Do human beings live only once, or are we granted the opportunity to return after death and experience many different lives? Reincarnation is an anglicized word of Latin derivation, meaning “reinfleshment,” the coming again into a human body of an excarnate soul . Today approximately 30 million Americans, one in four, believe in reincarnation. The process of reincarnation is the continual rebirths in human bodies, which allegedly continues until the soul has reached a state of perfection and merges back with its source either God or the universal Soul.
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The question of reincarnation has been examined for thousands of years and has been embraced in various degrees by numerous religions. The belief is thought to have been a necessity among primitive peoples. Scientists speculate that even the people who lived during the New Stone Age, the time period of 10,000B. C. E to 5,000B. C. E. believed that once a person died, their journey had not yet concluded (DeArteaga 62). It is known that the Egyptians believed in reincarnation or the transmigration of the soul.
They thought the soul transmigrated from body to body and this was a reason why they embalmed the body in order to preserve it so that it could journey along with ka, an animating force that was believed to be counterpart of the body, which would accompany it in the next world or life. The ka might be considered equivalent to the term of soul. The Egyptian Book of the Dead mentions the travel of the soul into a next world without coming back to earth.
As it is well known, the ancient Egyptians embalmed the dead in order that the body might be preserved and accompany the soul into that world. Gradually the concept of a soul developed with a further realization that the soul departed the body at death and entered the body at birth. Soon it was thought the soul leaving a dead body would seek another body to enter, or enter an animal of a lower life form. It was also thought the soul left the body during sleep.
This soul was pictured as vapors that entered and left through the nostrils and mouth. Because ideas about a society that lived so long ago are frequently not concrete and can be difficult for present day culture to grasp, many scholars point towards Hinduism as being one of the earliest religions to offer explanations of reincarnation. Hinduism, originating sometime during the fourth millennium BCE is the most ancient of the surviving great religions (G. de Purucker 12).
The adoption of the belief of rebirth can be found in Hindu scriptures dating around 600 BCE. A Hinduism belief is the transmigration of souls, or reincarnation. Associated with this belief is the conviction that all living things are part of the same essence. Individuals pass through cycles of birth and death. This means that an individual soul may return many times in human, animal, or even vegetable form. What a person does in the present life will affect the next life. This is the doctrine of karma, the law of cause and effect.
The goal of the individual is to escape this cycle, or wheel of birth and rebirth, so that the individual soul, Atman, may eventually become part of the absolute soul, or Brahman. The caste system of India is another historic characteristic of Hinduism. In its most ancient period Indian society was divided into four classes: priests (or Brahmins), warriors, merchants, and servants. These classes, or castes, have since been subdivided into thousands of subcastes, ranging from the Brahmins at the top to the Untouchables at the bottom.
These groups have traditionally been hereditary and have married only among. The characteristics of an Indian caste include rigid, hereditary membership in the caste into which one is born; the practice of marrying only members of the same caste; restrictions on the choice of occupation and on personal contact with members of other castes; and the acceptance by each individual of a fixed place in society. The caste system has been perpetuated by the Hindu ideas of samsara, which means, reincarnation, and karma, which means the quality of action.
According to these religious beliefs, all people are reincarnated on earth, at which time they have a chance to be born into another, higher caste, but only if they have been obedient to the rules of their caste in their previous life on earth. In this way karma has discouraged people from attempting to rise to a higher caste or to cross caste lines for social relations of any kind . As time progressed, suggestions of reincarnation began to be found in Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity. The great Indian Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche introduced the Tantric system of Buddhism, also known as the Vajrayana, in Tibet.
While King Trisong Deutsen (740 AD-786 AD) was building the Samye Monastery he was beset with difficulties caused by demons and evil spirits that continuously destroyed whatever was built. Finally, at the advice of the great Indian Buddhist Pundit, Shantirak*censored*a, the king requested the help of Guru Padmasambhava. It is said that, after subduing the obstructive spirits, Guru Rinpoche stayed in Tibet for about 50 years teaching the Vajrayana. In the holy Kanjur text it is written that prior to the Maha Parinirvana of the Buddha his disciples asked him why he had not given teachings on the Tantra.
The Buddha’s answer was that since he was born of human womb he was unfit to give this profound teaching. At the time of his passing away, he told his disciples that he would be born as Padmasambhava. Eight years after the Maha Parinirvana of the Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava was born on the tenth day of the fifth month from a lotus at Dhyanakosha Lake, in what is now called Rewalsar (Tib. Tso Pema) in Himachal Pradesh. Thus Tibetan Buddhists believe Padmasambhava to be the reincarnation of Lord Buddha.
It is not only believed that the Guru lived for over a thousand years, but that he is still alive and teaching being in other realms. The tradition of reincarnation is a peculiar feature of Vajrayana. It is connected with the concept of bardo, the intermediate period between birth and rebirths. Death is only a pause in the continuity of birth and rebirths. While an ignorant being lives a confused life, dies a confused death, goes through a confused bardo and is born again a confused being, a Bodhisattva lives and dies and is reborn solely with the intent to liberate beings from ignorance and confusion.
To him, all past and all future is m manifest in the present, therefore he surpasses the time/space continuum. Lama Anagarika Govinda says, “The torn and tortured being of our time, who knows neither his infinite past, nor the infinity of his future, because he has lost connection with his timeless being, is like a man suffering from incurable amnesia, a mental disease which deprives him of his consciousness and therefore of the capacity to act consistently and in accordance with his true nature.
A Bodhisattva, on the other hand, does not lose connection with his timeless being, and is able to channel his consciousness into taking a rebirth that will give the best possible way to help all beings, and since he is the master of the three times, therefore it is possible for him to indicate and direct the conditions of his rebirth or reincarnation. After Guru Padmasambhava, Buddhism flourished in Tibet. There were practitioners, thousands of them, living in caves, hermitages and monasteries who were dedicated to the vows of liberating all sentient beings from the maras of ignorance.
Due to the clarity of their visions and the power of their motivation, there have been countless reincarnations of those Bodhisattvas. In our own modern times we have the enlightened reincarnate masters like His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, His Holiness the Karmapa, His Holiness Sakya Trinzin Rinpoche, His Holiness the Mingling Trichen Rinpoche, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche and many others, shining like suns in the darkness of samsara.
As each one passes away, reincarnations are born, identified, enthroned, instructed, and empowered until they in their turn become masters liberating innumerable beings (Sudip 42). Taoism upholds the belief in the survival of the spirit after death. To have attained the human form must be always a source of joy. And then to undergo countless transitions, with only the infinite to look forward to, what comparable bliss is that! Therefore it is that the truly wise rejoice in, that which can never be lost, but endures always” (Sudip 42).
Taoists believe birth is not a beginning and death is not an end. There is an existence without limit. There is continuity without a starting point. Applying reincarnation theory to Taoism is the belief that the soul never dies; a person’s soul is eternal. You see death in contrast to life; and both are unreal both are a changing and seeming. Your soul does not glide out of a familiar sea into an unfamiliar ocean. That which is real in you, your soul, can never pass away, and this fear is no part of her” (Head 3).
While this is certainly not a complete list, or a statement that each of these religions embraces and in turn teaches the theory of rebirth, it does shed light to the fact that among very diverse beliefs and lifestyles there is a great desire to know what happens after death. In addition to the search about what transpires posthumously, many people see reincarnation as an explanation for many of the great questions about life. Such as, why is there suffering in the world? Is there a meaning to life?
How can child prodigies be explained? And are memories about past lives valid? Religion in the Western region of the world is predominately Christian. Among the people practicing Christianity, the idea that God is omnipotent is very prevalent. However, the idea of the all-powerful God brings up and interesting dilemma. If God is responsible for all that happens in the universe, why is there widespread suffering? Is this God an unsympathetic God and does he feel the need to punish some people?
Many people cannot accept the idea that the center of their worship would have cruel tendencies. Therefore, many are of the belief that God is a loving and kind God. But if God controls the universe with a loving hand, why have there been floods, deadly famines, children born into poverty or deformed, and why do some people seem to live such difficult lives? There are no clear answers to any of these questions. However, reincarnation suggests the idea that there is in fact justice in the world.
Ancient wisdom teaches that divine justice does rule the world and that there is a meaning and purpose behind human life. Despite the appearance of injustice, perfect justice is in fact insured to every human being by the operation of a compensatory law, the law of cause and effect known in the East as Karma” (Head 4). The Law of Karma is the law of causality extended in the world of human action. This law says that if bad things happen in one’s life, this is an outworking of bad karma.
If good things happen in one’s life, this is an outworking of good karma. “Karma” refers to the “debt” a soul accumulates because of good or bad actions committed during one’s life or past lives. If one accumulates good karma by performing good actions, he or she will be reincarnated in a desirable state. If one accumulates bad karma, he or she will be reincarnated in a less desirable state. More simply stated, every human action, mental, emotional or physical, produces and exactly appropriate reaction.
However, the reaction may not be received in during the current life (Walter 74). Therefore, suffering is an expression of past deeds and a entrance to pending life experiences and is not a result of God’s hatred or indifference, but rather a definite universal law. Reincarnation offers the hope for a better future because it suggests that with each “life” we gain more knowledge and are more prepared for the next life. If suffering is an unavoidable part of life, many people can’t help but ask is life worth living?
Is there a purpose to human existence if it can be extremely painful or just end suddenly? In broad terms, it can be said that the purpose of life is the evolution of the human soul (De Arteaga 45). The process of growth through physical experience continues until death and is continuous throughout different bodies. The Law of Cause and Effect govern the time and how the death occurs. The final stage of the cycle occurs when the soul is free from desire and is perfectly happy with life and everything that has been experienced.
At the end of the journey, “the soul is reabsorbed into the higher self from whence it came” (De Arteaga 47). This is often referred to nirvana or enlightenment in Eastern religions. In Christianity this idea is expressed by St. Paul in Ephesians 4. 13, “Till we all come in of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, into a perfect man, into the measure of the fullness of Christ” (De Arteaga 48). This attainment is represented for every person in the Bible, “Be ye therefore of perfect, even as your father which is in Heaven is perfect” Matthew 5. 48 (Head 13).