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Where Did the Idea of Reincarnation Begin?

David Langness | May 20, 2024

PART 3 IN SERIES Reincarnation

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | May 20, 2024

PART 3 IN SERIES Reincarnation

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

If you read the Hindu and Buddhist sacred literature carefully, you’ll eventually come to two important conclusions: Krishna and Buddha wrote nothing down, and that includes the doctrine of reincarnation.

Even though their revelations occurred in primarily pre-literate societies, Krishna and Buddha founded two of the world’s great religions during their respective eras. The Baha’i teachings revere Hinduism and Buddhism and count their founders among human history’s holiest messengers, as Abdu’l-Baha explained in this 1912 speech he gave to the Japanese Independent Church in Oakland, California:

Blessed souls — whether Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius or Muhammad — were the cause of the illumination of the world of humanity. How can we deny such irrefutable proof? How can we be blind to such light? How can we dispute the validity of Christ? This is injustice. This is a denial of reality. Man must be just. We must set aside bias and prejudice. We must abandon the imitations of ancestors and forefathers. We ourselves must investigate reality and be fair in judgment.                                              

Unfortunately, the Hindu and Buddhist revelations took place so far in the distant past that no reliable historical record of the lives or the authentic original teachings of their founders exists. As a result, the Hindu scriptures came primarily from an oral tradition — Wikipedia says they “were composed, memorized and transmitted verbally, across generations, for many centuries before they were written down.” Of course, this holds true for many of the scriptures of the world’s Faiths — scholars know, for instance, that the New Testament of the Bible was composed long after Christ’s physical presence on Earth. 

RELATED: Do You Believe in Reincarnation?

The passage of time, the vagaries of translation, and the gradual insertion of individual or theological opinions into scripture over many centuries can make it very difficult to accurately authenticate the actual teachings of those original prophets and messengers. The Baha’i writings point out that this is one of the primary reasons religion must be renewed from time to time:

Buddha also established a new religion and Confucius renewed the ancient conduct and morals, but the original precepts have been entirely changed and their followers no longer adhere to the original pattern of belief and worship. The founder of Buddhism was a precious Being Who established the oneness of God, but later His original precepts were gradually forgotten and displaced by primitive customs and rituals ….

It is clear and evident, then, that the religion of God does not preserve its original precepts among the people, but that it is gradually changed and altered to the point of being entirely effaced, and thus a new Manifestation appears and a new religion is established. …

So it is with the divine religions: With the passage of time, their original precepts are altered, their underlying truth entirely vanishes, their spirit departs, heresies spring up, and they become a body without a soul. That is why they are renewed.

Accordingly, no one really knows where or when the concept of reincarnation began, or whether it actually came from Krishna or Buddha. Instead, the whole concept of samsara — a Pali and Sanskrit word which literally means “wandering through” but is now used as a synonym for reincarnation — likely emerged later, long after those messengers had offered humanity their great revelations and departed this physical plane.

RELATED: A Legendary Scientist Asks: Do We Survive Death?

In fact, the idea of reincarnation may have developed somewhat simultaneously not only on the Indian subcontinent among Hindus a few centuries before the advent of Christ; but among the followers of Gautama Buddha during that period, as well. We know from the burial practices of the ancient Egyptians that the concept of reincarnation existed in that society, as well. Reincarnation also emerged among ancient Greek and Roman philosophers within the same general timeframe. Abdu’l-Baha explained not only the varied history of the concept, but its veracity and its origins:

A belief in reincarnation goeth far back into the ancient history of almost all peoples, and was held even by the philosophers of Greece, the Roman sages, the ancient Egyptians, and the great Assyrians. Nevertheless such superstitions and sayings are but absurdities in the sight of God.

The major argument of the reincarnationists was this, that according to the justice of God, each must receive his due: whenever a man is afflicted with some calamity, for example, this is because of some wrong he hath committed. But take a child that is still in its mother’s womb, the embryo but newly formed, and that child is blind, deaf, lame, defective—what sin hath such a child committed, to deserve its afflictions? They answer that, although to outward seeming the child, still in the womb, is guilty of no sin—nevertheless he perpetrated some wrong when in his previous form, and thus he came to deserve his punishment.

Many explanations have been conjured up to reconcile the idea of a loving Creator who permitted seemingly unjust outcomes. Babies born with disabilities, for example, were once thought of as the ultimate expressions of “original sin,” another doctrine made up by man and not by actual holy messengers. 

This explanation of reincarnation from Abdu’l-Baha not only discredits the concept, but relates it directly to the principle of justice. While reincarnation may have been initially conceived as a way to comprehend and explain the inscrutable ways of divine justice, it also later became an excuse for prejudice and injustice — because many Hindus came to believe that a soul (atman, a Sanskrit word which means “the true or eternal self”) who accumulated negative karma in this life would be reincarnated as a person of lower caste. That belief then became an excuse for prejudice and poor treatment regarding lower-caste people.

This simplistic and clearly unjust view of divine justice explains just one of the reasons Baha’is reject the concept of reincarnation. In the next essay in this series, we’ll explore one of the other main reasons — what the Baha’i writings call “the harvest of creation.”

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