What Is Reincarnation?
Reincarnation refers to the transmigration of souls, the doctrine that after death the soul moves on to inhabit another body, then die again and then another body, and so on.
Belief in some form of this doctrine of endless cycles of birth, death and re-birth can be found in almost all societies, primitive or sophisticated. Variations in it exist according to the local and regional differences in faith and popular culture. In the most materialistic societies especially, whose formal culture denies spiritual life, there is almost a fashion for pseudo-religious belief among certain small circles of people who claim that the spirits of the dead wander about, sometimes taking physical form, and can influence the living, until they (the spirits) settle into their ‘new bodies. It would be impractical here to go into the details of the different forms and fashions of this doctrine; more worthwhile perhaps would be to describe the main substance of it.
One argument for the antiquity of the doctrines of reincarnation is the ‘evidence’ in ancient literature, in the tales of metamorphosis for example, Ovid’s colorful extravagances of that name, in which ‘gods’ take on human and animal forms, humans take on a diversity of different shapes, etc. But these tales do not constitute a doctrine; the doctrine proper is not to do with, simply, colorful change of form, but with a belief that an individual soul must pass through every ‘level’ of creation, every species of life form, animate or inanimate, sentient or insentient. If we reflect upon this we soon realize that the doctrine is really a strange elaboration on the immortality of the soul. In other words, the kernel of it is the intuition that the soul is immortal. That kernel is true; the rest is not. The doctrine may also have arisen from the observation of the likeness in physical and other traits between parents and offspring: in other words, the biological phenomena of heredity, perfectly intelligibly explained by the laws of genetics, are given a less intelligible, indeed own right irrational, explanation by the doctrine of reincarnation.
The doctrine is said to have emerged in the Nile basin, spreading thence to other regions and peoples, to India, for example, and back west from thence, to Greece. There, the eloquence of the philosophers rationalized it (incredibly, it seems to us) into a source of consolation and hope for people who, as do all people, longed for eternity. Among the major religions, the doctrine was, initially, infiltrated into Judaism by the Kabbalists, and by the contrivance of Jewish thinkers into Christianity, and finally into the ideas of some Sufis-despite the hard labors of Muslim theologians to refute such a distortion.
To support it, every apologist for the doctrine put forward some ‘evidence’. For instance, the Kabbalists mention the transformation of Niobe (mentioned in the Old Testament) into a marble sculpture, and of the wife of the Messenger Lot, into a statue made of dust.
Another argument explains instinct and intelligence in animals, and the splendors of the plant kingdom, as once human intelligence and vitality, which had entered into them. The idea debases humanity and shames its proponents: it is really difficult to accept that such an assertion, even if made on the spur of the moment, could be made by people of any understanding. Certainly, it is beyond doubt that there is a program and a predetermined destiny for plants and inanimate creation. But it is rather far fetched to trace the harmony and order we see in the plant or mineral kingdoms to souls which formerly lived as or in human beings. Actually, plants and trees have a certain life, a plant life, a direction of growth towards light and moisture, but this does not mean that this is the activity of the soul of a human soul cast down, or a soul on its way up the levels of creation.
Despite efforts to corroborate this, no-one has ever received any message from a plant form confirming that it contains a soul that once belonged to a human being, nor have we heard any account from a human being that he or she was once the soul of a plant or animal. True, there have been claims, spread about by tabloids and other such media, of people recollecting ‘past lives’, even recounting incidents from their past lives. Where these claims are not totally absurd and ridiculous ravings, their substance can easily be explained as recollections of what the individual has seen or read and then, knowingly or otherwise, elaborated and transformed as in any ordinary human fiction.
The fact that Niobe and the wife of the Messenger Lot were transformed into sculptures of marble or dust respectively, even if accepted literally, are neither an instance nor evidence of reincarnation. What we have in this case is a transformation of a physical kind; it has nothing to do with transmigration of the soul. As for petrified bodies, that is not an arcane phenomenon: just such corpses have been found, in considerable numbers, preserved by the absolute dryness of volcanic ashes. Pompeii was destroyed by a sudden volcanic eruption and remained buried under the ashes of Vesuvius for hundreds of years. The excavations performed there revealed numerous Niobe-like petrified bodies. In these ruins, and in the petrified faces and bodies, so busy in their self-indulgent vices, so secure in their arrogance, we can, if we wish, read the signs of Divine wrath and punishment. Perhaps these figures had their way of life solidified in ash and so preserved, so that future generations might witness and take heed. To interpret them as evidence of reincarnation is simply untenable.
Belief in reincarnation in Egypt, India and Greece developed as a result of distortion of once sound beliefs in the hereafter, and from a longing for the immortality of the soul. Neither in Ahen-Aten’s Egypt nor in Pythagoras’ Greece did anyone know of the reincarnation, which these distorted beliefs brought about. To Ahen-Aten, when man’s life ends in this world, a different one starts in heaven. As soon as one dies, one’s soul sets off on its journey to reach ‘the Greatest Court’ in heaven. It goes so high that it reaches to the presence of Osiris, and hopes to give an account of itself in words like these: ‘I have come to Your presence as I was free from sins, and throughout my life, I did do everything I could that would make devout men pleased. I did not shed blood nor did I steal. Neither did I make mischief nor did I mean any. I did not commit any adultery nor fornication whatever’. Those who can speak so join Osiris’ congregation, those who cannot, whose evil deeds outweigh their good, are hurled into hell and tortured by demons.
Such sound belief is witnessed also in epitaphs relating to Ahen-Aten’s religion as follows: ‘what You have done is too much and our eyes cannot perceive most of them. O One, Only God! No one possesses such might as You have. It is You who have created this universe as You wish and You alone. It is You who decree the world suitable for human beings, for all animals, whether big or small, whether they walk on the earth on their legs or they fly up in the sky on their wings. And it is You alone who sustain and nourish them. Thanks to You, all beauties come into existence. All eyes see You by means of those. Verily, my heart belongs to You (You are in my heart)’. The ideas quoted verbatim above were the things which were believed in as truth in Egypt some four thousand years ago.
Likewise, in Ancient Greece, the belief in resurrection and the immortality of the soul were quite sound. The great philosopher Pythagoras, for example, believed that the soul on leaving the body has a life peculiar to itself; in fact any soul has this same kind of life even before it quits the earth. It is commissioned with some responsibilities on earth; if it commits any evil, it will be punished, thrown into hell and tormented by demons. On the other hand, in return for the good that it does, it will be given high rank and blessed with a happy life. Allowing for the changes that might have been made in the views of Pythagoras over time, we can certainly still see that there are fundamental similarities with the Islamic creed of resurrection. Plato’s account is not so different either. In his famous treatise The Republic, he says that the soul on leaving the body forgets the material (corporeal) life totally; it ascends into an appropriate realm, a spiritual one, saturated with wisdom and immortality; the soul is free from all scarcity, deficiency, error, fear, and from the passion and love which afflicted it while it lived on earth; and then, being free from all the evil consequences of human nature, it is blessed with eternal bliss.
In a comparable way, no doubt also through unscrupulous translation away from the original language and subsequent further distinctions, the Ancient Egyptian, Indian and Greek religions became unrecognizable. The doctrine of reincarnation may well be one such alteration from an originally sound conception of the immortality of the soul and its return to the Divine Judgment.
After reincarnation was inscribed into the beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians, it became one of the central themes of songs and legends throughout the vicinity of the Nile region. Elaborated further with the eloquent expressions of Greek philosophers, it became, with the expansion of Greek influence, a widespread phenomenon.
The Hindus consider matter as the lowest manifestation of Brahma, and deem that the convergence of body and soul is a demeaning of the soul, a decline into evil. However, death is believed to be salvation, a separation from human defects, and a possible chance to achieve an ecstatic union with the truth. The Hindus are polytheistic in practice. Their greatest god is ‘Krishna‘, who is believed to have come in a human figure in order to eradicate evil. Their second greatest god is ‘Vishnu‘, which means that which can penetrate the human body. According to Hinduism, Vishnu has descended into this world nine times in different shapes (human, animal, or flower). He is also expected to descend for the tenth time. Since they believe that Vishnu will next come to this world in the shape of an animal, killing any animal is absolutely prohibited. Killing animals is only allowed during war; and the zealots of that religion do not normally eat meat. According to the Vedanta, the most important religious book of the Hindus, the soul is a part, a fragment, of Brahma; it will never be able to get rid of suffering and distress until it returns to its origin. Soul achieves gnosis by isolating itself from the ego and all wickedness pertaining to the ego, and by running towards Brahma, just as a river flows down into a sea. When the soul reaches and unites with Brahma, it acquires absolute peace, tranquility and stillness, another version of which is Nirvana in Buddhism: there is an abatement of active seeking, a passivity of soul in the latter, whereas the soul is dynamic in Hinduism.
All ancient, new and contemporary acceptance of the doctrine of reincarnation has one characteristic, one root, in common, that is the belief in incarnation. There is a shared failure of intellect to both grasp and accept the Absolute Transcendence of God: corrupted by this failure, people have been persuaded to believe that the Divine mixes with the corporal and that the corporal or the human will mix or can mix with the Divine. But in reality every individual lives and dies according to his or her individual destiny, carries his or her individual load, will be individually resurrected and individually called to answer for his or her intentions and actions and their consequences, and each individually will receive Divine judgment (which is perfect justice) according to the same criteria.
We set below, in the form of a list of points, the cardinal reasons why the doctrine of reincarnation should be rejected. Belief in the Resurrection and Judgment when justice is meted out to each individual soul according to that individual’s record in life.
1 If the individual soul passes into different lives, in which form or personality will it be resurrected, commanded to give account, and rewarded or punished?
2 This world is created for the purpose of test and trial, to benefit the soul thereby. One focus of the test is belief in the Unseen. Under the doctrine of resurrection, those who live a bad life pass into a lower form of life (animal, tree, etc.) after death. But in that case, they will know the consequences of their former life and life as test loses its meaning.
To get round this, believers in this doctrine also have to have a doctrine of forgetfulness-the soul ‘forgets’ its past existence. In that case, for all practical purposes, having had (or not having had) a past existence is of no consequence to any living creature. Plainly, the doctrine contradicts itself and has no bearing on life as it is lived except to make the individual accept his condition whatever it may be without actively striving for salvation.
3 If each individual is supposed to go through a painful cycle of transmigrations in order to acquire eternal bliss, then God’s promise to punish the wicked and the sinful, and to reward the good and the righteous, has no meaning for the individual life. This is unacceptable for Providence, and God is far from being vain or futile in His actions.
4 The Holy Book and other Divine Books state that sins will be forgiven (if truly repented). This proves how unnecessary and cumbersome a device it is, this doctrine that the soul must endure innumerable cycles to realize forgiveness. How much better do the concepts of mercy and forgiveness befit God, the Beneficent Merciful Creator.
There is no sin, which God cannot forgive as He wills. God, the All Mighty, reveals and promises in the Holy Book that He will forgive those who repent what they have done wrong and sincerely intend not to do it again. In this respect, God does not see how great or little your sins are, nor how late your penitence is. This may mean that a sinner who disobeys and rebels against God throughout his life can also be forgiven by a single act of true repentance, done with absolute sincerity and a profound understanding of servanthood and dependence on God. (But no individual knows his or her future, none knows if that late hour will come how unwise then to postpone it!)
5 Long, and tiresome cycles of rebirth are contrary to the mercy, favor, grace and forgiveness of God, the All Compassionate. If He wills, He takes ordinary, worthless, inferior things and turns them into what is purest and best and beyond price. Infinite indeed are His blessings and munificence.
6 Among the followers of the Messengers, there have been many who led wicked lives but who afterwards reformed and did so within an incredibly short time, then being the revered models of virtue for later generations. After meeting the Messengers, and embracing the Divine Message, some of them even surpassed previous followers and came to be more revered than them. This indicates that by the favor of God one can easily and quickly rise to the summit, even if, previously, one had been of those apparently destined for the pit. It also shows, again, how unnecessary is the doctrine of souls ‘graduating’ into higher levels of being: indeed the doctrine may have the effect of lessening incentives to moral effort.
7 To believe that God, the All-Mighty, has created for each individual an individual soul is a part of belief in His Omnipotence. To believe, instead, that a limited number of souls migrate from body to body argues the illogical proposition that the Omnipotent is not Omnipotent. The sheer abundance of life, its infinite variety, its refusal of mere repetition of form, is everywhere evident: God is indeed All Mighty. There are approximately 5 or 5.5 billion people in the world. In recent times we have learnt how to prove that each individual is absolutely unique by looking at fingerprints or gene codes. No individual’s gene code or fingerprint is like any other’s a fact so reliable as to be used in forensic science to identify criminals. Another example is the observation by a German professor, over thirty years, of millions of pictures of snowflakes not one of which is ever exactly like any other in shape or pattern. It is scarcely imaginable how many snowflakes fall in one season on one mountainside, let alone all that have ever fallen. How foolish to imply then that the Omnipotent could not create an infinite number of individual souls and supply them with an infinite number of bodies.
8 As there are about 5.5 billion people altogether on the earth, could not a few of them at least have had some marks, or signs on them, or evidence, or something convincing to tell, of their memories, adventures and experiences in different forms and bodies? Must not there have be an accumulation of knowledge, experience and culture in some of those who have come to this world a few times or even completed their cycles? If this happened in only one out of a million should we not expect there to be a great number of people now living of extraordinary virtue and competence? Should we not have met a few of them even in our own countries? If so, where are they?
9 When a body reaches an age (let’s say three or four years), a measure physical maturity, should we not expect the soul to emerge with, as it were, all the acquisition and achievement of previous lives? Should we not expect prodigies? There have been quite a few prodigies in recorded history, but their special gifts need not be the result of lives lived many times before. It can equally well be explained as a special combination of genetic characteristics occurring in a particular time and place which is attributable to Divine Grace and Favor, together with supreme effort on the part of the individual to understand his or her own gift in the tradition and context in which it is given.
10 No faculty special only to human beings has ever been found in any other entities, animate or inanimate. But we should expect such a discovery if there were any truth in reincarnation. If a lower form of life is, so to speak, the consequence (punishment) for particular evil deeds in the previous life, then, presumably, the good in that life (outweighed by the evil) must also be carried forward. In other words, some part of the individual’s previous life should be retained in the next life. In this case we would expect the boundaries of particular forms to be frequently burst open with, for example, plants never known to do so, suddenly showing properties associated with animal life. But, by the Mercy of God, zoology and botany have not, for all their many welcome advances in recent years, discovered any such monsters.
11 If being a man or animal is the consequence of one’s deeds in a former life, which first existed, man or animal, the higher or the lower? Advocates of the doctrine cannot decide or agree on any form for the first creature, for every generation implies a preceding generation in order that the succeeding generation may be considered as the consequence of the former. And if generation is an evil, as some who believe in reincarnation also believe, why did the whole thing start? Why did life begin at all? Plainly, the doctrine leads again and again to absurdity.
By M. Fethullah Gulen