Reincarnation or Rebirth in Hinduism

Hinduism Concepts

by Jayaram V

Reincarnation (punarjanma) or rebirth is an important concept of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It is integral to the liberation theology of these religions, which share a long and common histroy as they all originated in the Indian subcontinent and influenced each other. Although these three share some common beliefs about rebirth, they differ fundamentally in some aspects. In the following discussion we present the major beliefs associated with the subject of reincarnation according to Hindu Vedic beliefs.

Rebirth or reincarnation means

Reincarnation is also known as transmigration of souls or journey of souls from one life to another and one body to another. According to Hindu theories of reincarnation, individual souls reincarnate repeatedly and pass through many cycles of births and deaths and live in numerous bodies, as they evolve from simple organism to complext beings and finally into humans. They process of reincarnation ends when they they attain perfection in their bodies and achieve liberation. Before they are freed from the cycle of births and deaths, they live upon earth for a long time. Reincarnation facilitates the gradual progression of souls from ignorance to knowledge, untruth to truth, darkness to light, and death to immortality. It gives an opportunity to the souls to start anew on the path of liberation to use the lessons learned in the past lives and work for their liberation.

Death and reincarnation

According to Hindu beliefs the material world is a personification of the Lord of Death, known as Kala (Time). Death devours everything in this world. Every living being and object in this world is food to Death. Beings are caught in between the grinding teeth of this great devourer and none can escape his hungry jaws. Death touches and destroys everything in the object world when its time comes. However, it cannot touch the individual Selves which are immortal and indestructible. Death is for the physical body. The soul remains intact and escapes from the body to take birth again.

The reincarnation soul in the body

Each soul is enveloped inside a field (body) made up of the components (tattvas) of Nature and permeated with the influence of gunas, namely sattva, rajas and tamas. These three qualities are responsible for our thinking and actions. In the body, the soul remains the witness consciousness. It does not undergo any change, but it is enveloped by the impurities of the mind and body. The soul's reflection in the qualities is the ego. It assumes the soul's identity and acts according to its predominant desires, which are caused by the predominant gunas present in the body. Under their influence the ego or the being (jiva) becomes attached to the objects of the world and experiences attraction and aversion. Since the ego is a reflection of the self not real, and since it acts according to desires and attachment, it indulges in desire-ridden actions and becomes subject to the consequences of its actions. This is karma. As the beings accumulate karma continuously, they are bound to the cycle of births and continue their mortal existence birth after birth.

The main causes of reincarnation

The souls are bound to the cycle of births and deaths mainly because of desires and desire-ridden actions. The scriptures identify three main reasons for the rebirth and suffering of the souls in the mortal world, namely egoism (anava), attachments (pasas) and delusion (maya). Anava means atomicity or the feeling of being small, distinct and separate from the rest of creation. It stands for egoism, beingness or individuality, which is responsible for selfishness, duality, and desire-ridden actions. Attachments are the bonds we form with the objects and people in the world. They hold us down and prevent us from achieving complete freedom from the hold of Nature. Delusion or maya is mistaking the unreal for real and real for unreal. One example is believing that the mind and body are the self, and the objective world is real. In reality, both are impermanent and unreal. The delusion prevents us from knowing the truth and finding the truth. These three impurities produce karma and bind the souls to the cycle of births and deaths.

How the soul escapes from the body

According to the Upanishads when a person is about to die, his senses are withdrawn into the mind, the mind into the breath. The breaths (pranas), together with the subtle senses (devas) then gather around the souls and enter the subtle heart which is connected to the entire body through various energy channels called nadis and nerve centers. At this state the soul carries with it a small residue of the mind (karana citta) consisting of dominant desires and tendencies as latent impressions (samskaras). They become the blueprint for the soul's next birth. In the final stages when the person becomes totally unconscious and loses sight of everything, the soul along with the breaths, the subtle sense, the subtle bodies and the residual mind travels upward from the heart through the upward breathing channel (Udana) and reaches the head region. There through a subtle opening in the skull, it escapes into the air and reaches the mid-region (antariksha). Once the soul leaves the body, the person becomes lifeless. The body is then cremated and its elements (mahabhutas) are returned to the elements.

The journey of the soul to the next world

Upon leaving the body, the departing soul along with the remains of the subtle bodies, the residual karma (karana citta), the breaths (prana) and the divinities (subtle senses) ascend into midregion (antariksha) ruled by Vayu, the wind god. There, the breaths and the divinities separate from the soul and enter their respective sphere. The soul with remaining parts travels to the ancestral world located in the moon. From there they descend still higher, depending upon their karma. The ancient verses from the Vedas suggest that just as the humans use animals as food, the gods use the humans, who enter the ancestral world, as food. They feed upon their astral bodies and in the process cleanse part of their karmas. The path by which they travel is known as the path of the ancestors (Pitrayana) or the southern path (Dakshinayana). This path is explained in several Upanishads, including the oldest, namely Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads. The following verse is quoted from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6.2.16), which explains the journey in some detail: "Now, those who win the worlds by sacrifices, charity and austerity they pass into the smoke, from the smoke into the night, from the night into the fortnight of the waning moon, from the fortnight of the waning moon into the six months during which the sun files southwards, from these months into the world of ancestors, from the world of ancestors into the moon." A similar idea is presented in the following verse from the Chandogya Upanishad (5.10.3): "But those who live in villages, who practice sacrifices to fulfill their desires and indulge in acts of public good and charity, they enter smoke, from smoke to night, from night to the darker fortnight, from the darker fortnight to those six months in which the sun moves southwards.

The soul's existence in the ancestral world

The same verse from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad mentioned above describes the existence of the souls in the ancestral world: "Upon reaching the moon, they become food. There the gods enjoy them, just as the priests enjoy the drink of Soma watching the moon wax and wane." The smoke mentioned here denotes the impurity surrounding the soul. When the soul is enveloped in impurities, it enters an impure world. The ancestral world is better than the mortal world because the souls enjoy a better existence in that world. However, still it is an impure world, compared to the world of the Sun. In the moon you have light, but it is not as bright or pure as that of the sun. Besides, the moon is subject to waning and waxing. Therefore, it is not permanent either. There, the enjoyment of souls is similar to the enjoyment of the domestic animals we keep in our farms. Compared to the animals in the wild, the farm animals get food, water, shelter and protection from harm. Yet, they are cared for because they provide us with food as milk, ghee, and even the meat. For the gods, humans serve the same purpose. In the ancestral world, they become food to gods. Their astral bodies are gradually worn off as gods feed upon them and cleanse them partially by ridding them of some of the impurities. They also become weak as their descendants tend to forget them, or neglect them without offering ritual food. When food is offered ritually to the ancestors, they use that offering to build their astral bodies. When those offerings cease, they become weak and gradually fall off the ancestral world.

The return and rebirth of the soul

As time goes by in the ancestral world, the souls lose their subtle bodies partly because they are consumed by the gods and partly because they do not get enough nourishment from their descendants who live upon earth. By serving the gods, they also exhaust part of their impurities and sinful karma. When they lose their bodies, it is time for the souls to return to the earth. In the concluding part of the verse the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad describes the return journey. "Upon reaching the moon, they become food. There the gods enjoy them, just as the priests enjoy the drink of Soma watching the moon wax and wane. When that ends they enter into space, from space into air, from air into rain, from rain into the earth. Then they are again offered in the fire of man, and from there into the fire of a woman so that they can go again to the other worlds. Thus, they keep rotating." When the souls fall down upon earth, they enter the plants through water. Some of the plants are consumed by animals. When both the plants and animals are consumed by men, they become part of their semen. This is explained in the Chandogya Upanishad (5.10.5-7): "There upon, exhausting the wealth of their karmas, they return again, by the same path by which they go, to space, and from space to air. Having become air, they become smoke; and having become smoke, they become mist. Having become mist, they become clouds, having become clouds, they rain down. Then they are born as rice plants and corn plants, as herbs and trees, as sesame and bean plants. From here on their escape becomes difficult. For whoever person may eat the food, and begets offspring, he henceforth becomes like unto him. Those whose conduct was pleasant will attain pleasant wombs, such as the wombs of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, or Vaisyas; and those whose behavior was evil, will attain the wombs of the evil and the impure ones."

Other Vedic beliefs associated with rebirth

The Upanishads present several alternatives available to the souls after their departure from here. Their journey to the ancestral world is the most predominant idea. However, they also suggest that some souls may travel to the world of gods alone and stay there. For example the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.5.16) declares that the human life is obtained by son, the ancestral world by sacrificial actions and the world of gods by knowledge alone. The idea that the human life is possible only through son is based on the early Vedic belief that a man is born again upon earth through his own son. Before his death a father passes his knowledge and name to his son through a transference ceremony. After death and after returning from the ancestral heaven, he enters his son through water and is born again as his son. Whatever knowledge he passed on before his death, he reclaims again from his son. The tradition thus continues as his son, who is now his father, is again born through him. The Kaushitaki Upanishad (1.2) suggests that those who depart from here go to the moon. In the bright half of the moon the moon deals with them affectionately, but in the dark half of the moon it sends them back again. When a departing soul reaches the moon, it asks him some questions. If he answers properly, he is allowed to stay. Otherwise, he is to return to earth to be born "again as worm, or as an insect, or as a fish, or as a bird, or as a lion, or as a boar, or as a snake, or as a tiger, or as a person or as someone else in different, different places, according to his deeds, and according to his knowledge."

Existence in hell

The Vedas suggest that those who commit grave sins do not go to the ancestral world. Instead they go to the world which exists beneath the earth, from where they return to take birth as worms, insects and animals. In the Puranas the concept was further elaborated to suggest that the sinners went to the hell ruled by Yama, the Lord of Death, who is mentioned in the Katha Upanishad, as a great teacher and personification of righteousness. Yama is not a demon, but a god who represents the best of divine qualities. He punishes the souls according to their deeds. The Garuda Purana describes the various brutal punishments meted out to various sinners. The epics and the Puranas also suggest that those whose karma is a mixture of good and bad deeds, may also visit the hell to spend sometime there undergoing punishments before they are sent to the heaven of gods or to the ancestral world.

Multiple heavens and hells

Hindu cosmology developed a great deal of complexity by the time the major Puranas were composed, probably due to the influence of Jainism and Buddhism. The Puranas speak of not one but seven heavens and seven hells with the earth standing in between. Apart from these, there is the heaven of Vishnu, known as Vaikuntha, the heaven of Shiva known as Kailasa, and the heaven of Brahma known as Brahmaloka. These are higher than the world of Indra. Highest of all heavens is the world of Brahman, where the immortals live forever and are never reborn again. Those who cleanse their karma and achieve liberation go to this heaven. Vaishnavas and Saivites who worship Vishnu and Shiva as Brahman, regard their worlds, Vaikuntha and Kailasa, as the highest heaven and the world of Brahman.

Is it possible to avoid rebirth?

The answer to this question is affirmative. It is possible to escape from the cycle of births and achieve liberation through self-realization. For that one has to practice renunciation, cultivate virtues, perform obligatory duties selflessly, surrender to God and lead exemplary lives pursing the highest knowledge, fixing their minds completely upon the Self or the Supreme Self. Those who fill the minds and bodies with purity (sattva) qualify to achieve liberation. The Upanishad describe the path by which these immortal souls travel as the path of the gods (Devayana) or the northern path. People who achieve liberation are forever freed from mortality. They may become future gods, but do not return to the earth.

What is the difference between reincarnation and incarnation?

Incarnation (avatar) means a manifestation of God (Isvara) upon earth in a physical form as a living being, human or animal. Reincarnation means the rebirth of the individual souls upon earth. According to Hinduism, the purpose of an incarnation of God is preservation of Dharma and continuation of the worlds and their order and regularity. The purpose of rebirth or reincarnation is also continuation of obligatory duties (Dharma) and preservation of the social, moral and world order. An incarnation is a self-willed divine act. The reincarnation of a soul happens because of karma and past life impressions. It is not a willful act but a consequence of previous desire-ridden action. It is believed that only Vishnu, the preserver, incarnates upon earth. However, some of the incarnations ascribed to Vishnu now were originally attributed to Brahma. The Puranas describe nine incarnations of Vishnu so far. The tenth one will happen in future at the end of Kaliyuga, when Vishnu manifests as Kalki and destroy all evil beings.

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