The Doctrine of Reincarnation

In the last post, we talked about the classical quest for knowledge in Hinduism. In this article I want to put one more crucial piece in place in our understanding of the Indian religious background in the time of the Buddha, so that we can begin to study the life of the Buddha and the Buddha’s teachings themselves.

The Traditional View of the Afterlife

This one final remaining crucial piece has to do with the Indian view of the afterlife and the doctrine of reincarnation. If we look back into the early Vedic literature that we talked about in other articles, the tradition particularly of the early Vedic hymns, we find that the view of the afterlife is really quite similar to the view that is found in some of the European traditions familiar to us. It is a view that probably belonged in some way to all the people who called themselves Arya and who migrated across Europe and down into India.

This view is that the people who live a virtuous life in this world, play by the rules, express themselves in some sort of heroic way, and perhaps achieve some kind of eminence, go to live to the land of the ancestors when they die. This believe persists in some aspects in Hinduism today.

When families make their pilgrimages to the sacred city of Benares on the river Ganges in North India, they make offers to feed the ancestors and to ensure their prosperity in the afterlife. This ancient ritual goes back into the early traditions of the Vedas, and it is related to this view that the ancestors moved into another realm and they need to be fed in order to ensure their prosperity.

A New Idea

Sometime during the first half of the first millennium BCE, this ancient view began to be replaced by another one. We call it the doctrine of reincarnation. By the time of the classical Upanishads, Indian sages, the sages of the Upanishads took the position that human beings didn’t live just one life, but cycled around again and again, life after life, death after death, in a process of death and rebirth.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, there was a sage named Yajnavalkya, one of the greatest heroes of the Upanishads, not talked of very much because his name is so hard to pronounce, but he is one of the really remarkable figures in Upanishadic literature.

He compared the succession of human lives with the movement of a caterpillar, from one blade of grass to another. Actually, it is a very nice metaphor to express this movement of the soul from one life to another. He said it like this: “As a caterpillar, when it comes to the tip of a blade of grass reaches out to a new foothold and draws itself on to itself, so the self after it has knot down this body and rendered it unconscious, reaches out to a new foothold and draws itself on to it.”

The Mechanism of Reincarnation

Nice image, the caterpillar crawling from one blade of grass to another. Later in the same text it talks more about the mechanism of the doctrine of reincarnation. It says that when human beings are cremated, the smoke rises up into the sky and there the soul can move in three different directions: out of this world into the world of Brahman, back into this world as a human being or into one of the lower realms of rebirth as into the body of a worm, an insect or a snake.

I don’t mean to bore you with this, but there are quite nice descriptions in some of this literature about what is like to be reborn as a worm and a donkey. They say that if this is the fate that is reserved for you, then the donkey will begin to smell attractive as you are making your way through the intermediate state of the afterlife.


This doctrine, this idea of reincarnation is also known in English as transmigration. To transmigrate, to move, to cross into some other world, or we speak of rebirth. In Sanskrit, the language of ancient India, this phenomenon is called by another word: “Samsara”. The word samsara means simply to wander from one life to the next. And it already begins to suggest to you what emotion is associated with this idea in classical India. Here we are not talking so much about a direct, straight line, as marching from one life to another in order to achieve a particular goal. But actually the experience of wandering, as you go from one life to the next not knowing fully how it is that you got where you are, or where it is you are really going to end up.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

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