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Universalism in Various Religions: The Dharmic Faiths

Last time, we looked at universalism in the Abrahamic faiths.  In this post, I want to look at universalism in the Dharmic religions.  The Dharmic faiths are the great religions which originated in the Indian subcontinent, stemming ultimately from the ancient beliefs of the Indo-Aryan peoples.  The oldest of these is the religion we refer to  as Hinduism, traditionally known to its adherents as Sanātana Dharma, “the eternal religion”.  From Hinduism gradually developed the Śramaṇa movement, which developed eventually into Buddhism and Jainism.  The most recent of the Dharmic faiths, Sikhism, came into being in the 15th Century, evolving from the branch of Hinduism known as the Sant Mat movement.

All of the Dharmic religions share certain basic concepts.  Chief among them are

  1. The idea of an eternal universe that goes through infinite cycles of creation, evolution, decline, and dissolution
  2. Many levels of existence beyond the earthly
  3. A belief in reincarnation or rebirth, in which beings take on numerous lives in numerous realms
  4. A belief in karma, the principle by which one’s actions are requited, for good or for ill, in the present life and/or future lives
  5. Finally, a belief that beings can ultimately end the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) through proper spiritual practice

Having laid our the similarities, let’s look at the religions individually.

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I Ain’t Got No Body: Embodiment (or not)

Here we talked about the creation of the material world and embodied intelligences (us) by God.  Over here we looked at how truly free creatures must be created at a certain “distance” from God’s perfection, with the (probably inevitable) corollary that at least some, if not most, of them will fall away to one degree or another.  Let us now start connecting these two threads and see where this leads us.

First, it is worth pointing out a slight nuance in the concept of the Fall.  To the orthodox, the Fall of mankind came after embodiment.  That is, humans were originally created as embodied souls.  Since humans were, in this narrative, primordially innocent, there was thus nothing “wrong” with embodiment.  Had the Fall not occurred, humans would have lived embodied lives in innocent perfection.  Embodiment is a feature, not a bug, so to speak.  The Fall distorted the relationship of body and soul; but that relationship in and of itself is fundamentally good.  It is also important to point out that in this  model, we don’t have a body; that is, we are not actually a spirit that just inhabits a corporeal form.  Rather, we are a body; or better, we are a holistic combination of body and soul making up one single hypostasis (person).

C. S. Lewis puts it in somewhat mystical language in Chapter 14 of The Great Divorce:

I saw a great assembly of gigantic forms all motionless, all in deepest silence, standing forever about a little silver table and looking up on it.  And on the table were little figures like chessmen who went to and fro doing this and that.  And I knew that each chessman was the idolum or puppet of some one of the great presences that stood by.  And the acts and motions of each chessman were a moving portrait, a mimickry or pantomime, which delineated the inmost nature of his giant master.  And these chessmen are men and women as they appear to themselves and to one another in the world.  And the silver table is Time.  And those who stand and watch are the immortal souls of those same men and women.

Thus the body and the soul are in a sense different manifestations of the same thing, merely seeming different (puppet vs. giant) because of our perception of time.

In the Gnostic mythos, the body, along with the rest of the material cosmos, is created by the evil and/or ignorant Demiurge, who makes it as a sort of imperfect, Bizarro-world copy of the dimly perceived Pleroma (the perfect spiritual world of the Aeons, the angelic intelligences created by God).  Thus, embodiment is a bad thing, as the material world itself is a bad thing, at best a pale reflection of the true Good, at worst a cesspit of suffering and limitation.  Some versions of the Gnostic mythos posit embodiment as a theft of the Light–the spiritual essence that comes from the Pleroma–by the Demiurge and his Archons; in some versions, Sophia (the Aeon whose sin led to the existence of the Demiurge in the first place) deliberately “seeds” the human body with the Light, as a long-term “time bomb” that will defeat the Demiurge and ultimately bring about the end of the material cosmos.  In this reading, embodiment is a good thing for the goal it will ultimately achieve; but it is still bad for us at the present.  Our goal is to escape embodiment and return to the Pleroma.

Thus, the Gnostic perspective holds embodiment to happen after the Fall, or perhaps to be a sort of Fall itself; and the antagonism of the spirit and the body is not an accident, but it is baked into the cake, so to speak.  We are not a body-soul amalgam, as in orthodoxy, but a soul–our true self–which is unfortunately connected to a body (or possibly many bodies–some forms of Gnosticism posit reincarnation) as a result of the entrapment of the Light in matter.

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Quote for the Week


I died as a mineral and became a plant, I died as plant and rose to animal, I died as animal and I was Man. Why should I fear? When was I less by dying? Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar With angels blest; but even from angelhood I must pass on: all except God doth perish. When I have sacrificed my angel-soul, I shall become what no mind e’er conceived. Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence Proclaims in organ tones, To Him we shall return.

–Mevlâna Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī,”I Died as a Mineral”, as translated in The Mystics of Islam (1914) edited by Reynold Alleyne Nicholson, p. 125; courtesy of Wikiquote

A Very Strange Song by They Might Be Giants

Among other things, a strange take on reincarnation.  Also a good description of how Wednesdays often feel….

Sunday Matinee: The Reincarnation of Peter Proud


A reincarnation-themed 70’s B movie, starring Margot Kidder before she was Lois Lane.  The text at the YouTube site is in Portuguese, but the movie is not dubbed.  Enjoy!

Another Perspective on Reincarnation

It occurred to me that I ought to discuss another perspective on reincarnation that has drawn attention in some circles.  This is less relevant to my “Legends of the Fall” series than the other reincarnation-oriented posts have been, so while I’ll put this in my “Reincarnation” series, I will leave it out of “Legends of the Fall”.

One thing that is very easy to forget about reincarnation–or any other theories of life or continued existence after death is that they are all interpretive frameworks.  They are interpretations of phenomena; interpretations that may be useful, and may even be true, but interpretations, for all that.  Quantum physics gets pulled into discussions of spirituality–especially Eastern or Eastern-flavored spirituality–way too much, and often in wildly inappropriate ways.  Still, a quantum example here is perhaps of use.

According to quantum physics, light, like all other electromagnetic phenomena, can be viewed either as a wave or as particles (photons).  The curious thing is that light isn’t a wave that seems to be a particle, or a particle that acts like a wave; it really is either a wave or a particle, depending on the experiment one conducts.  If one sends a beam of light through a diffraction grating, it behaves exactly like waves, even if one sends a single photon through.  If one switches to using a photon counter, one counts discrete photons, with no evidence of waves.   Read the rest of this entry

Reincarnation: The Disadvantages

Having looked somewhat extensively at the ideas of pre-existence and reincarnation, we must now look at the theological/philosophical downside of these notions–so important in varying degrees to the Evagrian and Gnostic views we’ve discussed–and consider some of the negative implications of these ideas.

I must point out that a belief in the pre-existence of souls does not necessarily imply a belief in reincarnation.  Origen and Evagrius, while accepting the former do not seem to have believed in the latter (though this is disputed).  In modern times, Mormons accept the pre-existence of souls while not teaching reincarnation.  Thus, we are dealing with two separate, though partially related, beliefs here.  The point, though, is that what I’m about to discuss applies to both.   Read the rest of this entry

Reincarnation: Index

I’m planning a post soon that deals with reincarnation, but which is not part of any of my ongoing series.  It occurred to me as I thought of it that I’d done quite a few posts on that topic.  Looking back through the archives, I realized that I’d done even more than I’d remembered, especially if you count postings of poetry and music with reincarnation as a theme.  I decided, therefore, that the topic deserved its own index.

The first two posts deal with pre-existence.  That’s a separate topic, but some of the philosophical issues are related to those involved in reincarnation, so I’ve put them in, too.  They are part of the “Legends of the Fall” series, and there are two because I’d forgotten that I’d written the first, and wrote another post with the same theme.  I decided not to take the second post down; each makes its point in slightly different ways, so they’re both here.

This series won’t be ongoing in the way that some of my others are, but I will add posts related to reincarnation to this index as I put them up.  Enjoy!

Interlude:  Pre-existence, or Déjà Vu All Over Again

Excursus:  Pre-existence

Reincarnation:  The Ultimate Recycling

Reincarnation:  Haven’t We Been Here Before?

A Reincarnation-Oriented Video

A Poem by Emerson for the Weekend

Another Reincarnation-Oriented Poem for the Weekend

Some Head-Banging for the Weekend

An Original Poem

Reincarnation:  The Disadvantages

Another Perspective on Reincarnation

An Original Poem

Having thought about it, I have decided occasionally to post my own original poems here.  Comments are welcome–just be honest, and if you re-post or quote, give due credit.  This was written about twenty-five years ago or so during a more or less Buddhist/Hindu phase of my life.


They say that ever when a life is spent

The spirit lingers for a moment while

Reviewing all the deeds of life just past:

The good, the bad, the undone and the done,

The joys, the woes.  This reverie complete

The soul ascends, more swift than beams of light

Surpassing all the planets and the stars

Until it comes into the Atman’s realm

Awaiting incarnation once again.

But ere the soul return to take anew

Its cloak of flesh, again to trod the earth,

It tastes the realization of True Self

Dissolving into Brahman infinite.

Now from this vantage point omniscient

The soul, once human, now divine surveys

The trackless starry sweep of cosmos and

The formless, nameless That from whence it sprang;

The myriad myriad creatures manifest

Who sing their lives with vast cacophony

Of voice and note, who come and live and die;

And also the supernal quietude Read the rest of this entry

Polygenism, Human Origins, and the Soul: Index

This is actually part of an extended addendum to the “Legends of the Fall” series.  However, it’s taken on a life of its own and is now almost a third as long as the original series (and counting).  Thus, just as I gave the series on dualism its own index, I thought that this deserves as much.  It stands on its own, I think, but I’ve left it on the larger “Legends of the Fall” index, too.

Update 6 March 2018:  I have changed the name of this series from “Polygenism Revisited” to “Polygenism, Human Origins, and the Soul”.  This is for a few reasons.  One, I have come to the conclusion that some form of “hard” polygenesis–i.e., the evolution of Homo sapiens at different places, at different times, and from different local populations of precursor species, is very likely true.  Even if one still wanted to debate this–and the evidence is still not totally clear–I think it’s a useful heuristic, since, as I’ve said many times in the course of this series, I think it’s best to take the position most difficult to reconcile with one’s theology, as a way of avoiding the problem of the “God of the gaps”.

Two, I think the issues involved here cast a wider net than polygenesis per se; and I want to be free to look at the broader issues of human origins as they related to notions of the Fall of Mankind and the intimately connected issue of the Atonement.  Finally, recent research has increasingly painted a picture of animals as far more intelligent than previously believed, and of higher mammals as amazingly close to us in surprising ways.  I think this has implications for any theology of human souls and the supposed uniqueness of the human race.  Rather than starting a separate series for posts on that topic, I intend to place them here as I write them.  There is, after all, some logical connection.

Thus, in summary, stay tuned!  More to come in this space!

Polygenism Revisited:  Terminology

Polygenism Revisited:  The Theology of Cavemen

Polygenesis:  Breaking News

More News on Polygenesis

Adam, Eve, and Monogenism:  More Perspectives (and more of the same)

Another Article on Polygenesis

Plants, Animals, Humans, and Souls