Reincarnation: The Ultimate Recycling

As I’ve said before, I’m working on a couple of different series of posts right now.  As I formulate them in my mind, I keep coming up with digressions that expand to the length of posts in their own right.  Oh, well.  In any case, this is one such post.  It’s slightly tangential, but it will be better to give it whole post than to try to cram it in later.  After all, that’s what hyperlinks are for!

Reincarnation, in one form or another, has probably been believed by the majority of philosophies and religions that have a concept of an afterlife.  The Dharmic religions–Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and offshoots of these–all teach some type of reincarnation (though the preferred term in most of these is “rebirth”);  Daoism and Shinto, while vague, accept reincarnation to one degree or another, under Buddhist inlfluence; meanwhile, in the West, the Celts are said by Caesar and others to have believed in rebirth, the Pythagoreans taught reincarnation (which they referred to as “metempsychosis”), and Plato, probably influenced by them, did so as well, and this belief passed down in Platonic circles for centuries.

The Abrahamic faiths have generally not taught reincarnation.  Even there, though, it crops up.  Under the term gilgul, it does appear in the Kabbalah, and has thence become more or less accepted even in Orthodox circles (some Haredi–so-called “ultra-Orthodox”–groups embrace it enthusiastically).  Also, though the idea has never been normative in Christianity, early heterodox groups,  particularly many  Gnostic groups, held a belief in reincarnation. 

Now before I go on to consider reincarnation in light of Christianity, full disclosure time.  I personally reject reincarnation.  Note carefully the language–I didn’t say I disbelieved it, but that I reject it.  What do I mean by that?  Well, let’s look at the context.  Nationwide, about 25% of the populace, 22% of Christians, and 10% even of white Evangelicals (!) believe in reincarnation, so it’s not an uncommon belief.  However, most Americans who do so tend, in typically optimistic American fashion, to look at it as a good thing.  “Hey, I get to come back!”  The attitude is that reincarnation is a sort of progression whereby one gets better and better, gets to iron out mistakes from past lives, and then, eventually, makes it to Heaven (or wherever).

However, as anyone who’s ever studied Hinduism or Buddhism (or any other Dharmic faith) knows quite well, that’s not how they see it.  In the Dharmic view, reincarnation is an absolutely horrible thing, the thing that is our main problem in life–or better, lives.  We are stuck to the wheel of birth and rebirth–what they call samsara–because of our ignorantly continuing to accrue bad and even good karma.  Life in this world–even the Heaven realms–is ultimately unsatisfactory.  This is the concept of dukkha (very inadequately translated as “suffering”) in Buddhism or maya (also very loosely translated as “illusion”) in Hindusim.  We become attached to things and sensations that are ultimately fleeting, rather than seeking the Eternal.  How this is conceived–nirvana, moksha, relaization of the Atman–in the different Dharmic faiths isn’t my purpose to discuss here.  The point is that reincarnation is not looked on as a positive thing.  True, most people in Dharmic societies try to live reasonably moral lives in the hope of rebirth into a higher state; but this is because acheiving liberation from samsara is usually viewed as difficult and possible only for monks or great holy persons.  Nevertheless, liberation is the ultimate and normative goal in these religions.

I came to an understanding of reincarnation through study of Hinduism and Buddhism, and very little from the New Age, except to the extent that it was floating about in the pop-cultural air, so to speak. Thus, I’ve always held a very Dharmic view of reinarnation.  Thus, unlike the majority of my fellow Americans who think reincarnation is neat or that it’s cool to imagine what nifty people you were in past lives (newsflash–if you understood the teachings on karma, you’d see that you probably weren’t something cool), I view the concept as appalling.  Thus, as a Christian, I have no desire to tack on that particular concept, which is why I say I reject it.

As to belief–well, people often deride the concept of reincarnation, but it’s not intrinsically loonier than belief in the Pearly Gates, the Western Paradise, or the Happy Hunting Ground.  Demonstrable evidence about the afterlife is, well, sparse, and it’s basically more a matter of one’s faith committments than of what can–or can’t–be proved.  My father often argues that reincarnation doesn’t work because there are many more people alive today than in ancient times.  However, most systems that posit reincarnation allow that souls may be incarnate as other life forms–animals or even plants–or in other realms–heavens or hells–so that’s not a valid objection.

In terms of my temperament and gut level feelings, I’m actually far more drawn to the Dharmic religions than I am to the Abrahamic–much the way I am more drawn to the Hellenic tradition.   That I am Christian is attributable to something else, which I’ll discuss in the future.  Meanwhile, though I am perhaps more Hindu or Buddhist than Christian in the way I think, and though I try to take from those traditions things of spiritual value, reincarnation is not one of them.  Of course, my preferences have nothing to do with whether it’s true or not.  Also, the possibility of integrating reincarnation into a not too terribly heterodox framework, if that can even be done, is worth having a look at, since it will touch indirectly on what I want do discuss in my addendum to my series on the Fall.

In order to do this, I will need at least another post on reincarnation, though, as this one is getting long, and I want to take the time to look at all the relevant factors.  More to come.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Also part of the series Reincarnation

Posted on 13/07/2012, in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. The Answer I got to “Why don’t I remember my past lives?” was “Maybe you didn’t do anything worth remembering.”

    One would expect religious professionals — intent on escaping their discontents with The Embodied Condition — to take a dim view of endless return to ‘all that inconvenient stuff.’ From a Christian/Jewish or Islamic perspective, though, ‘all that stuff’ is “The Creation.”

    William Blake had a good attitude towards this world: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

    Then again, the story told about his death… He was reasonably old, had been bedridden for some months. He got the prints back from one of his projects, and concluded the drawings were the best he’d ever done. He asked his wife to bring him a pencil. “Kate, you’ve been a good wife. I’d like to draw your portrait.” She had to go out and borrow for the pencil, but then he did a good drawing of her. And started singing “Hallelujah!” with great enthusiasm, which he continued for about an hour, and died.
    — — — —

    When it’s time to sleep
    we go to sleep
    and in the morning we wake up again
    with last night’s dreaming
    fading like the stars
    or like yesterday

    [Forrest Curo (~ 1990?)]

  2. Great post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic?
    I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit more.
    Cheers!

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