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Reincarnation in Hindu art

Reincarnation, literally "to be made flesh again", is the belief that the soul, after death of the body, comes back to earth in another body. According to one belief, a new personality is developed during each life in the physical world, but the soul remains constant throughout the successive lives.[1]

Belief in reincarnation has ancient roots. This doctrine is a central tenet within the majority of Indian religious traditions, such as Buddhism, most Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and most Paganism. Although there are Hindu and Pagan groups who do not believe in reincarnation, instead believing in an afterlife. In various forms, it occurs as an esoteric belief in many streams of Judaism in different aspects. In some beliefs of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and some Indigenous Australians (though most believe in an afterlife or spirit world). A belief in rebirth/metempsychosis was held by Greek historical figures, such as Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato, as well as in various modern religions. The idea was also entertained by some ancient Greek philosophers. Along with followers of Spiritism, practitioners of certain African traditions, and students of esoteric philosophies such as Kabbalah, and Gnostic and Esoteric Christianity. The Buddhist concept of Rebirth although often referred to as reincarnation differs significantly from the Hindu-based traditions and New Age movements in that there is no unchanging "soul" (or eternal self) to reincarnate. Although the majority of denominations within Christianity and Islam do not believe that individuals reincarnate, particular groups within these religions do refer to reincarnation; these groups include the mainstream historical and contemporary followers of Cathars, Alawites, the Druze, and the Rosicrucians. The historical relations between these sects and the beliefs about reincarnation that were characteristic of Neoplatonism, Orphism, Hermeticism, Manichaenism, and Gnosticism of the Roman era as well as the Indian religions have been the subject of recent scholarly research. In recent decades, many Europeans and North Americans have developed an interest in reincarnation, and many contemporary works mention it.

During recent decades, a significant number of people in the West have developed a belief in reincarnation.[2] Feature films, such as Kundun, What Dreams May Come and Birth, contemporary books by authors such as Carol Bowman and Vicki Mackenzie, as well as popular songs, regularly mention reincarnation.

Researchers, such as Professor Ian Stevenson, have explored the issue of reincarnation and published evidence of children's memories of earlier lives in peer-reviewed journals and elsewhere. Skeptics are critical of this work and say that more reincarnation research is needed.[3]

Eastern religions and traditions

Eastern philosophical and religious beliefs regarding the existence or non-existence of an unchanging 'self' have a direct bearing on how reincarnation is viewed within a given tradition. There are large differences in philosophical beliefs regarding the nature of the soul (also known as the jiva or atman) amongst Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Jainism that do accept such an idea.

The concept of reincarnation (along with karma, samsara, and moksha) was first developed in India by non-Aryan people outside of the caste system whose spiritual ideas greatly influenced later Indian religious thought. Buddhism and Jainism are continuations of this tradition, and the early Upanishadic movement was influenced by[weasel words] it. Reincarnation was adopted from this religious culture by Brahmin orthodoxy, and Brahmins first wrote down scriptures containing these ideas in the early Upanishads.[4][5][6][7][8][9]


According to the scriptures, Siddhārtha Gautama taught a concept of rebirth that was distinct from that of any known contemporary Indian teacher. This concept was consistent with the common notion of a sequence of related lives stretching over a very long time, but was constrained by two core Buddhist concepts: anattā, that there is no irreducible ātman or "self" tying these lives together; and anicca, that all compounded things are subject to dissolution, including all the components of the human person and personality. At the death of one personality, a new one comes into being, much as the flame of a dying candle can serve to light the flame of another.[10][11]

Since, according to Buddhism, there is no permanent and unchanging self (identity) there can be no transmigration in the strict sense. Buddhism teaches that what is reborn is not the person but that one moment gives rise to another and that this momentum continues, even after death. It is a more subtle concept than the usual notion of reincarnation, reflecting the Buddhist concept of personality existing (even within one's lifetime) without a "Self". Instead of a fixed entity, what is reborn is an "evolving consciousness" (M.1.256) or "stream of consciousness" (D.3.105), whose quality has been conditioned by karma.[12]

Buddhism suggests that samsara, the process of rebirth, occurs across five or six realms of existence.[13] It is actually said in Tibetan Buddhism that it is very rare for a person to be reborn in the immediate next life as a human.[14] This depends on the karmic potentialities (or "seeds") they have created with their actions and upon their state of mind at the time of death. If we die with a peaceful mind, this will stimulate a virtuous seed and we shall experience a fortunate rebirth; but if we die with a disturbed mind, in a state of anger, say, this will stimulate a non-virtuous seed and we shall experience an unfortunate rebirth. This is similar to the way in which nightmares are triggered by our being in an agitated state of mind just before falling asleep.[15]

Tibetan Buddhists also believe that a newborn child may be the rebirth of some important departed lama.

Skeptic Carl Sagan asked the Dalai Lama what would he do if a fundamental tenet of his religion (reincarnation) was definitively disproved by science. The Dalai Lama answered; "if science can disprove reincarnation, Tibetan Buddhism would abandon reincarnation... but it's going to be mighty hard to disprove reincarnation."[16]


According to Hinduism, the soul (atman) is immortal, while the body is subject to birth and death. The Bhagavad Gita states that:

Worn-out garments are shed by the body; Worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller within the body. New bodies are donned by the dweller, like garments. (Verse 2:22)[17]

The idea that the soul (of any living being with a consciousness) reincarnates is intricately linked to karma, another concept first recorded in the Upanishads. Karma (literally: action) is the sum of one's actions and the force that determines one's next reincarnation. The cycle of death and rebirth, governed by karma, is referred to as samsara. [18]

Hinduism teaches that the soul goes on repeatedly being passed from body to body through the physical cycle of death and birth. One is reborn on account of desire: a person desires to be born because he or she wants to enjoy worldly pleasures, which can be enjoyed only through a body.[19] Hinduism does not teach that all worldly pleasures are sinful, but it teaches that they can never bring deep, lasting happiness or peace (ānanda). According to the Hindu sage Adi Shankaracharya, the world - as we ordinarily understand it - is like a dream: fleeting and illusory. To be trapped in samsara is a result of ignorance of the true nature of our existence.

After many births, every person eventually becomes dissatisfied with the limited happiness that worldly pleasures can bring. At this point, a person begins to seek higher forms of happiness, which can be attained only through spiritual experience. When, after much spiritual practice (sādhanā), a person finally realizes his or her own divine nature—i.e., realizes that the true "self" is the immortal soul rather than the body or the ego—all desires for the pleasures of the world will vanish, since they will seem insipid compared to spiritual ānanda. When all desire has vanished, the person will not be reborn anymore.[20]

When the cycle of rebirth thus comes to an end, a person is said to have attained moksha, or salvation from samsara.[21] While all schools of thought agree that moksha implies the cessation of worldly desires and freedom from the cycle of birth and death, the exact definition of salvation depends on individual beliefs. For example, followers of the Advaita Vedanta school (often associated with jnana yoga) believe that they will spend eternity absorbed in the perfect peace and happiness that comes with the realization that all existence is One (Brahman), and that the immortal soul is part of that existence. The followers of full or partial Dvaita schools ("dualistic" schools, such as bhakti yoga), on the other hand, perform their worship with the goal of spending eternity in a loka, (spiritual world or heaven), in the blessed company of the Supreme being (i.e. Krishna or Vishnu for the Vaishnavas and Shiva for the dualistic schools of Shaivism).[22] The principal Hindu Gods are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and their consorts Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati. While there is hardly any text describing reincarnation of Brahma and Saraswati, the rest of the Gods are known to have reincarnated in various forms under different circumstances. Lord Vishnu is known for His ten reincarnations, namely Dashavatars.


In Jainism, particular reference is given to how devas (gods) also reincarnate after they die. A Jainist who accumulates enough good karma may become a deva, but this is generally seen as undesirable since devas eventually die and one might then come back as a lesser being. This belief also exists in a number of other schools of Hinduism.[23]


Sikhs believe that every creature has a Soul; on death, the Soul is passed from one body to another until Liberation. The journey of the Soul is governed by the deeds and actions that we perform during our lives. If we perform good deeds and actions and remember the Creator, we attain a better life. On the contrary, if we carry out evil actions and sinful deeds, we will be incarnated in “lower” life forms – snakes, lions, zebra, monkeys, hippopotamus etc. The person who has evolved to spiritual perfection attains salvation – union with God.

The Karmas of a person will definitely have their effect, both good and bad. No worldly power can change the course of their movement. But according to the Sikh thought, the Almighty God, with his Grace, may pardon the wrongs of a person and thus release him/her from the pangs of suffering.[24] Reincarnation, simply stated, is the law of cause and effect: reincarnation does not create any caste or differences among people: past and present life's actions simply have a bearing upon a specific individual. Reincarnation in no way makes one superior to another.


Taoist documents from as early as the Han Dynasty claimed that Lao Tzu appeared on earth as different persons in different times beginning in the legendary era of Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. The (ca. 3rd century BCE) Chuang Tzu states: "Birth is not a beginning; death is not an end. There is existence without limitation; there is continuity without a starting-point. Existence without limitation is Space. Continuity without a starting point is Time. There is birth, there is death, there is issuing forth, there is entering in."[25]

Western religions and traditions

Ancient Greek philosophy

Sculpture title "Rebirth" on display on Genova Street in the "Zona Rosa" in Mexico City.

An early example of reincarnation in Western cultures comes from the Orphic or Dionysus mystery religions dating back between the 6th and 4th century BC, according to which the soul was breathed into the human body through the Aither (air) where the host, or human, would atone for the sins from the inheritance of titan heritage. The soul would spend 10 transformations across a span of one thousand years each before atonement and become one with the gods; by living one's life as a philosopher it would only take three of these transformations.

Among the ancient Greeks, Socrates, Pythagoras, and Plato may have believed in or taught the doctrine of reincarnation. Several ancient sources affirm that Pythagoras claimed he could remember his past lives.[26] An association between Pythagorean philosophy and reincarnation was routinely accepted throughout antiquity.

In Plato's Phaedo dialogue, Socrates, prior to his death, states; "I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, and that the living spring from the dead." However, Xenophon, our other main informant of Socrates' life, does not mention the latter as believing in reincarnation.

Plato presented detailed accounts of reincarnation in his major works. It may be questioned whether Plato's accounts, such as the Myth of Er, which also contain many fabulous details irrelevant to reincarnation, were intended to be taken literally. Marsilio Ficino (Platonic Theology 17.3-4) argued that Plato's references to reincarnation were intended allegorically.

In the Hermetica, a Graeco-Egyptian series of writings on cosmology and spirituality attributed to Hermes Trismegistus/Thoth, the doctrine of reincarnation is central.


The overwhelming majority of mainstream Christian denominations have, since the time of the Council of Nicaea, until now rejected the notion of reincarnation and consider the theory to challenge basic tenets of their beliefs. Certain[weasel words] churches indirectly address the subject through teachings about death (see Particular judgment). A few consider the matter open to individual interpretation due to the few biblical references which survived the purging of texts considered to be heretical in the founding years of Christianity as a church. Some Christians contend that reincarnation was taught by the early Christian church, but due to bias and mistranslations, these teachings were lost or obscured. Many of the philosophies associated with the theory of reincarnation focus on "working" or "learning" through various lifetimes to achieve some sort of higher understanding or state of "goodness" before salvation is granted or acquired. Basic to Traditional Christianity is the doctrine that humans can never achieve the perfection God requires and the only salvation is total and complete forgiveness accomplished through the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross wherein he took the sins of mankind. There seems to be evidence however that some of the earliest Christian sects such as the Sethians and followers of the Gnostic Church of Valentinus believed in reincarnation, and they were persecuted by the Romans for this.[27]

A number of Evangelical and (in the USA) Fundamentalist Christian maintain that any phenomena suggestive of it are deceptions of the devil. Although the Bible never mentions the word reincarnation, there are several passages through New Testament that reject reincarnation or the possibility of any return or contact with this world for the souls in Heaven or Hell (see Hebrews 9:27 and Luke 16:20-31)

The Bible contains passages in the New Testament that could be taken to allude to reincarnation. In Matthew 11:10-14 and 17:10-13, John 1:21, the Jews ask John the Baptist if he is Elijah and John replies clearly that he is not, implying that Jesus' reference was meant in a figurative sense (which is what most Christians accept). It should be noted that Elijah never actually "died," but was "raptured" in a chariot of fire. Furthermore, the prophetic texts stated that God would send Elijah back to Earth, as a harbinger of Jesus Christ. As cousins they were born respectively to barren Elizabeth[28] and Zacharias;[29] Jesus, firstborn of Mary and Joseph,[30] was the first to rise from the dead visibly demonstrating his power over death.[31] It can also be taken to mean an apparition, not a reincarnation.

There are various contemporary attempts to entwine Christianity and reincarnation. Geddes Macgregor, wrote a book called Reincarnation in Christianity: A New Vision of Rebirth in Christian Thought, Rudolf Steiner wrote Christianity as Mystical Fact and Tommaso Palamidessi wrote Memory of Past Lives and Its Technique which contains several methods which are supposed to help in obtaining memories from previous lives.[32]

Several groups which consider themselves to be Christian and support reincarnation include the Christian Community, the Liberal Catholic Church, Unity Church, The Christian Spiritualist Movement, the Rosicrucian Fellowship and Lectorium Rosicrucianum. The Medieval sect known variously as the Cathars or Albigensians who flourished in the Languedoc believed in Reincarnation, seeing each soul as a fallen angel born again and again into the world of Matter created by Lucibel (Lucifer).

The American psychic Edgar Cayce, who considered himself to be Christian both in and out of trance, supported the idea of reincarnation. While in trance he would give "life readings" in which he would discuss the previous reincarnations of his subjects.[33]


While ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Socrates attempted to prove the existence of reincarnation through philosophical proofs, Jewish mystics who accepted this idea did not.

Reincarnation appeared in Jewish thought some time after the Talmud. There is no reference to reincarnation in the Talmud or any prior writings.[34] The idea of reincarnation, called gilgul, became popular in folk belief, and is found in much Yiddish literature among Ashkenazi Jews. Among a few kabbalists, it was posited that some human souls could end up being reincarnated into non-human bodies. These ideas were found in a number of Kabbalistic works from the 1200s, and also among many mystics in the late 1500s. Martin Buber's early collection of stories of the Baal Shem Tov's life includes several that refer to people reincarnating in successive lives.[35]

Among well known (generally non-kabbalist or anti-kabbalist) Rabbis who rejected the idea of reincarnation are Saadia Gaon, David Kimhi, Hasdai Crescas, Yedayah Bedershi (early 14th century), Joseph Albo, Abraham ibn Daud, the Rosh and Leon de Modena.

Saadia Gaon, in Emunoth ve-Deoth, concludes Section vi with a refutation of the doctrine of metempsychosis (reincarnation). While refuting reincarnation, the Saadia Gaon further states that Jews who hold to reincarnation have adopted non-Jewish beliefs.

The belief is common in Orthodox Judaism. Indeed, there is an entire volume of work called Sha'ar Ha'Gilgulim[36] (The Gate of Reincarnations),[37] based on the work of Rabbi Isaac Luria (and compiled by his disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital). It describes the deep, complex laws of reincarnation. One concept that arises from Sha'ar Ha'gilgulim is the idea that gilgul is paralleled physically by pregnancy.

Many Orthodox siddurim (prayerbooks) have a nightly prayer asking for forgiveness for sins that one may have committed in this gilgul or a previous one, which accompanies the nighttime recitation of the Shema before going to sleep.[38]


Though mainstream Islam rejects the concept of reincarnation, a number of sufi groups believe in the concept of dawriyyah (cycles) which has many points in common with reincarnation, claiming that this concept is mentioned in the Quran (Koran), the central religious text of Islam:

"How can you deny God, when you were dead and God gave you life? Then God will cause you to die, and then revive you, and then you will be returned to God." (Quran 2:28)

Some Sufi groups suggest that mystics and poets in the Islamic tradition have celebrated this belief:

"I died as mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was man.
Why should I fear?
When was I less by dying?" Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi (Persian Sufi) [39]

Modern Sufis who embrace the idea of reincarnation include Bawa Muhaiyadeen (see his To Die Before Death: The Sufi Way of Life). However Hazrat Inayat Khan has criticized the idea of reincarnation as unhelpful to the spiritual seeker's quest for unity with God, as it focuses the aspirant's attention on the past and the future, rather than achieving spiritual transcendence in the present moment.[40]

Another verse of the Qur-an that may support the theory of reincarnation is: "Thou [God] makest the night to pass into the day and Thou makest the day to pass into the night, and Thou bringest forth the living from the dead and Thou bringest forth the dead from the living, and Thou givest sustenance to whom Thou pleasest without measure." (Quran 3:27)

Some verses of Quran that seem to discount repeated lives:

  • "And say not of those who are slain in the way of Allah. "They are dead." Nay, they are living, though ye perceive (it) not."(The Quran, 2:154).
  • "From the (earth) did We Create you, and into it Shall We return you, And from it shall We Bring you out once again." (The Quran, 20:55).
  • "And Allah has produced you from the earth, Growing (gradually), And in the End He will return you Into the (earth), And raise you forth (Again at the Resurrection)." (The Quran, 71:17-18).
  • "Nor will they there Taste Death, except the first Death; and He will preserve Them from the Penalty Of the Blazing Fire." (The Quran, 44:56).
  • "Is it (the case) that We shall not die, except our first death, And that we Shall not be punished?' Verily this is The supreme achievement! For the like of this Let all strive, Who wish to strive." (The Quran, 37:58-61)..

..The phrases given as proof from the holy quran here do not support the belief of reincarnatin. All these verses point to one of the main beliefs of Islam... that is.., the judgement day. Allah has mentioned in the holy quran that all the souls that ever were created., will be brought back to life on the day of judgement.

Native American nations

Reincarnation is an intrinsic part of many Native American and Inuit traditions. In the now heavily Christian Polar North (now mainly parts of Greenland and Nunavut), the concept of reincarnation is enshrined in the Inuit language.

The following is a story of human-to-human reincarnation as told by Thunder Cloud, a Winnebago shaman referred to as T. C. in the narrative. Here T. C. talks about his two previous lives and how he died and came back again to this his third lifetime. He describes his time between lives, when he was “blessed” by Earth Maker and all the abiding spirits and given special powers, including the ability to heal the sick.

T. C.’s Account of His Two Reincarnations

I once lived in a party that numbered about twenty camps. When I had grown up to be a lad, although one not large enough to handle a gun, a war party attacked us and killed us all. I did not know, however, that I had been killed. I thought that I was running about as usual until I saw a heap of bodies on the ground and mine among them. No one was there to bury us, so there we lay and rotted. I (my ghost) was taken to the place where the sun sets (the west). There I lived with an old couple. This place (spirit land) is an excellent place, and the people have the best of times. If you desire to go anywhere, all that you have to do is to wish yourself there and you reach it. While at that place, I thought I would come back to earth again, and the old man with whom I was staying said to me, “My son, did you not speak about wanting to go to the earth again?” I had, as a matter of fact, only thought of it, yet he knew what I wanted. Then he said to me, “You can go, but you must ask the chief first.” Then I went and told the chief of the village of my desire, and he said to me, “You may go and obtain your revenge upon the people who killed your relatives and you.” Then I was brought down to earth. I did not enter a women's womb, but I was taken into a room. There I remained conscious at all times. One day I heard the noise of little children outside and some other sounds, so I thought I would go outside. Then it seemed to me that I went through a door, but I was really being born again from a woman's womb. As I walked out, I was struck with the sudden rush of cold air and I began to cry. At that place, I was brought up and I was taught to fast a great deal. Afterward, I did nothing but go to war, and I certainly took revenge for the death of my relatives and myself, that being the purpose for which I had come to earth. There I lived until I died of old age. All at once my bones became un-jointed, my ribs fell in, and I died the second time. I felt no more pain at death then than I had felt the first time. This time I was buried in the manner used at that time. I was wrapped in a blanket and then laid in the grave. Sticks were placed in the grave. I watched the people as they buried me. There in the grave I rotted. As I was lying there, someone said to me, “Come, let us go away.” So then we went toward the setting of the sun. There we came to a village where we met all the dead. I was told that I would have to stop there for four nights, but in reality I stayed there four years. The people enjoy themselves there. They have all sorts of dances of a lively kind all the time. From that place we went up to the place where Earth Maker lived, and there I saw him and talked to him, face to face, even as I am talking to you now. I saw the spirits too, and, indeed, I was like one of them. From that place I came to this earth again for the third time, and here I am. (Radin, 1923)[41]

Norse mythology

Sváfa holding the dying Helgi in their first incarnation of three.

Reincarnation also appears in Norse mythology, in the Poetic Edda. The editor of the Poetic Edda says that Helgi Hjörvarðsson and his mistress, the valkyrie Sváfa, whose love story is told in the Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, were reborn as Helgi Hundingsbane and the valkyrie Sigrún. Helgi and Sigrún's love story is the matter of a part of the Völsunga saga and the lays Helgakviða Hundingsbana I and II. They were reborn a second time as Helgi Haddingjaskati and the valkyrie Kára, but unfortunately their story, Káruljóð, only survives in a probably modified form in the Hrómundar saga Gripssonar.

The belief in reincarnation was probably commonplace among the Vikings since the annotator of the Poetic Edda wrote that people formerly used to believe in it, but that it was in his (Christian) time considered "old wives' folly":

Sigrun was early dead of sorrow and grief. It was believed in olden times that people were born again, but that is now called old wives' folly. Of Helgi and Sigrun it is said that they were born again; he became Helgi Haddingjaskati, and she Kara the daughter of Halfdan, as is told in the Lay of Kara, and she was a Valkyrie.[42]


During the 1990s Thomas W. Clark, founder of the Center for Naturalism, published a metaphysical argument for a type of naturalistic-compatible form of reincarnation. It is entitled: "Death, Nothingness and Subjectivity". It is not the conventional or traditional concept of reincarnation, Mr. Clark termed it "Generic Subjective Continuity". The paper was published in the Humanist and republished in "The Experience of Philosophy". His argument states that "nothingness" is never an experienced actuality for conscious beings, and therefore subjective experience does not cease at death, as the common secular conception holds, but relocates into other conscious beings, where no supernatural entity literally transmigrates from one being to another. Another philosopher and author, Wayne Stewart, also created an argument directly parallel to Mr. Clark's entitled: "Metaphysics by Default" in 1999.


Zoroastrianism does not believe in reincarnation. Zoroastrianism believes that the soul is given final judgment 3 days after death. Zoroastrianism believes in Frashokereti, where the world will end, and the metal from the mountains will pour out throughout the earth. The souls that did good deeds, and those that are in heaven, will feel it as warm milk, and those who have done bad deeds and who are in hell will feel as if pointed, sharp rocks are poking at them. The world will be remade after this, with all of evil removed from the earth, and the souls will go through a phase where they will be "born again" or cleansed.


The ethnic neopagan Lithuanian faith, Romuva, accepts reincarnation as the most probable form of existence after death. However, people are not reincarnated in human form. Rather, they take the form of trees, rocks, etc.

Contemporary perspectives

Modern thinkers

During the Renaissance, a new flowering of public interest in reincarnation occurred. One of the prominent figures in the revival was Italy's leading philosopher and poet Giordano Bruno, who was ultimately sentenced to be burned at the stake by the Inquisition among others because of his teachings about reincarnation.[43]

During the classical period of German literature metempsychosis attracted much attention: Goethe played with the idea, and it was taken up more seriously by Lessing, who borrowed it from Charles Bonnet, and by Herder. It has been mentioned with respect by Hume and by Schopenhauer.

Irish poet and Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats proposed a novel theory of reincarnation in his occult treatise A Vision. According to Yeats’ view reincarnation does not occur within a framework of linear time. Rather, all of a person's past and future lives are happening at once, in an eternal now moment; and the decisions made in any of these lifetimes influence all of the other lives (and are influenced by them).

Hermann Hesse, Literary Nobel Prize, 1946, expressed a viewpoint of "...reincarnation as a mode of expression for stability in the midst of flux."


Reincarnation plays an important role in the ideas of Anthroposophy, a spiritual movement founded by Rudolf Steiner. Steiner described the human soul as gaining new experiences in every epoch and in a variety of races or nations. The unique personality, with its weaknesses and abilities, is not simply a reflection of the body's genetic heritage. Though Steiner described the incarnating soul as searching for and even preparing a familial lineage supportive of its future life, a person's character is also determined by his or her past lives.

Anthroposophy describes the present as being formed by a tension between the past and the future. Both influence our present destiny; there are events that occur due to our past, but there are also events that occur to prepare us rightly for the future. Between these two, there is space for human free will; we create our destiny, not only live it out, just as we build a house in which we then choose to live.

Anthroposophy has developed various spiritual exercises that are intended to develop the capacity to discern past lives and the deeper nature of the human being. In addition, Steiner investigated the karmic relationships of many historical individuals, from Karl Marx to Julian the Apostate.[44]


The Theosophical Society which draws much of its inspiration from India, was the first institution in modern times responsible for widely spreading the concept of reincarnation in the West. It has taken reincarnation, as well as karma and spiritual evolution, as one of its cardinal tenets; it is, according to a recent theosophical writer, "the master-key to modern problems," including heredity.[1] In the Theosophical world-view, the soul in man is originally pure, but it lacks self-consciousness and its powers are potential. Reincarnation is the vast rhythmic process by which the soul in man unfolds its spiritual powers in the world of form and gets to know itself.

First, the soul descends from its sublime, free, spiritual realms, to inhabit a baby form. While living in a human form, it gathers experience through its effort to express itself in the world. After the lifetime is over, there is a withdrawal from the physical plane to successively higher levels of Reality, in what we call death. It involves a process of purification and assimilation of the wisdom from its past life experience. Finally, having completely withdrawn and cast off all instruments of personal experience, it stands again in its spiritual and formless nature. After that process is finished, the soul is ready to begin its next rhythmic manifestation and to descend into matter in a new effort to unfold its spiritual nature and to gain consciousness of its divine origin and nature.

From such a view point, which covers vast periods of time, what is called a lifetime is as a day in the life of the true spiritual human being. This spiritual entity moves forward on a vast pilgrimage, every lifetime bringing it closer to complete self-knowledge and self-expression. According to Theosophy, then, that which reincarnates is the part of man which belongs to the formless non-material and timeless worlds. It is neither the physical body and all of its characteristics, nor the emotional nature, with all its personal likes and dislikes, nor the mental nature, with its accumulated knowledge and its habits of thinking, that will reincarnate. That which is above all these aspects is that which reincarnates. However, when the formless essence of a human being begins its process of reincarnation, it attracts the old mental, emotional, and energetic karmic patterns to form the new personality. Thus the soul with the added powers developed during its previous lives and the post-mortem process of assimilation, deals with the old hindrances or shortcomings it was not able to work out in its previous lifetimes.


See also: Scientology beliefs and practices.

Past reincarnation, usually termed "past lives", is a key part of the principles and practices of the Church of Scientology. Scientologists believe that the human individual is actually an immortal thetan, or spiritual entity, that has fallen into a degraded state as a result of past-life experiences. Scientology auditing is intended to free the person of these past-life traumas and recover past-life memory, leading to a higher state of spiritual awareness. This idea is echoed in their highest fraternal religious order, the Sea Organization, whose motto is "Revenimus" or "We Come Back", and whose members sign a "billion-year contract" as a sign of commitment to that ideal. L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, does not use the word "reincarnation" to describe its beliefs, noting that: "The common definition of reincarnation has been altered from its original meaning. The word has come to mean 'to be born again in different life forms' whereas its actual definition is 'to be born again into the flesh of another body.' Scientology ascribes to this latter, original definition of reincarnation."[45]

The first writings in Scientology regarding past lives date from around 1951 and slightly earlier. In 1960, Hubbard published a book on past lives entitled Have You Lived Before This Life. In 1968 he wrote Mission Into Time, a report on a five-week sailing expedition to Sardinia, Sicily and Carthage to see if specific evidence could be found to substantiate L. Ron Hubbard's recall of incidents in his own past, centuries ago.

Edgar Cayce

American mystic Edgar Cayce promoted the theory of both reincarnation and karma, but wherein they acted as instruments of a loving God as well as natural laws - the purpose being to teach us certain spiritual lessons. Animals are said to have undifferentiated, "group" souls rather than individuality and consciousness. Once the soul evolves through a succession of animal incarnations and achieves human status, it is not then reborn in animal form.


Eckankar offers a mix of Eastern and Western thought and reincarnation is a basis of this teaching.[46][47] It teaches that the soul is eternal, and that it either chooses an incarnation for growth, or that an incarnation is given to it because of Karma. Similar to early Christian thought from the philosopher Origen, Eckankar postulates that the soul is perfected through a series of incarnations until it arrives at "Personal Mastery".

The New Age movement

The belief in past lives and the use of perceptions and knowledge of these to help with one's current life is central to the New Age movement.[48] Notable individuals within this movement who have spoken about reincarnation include Jane Roberts and Walter Semkiw.

Reincarnation is a well accepted belief within the modern Pagan and New Age religions of the world. The beliefs vary from traditional texts of that of Hindu, Buddhist and more recent studies by Edgar Cayce and other more recent Occultists.

It was written in several texts that the Celts and the Druids believed in Reincarnation, but the exact philosophy is not known.

Today, most[weasel words] Wiccans, Witches, Occulists, and Modern Traditional Pagans seem to have the common belief that when one dies they do not always move on to a different plane of existence, but that they are reincarnated into another human, animal, or living creature. Some, Wiccans in particular, believe when they die they move onto a place called Summerland, temporarily, to rest and prepare for their next incarnation. Many Pagans believe that they will incarnate many lifetimes, until they have experienced all there is to experience, until they move on to a higher plane of existence. However, there are still some Modern pagans that believe when they die they move onto Fairyland, Summerland, Valhalla, The Underworld, or other heaven or hell like dimensions to dwell permanently.

Scientific research

Thomas Huxley, the famous English biologist, thought that reincarnation was a plausible idea and discussed it in his book Evolution and Ethics and other Essays. The most detailed collections of personal reports in favor of reincarnation have been published by Professor Ian Stevenson, from the University of Virginia, in books such as Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation and "Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects Volume 1: Birthmarks" and "Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects Volume 2: Birth Defects and Other Anomalies".

Stevenson spent over 40 years devoted to the study of children who have apparently spoken about a past life. In each case, Professor Stevenson methodically documented the child's statements. Then he identified the deceased person the child allegedly identified with, and verified the facts of the deceased person's life that matched the child's memory. He also matched birthmarks and birth defects to wounds and scars on the deceased, verified by medical records such as autopsy photographs.[49][50]

A boy in Beirut spoke of being a 25-year-old mechanic, thrown to his death from a speeding car on a beach road. According to multiple witnesses, the boy provided the name of the driver, the exact location of the crash, the names of the mechanic's sisters and parents and cousins, and the people he went hunting with – all of which turned out to match the life of a man who had died several years before the boy was born, and who had no apparent connection to the boy's family.[51]

Stevenson believed that his strict methods ruled out all possible "normal" explanations for the child's memories. However, it should be noted that a significant majority of Professor Stevenson's reported cases of reincarnation originate in Eastern societies, where dominant religions often permit the concept of reincarnation. Following this type of criticism, Stevenson published a book on European cases suggestive of reincarnation.[52]

There are many people who have investigated reincarnation and come to the conclusion that it is a legitimate phenomenon, such as Peter Ramster, Dr. Brian Weiss, Dr. Walter Semkiw, and others. Professor Stevenson, in contrast, published dozens of papers in peer-reviewed journals.[53]

Some skeptics, such as Paul Edwards, have analyzed many of these accounts, and called them anecdotal.[50] Philosophers like Robert Almeder, having analyzed the criticisms of Edwards and others, suggest that the gist of these arguments can be summarized as "we all know it can't possibly be real, so therefore it isn't real" - an argument from personal incredulity.[54]

The most obvious objection to reincarnation is that there is no evidence of a physical process by which a personality could survive death and travel to another body, and researchers such as Professor Stevenson recognize this limitation.[51]

Another objection is that most people do not remember previous lives. Possible counter-arguments are that not all people reincarnate, or that most people do not have memorable deaths. The vast majority of cases investigated at the University of Virginia involved people who had met some sort of violent or untimely death.[55]

Some skeptics explain that claims of evidence for reincarnation originate from selective thinking and the psychological phenomena of false memories that often result from one's own belief system and basic fears, and thus cannot be counted as empirical evidence. But other skeptics, such as Dr Carl Sagan, see the need for more reincarnation research.[56]

Noteworthy believers in reincarnation

Henry Ford

Henry Ford was convinced he had lived before, most recently as a soldier killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. A quote from the San Francisco Examiner from August 26, 1928 described Ford's beliefs:

"I adopted the theory of Reincarnation when I was twenty-six. Religion offered nothing to the point. Even work could not give me complete satisfaction. Work is futile if we cannot utilise the experience we collect in one life in the next. When I discovered Reincarnation it was as if I had found a universal plan I realised that there was a chance to work out my ideas. Time was no longer limited. I was no longer a slave to the hands of the clock. Genius is experience. Some seem to think that it is a gift or talent, but it is the fruit of long experience in many lives. Some are older souls than others, and so they know more. The discovery of Reincarnation put my mind at ease. If you preserve a record of this conversation, write it so that it puts men’s minds at ease. I would like to communicate to others the calmness that the long view of life gives to us."

George S. Patton

General George S. Patton was a staunch believer in reincarnation and, along with many other members of his family, often claimed to have seen vivid, lifelike visions of his ancestors.[57] In particular, Patton believed he was a reincarnation of Carthaginian General Hannibal.[58]

Popular culture

Indian popular culture

Template:In popular culture Reincarnation is a common theme in contemporary Indian popular culture, particularly in Hindi cinema which has dealt with reincarnation since long before the theme appeared in Hollywood films. Reincarnation has appeared as a main theme in the following Indian films:[59]

  • Mahal (1949)
  • Madhumati (1958)
  • Mooga Manshulu (1963)
  • Nenjam Marappathillai (1963)
  • Milan (1967)
  • Neel Kamal (1968)
  • Mehbooba (1976)
  • Karz (1980)
  • Kudrat (1981)
  • Enakkul Oruvan (1984)
  • Bees Saal Baad (1988)
  • Yuga Purusha (1989)
  • Suryavanshi (1992)
  • Prem Shakti (1994)
  • Karan Arjun (1995)
  • Hamesha (1997)
  • Ab Ke Baras (2002)
  • Valley of Flowers (2006)
  • Om Shanti Om (2007)
  • Karzzzz (2008)
  • Love Story 2050 (2008)
  • Magadheera (2009)

On Indian television, reincarnation has also appeared as a main theme in the following Indian soap operas and serials:

  • Aaj Bhi...Ateet
  • Tum Bin Jaaoon Kahaan
  • Kaahin Kissii Roz
  • Pyaar Ke Do Naam Ek Radha, Ek Shyaam
  • Banoo Main Teri Dulhann
  • Kaajjal
  • Kumkum

Western popular culture

Template:In popular culture

Reincarnation seems to have captured the imagination of many in the West, and the idea of reincarnation receives regular mention in feature films, popular books, and popular music. A great many feature films have made reference to reincarnation, and notable films include:[60]

  • The Three Lives of Thomasina (1964)
  • On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)
  • The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975)
  • Audrey Rose (1977)
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
  • Chances Are (1989)
  • Dead Again (1991)
  • Defending Your Life (1991)
  • Bram Stokers Dracula (1992)
  • Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)
  • Little Buddha (1993)
  • Fluke (1995)
  • Kundun (1997)
  • What Dreams May Come (1998)
  • Yesterday's Children (2000)
  • The Mummy Returns (2001)
  • Birth (2004)
  • The Eye 2 (2004)
  • Reincarnation (2005)
  • The Fountain (2006)

Many popular books have made reference to reincarnation. These include several books by Vicki Mackenzie and Carol Bowman.

In addition there is the bestselling suspense reincarnation series by novelist M.J. Rose which includes The Reincarnationist (2007), The Memorist (2008) and The Hypnotist(2010). This series has inspired the FOX TV series Past Life

Also of note are:

  • Journey to My Past Lives by Nathalia Sunaidi
  • Many Lives, Many Masters by Dr. Brian Weiss
  • The Third Eye by T. Lobsang Rampa
  • The Power of Five series by Anthony Horowitz, which involves children from 8000 B.C. returning as ordinary 21st century chidren

Notable popular songs or albums which refer to reincarnation include:

  • The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg by Iron Maiden
  • The Reincarnation Song by Roy Zimmerman
  • Eternal Caravan of Reincarnation by Santana
  • The Reincarnation of Luna by My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult
  • Highwayman by The Highwaymen
  • Tommy by The Who
  • "Galileo" by The Indigo Girls
  • Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater
  • Champagne Supernova by Oasis
  • Jillian by Within Temptation, itself a recapturing of the central story of the Deverry cycle
  • Reincarnation by Deine Lakaien
  • El Paso City by Marty Robbins
  • Next Lifetime by Erykah Badu
  • Re-Mix-In-A-Carnation" by Wendy and Lisa
  • Where Or When" by Rodgers and Hart

See also

EndlessKnot03d.png Spirituality portal


  • Raaz Pichhle Janam Ka


  • Afterlife (see also Birth, Life, Death)
  • Metempsychosis
  • Xenoglossy
  • Near-death experience
  • Reincarnation in popular western culture


  • Life between lives regression
  • Life review
  • Past life regression
  • Planes of existence
  • Reincarnation research
  • Soul mate
  • Subtle bodies


  • Anthroposophy
  • Buddhism; see also Anatta, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Theravada, Rebirth (Buddhist), Tulku
  • Druidism
  • Druze
  • Edgar Cayce, Edgar Cayce on Karma
  • Esoteric Christianity - Cathars/Catharism - Gnosticism
  • Hinduism; see also Reincarnation and Hinduism, Hindu philosophy, Karma in Hinduism, Atman (Hinduism) & Yoga
  • Kabbalah; see also Gilgul (Kabbalah) and Ibbur (Kabbalah)
  • Rosicrucianism
  • Spiritism
  • Sufism
  • Theosophy


  • Richard James Allen
  • Arthur Flowerdew
  • Joan Grant


  1. 1.0 1.1 Theosophy and reincarnation
  2. Popular psychology, belief in life after death and reincarnation in the Nordic countries, Western and Eastern EuropePDF (54.8 KB)
  3. Tucker, Jim B. (2005). Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children's Memories of Previous Lives, p.186.
  4. “This confirms that the doctrine of transmigration is non-aryan and was accepted by non-vedics like Ajivikism, Jainism and Buddhism. The Indo-aryans have borrowed the theory of re-birth after coming in contact with the aboriginal inhabitants of India. Certainly Jainism and non-vedics [..] accepted the doctrine of rebirth as supreme postulate or article of faith.” Masih, page 37.
  5. Karel Werner, The Longhaired Sage in The Yogi and the Mystic. Karel Werner, ed., Curzon Press, 1989, page 34. "Rahurkar speaks of them as belonging to two distinct 'cultural strands' ... Wayman also found evidence for two distinct approaches to the spiritual dimension in ancient India and calls them the traditions of 'truth and silence.' He traces them particularly in the older Upanishads, in early Buddhism, and in some later literature."
  6. Gavin D. Flood (1996), An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University - Press: UK ISBN 0521438780 - “The origin and doctrine of Karma and Samsara are obscure. These concepts were certainly circulating amongst sramanas, and Jainism and Buddhism developed specific and sophisticated ideas about the process of transmigration. It is very possible that the karmas and reincarnation entered the mainstream brahaminical thought from the sramana or the renouncer traditions.” Page 86.
  7. Padmanabh S. Jaini 2001 “Collected Paper on Buddhist Studies” Motilal Banarsidass Publ 576 pages ISBN 8120817761: "Yajnavalkya’s reluctance and manner in expounding the doctrine of karma in the assembly of Janaka (a reluctance not shown on any other occasion) can perhaps be explained by the assumption that it was, like that of the transmigration of soul, of non-brahmanical origin. In view of the fact that this doctrine is emblazoned on almost every page of sramana scriptures, it is highly probable that it was derived from them." Page 51.
  8. Govind Chandra Pande, (1994) Life and Thought of Sankaracarya, Motilal Banarsidass ISBN 8120811046: Early Upanishad thinkers like Yajnavalkya were acquainted with the sramanic thinking and tried to incorporate these ideals of Karma, Samsara and Moksa into the vedic thought implying a disparagement of the vedic ritualism and recognising the mendicancy as an ideal. Page 135.
  9. "The sudden appearance of this theory [of karma] in a full-fledged form is likely to be due, as already pointed out, to an impact of the wandering muni-and-shramana-cult, coming down from the pre-Vedic non-Aryan time." Kashi Nath Upadhyaya, Early Buddhism and the Bhagavadgita. Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1998, page 76.
  10. Tucker, 2005, p.216
  11. PTS: Miln 71-72; 82-83; 84 (Pali Canon)
  12. Bruce Matthews in Ronald Wesley Neufeldt, editor, Karma and Rebirth: Post Classical Developments. SUNY Press, 1986, page 125.
  13. Transform Your Life: A Blissful Journey, pages 52-55), Tharpa Publications (2001, US ed. 2007) ISBN 978-0-9789067-4-0
  14. The Five Precepts
  15. Transform Your Life: A Blissful Journey, page 52), Tharpa Publications (2001, US ed. 2007) ISBN 978-0-9789067-4-0
  16. Lynda Obst (February 2006). "Valentine to science - interview with Carl Sagan". Interview. p. 2. Retrieved 20 May 2008. 
  17. Bhagavad Gita II.22, ISBN 1-56619-670-1
  18. Brodd, Jefferey (2003). World Religions. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press. ISBN 9780884897255. 
  19. See Bhagavad Gita XVI.8-20
  20. Rinehart, Robin, ed., Contemporary Hinduism19-21 (2004) ISBN 1-57607-905-8
  21. Karel Werner, A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism 110 (Curzon Press 1994) ISBN 0-7007-0279-2
  22. Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Translation by Swami Nikhilananda (8th Ed. 1992) ISBN 0-911206-01-9
  23. Teachings of Queen Kunti by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Chapter 18 "To become Brahma is not a very easy thing. Brahma is such a big post, and it is given to a very qualified living entity who is highly advanced in austerities and penance. But he is also a living entity like us."
  24. Reincarnation as understood by Sikh Religion
  25. tr. Giles 1889, p. 304
  26. Reincarnation: Socrates to Salinger
  27. Much of this is documented in R.E. Slater's book Paradise Reconsidered.
  28. 2:7&src=! Luke 1:56; 2:7
  29. 57&src=! Luke 1:7; 57
  30. Matthew 1:25
  31. 1 Corinthians, Luke 24:39
  32. Tommaso Palamidessi, Memory of Past Lives and Its Technique, ed Archeosofica, 1977
  33. Cerminara, Gina (1988). "Introduction". Many Mansions: The Edgar Cayce Story on Reincarnation. Penguin Group USA. ISBN 9780451168177. 
  34. Saadia Gaon in Emunoth ve-Deoth Section vi
  35. Martin Buber, "Legende des Baalschem" in Die Chassidischen Bücher, Hellerau 1928, especially Die niedergestiegene Seele
  36. Sha'ar Ha'Gilgulim, The Gate of Reincarnations, Chaim Vital
  37. "The Essence". Retrieved 2009-11-14. 
  38. Krias Shema she'al ha-mitah: Ribono Shel Olom contains the gilgul reference in some versions
  39. Nicholson, 1950, p. 103
  40. Gnostic liberation front The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan
  41. Jefferson, Warren (2008), Reincarnation beliefs of North American Indians : soul journeys, metamorphoses, and near-death experiences, Native Voices, ISBN 1570672121, 
  42. Bellow's translation of Helgakviða Hundingsbana II.
  43. Boulting, 1914. pp. 163-64
  44. Steiner, various dates
  45. Does Scientology believe in reincarnation or past lives?
  46. Lo, H.W.; Dzokoto, V. (2005). "Talking to the Master: Intersections of Religion, Culture, and Counseling in Taiwan and Ghana" (PDF). Journal of Mental Health Counseling 27 (2): 117–128. Retrieved 12 April 2008. 
  47. Edwards, L. (2001). A Brief Guide to Beliefs: Ideas, Theologies, Mysteries, and Movements. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 0664222595. 
  48. Reincarnation and NDE Research (WebCite archive)
  49. Cadoret, Remi. Book Review: European Cases of the Reincarnation Type The American Journal of Psychiatry, April 2005.
  50. 50.0 50.1 Rockley, Richard. Book Review: Children who remember previous lives
  51. 51.0 51.1 Ian Stevenson; Sought To Document Memories Of Past Lives in Children
  52. Stevenson, Ian (2003). European Cases of the Reincarnation Type.
  53. University of Virginia, Division of Perceptual Studies, Books and Articles by Division Staff
  54. A Critique of Arguments Offered Against Reincarnation
  55. Tucker, 2005, p.214
  56. Sagan, Carl (1996). Demon Haunted World. Random House. p. 300. ISBN 9780394535128. 
  57. Plot summary for Patton (1970)
  58. Patton and Hannibal
  59. Doniger, Wendy (2005). "Chapter 6: Reincarnation". The woman who pretended to be who she was: myths of self-imitation. Oxford University Press. pp. 112–136 [128–31 & 133–5]. ISBN 0195160169. 
  60. IMDb Keyword: Reincarnation


Scientific Publications

Other Publications Template:Further Reading

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Reincarnation. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.