As a general statement, reincarnation is the belief that the same soul can incarnate into different physical bodies to experience multiple lives on the physical plane over a course of time. The purpose of these lives is to learn the lessons enforced by one’s actions through the law of “karma,” until such time that the soul has reached a stage of “enlightenment” such that it has no karmic debts and is at peace and oneness in harmony with the universe. To put it another way (as the Encyclopedia Britannica does), “Reincarnation: the belief that the soul survives the death of the physical body and returns to life as a new body, again and again, for the purpose of its own development.” This belief (reincarnation) has been associated widely and primarily with Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and its adherents make up roughly two-thirds of the world’s population. Some western thinkers, such as Plato, Kant, Emerson and Wordsworth for example, have supported the idea; however, it has been largely rejected and/or ignored by the Judeo-Christian cultures.
The truth is that a surprising number of distinguished thinkers of every era have considered the problem of reincarnation. However, such testimony and “evidence” as exists hardly establishes reincarnation as a fact. Reincarnation is a belief, and often a religious belief, that is not merely one of a philosophy of life and existence, but one that is tied to one’s concept of the Creator and Creation. For that reason, one must look distinctly and as impartially as possible at the writings and logic supporting reincarnation, as well as to include the objections to the reincarnation theory by such thinkers as Aristotle, Freud, and Julian Huxley.
The word “reincarnation” comes from the word “carnal” which means flesh. The actual Latin word origin translates as “meat or flesh.” So “incarnate” means literally “encased in flesh” or “encased in meat.” Reincarnation means then that a person’s being or soul is encased in a new material body of flesh and blood after one’s previous material body has died. Reincarnation is also called the transmigration of self from an old or useless body to a new body. As we shall see, transmigration may include the body of an animal or insect; however, in most cases the word “reincarnation” is used to refer only to human incarnations.
Though reincarnation is usually referred to as a philosophy, the belief in the law of karma is inevitably acknowledged as the force behind reincarnation. In order to free oneself from the karmic cycle, it is necessary to reach a state of purification from the baser, aggressive tendencies and achieve a love for all things. The path to doing this invariably involves a belief in a higher, supreme being, so in turn reincarnation is often tied very closely to religious beliefs. We will mention more about karma and the Law of Karma further on, but here let us build the basic blocks for discussion of reincarnation.
The concept of soul is essential to understanding reincarnation. Though most people have at least a vague idea of the concept, it seems that even those who label themselves as ʺreligious” have an unclear understanding about the soul itself. This is most likely a holdover from the medieval Church that severely, and sometimes punitively, discouraged such contemplation. However, “Is it not conceivable that our entire civilization is built upon a misinterpretation of man? Or that the tragedy of man is due to the fact that he is a being who has forgotten the question: Who is Man? The failure to identify himself, to know what is authentic human existence, leads him to assume a false identity, to pretend to be what he is unable to be or to not accept what is at the very root of his being. Ignorance about man is not lack of knowledge, but false knowledge.” (Abraham Heschel Who is Man? 1965). In order for there to be a belief in reincarnation, one must also have a belief in soul, for it is the soul that incarnates. If man is a soul, it is not unreasonable to suppose that he survives death. Is this not the basis for every religious belief in the afterlife? Even the most hardened of cynics and atheists must struggle with the thought that our consciousness screams that it cannot possibly be a mere chemical reaction of blood and matter. Wherefore explain thoughts, hopes or desires… imaginations or intellect, if that be the case?
There are two ways to prove a thing. One is to show how it follows logically from other things that are true. The other is just to simply produce the thing for examination, so that all may point and say, “there it is.” Either is almost impossible in the question of soul. The belief in soul is essential to a belief in afterlife and thus in reincarnation. We must begin by assuming that we are “soul” and that soul exists. We point to the argument in the paragraph above as our means of explanation. Now, we must attempt to define that “soul,” in order to have some agreement upon the nature of its existence.
If we assume that thoughts, emotions, ideas, imaginations and such have some origin outside the physical sphere, and we must for the sake of argument, else all thought, idea, imagination and existence would terminate when the electro-chemical processes of the brain cease. We move to the analogy of what the soul is, in relation to the body. It cannot be body, or it would cease when the body ceases. J. Paul Williams, in The Yale Review, developed the analogy of the candle: that is, snuff the candle, and the light goes out. However, a candle reflected in a mirror… move the mirror and the light appears to be gone, yet the candle continues to burn. So if we believe that the soul is reflected by the body, but not in the body, then it is rational to believe that soul can exist apart from the body.
Williams also advances that our arguments for experiential-based proofs fall short when considered in light of how limited our experience actually is, in regards to such readily accepted phenomena in science. For instance, who has actually experienced the atomic or sub-atomic reality? While we look at a rock, and accept that it must be composed of these tiny solar systems of particles, because we are told so and because that explanation is consistent with the workings of the universe that we can experience, we actually only experience the rock in a way that is limited by 1) our expectations of the experience, and 2) our conscious and/or unconscious acceptance of the limitations of physical senses. We might, in fact, if we were able to accept enlightenment and an expanded sense of things, experience that rock in an entirely different way.
So…”What is it that incarnates?” “What is the soul?” These questions are really nothing less than trying to the nature of all being, of who and what we are, and the meaning, purpose and nature of life. Since so much of our identity rests in our notion of the material body, and is continually reinforced through the material experience, the notion of ″a soul” can seem abstract at best, and in our most challenging moments it can seem almost pointless.