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Reincarnation and transmigration of a soul, as told in Hinduism

Transmigration of the soul (sometimes given simply as Transmigration) is similar and foreign in some ways to the philosophy of reincarnation. The idea of transmigration of the soul comes from the ancient Greeks. In transmigration after death, the soul, or shade, drinks from the river Lethe and loses all past memories of their previous life while in Hades, or underworld, and then moves (or transmigrates) into another human form and is reborn. It was thought the soul had been, and always would be, eternal, having no beginning or end.

Some psychic mediums of a variety of religious persuasions (including Hinduism and Wicca) and some Spiritualists believe in transmigration of the soul but hold that reincarnation is an anomaly if it occurs at all.

Transmigration in Indian religions

The believed nature of the soul (jiva or atman) has a significant impact on the Hindu belief of transmigration. In Hinduism, a soul is both immutable and eternal and thus the character of a soul from a previous life is imprinted on the new one.

The following quote illustrates this concept:

  • "Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change". (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, texts 12-13)

Buddhists, however, do not subscribe to the concept of universal Atman, Soul, or Self or the individual atman, soul or self,[1] thus, the concept of transmigration differs from Hinduism on this fundamental point. The Buddhist concept of transmigration, rather, is understood as the effect of karma (kamma),[2] karma being defined as volitional action.[3]

Sinan ibn Salman ibn Muhammad, also known as Rashid al-Din Sinan, (r. 1162-92) subscribed to the transmigration of souls as a tenet of the Nusayri faith.[4]

Platonism, transmigration, and "innate knowledge"

The transmigration of souls, or metempsychosis, is a concept which underpins Plato's ideas concerning innate knowledge. Plato may have incorporated this concept from two Greek religious groups that preceded him: the Pythagoreans or the Orphics. Plato taught that "all learning is but recollection" because we have innate knowledge of universal ideas (e.g., everywhere, a triangle has 3 sides—hence its universality) from the past experiences of our immortal soul. This soul, according to Platonic thought, once separated from the body, spends an indeterminate amount of time in "formland" (see The Allegory of the Cave in The Republic) and then assumes another body. Therefore, according to Plato, we need only recall our buried memories to manifest innate knowledge.

Popular culture

Transmigration, although not directly referred to as such, has been used frequently to the point of being an overblown cliché in the sense of people "switching bodies," in which the identities of two or more characters transmigrate to each other's bodies. This concept has been used many times in various films, most obviously Vice Versa and Freaky Friday, and in the popular television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In the anime Angel Tales twelve girls were sent to live with and watch over a young man as guardian angels. All twelve were former pets of his who died and transmigrated.

It has been used as a form of reincarnation in the television series Quantum Leap, in which the protagonist Sam Beckett would be reborn in the psychic aura of those in the past. He doesn't switch bodies psychically or mentally, but takes on their appearance through a psychic aura, while they are reincarnated as him in the future.

The concept also appears in the first and third parts of the Silent Hill series. The spirit of Alessa Gillespie transmigrated into the daughter of Harry Mason, Cheryl, after Alessa was burned to death in a cultist ritual. In the third game, the main protagonist, Heather, is actually another transmigration of Alessa's soul.

The arts

An examination of transmigration in the arts, perhaps more directly spiritual than the popular culture aspect above, was author Philip K. Dick's novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.

Mark Twain mentions this concept in "A Word of Explanation" at the beginning of his "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." He comes across a "curious stranger" at Warwick Castle in England who shows him ancient armor that supposedly once belonged to the knights of the Round Table. He interrupts his musings by saying: "You know about transmigration of souls; do you know about transposition of epochs -- and bodies?" He later claims to have killed one of the knights himself ... with a bullet!

Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, American composer John Adams was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write a piece in tribute to those lost, which he entitled "On the Transmigration of Souls". The 25 min long work, scored for large orchestra, chorus and pre-recorded tape, received the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music and numerous Grammy awards.

See also

  • Samsara
  • Bhavacakra
  • Theosophy
  • Metempsychosis


  1. Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (London: Gordon Fraser Limited, 1990), p. 51
  2. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life (New York: Atria Books, 2002), p. 46
  3. Rahula, p. 144
  4. Wasserman, James (2001). The Templars and the Assassins - The Militia of Heaven. Inner Traditions International. pp. 133–137. ISBN 0-89281-859-X. 

External links

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