The Real Meaning of Reincarnation

The doctrine of reincarnation affected Indian religious thought in two important ways that are important to cosider in order to understand the emotional drive that motivates Indian religion. We, I suspect; coming from a western religious environment and a western cultural environment, are likely to think of reincarnation in a certain way. Perhaps as a possibility that would allow us to come back into this world, and experience again something that we really missed in this life. Something positive, something really to be sought.

The Fundamental Assumption of Indian Religious Life

It tended not to work out that way in India for two rather important reasons that separate the Indian view of reincarnation and the view you are likely to have encountered in contemporary religious life.

In the earliest texts, this doctrine is depicted as being a rare and secret teaching. So, at first it was not something accepted by everybody. But very quickly, by the time of the Buddha, it became the fundamental assumption of Indian religious life.

This is not a doctrine you can take and leave, it is not a doctrine that you can pick or choose, it’s simply the starting point for Indian religious reflection. This is very difficult for new students of Indian religion to fully grasp, and I must say that I have trouble myself grasping the full significance of it sometimes in my conversations with Buddhists.

I think that everyone, when they go to India for the first time, and if they are interested a little in Indian religion, try to find some moment when they can sit down with and Indian religious teacher and say: “Well, great guru, I’ve heard a little bit about this doctrine of reincarnation. There is nobody listening, we can close all the windows, we won’t record anything we are actually talking about here. Tell me, do you really believe that? Do you really believe that when you die you are reborn in another body and that this life that you have now is the result of an infinite number of lives?”.

When I first asked these questions, the particular monk I was speaking to looked down at me as if I had just stepped out of a spaceship. He said: “You mean you will question that? You mean that that is something you have a doubt?”. As the starting point in Indian religious thought, and Buddhist thought beyond India as well, it is almost unconceivable that one could question it.

So, if we try to think and feel our own way into this complex and remarkable tradition, we have to begin to think of reincarnation as the starting point for Indian religious thought.

The Burden of Samsara

There is a second feature of this doctrine that is also important for us to come to some understanding of. In the West, we sometimes think that reincarnation is an opportunity to have something we may have missed.

For a long time, I used to think of myself as a frustrated baseball player, as a short boy who didn’t have the needed physical skills or the body to go out and be a great success on the baseball field, and instead I had to settle and become somebody who make his way by crawling from the tip of one blade of grass to the next in texts of the library. And I thought, maybe if I came back in another life then I could be the great baseball player that I wanted to be. Why not? Why wouldn’t we try to manipulate our lives in this world, so that we can come back in a form that will be more attractive or more pleasurable to us?

In India, the doctrine of reincarnation didn’t work out that way. It came not to be viewed as being an opportunity, but to be viewed, instead, as a burden. Indian civilization, in the centuries that it began to lead up to the life of the Buddha, came to view reincarnation not as a single life or two or three lives strung together, but on a time scale that involved millions and millions of lifetimes.

So, whatever those challenges were that you wanted to meet in some new life began to seem very small in the large scale of cosmic history that you are involved in.

Indra and the Brahmin Boy

One of the best ways to get a sense of the emotional impact of this idea is to consider one of my favorite stories. It comes out of the body of Hindu texts where stories are elaborated about things like the doctrine of reincarnation.

It is the story about the god Indra and the Brahmin boy. The story starts like this. Indra has just won a great victory, he actually slayed a demon that held the waters of creation in its belly, and he has released the waters of creation over the world. It set the whole process of creation in motion. And in order to celebrate this, he decides to build a palace.

He gets the divine architect Viswakarma to design the most perfect throne room, guest houses, kitchens and all that sort of thing. And he builds and builds. So, the Viswakarma architect eventually becomes tired of all this. He goes to the god Brahma and asks him for help, just to cool down some of the enthusiasm that was driving Indra to make this massive building.

Brahma manifest himself as a Brahmin boy, as a child. And he goes to visit Indra in his palace. Indra is required by the custom in that culture to provide lavish entertainment and a beautiful welcome for the child. He brings food, music, entertainment and all that sort of stuff, presents it to the child and the boy begins to weep.

He is down at the floor and breaks out into tears. Indra is stunned by this, so he looks at the boy and he asks: “What’s wrong?”. And the boy points at a line of ants running across the floor, and he says Indra: “Each one of those ants was an Indra just like you in a previous life, and not only one time, but millions and millions of times, and that will happen to you. You too some day will fall down from your position as the king of the gods and you’ll be an ant crawling across the floor of someone else’s throne room.”

And Indra, of course stunned by this new vision of himself in this vast scale of time, in which even the most extraordinary achievements eventually decayed and slipped away. It is obvious about this doctrine that is important for us to consider it intellectually, but I think that is important from the very beginning to understand it emotionally. Understand the emotional impact of reincarnation when it is visualized on this massive time scale It becomes a burden to be born, a problem to be solved, rather than an opportunity to be exploited.

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

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