1. Introduction

Before we turn to the specific theme of reincarnation in Hinduism, l think it important to specify very briefly what do we intend by Hinduism and Reincarnation in general.

1.1 Hinduism

Hinduism is not just a single religion, but a "mosaic of religion", within which we can find most elementary superstitions and mythologies, from the cult of inanimate objects, like stones, rivers, planets to animate objects, like trees, animals, heroes, dead ancestors and spirits; at the same time it presents itself as a fertile field for a most elevated mysticism, which seeks to reach not only the union of the soul with a personal God, the creator and governor of the universe, but even to overcome this dualistic attitude by "realizing" one's identity with the Absolute Spirit. Hinduism, we can say, is the global expression of the religiosity of the peoples of India, which again is a "museum of humanity"'.

Hinduism does not have a historical founder, nor does it have a central authority for defining or imposing its beliefs and practices. Hinduism does not insist on many dogmas; regarding God, a Hindu can be believer of monotheism or polytheism or pantheism or monism or even atheism (for example the orthodox Hindu schools of Samkhya and Mimamsa explain everything, including the liberation of the soul without being preoccupied about the existence of God). Hence it is almost impossible to define Hinduism. However we can gather some principles and common practices which go to make Hinduism. They are: (i) faith in the infallible authority of the Vedas (most important sacred scriptures of Hinduism), (ii) faith in the continuous creation, conservation and dissolution of the universe in a cyclic form, (iii) faith in the transmigration of the souls according to the law of eternal retribution (karma-samsara), (iv) faith in the final liberation of the soul from the chains of transmigration (multi, moksha), and (v) the observance of the law of the caste and of the stages of life (varnasrama~harma) 2

Historians divide Hinduism into (i) Vedism, religion based on the first part (stage) of the Vedas, called Samhita (1500-1000 BC), (ii) Brahminism, the second phase of the evolution of the vedic religion, based on the second part of the Vedas, called Brahmana (1000-800 BC), (iii) Upanishad (or Vedantism), the third phase, based on the last part of the Vedas, called Upanishad (800-300 BC); towards the end of this period only did the various philosophical schools of Hinduism arose (the six principal orthodox systems being, Nyaya, Vaiseshika, SamkAya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta, and the three heterodox being, Buddhism, Jainism and Carvaka), (iv) religious or popular Hinduism (especially the three main religious sects: Vishnuism, Sivaism and Sakitism), which is the religion of the masses, more simple and primitive, notably inspired by the simple and mythological religions of the original inhabitants of India, the Dravidians, and is based mainly on bhakti (loving devotion) which forms the central religious theme of the main smriti (tradition) literature, especially the great epics of Mahabharata (4th century BC to 4th century AD) and Ramayana (4th century BC?), Bhagavat Gita (between the 5th and 2nd century BC), Puranas (considered to be the Veda of the common people), Sutra and Dharmashastra (the code of laws) and (v) neo-lnduisn? (renewed Hinduism after the 19th century) .

1.2 Reincarnation

The doctrine of reincarnation, known also with other terms like, rebirth, transmigration of the soul, metempsychosis (or more accurately, metensomatosis, "passage from one body to another"), palingenesis (Gr., lit., "to begin again"), concerns the rebirth of the soul or self in a series of physical or preternatural embodiments, which are customarily human or animal in nature but are in some instances divine, angelic, demonic, vegetative, or astrological.3 The belief in rebirth in one form or another existed and is still found in tribal or non-literate cultures all over the world, which go to prove that this belief arouse contemporaneously with the origins of human culture per se.4

However it is in India and Greece that the doctrine of rebirth has been most elaborately developed. This belief is shared by all the other major religions of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, Gains, Sikhs and Sufis. [In ancient Greece, belief in rebirth formed part of the philosophical teachings of Pythagorean, Empodocles, Plato, and Plotinus. In modern times, religious teachers like Ramakrishna, Aurobindo or schools of thought, like Theosophy or various new "esoteric" "occultist" religious movements, like New Age or humanistic psychology: thinkers like C. G. Jung and Fritz Perls, hold onto belief in reincarnation.]

All the diverse religious groups and philosophical schools of Hinduism, except that of Carvaka, totally materialistic, believe in reincarnation. However, it should be noted that belief in reincarnation is not the basic teaching or the end of their religious cult and practices. Instead, it is deliverance from the chain of reincarnation (karma-samsara) and reaching moksha, the unique and final goal of every Hindu religious belief, cult and practices.

2. Reincarnation in Hinduism in General

2.1 Karma: the Cause of Reincarnation

According to the Hindu religious and philosophical concepts, man is composed of two fundamental principles opposed to each other per nature: one spiritual, the soul (atman), and the other material, the body (sarira). The atman is eternal, immutable, not born, not created, indestructible; instead, the body is temporal, created, mutable, destructible. The union between atman and body is not essential, but is accidental It is a type of imprisonment or a penalty which the atman has to undergo due to avidya and karma, to which it is associated from all eternity. Avidya and karma are two basic presuppositions of Hinduism. They have no beginning because they did not have a beginning. It is therefore a truth that transcends every intellectual explanation.

Avidya signifies ignorance, ignorance of the true nature of atman or of the distorted vision in which the atman identifies itself or confounds itself with the psycho-physical organism. Due to avirlya, the atman which is eternal and non-temporal, is caught up in time; gets joined to physical body. Birth is the union of the eternal and spiritual atman with the material and temporal body.5

2.2 Karma-Samsara

The nature of birth, that is, the condition of the body to which the atman gets united, depends on karma. Karma (Pali, Kamma, Tib., las; Chin., yeh or yin-k1lo; Jpn., go or inga), based on the Sanskrit verbal root he, signifies action, every sort of action, whether good or bad, meritorious or non-meritorious, religious or worldly; here, however, karma signifies the moral debit of the actions which one has done. Every action inevitably produces its own fruit (phala), and the subject (actor) has necessarily to experience all the consequences of his own actions. A person's behavior leads irrevocably to an appropriate reward or punishment commensurate with that behavior.6 It is the inevitable law of retribution or the law of karma. It is the law of cause and effect applied to the life of every individual, law according to which every one gathers the fruit of what one has sowed or undergoes the effect of his own actions.

The effects of all the actions which a person does cannot be experienced (lived) during one single existence, because while the subject (actor) experiences the fruit of some act, does other actions in the meantime, and therefore gains new fruits which have to be exper~enced. From this fact is deduced that the atman (soul) has to be reborn repeatedly. So it is believed that the soul from all eternity is undergoing birth and rebirth due to this inviolable law of karma. Thus is born the doctrine of the transfiguration of the soul. It is a corollary of the doctrine of karma.

The entire process of reincarnation of the soul according to the law of karma is called Karma-samsara. Samsara means "to wander or pass through a series of states or conditions." Samsara is the beginning-less cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, a process impelled by karma.8 Life, therefore, is not determined or limited to one birth and one death, but is instead a samsara, a current, a course, a migration in circle, which however is always determined by the law of karma. In short, human life is a karma-samsara, a transmigration of the soul according to the inevitable law of retribution.

2.3 The Subtle Body

In order to explain how the effects of past actions of man are preserved in the atman after the death of the body and how these effects produce their fruit in a future rebirth, the Hindu theologians make a distinction between two types of body: the gross body (sthula-sarira) and the subtle body (sukshma-sarira or linga- sarira).9 The gross body is that which is visible and tangible, consists of the eternal senses, of organs, etc. The subtle body, instead, is not visible nor tangible, and is composed of subtle elements, like: budclhi (intelligence), manas (mind), ahamkara (ego), etc.'° The subtle body encircles the atman and se~ves as a connection between the soul and the gross body. Every action of man leaves its imprint (samskara) on the subtle body and remains as a seed which has to mature and produce in due time its proper fruit.11 While the gross body disintegrates at death, the spirit continues to be in contact with the subtle psychic body which it carries forward. The subtle body together with all the tendencies, merits or effects of karma is said to migrate with the soul (atman) at death.

3. The Transmigration of Soul in Vedism and Brahminism

Although transmigration is a fundamental teaching of Hinduism and has an extraordinarily firm hold on the mind of the people of India, not only Hindus, but also of Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, the origin of the doctrine of transmigration is one of the most difficult problems of Indian Philosophy.12 The theory of reincarnation (rebirth) does not appear in the Vedas. The seeming references to transmigration which have been seen in the Rigveda are all of the most improbable character. 13 The Vedic religion did not have this belief. Instead the theory of re-death (punarmyrtyu, new death) appears at a very early stage in the Vedas. In fact the ideas about death predate and predetermine the theory of birth.14 SO also the idea of karma (in its broader sense which includes the concept of"ment transfer") present in the Vedas, preceded the idea of rebirth.15 In this W. D. O'Flaherty is in agreement with David M. Knipe, who, analyzing the funeral rites of sraddha 16 and sapindikarana 17, comes to the conclusion that the theory of karma ("which includes the idea of merit transfer") preceded that of rebirth or reincarnation. Such rites were expressions of the desire of the Vedic and pre-Vedic man and performed to "prevent the dissolution of an after-life for the deceased"18. The offering of ritual food for the deceased ancestors suggest the desire of the ritual performer to keep them there, in a place of happiness (heaven) or limbo, and the desire to prevent them from suffening "repeated death (punarmrtyu)". All the karma texts begin with death and then proceed to describe birth.

3.1 In Rig Veda

The Rig Veda, the first book of the Vedas (1200 BCE), speaks of death and immortality, rather than rebirth. The problem is the fear of death which is inevitable; something that has to be, therefore, avoided as long as possible. Speaking of the Creator, the poet says, "His shadow is immortality and death" (Rig Vecia 10.121.2) and prays: "Deliver me from death, not from immortality" (Rig Veda 7.59.12). And what comes after death? Rig Veda offers various images of a vague but pleasant life after death. i9

One funeral hymn addresses the dead man:

Go forth, go forth on those ancient paths on which our ancient fathers passed beyond... Unite with the fathers, with Yama [king of the dead], with the rewards of your sacrifices and good deeds, in the highest heaven. Leaving behind all imperfections, go back home again; merge with a glorious body (Rig Veda 10.14.7-8).2°

Life in the reign of Yama together with the fathers with a glorious body is the desire and hope of the Vedic man.

Another hymn is addressed to the funeral fire, Agni:

Do not burn him entirely, Agni, or engulf him in your flames. Do not consume his skin or his flesh. When you have cooked him perfectly, only then send him forth to the fathers (Rig Veda 10.16. 1) 2~

This hymn expresses the desire and hope that, after the purification through fire, Agni, the dead person receives his body back, made perfect, so as to enjoy the life of the fathers.

Other hymns speak to the dead man, of the final dispersal of his old body:

May your eye go to the sun, your life's breath to the wind. Go to the sky or to earth, as is your nature; or go to the waters, if that is your fate. Take root in the plants with your limbs (Rig Veda 10. 16.3).22

Another hymn addresses the dead:

Creep away to this broad, vast earth, the mother that is kind and gentle.

And to the earth:

Open up, earth; do not crush him. Be easy for him to enter and to burrow. . Earth, wrap him up as a mother wraps a son in the edge of her skirt (Rig Veda 10.18.10-l l) 23

From these and other texts in Rig Veda it can be concluded that in this primitive phase of religion (Vedism) there are various and diverse ways of considering death and the fate of man after his death, which seem to represent some sort of rebirth, which consist in the 'putting on' of a glorious body or getting a purified body made perfect by Agni and living happily with the ancestors in the reign of the death; or in the dispersion of the old body in cosmic elements or in returning to the loving womb of mother earth. However, none of these texts speak explicitly that the dead man has to be reborn on the earth in any form.24

3.2 In Brahmana Veda

The texts of Brahmanas (900 BC) on the whole do not contain the doctrine of transmigration. In these texts too, the atman longs for the world of the fathers, for immortality, as in Rig Veda. The problem here too is not that of reincarnation or rebirth, but that of death, which is far more explicitly feared: Death is evil, and the essence of evil is death. The central preoccupation of the Brahmans, is therefore, the fear of death and the obsessive search for rituals that can overcome it.25 Not only can the gods become immortal, but also the sacrificer, in fact, "becomes immortal" (Sathapatha Brahmana 2. 2.2.14).

Perhaps the earliest foreshadowing of the doctrine of transmigration is to be found in the Satapata Brahmana, This text, however, does not explicitly refer to transmigration. What the authors of the Brahmanas were searching was not rebirth, but liberation from the inevitable problem of death, which is the greatest of all evils. What they feared was not life but death, "old age and death" (janamrtyu), and more precisely 'recurring death' or 're-death' (punarmrtyu).26 The fear that in place of the desired immortality in the next world (of the Fathers), there will be renewed death,27 and as a consequence the turning to performing many rites, like Agnihotra, the Visuvant, the Naciketas fire, the piling of the fire, the study of the Veda, etc., which are to save them from suffering 'repeated deaths'.28 The repeated death refers to death in the next world, not in this: it is applied to the Fathers (Satapata Brahmana, 12. 9.3.12), and from those who are born after death to immortality are distinguished those who are born to die again (Satapata Brahmana, iO. 4.3.iO). The idea that death is a birth (a passage to3 in the next world is not at all rare and the conception that death might there be repeated is a very natural one.29 But the idea of rebirth (transmigration) on the earth was the innovation of the Upanishads.

4. Transmigration of Soul in the Upanishads

Also the Upanishads (composed from 700 BC) speak of renewed death (punnarmyrtyu) much before they began speaking of rebirth (punarjanma). However, the problem that the authors of the Upanishads confronted was self-realization, liberation or happiness (moksha). According to the Upanishads, our life is chaos, a dream, while death is order, sleep without dreams because it is final liberation from life, is attaining moksha, which is possible even during the earthly existence, by means of yoga, and consists in the realization of Atman is Brahman.

The clear and explicit mention of the doctrine of transmigration is to be found in the Upanishads. The earliest mention is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. "A man becomes good by good works, evil by evil' (3. 2.13) and on death, like a caterpillar -or a grass leech - proceeding from one leaf to another, the soul (atman), having shaken off the body and freed itself from ignorance, presumably empirical life, makes a beginning on another body. As a goldsmith forms newer and fairer form from a rough nugget, so the soul fashions for itself another newer, fairer form (4. 4.4), whether it be of the Fathers, or the Gandharvas, or the gods, or Prajapati, or Brahman, or other living beings; just as man acts, just as he behaves, so will he be born. He who does good will be born good, he who does evil will be born evil: he becomes holy by holy deeds, evil by evil (Brahadaranyaka Upanishad 4. 4.2-6; 4. 3 33).

The Chandogya Upanishad 30 speaks of the intimate relation that exits between conduct or action and the condition of rebirth. Human destinies are assigned to two divergent pathways: the pathway of the gods (devas) and the pathway of the fathers or ancestors (pitrs). Those who meditate and practice asceticism follow the pathway of the gods, which leads them (atman) to liberation, to union with Brahman. They are freed forever from the chain of karma-samsara; they will not be reborn. Instead those who walk the normal worldly pursuits follow the pathway of the ancestors, which leads them to rebirth, after having resided in the postmortem realm which lasts as long as the effects of their previous actions have been consumed. If one's good karma predominates over his bad karma, then the soul goes first to hell (place of suffering and purification) for a short period to pay (expiate) his bad karma and then goes to heaven for a longer period, where he enjoys the fruits of his good karma. If, instead, the bad karma predominates, then the soul goes first for a short period to heaven to enjoy the fruits of his good karma and then goes to hell for a longer

period, in order to expiate his bad karma. In both the cases, once the two types of karma are consumed, the soul reincarnates in a place of life determined by the original equilibrium between good karma and bad karma.

According to the Upanishads rebirth or reincarnation of the souls can take place in a series of physical bodies (normally in human bodies but also in animals and even plants) or in a series of astral and preternatural bodies (sun, moon, planets, stars, angels or demons), depending on one s karma. The Kaushitaki Upanishad expresses it more clearly: "He is reborn here either as a worm, or as a butterfly, or as a fish, or as a bird, or as a lion, or as a serpent, or as a tiger, or as a person, or as some other being in this or in that condition, according to his works, according to his knowledge" (1.2)

From the beginning, however, the idea of transmigration was immediately followed by two other ideas: that it was possible for some to be freed of it, and that it was desirable for some to be freed of it. But at the same time, according to some texts of the Upanishads, there was the possibility that some do not want to get out of the chain of transmigration: when the soul of the dead reaches the moon, it can choose to continue in the process of rebirth or be freed of it completely (moksha), and the text affirms that some choose to be reborn (Kaushitaki Upanishad 1.1-7). These two possible options give rise to discussion as to whether it is good or bad to be in the wheel of transmigration.3 ~

5. Transmigration of Soul in the Popular Religions

5.1 In the Bhagavat Gita

According to the teachings of the Gita the atman is spiritual, imperishable and eternal as god himself is eternal; it is neither born nor can it die. Regarding atman, the Gita aff~rms: "Of the nonexistent there is no coming to be; of the existent, there is not coming not to be" (2.11-25). It cannot be affected even to the slightest degree by the vicissitudes of finite existence. It is rather the body (sarira) or the embodied form (jiva) of the self that is subject to the changing conditions of life, viz., creation and destruction, good and evil, victory and defeat.32 Karma affects only the jiva, and the soul (atma'') passes from body to body in the successive reincarnations. "Just as man takes off his old clothes in order to put on new ones, so does the one (soul) who lives in the body, by abandoning the old form, enters into other forms prepared for it" (2.22).

Krishna, the god-incarnate, declares, however, that one should not be sad over the necessity of being born again, because it is the inviolable law, from which even the gods are not exempt. "Just as death is certain for all that is born, so is certain birth for all that dies" (2.26-27).

The Gita aff~rms that one who does good works will be born in a good family of saints and spiritual men, and after having reached perfection through various rebirths, he will reach his final goal (moksha)33

5.2 In the Puranas

The Puranas (500-1000 AD) contain a series of myths (narratives) regarding reincarnation. One series of myths pits death against withdrawal from life altogether. Thus, for example, Siva (the god of ascetics and yogis) on being asked by the Creator to create living creatures, refuses to create since living creatures would be subject to re-death. Siva, instead, wants to create immortals, which the Creator refuses34.

The Puranas contain answers, which are at times ambivalent and contradictory, to questions that one normally asks regarding death and rebirth: why is there so much of fear in front of death, if the atman is eternal and immortal? What happens to the soul at after death? Where does it go? What is the state of the soul after death? Where and how is it reborn? Has his relatives any role in its rebirth?, etc.

5.2.1 The Process of Death

The great fear in front of death, the processes of death and birth are discussed in great detail in the Puranas; they begin with death and then proceed to birth.

The sages asked Vyasa, "Who is the companion of a dying man, his father or mother or son or teacher, his crowd of friends and relations? When he leaves the body that has been his house as if it were a house of wood or mud, and goes into the world beyond, who follows him?" The sage vyasa replied, "Alone he is born, and alone he dies; alone he crosses the dangerous thresholds, without the companionship of father, mother, brother, son or teacher, without his crowd of friends and relations. When he leaves the dead body, for a brief moment he weeps, and then he turns his face away and departs. When he leaves the body, dharma alone follows him; if he has dharma he goes to heaven, but if he has adharma he goes to hell. Earth, wind, space, water, light, mind, intelligence, and the self (atman) - these are the witnesses that watch constantly over the dharma of creatures that breath on earth; together with them, dharma follows the jiva. Skin, bone, flesh, semen and blood leave the body when it is lifeless; but the jiva that has dharma prospers happily in this world and the world beyond."35

Another version of this text is rendered as follows: "his relatives turn away and depart, but dharma follows him...The body is burnt by fire, but the karma he has done goes with him".36 If dharma is one's karma, then the jive (subtle body) goes to heaven and realizes to be atman. If, instead, his karma is adharma, then he goes to hell.

At death the atman takes on the subtle body (diva) in order to experience the fruits of karma. Jiva is the carrier of the karmic deposit; it does not get destroyed in the blazing fire of hell nor does it get destroyed by any created instrument or by the elements of nature 37. [Jiva is at times identified with the linga-sarira and is also called the ativahika body, the body "swifter than wind".38 But the ativahika body is impure and eats on the pinda offered by his relatives, after which the jiva abandons the ativahika body and assumes a preta body. Then after the sapindikarana rite has been performed, the jiva abandons his preta body and gets an experience body (hhoga-deha). The experience body has two forms: one good, which experience the fruit of its good acts and the other bad, which experiences the evil fruit accumulated according to his karma and then he transmigrates39.]

Thus the man of mixed karma has one experience body in heaven and another one in hell; if evil predominates, apparently he goes first to hell, then to heaven, and then from hell to an animal womb; if good predominates, he goes first to heaven, then to hell, and then from heaven again to a good birth among humans.

5.2.2 The Process of Birth

The process of birth is determined by one's karma. In the early texts the process of birth is merely described, and not explained:

When he has suffered through all the hells, the sinner, through the ripening of his own karma that he committed even while inside another body, enters the animal creation, among wonns, insects, and birds; among wild animals, mosquitoes, and so forth; among elephants, trees [sic], cattle, and horses, and other evil and harmfull creatures. Then he is born as a man, a contemptible one like a hunchback or a dwarf; among Candalas, Pullkasas, and so forth. And then, accompanied by his remaining sins and merits, he enters the classes in ascending order - Sudra, Vaisya, king, and so forth - and then he becomes a Brahmin, a god, and an Indra. But sometimes he does it in descending order, and evil-doers fall down into hell"40.

Jiva (the subtle body which is attached to atman) is born as man, when a woman gets impregnated by a man.

Impregnation of a woman by a man takes place when the seed is placed in her blood; as soon as it is discharged from heaven or hell, it sets out.... The embryo remembers its many transmigrations, and it is distressed because of this one and that one, and therefore it becomes depressed41.

At the time of the faIling of the seed of the man, a portion of the jiva (,/ivarmsa) grows in the pregnant womb, by means of blood. From the entry of the man's jiva into the womb, flesh accrues42

Here it is apparent that the jiva is given by the man and nourished by the woman, a view upheld in most of the medical and legal texts. Other Puranas indicate a more equal division of responsibility between man and woman: "... In the union of a woman and a man he is born"43.

In the womb of the mother, the jiva remembers all its past lives and his karmas, both good and bad, the joys and sorrows of his previous actions, but at birth it is deluded by the force of maya and forgets his former lives. Thus the newborn child is unaware of his accumulated karma, but is predetermined by his karma: "By his own karmas a creature becomes a god, man, animal, bird, or immovable thing".44 "By good deeds one becomes a god; by bad deeds a creature is born among animals and by mixed deeds, a mortal. The Veda (sruti) is the authority for the distinction between nrmn and ndharma "45

It is therefore jiva which has still to pay its adharma (karma) that incarnates or transmigrates as man. Consciousness (caitanya), desire, thought are inherent in the jiva which takes a material form in the womb of a woman 46

5.2.3 The Role of the Parents in the Process of Rebirth

According to Garuda Purana, it is not the karma or the jiva alone that determines birth and nature but the consciousness of the father at the time of impregnation. "Whatever a man has on his mind at the time of impregnation, a creature born of such a nature (svabhava) will enter the womb',47

This, naturally, brings up the question of the role of the karma of the parents in the process of rebirth. The Puranas state that the child's birth is affected by the karma of the father and the mother;48 similarly, the embryo's physical makeup is contributed by both parents: the mother gives hair, nails, skin, flesh and the father gives bone, sinew, and marrow49. The actual mechanism of this karmic transfer during the process of birth is not explained in the Puranas, but the effect of it is certainly taken for granted; and the transfer of karma in the opposite direction (from child to parent) takes place often during life and after the death of the parent.

Both in the Mahabharata and in the Puranas, we find myths illustrative of the karma flow in both directions: from living children to dead ancestors (as in the tale of a sage's ancestors hanging by their fingertips in a great pit - Mahabharata 3.94-97); and, less often, from parents to children. [A series of karmic transfers from children to parents takes place between King Yayati and his sons and grandsons.50 In the myth of Vena, karma flows in both directions: the evil of Vena himself is the result of the direct transfer of negative karma from his evil mother - who is evil because of the karma inherited from her father, death;5i but when Vena dies, and is reborn as a leper, his good son Prthu saves him by going to a shrine, performing a ritual, and transferring that merit to his father, for his father is so impure that he would transfer his own bad karma to the shrine and thus defile it; only the devotional sacrifice of the son can save him.52 In other texts, Vena is saved simply by the birth of his good son,53 or, in a more primitive process, by the birth of an evil son, who draws the evil out of Vena in a direct transfer,54 as the evil demon drew the evil nature out of the Brahmin's wife. Thus evil karma is transferred from parent to child in a direct line, thus explaining the existence of evil in the present; good karma is transferred backwards into the past and into the future, through the heteropathic devotion of the good child to the evil parent - the ritual model of the sraddha offering, translated into bhakti mythology.]

5.2.4 The Role of Fate in Rebirth

A child's birth is affected not only by the karma of the jiva and of the parents, but also by other factors, among which fate plays an important role. "By karma impelled by fate a creature is born in the body; taking refuge in a drop of the seed of a man he enters the belly of a woman". Yet karma and fate are often said to work together, or even to be the same55. [In a myth found in the Lingua Purana, a sage tries to dissuade Parasara from killing all the demons in order to avenge his father's murder by them: "The demons did not hurt your father; it was fated to happen to him in this way. Who is killed by whom? A man experiences (the fruits of) his own deeds"56.]

Or again, in the Bhagavata Purana we find a similar myth, where a sage tries to dissuade Dhruva from killing all the Yaksas in order to avenge his brother's murder by them. The Yaksas did not actually kill his brother, but it was fate that he should have got killed. The cause of man's birth or death or fate.

[''The Lord ordains the increase or decrease in the life span of a miserable creature. Some say this is karma; others that it is one's own nature; others that it is time; others that it is fate; and others that it is desire. The servants of Kubera, the Yaksas, were not the slayers of your brother; the cause of a man's birth and death is fate [daiva: Sridhara glosses it as Isvaral. He creates this universe, and keeps it, and kills it; but because he has no egoism, he is not affected by karmas or qualities [gunas]''57.l

Although gods, on the whole, are free of k;arma58, they come under the sway of fate. Krishna performed all his great manly deeds Epaurusa] by the power of predestination [bhavivasat]59. But very often fate and karma are taken to mean the same thing, especially when referred to the gods, either when evoked as an excuse for weakness or failure on their part60 or to escape punishment6~. These apparently conflicting attitudes to the fate and karma of the gods may be somewhat clarified when one realizes that Sridhara is talking about God, the absolute, who is regarded as being either above fate or identical with it, and that the others are merely lower-case gods, who are helpless against fate and karma.

If God controls fate and the gods are controlled by it, then nothing can be done against fate, it would seem. It is not so, because in the Puranas we have many examples of those who challenge fate and also overcome fate.

Thus, for example, when the wicked Kamsa learns that he is "fated" to be killed by a child of Devaki, he boasts, "This is a matter that concerns mere mortals, and so it can be accomplished by us though we are mortal. It is known that people like me can overcome fate and turn it to advantage by the right combination of spells, and herbal medicines, and constant effort"62. Of course Kamsa had no luck, because the child fated to kill him was none other than Krishna, no "mere mortal" and so accepted the fact that he could not overcome his fate by mere human effort. Or we have the case of Devaki and Vasudeva, who make an effort to save their last son, Krishna and their effort is crowned with success, which goes to prove the efficacy of human effort over fate.

l"Men must experience the karma that was formerly made, but can that not be worn away by pilgrimages, asceticism, and gifts? For the rites of expiation has been set forth in the Dharmasastras composed by the noble (sages) in order to destroy the evils amassed in former (lives).... If everything is brought about by fate...then all undertakings are without purpose, even the sacrifices that are supposed to achieve heaven. If this is so. then the authority (of the Vedas) is falsely proclaimed, and if the authority is false, why isn't

dharma cut down? But in fact, when an effort is made, success is achieved, night before your eyes. Therefore you should investigate and determine what is to be done to protect this little boy, my little son" 63.]

5.2.5 The Conquest of Karma and Reincarnation

If one can reverse fate, one can certainly reverse karma and its consequences. In fact in severe! chapters of the oldest Puranic writings one can read how a sinner can save himself from going to hell. A sinner can save himself by giving gifts (various types) to Brahmins. By giving gifts one can acquire merit and thus abolish even rebirth 64.

Yoga became another means of overcoming karma. Thus for example, in the Markandeya Purana, after setting up an inexorable karma process, it proceeds to undermine it completely with a long chapter on the way that the practice of Yoga releases people from karma 65. Meditation and renunciation are equally effective as karmic antidotes 66. The glorification of shrines (tirthamahatmya), pilgrimage and bathing at the holy shrines can wipe away one's past bad karma. Thus when Parvati asks Siva how evil that has been accumulated in a thousand former births can be worn away, Siva replies that this evil is worn away when one enters the Avimukta shrine at Banares 67.

Though the functions of karma and the mechanisms of rebirth are discussed at great length, the major thrust of the texts is to exhort the worshipper to undertake remedial actions in order to swim like a salmon upstream against the current of karma68. Almost every chapter on Karma-vipaka (ripening of karma), which explains how people get to hell by committing sins 69, is followed by a chapter on expiation.

By Bhakti (loving devotion) worship of a personal God (Vishnu or Krishna) is a sure means of overcoming one's bad karma and its consequences. The Puranas abound in stories in which the unrepentant sinner, about to be dragged away by the minions of Yama, is saved at the last minute by the arrival of the chariot of the servants of the sectarian god. By worshipping Vishnu, one can be "dispensed', with karma and karma can be conquered by those whom Krishna loves70.

5.3 Reincarnation in Dharmashastra (The Laws of Manu)

The Dharmashastra dedicates an entire chapter on the theme of karma-samsara, where the mechanism of the transmigration of soul is explained7'. The Book of Manu introduces a threefold origin of karma: manas (mind), vac (speech) and deha (body) (12.3). Sinful actions which spring from the mind will lead to rebirth in a low caste, evil actions from speech will cause rebirth as a bird of a beast and bodily sinful actions will lead one to be reborn as something inanimate. The book of Law classifies men into three categories according to the predominance of one or the other of the

three constitutive principles (guna) which determine the character of an individual, viz., the sattva (principle of clarity and tranquillity), the rajas (principle of activity and movement), and the tamas (principle of obscurity and inertia)72. Those in whom sattva prevails are characterized by goodness and purity, are enlightened by spiritual knowledge and do good works; those in whom rajas prevail are characterized by greediness for fame, power and material goods, and occupy themselves with activities of love and hatred; and those, instead, in whom tamas prevail are characterized by lethargy, impiety, cruelty, ignorance and desires of sensual pleasures. The prevailing of one or other principle derives from the merits or demerits of the past lives73.

Then the Book of Law then deals in details with the types of future re-births corresponding to the acts done by each one, acts which arise from the above-mentioned principles. At the moment of death, those in whom tamas predominate will be reborn as grass, trees, insects of every type, fishes, snakes, reptiles, birds, lions, boars, evil men, etc., depending on the amount of tamas each one has gathered during his present life and the non-expiated ones of his previous life (12. 42-45); those in whom rajas prevail will be reborn as kings, kshatriyas, servants, drunkards, etc., depending on the amount of rajas each one has collected (12. 46); and those in whom sattva prevails will be reborn as Brahmins, hermits, apsaras (servants of god), sages, etc. (12. 47-50), again depending on the amount of sattva one has gathered.

The Book of Manu deals in a particular way with mahapataka (mortal sins), viz., killing of a Brahman, drinking, stealing and adultery (11. 55), which will lead the offenders to spend large numbers of years in dreadful hells and after that enter into the wheel of samsara. It also deals, in great detail, with the rebirths of all kinds of thieves (12. 61-69) and finally with the rebirths of those who are not faithful to the specific duties of their varnas (four castes): "will migrate into despicable bodies" and "will become the servants of the Dasyus"74.

In the Dharmasastras the description of various types of rebirth for different types of evil actions outweigh by far the attention given to theoretical considerations and analyzing the technique of karma and rebirth.

6. Popular Theory

Three elements of popular faith merge together in the doctrine of karma: the spirits of the dead exist as preta, in a quasi-material state; the concept of a tribunal in the kingdom of god Yama (the king of the dead, also Dharmaraja, the king of justice); the ascent of the soul to heaven.

The soul as preta lives in an intermediary state (pretyabhava) in which it can die again (punarmyrtyu), which can be averted through performing religious rites. Other conceptions make the preta as "poor souls" which wander about in the houses of the living, if they are not assisted properly, viz., if their family members on earth fail to offer the religious rituals (sraddha). Then, once the soul (preta) is completely purified of its sins, becomes devoyana and enters brahmaloka (heaven, paradise), or enjoys first the fruits of his good acts in chandraloka (the sphere of the moon) on the "way of the fathers" (pitryana), to be reborn after enjoying the fruits of his good actions76. The bad karma has to be completely wiped off in hell. The time spent in the intermediates states are phases of purification. The sraddha ceremonies, performed after the death of a deceased, help him in his journey through the intermediary kingdom (prevent him from dying a new death) and influence on the karmic order.

7. Towards the Ultimate Liberation

The fundamental teaching of the four Vedus, the Bhagavat Gim, the Puranas and other religious texts of Hinduism, is not reincarnation, rebirth, but the ultimate liberation or salvation. In fact the necessity of transmigration is a nightmare for the Hindus77. The ultimate scope is moksha or multi, and in order to arrive at moksha, Hinduism proposes different ways (yoga or marga), by which one can reach spiritual perfection and finally eternal salvation of the soul: the way of action (karma-marga), the way of loving devotion towards God and abnegation (bhaktimarga), the way of concentration (raja yoga) and the way of spiritual knowledge (jnana-marga), of the non duality of Atmar' (the 'self' or the individual 'I') and Brahman (the Absolute).

According to the Advaiia Vedanta (the absolute non-dualism of Sankara) the only absolute reality is Brahman and the most intimate reality of man (the self or Atman) is the same Brahman. All the rest is maya, an illusion, a veil placed over by the same Brahman. Salvation or liberation consists precisely in the realization of A`man is Brahman through the jnana-yoga (marga). Only the one who is liberated knows the One (Absolute) and for the one who knows reincarnation is an illusion. Instead, the one who does not know, does not realize Atman is Brahman, continues to live in illusion and considers vam.sara as real.

8. Eschatology

What is the condition of the liberated soul? According to Advaita Vedanta, the individual soul (atman) looses its false individuality by realizing its identity with Brahman: "I am Brahman" (A ham Brahmasmi). It is a state of supreme beatitude, bliss, knowledge and pure existence. For the Nyaya Vaiseshika and the Mimamsa schools, the liberated soul exists deprived of any pleasurable or painful experience; it does not have neither happiness nor consciousness. According to the Samkhya Yoga, the liberated soul exists in a solitary state of tranquillity; experiences its intimate nature as pure spirit without having any relationship with matter78.

The popular theist sects (Vishnuism, Sivaism, Shaktism, etc.), hold on to the view that the liberated soul keeps its individual identity and enjoys the beatific vision and communion with a personal God.

9. Arguments in Favor of the Theory of Reincarnation in Hinduism

9.1 Metaphysical Arguments

Metaphysical arguments, as such, in favor of reincarnation do not exit, because no philosophical schools of Hinduism deny this doctrine79. It is, in fact, a question of faith that one tries to understand, without putting it to discussion or deny it. The karma-samsara is Original Sin for the Hindus and is one among the very few dogmas of faith, as we have mentioned above. Modern Hindu philosophers, however, propose a metaphysical argument, viz., that the soul (atman) is eternal, but the normal condition of the soul is that it is associated with a body. It is probable, therefore, that the soul in the past would have had and in the future will have a succession of bodies.

9.2 Empirical Arguments

From the empirical point of view, some facts that occur are considered to prove the truth of reincarnation. Thus for example, the existence of prodigious children (like Mozart or Menuhin) who with their instinctive capacity far superior and prodigious in every way goes to prove that they had a training (or knowledge) before they were born, or those, for example, Bridey Murphy, yogis and Buddhist saints, who claim to remember their previous births and lives, or again the deja vu experience of some people who have explicit knowledge of people and places without having had any previous contact with them, or, finally, the conception that since the soul is indivisible it cannot be derived from parents.

9.3 The Argument of Evolution

In the philosophical system of Sri Aurobindo, reincarnation is a necessary and indispensable mechanism for the dynamic process of evolution of the universe8°. According to him, the whole universe is a manifestation, an self-revelation of the Supreme Spirit, Saccidananda. The various grades of beings are similarly grades of involution or self-limitation of the Spirit. But then through various stages of evolution, the Spirit recovers his original nature; that is, matter evolves gradually in the Spirit. Involution is the decent of the Spirit, while evolution is ascent to the Spirit. Through the process of evolution, the human mind is still to evolve itself to become superman which will then finally culminate in SaccidCananda. Hence the soul did not begin its existence in human form, but in subhuman forms and is on the way to becoming superman8'.

9.4 Theological Arguments

In favor of reincarnation, from the theological point of view some reasonable and interesting observations are made by Hindu Theologians.

1. Faith in reincarnation is confirmed by the Vedas, which are revealed and therefore contain intuitions of rishis (sages, holy persons) that are true, precisely because they are expressions supported by authentic testimony.

2. Rebirth, associated with karma, offers a fitting solution to the great problem or mystery of evil (inequality, injustice, suffering: all results of past actions: karma). Justice demands, calls for reincarnation. So much of inequality exists among men: some are strong and healthy, others instead are weak and sick, deaf and dumb, blind, mentally and physically handicapped. Some are rich, others are poor, etc. What is the reason for all this? It cannot be from God, because He is goodness and love. It cannot be attributed to the responsibility of others (first parents, for example) which would be unjust. All these problems and diff'culties can be overcome by accepting the doctrine of karma-samsara or the transmigration of souls according to the inviolable law of retribution. Each one is responsible for his own destiny in his life.

3. The doctrine of transmigration offers the possibility of a long period of time for the process of self-purification and self-perfection. Everyone has the possibility of achieving his ultimate goal, moksha. No one is exempt from it.

4. God the Creator, good and merciful, cannot punish his creature (the soul) for all eternity in hell, but offers him always new chances so that he can arrive at his final goal, viz., to be united with Him (Atman is Brahman).

10. Conclusion

Practically all the religions speak of an intermediary existence, of a sort of purgatory, a place and a time to expiate one's sins, between the earthly existence and the final one of absolute happiness (salvation, liberation, makti, moksha, nirvana, beatific vision of God or union with God, the Absolute).

The reincarnation of the soul is one way of explaining or representing this intermediary existence.

The doctrine of reincarnation is considered to be fundamentally evil; it is like the doctrine of original sin (for Christians), which remains a mystery of faith and evades every sort of rational explanation.

At the same time all the religions propose ways and means to overcome or to escape from this intermediary state of existence so as to reach the ultimate scope of human existence, viz., eternal happiness or union with God.

The fundamental preoccupation of any religion, including Hinduism, is not so much to propose or to give solutions to the problem of this intermediary existence (including reincarnation) as such, but to bring all to final salvation (heaven, moksha, nirvana), by proposing ways and means to arrive at the final goal, which for Hinduism includes also the definitive liberation from the karma-samvara or the chain of reincarnation.


' ACHARUPARAMBIL D., Induismo. Vita e pensiero, Roma, PP. Carmelitarni Scalzi, 1976, p. 15.

2 Ibid., pp. 15-18.

3 LONG J.B., "Reincarnation", in ELIADE M. (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. XII, New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987, p. 265.

4 Ibid., pp. 265-266

5. ACHARUPARAMBIL D.. lnduismo. Vita e oensiero, op. cit., p. 199.

6 MAHONY W. K., "Karman", in ELIADE M. (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. VIII, New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987,p.261.

7 ACHARUPARAMBIL D., Induismo. Vita e pensiero, op.cit., p.200.

8. SMITH B.K., "Samsara", in ELIADE M (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. XIII, New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987,p.56. .

9 TAPASYANANDA S., The Bhagavad Gita and the Methods of its Study, in "The Vedanta Kesari" 58(1971)8,p. 74.

'° According to Swami Sridharananda the suEsma-sarira is "constituted by the seventeen components, namely, the five jnanendriyas (organs of knowledge), the five karmendriyas (organs of action), the five pranas and the manas (mind) and ahamkara (ego)." See Swami Sridharanada, Sri Krishna's First Sermon: A Running Commentary on the Second Chapter of the Gita, in "Prabhudha Barata 91 (1986),p.195. In his enumeration, the component buddhi is omitted.

" ACHARUPARAMBIL D., Induismo. Vita e pensiero, op. cit., p. 201.

12 KEITH A. B., The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads, Part II, Delhi, Motilal Banarasidass,

1989, p 570.

13 Ibid., pp. 570-571.

14 O'FLAHERTY W. D., Karma and Rebirth in the Vedas and Puranas, in: O'FLAHERTY W. D (Ed.), Karma and

Rebirth in Classical lndian Traditions, Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1983, p. 3.

15 Ibid.

16 Also known as preta-karma, which is rite performed some days after the antyeshti (sacrament of the last rites, cremation). It is to assist the deceased, now a disembodied spirit (preta) to get a new body in heaven (Rigvedic eschatology) or in order to help the preta to pass to the kingdom of pitarah.

17 Pinda is a ball of cooked rice mixed with other ingredients (sesame, milk, butter, honey, etc.) and is offered to the dead ancestors in limbo as a transitional food mediating between death and rebirth.

18 KNIPE D. M., Sapindikarana: The Mndu Rite of Entry into Heaven, in FRANK REYNOLDS - EARLE H.WAUGH ((Eds.), Religious Encounters with Death, Insights from the History and Anthropology of Religions, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977, p. 112; cited by O'FLAHERTY W. D. (Ed), Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions, op. cit., p. 3.

19 O'FLAHERTY W .D., Reincarnation in Hinduism, in "Concilium", 29 (1993) 5, p. 3.

20 Cited in O'FLAHERTY W. DReincarnation in Hinduism, in "Concilium", 29 (1993) 5 p. 3.

21 Ibid. p. 4.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid., p. 5

26 THURUTHIYIL S., La reincarnazione nelle grand) religion), in FIZZOTTI E. (Ed.), Quante vite viviamo? Dibattito sulla reincarnazione, Roma, Las, 1995, p. 27.

27 KEITH A B, op cit, p 573

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Changogya Upanishad 5.3.1-10; cited in O'FLAHERTY W. D., Reincarnation in llinduism, in "Concilium" 29 (1993) 5, pp. 7-8.

3] O'FLAHERTY W. D., Reincarnation in Hinduism, in "Concilium", 29 (1993) 5, p.8.

32 LONG J. B., Reincarnation, in ELIADE M. (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 12, New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987, p. 266.

33 Bhagavat Gita, 6 40-45.

34 O'FLAHERTY W. D., Reincarnation in Hinduism, in ``Conclium', 29 (1993) 5, p. 9. 35 Brahma Purana 217. 1- 16.

36 Garuda Purana, Uttara Khanda, 2. 22-2s.

37 Brahmavaivarta Purana 2. 32.27-32.

38 Visnudharmottara Purana 116. 1-12; 2. 113-114; Markandeya Purana 10. 48b-50; -.63b-72; Agni Purana 369. 1

10; 371. 6-11.

39 Agni Purana 369.15-19; Visnudharmottara Purana 2.113.1-25.

40 Markandoya Purana 10.88-92.

4] Ibid 11 1 - 13 - 22-24.

42 Harivamsa (Poona, 1969), appendix II (sesadharmaprarakarana), lines 2909-2915; cf. O'FLAHERTY, Karma and Rebirth in the Vedas and Puranas, op. cit., p. 19.

43 Linga Purana 88.47-48.

44 Padma Purana 2. 94.12.

45 Bhavisya Purana 4.4.6-8.

46 Garuda Purana, Uttara Khanda 22.18-20.

47 Garuda Purana, Uttara Khanda 22.17.

48 Agni Purana 151. 18: pitur matusca karmatah.

49 Agni Purana 369.31-32; 370.19-20.

so Mahabharata 1.76-91; S.118- 120.

5' Padma Purana 2.29-33; Bhagavata Purana 4.13; Vamana Purana, S. 26.

52 Skanda Purana 7.1.336.95-252; Garuda Purana 6.4-8.

53 Brahmanda Purana 2. 36.127-227; Skanda Purana 7. 1.337.72-175; Harivamsa 5.1-21; 6.1-4; Brahma Purana 4. 28-122; VamanaPurana, S. 26.31; VisnuPurana 1. 13.7-41.

54 Bhagavata Purana 4.13-15; Padma Purana 2.27.19-46.

S5 Matsya Purana 30. 12.

56 Linga Purana 1. 64.109-111.

57 Bhagavata Purana 4 . 1 1.21-25.

5g Matsya Purana 4. 6.

59 Ibid., 6. 10.17-19, -.38b.

60 Vamana Purana 49-50; cf. Devibhagavata Purana 6. 17.40 and 9. 40.70-91 for other examples of Indra's karma.

61 SkandaPurana 2. 7.23.~-40.

62 FLarirnm.`n 47 1 15

63 Devithagavata Purana 4.21.5-17.

64 MatsyaPurana 57.27; 59.19; 206.17-18.

65 Markandeya Purana 39.

66 Linga Purana 1.86.15-21.

67 MatsyaPurana 181.10,-.17-18.

68 Cf. O'FLAT~ERI?Y W.D., Karma and Rebirth, op. cit., p. l4.

69 Visnu Purana 2.6; Vamana Purana 12; Agni Purana 370; Markandeya Purana 14; Bhagavata Purana 3.30;

Purana 1.15.31, etc.

70 Devithagavata Purana 9. 29-30; Varaha Purana 5; Brahmavaivarta Purana 2.29-33; 4.74.

71 Dharmashastra 12.1-82.

72 Dharmashastra 12.24-28;cf.ACHARUPARAM~ILD., Induismo. Vita e pensiero. op. citp. 205.

73 Ibid.

74 ROCHERL., Karma and Rebirth in the Dharmasastras, in O'FLAHERTY W.D.(Ed.), Karma and Rebirth in

Classical Hinduism, op.cit.,pp.67-76.

75 Ibid., p. 77.

76 THURUTHIYILS., La reincarnazione nelle grand) religion), op. cit., p. 31.

77 ACHARUMPARAMBIL D., Induismo. Vita e penisero, op. cit., p. 210.

78 ACHARUPARAMBIL, Induismo. Vita e pensiero, op. cit. p. 211.

79 Cf. SMART N., Reincarnation, in EDWARDS P. (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Macmillan Company and the Free Press, New York, 1967, vol. VII, p. 123.

80 Cf. ACHARUPARABIL D., Induismo. Vita e pensiero, op. cit., pp. 207-208.

81 SRI AUROBINDO Life Divine, vol. 2, Pondicheny, 1970, pp. 760-764.

Opening PageCoursesFAQsChurch EldersCommon Sense