Reincarnation. The cycle of birth, death and rebirth in Hinduism

Term Paper, 2013

17 Pages, Grade: 2,1


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Afterlife in different metaphysical models

3. The semantic meaning of the term “reincarnation” and in different religions

4. The seven beliefs of Hinduism

5. Reincarnation in Hinduism
a. Karma
b. Samsara
c. Moksha

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

"When you hear about the Self, meditate upon the Self, and finally realize the Self... you come to understand everything in life."Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.5 1

The question what happens after death is a philosophical problem which concerns the human kind for centuries. By trying to categorize the different concepts regarding what happens after death, three concepts, varying among cultures and religions, can be differentiated.

First, there is the concept of denial which states that the existence of the individual ends with his death,2 as it is widely believed in the Western world.

The second one is the concept of completion - in many religions, as e.g. in Christianity, the human life is seen as a preparation for a life after, somewhere else, in a different state of existence, like Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Limbus, etc.3.

And the third concept is the concept of rebirth, meaning that the mental part of the person, may it be called the “soul” or the “spirit”, is reborn many times in new bodies on earth4.

The following paper will deal with the concept of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth in the Hindu religion, as Hindus, in contrary to the Western cultures and monotheistic religions, believe that there is life after death and before the present life there was a beforelife, because they believe that it does not make sense, that people suddenly appear out from nowhere, meaning not the biological body, but the “soul” or the “spirit”.

First I will give a definition of the different concepts of afterlife in different metaphysical models and I will define the term reincarnation from its semantic point of view and as it is seen in different religions, to show the main differences. Then I will continue with a brief introduction to Hinduism, as it is important to understand the essence of this religion to be able to understand the concept of reincarnation. I will then proceed with the description of the process of reincarnation in Hinduism. Accordingly I will describe the processes of birth, death and rebirth within Hinduism in detail. Finally I will discuss the arguments in favor and against the theory of reincarnation and then I will try to provide a conclusion.

2. Afterlife in different metaphysical models

The term afterlife, which is also referred to as the “Hereafter” or “life after death” means the death of the body in the lifetime of a person and that an essential part of the identity or consciousness of this person resides somewhere, either as a part of that person or his entire “soul”5.

Some religions believe that a part of the human being who passed away ascends to a different dimension and some believe, that the person´s “soul” is reborn in this world with no memory of the previous life, whereas those kinds of rebirths can take place many times.

In the Abrahamic tradition people believe that after death the individual goes to a different state of existence which is determined by the judgment of God based on his actions and beliefs during his life6. So in Abrahamic religions people can go after death either to predestination, unconditional election or the intermediate state to await the resurrection or directly to hell or to heaven7. Whereas people who led a sinful and faithless life go to hell, where they are tormented forever, the ones who a led sinless and faithful life go to heaven, where they are rewarded forever8.

In the Dharmic tradition, the next step of existence is determined by the actions of the individual itself9. Thus in Dharmic religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. it is believed that the current life of a person is both afterlife and beforelife and after death humans start another life in another physical form and the events that happen in the current life of an individual are the reflection of the actions the person took in his previous lives10.

Irrespective of the differences between the religions in all traditions it is believed that every next stage in life is either a reward or a punishment for the actions of an individual during life.

3. The semantic meaning of the term “reincarnation” and in different religions

In Western cultures, either in Romance languages or in Indo-European languages this process of rebirth is called “reincarnation”, whereas “re” means “again”, “in” means “in” and “carn” means “meat” or “flesh”, so the meaning of the whole word can be paraphrased as “again in flesh”, meaning being embodied repeatedly11.

The word itself has a Latin origin and means “entering the flesh again”12. The Greek words metempsychosis or metensomatosis, which corresponds to the English concept of the “transmigration of the soul”, which means the reincarnation of the soul after the biological death of the body, and palingenesis, which means “being born again” or “to begin again” all describe the process of rebirth13.

At first view, the concept of reincarnation describes the process of rebirth of the “soul” of an individual, when after the biological death of its old body it is reborn in another body, but it is rather unclear who, how and where is reborn14. The question is if the identity of the individual is reborn completely in a different body or rather some parts of the person or the soul, whereas other parts are transformed15. Thus the question of a continuous “identity” of the reincarnated individual arises16. To differentiate between the different possibilities of reincarnation Feldmeier (2005) developed five methodic basic dimensions for the anthropological view of the term “reincarnation”17. The central difference is between the meaning of the term reincarnation in the literal and the metaphorical sense, thus a difference can be made between a postmortem reincarnation and an intramundane transformation18. An important part of the postmortem reincarnation is the transmigration as a transformational migration of the “soul” into other entities, like animals or even plants19.

None of the above mentioned terms are accepted in the academic language use, as the words transmigration, reincarnation, metempsychosis or rebirth coincide.

The belief in the rebirth of the soul is found in many cultures and in different cultures and religions there are different concepts of what happens in the afterlife, the oriental religions being the ones where the idea of reincarnation originates.

This basic conception of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth is first and foremost present in oriental religions, as Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, although in Buddhism the concept of reincarnation does not speak of an eternal soul or spirit, but of a stream of consciousness by which life is linked with life, whereas the process of the change from one life to another literally means “becoming again”20.

In Hinduism the idea of reincarnation is a basic part of the religion and it is believed that the cycle of death and rebirth is perpetual21.

Also in Christianity Jesus is seen as a divine incarnation, too, and furthermore in Islam it is believed that prophets can incarnate again22. In Judaism there is the concept of “Gilgul neshamot” when Gilgul means cycle and neshamot means souls23.

Nevertheless, there is actually no doctrine of reincarnation, but rather theories, hypotheses, ideas, maybe a myth, and many different views24.

4. The seven beliefs of Hinduism

Every culture, every religion and every person has certain beliefs, which determine attitudes and thoughts about life and the world, which result in actions.

In contrary to Christianity or Islam, it is almost impossible to define Hinduism, as it does not have a single founder and it does not have a central authority25. Thus the Hindu religion can be seen as a collection of many different traditions, customs, theories, teachings, concepts and ideas. However, there are a few main beliefs, principles and practices which all Hindus have in common.

First of all, Hindus believe that there is an all-pervasive Supreme Being, the Creator of everything, and all things we perceive underlie the Maya – an illusion26.

The second belief is that the holy scriptures of the four Vedas are divine and infallible27.

Furthermore Hindus believe that the universe is governed by the Holy Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and “through their hands” it undergoes a cycle of continuous creation, preservation and dissolution28.

Hindus also believe that all the religions teach God´s paths and are to be tolerated29.

Another belief is in the Guru, who is considered a semi-incarnation of God, the enlightened master who teaches good conduct, purification, meditation and surrender in God30.

Furthermore Hindus believe in the universal law of cause and effect, called karma, which means that the actions and thoughts in the present life determine the next life31.

In addition, Hindus believe in the cycle of death and rebirth – the concept of reincarnation, which is called samsara, meaning that a person can be reborn many times, each of his lives determined by his karma, until he achieves the liberation from this cycle of reincarnations, called moksha32. Every Hindu aspires to be reborn in a higher form of existence, which is determined by his actions, his karma, his path33. The aspiration is thus not for the eternal life, but in contrary: the overcoming of the world through the release from the cycle of death and rebirth34.

Although Hinduism does not deny the goal of the pursuit of possession and pleasure, it is only allowed to pursue those goals if one does not forget the third goal – the dharma35. The concept of dharma means, that every human being stays in relation and dependence of other humans and non-human creatures36. The goal of dharma demands that people never forget the welfare of the ensemble, when they pursue their own goals, thus if people follow only their needs they hurt the dharma, which results in the destruction of the harmony of the collective37. But dharma has a finite duration and the most important goal for every individual is moksha, which can be translated as freedom, meaning the freedom from ignorance (avidya)38. The ignorance of the true nature of the human self (atman), God (Brahman) and the world (jagata) is the core for all sufferings and bondage39.


1 vgl. ReligionFacts 2004-2013

2 vgl. Heindel, M. 1865-1919

3 vgl. Heindel, M. 1865-1919

4 vgl. Heindel, M. 1865-1919

5 vgl. TheFreeDictionary 2013 (a)

6 vgl. Coward, H. 1998:11

7 vgl. Coward, H. 1998:11f.

8 vgl. Coward, H. 1998:11f.

9 vgl. Coward, H. 1998:13

10 vgl. Coward, H. 1998:13f.

11 vgl. 2013 (b)

12 vgl. Obst, H. 2009:7

13 vgl. Feldmeier, R. 2005:13

14 vgl. Feldmeier, R. 2005:13

15 vgl. Feldmeier, R. 2005:13

16 vgl. Feldmeier, R. 2005:13

17 vgl. Feldmeier, R. 2005:18

18 vgl. Feldmeier, R. 2005:18

19 vgl. Feldmeier, R. 2005:19

20 vgl. Coward, H. 1998:13

21 vgl. Coward, H. 1998:13

22 vgl. Coward, H. 1998:12f.

23 vgl. Rav Abraham Brandwein, D. 5756

24 vgl. Obst, H. 2009:7

25 vgl. Coward, H. 1998:80f

26 vgl. Terhart, F., Schulze, J. 2006: 142

27 vgl. Terhart, F., Schulze, J. 2006: 136

28 vgl. Terhart, F., Schulze, J. 2006: 142-144

29 vgl. Terhart, F., Schulze, J. 2006: 139

30 vgl. Terhart, F., Schulze, J. 2006: 157

31 vgl. Terhart, F., Schulze, J. 2006: 147

32 vgl. Terhart, F., Schulze, J. 2006: 147

33 vgl. Von Heintze, F., Varnhorn, B., Wienecke-Janz, D. 2006:221

34 vgl. Von Heintze, F., Varnhorn, B., Wienecke-Janz, D. 2006:221

35 Coward, H. 1998: 82

36 Coward, H. 1998: 82

37 Coward, H. 1998: 82

38 Coward, H. 1998: 82

39 Coward, H. 1998: 83

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Reincarnation. The cycle of birth, death and rebirth in Hinduism
University of Hildesheim
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reincarnation, hinduism
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Yevgeniya Marmer (Author), 2013, Reincarnation. The cycle of birth, death and rebirth in Hinduism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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