How the Major Religions View Reincarnation

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How the Major Religions View Reincarnation

Reincarnation, the belief that the soul of a man or woman who has died will later be born again into another physical body, is an ancient doctrine, ancient even at the time of the Greek and Roman empires. Plato (c. 428348 b.c.e.) alludes to reincarnation in many of his essays, and he seems to be speaking of the law of karma, the spiritual balance of cause and effect, in Book X of Laws when he says: "Know that if you become worse, you will go to the worst souls, or if better, to the better; and in every succession of life and death you will do and suffer what life may fitly suffer at the hands of life."

Cicero's (10643 b.c.e.) Treatise on Glory concedes that "the counsels of the Divine Mind had some glimpse of truth when they said that men are born in order to suffer the penalty for some sins committed in a former life." Plotinus (205270 c.e.), in the Second Ennead, writes that reincarnation is "a dogma recognized throughout antiquitythe soul expiates its sins in the darkness of the infernal regions andafterwardspasses into new bodies, there to undergo new trials."

Reincarnation is not an approved doctrine in any of the orthodox Christian, Islamic, or Judaic religions, which all hold fast to the belief that there is but one lifetime, one Day of Judgment, and a heavenly resurrection of the body for the righteous. Reincarnation, the great Wheel of Return set in motion by one's karma, is accepted as a reality in the Hindu and Buddhist religions, as well as certain mystical sects in Judaism and Islam.

In the early days of Christianity, however, even the Church's greatest leaders, such as St. Clement of Alexandria (150215 c.e.) in his Exhortations to the Pagans, stated their beliefs in the soul's preexistence: "We were in being long before the foundation of the world. We existed in the eye of God, for it is our destiny to live in Him. We are the reasonable creatures of the Divine Word; therefore, we have existed from the beginning, for in the beginning was the Word. Not for the first time does He show pity on us in our wanderings; He pitied us from the very beginning."

The Christian philosopher St. Augustine (354430 c.e.) asked the eternal question in his Confessions: "Say, Lorddid my infancy succeed another age of mine that died before it? Was it that which I spent within my mother's womb?and what before that life again, O Godwas I anywhere or in any body?"

Even though the majority of Eastern cultures maintain a belief in reincarnation as an integral element in their religious faiths, peopleyoung children, in particularare not encouraged to "remember" past lives. Regardless of such admonitions against pursuing the knowledge of karma acquired from prior life experiences, the holy books of Eastern faiths teach reincarnation with none of the reluctance of the West.

The chief theological work of the Hindus, the Upanishads, expresses the doctrine of rebirth in the poetic imagery of a goldsmith who takes a raw piece of gold and shapes it into another more beautiful form. "So verily, the Self, having cast off this body and having put away ignorance, makes another new and more beautiful form."

The Anguttara Nikaya, a Buddhist text, observes that "the wise priest knows he now must reap the fruits of deeds of former births. For be they many or but few, deeds done in covetousness or hate, or through infatuation's power, [he] must bear their needful consequence."

Although the Qur'an, the holy book received by the prophet Muhammed, doesn't really address the concept of past lives and rebirth, Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam, accepts transmigration of souls as a reality. In the words of the Sufi teacher Sharf-U'D Din-Maneri: "O Brother, know for certain that this work has been before thee and me in byone ages.No one has begun this work for the first time."

Orthodox Judaism also rejects reincarnation as doctrine, but the Hasidic sect and those who follow the teachings of the Kabbalah, a collection of mystical texts first published in 1280, accept the belief in the transmigration of souls as a firm and infallible doctrine. Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel (16041657), the revered theologian and English statesman, said that reincarnation was a fundamental point of their religion: "We are therefore duty bound to obey and accept this dogma with acclamationas the truth of it has been incontestably demonstrated by the Zohar, and all the books of the Kabbalists."

In Religion and Immortality, G. Lowes Dickinson presents his view that reincarnation offers "a really consoling idea that our present capacities are determined by our previous actions and that our present actions again will determine our future character." Such a philosophy, Dickinson observes, liberates people from the bonds of an external fate and places them in charge of their destiny: "If we have formed here a beautiful relationship, it will not perish at death, but be perpetuated, albeit unconsciously, in some future life. If we have developed a faculty here, it will not be destroyed, but will be the starting point of later developments. Again, if we sufferfrom imperfections and misfortunes, it would be consoling to believe that these were punishments of our own acts in the past, not mere effects of the acts of other people, or of an indifferent nature over which we have no control."

Delving Deeper

Goring, Rosemary, ed. Larousse Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions. New York: Larousse, 1994.

Head, Joseph, and S. L. Cranston. Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology . Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1968.

May, Robert M. Physicians of the Soul: The Psychologies of the World's Great Spiritual Teachers. Warwick, N.Y.: Amity House, 1988.

Smith, Huston. The World's Religions. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1991.

Sullivan, Lawrence E., ed. Death, Afterlife, and the Soul. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Zaehner, R. C. Encyclopedia of the World's Religions. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1997.


The Buddha (563483 b.c.e.) believed in the karmic laws that gripped and held those who did not understand the true nature of life and death. But because the universe and reality are always in a state of flux, forever changing and reshaping themselves, there can be no single, unique soul of any individual that is caught up in the cycle of death and rebirth. The various components that make up a human being are in a perpetual process of change but always

held by the laws of karma, which determine the nature of a person's rebirth.

There are many schools of Buddhism, and certain scholars point out that the so-called "Northern Buddhism" of Tibet, China, and Japan, emphasizes the doctrine of a permanent identity which serves to unite all the incarnations of a single individual. Such an emphasis is closer to the Hindu interpretation of a continuity of a soul linked to its karma than the strict Buddhist teaching that only psychic residues remain of an individual's traits of personality and character. As might be expected, Northern Buddhism claims to have preserved the true teaching given by the Buddha to his initiated disciples. Since karma is one of the key teachings of the Buddha, they insist that the concept becomes virtually meaningless unless it is applied to the idea of a single reincarnating ego. The teachers of Northern Buddhism also recall that according to tradition, the Buddha's dying words were: "All compounds are perishable. Spirit is the sole, elementary, and primordial unity, and each of its rays is immortal, infinite, and indestructible. Beware of the illusions of matter."


Although many of the great minds who have shaped the intellectual and religious climate of the West held firm beliefs in reincarnation, historically, at least since the fourth century, Christian theologians have spoken out against the doctrine of rebirth. Reincarnation is not taught in any of the mainstream Christian churches, and most denominations condemn the concept.

Origen (185254 c.e.) devoted his life to the preservation of the original gospels and is considered by many scholars to have been the most prominent of all the church fathers, with the possible exception of Augustine (354430 c.e.). A prolific Christian writer and leader, Origen preached a relationship between faith and knowledge and explained the sinfulness of all men and women by the doctrine of the preexistence of all souls. In Contra Celsum he asked, "Is it not rational that souls should be introduced into bodies in accordance with their merits and previous deeds, and that those who have used their bodies in doing the utmost possible good should have a right to bodies endowed with qualities superior to the bodies of others?" In response to the query, Origen continues: "The soul, which is immaterial and invisible in its nature, exists in no material place without having a body suited to the nature of that place; accordingly, it at one time puts off one body, which is necessary before, but which is no longer adequate in its changed state, and it exchanges it for a second."

In the Des Principiis, Origen states that every soul comes into this world strengthened by the victories or weakened by the defeats of its previous life. The soul's place in this world in terms of dwelling within a physical body of honor or dishonor is determined by its previous merits or demerits. Its work in this world determines its place in the world to follow.

At the Council of Nicaea in 325, Origenism was excluded from the doctrines of the Christian Church and 15 anathemas were proposed against Origen himself. The Origenists, those who favored including the ethics of karma and the doctrine of preexistence in the official Church teachings, had lost by only one vote. But, as stated by Head and Cranston in Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology (1968), "Catholic scholars are beginning to claim that the Roman church never took any part in the anathemas against Origen.However, one disastrous result of the mistake still persists, namely, the exclusion from the Christian creed of the teaching of the preexistence of the soul, and, by implication, reincarnation."

While the official position of the Christian churches still holds with those anathemas against reincarnation, a more liberal attitude exists among many Christian laypeople, who, in modern times, need not fear being branded as heretics and threatened with burning at the stake. A 2001 Gallup poll of public opinion indicate that nearly 25 percent of the people in the United States, including Christians, believe that they may have past-life memories of their own. Those Christians who accept at least the possibility of reincarnation insist that there are many passages in the New Testament that imply a belief on the part of Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.30 c.e.) and his disciples in the reality of past lives.

In his Lux Orientalis (c. 1670), Joseph Glanvil states that the preexistence of humankind was a philosophy commonly held by the Jews; and he maintains that such a theological position is illustrated by the disciples' ready questioning of Jesus when they asked (John 9:14): "Master, was it for this man's sin or his father's that he was born blind?" If the disciples had not believed that the blind man had lived another life in which he might have sinned, Glanvil argues, the question would have been senseless and impertinent.

When Jesus asked his disciples who the crowds said he was, they answered that some said John the Baptist, others Elijah, others Jeremiah or one of the prophets (Matthew 16:1314). Again, Glanvil reasons that such a response on the part of the disciples demonstrates their belief in preexistence.

At another time, Jesus' disciples asked him why the scribes had said that Elijah must come first before the Messiah, to which Jesus answered (Matthew 17:1013), "Elijah truly shall first come and restore all things. But I say unto you that Elijah has already come, and they knew him not!" The disciples then understood that Jesus was referring to John the Baptist.

Information gained from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered near Qumran in 1947 and are slowly being translated and released to the public, may have a great effect on both the Jewish and Christian religions. These scrolls refer often to a great Teacher of Righteousness and a great warfare between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The Qumran sect, known as the Essenes, forms a definite link between Judaism and Christianity, and many scholars have suggested that Jesus was a member of the group. The Nag-Hammadi scrolls, discovered in Egypt in 1945, also give a strong indication that Jesus may have been an Essene, a student of the Essenes, or at least closely associated with this apocalyptic sect during the so-called "silent years of Jesus," ages 12 to 30. It is generally believed that the Essenes incorporated certain aspects of reincarnation in their teachings. Certain scholars have also speculated that Jesus may have studied various mystical traditions in Egypt, India, and Tibet, all of which would have introduced him to the teachings of reincarnation.

Delving Deeper

Eerdman's Handbook to the World's Religions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdman's Publishing, 1994.

Fox, Robin Lane. Pagans and Christians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.

Head, Joseph, and S. L. Cranston. Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1968.

McDannell, Colleen, and Bernard Lang. Heaven: A History. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.


The Bhagavad-Gita, the holy text of the Hindus, observes that "as the dweller in the body experiences childhood, youth, old age, so passes he on to another body." In 2:1925, the holy book declares that a man who regards himself as a slayer, or another who thinks he is the slain, are both ignorant:

You are never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when the body dies. Realizing that which is indestructible, eternal, unborn, and unchanging, how can you slay or cause another to be slain? As a man abandons his worn-out clothes and acquires new ones, so when the body is worn out a new one is acquired by the Self, who lives within. The Self cannot be pierced with weapons or burned with fire; water cannot wet it, nor can the wind dry it. The Self cannot be pierced or burned, made wet or dry. It is everlasting and infinite, standing on the motionless foundation of eternity. The Self is unmanifested, beyond all thought, beyond all change. Knowing this, you should not grieve.

Paramahansa Yogananda (18931952), the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, which seeks to blend Hindu and Christian concepts, once presented three truths to be employed by those who wished to rise above karma. The first truth, the Yogi said, is that when the mind is strong and the heart is pure, we are free. "It is the mind that connects you with pain in the body," he said. "When you think pure thoughts and are mentally strong, you can endure the painful effects of evil karma." The second truth is that in subconscious sleep, we are free. Truth number three, he revealed, is when we are in ecstasy, identified with God, we have no karma. "This is why the saints say, 'Pray unceasingly.' When you continuously pray and meditate, you go into the land of superconsciousness, where no troubles can reach you."

Delving Deeper

Brunton, Paul. A Search in Secret India. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1972.

Crim, Keith, ed. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989.

Head, Joseph, and S. L. Cranston. Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1968.

Hinduism Today. 28 September 2001.

Understanding Hinduism. 28 September 2001.


The Qur'an (or Koran), the holy book of Islam, has no direct reference to reincarnation, and there are only a few passages that may suggest a concept of rebirth, such as the following: "God generates beings and sends them back over and over again, 'til they return to Him." Orthodox Islamic scholars generally frown upon the concept of transmigration.

However, the Islamic mystical sect of Persia, the Sufis, carries on the ancient teachings of rebirth as espoused by Moorish and Saracenic philosophers in the schools of Baghdad and Cordova. The Sufis claim to keep alive the Islamic esoteric philosophies and maintain that reincarnation is an important doctrine. The Sufi poet Jalalu 'D-Din Rumi (12071273) wrote these lines that are often quoted as containing the essence of transmigration: "I died as mineral and became a plant; I died as plant and rose to animal; I died as animal and I was Man.Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar with angels blest; but even from angelhood I must pass on."


The Hebrew term for the passage of a soul after death into another physical formhuman, animal, or inanimateis gilgul neshamot. Although reincarnation as a doctrine is generally renounced by Jewish theologians and philosophers, the Karaites, a Jewish sect which rejected Rabbinism and Talmudism, taught transmigration of the soul. Anan ben David, who founded the Karaites in Baghdad about 765, said that all human souls have a common origin in the primordial human, Adam Kadmon, whose spiritual essence sends forth sparks which form individual souls. When the later Adam of Genesis committed sin in the Garden of Eden, his fall brought about confusion among higher and lower souls throughout creation, which resulted in the need for every soul to pass through a series of incarnations. Although Anan ben David's teachings were severely criticized as contrary to Orthodox belief, gilgul became a part of the Kabbalah, the compilation of mystical works collected in thirteenth-century Spain. Transmigration of souls is also a universal belief in Hasidism.

According to Alan Unterman in his Dictionary of Jewish Lore and Legend (1994): "Transmigration gave a new meaning to many aspects of life.The deaths of young children were less tragic, since they were being punished for previous sins and would be reborn in a new life.Proselytes to Judaism were Jewish souls which had been incarnated in Gentile bodies. [Transmigration] also allowed for the gradual perfection of the individual souls through different lives."

The Zohar (Hebrew for "Splendor"), the main work of the Kabbalah, describes the esoteric reality that lies behind everyday experience, and insists that the real meaning of the Torah lies in its mystical secrets. Although tradition declares Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai (c. 80 c.e.) as its author, later scholarship acknowledges the contribution of Rabbi Moses De Leon (12401305) and other Hebrew scholars in the thirteenth century. The Zohar states that since the human soul is rooted in the divine, the redemption of the world will be achieved when each individual has undergone the process of the transmigration of souls and completes his or her task of unification. Because humans cannot know the Most High's plans for each individual, they cannot know how they are being judged at all times, both before and after coming into the world and when they leave it. Because the goal of all human souls is to reenter the absolute from which they originally emerged, it is necessary for them to develop the level of perfection that will find them worthy of reunion with God. Since it is unlikely that such perfection can be achieved in one lifetime, the souls must continue their spiritual growth from lifetime to lifetime until they are fit to return to the divine.

Although the study of the Kabbalah undergoes cycles of popularity and esteem, reincarnation is not generally taught today in the three main branches of JudaismReform, Conservative, and Orthodoxbut is accepted by those in the Hasidic sect. Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, a neo-Hasidic rabbi, has said that although Jews are generally reluctant to speak of their personal spiritual experiences in public, it doesn't mean that some of them aren't having memories of past lives.

"There are many teachings about reincarnation in Jewish mysticism," Gershom said. "The Hebrew word gilgul comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for 'circle' or 'cycle.' So the essence of its meaning is similar to the ideal of the Wheel of Karma."

Delving Deeper

Crim, Keith, ed. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989.

Eerdmans' Handbook to the World's Religions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

Head, Joseph, and S. L. Cranston, S.L., eds. Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1968.

Larousse Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions. New York: Larousse, 1994.

Unterman, Alan. Dictionary of Jewish Lore and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.

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How the Major Religions View Reincarnation

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How the Major Religions View Reincarnation