Doctrine of Reincarnation

Doctrine of Reincarnation


The idea of reincarnation in Hinduism is perhaps as old as Hinduism itself. To students of religion reincarnation is a theological doctrine. Most Hindus consider it a fact. The evidence in support of reincarnation comes from two sources: (1) Jatismaras—people who can remember their past birth or births and (2) the testimony of the scriptures or saints.

Hindu religious literature is full of numerous references to reincarnation. In the Bhagavad Gita, Shri Krishna, a Divine Incarnation, says to his student Arjuna, “Arjuna, both you and I were born many times in the past. You do not remember those births, but I remember them all.” In this particular context Shri Krishna can be called a jatismara, a person who remembers his past births, but Arjuna is not.

Hinduism believes that not only the Divine Incarna­tions like Shri Krishna, but pure-minded saints also, if they want to, can remember their past incarnations. Through the years some people who are neither divine incarnations nor saints have also displayed the rare abil­ity to remember their past lives. Their number is quite small. Nevertheless, the validity of many such cases has been proved in India through reliable and unbiased investigations throughout the ages.

The doctrine of reincarnation explains many things which cannot otherwise be explained adequately. For instance, the genius of a child prodigy like Mozart cannot be satisfactorily explained by heredity or genes alone. Only the doctrine of reincarnation can explain this satis­factorily. Such a prodigy must have been a highly accom­plished musician in his last birth, and he carried that talent over to this incarnation.

In reply to the question, “Why does a person reincar­nate?” Hinduism says that the unfulfilled desires of departed people are primarily responsible for their rebirth. To understand this position one should know Hinduism’s view about death and thereafter.


According to Hinduism, man has two bodies, the gross and the subtle. The gross body is the physical body. The subtle body consists of the mind, intellect, sense organs, motor organs and vital energy. The physical eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin are not considered real sense organs. They are only offices used by the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch to establish contact with the external world. The real sense organs are extremely subtle.


When a person dies, his gross physical body is left behind and the soul with the subtle body, consisting of his mind, intellect, vital energy and his motor and sense organs, goes to a different plane of existence. Such a plane of existence is called a loka in Sanskrit.[1] In addition to this earthly plane, which is called Bhurloka, there are innumerable lokas. They are worlds of different sets of vibrations. All of them, however, occupy the same space. The lokas are neither above nor below in relation to this earthly plane. They have the same spatial existence.

It is not possible for anyone to produce an exhaustive list of the lokas because they are innumerable. Neverthe­less, Hinduism speaks of fourteen lokas[2] including this earthly plane (Bhurloka). The lokas are Satyaloka, Tapoloka, Maharloka, Janaloka, Svarloka, Bhuvarloka, Bhurloka, Atalaloka, Vitalaloka, Sutalaloka, Rasatalaloka, Talatalaloka, Mahatalaloka and Patalaloka. Among these lokas the first six are considered the higher lokas[3] and the last seven are considered the lower lokas. The adjectives higher or lower in this context are used in comparison to conditions found in Bhurloka. In the higher lokas, in ascending order, there is more and more enjoyment or spiritual bliss compared to what is usually found on this earthly plane. Similarly, in the lower lokas, in descending order, there is more and more suffering. All these joys or sufferings, however, are experienced by the departed soul only through his mind. The degree of purity of his mind determines where his soul along with his subtle body will go. A departed soul goes to a higher loka if his mind is pure, and to a relatively lower loka if it is not. As deter­mined by his past karma, the departed soul remains in one of these lokas for a certain period of time, either suf­fering or enjoying there.


When a person dies with a strong unfulfilled desire which can only be fulfilled on earth, his mind—while he is in the other world—strongly yearns for the fulfillment of that desire. That unfulfilled desire eventually brings him back to earth, thus causing his rebirth or reincarna­tion. An analogy will explain this more clearly. Let us suppose a person is extremely fond of a special exotic dish which is served by an exclusive restaurant in the city where he lives. But the restaurant is ten miles away from his home. One day he develops a great craving for that dish. His strong desire to enjoy that dish persuades him to get into his car and drive ten miles to that restaurant. So also the urge of the departed soul to satisfy his unfulfilled desire will bring him back to earth until his desire is fulfilled.


Reincarnation also gives a person the opportunity to gradually evolve spiritually through the various valuable experiences he acquires in his different incarnations. Eventually he reaches the acme of his spiritual progress through God-realization. After realizing God he goes beyond all desires because he no longer lacks anything. He transcends the chain of repeated births and deaths. Such a person is called a liberated soul.


The idea of the transmigration of souls is also present in Hinduism. Generally speaking, a human soul goes on evolving from incarnation to incarnation. It is normal for a human soul to be born again and again only in human bodies until he is liberated. But there may be rare excep­tions. In these exceptional cases a human soul may be born once or twice in a subhuman body to work out very bad Karma. When the bad Karma is worked out, the soul incarnates again in a human body and goes through the process of gradual spiritual evolution.


Those who do not accept the idea of reincarnation sometimes argue that the total number of human beings should have been depleted because so many human beings must have been liberated from death and rebirth since the beginning of creation. But Hinduism refutes this objection by stating that many subhuman beings through the course of evolution are being born as human beings. Consequently, the number of human beings is increasing. Hinduism also asserts that divinity is equally present in every soul, whether that be in a human or a subhuman body. Otherwise it goes against the idea of God’s omnipresence.

Patanjali, the author of the Yoga system of religious philosophy, speaks of the transformation of one genus or species into another. In Sanskrit it is called jatyantara-parinama. According to Patanjali, one genus or species potentially has the ability to evolve into another genus or species when changing circumstances create a suitable environment for such evolution.


Swami Bhaskarananda

President of “Vedanta Society of Western Washington” – Seattle – WA (USA)

[1] According to popular concept there are three lokas. They are Svarga, Martya and Patala, but the scriptures speak of many more.

[2] Swarm Nikhilananda, Vedantasara of Sadananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1978), 61.

[3] Scriptures of Hinduism mention other higher lokas also. Kaushitaki Upanishad (1.3) mentions Brahmaloka, Prajapatiloka, Indraloka, Adityaloka, Varunaloka, Vayuloka and Agniloka as the seven higher lokas.


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