Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Transpersonal Psychology: Integral · Esoteric · Meditation

Reincarnation, literally "to be made flesh again", is a doctrine or mystical belief that some essential part of a living being (in some variations only human beings) survives death to be reborn in a new body. This essential part is often referred to as the Spirit or Soul, the 'Higher or True Self', 'Divine Spark', 'I' or the 'Ego' (not to be confused with the ego as defined by psychology). According to such beliefs, a new personality is developed during each life in the physical world, but some part of the being remains constantly present throughout these successive lives as well.

Belief in reincarnation is an ancient phenomenon. This doctrine is a central tenet within the majority of Indian religious traditions, such as Buddhism, most Hinduism (including Yoga, Vaishnavism, and Shaivism), Jainism, Sikhism and most Paganism. 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). The idea was also entertained by some Ancient Greek philosophers. Many modern Pagans also believe in reincarnation as do some New Age movements, along with followers of Spiritism, practitioners of certain African traditions, and students of esoteric philosophies.

The Buddhist concept of Rebirth although often referred to as reincarnation differs significantly from the Hindu-based traditions and New Age movements in that the "self" (or soul) does not reincarnate.

Eastern religions and traditions

Eastern philosophical and religious beliefs regarding the existence or non-existence of an enduring '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 atma) amongst the Dharmic Religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Some schools deny the existence of a 'self', while others claim the existence of an eternal, personal self, and still others say there is neither self or no-self, as both are false. Each of these beliefs has a direct bearing on the possible nature of reincarnation, including such concepts as samsara, moksha, nirvana, and bhakti.


Main article: Samsara

In India the concept of reincarnation is first recorded in the Upanishads (c. 800 BCE), which are philosophical and religious texts composed in Sanskrit. The doctrine of reincarnation is absent in the Vedas, which are generally considered the oldest of the Hindu scriptures.

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.[1]

The idea that the soul (of any living being - including animals, humans and plants) reincarnates is intricately linked to karma, another concept first introduced 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.

Hinduism teaches that the soul goes on repeatedly being born and dying. 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.[2] 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 being.

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—ie., 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.[3]

When the cycle of rebirth thus comes to an end, a person is said to have attained moksha, or salvation.[4] 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. Thus they will no longer identify themselves as individual persons, but will see the "self" as a part of the infinite ocean of divinity, described as sat-chit-ananda (existence-knowledge-bliss). 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, Shiva for the Shaivites). The two schools (Dvaita & Advaita) are not necessarily contradictory, however. A follower of one school may believe that both types of salvation are possible, but will simply have a personal preference to experience one or the other. Thus, it is said, the followers of Dvaita wish to "taste sugar," while the followers of Advaita wish to "become sugar."[5]


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 is also commonplace in a number of other schools of Hinduism.


File:Wheel life 01.jpg

The 'Wheel of Life' as portrayed within Buddhism, showing the cycle of Samsara, or reincarnation.

Main article: Rebirth (Buddhist)

The Buddha taught a concept of rebirth that was distinct from that of any Indian teacher contemporary with him. 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 (Tucker, 2005, p.216). The Buddha's detailed conception of the connections between action (karma), rebirth, and their ultimate causes is set out in the twelve links of dependent origination.

Since according to Buddhism there is no permanent and unchanging self (identify) there can be no transmigration in the strict sense. However, the Buddha himself referred to his past-lives. Buddhism teaches that what is reborn is not the person but that one moment gives rise to another and that that momentum continues, even after death. It is a more subtle concept than the usual notion of reincarnation, reflecting the sophisticated Buddhist concept of personality existing (even within one's lifetime) without a "soul".

Buddhism never rejected samsara, the process of rebirth, but suggests that it occurs across six realms of beings. It is actually said to be very rare for a person to be reborn in the immediate next life as a human.[1] However, Tibetan Buddhists do believe that a new-born child may be the rebirth of some important departed lama.

The Buddha has this to say on rebirth[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Kutadanta continued:

"Thou believest, O Master, that beings are reborn; that they migrate in the evolution of life; and that subject to the law of karma we must reap what we sow. Yet thou teachest the non-existence of the soul! Thy disciples praise utter self-extinction as the highest bliss of Nirvana. If I am merely a combination of the sankharas, my existence will cease when I die. If I am merely a compound of sensations and ideas and desires, whither can I go at the dissolution of the body?"

Said the Blessed One: "O Brahman, thou art religious and earnest. Thou art seriously concerned about thy soul. Yet is thy work in vain because thou art lacking in the one thing that is needful."

"There is rebirth of character, but no transmigration of a self. Thy thought-forms reappear, but there is no egoentity transferred. The stanza uttered by a teacher is reborn in the scholar who repeats the word."

Western Religions and Traditions

Classical Greek philosophy

Main article: Metempsychosis

Among the ancient Greeks, Socrates, Pythagoras, and Plato may be numbered among those who made reincarnation an integral part of their teachings. At the end of his life, Socrates said, "I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, and that the living spring from the dead." Pythagoras claimed he could remember his past lives, and Plato presented detailed accounts of reincarnation in his major works. [2]


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. Rather, they offered explanations of why reincarnation would solve otherwise intractable problems of theodicy (how to reconcile the existence of evil with the premise of a good God.)

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 can be found in a number of Kabbalistic works from the 1200s, and also among many mystics in the late 1500s.

Among well known Rabbis who rejected the idea of reincarnation are the Saadia Gaon(סעדיה הגאון), 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, Saadia Gaon states that Jews who hold to reincarnation have adopted non-Jewish beliefs. Crescas writes that if reincarnation was real, people should remember details of their previous lives.

While many Jews today do not believe in reincarnation, the belief is common amongst Orthodox Jews, particularly amongst Hasidim; some Hasidic siddurim (prayerbooks) have a prayer asking for forgiveness for one's sins that one may have committed in this gilgul or a previous one.


Many Gnostic groups believed in reincarnation. For them, reincarnation was a negative concept: Gnostics believed that the material body was evil, and that they would be better off if they could eventually avoid having their 'good' souls reincarnated in 'evil' bodies.


Further information: Bible and reincarnation

Almost all present official Christian denominations reject reincarnation mainly because they consider the theory to challenge a basic tenet of Christianity. Most 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 Christianity is the doctrine that humans can never achieve the perfection God requires and the only "way out" is total and complete forgiveness accomplished through the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross wherein He took the sins of mankind.

A number of Evangelical and (in the USA) Fundamentalist Christian groups have denounced any belief in reincarnation as heretical, and explained any phenomena suggestive of it as deceptions of the devil. Although the Bible never mentions the word reincarnation, there are several passages through New Testament that Orthodox Christians interpret as openly rejecting reincarnation or the possibility of any return or contact with this world for the souls in Heaven or Hell (see Hb 9:27 and Luke 16:20-31


The Bible contains passages in the New Testament that seem to refer to reincarnation. In Matthew 11:10-14 and 17:10-13, Jesus says that John the Baptist is the prophet Elijah who had lived centuries before, and he does not appear to be speaking metaphorically (Tucker, 2005, p.202).

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. And Rudolf Steiner wrote Christianity and Mystical Fact.

Several Christian denominations which support reincarnation include the Liberal Catholic Church, Unity Church, and the Rosicrucian Fellowship.


Mainstream Islam rejects the concept of reincarnation. Believing in reincarnation into this world, could be interpreted as a denial of resurrection may constitute apostasy in Islam.

A very few sufi groups believe in reincarnation [3] 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)

The mainstream Islam rejects this understanding of the verse, claiming that it refers to the worldly human life and the consequent resurrection in the hereafter.

It is claimed by some sufi groups that the mystics and poets in the Islam 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?" (Nicholson, 1950, p. 103)

Modern Sufis who embrace the idea of reincarnation include Bawa Muhaiyadeen (see his To Die Before Death: The Sufi Way of Life) and Hazrat Inayat Khan (see The Sufi Message, vol. V, part 3).

Reincarnation has also been used to reconcile the Quran's apparent identification of Miriam, the mother of Isa as the sister of Aaron and daughter of Amran, all of whom lived well before the first century CE.

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:

  • "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 Druze (also known as Druse; Arabic: darazī درزي, pl. durūz دروز, Hebrew: דרוזים) are a distinct religious community based mostly in the Middle East who are an offshoot of Islam and influenced by other religions and philosophies, including Greek. Considered to be part of Islam, they believe that after death they come back as Druze again.

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 survival of the concept of reincarnation applies across these nations in varying degrees of integrity, as these countries are now sandwiched between Eastern [Native] and Western traditions.

Norse mythology

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 Sváva, 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.

Contemporary movements and thinkers

Stop hand.svg
The neutrality of this article is disputed.
Please see the discussion on the talk page.

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 because of his teachings about reincarnation (Boulting, 1914. pp. 163-64).

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.


Main article: Spiritism

Reincarnation is the core of the doctrine of Spiritism, a tolerant religious movement started in France in 1857. According to Spiritists souls will reincarnate to perfect themselves toward communion with God. The evolution of the soul is one of the main laws of the universe; it cannot be truly stopped, only delayed. Spirits have new chances to learn and evolve by reincarnating into new bodies. Forgetfulness of the past, including previous lives, is a gift through which souls get a chance to overcome their past, paying their debts to their enemies and themselves, and acquiring newer experiences for the future.


Reincarnation plays an important role in the ideas of Anthroposophy, a spiritual movement founded by Rudolf Steiner. Steiner described the human soul 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 (Steiner, various dates).


Modern theosophy, which draws its inspiration from India, has taken reincarnation as a cardinal tenet; it is, says a recent theosophical writer, "the master-key to modern problems," including heredity.


See also: Scientology beliefs and practices.

The Church of Scientology, founded by L. Ron Hubbard accepts past lives and holds that all beings are immortal, although in a variety of levels of awareness. The motto of their fraternal religious order Sea Organization is "Revenimus" or "We Come Back". 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." [4]

The first writings in Scientology regarding past lives date from around 1951 and slightly earlier. The controversy brought the subject to public awareness, and was followed by such cases (not related to Scientology) as Bridey Murphy in 1952. In 1960, Hubbard wrote a book on past lives entitled Have You Lived Before This Life.

Much of the controversy involving Scientology arises from the logical extension of the concept of past lives to what is effectively eternity. In this context, past lives not only take place prior to Earth, but also in non-Earth civilizations, and even in universes prior to this one, where conditions and rules of existence can be different.

Edgar Cayce

American mystic Edgar Cayce taught reality of reincarnation and karma, but as instruments of a loving God rather than blind natural laws. Its purpose is 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. Cayce's view arguably incorporates Theosophical teachings on spiritual evolution.

Seth Jane Roberts

In the series of books supposedly dictated to the medium Jane Roberts, "Seth" talks about reincarnation and life after death. Seth believed that time and space are basically illusions. Consistent with this view, Seth argues that only parts of each person incarnate (appear in physical reality). This last argument is part of Seth's view that man is a multi-dimensional entity simultaneously alive in many contexts.

The New Age movement

There are people who say they remember their past lives and use that knowledge to help them with their current lives; the belief in this kind of occurrence is central to several New Age faiths. [5] Some of the people who remember, say they simply remember without any effort on their part. They simply "see" previous times and see themselves interacting with others, occasionally even different creatures besides people themselves.

Scientific research

Main article: Reincarnation research

Thomas Huxley, the famous English biologist, thought that reincarnation was a very 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 in books such as Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.

Stevenson spent over 40 years devoted to the study of children who have spoken about concepts seemingly unknown to them. 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.

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.

There are many people who have investigated reincarnation and come to the conclusion that it is a legitimate phenomenon, such as Dr. Peter Ramster, Dr. Brian Weiss, Dr. Walter Semkiw, and others, but their work is generally ignored by the scientific community. Professor Stevenson, in contrast, published dozens of papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Some scientists and skeptics, such as Paul Edwards, have analyzed many of these accounts. In every case they apparently found that further research into the individuals involved provides sufficient background to weaken the conclusion that these cases are credible examples of reincarnation. Philosophers like Robert Almeder, having analyzed the criticisms of Edwards and others, say 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 lack of imagination. [6]

Some skeptics explain the abundance of claims of evidence for reincarnation to 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.

Concluding Comment

Reincarnation is once again attracting the minds of intellectuals and the general public in the West. [7] Films (such as Kundun and Birth (film)), books and periodicals (see reference list below), and popular songs [8] regularly mention reincarnation, and millions of Westerners are joining an estimated 1.5 billion people [9], including Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists, who have traditionally understood that life does not begin at birth nor end with death. But simple curiosity or belief is not sufficient. More reincarnation research is needed to explore this topic.

See also






  1. Bhagavad Gita II.22, ISBN 1-56619-670-1
  2. See Bhagavad Gita XVI.8-20
  3. Rinehart, Robin, ed., Contemporary Hinduism19-21 (2004) ISBN 1-57607-905-8
  4. Karel Werner, A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism 110 (Curzon Press 1994) ISBN 0-7007-0279-2
  5. Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Translation by Swami Nikhilananda (8th Ed. 1992) ISBN 0-911206-01-9


Scientific Publications

Other Publications

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).