Transmigration of Souls

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Transmigration of souls, sometimes called metempsychosis, is based on the idea that a soul may pass out of one body and reside in another (human or animal) or in an inanimate object. The idea appears in various forms in tribal cultures in many parts of the world (for example, Africa, Madagascar, Oceania, and South America). The notion was familiar in ancient Greece, notably in Orphism, and was adopted in a philosophical form by Plato and the Pythagoreans. The belief gained some currency in gnostic and occult forms of Christianity and Judaism and was introduced into Renaissance thought by the recovery of the Hermetic books.

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The most fully articulated doctrine of transmigration is found in Hinduism. It does not appear in the earliest Hindu scriptures (the Rig Veda) but was developed at a later period in the Upanishads (c. 600 BC). Central to the conception of human destiny after death was the belief that human beings are born and die many times. Souls are regarded as emanations of the divine spirit. Each soul passes from one body to another in a continuous cycle of births and deaths, their condition in each existence being determined by their actions in previous births.

Thus, transmigration is closely interwoven with the concept of Karma (action), which involves the inevitable working out, for good or ill, of all action in a future existence. The whole experience of life, whether of happiness or sorrow, is a just reward for deeds (good or bad) done in earlier existences. The cycle of karma and transmigration may extend through innumerable lives; the ultimate goal is the reabsorption of the soul into the ocean of divinity from whence it came. This union occurs when the individual realizes the truth about the soul and the Absolute (Brahman) and the soul becomes one with Brahman. It is often mistakenly thought that Buddhism also involves transmigration. The classical Buddhist doctrine of anatta ("no soul"), however, specifically rejects the Hindu view. The Buddhist position on the workings of karma is exceedingly complex.

The idea of transmigration has been propagated in the Western world by movements such as Theosophy and by the more recent proliferation of Oriental religious cults. Most of these Westernized versions appear to lack the intellectual rigor and philosophical content of the classical Hindu doctrine.

Charles W Ranson

J Head, ed., Reincarnation in World Thought (1967); A W Holzer, Born Again (1970).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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