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The idea that you have lived many past lives, and that you will die and be born again in another life is one of the more mind-blowing beliefs in the practice of Hinduism. This process is known as Samsara to Hindus. It makes a person wonder when this belief began, as well as how the belief has evolved throughout time. Additionally, it makes someone wonder how that belief changes among Buddhists and other religions that have a similar belief. It can also be explored how rebirth compares to other religions that have different views of the afterlife, or do not believe in an afterlife. Rebirth in Hinduism can be explained very well through its history and narratives, the way it has been practiced and the implications it has over time, and the comparisons it has to beliefs of other religions.
The origins of the concept of rebirth are unknown, but the earliest texts about them correspond to around 800 BCE. These were passages from the Brhadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanisads. In these passages, there was a sacrificial process that was described, and in this process, there is a funeral fire that takes a person’s remains into the clouds. These remains would return to the earth through rain and become food for people. Finally, the person’s remains would be made into a new life through the semen of the person that ate the food. There are other very early narratives that speak of rebirth, one of them being a narrative of the reincarnations of Jaya and Vijaya. During these narratives, they each have three births, one per yuga, then a different kind of rebirth in the fourth yuga. In the first yuga, they were born as twins that would seek out comfort in material items or people and always challenged the Supreme. Both of the boys tried to make themselves immortal so that they could rule the world, but they were stopped by Vishnu and Lord Brahma. In their second incarnations, they are born as demon brothers who feast on humans. Additionally, one of them abducted Rama’s wife. Eventually, they were killed by Lord Rama, which is an incarnation of Vishnu during the Treta age. In the third incarnation, they were born as cousins, and each was raised into a king. Both of them were killed by Krishna, the first because they were verbally attacking Krishna about not being honorable, and the second for trying to challenge Krishna for killing the first. The moral of the stories is that Jaya and Vijaya were killed by manifestations Krishna is all three lives, but they did not know that Krishna was the Supreme Lord. They had grown hateful of Krishna, and chanted his name over and over during the past lifetimes which led to their liberation. This led to them having one final rebirth before being brought back to be the eternal gatekeepers. This last rebirth takes place in the current yuga. The two brothers are Brahmin brothers that are addicted to wine and women. The one brother (Madhai) hurt a Brahmin that was sent by Krishna, and the Brahmin forgave him. The other brother (Jagai) was moved by the Brahmin’s compassion and would not let Madhai hurt the Brahmin anymore. The two brothers were about to be killed by Sri Chaitanya, the manifestation of Krishna, but the injured Brahmin showed Krishna that this was a mission of love. The two brothers were taken in as Sri Chaitanya’s own, but only with behavior reform. These two brothers were able to attain preme, or divine love. This is the highest possible sense of liberating of one’s real self and is the perfection of reincarnation.
These narratives and stories help to show what reincarnation looks like through the ages, showing how spiritual growth, praising of the Supreme, and doing dharma can lead to higher rebirth. With that being the case, it goes to show that the individual is still responsible to continue those and continue that growth, otherwise there can be an almost demotion into a lower life. It is important that in every life, the individual must fulfill his/her dharma without losing themselves in material goods or feelings.
Now, moving onto the practice of reincarnation and the implications it has over time. In the Hindu tradition, as previously mentioned, the oldest son is to open the skull of his parent during the funeral, which releases unresolved desires to be carried by the smoke into the atmosphere. With this practice, the leftover body mingles with King Soma until they are released by Indra’s thunderbolt. This causes them to go deep into the soul letting them be gathered up by plants. Once animals and humans eat these plants, the food makes its way into semen which continues life. Something that is quite interesting is that this process can take several seasons, so on the anniversary of a parent or teachers, Brahmins are paid to perform Sraddha rituals that are meant to help guide the ancestor in their journey to new life. The way rebirth is understood in Hinduism, is that life has three distinct features: subtle, born of a mother and father, and acts of will. It is believed that the subtle influences and acts of will carry over to the next life, but the body that is born of man and woman stays behind. The two that are carried on define personality, which is then covered with the emotional state of each situation that the person was in during their life, which rule over human behavior. These emotional states that rule over human behavior are known as bhavas, and they are meant to help the person see how their personality comes from past influences and allows them to prepare themselves for future influences and how to handle them. This process is meant to help the individual gain knowledge on the pathway to freedom.
This view on reincarnation is now the same for all followers, as it is different for some people today. A 20th century Hindu yoga teacher, by the name of Paramahamsa Yogananda, talks about the process he believes happens during reincarnation. According to him, when a man leaves the world in ignorance, he will wake up in an astral world, which means it is connected with the stars. During this time, Paramahamsa believes that the body is there to work out past habits. Once it is time for the cosmic law, the individual will disintegrate with the astral body to be reborn in the physical world again. While in the astral body, karmic issues can be worked out by the individual. The ego for this individual takes time in an astral body as well, and once it is ready for a physical body, it is reborn to parents that are similar in most karmic elements to the soul of the individual (Chapple). Many Hindus have strong attitudes that humans are not limited beings because they carry so much history and experiences with them through their past lives. If an individual is able to realize the range of past lives they have had, it will allow them to put aside and move on from the dramas that trap the mind in the current life.
All of this leads to some implications about the idea of rebirth. If an individual is able to see their past lives and learn lessons from those lives, they will be able to use them to guide them in their current and future lives so that they are able to complete their dharma and have good karma going into their next life. Another implication is that if an individual is able to recall lives as an animal, it shows a sign of greatness for their connection and kinship of other species. Recollection of these past lives is said to only be attainable through the complete renunciation of all clinging items, possessions, or material connections to past lives and their current life. This will allow the individual to accept what they had/have and what they did not/do not have instead of regretting or being jealous.
Finally, to look at how the idea of reincarnation in Hinduism compares to other ideas of reincarnation, mainly in Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. When it comes to Jainism tradition with reincarnation, they too believe that karma from past lives is a major factor in deciding where a person is reborn in their current lives and in future lives. Followers of Jainism believe that god has no say or judgement on the lives of people and where they are reborn. This means that the only factor playing into it is the karma from past lives and the current life. This is a difference from Hinduism, as Hindus believe that gods like Vishnu express judgement which is why there is such devotional practice among some sections of Hinduism. With Hinduism being a “yes” religion, there are definite possibilities that some followers of Hinduism believe in reincarnation with the same mindset that those of Jainism believe. Another difference from Hinduism to Jainism is that followers of Jainism believe that there are four levels of rebirth. The lowest level is Triyanka Gati, which consists of rebirth as animals, plants, and micro-organisms. The next level is Naraki Gati, which is rebirth as a hell being. The third level of rebirth is Manusya Gati, which is being reborn as a human, and the final stage is Deva Gati, which is rebirth as a demi-god. They believe that violent acts, killing of creatures, or hurting anyone leads to rebirth in hell. Acts of deception and fraud would land an individual to be reborn in the animal or vegetable world. Then, acts of kindness and compassion lead to rebirth as humans, with austerities and keeping of vows leading to one being reborn in heaven as a demi-god.
When it comes to Buddhism, reincarnation is talked about as a consciousness that is arisen, exists, and ceases to exist before the next consciousness mind-state arises. This is a different from Hinduism, where reincarnation is talked about as birth, death, and rebirth. With Buddhism, these mind-states are seen to die and be reborn. Another different in Buddhism is the belief that there is no atman that ties the lives together, known as anatta. Additionally, Buddhists believe in anicca, which means that all things are subject to dissolution. This includes the human person and their personality. Like with Hinduism, there are variations of views regarding rebirth throughout Buddhism. The Tibetans that practice Buddhism believe in an intermediate state, known as “bardo,” that lasts up to forty-nine days in between the two lives of the individual on earth. This period between lives is meant to be a period for the awakening of the spirit. The Theravada School of Buddhism believes there is no intermediate state and that rebirth takes place right after death in the former life. The Tibetan School believes in a seed being planted in the ground that turns into food, much like the Hindus, but they have a little twist on the idea. The Tibetan School believes that if one dies with their mind at peace, a virtuous seed is planted for a fortunate rebirth, but if the mind is disturbed at death, the seed is non-virtuous and the rebirth is unfortunate for the individual. As shown, Buddhism and Hinduism are similar in the fact that based on location and school, different views on beliefs can be present while all being followers of Buddhism or Hinduism respectively.
For Sikhism, life as humans is the final step before realizing god. The actions from this current life determine if the individual can attain union with god. This union with god would break the cycle of reincarnation, and it can be accomplished through abandoning all self-centeredness to embrace god. Due to Sikhism beliefs, that means the person would be Truth-centered because they believe god to be the ultimate Truth. They believe that the soul goes through many purifying forms in many lives to become human to try to attach union with god.
These followers do not believe that anything dies, they believe it all lives in existence that changes form over time. The individual will continue to go through the cycle of birth and death while existing the entire time until they are able to overcome self-centeredness to enter salvation with god (Chandel, 739).
The idea of rebirth in Hinduism has been examined by its history and narratives, the way it is practiced and the implications it has, and by the way it compares to the beliefs of other religions. There is so much information out there on the stories and narratives of different Hindu beliefs and the process the body goes to through this time. There is more out there and the connection reincarnation has with yoga or the Bhagavad Gita. There is much more out there to continue to learn to dive deeper into reincarnation and the connections it has with more and more elements of Hinduism. It is very fascinating the different ways that reincarnation can be interpreted by people and the ways they believe their past and future lives have been affected by it. One common theme among all of the information found was that all of the religions that practice or believe in rebirth believe that karma, or their actions in this life and the past help determine the life they will live the next time they are born. With all the other things that differ between these beliefs, being the best person you can be when it comes to nonviolence and the way others are treated in central to all of these religions and practices. When it comes to Christianity, the way you treat others and the world is a major emphasis on how to live your life, just like in Hinduism and the other religions that believe in rebirth. It is fascinating that all of these religions come back to the same central idea for how to live your life. This idea is simply called something different in each practice, but the idea that your actions determine where your go after death is present in all religions.
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