Reincarnation is the term for a person dying and then being reborn later, in a different body.
The idea of reincarnation is a very old one. Various religions have believed in it for around 3,000 years. It is estimated that more people now believe in reincarnation than don’t believe in it. Hindus and Buddhists have always believed in varying forms of reincarnation but people in the western world are not far behind. In Europe and the United States, it seems that between 20 and 30% of people now believe in life after death.
The general concept is held by many religions but there are significant difference in what people believe.
Let’s take a look at how various religions view reincarnation – in alphabetical order.
Metempsychosis is a philosophical term in the Greek language referring to transmigration of the soul – especially its reincarnation after death.
The Greek philosophers wrote extensively about the concept of reincarnation, beginning with the legendary Orpheus, Pherecydes of Syros and his pupil, Pythagoras.
Plato’s view of reincarnation became very influential. He believed that the soul is immortal, that is exists before birth and that it is reborn many times. According to Plato, each soul chooses its’ next life. This choice is guided by what the soul experienced in past lives.
Plato’s student, Aristotle, initially agreed with his teacher. However as time went by, Aristotle rejected the idea of reincarnation and the concept of immortality. He untimately became a believer of maerialism.
Buddhism and Hinduism both believe in some of the same concepts but Buddhism does have some major differences.
In the south of Asia, a form of Buddhism called Theravada, says that there is no enduring soul that passes from one life into another one. According to Theravada, when a person dies, a new personality appears in the higher realsm, and is eventually born on the earth plane. Theravada Buddhists don’t use the term reincarnation – they say rebirth.
Buddhists believe that karma is a natural law. So they don’t see rebirth as a reward or punishment from a higher being but the result of both good deeds and bad.
The cycle of rebirts keeps going until all earthly cravings are gone and the individual finally attains nirvana – blissful union with the infinite spirit.
Hindus believe in one soul which keeps reincarnating. They believe that souls can be reborn as either gender or even as animals.
Like Buddhists, Hinduism acknowledges Karma as a rebirth predetermined by a person’s behaviour in their previous life. Hindus see life on the earth plane as undesirable and as an opportunity to improve so that the soul will eventually be taken out of the cycle of rebirth and achieve nirvana.
Judaism and Christianity
Reincarnation is no longer a belief in Judaism and Christianity, however, it was once included in the belief system of some groups of both.
In Judaism, the Kabbalah teaching, based on an *esoteric interpretation of Hebrew scriptures, does include reincarnation.
*esoteric: understood by or meant for only the select few who have special knowledge.
Hasidic Jews believe in reincarnation.
In Christianity, some groups of early Christians, particularly *Gnostic Christians, believed in reincarnation, and some Christians in southern Europe believed in it until the Council of Constantinople in 553 C.E.
*Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning ‘to know’. Gnostics claim to possess a higher knowledge. This higher knowledge doesn’t come from the Bible. It is gained on a higher plane of existence.
Some Christians believe in reincarnation because in the New Testament Book of Matthew, Jesus seems to say that John the Baptist is the prophet Elijah returned.
“This is the one … there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist…. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear.”
Native Americans and Inuit
The Inuit and many Native American tribes (especially tribes from the northern and northwestern parts of North America) believe in reincarnation. However, the beliefs themselves differ greatly from group to group.
Most groups don’t expect all individuals to be reborn. Emphasis is placed on people who have ‘died too soon’. This includes children who have passed over being reborn into the same family or warriors who have died, reborn with birthmarks that match wounds they received in their previous life.
Some groups believe that humans may reincarnate into either gender and into animals.
Many of them also believe that a soul may return as several different people at the same time.
Some groups of Shiite Muslims such as the Druses (from Lebananon) and the Alevis (from Turkey) believe in reincarnation but not in karma. They say that God chooses where souls are reborn and that these rebirths have no connection with each other. This continues until the Day of Judgement where God chooses whether souls go to heaven or hell, depending on how morally good or bad their actions have been in each of their lives.
The Druses believe that the soul is reborn immediately and do not return to higher realms in between lives.
The Alevis believe that humans can be reborn as animals. The Druses don’t believe this. Druses believe that they can only be reborn as other Druses.
Neither group believes that they can be reborn as a different gender.
West African peoples have a common belief in the concept of reincarnation. However, they believe the opposite of Hindus and Buddhists who long to reach nirvana and break the reincarnation cycle. To the West Africans, rebirth is a good thing and living on the earth plane is better than being in what they see as a state of limbo.
They believe that people are mostly reborn into the same family and that their souls may simultaneously be reborn into several bodies.
Some groups believe that humans can be reborn as animals and some don’t.
Many believe in what they call ‘repeater children’. In this concept, one soul will harass a family by repeatedly dying as a baby or small child – only to be reborn into the same family again.