What is Reincarnation

What is reincarnation? What meaning does it have in Hinduism? The belief in reincarnation or transmigration of the soul is a fundamental assumption of virtually all philosophical and religious perspectives that have originated in India. Although they tend to understand it differently; Hindu, Buddhists and Jains share the view that humans are reborn after they die. In Hinduism, this idea involves the actual rebirth of the soul in another physical form.

We are not certain where the notion came from in Indian thought. Transmigration is not mentioned in the oldest parts of the Vedas, so an Aryan origin is doubtful. The concept may represent a reappearance of a belief from the subjugated Indus Valley civilization, but this too is uncertain.

The notion of transmigration probably began as an esoteric doctrine propagated by small groups of wandering sages. It is striking that the concept of the soul’s rebirth developed in India at just about the same time it was being discussed and accepted by certain philosophers in Greece, such as Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato. Unlike India, however, the idea of reincarnation never gained popular acceptance in Greece and always remained a philosophers’ theory.

In India, the concept of transmigration arose at a time of serious doubt about the traditional sacrifices and the rewards. Among those who accepted the Vedic idea of heaven, many began to question wether heaven itself was a permanent reward. Perhaps heaven was not everlasting bliss. Perhaps one went to heaven and then died again, only to be reborn once again in the earth.

Perhaps even the gods themselves were subject to death. Reincarnation was not first known as rebirth, as it is called today, but as redeath. This accents these fears about dying.

In a short period, the belief in transmigration was widely accepted. Today, this understanding of human destiny remains a fundamental assumption of Hinduism. On the more popular level the idea is practically self-evident. It is clear that the world undergoes a constant cycle of regeneration, so there is no reason to assume that the same is not true for our central selves.

Even on the more philosophical levels sages usually find no need to argue the case. Philosophers discuss the modes and forms of transmigration rather than question its existence.

The form that one returns to after death can be almost anything: another human, an animal, perhaps a demon, perhaps a god. What determines one’s status in the next life is simply the way one lives one’s life here and now. The word for this concept has become a familiar one in the West, Karma.

They cycle of transmigrations governed by the laws of karma is called Samsara. The word Samsara means literally “wandering”. That word intimate for us that Hindus do not regard Samsara as a happy or pleasant situation. It is indeed the essential problem of life. We are caught on a wheel of endless existences bound by our actions, wandering aimlessly from life time to life time.

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