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REINCARNATION . The doctrine of reincarnation concerns the rebirth of the soul or self in a series of physical or preternatural embodiments, which are customarily human or animal in nature but are in some instances divine, angelic, demonic, vegetative, or astrological (i.e., are associated with the sun, moon, stars, or planets). The concept of rebirth may also be expressed in such terms as metempsuchōsis (or more accurately, metensōmatōsis, "passage from one body to another") and palingenesis (Gr., lit., "to begin again").

The belief in rebirth in one form or another is found in tribal or nonliterate cultures all over the world. The notion is most dramatically evident in the native societies of central Australia and West Africa, where it is intimately associated with the cult of ancestor worship.

It is in ancient India and Greece, however, that the doctrine of rebirth has been most elaborately developed. In India, the precept is linked inextricably with the teachings and practices of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism (a hybrid synthesis of Hinduism and Islam founded in the fifteenth century by Gurū Nānak), and Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam); it even figures in the writings of such modern thinkers as Ramakrishna and Aurobindo. In ancient Greece, the idea is identified primarily with the philosophical lineages of Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato, and Plotinus.

The doctrine of rebirth can also be found in certain ancient Near Eastern religions, for example, the royal cultus of the pharoahs in ancient Egypt and the mystery cult of Orpheus in second-century Greece. It is found in the teachings of Manichaeism, a third-century ce Persian religion founded by the prophet Mani. The concept of reincarnation also figures in such modern schools of thought as the Theosophy of H. P. Blavatsky and Annie Besant and the humanistic psychology of thinkers like C. G. Jung and Fritz Perls; it appears also in the "perennial philosophy" of Aldous Huxley.

Archaic Cultures

That the belief in reincarnation is of great antiquity in the history of the human species is suggested by the existence of the idea at the core of the belief systems of numerous nonliterate ethnic groups scattered throughout various parts of the world. It is also suggested by the fact that some archaic peoples whose physical culture (domestic architecture, implements of livelihood, etc.) is of an extremely primitive nature (e.g., the Arunta, or Aranda, people who originally inhabited the wastelands of central Australia and who may be classified as a Stone Age society) espouse the ideas of preexistence and reincarnation, which may indicate that this belief arose contemporaneously with the origins of human culture per se.

It is particularly significant that a belief in reincarnation in some form or another is to be found in non-literate cultures all over the world. Other primary cultural areas (besides central Australia) in which this precept is noticeably present are West Africa (among the Ewe, Edo, Igbo, and Yoruba), southern Africa (among the Bantu-speakers and the Zulu), Indonesia, Oceania, New Guinea, and both North and South America (among selected ethnic groups).

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, reincarnation is not only viewed positively, but failure to be reborn and thereby gain yet another opportunity to improve the world of the living is regarded as an evil (as is the state of childlessness). Weighty emphasis is placed upon fertility rites and the efficacious powers of the shaman to promote the production of offspring (i.e., the rebirth of the ancestral spirits).

Among the Yoruba and Edo peoples, the belief in the rebirth of the departed ancestors remains a strong and vibrant cultural force to the present day. It is their custom to name each boy child "Father Has Returned" and each girl child "Mother Has Returned." The Zulu hold that the spirit of each person undergoes numerous rebirths in the bodies of various beasts, which range in size from tiny insects to huge elephants, until at long last the spirit enters a human body where it is fated to undergo yet another birth. Finally, after reaching the pinnacle of human existence, the soul is united with the supreme spirit from which it originated in the beginning. Here, as in other archaic cultures, the belief in reincarnation is linked directly with the veneration of ancestors, for it is the spirits of deceased ancestors that return in one or another life-form in association with the various totemic groups that form the organizational structure of the society.

For the Australian Aborigines, it is axiomatic that the spirits of human beings are periodically incarnated in animal or plant forms or even in such inanimate entities as water, fire, and wind, or the sun, moon, and stars. This belief is based upon the presupposition that the soul is separable from the body and from any other physical object it may inhabit. By virtue of its capacity to survive independently of a physical abode for at least a brief time, the soul possesses the capacity to travel from body to body and to inhabit a variety of forms ranging from stones and insects to animals and human beings. Because of the centrality of the totemic clan in Aboriginal religion, it was of utmost importance to establish the precise identity of the ancestor being reborn in each instance.

According to Australian Aboriginal religious beliefs, a deceased ancestor, after a sojourn of an unspecified length of time in the land of the dead, returns to the world of the living by entering the body of a mother at the moment of conception. The father is believed to play no direct role in impregnating the mother. Instead, the mother-to-be conceives new life by coming into the proximity of an oknanikilla, or local totem center, in which a spirit being (alcheringa ) or soul of a deceased ancestor is lying in wait to be reborn.

Women who desire children travel to a sacred totem center with the intention of conceiving. The Aborigines also believe that if a woman happens to walk in the revered spots where the alcheringa ancestors are located, she will become impregnated without their intending it, even against their will. It is also commonly believed that when a woman conceives a child at a site sacred to a particular clan or totemic group (say, for example, the lizard totem), then that child will belong to the clan identified with the place of conception rather than with the clan of its parents. Thus, clan connections outweigh blood-relationships in cultural significance.


The whole of the Hindu ethical code laid down in the ancient law books (e.g., Laws of Manu ) presupposes the survival of the soul after death and assumes that the present life is fundamentally a preparation for the life to come. According to the Hindu conception of transmigration or rebirth (sasāra, "a course or succession of states of existence"), the circumstances of any given lifetime are automatically determined by the net results of good and evil actions in previous existences. This, in short, is the law of karman (action), a universal law of nature that works according to its own inherent necessity. Reward and punishment are thus not decreed by a god or gods nor by any other supernatural personage. It is a person's own actions, in conformity to the moral and cosmic law (dharma ), that is determinative. The law of karman finds synoptic expression in the Upaniadic assertion: "By good deeds one becomes good, by evil, evil."

As early as the Upaniads human destinies are assigned to two divergent pathways: the pathway of the ancestors (pit s), which is traversed by those persons who follow worldly pursuits, and the pathway of the gods (deva s), which is taken by those who meditate with faith and austerity in the forest (Chāndogya Upaniad 4.15.5, 5.10.110). The former path leads to rebirth; the latter, toward brahman and liberation. After the "worldling" has resided in the postmortem realm until the effects of his previous deeds has been consumed, he returns along the same route by which he departed the world to be reborn. By contrast, those who depart by the pathway of the gods reach brahman, the Ultimate, and are released from the rule of sasāra forever. For them, say the scriptures, there is no returning.

The Bhagavadgītā, one of the most highly revered texts of Hinduism, asserts that the eternal self (ātman ) is unaffected even to the slightest degree by the vicissitudes of finite existence. According to this text, the universal soul, or self, in its essential nature neither comes to be nor passes away, for "of the nonexistent there is no coming to be; of the existent, there is no coming not to be" (2.1125). It is rather the body (śarīra ) or the embodied form (jīva ) of the self that is subject to the changing conditions of life: creation and destruction, good and evil, victory and defeat. As the eternal, unchanging, and imperishable spiritual essence of humanity, the self is invincible to alteration of any sort, whether on this side of eternity or beyond.

The succession of finite births has traditionally been regarded by Hindus pessimistically, as an existential misfortune and not as a series of "second chances" to improve one's lot, as it is often viewed in the West. Life is regarded not only as "rough, brutish, and short" but as filled with misery (dukha ). Thus, the multiplication of births within this "vale of tears" merely augments and intensifies the suffering that is the lot of all creatures. Furthermore, this painful existence continues unabated until such time as a person experiences spiritual liberation (moka, or mukti ).

The root cause of this existential bondage to time, ignorance, and suffering is desire (tahā ), or avaricious attachment to objects that at best bring only limited, and often debased, pleasure. Even the life of a deity (deva ) is governed by the law of death and rebirth. Hence, a person's only hope of escaping the clutches of rebirth is through extinguishing all desires except the desire for perfect unification with the universal self (brahman ). The empirical self of the liberated person "goes to the brahman and becomes the brahman." As a result, he is free from the effects of all actions, both good and evil, and from any subsequent participation in existences determined by karman. This state of complete union with the universal self is known as moka ("release" or "salvation").

Opinions differ among Indian sages as to whether final liberation is attainable while still in an embodied state or only after death. At least from the time of the Vedānta Sūtra (second century), the sages believed that salvation could be achieved while still alive. Thus, according to the Mahābhārata, the ātman is affected by the bonds of finite existence only under the conditions of metaphysical ignorance (avidyā ), but once a soul is enlightened (prakāita ), the self is freed from the consequences of its good and evil deeds and thereupon becomes indistinguishably identified with the brahman (12.267.3238).


Śākyamuni Buddha, like his philosophical and spiritual predecessors, believed that birth and death recur in successive cycles for the person who lives in the grip of ignorance about the true nature of the world. However, he undercut the Vedāntic position by denying that the world of evanescent entities is undergirded and suffused by an eternal and unalterable Self or "soul-stuff" (ātman ). In place of the doctrine of absolute self, he propagated the precept of "no-self" (anātman ), namely, that the human person, along with everything else that constitutes the empirical universe, is the offspring (phala ) of an unbroken, everfluctuating process of creation and destruction and birth and extinction according to the principle of Dependent Co-origination (pratītya-samutpāda ; Pali, paiccasamuppāda ). The technical formulation of this Law of Causation is as follows: "If this exists [e.g., an acorn], then that comes to be [an oak tree]." The entire universe perishes and is created afresh in every instant; nothing remains the same from one moment to the next, from a single microbe to an entire galaxy.

The human being or personality, therefore, is not to be understood essentially as an integral and enduring mind-body organism but rather as the manifestation of a highly complex succession of psychosomatic moments propelled along the temporal continuum by the force of karman. In the Buddhist view, the human person can be broken down into five constitutive elements, or strands (skandha s); it is continually changing but is always determined by its previous actions. As such, humans are never the same from moment to moment and therefore are in no sense the projection of a permanent self. Hence, a cardinal teaching of the Buddha is "there is nothing that transmigrates and yet there is rebirth."

If there is no absolute self that survives the death of one body and is reborn in a new one, then how is the doctrine of rebirth to be reconciled with that of "no-self"? The Buddha declares that this question, like other questions pertaining to the fundamental nature of reality, arises out of a misconstruing of the nature of karman. Karman is not a unified and independently existing entity that moves from life to life, as a traveler might go from place to place. Rightly understood, karman is the life process itself, the blending of energy and form that coordinates an unending flow of life moments. That is, the myriad clusters of factors that constitute the universe at any given moment are nothing more than the product of all its pasts. In other words, the sprout is not the temporary projection of some universal "soul-stuff" but rather a permutation of the parent seed. As one Buddhist text declares, "One hundred thousand universes conspire in the creation of the iridescent eye that graces the feather in the peacock's tail." Birth and death, then, are to be construed as nothing more than dramatic interruptions or exceptional innovations in the ongoing life process.

Therefore, neither a single entity (however subtle and rarified) nor a conglomeration of entities passes across from the old life-form to the new, yet the continuity among the phenomena is maintained. That is, all of the constitutive elements of a person's life are present from the moment of conception, just as the sprout preexists in the seed and contains the sum total of all the effects of its antecedent causal elements, at least in a state of potentiality.

According to the doctrine of karman, a person may be reborn successively into any one of five classes of living beings: gods, human beings, animals, hungry ghosts, or denizens of hell. Since birth as a human being occurs at the apex of the ladder of existence and is the penultimate stage to full enlightenment, it follows that all humans have undergone a birth in each of the four other orders of existence prior to the current cycle and occupy a privileged position from which to reach the ultimate goal.

While theoretically all human beings possess the capacity to achieve enlightenment and, thence, liberation from rebirth (Zen Buddhists, for example, contend that a person can experience satori at any moment simply by dropping off the thinking mind), in practice only those select few who forsake the life of social responsibility in the world and follow the Buddha dharma exclusively as monks and nuns have a realistic hope of achieving salvation in this life.


According to the teachings of Mahāvīra (c. 599527 bce), the founder of Jainism, the unenlightened soul is bound to follow a course of transmigration that is beginningless and one that will persist for an unimaginable length of time. The soul becomes defiled by involvement in desire-laden actions and thereby attracts increasingly burdensome quantities of karmic matter upon itself. This polluting material, in turn, promotes the further corruption of the soul and causes its inevitable movement through countless incarnations.

The Jains conceive of karman as composed of innumerable invisible particles of material substance that pervade all occupied space. Actions of body, mind, and speech project waves of energy that, when combined with the antithetical passions of desire (rāga ) and hatred (dvea ), attract karmic "dust" to the soul and weigh it down deeper and deeper in the slough of ignorance and rebirth.

Jains also distinguish between the initial awakening to an awareness of one's bondage to ignorance, suffering, death, and rebirth (the most that the layperson can hope to achieve), on the one hand, and the ultimate state of liberation, on the other. This ultimate state of bliss to which aspire all Jains (or at least the adherents of the monastic path) disperses and dissolves the load of karmic matter that encumbers the mind-body ego and transforms the practitioner into an omniscient and totally dispassionate soul.

Ancient Greece

Whether the idea of metempsychosis was imported by the ancient Greeks from the East (more specifically, India) is subject to speculation in face of the absence of conclusive evidence to support one or another view. Be that as it may, the concept of rebirth occupied a central place in Greek thought from the time of Pherecydes of Syros (sixth century bce), the mentor of Pythagoras (c. 582507 bce), and came into full flowering in the writings of Plato (427347 bce) and Plotinus (205270 ce).

Herodotos, the greatest of ancient Greek historians, records that the Egyptians were the first people to embrace the doctrine of reincarnation. According to his sources, the Egyptians believed that the soul is immortal (i.e., subject to rebirth after each death) and that it passes through various species of terrestrial, marine, and aerial creatures before once again becoming embodied in human form, the entire cycle being completed at the end of a period of three thousand years.

Empedocles (490430 bce), under the influence of the writings of the mystic-mathematician Pythagoras, asserted that nothing in the cosmos is either created or destroyed. All living things undergo transmutation in accordance with the relationships among the four basic elements (air, fire, water, and earth). The souls of the impure are condemned to transmigrate for thirty thousand years through numerous types of incarnations. In the course of this transition, various lifetimes are affected in diverse ways by each of the four elements. Escape from this dark destiny is achieved through a lengthy purification process, the primary requirement of which is the avoidance of eating the flesh of animals whose souls once may have inhabited human bodies.

Like many other religious and philosophical traditions that hold to a belief in reincarnation, Orphism, an ancient Greek mystery cult that celebrated the life, death, and resurrection of the god Orpheus, is based upon a dualistic conception of humanity. Orphic sages declared that humans are composed of an invisible soul that was originally good and pure but that has become polluted by some kind of primordial sin or error. As a consequence of this ancient transgression, the originally pure soul has become imprisoned within a physical body that is believed to be impure or evil by nature.

The ultimate aim of this mystery was to raise the soul of each devotee to increasingly loftier and purer levels of spiritual existence. The elevation of the soul was promoted by participation in the sacramental practices of the Orphic brotherhoods (thiasoi ). By performing these sacramentsalways in secret places and often in the dead of nightthe devotee received the power of the divine life. By continually cultivating this gift through meditation, prayer, and vegetarianism, he eventually gained immortality and thereby achieved release from any future reincarnations.

Orphic eschatology emphasized postmortem rewards and punishments. Because of its essentially spiritual nature, the soul could not achieve its true state of existence until after the last of a lengthy series of lives. Complete and lasting freedom from bondage to the material order could be realized only after undergoing a series of rebirths in a variety of physical forms that were determined by the merits of the previous life or lives. Supposedly it was this mystical teaching that was the heart of the revelation that was given to each novice initiated into the Orphic religion.

Plato drew together and synthesized numerous strands of thought concerning the fate of the individual soul. Under the influence of Empedocles, Pythagoras, the Orphic prophets, and others, he fashioned a theory of the nature and destiny of humanity that is as complex in its philosophical makeup as it is inspiring in its poetical contents. Like the Vedāntins, he believed that the soul (psuchē ) is immortal. The soul is the governor and indweller of all conscious beings; it descends periodically into the physical realm of existence as a result of metaphysical nescience and bondage to the passions. Like the Vedāntins and the Buddhists, Plato declared that the soul of each human being (except for that of the "true philosopher," who is the one truly enlightened being) is entrapped by the body (and by material reality, generally) because of its attachment to the objects of transitory desire (i.e., objects of pleasure and pain). In a statement in the Laws (book 10) that could easily have been lifted directly from the Upaniads, he asserts, "Recognize that if you become baser you will go to baser souls, and if higher, to the higher, and in every course of life and death you will do and suffer what like may appropriately suffer at the hands of like."

Even the selection of a new incarnation by each soul at the beginning of a new life cycle is determined by the experiences of the former lifetime. During its journey through a series of births, the soul finds temporary abode not only in a variety of land, air, and water creatures, but, once it has achieved the status of humanity, it may pass through a number of professions of varying degrees of moral quality, ranging from that of a demagogue and tyrant at the nadir of the scale, to a lover, a follower of the Muses, and a seeker after wisdom at the apex (Phaedrus 248de).

According to Plato's famous myth of Er (Republic 10), those souls whose minds are governed by the baser pleasures first travel to the plain of Forgetfulness and take up residence on the banks of the river of Indifference, "where each as he drinks, forgets everything"; they then go to their respective births "like so many shooting stars."

The painful and disorienting wanderings of the soul throughout the various orders of creatures are brought to a halt, and the soul is ushered into a state of eternal and perfectly fulfilling bliss, but only after it has divorced itself completely from the pleasures of the body and the material world, placed all of its appetites and yearnings under the governance of Reason, and attained a pure and undeviating contemplation of the Absolute ("the Good"), thereby obtaining "the veritable knowledge of being that veritably is."

In the end, the liberated soul finds unending sojourn in the "place beyond the heavens" (cf. the brahman in Vedānta), where "true being dwells, without color or shape, that cannot be touched; reason alone, man's pilot, can behold it and all true knowledge is knowledge thereof" (Phaedrus 247de).


There is no question but that the twin doctrines of karman and reincarnation have done more to shape the whole of Asian thought than any other concept or concepts. It might be difficult to identify an idea or set of ideas that has exercised a comparable influence through the entire scope of Western thought, including the cardinal concepts in the writings of Plato and Aristotle.

Ironically, the notion of reincarnation is beginning to make inroads into contemporary Western thought (particularly in theology, the philosophy of religion, and psychology) by way of a number of circuitous routes. One of the most notable avenues along which the idea is traveling to the West is the number of Asian (primarily Indian) religious traditions that have appeared in Europe and America, along with theosophy, transpersonal psychology, and the academic study of the history of religions and comparative philosophy.

One of the most curious manifestations of the belief in reincarnation in modern times is a new approach to psychotherapy that operates in the United States under the rubric of "rebirthing analysis," which purports to help the client deal with current psychological and spiritual problems by recalling personal experiences during numerous past lifetimes with the aid of meditation, hypnosis, and in some cases, consciousness-altering drugs.

Time alone will tell whether this new imprint on the fabric of Western thought and life will endure to become an integral part of the overall design or will, in time, fade into insignificance and remain only as a vague memory of a short-lived image in Western consciousness.

See Also

Enlightenment; Karman; Moka; Orpheus.


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