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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.


de Bary, Wm. Theodore, et al., eds. Sources of Indian Tradition. New York, 1958.

Ducasse, Curt John. A Critical Examination of the Belief in the Life after Death. Springfield, Ill., 1961.

Head, Joseph, and S. L. Cranston, eds. Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery. New York, 1977.

MacGregor, Geddes. Reincarnation as a Christian Hope. London, 1982.

Parrinder, Geoffrey. "Varieties of Belief in Reincarnation." Hibbert Journal 55 (April 1957): 260267.

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, and Charles A. Moore, eds. A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Princeton, 1957.

Stevenson, Ian. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. 2d ed. Charlottesville, Va., 1974.

Thomas, N. W., et al. "Transmigration." In Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 12. Edinburgh, 1921.

Tylor, E. B. Primitive Culture, vol. 2, Religion in Primitive Culture (1871). New York, 1970.

New Sources

Edwards, Paul R. Reincarnation: A Critical Examination. Amherst, N.Y., 1996.

Kaplan, Steve. Concepts of Transmigration: Perspectives on Reincarnation. Lewiston, N.Y., 1996.

Lewis, James R. Encyclopedia of Afterlife Beliefs and Phenomena. Detroit, Mich., 1994.

Mills, Antonia, and Richard Slobodin. Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation Beliefs among North American Indians and Inuit. Toronto, 1994.

Nawang Gehlek, Rimpoche. Good Life, Good Death: Tibetan Wisdom on Reincarnation. New York, 2001.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. Berkeley, 2002.

Sanford, John A. Soul Journey: A Jungian Analyst Looks at Reincarnation. New York, 1991.

Sharma, Arvind. "On the Distinction between Karma and Rebirth in Hinduism." Asian Philosophy 6 (March 1996): 2936.

J. Bruce Long (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 29 2018


The return to a new corporeal life of a soul (the incorporeal true self) that had previously been embodied and passed through bodily death. The idea of reincarnationthat the soul passes through a series of embodimentsstands in contrast to the dominant Western Christian idea of a single corporeal embodiment followed by resurrection (reunion of the soul with a spiritual body) and life with God in heaven. Reincarnation is often associated with, but is not necessarily connected with, transmigration, the idea that at death the soul might pass into the body of an animal, a plant, or even an inanimate object such as a stone. The belief in reincarnation was tied to moral categories in ancient religions, especially the Eastern concept of karma, which viewed the present life as the working out of consequences from previous lives. Future embodiments will also be determined by the consequences of this present life. One must remove oneself from the realm of consequences through spiritual activity or be stuck in the endless cycle of reincarnation forever. The belief in a form of reincarnation is fundamental to both Hinduism and Buddhism and had some popularity in the ancient Mediterranean basin. Pythagoras, for example, claimed that he was Euphorbus in a previous existence. In modern times, reincarnation has spread in the West through the efforts of French Spiritism and Theosophy.

Reincarnation in the East

The idea of reincarnation is usually associated with India. It is found in most of the forms of Hinduism; there are hundreds, with some variation in the different theologies and schools of thought. Basically, the soul is an immortal entity that has continuity through eternity, but falls into material existence and is trapped in the illusion that this physical world is ultimately real. Through multiple lives the soul becomes subject to karma, or consequences. Good karma leads to noble birth; bad karma to a lower birth, even to rebirth as an animal. The idea of karma and reincarnation was integral to social organization in the caste system and thus had practical application in everyday life. The caste system in turn dictated proper action that was sanctioned by the rewards and punishments of karma.

In the mainstream of Hindu thoughtwhich found truth in the timeless eternal world beyond this world of illusionwhile a favorable reincarnation was desirable, the ultimate goal was to escape the wheel of reincarnation totally. The means of such escape was spiritual discipline encased within a renunciation of the world. By withdrawing and concentrating on the spiritual realm, one ceased to create karma and dissolved old karma. Eventually, one could rid oneself of karma entirely and escape.

The essential soul is said to be pure and impersonal, part of a universal soul, but overlaid by illusions of individual egoism relating to desires and fears of the body and senses. The classic statements relating to reincarnation are to be found in the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita, which stresses: "The soul is never born nor dies, nor does it exist on coming into being. For it is unborn, eternal, and primeval. Even although the body is slain, the soul is not" (2:20).

Buddhism emerged as a reform movement in Hinduism. It challenged the traditional Hindu system at a number of points, including its understanding of human life. In particular, Buddhism challenged the idea of a substantial soul that existed in and of itself apart from the body. The rather sophisticated understanding of the self in Buddhism is often likened to a candle flame. Obviously, as the candle burns down the flame will eventually die out. It has no existence apart from its burning. Buddhists suggest that reincarnation is as if, just as the flame is about to go out, it finds a new candle wicka new body within which to burn.

In the nineteenth century, during the height of British rule in India, Christianity challenged Hinduism, especially as it existed in village temple worship. Christian leaders denounced animal sacrifice and the sexual promiscuity of some tantric groups, while slowly discovering the sophistication of Hindu philosophy. One of the responses to Christianity's invasion of the country, with the backing of colonial authorities, however, was a revival of philosophical Hinduism in light of new nineteenth century Western notions of progress, evolution, and moral striving.

In this new Hinduism of the nineteenth century, the succession of lives of the soul in different bodies is regarded as one indivisible life. The soul uses the experience of each incarnation as an opportunity for expiating sins in former lives, of balancing bad karma with good, and perfecting the soul through a process of evolution so that further incarnations will not be necessary and the individual soul can be absorbed in the divine plan. Until then, the body of the next life (whether human or animal) is shaped by actions in the present life. Moral striving is the means of gaining good karma. Ultimately, all lives may be seen as illusions of consciousness. This form of reincarnationist thoughtwhich called for the good life, rather than the more traditional form calling for withdrawal from life influenced Western visitors to India and was ultimately imported to the West through Theosophy and the various Indian teachers who successfully established themselves in the United States (notably Swamis Vivekananda and Yogananda ).

Some religions, like Hinduism, teach that reincarnation is not always immediate, but that some souls may enjoy a period in a transitional state, either heavenly or purgatorial, before re-birth.

An idea of reincarnation, though not karma, is also found in some early Greek philosophy, including that of both Pythagoras and Plato. It actually emerges in the Mediterranean basin simultaneously with its emergence in India, around 600 B.C.E.

In the fourth century, Plato's Phaedrus presents a reincarnation myth that seems to have been derived from the ophite religion. A preexistent soul falls from the realm of the gods into earthly existence, where it migrates from one body to the next for some ten thousand years before it returns upward to a place of judgment. Plato also introduced into Greek thought the possibility of a transmigration of the soul into an animal.

In Roman literature, the idea of reincarnation is found in the writings of Ennius, probably deriving from Greek thought. There is no trace of it in Jewish literature, although it later entered into some Kabalistic teaching. From Greek philosophy, it came into the Gnostic tradition, and from second-and third-century Gnosticism it passed to the Manichaeans and Cathari.

The theory underlying the concept of reincarnation differs from the eschatology of rewards and punishments in Christianity. Each individual soul will eventually attain perfection, although some will take more reincarnations than others, learning by painful experience, in one life after another, the inexorable laws of karmaof cause and effect. All actions involve consequences, some immediate, others delayed, others in future lives. We punish ourselves by our actions, and the very defects and difficulties under which we suffer offer scope for expiation and perfection.

The Jewish and Christian traditions were (and largely remain) inimical to reincarnation. All of the Christian theologians who spoke of reincarnation denounced it in no uncertain terms. The only break in the antireincarnationist view appears in the early writings of Origen, the third-century theologian who as a young man had converted to Christianity. Before his conversion he was an accomplished Platonist, and he attempted to integrate Platonic philosophy and Christian thinking in his earliest writings, which, if not affirming reincarnation, do speak of the preexistence of the soul and its possible transmigration. Origen later dropped his beliefs and in his biblical commentaries emerged as hostile to reincarnationist thought.

A major controversy involving Origen's early thought emerged in the sixth century surrounding a group of people who adopted Origen's early writings as part of their larger challenge to the Roman Empire. Thus it was that several councils reaffirmed the church's opinion on reincarnationist ideas and, in the style of the times, pronounced them anathema. In the early twentieth century, several proponents of reincarnation, primarily Theosophists working against the opposition of Christian leaders, countered with the story of a sixth-century plot. According to the idea, Christianity had taught reincarnation until the Roman empress Theodosia forced the church to edit the Bible and remove any reference to it. This theory shows a great ignorance of the history of the period and has no foundation in fact. In recent decades the primary presentation of this idea appeared in a book by Noel Langley, Edgar Cayce and Reincarnation, and has passed into New Age literature.

Theosophical Teachings on Reincarnation

The major conduit of reincarnationist teachings in the West during the twentieth century has been the Theosophical Society. According to Theosophy, the various manifestations in the flesh are merely small portions of one whole. The monad, the divine spark, or individuality, remains the same throughout the whole course of reincarnation and is truly a denizen of the three higher worldsthe spiritual, the intuitional, and the higher mental. In order to further its growth and the widening of its experience and knowledge, however, it is necessary for the monad to descend into the worlds of denser matterthe lower mental, the astral, and the physicaland take back with it to the higher worlds what it learns there. Since it is impossible to progress far during one manifestation, the monad must return again and again to the lower worlds.

The laws of progress, the laws that govern reincarnation, are those of evolution and of karma. The scheme of the evolution of life decrees that all shall sooner or later attain perfection by developing to the utmost their latent powers and qualities, and each manifestation in the lower worlds is but one short journey nearer to the goal. Those who realize this law shorten the journey by their own efforts while those who do not realize it, of course, lengthen the journey.

Karma decrees that both good and bad effects follow whoever caused them. Hence, what an individual has done in one manifestation he will benefit by or suffer for in another. It may be impossible that actions should be immediately effective, but each is stored up and sooner or later will bear fruit.

It may be asked why one long life in the lower worlds should not suffice in place of a multitude of manifestations, but this is explained by the fact that the dense matter that is the vehicle of these bodies becomes, after a time of progress, incapable of further alteration to suit the developing monad's needs and must accordingly be laid aside for a new body.

After physical death, the individual passes first to the astral world, then to the heavenly portion of the mental world. Most time is spent in the latter, except when descending into the denser worlds to garner fresh experience and knowledge for further development in preparation for passage into a higher sphere.

In the heaven world these experiences and this knowledge are woven together into the texture of the individual's nature. In those who have not progressed far on the journey of evolution, the manifestations in the lower worlds are comparatively frequent, but with passage of time and development, these manifestations become rarer and more time is spent in the heaven world, until at last, the great process of reincarnation draws to an end, and the pilgrims enter the path that leads to perfection.

Reincarnation and Spiritism

In France reincarnation was advocated before the time of Allan Kardec by several philosophers and mystics, such as Henri de St. Simon, Prosper Enfantin, Charles Fourier, Pierre Leroux, and Jean Reynaud. From an article by Alexander Aksakof in the London Spiritualist during 1875, it appears that Kardec adopted the doctrine of reincarnation from spirit communications that were received by the medium Celina Japhet. Japhet's mediumship was developed by one M. Roustan, a mesmerist who believed in reincarnation.

If the medium disclosed the doctrine under the effect of the mesmerist's belief, it is easy to understand how Kardec and his school could receive ample confirmation through automatists of his tenet that spiritual progress is achieved through a series of incarnations, always in the human race, that successive corporeal existences are the necessary steps to perfection and that the soul retains its individuality and memory after separation from the body.

The influence of the Kardec school was powerful and, by the appeal of its reconciliation with the apparent injustices of life, it bacame more popular than the teachings of the Spiritualist Z. J. Piérart and his followers, who denied reincarnation and relied on the same kind of evidence as that which the Kardecists produced. Indeed, Alphonse Cahagnet, who kept the earliest careful trance records in France, was the first to whom the communicators emphatically denied reincarnation, but admitted the existence of the soul anterior to its appearance on Earth.

Outside France, the doctrine of Allan Kardec was denounced by many Spiritualists. In the United States, Andrew Jackson Davis declared it to be "a magnificent mansion built on sand." But he also believed in preexistence and taught that "all souls existed from the beginning in the divine soul; all individuality which is, has been, or will be, had its pre-existence, has its present existence in creative being."

In England, William Howitt was the chief antagonist. He said that the doctrine was pitiable and repellent, and argued that if it were true there must have been millions of spirits who, on entering the other world, have sought in vain their kindred, children, and friends.

A very pertinent remark may be quoted from a published letter of the great medium D. D. Home: "I have had the pleasure of meeting at least twelve Marie Antoinettes, six or seven Marys of Scotland, a whole host of Louis and other kings, about twenty Great Alexanders, but never a plain John Smith. I, indeed, would like to cage the latter curiosity."

For its psychological import, it is also interesting to note that at the exact time of Kardec's death, Home claimed to have received the following communication: "I regret having taught the Spiritist doctrine. Allan Kardec." (See Home's book Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism, 1877.)

Among Spiritualists, those who favored reincarnation countered Home. His argument was no argument; reincarnation, if true, may not necessarily be a universal fact. It may not take place at once. In The Road to Immortality, by Geraldine Cummins (1932), the spirit of F. W. H. Myers, communicating from "the other side," admits reincarnation as an optional choice and as a necessity for "animal men," but not through a series of existences, and counters Theosophical notions of karma by a fascinating theory of group souls.

Regarding Howitt's objection it may be claimed that the double, in sleep, may establish meetings without recollecting them on awakening. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pointed out that since reincarnation for the spirits is a question of their own future, they may not be more enlightened on it than we are on our own fate.

Reincarnation could be optional; it could be punitive. It could be imposed for the purposes of retribution or it could be undertaken for the fulfillment of a mission. The teachings of the spirit control "Imperator" through medium W. Stainton Moses admitted the possibility of reincarnation as another chance for souls that had sunk so low as practically to lose identity, and in the case of high spirits who descend with a mission.

The opposition to Kardec's philosophy in England was not universal; he had some followers. Theosophist Anna Kingsford translated many of his books. She believed herself to be the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, while her follower Edward Maitland believed that he had been St. John the Divine.

Reincarnation and Spiritualism

Outside France, Spiritualist experience offered little to support the theory of reincarnation. "John King," the famous control of the medium Eusapia Palladino, claimed to have been Palladino's father in a previous existence. "John King" claimed manifestation through many different mediums at different times, however.

The experiences of Carl A. Wickland and his wife in obsession cases did not bear out the theory. They were told by earth-bound spirits, brought into their rescue circles, that on passing over they had entered the auras of young children and obsessed them. The children, however, never ceased to struggle against these invaders. In those cases in which the Wickland rescue circle enlightened the obsessors of their error, the sanity of the patient quickly returned as the obsessing influence was relieved.

In the nineteenth century, however, hints of support for reincarnation began to emerge. Charles Richet gives one illustrative case from Les Miracles de la Volonté, by E. Duchatel and R. Warcollier: "A distinguished physician of Palermo, M. Carmelo Sa-mona, well acquainted with metapsychic science, lost his little daughter, Alexandrina, aged five, in 1910. Mme. Samona was wild with grief. Three days after she saw the child in a dream who said to her: 'I have not left you; I have become tiny like that,' designating some very small object. A fresh pregnancy was the more unlikely in that Mme. Samona had undergone a serious ovarian operation a year previously. On April 10, however, she became aware that she was pregnant. On May 4th it was predicted by Alexandrina, communicating by means of the table, that Mme. Samona would be delivered of twin girls, one of whom would entirely resemble Alexandrina. This came to pass. One of the twins had a mark on the left eye and another mark on the right ear with a symmetry of the face, precisely like the deceased child."

Among various automatic writing scripts, Frederick Bligh Bond, whose famous discovery of Edgar Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, is described in his book The Gate of Remembrance (1918), noticed reincarnation claims in the communications he received through "Miss X." The old monks who communicated asserted that Miss X was one of the early Glastonbury monks and addressed her as "Brother Simon." Neither Miss X nor Bond believed in reincarnation when the script came through. The incident is referred to in Bond's book The Company of Avalon (1924).

Spiritualist J. Arthur Hill presented his reflections on scripts received by a Mrs. Cary (pseudonym), a British working woman of about 50. The scripts detailed episodes involving reincarnation. The impact of "Some Reincarnationist Automatic Scripts," in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (vol. 38), was weak, however, since no attempt had been made to verify the historic accuracy of the names. It was also noted that Cary was a Theosophist.

The Strange Experiments of Eugene Rochas

The feeling of déjà vu has often been cited as an argument for reincarnation. However, this phenomenon yields to a variety of explanations. More interesting than the rather vague feelings of déjà vu are claimed memories of past incarnations. Eugene Rochas was among the first to explore such memories. Rochas claimed that certain subjects, if put into hypnotic sleep by means of longitudinal passes, could be made to retrace the previous phases of their existence down to their birth and beyond "into the grey" and then into an even earlier state of incarnation. By means of transversal passes the subject was brought back to his normal state by going through the same phases in order of their time. If the transversal passes were continued, the subject was led into the future.

Marie Mayo, the daughter of a French engineer, was one of Rochas's subjects. She passed through various stages of hypnotic sleep into the first stage of lethargy, in which she was suggestible for brief moment, into the first state of somnambulism, in which she was not at all suggestible and retained the memory of what happened in her preceding state and in her waking life. She then passed into the state of rapport, in which she heard no one but the hypnotizer.

In this state she began to exteriorize herself, a half phantom formed at the left and a half at the right, the colors red and blue. In a successive state, the phantom halves united; the exteriorization of the astral body became complete but was attached to the body by a fluidic cord. In this state of exteriorization, the astral body assumed shapes in accord with the age in which the subject saw herself going through the stages of her life.

At age eight, she wrote her name in Arabic. At that age she had attended a school in Beirut. Beyond that birth she called herself Lina, the daughter of a fisherman in Brittany. She married at age 20. Her husband was also a fisherman; his name was Yvon, but she did not remember his family name. She had one child who died at the age of two; her husband perished in a shipwreck. In a fit of despair she had thrown herself into the sea from the top of a precipice. Her body was eaten by fish.

All this information was successively elicited. She first passed through the convulsions of drowning and then went back to her life as Lina, through the childbirth to girlhood, infancy, the state of "grey" and then spoke in a previous incarnation as a man, named Charles Mauville, who lived in the time of Louis XVIII. He was a clerk in a ministerial office in Paris, a bad man,

a murderer who died at age 50.

Still further back, she was a lady whose husband was a gentleman attached to the court. Her name was Madeleine de Saint-Marc. Being brought back to the present by transversal passes Mayo successively reached her real age of 18 and then was pushed, by a continuation of the passes, two years into the future. Beyond this she could not go. She saw herself in a strange country with Africans, in a house far away from a railway station, the name of which she could not read. She could not give any precise information that could be used for identification.

Rochas was also possibly the first to explore the fact that similar visions occur if a hypnotized subject is moved into the future instead of into the past. He pushed Juliette Durand, a girl of 16, ahead nine years up to age 25, when she reported dying at Nice. After a time, she reportedly was reincarnated in the future as Emile Chaumette in a family of easy circumstances, studied for the ministry, and was appointed vicaire at Havre in 1940.

Rochas's research soon reached the same dead end as did most of those to follow. It could never be proved that the past personalities enacted by the subjects had really lived, even though they were often very plausible. In some cases, the places and the families spoken of existed, but the individuals could never be traced in parish registers or family documents and the incarnations swarmed with improbabilities.

Rochas rejected the idea that the accounts were the result of suggestion:

"They certainly do not come from me, for I have not only avoided everything that could lead the subject into any determined path, but I have often tried in vain to lead her astray by different suggestions; and the same has been the case with the experimenters who have devoted themselves to this study. Are we to assimilate these phenomena to mere dreams? Certainly not. There is in them a constancy, a regularity, which we do not find in ordinary dreams. And besides, how are we to explain why physical causes, such as longitudinal and transversal passes should have absolutely certain effects on the memory of the subjects between the moments of their birth and that of their present life, and they produce phenomena which do not rest on any basis of fact. I believe that we must compare these manifestations with those which have been studied in the case of Mlle. Hélène Smith, and generally with all those which are provisionally attributed to spirits, and in which we see the true and the false intermingled in a way calculated to drive to despair those who do not reflect upon the darkness in which all observers have to struggle at the beginning of every new science."

Psychical Researchers and Reincarnation

When Allan Kardec died, Leon Denis and Gabriel Delanne became the main pillars of the reincarnationist school in France. The general evidence they relied on was fourfold: (1) infant prodigies, (2) spontaneous recollection of past lives, (3) exploration of memory under hypnosis, and (4) the claims announced of coming reincarnation.

They found a powerful supporter in psychical researcher Gustav Geley. His book From the Unconscious to the Conscious (1920) was described as a veritable Bible for reincarnation by Innocinzo Calderone, founder and director of the Italian review Filosofia della Scienza, which made a widespread international inquiry on reincarnation in 1913. Geley asserted, "I am a reincarnationist for three reasons: (1) because the doctrine seems to me from the moral point of view fully satisfactory, (2) from the philosophic point of view absolutely rational, and (3) from the scientific point of view likely, orbetter still probably true."

Reminding all that French thought was by no means unanimous on the subject, another distinguished representative of French psychical thinking, René Sudre, ranked himself definitely in the opposite camp, declaring in an article in Psychic Research (May 1930), "Even as I can admit the faith in survival from the religious point of view, I should in like measure reject as absurd the doctrine of reincarnation and I well understand how it is that the common-sense of the Anglo-Saxon refuses to bow to this teaching."

Modern Experiments in Hypnotic Regression

Through the twentieth century, reincarnation garnered its supporters with little fanfare. Then in 1954 the subject of reincarnation became the subject of a public controversy following the serialization of the story of Bridey Murphy in the Denver Post and the subsequent publication of Morey Bernstein 's bestselling book The Search for Bridey Murphy in 1956.

Bernstein was a businessman in Pueblo, Colorado, who had hypnotized a housewife, Ruth Simmons (the pseudonym of Virginia Tighe). In those sessions Bernstein probed Tighe's memories back to childhood and then, as it seemed, to an earlier life as Bridey Murphy, an Irish girl. The book stimulated "come as you were" social parties, pop songs, and a spate of amateur hypnotic sessions. More important, it launched attempts to find remaining traces of Bridey Murphy. As the controversy seemed to be reaching a dead end, the Chicago American published a series of articles that effectively disproved the claim that Tighe was really Bridey Murphy in a former existence. Not only had the evidence for a Bridey Murphy been lacking, but an Irish woman turned up from Tighe's early life who proved the likely model from which the past life could have been constructed. Today most people consider Bridey Murphy to have been a case of cryptonesia.

A few other experimenters in hypnotic regression techniques produced more convincing results. Among these is the British hypnotherapist Arnall Bloxham, who spent more than 20 years tape recording hypnotic subjects. These sessions convinced many that they presented actual memories of former incarnations.

Reincarnation and Parapsychology

Renewed popular interest in reincarnation also led to serious research by parapsychologists, most notably that of Ian Stevenson, of the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry, School of Medicine, University of Virginia. Stevenson collected cases from around the world of people, primarily children, who remembered an immediately previous life, and was able to provide some convincing evidence when confronted with the actual locations and people in those former lives. His book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation was initially published by the American Society for Psychical Research as the society's Proceedings for September 1966. It presented similar cases, each investigated personally by Stevenson on field trips to Alaska, Brazil, Ceylon, India, and Lebanon. Additional cases were documented in subsequent volumes.

Stevenson's research received mixed reactions. Many of his parapsychologist colleagues, having given up on the possibility of doing survival research, had moved away from that whole area of research. A few actively attacked his cases as representative of biased sources and the imposition of Stevenson's own well-known prior commitment to a belief in reincarnation. However, they remain the best contemporary attempt of psychical research to compile evidence on so complex a subject.

(See also Glastonbury Scripts )


Banerjee, H. N., and W. C. Oursler. Lives Unlimited: Reincarnation East and West. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.

Bernstein, Morey. The Search for Bridey Murphy. Garden City,N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956.

Duncasse, C. J. A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life after Death. Springfield, Ill.: Charles Thomas, 1961.

Ellwood, Gracia Fay. Psychic Visits to the Past: An Exploration of Retrocognition. New York: New American Library, 1971.

Fisher, Joe. The Case for Reincarnation. New York: Bantam,1985.

Guirdham, Arthur. The Cathars and Reincarnation. London: Neville Spearman, 1960.

Head, Joseph, ed. Reincarnation in World Thought: A Living Study of Reincarnation in All Ages. New York: Julian Press, 1967.

Head, Joseph, and S. L. Cranston, eds. Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology. New York: Julian Press, 1961. Reprint, Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1968. Rev. ed. Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery, an East-West Dialogue on Death and Rebirth. New York: Julian Press/Crown Publishers,1977.

Holzer, Hans. Born Again: The Truth about Reincarnation. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. Reprint, London: Bailey Bros. & Swinfen, 1975.

Leek, Sybil. Reincarnation: The Second Chance. New York: Stein & Day, 1974. Reprint, New York: Bantam, 1975.

Osborn, Arthur. Superphysical: A Review of the Evidence for Continued Existence, Reincarnation, and Mystical States of Consciousness. Rev. ed. New York: Barnes & Noble; London: Frederick Muller, 1974.

Pierce, Henry W. Science Looks at ESP. New York: New American Library, 1970.

Rochas, Eugene. Les Vies Successives. N.p., 1911.

Stevenson, Ian. Cases of the Reincarnation Type. 3 vols. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975-80.

. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Rev. ed. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974.

Story, Francis, and Nyanaponika Thera. Rebirth as Doctrine and Experience. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society,1975.

Underwood, Peter, and Leonard Wilder. Lives to Remember: A Case Book on Reincarnation. London: Robert Hale, 1975.

Wilson, Ian. Mind out of Time? Reincarnation Claims Investigated. London: Gollancz, 1981. Revised as Reincarnation? Balti-more: Penguin Books, 1982.


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The concept of reincarnation, that of an individual dying and then being reborn into another body, has existed in various religions for at least 3,000 years. The belief most likely arose independently in different areas, and this was followed by periods in which the concept spread to other regions. It has now spread to the point that there are probably more people alive who believe in reincarnation than do not. Even in cultures such as the United States and Western Europe that do not have a predominant belief in reincarnation, 20 to 30 percent of the population holds the belief. While the general concept is present in a number of religions and people groups, there are also significant differences between the various belief systems.


In Hinduism, it is believed that an enduring soul survives after death, spends a variable amount of time in another realm, and then becomes associated with a new body. Rebirth into the opposite sex or, under certain circumstances, into a nonhuman animal form is considered possible. Hinduism includes the concept of karma, the idea that the conditions into which one is born are determined by one's conduct in various previous lives. Life on Earth is considered undesirable, and an individual may engage in religious practices in each life until eventually earning release from the cycle of rebirth, losing individuality, and achieving union with the infinite spirit (nirvana ).


Buddhism shares some concepts with Hinduism but also has some significant differences. In particular, Theravada Buddhism, found in the southern parts of Asia, emphasizes in the doctrine of anatta, or no soul, which states there is no enduring entity that persists from one life to the next. At the death of one personality, a new one comes into being, much as the flame of a dying candle can serve to light the flame of another. When an individual dies, a new personality is born, generally first into a nonterrestrial plane of existence followed later by a new terrestrial personality. As in Hinduism, karma determines the circumstances of subsequent lives, so there is continuity between personalities but not persistence of identity. For this reason, Theravada Buddhists prefer the term rebirth to reincarnation.

In Buddhism, the law of karma is viewed as naturalistic, akin to the laws of physics. Thus, circumstances of rebirths are not seen as rewards or punishments handed out by a controlling God but are simply the natural results of various good deeds and misdeeds. The cycle of rebirths has involved innumerable lives over many eons, including ones in both sexes, in nonhuman animals, and in other realms. It inevitably involves suffering and continues until all cravings are lost and nirvana is achieved.

Shiite Muslims

A number of groups of Shiite Muslims in western Asia, such as the Druses of Lebanon and Syria and the Alevis in Turkey, have a belief in reincarnation that does not include the concept of karma. Instead, they believe that God assigns souls to a series of lives in different circumstances that are generally disconnected from one another until the ultimate Judgment Day, when God sends them to heaven or hell based on the moral quality of their actions during all the various lives. The Druses also believe that rebirth occurs immediately after death with no discarnate existence possible. While the Alevis believe that rebirth in nonhuman animals can occur, the Druses do not, and, in fact, they believe that they can only be reborn as other Druses. Neither group believes that they can be reborn as members of the opposite sex.

Judaism and Christianity

While reincarnation is not a belief in mainstream Judaism and Christianity, it has been part of the belief system of some of their groups. In Judaism, the Kabbalah, the body of teaching based on an esoteric interpretation of Hebrew scriptures, includes reincarnation, and Hasidic Jews include it in their belief system. In Christianity, some groups of early Christians, particularly the Gnostic Christians, believed in reincarnation, and some Christians in southern Europe believed in it until the Council of Constantinople in 553 C.E. Some Christians find support for reincarnation in the passage in the New Testament Book of Matthew in which Jesus seems to say that John the Baptist is the prophet Elijah returned.

Ancient Greece

The Greek philosophers wrote extensively about the concept of reincarnation, beginning with the legendary Orpheus and with Pythagoras. After Socrates, Plato, whose ideas about reincarnation became particularly influential, taught that one's soul is immortal, preexists before birth, and is reborn many times. Each soul chooses its next life, guided by its experiences in the previous lives. Aristotle initially accepted the ideas of his teacher Plato, but later largely rejected the concepts of reincarnation and immortality, becoming the father of materialism in Western thought.

West Africa

The concept of reincarnation is common among the various peoples of West Africa. In general, unlike Hindus and Buddhists, they believe that rebirth is desirable and that life on Earth is preferable to that of the discarnate, limbo state. They believe that individuals are generally reborn into the same family and that their souls may split into several rebirths simultaneously. Some groups believe in the possibility of rebirth into nonhuman animals while others do not. Many have the concept of "repeater children," in which one soul will harass a family by repeatedly dying as an infant or young child only to be reborn into the family again.

Native Americans and Inuit

The Inuit and many other Native American tribes, particularly those in the most northern and northwestern parts of North America, also believe in reincarnation. The details of the beliefs have varied greatly across different groups. Many do not necessarily expect all individuals to be reborn, but they instead focus on those who have had premature deaths, such as deceased children being reborn into the same family or dead warriors being reborn with birthmarks corresponding to their wounds. Some have believed in human to nonhuman rebirth and in cross-sex reincarnation. Many of them also believe that an individual may be reborn simultaneously as several different people.

Evidence for Reincarnation

In the twentieth century, researchers began exploring possible evidence for reincarnation. In 1961 Ian Stevenson, then the chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, began investigating cases of young children who claimed to remember previous lives. In a typical case, a child at the age of two or three would begin to speak spontaneously about another life. Some children described the life of a stranger while others talked about a deceased individual known to the child's family. In the cases involving a stranger, the child would often persist with the claims until the family eventually made efforts to locate the family of the previous personality; that is, the person whose life the child was describing. In many cases, their efforts were successful, and the child would then meet the family. At these meetings, the child would often be said to identify members of the previous family as well as items belonging to the deceased individual.

Stevenson discovered that such cases were fairly easy to find in many parts of the world, particularly in Asia, and he eventually relinquished his position as departmental chairman to pursue the research full time. Since that time, he and other researchers have collected over 2,500 cases of children claiming to remember previous lives. As of 2002, such cases were still being collected regularly. While they each have individual variations, they generally share certain characteristics.

Location of cases. Cases are most easily found in cultures with a belief in reincarnation, and the most common areas for cases include India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Lebanon, Thailand, Myanmar, West Africa, and among the tribal groups of northwest North America. Cases have been found, however, wherever they have been sought, and they include well over 100 nontribal American ones.

Types of lives described. The children who spontaneously report past lives generally describe a life as someone in their own culture. Even the exceptions usually show some geographical connection, such as Burmese children who describe the lives of Japanese soldiers killed in Burma during World War II, and cases of children describing lives in faraway countries are very rare.

In addition, the lives described are almost always ordinary ones, as the children describe typical family life and routine occupations. Claims to have been a famous person or royalty are essentially nonexistent in the spontaneous child cases. The children also tend to describe recent lives; the average interval between the death of the previous personality and the birth of the child is around fifteen months.

One exceptional part of the lives described is the percentage of violent deaths reported. Stevenson found that approximately 60 percent of the children who talk about the mode of death of the previous personality describe a violent one. Compared to cases with a nonviolent mode of death, the cases that involve violence have a shorter interval on average between the death of the previous personality and the birth of the subject.

Age and manner of speaking. The children studied almost always start talking about the previous lives between the ages of two and five years. Some with unusual verbal skills may make statements earlier, and some make gestures earlier that are not understood until they develop the verbal skills to make statements that connect the gestures to a previous life. They almost always stop talking about the previous life between the ages of five and eight, which is generally the age when children branch out from the family and begin school, and also the age when children tend to lose early childhood memories.

Many of the children show extreme seriousness or great emotion when they talk about the previous life. They may cry as they talk about missing their previous family or show great anger in describing their killer. The children in the stronger cases, such as ones with more verified statements about the previous life, tend to show more emotion in describing the previous life than those in the weaker cases. Some children may talk about the previous life with great emotion one minute and then go off to play the next, and some parents say that their child has to be in the "right" state of mind to discuss the previous life. In U.S. cases, this is often during relaxed times such as during a car ride or after a bath. Other children, however, appear to have access to the memories at all times.

Themes of the past life statements. The children in the studies who talk about previous lives do not tend to make statements indicating great wisdom. Instead, they generally talk about events from the end of the previous life; almost three-quarters of the subjects describe the mode of death of the previous personality. They are also much more likely to talk about people from the end of that life than about people from earlier in it. Thus, a child who describes the life of an adult tends to talk about a spouse or children rather than parents.

Few subjects talk about any time between lives. Of those that do, some describe staying near their homes or the site of their deaths, and they may describe seeing their funerals or other events that occurred after their deaths. Others report going to a discarnate realm, at times describing meetings with other beings such as sages or guides.

Birthmarks and birth defects. In about 35 percent of the cases, the child bears a birthmark or birth defect that matches a wound of the previous personality, usually the fatal wound. The birthmarks tend to be unusual ones, often being puckered scarlike areas, and some of them are said to have oozed or bled for some time after the child was born. The birth defects are often ones that are extremely rare. In the late 1990s Stevenson published a series of over 200 such cases in which he documented the correspondence of the marks to wounds on the previous personality, using postmortem reports whenever possible. Examples include cases in which children had birthmarks that matched the bullet entrance and exit wounds on the previous personality and others with multiple marks matching the wounds from the shotgun blasts that killed the previous individuals.

Behaviors related to the previous life. Many of the children in these studies show behaviors that suggest a connection to the previous individual. They often show emotions toward the various members of the previous family that are appropriate: demurring to a husband, being bossy to a younger sibling (who is now, in fact, much older than the subject), and so forth.

Many of the children show phobias related to the mode of death; 50 percent of those describing a violent death show a phobia of the instrument of that death. At times, the phobia will be present long before the child talks about the previous life; for example, a baby may show an intense fear of water, and that child later reports a memory of having drowned in the previous life.

Some children show likes and dislikes that match those of the previous personality. For example, Burmese children who describe lives as Japanese soldiers may complain about the spicy Burmese food while requesting raw fish to eat.

Many of the children show connections to the previous life in their play. For example, some act out the occupation of the previous personality. At times, this can reach compulsive proportions so that, for instance, the child misses school because of the insistence on continuing with this play. Others repetitively act out the death that they describe in what appears to be posttraumatic play. Many of the children who report previous lives as members of the opposite sex show behaviors appropriate to that sex. They may dress, play, and think of themselves as members of the opposite sex, and this behavior can be of such severity to warrant a diagnosis of gender identity disorder. Most of the children, however, show a normal course of development that is indistinguishable from their peers.

Methods and Interpretations

In the vast majority of cases, the investigators do not get to a case until after the subject's family and the previous personality's family have met, often not until years after. This leads to the need to interview as many firsthand witnesses as possible. These include, of course, the subject, but he or she may not still be reporting memories of the previous life by the time of the interview. The child's parents are always important witnesses, since the young child has often told more to them than to others. In addition, other family members and family friends can be important witnesses. After they have been interviewed and the information recorded, the previous personality's family is interviewed. Those family members can confirm both the details of the previous personality's life that are relevant as well as any recognitions or information that the child demonstrated when the two families met. In all instances, firsthand knowledge rather than hearsay is sought. Interviews are conducted with the use of an interpreter in countries where one is needed.

Repeat interviews are often conducted, both to obtain additional details that were missed during the first ones and to determine whether the reports remain consistent. In addition, other evidence is gathered when relevant. For example, postmortem reports may be obtained, both to confirm the details that the child gave about the death as well as to confirm, when applicable, that the child's birth-marks do match wounds on the deceased. In the cases in which the previous personality was unknown to the subject's family, investigators also attempt to learn whether the child or the family may have had a connection to the previous personality or possible access to information about that life that is not immediately apparent.

There are also times when the researchers find a case in which the previous personality has not yet been identified. The information from the subject and his or her family is recorded, and it is then used in an effort to identify the deceased individual whose life the child is describing.

There are several possible ways in which these cases could arise through normal means. One is fraud, but this is quite unlikely for the vast majority of cases, given the number of witnesses often involved, the amount of effort that would be necessary to perpetrate such a fraud, and the lack of motive to do so.

Another possibility is that the children have learned about the deceased person through normal means but then forgotten where they acquired the information. This would not explain the birth-marks that match the wounds of the deceased. Also arguing against this interpretation are the lack of opportunity in many cases for the child to have heard anything at all about the previous personality, the mention by some children of information known to only a select few intimates of the previous personality, the child's strong sense of identification with the previous personality, and other behavioral features that the children often show. In addition, the stronger cases, such as ones with more verified statements about the previous life, tend to involve greater distance between the homes of the child and the previous personality than the weaker ones.

A third possibility is that after the families of the subject and the previous personality have met, the family members credit the subject with having had more knowledge of the prior life than he or she actually had. According to this interpretation, the evidence for a connection with a previous life is not valid due to faulty memory on the part of the participants. While this possibility would not explain the birthmark cases or the ones in which a written record was made of the child's statements before the previous personality was identified, it could explain many others. Two studies, however, argue against this hypothesis. In 2000 Stevenson and Jürgen Keil conducted a study in which Keil reinvestigated cases twenty years after Stevenson's initial investigation. They found that the cases had not become stronger in the participants' minds over the years, and, in fact, some had become somewhat weaker as witnesses recalled less specific details of what the child had said. In the other study, Schouten and Stevenson in 1998 compared cases from India and Sri Lanka in which written records had been made before the two families met with other thoroughly investigated cases without such written records. The two groups had the same percentage of correct statements, and the overall number of statements was actually lower in the cases without a written record made beforehand.

In addition to normal means, a possible way to explain the cases would be that the children gain knowledge of the previous personality through extrasensory perception. This seems unlikely because most of these children show no other extrasensory ability and because the cases involve multiple featuresbirthmarks, identification with the previous personality, longing for the previous family, phobias, repetitive playother than the knowledge of the previous life.

Another possible explanation is reincarnation. These cases, taken at face value, suggest that memories, emotions, a sense of identification, and even physical features can carry over from one life to the next. This does not necessarily mean that these characteristics carry over for other individuals who do not remember previous lives, or that other individuals have even had previous lives. The cases do, however, provide evidence that should be considered in any evaluation of the concept of reincarnation.

See also: African Religions; Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Buddhism; Hinduism; Islam; Phoenix, The; Plato


Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Head, Joseph, and Sylvia L. Cranston, eds. Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery. New York: Warner Books, 1979.

Mills, Antonia, and Richard Slobodin, eds. Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation Belief among North American Indians and Inuit. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Schouten, Sybo A., and Ian Stevenson. "Does the Socio-Psychological Hypothesis Explain Cases of the Reincarnation Type?" Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 186 (1998):504506.

Stevenson, Ian. Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation, revised edition. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2001.

Stevenson, Ian. Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.

Stevenson, Ian. "The Belief in Reincarnation among the Igbo of Nigeria." Journal of Asian and African Studies 20 (1985):1330.

Stevenson, Ian. Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol. 4: Twelve Cases in Thailand and Burma. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983.

Stevenson, Ian. Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol 3: Twelve Cases in Lebanon and Turkey. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

Stevenson, Ian. Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol 2: Ten Cases in Sri Lanka. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977.

Stevenson, Ian. Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol 1: Ten Cases in India. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975.

Stevenson, Ian, and Jürgen Keil. "The Stability of Assessments of Paranormal Connections in Reincarnation-Type Cases." Journal of Scientific Exploration 14 (2000):365382.

Tucker, Jim B. "A Scale to Measure the Strength of Children's Claims of Previous Lives: Methodology and Initial Findings." Journal of Scientific Exploration 14 (2000):571581.



views updated May 17 2018


The doctrine variously called transmigration of souls, metempsychosis, palingenesis, rebirth, and "reincarnation" has been and continues to be widely believed. Although some of these terms imply belief in an immortal soul that transmigrates or reincarnates, Buddhism, while teaching rebirth, denies the eternity of the soul. The word rebirth is therefore the most comprehensive for referring to this range of beliefs.

In one form or another the doctrine of rebirth has been held in various cultures. It was expressed in ancient Greece (Pythagoras, Empedocles, Orphism, Plato, and later, Plotinus); among some Gnostics and in some Christian heresies such as the medieval Cathari; in some phases of Jewish Kabbalism; in some cultures of tropical Africa; and most notably in such Eastern religions as Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism. Some European philosophers, notably Arthur Schopenhauer and J. M. E. McTaggart, have incorporated the doctrine into their metaphysics. The origin of the doctrine of rebirth as a religious belief is obscure. There is evidence, both in Greece and India, that it was not characteristic of early Aryan cultures. It is virtually certain that in India it goes back to prehistoric times; it was then taken up by Brahmanic religion and appears as a new doctrine in the Upaniads.

Views vary about the scope and mechanism of rebirth. It is part of Indian thought, for instancebut not of African beliefsthat men can be reborn as animals and even as plants (not to mention as gods and spirits). Rebirth can take place not merely on Earth but also in a multiplicity of heavens and purgatories. Thus, although the prevalent belief is that rebirth occurs immediately upon death, this does not entail immediate earthly reincarnation, a feature that helps to make rebirth theory incapable of empirical disproof. In the Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead, however, a transitional period (bardo ) of forty-nine days between death and rebirth is postulated. During this state the individual is translated to a realm where he perceives the divine secrets; for the impure, these are so frightening that they flee back to earth and are reborn.

In Indian thought, there is a fairly large amount of speculation about the embryological mechanics of rebirth. Thus the Sākhya school of Indian philosophy holds that the mental aspect of a person bears the impression of previous deeds (karma) and that it accordingly becomes associated with a particular fetus. But since during the period of fetal development the growing body is not capable of supporting the mental aspect, a "subtle" (unobservably refined) body is postulated. Thus the continuous element throughout rebirth and until liberation is the mental aspect associated with the subtle body.

In Buddhism it is held that the fetus results from the interaction of the sperm and material in the mother. These combine in a suitable way when associated with conscious states, as a further element in the process, to produce the right sort of individual to fit previous karma. Broadly speaking, then, rebirth theory implies that the genetic endowment of a person does not fully determine his early development but that a mental or spiritual factor associates itself with a suitable organism at conception. Thus karma is often taken to function through the homing of a soul upon a morally and physically appropriate fetus. McTaggart, in urging this, uses the analogy of chemical affinities.

A number of arguments in favor of the theory have been propounded; they can be classified as metaphysical, empirical, and theological. It is convenient to record here those arguments that do not depend too closely on metaphysical conclusions peculiar to particular philosophers, such as the argument for rebirth as accounting for knowledge of the Forms, as in Plato, and the complex metaphysical argument in McTaggart that depends in part on his theory of causation.

In Indian sources, two main metaphysical arguments have been employed. It may be noted that there has been relatively little explicit discussion of the issue in Indian philosophy, since no school was concerned with denying the doctrine, except the Materialist school, which was extinct by medieval times. (1) A Buddhist argument can be expressed as follows. All states have prior causes; some conscious states are not caused by bodily states; therefore the first physically uncaused state of an individual must have a prior nonphysical cause. But the existence of God is not admitted; hence there must be an empirical conscious state prior to conception and birth. This argument applies indefinitely in a backward direction through previous births. (It may be noted that the argument is consistent with the Buddhist denial of an eternal soul, since the mental states of an organism are no more permanent than the physical ones.) (2) There is a Hindu argument from the eternity of the soul, which has been used in modern times by Radhakrishnan. Souls are eternal, but the normal condition for a soul is to be associated with a body. Hence it is likely that the soul in the past and future has a virtually everlasting succession of bodies. Thus metaphysical arguments attempting to establish the eternity of the soul have been taken to imply preexistence as well as postexistence.

Empirical arguments are as follows. (3) Children have instinctive capacities, which suggests that there must be learning prior to birth. Similarly, it is sometimes argued that child geniuses, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, indicate prenatal training. (4) Some people claim to remember past births, as in the case of Bridey Murphy. This claim is commonly made in the East for yogis and persons of deep spiritual insight, such as the Buddha and Buddhist saints. (5) The déjà vu experience and claims to knowledge of people and places that are not based on previous experience in this life have been cited as indicating rebirth. A counterargument is used against the objection that most people have no memories of such previous lives: Death is a traumatic experience (and so is birth), likely to cause amnesia. (6) The soul is indivisible and thus cannot derive from the parents, since it would then have to be a combination of parts.

The three important forms of theological argument are as follows. (7) Hindu and other scriptures and theologians are reliable in other matters and so ought to be reliable with respect to the teaching of rebirth. (8) Rebirth, associated with karma, provides a solution to part of the problem of evil, since inequalities and sufferings are the result of people's past deeds. (9) The doctrine of rebirth provides the possibility of a long process of self-perfection, which harmonizes well with the religious vision of the world as a theater for moral striving.

The following are the objections that have been or can be brought against the arguments for reincarnation. Three objections to argument (1) are, first, the concept of emergent characteristics obviates the difficulty in explaining the cause of psychical states, although perhaps at the expense of being obscure. Second, the first premise (that all states have prior causes) is arguable, and it might be that nonphysically caused mental states are simply not caused. Third, the existence of God cannot be ruled out. (2) The plausibility of the argument depends on the plausibility of arguments for the eternity of the soul. Further, in Indian religious thought there is the possibility of moka, or nirvāa, a state of liberation in which there is no more rebirth. Consequently, it is inconsistent to hold that embodiment is necessary to souls. The Buddhist denial of a permanent self occasioned the criticism that there is nothing carried over to another life that would ensure individual continuitythe reply being that, on the Buddhist analysis, the individual in his present life is only a series of events, so that there is no essential difference in considering a succession of lives as constituting an individual series.

The following are objections to the empirical arguments. (3) Modern biology can sketch alternative explanations of instinct and genius in children. (4) Although some people seem to remember past lives, the evidence is not so unambiguous as to be conclusive; and if saintliness is a condition for remembering previous births, it would be difficult to verify such a memoryit would be hard to conduct an "experiment" in becoming a saint. (5) Similar problems arise with the evidence of déjà vu experiences. As to whether death is a traumatic experience, there is no evidence. (6) The creation of souls by God is compatible with the argument concerning the indivisibility of the soul; but in any case the argument depends on a soul-body distinction that may not be acceptable.

The objections to theological arguments are the following. (7) The validity of particular scriptures and theologies on matters of detail is especially suspect. (8) The argument that rebirth explains the existence of evil could not by itself be conclusive, since the problem of evil exists only for those who believe in a good God. (9) A similar consideration applies to the argument that rebirth allows the possibility of self-perfection.

Although believers in rebirth have scarcely touched on the matter, the theory of evolution also presents considerable difficulties to the traditional doctrine of a virtually infinite series stretching back into the past. In Indian mythological cosmology, however, there are periodic destructions of the cosmos, and during these periods embodied souls continue to exist latently; no doubt a similar assumption may deal with the above biological difficulties by arguing that before the emergence of life, souls existed latently, or in other parts of the cosmos. The problem remains, however, that this account would not be easily, if at all, checked by empirical evidence.

The hypothesis of reincarnation presents interesting problems about personal identity. If personal identity is analyzed in terms of memory, there would seem to be only a vacuous distinction between saying that A is reborn as B and that A and B are separate persons. C. J. Ducasse, however, has argued (A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life after Death, p. 225) that memory of any given life may be regained at some time or other in the series, and this would hold the series together. If bodily identity were held to be necessary to personal identity, rebirth could scarcely be meaningful, as it involves causal action at a distance in the transition from A 's death to B 's birth or conception.

See also Buddhism; Ducasse, Curt John; Empedocles; Evil, The Problem of; Gnosticism; Immortality; Indian Philosophy; Kabbalah; Karma; McTaggart, John McTaggart Ellis; Nirvāa; Orphism; Plato; Plotinus; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Schopenhauer, Arthur.


Brandon, S. F. G. Man and His Destiny in the World's Religions. Manchester, U.K., 1962.

Dasgupta, S. N. History of Indian Philosophy, 5 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 19221955.

Davis, Stephen, ed. Death and Afterlife. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Ducasse, C. J. A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life after Death. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1961.

Edwards, Paul. Reincarnation: A Critical Examination. Amherst, MA: Prometheus, 1996.

Hick, John. Death and Eternal Life. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Kear, Lynn. Reincarnation: A Selected Annotated Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

McTaggart, J. M. E. Some Dogmas of Religion. London: Arnold, 1906.

O'Flaherty, Wendy, ed. Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Radhakrishnan, S. The Brahma Sūtra. London, 1959. Translation with commentary plus a lengthy introduction to Vedānta.

Reichenbach, Bruce. The Law of Karma. London: Macmillan, 1990.

Smart, N. Doctrine and Argument in Indian Philosophy. London: Allen and Unwin, 1964. Ch. 12.

Stevenson, Ian. The Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations. New York, 1961.

Ninian Smart (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)


views updated May 09 2018



Reincarnation is the cultural belief that human beings can be born and reborn in endless cycles of births and rebirths. Forms of reincarnation are found in a wide range of human societies, ranging from small scale or tribal groups to the ancient Greeks and most conspicuously, those religions that developed in India during and after 6 BCE, if not earlier. Nevertheless, there has been a surprising lack of ethnographic documentation of the cross-cultural spread of these religions. The reasons are many: Perhaps most significant was the impact of Christian missions generally hostile to indigenous religions, especially reincarnation theories that were declared anathema by the Church in 553 CE.

Until recent times ethnographers were unfamiliar with such doctrines and tended to subsume them under the better known class of ancestor cults, easy enough to do because reincarnation is often associated with the world of ancestors. Additionally, there was the widespread prejudice that reincarnation is uniquely associated with Indic religions like that of Buddhism and Hinduism, tending scholars to neglect its presence elsewhere. The historical evidence is clear that reincarnation doctrines known as metempsychosis, metacosmesis, or metensomatosis existed in ancient Greece even prior to the Buddha in the cosmology of Pythagoras. These doctrines continued outside of the dominant or mainline Greek traditions of cosmology between 7 BCE to about 3 CE through such figures as Empedocles, Pindar, Plato and the neo-Platonic traditions, especially Plotinus. Greek reincarnation doctrines influenced some Middle Eastern societies, most notably the Druze of Israel and Lebanon from around 1017 CE; the Shiite Nusayriyah of Western Syria belonging to the Ismáilí tradition around the same time; and the Alevis of Central Turkey, perhaps during the same time period although no clear historical evidence is available. All these societies had reincarnation theories that for the most part posited immediate reincarnation after death followed by rebirth in the larger religious community, if not a specific social group or clan.

Studies by ethnographers found that the presence of reincarnation doctrines among Northwest Coast Indians was the basis of the Indians eschatological and cosmic beliefs. These studies culminated in a 1994 pioneer work, Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation Beliefs among North American Indians and Inuit, which described a wide range of Amerindian groups believing in reincarnation. For Melanesia, the only detailed study is the classic work of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942). Malinowski documented in great detail the reincarnation theories of the Trobriand Islanders, most notably in his 1916 essay Baloma: the Spirits of the Dead in the Trobriand Islands, based on his fieldwork in New Guinea during World War I. A similar ethnographic lacuna exists for West Africa where scattered references indicate that reincarnation theories were widely prevalent before colonial contact. Fortunately, there are detailed ethnographic accounts for at least one large group, the Ibo of southeastern Nigeria, now highly Christianized but still retaining some of their traditional reincarnation beliefs. What the cross-cultural evidence reveals is that reincarnation doctrines are found in various parts of the world, many of whom were unaffected by Indic civilization.

In order to bring some order into widely dispersed reincarnation doctrines it is necessary to deal with their simplest manifestation among small-scale societies, and then the more complex Greek and Indic representatives. Propitiation of ancestors (ancestor cults) is a widespread form of religious life. After death, the spirit goes into a realm of the ancestors and ancestral spirits continue to interact with living persons, who in turn have to propitiate them. Only one structural feature is required for an ancestor cult to develop into a reincarnation doctrine. The spirit at death goes into the world of the ancestors and then, after a temporary stay in that realm, returns to the human world by being reborn among former kin. Then, after death, the spirit goes back to the ancestral world and the rebirth cycle continues. More complex systems are constructed upon this elementary form of a reincarnation doctrine.

Among small-scale societies there are two trajectories of rebirth: The Northwest Coast Indians and the Inuit share a widespread circumpolar complex (spreading into Central Asia) in affirming that after death one could be reborn as an animal. In West Africa and Melanesia one cannot be reborn except as a human being. When there is a belief in rebirth as an animal or when humans and animals have their own reincarnation cycles there develops a concomitant respect for animal life. Thus, while killing animals is necessary for existence, the Inuit hunter thanks the animal for its sacrificial gift and implores it to return to another rebirth, human or animal. Within the two broad complexes of being reborn as animal or human, there is considerable variation as to whether cross-sex reincarnation is possible or not.

The striking feature of reincarnation in small-scale societies is the absence of other-worldly rewards and punishments imposed on the departing soul at death, even though such societies have highly developed secular moral codes. Once the appropriate funeral rites have been performed, anyone can enter the temporary world of ancestors. By contrast, owing to Indian and Greek philosophical preoccupation with social morality and ethics, the entry into the other world is conditional on the good and bad done in this world. Thus, in Indian thought there developed the doctrine of karma, the idea that the good and bad humans do on earth will result in punishments or rewards in the other world, followed by similar rewards and punishments in the next reincarnation. By contrast, the Greek tradition does not have this uniformity although considerable emphasis is placed on otherworld compensations rather than rewards in the next rebirth.

Greek reincarnation can be illustrated with an example from Plato in the final chapter of The Republic. Plato mentions the case of a warrior named Er whose spirit escaped after ten days while his hitherto undecomposed corpse was being cremated. Er then went on a long underground journey followed by a sojourn in a strange place where he confronted judges sitting beside two chasms. These judges order the righteous to take a right road of the heavenly chasms whereas the bad must take the left that went downward into places of punishment. Er was instructed to watch and remember the proceedings so that he could relay his experiences to fellow mortals when he returned to Earth. Er mentions specific punishments and rewards offered to people right then and there by the judges, the bad undergoing cruel but just punishment and the good enjoying the rewards of heaven.

Having expiated their past in this manner, people are now free beings who will eventually assemble in a meadow awaiting their rebirth in the human world. One of the Fates, the goddess Lachesis, gives the people a choice of packages containing their future life projections on Earth. Unhappily, people do not choose wisely. Enticed by power and wealth they pick the wrong life choices, often replicating the habits of their former lives on Earth. They come back to Lachesis who allocates each a guardian spirit; the other Fates seal these compacts making them irreversible. People then come to a land of dreadful thirst and reach Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. All drink the waters of Lethe except Er, who must remember to tell his tale to mortals when his spirit eventually returns to his corpse and revives it. The Platonic myth culminates in people going to sleep but when midnight comes there is an earthquake and thunder. Suddenly, the people are all swept up and away like shooting stars, here and there, propelled to another rebirth in the human world.

SEE ALSO Anthropology; Buddha; Buddhism; Ethnography; Hinduism; Malinowski, Bronislaw; Religion


De Laguna, Frederica. 1972. Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of Yukutat Tlingit. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian, 1972.

Henderson, Richard N. 1972. The King in Every Man. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1948. Baloma: The Spirits of the Dead in the Trobriand Islands. In Magic, Science, and Religion and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mills, Antonia, and Richard Slobodin, eds. 1994. Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation Beliefs among North American Indians and Inuit. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. 2002. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist and Greek Rebirth. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Uchendu, Victor. 1965. The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Walens, Stanley. 1981. Feasting with Cannibals: An Essay on Kwakiutl Cosmology, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gananath Obeyesekere


views updated Jun 08 2018


The religious doctrine of reincarnation (literally, "back in the flesh," from caro, "flesh") was formulated by the ancient Indian sages. It is variously known as rebirth, transmigration, metempsychosis ("transfer of the soul from one body into another"), and palingenesis (literally, "again birth"). The term transmigration, moving from one state to another, is closer to the original Sanskrit word, samṣāra, "what turns around forever." Reincarnation is the central doctrine for the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh religions, but the idea is prevalent in a myriad of other world religions and has even become popular in the modern West. Statistics claim that two-thirds of the world's population believes in some form of reincarnation.

Essentially, reincarnation is the belief that life does not begin with birth or end with death, rather, the individual self (or nonself, as in Buddhism) is eternal and journeys from life to life taking on a series of births including human, animal, angelic, demonic, vegetative, divine, and astrological. The present existence is but a natural sequence of former life, and all physical, psychological, and social characteristics are determined by the moral law of cause and effect (Karma). Since what a person does automatically bears fruit in life—be it this one or the next—the idea of reincarnation practically motivates people to live ethically and morally, in accordance with their dharma (duty).

The concept of reincarnation evolved in the post-Vedic Aranyaka literature and was developed more fully in the Upanishads. The Bhagavad Gītā synthesizes the views of the Vedas, Upanishads, and several of the philosophical schools and presents the fundamental Hindu understanding. In this revered text, Lord Krishna explains that the individual is intrinsically immortal and that the body is only a garment worn externally by the self:

As leaving aside worn-out garments
      A man takes other, new ones,
So leaving aside worn-out bodies
     To other, new ones goes the embodied one.

Bhagavad Gītā, II:22

Cremation at death is the norm, and the Upanishadic view of the eternal self taking on one of the two paths at the funeral pyre is reiterated in the Bhagavad Gītā. Through the path of devayana (that of the gods), the self or breath (Atman) goes through light and merges with the infinite light of lights (Brahman) and never returns. But through pitriyana (the path of the fathers), the self merges with the dark smoke and returns into the womb again:

These are the two paths, light and dark,
     Thought to be eternal for the world;
By one, he goes to non-return;
     By the other he returns again.

Bhagavad Gītā, VIII:26

Although Buddhists reject the idea of an absolute self, reincarnation is equally vital to their ethical and ideological world. The twelve-link Chain of Causation explains the process by which life, birth, death, rebirth, and redeath continue. The root cause is ignorance, the basic illusion that individuality and permanence exist. Buddha's first Noble Truth states that there is nothing absolute, all is flux and motion, simply dukha-dukha (suffering). Hence without a substance, without any entity, the phenomenal individual migrates from one body to another—just as one lamp lights from another. Actions and psychic dispositions of a "me" keep echoing back. The wheel of samṣāra can be broken by following Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path and attaining nirvāṇa (literally, "blowing out").

In Jainism, the living entity is called Jiva, and as long as it is enmeshed in Karma (meaning both action and the fruit of action), Jiva takes on birth and rebirth. Liberation can be attained by the Jina (conqueror), who stops the accretion of new Karma and sheds all that is of the past. Jain monks and nuns cover their mouths lest they breathe in and destroy any microscopic creatures. The whole universe, including stone and vegetation, pulsates with life and must not be harmed in any way.

In Sikhism, the body that we are in is a result of our past deeds, but love for and by the Divine can free us from the wheel of transmigration. According to Sikh scripture,

karmi avai kapra nadari mokha duar

Through actions we get our clothing
     But the divine gaze opens the door of liberation.

Redeath—not rebirth—disturbed these thinkers, and the goal of all the Indian religions is to break the cycle of transmigration and attain liberation (Moksha). Without a confining body, one aspires to the spaceless and timeless infinity. The Upanishadic prayer recited at funerals touchingly sums up the Indian ideal:

From untruth, lead me to truth
From darkness, lead me to light.
From death, lead me to immortality.

The West has also been familiar with the idea of reincarnation. Pythagoras is frequently cited for exclaiming, "Stop beating that dog—I recognize him by his voice as a friend of mine." Reincarnation is central to Plato's epistemology and is pervasive in his works, especially the Phaedo, the Republic, and the Phaedrus. Although Aristotle rejected the notion of reincarnation, Plotinus revived it in his Neoplatonism, which then influenced Western (i.e., Judaic, Christian, and Islamic) esotericism. For two thousand years Virgil's Aeneid was the standard text for Western education, and his account of reincarnation in book six kept the idea alive.

In North America many Native American tribes, like the Tlingits of Alaska, have believed in reincarnation as a glorious continuation of personal identity. The New Age movement and the immigration of Asians have further popularized reincarnation on the North American continent. The denial of the decisiveness of death is itself attractive to our society, which desperately clings to youth and life. Scholars in comparative philosophy, history of religions, and psychology have brought the subject of reincarnation to the academic forefront. Diana Eck, a distinguished scholar of religious pluralism, compares reincarnation with resurrection. Although resurrection focuses on life itself and life now, both the Indian and the Christian phenomena "address the mystery of the ongoing irrepressible life that cannot be done in by death" (p. 115). Reincarnation is also being assimilated in various schools of psychotherapy and parapsychology. For example, past-life therapy (PLT) traces the cause of present physical and psychological problems to past life traumas and death experiences and has been claimed effective in treating phobias, fears, sexual dysfunctions, anger, insomnia, chronic headaches, and other disorders. Regarded at some point as foreign and absurd, reincarnation is becoming recognized as an important part of the American soil and psyche.

See alsoBhagavad GĪtĀ; Buddhism; Dharma; Hinduism; Jainism; Karma; Psychotherapy; Sikhism; Upanishads; Vedas.


Deussen, Paul. The Philosophy of the Upanishads. 1966.

Ducasse, Curt John. A Critical Examination of the Beliefin the Life after Death. 1961.

Eck, Diana. Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey fromBozeman to Banaras. 1993.

Edwards, Paul. Reincarnation: A Critical Examination. 1996.

Hess, David J. Science in the New Age. 1993.

Kaplan, Steven J. Concepts of Transmigration: Perspectiveson Reincarnation. 1996.

Neufeldt, Ronald W. Karma and Rebirth. 1986.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. 1980.

Olivelle, Patrick. The Early Upanishads: Annotated Textand Translation. 1998.

Sargent, Winthrop (translator). The Bhagavad Gītā. 1984.

Stevenson, Ian. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. 2nd ed. 1974.

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh


views updated May 29 2018


Theme Overview

Many cultures have myths and legends that tell of heroes or other characters who die and then come back to life. When they reappear, though, it is not as their former selves but as other people, as animals, or even as plants. The concept of reincarnation—the reappearance of a spirit or soul in earthly form—is based on the belief that a person's soul continues to exist after death and can be reborn in another body.

Major Myths

Many world myths and legends feature some form of reincarnation. Ancient Norse kings were regarded as reincarnations of the god Freyr (pronounced FRAY). After the introduction of Christianity to Norway, some people believed the Christian saint Olaf was the reincarnation of an earlier pre-Christian king, also named Olaf.

In the Arctic regions, where animals are critical to survival, the Inuit people believe that animals as well as humans have souls that are reborn. Hunters must perform ceremonies for the creatures they kill so the animal spirits can be reborn and hunted in the future. When a person dies, part of his or her soul will be incarnated in the next baby born into the community. Giving the newborn the dead person's name ensures that the child will have some of the ancestor's qualities.

Buddhist tradition includes a set of tales called the Jatakas (pronounced JAH-tuh-kuhz) that are based on reincarnation. They tell of Gautama Buddha (pronounced BOO-duh) and his various lives, in which he grew wiser and holier as his soul moved from life to life. In one life, Buddha was a hare who sought spiritual growth through fasting. He realized that if a beggar appeared he would have no food to offer, so he decided that he would offer his own flesh. One of the gods came down from heaven and visited the hare in the form of a beggar. The hare willingly hurled himself into a fire to provide a meal for his guest, but the god then saved the hare and painted his image on the moon to honor his spirit of self-sacrifice. On his way to becoming Buddha, Gautama passed through more than five hundred lives that included incarnations as an elephant, a priest, a prince, and a hermit.

The Japanese legend of O-Tei (pronounced OH-TAY) illustrates the haunting appeal of the idea of reincarnation. O-Tei was a young girl engaged to be married. She fell ill, and as she lay dying, she promised her future husband that she would come back in a healthier body. She died, and the young man wrote a promise to marry her if she ever returned. Time passed and eventually he married another woman and had a child.

A Very Long Journey

The Greek historian Herodotus (pronounced heh-ROD-uh-tuhs) recorded ancient Egyptian ideas about reincarnation. The Egyptians, he wrote, believed that the soul passed through a variety of species— animals, marine life, and birds—before once again becoming a human. The entire journey, from the death of a human to rebirth as a human again, took three thousand years. One ancient Egyptian source, the Book of Going Forth by Day, partly supports Herodotus's account. It states that the souls of important individuals can return to earth in the form of creatures, such as the heron or crocodile.

But his wife and child also died. Hoping to heal his grief, the man went on a journey. In a village he had never visited, he stayed in an inn where a girl who looked much like O-Tei waited on him. He asked her name, and speaking in the voice of his first love, she told him that her name was O-Tei. She said that she knew of his promise and had returned to him. Then she fainted. When the girl awoke, she had no memory of her former life or what she had said to the man. The two were married and lived happily together.

Reincarnation in Context

Belief in reincarnation has been shared by a wide variety of peoples, including the ancient Egyptians and Greeks and the Aboriginal people of central Australia. The most complex and influential ideas about reincarnation are found in Asian religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. Cultural groups that believe in reincarnation have different ideas about the way it takes place. Some say that human souls come from a general source of life-giving energy. Others claim that particular individuals are repeatedly reborn in their descendants.

In Australia, most Aborigines believe that human souls come from spirits left behind by ancestral beings who roamed the earth during a mythical period called the Dreamtime. The birth of a child is caused by an ancestral spirit entering a woman's body. The spirit waits in a sacred place for the woman to pass by. After death, the person's spirit returns to the ancestral powers.

According to traditional African belief, the souls or spirits of recently dead people linger near the grave for a time, seeking other bodies— reptile, mammal, bird, or human—to inhabit. Many African traditions link reincarnation to the worship of ancestors, who may be reborn as their own descendants or as animals associated with their clans or groups. The Zulu people of southern Africa believe that a person's soul is reborn many times in the bodies of different animals, ranging in size from tiny insects to large elephants, before being born as a human again. The Yoruba (pronounced YAWR-uh-buh) and Edo of western Africa share the widely held notion that people are the reincarnations of their ancestors. They call boys “Father Has Returned” and girls “Mother Has Returned.”

Reincarnation plays a central role in Buddhism and Hinduism. It also appears in Jainism (pronounced JYE-niz-uhm) and Sikhism (pronounced SEE-kiz-uhm), two faiths that grew out of Hinduism and are still practiced in India. Jainism shares with Hinduism a belief in many gods. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that emphasizes the belief in only one god. It combines some elements of Islam with Hinduism.

Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism all began in India, where the idea of rebirth first appears in texts dating from about 700 bce. They share a belief in samsara—the wheel of birth and rebirth—and karma—the idea that an individual's actions in their current life will determine how they are reborn in their future life. People who have done good deeds and led moral lives are reborn into higher social classes; those who have not are doomed to return as members of the lower classes or as animals. Only by achieving the highest state of spiritual development can a person escape samsara altogether and enter into the state of nirvana, total union with the supreme spirit.

Reincarnation in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Reincarnation is still a popular theme in art and literature. Many movies have dealt with the idea of returning to life in a different body, encompassing all genres from horror to comedy. Some notable films that use reincarnation as a central premise include Audrey Rose (1977), Chances Are (1989), and Down to Earth (2001). However, even in modern times, reincarnation is hardly limited to the realm of myth: according to polls conducted in Europe and the United States, about one in five people believe in reincarnation.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Few organized religions include the idea of reincarnation as an official part of recognized beliefs, and some even condemn the notion. However, belief in reincarnation is found across members of many different religious groups—even those that dismiss it as contrary to their religious teachings. Why do you think so many people believe in an idea that does not necessarily fit with the official views of their religion? What might be so appealing about reincarnation? Compare the notion of reincarnation with the belief that humans have only one life and one death. What are some of the positives and negatives of each belief?

SEE ALSO Afterlife; Australian Mythology; Buddhism and Mythology; Hinduism and Mythology


views updated May 29 2018


Many cultures have myths and legends that tell of heroes or other characters who die and then come back to life. When they reappear, though, it is not as their former selves but as other people, as animals, or even as plants. The concept of reincarnationa reappearance of a spirit or soul in earthly formis based on the

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

belief that a person's soul continues to exist after death and can transmigrate, or move, to another living thing.

Belief in reincarnation has been shared by a wide variety of peoples, including the ancient Egyptians and Greeks and the Aboriginal people of central Australia. The most complex and influential ideas about reincarnation are found in Asian religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism.

Beliefs About Reincarnation. Cultural groups that believe in reincarnation have different ideas about the way it takes place. Some say that human souls come from a general source of life-giving energy. Others claim that particular individuals are repeatedly reborn or come back to life in their descendants.

In Australia, most Aborigines believe that human souls come from spirits left behind by ancestral beings who roamed the earth during a mythical period called Dreamtime. The birth of a child is caused by an ancestral spirit entering a woman's body. The spirit waits in a sacred place for the woman to pass by. After death, the person's spirit returns to the ancestral powers.

According to traditional African belief, the souls or spirits of recently dead people linger near the grave for a time, seeking other bodiesreptile, mammal, bird, or humanto inhabit. Many African traditions link reincarnation to the worship of ancestors, who may be reborn as their own descendants or as animals associated with their clans or groups. The Zulu people of southern Africa believe that a person's soul is reborn many times in the bodies of different animals, ranging in size from tiny insects to large elephants, before being born as a human again. The Yoruba and Edo of western Africa share the widely held notion that people are the reincarnations of their ancestors. They call boys "Father Has Returned" and girls "Mother Has Returned."

Reincarnation plays a central role in Buddhism and Hinduism. It also appears in Jainism and Sikhism, two faiths that grew out of Hinduism and are still practiced in India. Jainism shares with Hinduism a belief in many gods. Sikhism, a monotheistic religion, combines some elements of Islam with Hinduism.

Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism all began in India, where the idea of rebirth first appears in texts dating from about 700 b.c. They share a belief in samsarathe wheel of birth and rebirthand karmathe idea that an individual's future incarnation depends on the way he or she lived. People who have done good deeds and led moral lives are reborn into higher social classes; those who have not are doomed to return as members of the lower classes or as animals. Only by achieving the highest state of spiritual development can a person escape samsara altogether.

A Very Long Journey

The Greek historian Herodotus recorded ancient Egyptian ideas about reincarnation. The Egyptians, he wrote, believed that the soul passed through a variety of speciesanimals, marine life, and birdsbefore once again becoming a human. The entire journey, from death of a human to rebirth as a human again, took 3,000 years. One ancient Egyptian source, the Book of Going Forth by Day, partly supports Herodotus's account. It states that the souls of important individuals can return to earth in the form of creatures such as the heron or crocodile.

monotheistic believing in only one god

incarnation appearance of a god, spirit, or soul in earthly form

Myths and Legends of Reincarnation. Many world myths and legends feature some form of reincarnation. Ancient Norse* kings were regarded as reincarnations of the god Freyr. After the introduction of Christianity to Norway, some people believed the Christian king Saint Olaf was the reincarnation of an earlier pagan king, also named Olaf.

In the Arctic regions, where animals are critical to survival, the Inuit people believe that animals as well as humans have souls that are reborn. Hunters must perform ceremonies for the creatures they kill so that the animal spirits can be reborn and hunted in the future. When a person dies, part of his or her soul will be incarnated in the next baby born into the community. Giving the newborn the dead person's name ensures that the child will have some of the ancestor's qualities.

Buddhist tradition includes a set of tales called the Jatakas that are based on reincarnation. They tell of Gautama Buddha's various lives and how he grew wiser and more holy as his soul transmigrated from life to life. In one incarnation Buddha was a hare who sought spiritual growth through fasting. He realized that if a beggar appeared he would have no food to offer, so he decided that he would offer his own flesh. One of the gods came down from heaven and visited the hare in the form of a beggar. The hare willingly hurled himself into a fire to provide a meal for his guest, but the god then saved the hare and painted his image on the moon to honor his spirit of self-sacrifice. On his way to becoming Buddha, Gautama passed through more than 500 lives that included incarnations as an elephant, a priest, a prince, and a hermit.

pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christian beliefs

The Japanese legend of O-Tei illustrates the haunting appeal of the idea of reincarnation. O-Tei was a young girl engaged to be married. She fell ill, and as she lay dying she promised her future husband that she would come back in a healthier body. She died, and the young man wrote a promise to marry her if she ever returned. Time passed, and eventually he married another woman and had a child. But his wife and child also died. Hoping to heal his grief, the man went on a journey. In a village he had never visited, he stayed in an inn where a girl who looked much like O-Tei waited on him. He asked her name and, speaking in the voice of his first love, she told him that it was O-Tei. She said that she knew of his promise and had returned to him. Then she fainted. When the girl awoke, she had no memory of her former life or what she had said to the man. The two were married and lived happily together.

See also Afterlife ;Australian Mythology ;Buddhism and Mythology ;Hinduism and Mythology.


views updated Jun 27 2018


Belief in reincarnation seems to have originated in India and to have been introduced into hinduism from the tenets of the earlier inhabitants in about the 6th century b.c. According to this doctrine the souls of all living beings, plants, animals, men, and even gods, are subject to a perpetual cycle of rebirth (sasāra ). By the law of karma, the condition of a soul in this life is determined by its action in the past. A soul rises in the scale of being by performance of good deeds and descends by evil deeds, but in either case there is no finality. Even the gods must die when the universe is dissolved and be born again when a new creation begins. This doctrine must be judged, however, in the light of the corresponding beliefs that all creation is māyā, that is, ultimately unreal. The purpose of life is to realize the unreality of the world of becoming and to attain liberation (moka ) in the world of absolute Being. This doctrine, common to Hinduism, buddhism, and jainism, gradually spread from India to the West.

[b. griffiths]


views updated Jun 11 2018


Reincarnation or samsara is the beginningless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The rebirth idea follows from the traditional Yoga psychology concept of karma, the memory trace or "seed" laid down in the unconscious by each freely chosen action or thought, which is stored until the opportunity arises for it to sprout forth as an impulse to do a similar action or thought again. The unconscious contains all the karmic seeds laid down during this life and from all previous lives. The presence of such karmas and their impulse to sprout is the cause of one's rebirth. Removal of karma from one's unconscious by spiritual discipline (Yoga ) results in release (moksa ) from rebirth. Originating from Hinduism, this idea was adopted by Jainism and Buddhism in India, and is also found in Platonic thought.

See also Hinduism; Karma; Life After Death

harold coward