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The mystery of reincarnation

Nagaraj, Anil Kumar Mysore; Nanjegowda, Raveesh Bevinahalli; Purushothama, S. M.1

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doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.105519
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One of the mysteries puzzling human mind since the origin of mankind is the concept of “reincarnation.” It is derived from Latin and literally means “to take on the flesh again,” in other words, “to take on the fleshy (physical) body.” Discussion of the subject appears in the philosophical traditions of India and Greece from about the 6th century BC. What exactly is reincarnation? It simply means that we leave one life and go into another; it is all for the sole purpose of soul development and spiritual growth. The soul may take the form of human, animal, or plant depending on the moral quality of the previous life's actions. This doctrine is a central tenet of the Indian and Greek religions. However, reincarnation implies that the person remains essentially the same, while occupying a new body. Reincarnation is also known by other terms like “rebirth,” “metempsychosis” (Greek word), “transmigration” (English equivalent of metempsychosis), “disambiguation,” “palingenesis” and so on.[12]

A biochemist or doctor would tell us that the individual cells in our body have a limited life span - from days to weeks, and a few years. Using sophisticated Carbon-14 dating methods, Dr. Frisen and his team of stem cells researchers in the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, found that the average age of cells in an adult body would be between 7 and 10 years. Considering this sober evidence, we can understand that as we age, our bodily cells are replaced regularly. Hence, we have a constantly changing body. However, our consciousness, of who we are, remains unchanging. Our identification of ourselves, “the I Consciousness” factor remains constant and unchanging. Even though we may develop changes in our likes and dislikes and thinking over the years, we always know who we are in the sense of personal continuity or personal “beingness.” Similarly, “I” - our consciousness is unchanging or immortal, and travels through many changing bodies in time. This is the rational explanation of reincarnation.[3] We shall now try to understand what different religions have to say about it?


Reincarnation is the religious or philosophical belief that the soul or spirit, after biological death, begins a new life in a new body that may be human, animal or spiritual depending on the moral quality of the previous life's actions. The entire universal process, that gives rise to the cycle of death and rebirth, governed by karma, is referred to as “Samsara.” “Karma” is action, which may be good or bad. Based on the type of karma one does, he chooses his subsequent birth. For example, if one has done lot of divine service and has a desire to do more service at the time of death, his soul chooses a family that is supportive for his desire, for rebirth. According to Hinduism, even Devas (Gods) may also die and be born again. But here the term “reincarnation” is not strictly applicable. Lord Vishnu is known for his 10 incarnations – “Dasavataras.”[45]

In Hinduism, in the holy book Rigveda, the oldest extant Indo-Aryan text, numerous references are made to rebirths. One verse says:

Burn him not up, nor quite consume him, Agni: Let not his body or his skin be scattered. O Jatavedas, when thou hast matured him, then send him on his way unto the Fathers… let thy fierce flame, thy glowing splendour, burn him With thine auspicious forms, O Jatavedas, bear this man to the region of the pious. Again, O Agni, to the Fathers send him who, offered in thee, goes with our oblations. Wearing new life let him increase his offspring: Let him rejoin a body, Jatavedas.”[6]

The Bhagavad Gita states: “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from childhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change;” and “Worn-out garments are shed by the body; Worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller within the body. New bodies are donned by the dweller, like garments.”[7]

According to the Hindu sage Adi Shankaracharya, the world-as we ordinarily understand it-is like a dream: Fleeting and illusory. To be trapped in samsara (the cycle of birth and death) is a result of ignorance of the true nature of our existence. It is ignorance (avidya) of one's true self that leads to ego-consciousness, grounding one in desire and a perpetual chain of reincarnation. The idea is intricately linked to action (karma), a concept first recorded in the Upanishads. Every action has a reaction and the force determines one's next incarnation. One is reborn through desire: A person desires to be born because he or she wants to enjoy a body, which can never bring deep, lasting happiness or peace (ānanda). After many births every person becomes dissatisfied and begins to seek higher forms of happiness through spiritual experience. When, after spiritual practice (sādhanā), a person realizes that the true “self” is the immortal soul rather than the body or the ego all desires for the pleasures of the world will vanish since they will seem insipid compared to spiritual ānanda. When all desire has vanished the person will not be born again. When the cycle of rebirth thus comes to an end, a person is said to have attained liberation (moksha).[8] All schools agree this implies the cessation of worldly desires and freedom from the cycle of birth and death, though the exact definition differs. Followers of the Advaita Vedanta school believe they will spend eternity absorbed in the perfect peace and happiness of the realization that all existence is one Brahman of which the soul is part. Dvaita schools perform worship with the goal of spending eternity in a spiritual world or heaven (loka) in the blessed company of the Supreme Being.[9]


Jainism is historically connected with the sramana tradition with which the earliest mentions of reincarnation are associated.[10] In Jainism, the soul and matter are considered eternal, uncreated and perpetual. There is a constant interplay between the two, resulting in bewildering cosmic manifestations in material, psychic and emotional spheres around us. This led to the theories of transmigration and rebirth. Changes but not total annihilation of spirit and matter is the basic postulate of Jain philosophy. The life as we know now, after death therefore moves on to another form of life based on the merits and demerits it accumulated in its current life. The path to becoming a supreme soul is to practice non-violence and be truthful.[11]

Karma forms a central and fundamental part of Jain faith, being intricately connected to other of its philosophical concepts like transmigration, reincarnation, liberation, non-violence (ahimsā), and non-attachment, among others. Actions are seen to have consequences: Some immediate, some delayed, even into future incarnations. So the doctrine of karma is not considered simply in relation to one life-time, but also in relation to both future incarnations and past lives. “Karma is the root of birth and death. The souls bound by karma go round and round in the cycle of existence.” Whatever suffering or pleasure that a soul may be experiencing in its present life is on account of choices that it has made in the past. As a result of this doctrine, Jainism attributes supreme importance to pure thinking and moral behavior.[12]

The Jain texts postulate four gatis, that is states-of-existence or birth-categories, within which the soul transmigrates. The four gatis are: Deva (demi-gods), manussya (humans), nāraki (hell beings), and tiryañca (animals, plants, and micro-organisms). The four gatis have four corresponding realms or habitation levels in the vertically tiered Jain universe: Demi-gods occupy the higher levels where the heavens are situated; humans, plants and animals occupy the middle levels; and hellish beings occupy the lower-levels, where seven hells are situated. Depending on its karma, a soul transmigrates and reincarnates within the scope of this cosmology of destinies. The four main destinies are further divided into sub-categories and still smaller sub-categories. In all, Jain texts speak of a cycle of 8.4 million birth destinies in which souls find themselves again and again as they cycle within samsara.[13]

In Jainism, God has no role to play in an individual's destiny; one's personal destiny is not seen as a consequence of any system of reward or punishment, but rather as a result of its own personal karma. Violent deeds, killing of creatures having five sense organs, eating fish, and so on, lead to rebirth in hell. Deception, fraud and falsehood leads to rebirth in the animal and vegetable world. Kindness, compassion and humble character result in human birth; while austerities and the making and keeping of vows lead to rebirth in heaven. Each soul is thus responsible for its own predicament, as well as its own salvation.[14]


The Buddhist concept of reincarnation differs from others in that there is no eternal “soul,” “spirit” or “self” but only a “stream of consciousness” that links life with life. The actual process of change from one life to the next is called punarbhava (Sanskrit) or punabbhava (Pāli), literally “becoming again,” or more briefly bhava, “becoming.” The early Buddhist texts discuss techniques for recalling previous births, predicated on the development of high levels of meditative concentration.[15] Buddha reportedly warned that this experience can be misleading and should be interpreted with care. He taught a distinct concept of rebirth constrained by the concepts of anattā, that there is no irreducible atman or “self” tying these lives together, which serves as a contrast to Hinduism, where everything is connected, and in a sense, “everything is everything.”[16]

In Buddhist doctrine the evolving consciousness (Pali: samvattanika-viññana) or stream of consciousness (Pali: viññana-sotam), upon death (or “the dissolution of the aggregates”) becomes one of the contributing causes for the arising of a new aggregation. 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. The consciousness in the new person is neither identical to nor entirely different from that in the deceased but the two form a causal continuum or stream. Transmigration is the effect of karma (Pali: kamma) or volitional action. The basic cause is the abiding of consciousness in ignorance (Pali: Avijja, Sanskrit: Avidya): When ignorance is uprooted rebirth ceases.[17]

Vipassana meditation uses “bare attention” to mind-states without interfering, owning or judging. Observation reveals each moment as an experience of an individual mind-state such as a thought, a memory, a feeling or a perception that arises, exists, and ceases. This limits the power of desire, which, according to the second noble truth of Buddhism, is the cause of suffering (dukkha), and leads to Nirvana (nibbana, vanishing [of the self-idea]) in which self-oriented models are transcended and “the world stops.” Thus consciousness is a continuous birth and death of mind-states: Rebirth is the persistence of this process.[18]


Sikhism preaches the path of “Bhakti” to achieve salvation. Sikhs believe that the soul is passed from one body to another until liberation. If we perform good deeds and actions and remember the creator, we attain a better life while, if we carry out evil actions and sinful deeds, we will be incarnated in “lower” life forms. God may pardon wrongs and release us. Otherwise reincarnation is due to the law of cause and effect but does not create any caste or differences among people.[19]


Reincarnation is refuted by all the main monotheistic religions of the world. The reason for this is that it is against their basic teachings of a finite life for the human upon which he/she is judged and rewarded accordingly. If the human is to go through numerous life on which life is he/she to be judged? The first life? The last life? Considering this, Quran rejects the concept of reincarnation, though it preaches the existence of soul. The principle belief in Islam is that there is only one birth on this earth. The Doomsday comes after death and will be judged as to one has to once for all go to hell or be unified with God.[20] However, the idea of reincarnation is accepted by a few Muslim sects, particularly of the Shia sect (Ghulat),[21] and by other sects in the Muslim world such as Druzes.[22] Ghulat Shia Muslim sect regards its founders as in some special sense divine incarnations (hulul). Historically, South Asian Isma’ilis performed chantas yearly, one of which is for sins committed in past lives.[23] Further, Sinan ibn Salman ibn Muhammad, also known as Rashid al-Din Sinan, (r. 1162-92) subscribed to the transmigration of souls as a tenet of the Alawi,[24] who are thought to have been influenced by Isma’ilism. Modern Sufis who embrace the idea of reincarnation include Bawa Muhaiyadeen.


Reincarnation is not an essential tenet of traditional Judaism. It is not mentioned in the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), the classical rabbinical works (Mishnah and Talmud), or Maimonides’ 13 principles of Faith, though the tale of the Ten Martyrs in the Yom Kippur liturgy, who were killed by Romans to atone for the souls of the 10 brothers of Joseph, is read in Ashkenazi Orthodox Jewish communities. Medieval Jewish Rationalist philosophers discussed the issue, often in rejection. However, Jewish mystical texts (the Kabbalah), from their classic Medieval canon onwards, teach a belief in Gilgul Neshamot (Hebrew for metempsychosis of souls: Literally “soul cycle”). Other, Non-Hasidic, Orthodox Jewish groups while not placing a heavy emphasis on reincarnation do acknowledge it as a valid teaching. The 16th-century Isaac Luria (the Ari) brought the issue to the center of his new mystical articulation, for the first time, and advocated identification of the reincarnations of historic Jewish figures that were compiled by Haim Vital in his Shaar HaGilgulim.[2526]


The major Christian denominations reject the concept of reincarnation. Christians believe that when a person dies their soul would sleep in the grave along with their corpse. This soul sleep continues until a time in the future known as the “last day” or also known as the “final judgment.” But there is evidence in Bible of Jesus himself teaching reincarnation. However, there was a schism about understanding Jesus himself in early Christian history. Was he a man who became God? Was he God born as a man? The struggle was between the Church established by Paul in Rome and the remnants of the Jerusalem Church who fled to Egypt after Rome invaded Israel in 70 AD. The Roman faction rejected pre-existence and reincarnation and believed Jesus was God become man. The Jerusalem faction knew Jesus was a man who achieved the human-divine at-one-ment, which is the goal of everyone to escape reincarnation cycle of birth and death and have eternal life. However, Rome won the political battle and the orthodox definition of resurrection was reduced to an end-of-time “Night of the Living Dead.”[27]

However, the Christian sects such as the Bogomils and the Cathars, who professed reincarnation and other gnostic beliefs, were referred to as “Manichean,” and are today sometimes described by scholars as “Neo-Manichean.”[28] Recent studies have indicated that some Westerners accept the idea of reincarnation including certain contemporary Christians, modern Neopagans, followers of Spiritism, Theosophists, and students of esoteric philosophies such as Kabbalah.[29] The belief in reincarnation is particularly high in the Baltic countries, with Lithuania having the highest figure for the whole of Europe, 44%. In a survey by the Pew Forum in 2009, 24% of American Christians expressed a belief in reincarnation.[30] Geddes MacGregor, an Episcopalian priest who is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a recipient of the California Literature Award (Gold Medal, non-fiction category), and the first holder of the Rufus Jones Chair in Philosophy and Religion at Bryn Mawr, demonstrates in his book Reincarnation in Christianity: A New Vision of the Role of Rebirth in Christian Thought, that Christian doctrine and reincarnation are not mutually exclusive belief systems.[31]

New religious movements

A new religious movement (NRM) (earlier known as ‘cult’) is a religious community or ethical, spiritual, or philosophical group of modern and recent origin, which has a peripheral place within the dominant religious culture. NRMs may be novel in origin or they may be part of a wider religion, such as Christianity, Hinduism, or Buddhism, in which case they will be distinct from pre-existing denominations. There are several such movements including Theosophical Society, Eckankar, Scientology, Meher Baba, Sai Baba, Brahmakumaris, Osho, and so on.[3234]

All spiritual schools accept the concept of reincarnation. They admit, with some differences, that the purpose of reincarnation is for the soul to get purified and gain wisdom, so that it comes out of the cycle of birth and death. The only spiritual guru who has given a different explanation for reincarnation is “Osho”. Osho, also known as Bhagvan Rajaneesh, says that the life is born when the existence looks upon itself. An individual is a consciousness localized in a body. The mind of an individual exists as a set of memories, both good and bad. Of course more of bad memories than good, as we always tend to remember the insults and criticisms more than praises. Memory is nothing but energy in a very subtle form. Being energy, it cannot be destroyed even at death. It is liberated into the cosmos and dissolved. Just like riches attract more riches, such memories are pooled up, only to enter another womb. Thus when a person is born, he gets the bits of memories from many people. So he cannot remember his past birth. Nevertheless, in exceptional cases, when a new born gets the entire memory system of another individual, he can easily recall his past birth, though it is not actually his birth. So in true sense, the person is not born again, only his memories are expressed in another individual. An enlightened person is not born again. This is because; his mind contains no memories, neither good nor bad. He lives in a moment to moment existence. He doesn’t carry forward any memory of his life i.e., no importance is attached to any event in his life. It is like the path of a fish in water or a bird in the sky. They do not leave any track behind. Thus when an enlightened person dies, he leaves no memories, to be picked up by other beings. Thus he is not born again.[35]

Reincarnation research

Théodore Flournoy was among the first to study a claim of past-life recall in the course of his investigation of the medium Hélène Smith, published in 1900, in which he defined the possibility of cryptomnesia in such accounts.[36] Carl Gustav Jung, like Flournoy based in Switzerland, also emulated him in his thesis based on a study of cryptomnesia in psychism. Later Jung would emphasize the importance of the persistence of memory and ego in psychological study of reincarnation; “This concept of rebirth necessarily implies the continuity of personality… (that) one is able, at least potentially, to remember that one has lived through previous existences, and that these existences were one's own…”.[37]

Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, from the University of Virginia, is an authority in scientific research on reincarnation. He investigated many reports of young children who claimed to remember a past life. He conducted more than 2500 case studies over a period of 40 years and published 12 books, including Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation and Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect. Stevenson methodically documented each child's statements and then identified the deceased person the child identified with, and verified the facts of the deceased person's life that matched the child's memory. He also matched birthmarks and birth defects to wounds and scars on the deceased, verified by medical records such as autopsy photographs, in Reincarnation and Biology.[38]

Stevenson searched for disconfirming evidence and alternative explanations for the reports, and believed that his strict methods ruled out all possible “normal” explanations for the child's memories. However, a significant majority of Stevenson's reported cases of reincarnation originated in Eastern societies, where dominant religions often permit the concept of reincarnation. Following this type of criticism, Stevenson published a book on European Cases of the Reincarnation Type. Other people who have undertaken reincarnation research include Jim B. Tucker, Brian Weiss, and Raymond Moody.[39]

Some skeptics, such as Paul Edwards, have analyzed many of these accounts, and called them anecdotal.[40] Skeptics suggest that claims of evidence for reincarnation originate from selective thinking and from the false memories that often result from one's own belief system and basic fears, and thus cannot be counted as empirical evidence. Carl Sagan referred to examples apparently from Stevenson's investigations in his book The Demon-Haunted World as an example of carefully collected empirical data, though he rejected reincarnation as a parsimonious explanation for the stories.[41] Objection to claims of reincarnation include the facts that the vast majority of people do not remember previous lives and there is no mechanism known to modern science that would enable a personality to survive death and travel to another body. Researchers such as Stevenson have acknowledged these limitations.[39]

Ian Stevenson reported that belief in reincarnation is held (with variations in details) by adherents of almost all major religions except Christianity and Islam. In addition, between 20 and 30% of persons in western countries who may be nominal Christians also believe in reincarnation.[42] One 1999 study by Walter and Waterhouse reviewed the previous data on the level of reincarnation belief and performed a set of 30 in-depth interviews in Britain among people who did not belong to a religion advocating reincarnation. The authors reported that surveys have found about one-fifth to one-quarter of Europeans have some level of belief in reincarnation, with similar results found in the USA.[29]

In India, Satwant Pasricha, Professor of Psychology, is the authority on the scientific study of reincarnation. Having worked as an assistant to Ian Stevenson, her research methods are similar to Stevenson. She documents the child's statements. Then she identifies the deceased person the child remembers being, and verifies the facts of the deceased person's life that match the child's memory. She has even correlated the birthmarks of the child with the physical trauma or deformity present in the deceased person of the past life the child has remembered, by verifying his medical records.[43] She has also presented cases of “Xenoglossy” (ability to speak a different language without having learned it normally) and “Spirit Possession” (In which case the spirit possessed actually existed but in a different location wherein both the families never knew each other).[44] Over two decades, she has researched over 500 cases.


If reincarnation is to be examined from an unbiased scientific point of view, it is necessary first of all to find a way of bypassing such unscientific barriers as religious bias. Neither there is strong objective evidence nor specific research methods that can discover the mystery of reincarnation. However, not everything can be known by the humans with their current mind and intelligence that are far limited to perceive such paranormal phenomenon. Thus there is nothing much to conclude. However, one thing is very clear. Human mind's greatest weakness is to make concepts that fit into its belief and then believe that this is the absolute truth. Such diverse beliefs have led to the origin of masses called religions. Each religion and each spiritual teacher differs in their view of existence or mechanism of rebirths. However, there cannot be many truths. So it appears that the “Truth” is beyond the reach of mind. Perhaps the only way we’ll know whether there is reincarnation, when we die. Death is inevitable. Thus, we all will find out sooner or later!


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    Hinduism and rebirth; reincarnation; religion and reincarnation

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