Nelson 1 John Nelson Dabundo World Religions 24 April 2013 The Incarnation of Reincarnation There is nothing so reassuring, or so terrifying, as knowing what will happen to you after you die. Death is a part of life that people, for obvious reasons, have difficulty accepting. Some religions believe in eternal reward or punishment, some believe in a neutral land of the dead, some believe thereâ€™s nothing at all. A significant portion of the world population, however, believes in the idea of reincarnation. It is a prevalent belief in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, as well as in the countless indigenous religions scattered across the globe. The basic concept of reincarnation can be stated as thus: the soul does not die when the body does. Instead, it is reborn into a new body, one that may be better or worse than the one it currently inhabits. For most of the believers, the faithfulâ€™s reincarnation is based upon how they live their lives. If they live well and follow their duty, then they will be reborn into a higher, happier state. Should they live in sin, or should they fail in their earthly duty, they will plummet ever lower, and, in some cases, be reborn as animals or insects. In other belief systems, people are reincarnated simply to learn something. Perhaps there was a lesson in their life on Earth that they failed to grasp that is preventing them from moving on. Reincarnation gives them another chance to learn it. Either way, the belief in reincarnation is a fascinating concept that is shared by millions of people. Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world. It has been around for thousands of years, and throughout all that time, it has steadfastly maintained a belief in reincarnation. In fact,
Nelson 2 scholars generally attribute Indian thinkers with introducing the concept into the world. Hindu views reincarnation, Samsara, as a curse. It is what bars humanity from unity with the ultimate consciousness of the universe, the Brahman. By following your dharma, your duty, you can move up through the various stages of life and, hopefully, grow closer to escaping the “illusion” of separation from the Brahman. If you refuse your duty, if you choose not to act in a manner befitting your station in life, then you are reborn into a lower one. Compared to humanity, Indian reincarnation is young. Scholars know that it cannot possibly be older than the ninth century, as the Vedic hymns of the thirteenth or tenth century BC have nothing in them about reincarnation. The Upanishads instead cemented the idea, most likely in the sixth century, teaching that, 78 “‘When his body becomes thin through old age or disease, the dying man separates himself from his limbs, even as a mango or a fig or a banyan fruit separates itself from its stalk, and by the same way that he came he hastens to his new abode, and there assumes another body, in which to begin a new life (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:3:33-36)” (Burke). Hinduism’s idea of reincarnation concerns a permanent self, an Atman, that is transferred from one body to the next. When you are reincarnated, you maintain some vestiges of that self, which is why you may be forced to suffer or why you may be blessed with a new, better life (Valea). Buddhism, on the other hand, explicitly denies any kind of permanent self. A key tenet of the system is Anicca, recognition of the fact that your body and everything it feels is an illusion. When Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, began teaching in the fifth century BC, one of the first things that he addressed with his newfound understanding was reincarnation. Hindus had taken the idea of Samsara and were using it as an excuse
Nelson 3 to let people suffer. People that were less fortunate were seen to have failed in their dharma, and thus were deserving of their condition. Buddhist reincarnation has no concept of success or failure. It would not have any reason to; Buddhism does not address the idea of evil. Instead, Buddhism teaches that being reincarnated simply means that you have not yet fully been “awakened”; you are not ready to part from the world. The Second Noble Truth states that attachment to the world, and to your perceived physical body, is the reason for suffering. When you understand how to separate yourself from the world, you can escape the cycle of Samsara (Morreal, Sonn 232). In Hinduism, escape from Samsara, or Mokshi, comes only after you have risen through every caste, evolving from an undesirable into a Brahmin. Therefore, the only people that could ever hope to be reincarnated were those lucky few who managed to become Brahmin priests (“Hinduism: The Caste System, Reincarnation, and Karma”). In Buddhism, especially in Vajrayana Buddhism, anyone can achieve liberation in any, or Nirvana, in any amount of time (Morreal, Sonn 240). In Vajrayana Buddhism, reincarnation has a second essential purpose. When the Dalai Lama, the religious head of Vajrayana, dies, his soul is reborn into a new body. It does not always happen instantaneously; sometimes it takes centuries for him to reappear (there were nearly five-hundred years between the thirteenth and the fourteenth Dalai Lamas). When Vajrayana monks think that they have discovered the new Dalai Lama, they test the boy (it is almost always a child), by exposing him to objects that belonged to his predecessor mixed with ordinary trinkets. For example, the current Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, was discovered when he was two. He apparently immediately chose a walking stick, among other things, that had belonged to the thirteenth Dalai Lama, his immediate predecessor (Youtube).
Nelson 4 Sikhism blends Hindu and Buddhist ideas about reincarnation with Islam. Sikhs have a rock-solid conviction that everything that happens is the will (Hukam ) of God (Wahaguru). There exists in every person a bit of Wahaguru, so when a person dies, that spark lives on with, and in, their soul. The goal of the soul is to return to Mahaguru at the end of its time on earth; in Hinduism, the goal is to achieve moksha and to be reunited with the Brahman. In order to get there, however, most souls have to go through all 8,400,000 forms of life. Only humans can possibly achieve reunification, as people alone know the difference between right and wrong. By doing right and avoiding evil, people earn karma, which, like in Hindusim, helps determine whether or not the person will escape the cycle (mukti) (BBC). Unlike in Hinduism and Buddhism, however, there are very specific things that Sikhs are expected to avoid in order to achieve mukti. Hinduism is very personal; people achieve moksha by adhering to their unique duty on the planet. Buddhism is wide open; you can reach Enlightenment by yourself or with the help of others. In Sikhism, though, you are required to specifically avoid pride (hankar), lust (kam), anger (karodh), greed (lobh), self-centeredness (manmukh), ignoring Waheguru, and being overly-attached to the world (moh) (BBC). It is interesting that a key component of Sikhism comes directly from Buddhism. The biggest hurtle that people have to jump on their Eightfold Path to Enlightenment is placing too much stock in the material world. In both Buddhism and Sikhism, as well as in Hinduism, the world is simply an illusion, and one of the greatest evils is to be too attached to it (Morreal, Sonn 216). Sikhism also lists a number of things that you SHOULD do in order have any chance of reunification. Most of the list is surprisingly similar to Christianityâ€™s Ten Commandments. Among them are believing in one God and in him alone, working hard, avoiding idols and immodest dress, and
Nelson 5 having respect for your neighbors (women and other races are explicitly mentioned, commanding Sikhs are commanded to treat all of humanity equally) (BBC). The Igbo of Nigeria have an idea of reincarnation that closely parallels Hinduism. In their belief system, transcribed as Odinani, each and every thing on earth, animate and inanimate, has a definite purpose prescribed to them by the creator god, Okike. Similar to the Hindu doctrine of Dharma, to fulfill one’s purpose in life is one of the ultimate goals of the good. To ignore your predestined purpose is to ignore Okike and to insult the earth, Ani. If you stick to it, and if you maintain your reverence and respect for the earth (another key tenet of Odinani), you can be reborn as an honored spirit (a nne-mmuo if you are a man and a nna-muo if you are a woman). It is not exactly reincarnation, as you do not receive a new body, but the idea is similar. On the flip side though, a person CAN receive a new body if they commit “unpardonable sins against Ani”. The gravest offender does not become an evil spirit (ajo mmuo), he instead is reborn as a monster. He becomes a vampire, a mermaid, or a demon, reincarnated to wreak terror on the village (Ene). Though at first the punishment seems more severe than it is in Hinduism, it also sounds rewarding. A truly evil person may WANT to be reborn. In Hinduism, a sinful person is reincarnated into an ineffectual role, as a laborer or even as an ‘undesirable’; in Hinduism, abandoning your dharma ultimately causes you to suffer (Morreal, Sonn 211). Reincarnation stumbled into Western thought by way of the followers of Plato, oddly enough. Horrified, as some theories espouse, by the death of Socrates, Plato designed what he thought would be the perfect society. Much like Confucian society, the Platonic State would be a world governed by a devotion to justice and government as supreme. Justice, however would not be a written thing, but would instead be determined by the philosopher, the only person fit to lead Plato’s society. A student of Plato’s by the name of Plotinus took the ideas of Plato
Nelson 6 (Platonism) and blended them with Christian and Jewish thought, forming what is now known as Neo-Platonism. According to Neo-Platonism, at death, the soul is reborn not into a physical body, but is actually taken to an afterlife. It is not strictly reincarnation, as, similar to Odinani, there is no bodily rebirth. Instead, a form of retributory reincarnation occurs in the afterlife. The manner in which the human being lived their life determines their level in the afterlife. Good souls are brought into the highest levels, while evil souls make it only to the lowest (Moore). Some New Age spiritualists in the United States and in England claim to be devotees to Neo-Platonism. The New Age movement is a kind of “spiritual open-mindedness”. It teaches that everyone is seeking the same goal, even if they are on a different path from one another. Though there are countless twists on the New Age movement, some common threads include tolerance and reincarnation, as well as a belief in “evolutionary godhood”. It has vague parallels to reincarnation, basically stating that human beings are slowly moving closer to godhood, and will eventually recognize the divine parts in them and see themselves, and everyone else as God (Slick). The idea of reincarnation unites millions of people from religious traditions across the globe. Something about it draws them in, whether it is the comfort of living on after death or the simple need for an explanation for suffering. It also serves as a system of justice for people, like the undesirables of India, who do not have much else to protect them. It controls the behavior of more wealthy people, while at the same time gives the less fortunate something to hope and work toward. It clarifies, directs, and explains people’s respective lots in life and, in many traditions, offers a much-needed second chance in the face of failure and mistakes.
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