, so Westerners needed a milder version of this doctrine. Although this tendency proves the soulís yearning for a personal destiny, it doesnít bear too much resemblance to classical Eastern spirituality, which rejects it as totally perverted.

The above information about the meaning of reincarnation in the Eastern religions and the nature of the entity which is reincarnating will be helpful in examining the modern proofs for it, which are so popular today. While analyzing them, we need to remember that according to the Eastern concept of reincarnation there cannot be any personal element that could wander from one life to the next."

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