I write on diverse religious issues, often analysing perspectives from the Abrahamic faiths (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Bahá’í).
Life After Death in Eastern Religions
Not too long ago, reincarnation was brought up in our interfaith circle as the Hindu concept of life after death—which, as was noted then, is very much different from the teachings on the subject in the Abrahamic traditions. (The Abrahamic religions, for our purpose, include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá’í Faith). It turns out that it is not only Hindus who subscribe to this belief. It is also a central tenet of Buddhism, as well as of Jainism and Sikhism. Buddhism, as is generally well known, is one of the major world faiths. Both Jainism and Sikhism, on the other hand, are offshoots of Hinduism. Incidentally, all four Eastern religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism—arose out of the ancient land of India.
Eastern Religions of India
The definition of reincarnation varies amongst these four Eastern faiths and even amongst the schools and sects within them. But in a general sense, it is the belief that all human souls are predestined to undergo recurrent cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth. What constitutes birth, life, and death needs no elaboration here since it is well understood in all cultures. But what about rebirth?
Rebirth, as taught in these faiths, refers to the appearance of the soul of a deceased person in a new material body. In some versions, the soul might not even appear in a human frame but in lesser life forms like animals or plants. And this is all down to the karma it had attracted in its former and all previous existences on earth—good karma leading to a good outcome at the moment of rebirth, while bad karma leads inevitably to a less glorious outcome.
The birth-to-rebirth cycle is endlessly repeated, and only when the soul attains to a state of purity and perfection can it escape the cyclic rhythm and become liberated.
This, more or less, is what constitutes reincarnation.
Science and Near-Death Experiences
The nature of life beyond the grave used to be a closely guarded secret, impenetrable by science and ostensibly accessible only to religion. Now no longer. Science is beginning to pry open this mystery, and this is down to advances in medicine that enable patients to be resuscitated every now and then soon after clinical death.
A few such patients return to consciousness with tales of out-of-body experience or near-death experience. They often describe experiencing life in a non-physical realm and being conscious of their surroundings. These experiences are now being collated and scientifically studied in research institutions and in the parapsychology fields of study in some universities in the United States and beyond.
Any googling of the term “near-death experience” will show the extent to which these experiences are being brought to the fore and analysed.
Some aspects of the insights gained so far from the research seem to point closely to the Bahá’í teachings on the subject of life after death.
Divergent Religious Views on Life After Death
It would seem that the aforementioned Eastern religions see the realms of existence of the human soul to be limited to two: the material realm (to which the soul repeatedly returns to gain perfection) and the world of the spirit (which becomes the permanent abode of the soul after gaining liberation from the cycles of birth and death).
Those aspects of the Eastern religious teachings that align with the teachings of the Abrahamic religions on life after death will include the fact that man has a soul. The general principle of karma—that one atones for one’s deeds, in some form or other, after physical death—would also be acceptable to the Abrahamic faiths. Bahá’ís, in particular, can agree with the concept of continuous progress for a departed soul with purity and perfection as its ultimate goal. But none of the Abrahamic faiths can agree with the basic premise of reincarnation—that the souls of the dead do reappear on earth in new carnal bodies.
Bahá’í Concept of Life After Death
Bahá’ís do not insist on being right and others wrong in religious discussions. They believe, though, that it is important for believers of all religious persuasions to be exposed to alternative perspectives on any given religious issue to help them in their independent search for the truth.
Here are some relevant teachings of the Bahá’í Faith on life after death showing how far removed they are from the doctrine of reincarnation:
1. The Reality of Earthly Existence
Bahá’ís see life on earth as the beginning of an infinite journey of the soul towards its Creator. The earth plane is different from the afterlife realm in significant ways: Not only is it physical in nature, it is also a world of contradictions, of duality (or opposites). Man appears on this plane of existence endowed with the gift of free will. With this gift, he is expected and is able to make moral choices for himself relative to the circumstances of his life. He receives guidance from God through His holy Messengers, and this is of crucial importance to the achievement of his life’s purpose on earth.
But his grasp of reality is complemented by his exposure to the contradictions of earthly experience. Examples of such contradictions (or duality) include the opposing realities of light and darkness, love and hate, truth and falsehood, knowledge and ignorance, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, kindness and cruelty, pain and joy, gain and loss, etc.
The Duality of Earthly Life
2. The Afterlife Realms of Existence
According to Bahá’í beliefs, the afterlife realm is not just one vast empyrean (or heavenly realm) but composed of an infinite number of worlds. Each soul, on leaving the earth plane, is ushered into the afterlife realm that best aligns with his level of spiritual development and attainment on earth. The more developed souls gain entrance into habitations that are closer to the world of God, while the least developed find shelter farther away. And it is all down to the choices each soul makes, during its days on earth, in relation to the divine guidance received through the religion of God.
This is where the Bahá’í concept of life after death intersects with the principle of karma promoted in the Eastern religions. The point of agreement is that the deeds performed on earth today will have a bearing on the quality of an individual’s existence in a future life.
3. The Concept of Heaven and Hell
Christians and Muslims do generally believe that man has only one chance on earth (although their belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead at the last day does severely undermine this standpoint).
Bahá’ís have a similar point of view, that man has only one chance on earth (but with no possibility of a literal resurrection at any time). They believe that divine law does not permit a deceased person to ever return to earth. For an individual to waste precious time during his earthly sojourn and, in particular, to lose the chance to engage with the Manifestation of God for his time is to squander a priceless opportunity for all time. The pain of loss experienced by a soul on transitioning to the next life is what is generally referred to as hell. It is pain, remorse, and regret that can never be changed.
This loss also manifests itself in distance between that soul and God, and that becomes the other definition of hell. So, a soul is said to be in hell when it is far away from the world of its Creator, in the dark hellish zone of the afterlife.
Heaven, on the other hand, is proximity to God. The nearness experienced by disembodied souls in the spiritual world translates into a life of illumination, blissfulness, serenity, and joy. Such proximity would have been the outcome of exertions put forth by the individual during his days on earth—to live a life in close alignment with the will of God and in accordance with the heavenly teachings of the religions.
But while opportunities lost on earth can never be recuperated on transitioning to the next life, that does not mean a soul in hell is condemned to a life of misery in perpetuity with no hope of redemption. No, that soul can still make progress in the afterlife realm from whatever low point of existence it finds itself.
4. The Soul's Journey in the Afterlife
Thus, the souls in the next life do not stay forever in one place. They continually progress from one spiritual world to worlds higher up, in an infinite journey towards God. Unlike on the earth plane, they do not do this through the exercise of their free will, which does not exist in the spiritual realm. It is generally through prayers said for them by those still on earth, through philanthropic deeds done on earth in their names, through intercessions on their behalf by souls in higher spiritual realms, but ultimately through the bounty and mercy of God.
5. The Importance of a Virtuous Life
The spiritual world is a world of absolutes, not a relative one as on earth. Every attribute is manifested only in the positive, never in the negative. The difference is in the degree. For example, more love or less love; but no soul can emit hate in that world.
And that is why we are counselled and enjoined to live a life on earth that is expressive of the positive attributes of God. We achieve this by constantly remembering God (through prayers, meditation, and by reading the Holy Word) while also making daily efforts to practise the divine virtues—such as love, mercy, forgiveness, forbearance, truthfulness, trustworthiness, generosity, charity, purity, chastity, etc. These lordly virtues constitute the only currency we will need as we transition to the next life.
It is the same reason we are also strongly admonished to eschew vices and shun the vanities of this earthly life—because they do not have any real value in the next life and only serve to retard the progress of the soul there. In simple terms, they deplete the currency available to carry with us to the next phase of our existence in the eternal worlds beyond.
6. Why Reincarnation Is Not Possible
The other thing about the hereafter is that movement (in terms of migration) is in one direction only, from a lower to a higher spiritual world, and hence always towards God. That is why reincarnation is not possible because it essentially involves retrogressing from a higher realm to a lower one—or in other words, from a higher, more rarefied state of existence (the spiritual life of a disembodied soul) to a lower, more dense one (the material life of a human in the flesh).
For a simple but vivid illustration of this impossible state of affairs, let’s consider the stages of growth in the elemental life of a human. Life begins for him as a tiny, fertilised egg that quickly transforms into a foetus. It then evolves into a baby at birth and grows from there through varying stages representing a toddler, teen, young adult, middle-aged adult, before ending in old age (if he lives long enough). However, the reverse movement in ages and stages, from old age through middle age, adolescence, childhood, and ending up as a fertilised egg once again, is, as is well known, an absolute impossibility. And that is similar to life in the afterlife realm. Reincarnation would have constituted a backward movement, which is impossible and against the impregnable laws of creation.
References and Recommended Reading
- About Near-Death Experiences
IANDS, International Association for Near Death Studies
- Abrahamic religions - Wikipedia
- Eastern religions - Wikipedia
- Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh | Bahá’í Reference Library
A selection of passages from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, compiled and translated by Shoghi Effendi, including extracts from Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, the Kitáb-i-Íqán, and the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, as well as other Tablets.
- Hinduism and other religions - Wikipedia
- How Reincarnation Works | HowStuffWorks
Reincarnation is the concept that the soul, or some aspect of the soul, is reborn into new lives. Learn about the concept of reincarnation in Eastern religion.
- Jainism and Sikhism - Wikipedia
- Paris Talks | Bahá’í Reference Library
A compilation of talks given by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá during His first stay in Paris, from October to December 1911. Also included are three talks delivered during visits to England in 1912–13 and a Tablet revealed in 1913.
- The Promulgation of Universal Peace | Bahá’í Reference Library
A collection of transcriptions of over one hundred talks delivered by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá during the nine months in 1912 when He travelled across the United States and Canada.
- Reincarnation | Definition & Facts | Britannica
Reincarnation (transmigration, metempsychosis), in religion and philosophy, rebirth of the aspect of an individual that persists after bodily death—whether it be consciousness, mind, the soul, or some other entity—in one or more successive existences
- Reincarnation - Wikipedia
- Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá | Bahá’í Reference Library
A collection of English translations of more than two hundred letters, prayers, and other Writings by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, first published in 1978.
- Some Answered Questions | Bahá’í Reference Library
A collection of transcriptions of table talks given by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá in ‘Akká between 1904 and 1906 in response to questions posed by Laura Dreyfus-Barney, an American Bahá’í resident in Paris, and first published in 1908.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Kobina Amissah-Fynn