Reincarnation: Popular, But Can It Be Viable?


Shirley Maclaine, Academy Award winner as best actress for her part as Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment, in her book Out on a Limb, tells of her belief in reincarnation. Peter Sellers, of the “Pink Panther,” believes that he can perform certain characters well because he has been them in a past1.  Sylvester Stallone, most famous for his role as Rocky, claims to have been an American Indian, a monkey in Guatemala, and a wolf 2.  Annie Francis, Honey West and Forbidden Planet fame, declares that she was Mary Magdalene’s mother 3.

Reincarnation” has been popular in the West since the 19th century, firstly because of “past-life therapy,” which through hypnosis takes the client back to previous lives in order to aid some present ailment. Secondly, because of the Western society’s present fascination with Eastern thought of salvation and thirdly our of growing fear and unable to face the fact of death.

Reincarnation” comes from Latin’s re – in – caro, which means “again – in – flesh.”  4 Thus, it means to come again in the flesh. Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism believe that a soul or some power passes after death into another body.

According to Hinduism, at death the soul, which is attached to a physical body called the “gross body,” survives as a mental entity called “subtle body” and bears the karma (literally means doing, deeds, action, work) of the past lives.   5Thus a person who accumulates more and more evil karma takes the lower forms – sometimes even non-human forms – and the one who accumulates good karma takes the higher forms that ultimately lead up to the level of liberation.

Among different Hindu schools of thought the two most orthodox were taught by Shankara and Ramanuja. They are called Vedantic (end of Vedas) and are based on Upanishads (exposition of the doctrines found in four Vedas) and the Vedanta Sutra (also called Brahma sutra – the systematic teachings of Upanishads).

Both Shankara and Ramanuja viewed the liberation from the burdensome reincarnation-wheel as Moksha. Shankara, the great Indian philosopher lived in Kaladi (South Indian state, Kerala) in the eighth century, propagated the doctrine of  advaita (monism; literally, not-twoness), which implies that the effect (this world) and its cause (Nirguna Brahman – god without attributes)  are non-different.

He defined Moksha as the merging of the human self with god. Ramanuja, the twelfth century popular Indian theologian, teacher and philosopher was born in Perambudur (South Indian state, Tamilnadu), critiqued Shankara and proposed vishishtadvaita (literally, difference no-difference). He described Moksha as an individual’s constant devotional relationship with Bhagwan, the personal God.

Buddhism defines liberation from wheel of samsara (continual rebirth) as nirvana. While some consider nirvana as extinction, others deem it as the annihilation of desires, for Buddha taught that being rid of cravings is to the way to escape the burdensome wheel of rebirth 6.

It is true that reincarnation is a popular concept but, can popularity attest for its validity.  If it is true, then…
… why it is that most do not remember their previous incarnations?
… what happens to the “subtle body” when it takes non-human forms?
… how are the good and evil of non-human forms decided?
… how is it that the human population is increasing alarmingly when the evil is so rampant?
… why are the non-human forms (animals and birds) becoming extinct?
… where was the beginning of one’s (your) life?
… who are you?

Apart from these there are other questions like
… can one consider all that “works” as right?
… what is the role of God, if good works liberate human beings?
… is God a sadist, observing the evil and suffering humanity without intervening?
… where did humanity begin?
… what is the origin of evil?
1.Shirley MacLaine, Out on a Limb (New York: Bantam Books, 1983), 169.
2.John Leo, “I was Beheaded in the 1700s” Time, 10 September 1984, 68.
3.Annie Francis: A Spiritual Philosophy,” Self-Help Update, 1984, 24:25.                                                     
4.Geoffrey Parrinder, Dictionary of Non-Christian Religions (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 286.
5.John H. Hick, Death and Eternal Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 89.
6.Hick, Death, 344.


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Edward Kuntam