Rumi captures the fundamental essence of the concept of Reincarnation as he says –
“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.”
As we know, Reincarnation is a philosophical concept that has been accepted by a number of religions viz Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and others, that is associated with the belief that a soul after meeting its biological death can start another life in a different physical form or body. In other words, after the death of an individual, the soul comes back to earth in another form or body. Apart from the religious aspect of reincarnation, many paranormal researchers vouch for reincarnation as an existing phenomenon. It is an idea that has been prevalent in many ancient cultures, myths and beliefs. While South Asian and East Asian traditions are mostly known to capture the spirit of reincarnation in their thoughts and practices, the belief of reincarnation is also present in ancient Greek, Manichaeism, modern religious movements like theosophy and more. Although reincarnation is not a fundamental precept of Christianity, many Christians are intrigued by the possibility of its existence. However, the percentage of people mocking the very idea of reincarnation is way more. The idea of reincarnation and transmigration of soul existed amongst Jewish mystics in the ancient world. I am not here to take a side but I cannot resist saying that mysticism begins where science ends and it is because of the mystery in the Universe that makes life on earth so interesting. Different religions have different ideas of Reincarnation. The concept of “Ouija” and spirit calling is, in a way, related to reincarnation as it is the calling of the soul of a body, proving that a soul wanders until it gets transferred into another bodily entity.
The doctrine of reincarnation or “Punarjanma” in Hinduism can be traced back to the Vedas. According to Hindu traditions and ideologies, the human soul is an indestructible entity. The concept of “Karma” is strongly linked with reincarnation. A person’s actions and deeds in his present life as well as past existences govern the process of reincarnation for him. It is believed that we reincarnate on the basis on our karma. Our actions, words, beliefs and thoughts shape the manner in which we reincarnate. The soul maybe transferred to a human or non-human, divine or earthy body as per our karma. Bhagavad Gita suggests that just like a man, after casting away shabby and used garments, gets new ones; similarly, after discarding used bodies, the soul finds a new body for itself. The cycle of birth, death and rebirth continues consistently in a loop until one attains the ultimate spiritual significance, thereby, attaining “Moksha”- the final release from “Samsara”.
There are however some interesting beliefs about rebirth in Hinduism that unapologetically inspires awe and wonder in an individual irrespective of his religion. According to Hinduism, one of the primary reasons for reincarnation is unfulfilled desires. It is also believed that reincarnation gives a person the opportunity to gather knowledge, purify himself and evolve spiritually. The memories of our past lives are believed to be stored in our subconscious mind. Only very exceptional individuals can remember and recollect their past lives and are known as “Jatismara”. According to Hinduism a soul has to live many lives and undergo a number of experiences before it attains its true significance and unites with its source.
The founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, discarding the ideas of the materialistic school of “Charvaka” had declared that there is a life after death and that rebirth is influenced by “karma”. Interestingly, he connected a person’s actions in life or “Karma” to rebirth, thereby, influencing and motivating people to live their life based on some moral and ethical codes. The concept of “Anatta” in Buddhism distinguishes itself from Hinduism on the basis that Buddhism follows the idea of “non-self” or no permanent soul while Hinduism vehemently preaches the idea that soul exists as an unchangeable, immortal entity. While both Buddhism and Hinduism consider “karma” a governing force in the doctrine of rebirth, they have opposing view on the existence of soul. There are many theories in Buddhism on rebirth. The cycle of rebirth or the “Dukkha” cycle is the cycle of pain and suffering in Buddhism which ends at “Nirvana”. “Nirvana” is the ultimate release from the painful and endless cycle of rebirths in “Samsara”. In the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth, it is believed that rebirth is possible in any of the six proposed realms or “Gati” called “Bhavachakra”, as per the ”Karma” of an individual– Deva(divine), Asura(demigod), Manushya(human), Tiryak(animals), Preta(ghosts) and Naraka(living in hell).
Many Buddhist believe that they can end the cycle of reincarnation by following the “Eightfold path”, i.e., right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. However, the Theravada Buddhism suggests that rebirth is an immediate phenomenon while the Tibetian Buddhists believe that there exist an intermediate state (“bardo”) that can last upto 49 days.
The doctrine of reincarnation, Karma and Samsara exists in Jainism as an inseparable part of their traditional beliefs. A person’s Karma is an integral part in the concepts on transmigration, reincarnation, liberation, non-attachment and non-violence. In Jainism, every action has a consequence in some way or the other, be it in this life or the next life or the past life. It is believed that on the basis of our actions, the soul finds its place in either “Deva loka” (heaven), “Naraka”(hell) or in the body of a demon. A person who has committed a number of disgraceful actions is most likely to be born as a worm, insect or ant. The cycle of existence, death and rebirth depends on the Karma of an individual and the Karma is controlled not by any supreme power but by an individual himself. A person who has lived a kind and compassionate life with goodness in his heart is most likely to have a honourable and just life in his next life, embracing all virtues and goodness in life, while a “Jiva” who has led his life in a dishonest, violent and inhuman manner is most likely to be born in lower life forms and experience a vicious life after rebirth. In other words, the kind of life we are leading presently is a consequence of our actions in our previous life.
There are four realms or “Gatis” within which the soul transmigrates. These are “Deva”( Demi-gods, occupying the highest position in the Jain ideologies);, “Manushya”(Human beings), “Naraka”(residents of hell) and “Tiryanca”(animals, plants and insects, occupying the lower position), while the lowest tier is occupied by single-sensed souls called “Nigodas”. In Jainism, the cycle of rebirth continues for as long as 8.4 million years, allowing the soul to experience it’s unfulfilled Karma. God is not given any major role in shaping the destiny of an individual in Jainism. Jainism holds a person responsible for his own destiny, karma, birth and rebirth and once a person is free from all Karma, he attains Deliverance or Mukti. According to Jainism, the “Jivas” that are liberated from the cycle of “Samsara” or the cycle of rebirth are not reborn. They are ultimately free from this chain and are known as The “Siddhas”.
The concept of reincarnation in Sikhism is similar to that of Hinduism, with only certain differences. The Sikhs believe that everything happens according to the will or “Hukum” of Waheguru (God). According to the Sikhs, the soul transmigrates from on body to another till it attains the ultimate purification and unites with God. An individual must cleanse the soul by performing good deeds, by reciting “Naam”, by following the path of Waheguru and the ideas of Gurmat. In Sikhism, the soul is a microcosmic part of Waheguru that he has bestowed upon every individual and upon performing good deeds in life, the soul can attain “Mukti” and reunite with its Creator. They believe in the concept of “Karma” and “Sewa” (Selfless service to others). Metaphorically if we consider God to be a House then the soul of an individual is a brick. The true dignity and purpose of the brick is in getting united with the House. Similarly, the soul, after experiencing many life forms, becomes one with God. The Sikh Gurus are in communion with God and following their teaching an individual can lead a fruitful life. The Sikhs preach and propagate honourable duties like believing and honouring Waheguru, performing charity and service and promote justice, fairness and equality.