Eastern philosophy & thought has surged in popularity in the West and a corollary of this is the belief in the concept of reincarnation. An adherent of reincarnation believes that ones’ soul, upon death of the body, comes back to earth in another body or form. This has become rather popular in the west since it would seem to suggest that people have a second shot at living life. However, when properly examined such a westernized belief is clearly not consistent with the way most easterners believe in the concept, and since westerners (particularly New Agers) are the one’s doing the borrowing, it would be best for us to analyze reincarnation in accordance to easterner belief.
The Hindu view of reincarnation reveals a very different story than what we are led to believe within the west. Many easterners view reincarnation as a religious based philosophy that is ultimately unworkable and oppressive. This is especially a view held by many Hindus who are believed to be of a much lower status than others. These lower status Hindus are often marginalized and suffer stigma and discrimination as a result of their position in society. They also often feel trapped and unable to change their own situations for the better. In other words, these lower status Hindus believe that they are stuck in a rot because of unknown and uncontrollable events and decisions that they allegedly made in a previous life. These decisions, they believe, have come back to haunt them in their current life. And since they are in such an unfortunate position other Hindus who are not so unfortunate end up leaving them to suffer in their mess. After all, why intervene in the punishment dished out on others if they deserve it as the Hindu believes? For example, impoverished children living in India are thought to be suffering precisely because of their past-life injustices. Yet, according to the eastern concept of reincarnation, such children are being rightfully punished, so then why give them food, shelter, and clothing at the risk of interfering in their just punishment? Moreover, how shall interfering in their punishment by assisting them impact on one’s own lot in a next life? Perhaps a fear of being like these children in the next life for helping them prevents aid and much needed relief. Therefore, compassion in a society where such a belief in reincarnation is properly held would seem to be lacking.
Another questionable component to belief in reincarnation is the unfairness. Hitler was clearly evil in slaughtering millions of Jews in this life. However, if he were to be reincarnated in the next life, and although he was responsible for mass evil in his previous life, he would know nothing of the sort. He would have no memory or knowledge of his injustices that he did in his previous life. However, it is precisely because of such injustices that he would ultimately be suffering for in his new life. In other words, one is being unfairly and unjustly punished in a new life as a result of a previous life of which one knows nothing about. Perhaps Hitler would be much like a Mother Teressa in his next life, but he would likely never be able actualize such potential since he would spend his next life focused on suffering and trying to get out of such a situation. Nor will he be likely to receive assistance by others since he is left to suffer his own punishment.
So, clearly where belief in reincarnation is taken seriously we find something entirely opposed to what the westernized New Ager concept of it is. As an eastern concept it clearly implies that one’s life is full of illusions and deceptions. It is also where one’s ultimate purpose is to lose his complete personal identity. By losing one’s self-identity one may become united with an impersonal Ultimate Reality. This belief offers no sense of hope for the present or for the future since such belief ultimately ends in an impersonal absorption. In other words, a great sense of hopelessness permeates this belief system. Philosopher Ken Samples ends off for us, “[I]f a person’s fate in this life is sealed by her actions in a previous life, how did this process start and how does she escape a type of fatalism? Once the cards have been dealt, what is a person to do? Reincarnation does not seem like a viable and livable worldview that gives people genuine hope and purpose” (1).
1. Samples, K. 2007. A World of Difference. p. 372 (Scribd ebook format).