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THE BIG BOOK OF REINCARNATION
EXAMINING THE EVIDENCE THAT WE HAVE ALL LIVED BEFORE
By ROY STEMMAN
Hierophant PublishingCopyright © 2012 Roy Stemman
All rights reserved.
The Origins of Rebirth
Belief in reincarnation is far more deeply entrenched in Western civilization than some orthodox religions might care to acknowledge. Dismissed by many as a New Age fad that will fade with time, its popularity nevertheless suggests that in matters relating to religion and spirituality, growing numbers of people are prepared to mix and match the beliefs and teachings that most appeal to them, regardless of the dictates of the religions to which they profess allegiance or in whose churches they worship.
In 2003, the National Study of Youth and Religion, Wave 1, survey in the United States revealed that virtually half of the 3,290 English- and Spanish-speaking teenagers, ages thirteen to seventeen, and those parents who participated either definitely believed in reincarnation (453 = 13.4%) or thought it was possible (1,210 = 35.9%), compared with an almost equal number who did not believe (49.4%), with just a little over 1% not having an opinion.
Six years later, a poll by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life (published December 2009) gave us a more up-to-date insight into the views of Americans over eighteen years old on the same topic. "Though the US is an overwhelmingly Christian country," the report comments, "significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs. For instance, 24 percent of the public overall and 22 percent of Christians say they believe in reincarnation—that people will be reborn in this world again and again." It breaks those figures down further: roughly 10 percent of white evangelicals believe in reincarnation, compared with 24 percent among mainline Protestants, 25 percent among both white Catholics and those unaffiliated with any religion, and 29 percent among black Protestants. The title of the Pew Forum report—"Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths"—says it all, and its summary points out that many blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology, and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. It reports "... sizeable minorities of all major US religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts."
We already know that at least half of the world's population, as followers of the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and various other Eastern religions, accepts reincarnation. Now, it seems, a quarter of the rest of the global family—assuming the American statistics are mirrored in other Western countries—may also share that view.
How have we come so far? Indeed, have we gone too far? There will certainly be those who recoil in disbelief at the "muddle-headedness" of such large numbers of people refusing to be confined to the teachings of their churches or the guidance of religious leaders on the subject of reincarnation. Perhaps this "rebellion" is because belief in the existence of a soul that can return to earth to experience many lives has been around for far longer than most of the major religions. So, let us start this exploration of a subject that clearly fascinates or is relevant to billions of people by examining reincarnation from a historical perspective.
Dualism—the conviction that we each have a spirit or soul that separates from the body at death and continues to exist in another world or dimension—has probably been expressed in one form or another since the dawn of civilization. Hominids began disposing of their dead in significant ways as long as three hundred thousand years ago, though there is no evidence to suggest that these practices had a spiritual dimension. Eventually, burials were introduced that included interment of various useful items with the deceased, though we can only speculate on their purpose and what funerary rituals may have accompanied them. Even simple possessions alongside a body in a grave suggest, as one expert puts it, "concern for the dead that transcends daily life." With the passage of time, the artifacts that were buried with the dead—particularly those who were eminent in their culture—increased in number and value and were clearly thought to play an important role in assisting the passage from one life to the next. Such rituals even included human sacrifices. But when did people start believing that, instead of spending eternity in the afterlife, the soul might be reborn and live one or more further lives on Earth? The evidence suggests that the concept has been around since modern civilization's earliest days.
Reincarnation and karma are important aspects of the teachings of Hinduism, which originated in India and is often described as the world's "oldest living religion." It had no single founder but grew, instead, out of diverse traditions whose roots extend back in time to the historical Vedic religion of Iron Age India, also known as Brahmanism. It does, however, have scriptures and philosophical texts from a variety of authors, probably recorded between 800 and 400 BC, which contain guidance and teachings that in earlier times had been handed down orally for many centuries. Of these, the Upanishads—mystic doctrines regarded as "the supreme work of the Indian mind"—provide its fundamental teachings. The Bhagavad Gita is perhaps the best known outside of Hinduism, being considered one of the most important texts in the history of philosophy and literature. The Upanishads deal in depth with the soul, karma, reincarnation, and nirvana, as well as self-realization through yoga and meditation. Hindus, however, make a semantic differentiation between "rebirth," which is for humans, and "reincarnation," which is for gods.
Reincarnation and karma are also cornerstones of Jainism, another ancient Indian religion, which has coexisted alongside Hinduism for thousands of years, while retaining its independence. Though its origins are different, it shares many of Hinduism's concepts—so much so, that some incorrectly view it as a branch of that religion. One notable difference is its focus on nonviolence as being necessary to enable a soul to realize its true nature and make spiritual progress to the point at which it achieves liberation from the cycle of rebirth. That, in turn, leads to Jains being strict vegetarians. Jainism's view of karma is also very different from Hinduism's, interpreting it in terms of natural laws rather than moral laws, and also prescribing two methods of shedding past karma: one passive, the other active. Historians date Jainism's origins to somewhere between the ninth and sixth centuries BC, though its own doctrine teaches that it has always existed and always will. Even though it has far fewer followers than other major religions—an estimated ten to twelve million—it has always exerted an influence on other beliefs, notably Hinduism and Buddhism, and on the cultures in which it flourishes.
It is highly likely that the young prince Siddhartha Gautama, who was born around 563 BC, would have been exposed to some aspects of either Hindu or Jain teachings, possibly both, before he experienced his own spiritual enlightenment while meditating beneath a bodhi tree in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal. We know him today, of course, as the Buddha. Instead of becoming a king or chieftain, he chose to follow a spiritual path devoted to teaching others how they too could achieve nirvana and liberate themselves from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent, but his teachings gradually reached out around the ancient world, splintering into two major branches of Buddhism—Theravada and Mahayana, from which the Tibetan version derives—as well as having an impact on many other traditions that have their roots in his teachings. It was, undoubtedly, the first world religion and by the middle of the twentieth century could also claim to be the largest, with 520 million adherents. That number doubles to over one billion if we include East Asian traditional religions, which mix forms of Buddhism with other influences, such as folk religion, Taoism, and Shamanism. While Buddhism's teachings are complex and difficult to comprehend for many Westerners, with its pantheon of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and lesser deities, one concept—karma—which it shares with other Eastern religions, seems to have infiltrated the global consciousness. In simplistic terms, this is a universal law of cause and effect, driven by our good or bad thoughts and actions, the results of which we will experience either in this life or another. Karma has been described as the force that drives samsara—the cycle of suffering and rebirth—but even within Buddhism there are different interpretations of how this takes effect.
It was not until the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians were deciphered, following the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, that we began to fully understand the beliefs that surrounded life and death for the three thousand years during which that particular civilization thrived. It emerged that running parallel to the development of Jainism and Hinduism was another culture focused on preparing oneself in this life for an existence in the next world. As well as building great pyramids and subterranean tombs for their dearly departed and perfecting the process of mummification, the Egyptians also recorded in great detail, in the Book of the Dead, the journey they believed the ka (body double) and ba (personality) took from this life to the Kingdom of the Dead into which they would be reborn. What is not widely acknowledged is that some of the earliest references to reincarnation are to be found in the Book of the Dead. The nineteenth-century French Egyptologist Theodule Deveria, for example, explained: "The sahou was not truly the mortal body. It was a new being formed by the reunion of corporeal elements elaborated by nature, and in which the soul was reborn in order to accomplish a new terrestrial existence under many forms. ..." According to James Bonwick, in his Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought (1878), the Book of the Dead is full of allusions to the doctrine of reincarnation. He explains that chapters 26 to 30 relate to the preservation of the heart or life for this purpose, adding: "Absurd as this notion [of reincarnation] may appear to a modern European, there can be no doubt that it ranks among the very oldest entertained by man."
The Greeks also had a word for it: metempsychosis. It can be defined as either reincarnation—from one human body to another—or transmigration, which can also include a soul moving from a human to an animal existence, or vice versa. At the same time that Buddha was teaching reincarnation in India, around twenty-five thousand years ago, Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician, was founding a religious movement, Pythagoreanism, based on esoteric and metaphysical beliefs that also included reincarnation. Of this there is little doubt, but we have to rely on the words of others as Pythagoras seldom wrote anything down. We therefore do not know what may have influenced his thoughts, though Egyptian beliefs or even Indian religions may well have played a part. Plato, student of Socrates and one of the founders of Western philosophy and science, who died around 347 bc, provides us with much information about Pythagoras and also refers to reincarnation in his writings, though whether he was an advocate of rebirth is open to question. On the other hand, a set of religious beliefs and practices known to us as Orphism, which were embraced by the ancient Greek and Hellenistic world as well as by the Thracians, can be traced back to the sixth century bc. The soul's immortality and the need for it to experience many lives before being released from the "grievous circle" were cornerstones of Orphism and are reminiscent of Eastern beliefs, from which they may have emanated.
Readers may not expect me to make any reference to the Abrahamic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, on the basis that they do not teach reincarnation. But, as we are about to see, that is not entirely true. Abraham, who lived almost four thousand years ago, is recognized as the father of the Hebrew nation who followed God's calling and led his people to a new land. He is referred to as "our Father" in Islamic and Jewish traditions and is also considered a prophet of Islam. He is the father of the Israelites in Jewish tradition, and Christians regard the coming of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham. Although this would appear to leave no room for reincarnation, there is ample evidence to suggest otherwise.
As the religion, philosophy, and way of life of the Jewish people, orthodox Judaism, which claims a historical continuity extending more than three thousand years, does not teach rebirth. But a number of sects have done so, at various times in its long history, such as the anti-rabbinical Karaites in Baghdad, in the eighth century, who taught that every soul needed to pass through a series of earthly incarnations. Eight centuries later, Rabbi Luria attracted many followers with his mystical interpretation of Jewish teachings that included acceptance of reincarnation. He was followed in the eighteenth century by the Eastern European Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (who became known as the Baal Shem Tov), who established Hasidic Judaism to focus more on spirituality and joy than the laws that dominate orthodox Judaism. The teachings of Hasidicism include the ability of souls to reincarnate and learn from experiences in different lives, as indeed does the Kabbalah, a school of thought that exists outside the traditional Jewish scriptures, but which is enjoying increasing popularity, particularly among non-Jewish celebrities. Gilgul (cycle) neshamot (souls) is the Kabbalistic concept of souls passing through various incarnations, depending on their particular task in each lifetime.
Orthodox Christianity offers no support for reincarnation concepts today, but there is evidence to suggest that was not the case in its early days. The prolific Christian writer and theologian Origen Adamantius (AD 185— 254) wrote in Contra Celsum: "The soul, which is immaterial and invisible in its nature, exists in no material place without having a body suited to the nature of that place; accordingly, it at one time puts off one body, which is necessary before, but which is no longer adequate in its changed state, and it exchanges it for a second." As one of Christianity's most distinguished early scholars, Origen—who is believed to have been Egyptian—is credited with being largely responsible for the coalescence of Christian writings that became the New Testament, an event that took place long after he had died. He also developed doctrines that reflected Pythagorean and Platonist influences, but were also presumably based on his deeper interpretation of scriptures, arguing in favor of "the fabulous preexistence of souls." He was not alone among the early church fathers. Justin Martyr (AD 100—165) and St. Clement of Alexandria (AD 150—220) expressed similar views. But the Fifth Ecumenical Council, meeting in Constantinople (AD 553), is believed to have decreed otherwise, having declared Origen's views on the preexistence of souls anathematized—cursed. There are scholars who put a different interpretation on this ruling, issued in the name of Emperor Justinian, but the effect has certainly been to remove debate on reincarnation from the orthodox Christian arena. That has not, however, stopped some leading Christians from taking a different view.
Similarly, Islam does not teach rebirth, and there is probably only one passage in its religious text, the Qur'an, which was revealed to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel in the seventh century, that could be quoted in its support: "God generates beings, and sends them back over and over again, till they return to him." However, Islam's mystical and esoteric tradition, Sufism, is very much in favor, teaching that orthodox Muslims are misinterpreting passages in the Qur'an as being about judgment and resurrection whereas they really describe the continuous cycle of reincarnation.
Excerpted from THE BIG BOOK OF REINCARNATION by ROY STEMMAN. Copyright © 2012 Roy Stemman. Excerpted by permission of Hierophant Publishing.
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