What happens to us when we die? It’s a question everyone eventually asks themselves at some point in their life. It transcends racial, social, political, economic and gender lines, making it the one question common to all human beings whether we like it or not.
Yet ever since the first men and woman began pondering their mortality a hundred thousand years ago, the answer has eluded us. What does happen when we die? What becomes of our soul, our mind, our personality – our very essence? For that matter, do we even have such a thing as a soul, or is it all an illusion we have created to give ourselves a sense of permanence and the hope of immortality?
The rationalist answers this query by proclaiming that since we are nothing more than a collection of cells and our brains simply tissue encased within a mantle of bone, nothing can happen to us when we die. The essence, personality, mind – soul – or whatever we wish to call our consciousness, ceases to exist, endowing our time on this planet with no more meaning than that which we choose to give it during our brief sojourn here. This is, of course, the position of the atheist, which is what makes atheism, in my opinion, so easy. It requires nothing because it offers nothing, which strikes me as a fair trade.
To most people, however, this answer is unsatisfactory. It suggests that we are little more than some great cosmic accident and that, consequently, our life has no ultimate purpose, forcing us to contemplate an existence without meaning in a universe that, despite all its beauty and splendour, has no more significance – or ultimate permanence – than a flower that briefly blooms in the spring only to wither and die after a few short days of vibrant life.
I suppose there are people for whom such a prospect is acceptable. It does, after all, tidy things up and make life simply a little game we sentient beings like to play for no particularly good reason other than because we have no choice. Yet something deep within the human heart knows better. We instinctively understand that we are more than the sum of our parts, which is why most people believe their personalities will survive their physical demise in some form and will continue on long after their bones have turned to dust. This, of course, brings us to our second option, which is that the personality/ego/true self/whatever you want to call it does survive the demise of the body to exist – at least for a time – as a separate disembodied consciousness. If this is the case, however, the next question that logically follows is what happens next?
Some believe, for example, that we become ghosts – little more than disembodied spirits aimlessly wandering the Earth, capable of perceiving the physical realm but unable to interact with it in any meaningful way. They can even point to various evidences to support this contention, from reported hauntings to automatic writing, séances, and apparent disembodied spirits caught on film.
While I personally have no problem with the idea of ghosts, I don’t think existing as a disembodied consciousness is truly a viable long-term option for what happens to us. Ghosts always struck me as being transitory; beings stuck on the Earth plane for a time only to ultimately move on and so essentially vanish from our physical realm. As such, even if we are to become ghosts, it will be, at least for the vast majority of us, a brief experience and not our eternity. I suspect we all eventually move on to ‘greener pastures’, so to speak.
Now, however, is where things get more interesting. Most people, regardless of whether they believe in ghosts or not, believe that the essence of who we are – our “soul” if you will – goes some place. Heaven is the favoured destination for most; a place where our conscious personality, no longer shackled to the limitations and burdens of physical existence, survives within a perpetual state of bliss and joy throughout eternity. Some add to this by also embracing a belief in hell; a perpetual state of torment for those who turn to evil and so are doomed to exist forever within a conscious state of agony, regret, and fear.
Both positions, however, suffer from the same problem, and that is that they see our time here on this planet as but a blink of the eye of eternity, with the decisions we make – or fail to make – while in the body having profound and eternal ramifications. Unfortunately, this reduces the physical world to little more than a cosmic hatchery that exists only to birth new souls, each of which will spend a short time in it before winging – or, potentially, plunging – to their ultimate destiny.
While admittedly this idea does manage to make this single life of paramount importance, it also forces one to wonder why a physical realm is necessary at all. If the physical universe exists merely as a vehicle for our creation, why couldn’t the process be circumvented entirely and we be created directly into the spiritual realm – as was supposedly the case with God’s angels?
Why all the unnecessary pain and hardship of a physical existence – especially if there exists the very real danger that we might earn hell through our misdeeds – if the spirit realm is the only destination that awaits us? In such a context, physical existence seems not only pointless but, in many ways, even hazardous.
So where does that leave us? If no Heaven and if no Hell, then what’s left?
There is a third position to consider. It is one that until recently has been largely ignored in the West but has been embraced by literally billions of people around the world for thousands of years. It is the belief that this physical existence is neither insignificant nor transient, but instead is perpetually ongoing. It is the concept that our soul lives on not in some ethereal Eden – or Hades – somewhere, but realises perpetual existence through a process of continual rebirths into the physical realm, making our time on this planet not one single, brief experience, but a repetitive process realised through literally hundreds of lifetimes. It is a timeless belief – one that predates both Christianity and Islam by many centuries – and one that is known by many names in many cultures. It’s been called rebirth, regeneration, transmigration of the soul, even metempsychosis, but is perhaps best known to us today as reincarnation.
Upon first consideration, especially to those who haven’t given the idea great thought, reincarnation may seem to be a foreign or exotic concept, especially to the Western mind steeped in the scientific method and drenched in two thousand years of monotheistic religion. It is something for Hindu holy men to ponder, or New Agers to embrace, but nothing that seems particularly relevant to most Westerners today.
I can easily understand this perspective for it is one I held myself for the first forty years of my life. And the truth be told, it is an Eastern concept – one in vogue more than four millennia before Christ was born and a belief held to by nearly two billion of the world’s population today – making it one of the oldest and most enduring belief systems known to man. In fact, it may be the original post-mortem belief among early humans who probably considered the idea when they began noticing strong similarities between recently born offspring and their deceased ancestors. Perhaps the mannerisms or interests a child displayed reminded one of a deceased loved one or a birthmark mimicked that found on a long-dead grandparent, leading village elders to imagine that the dead ancestor had returned a second time – a not unreasonable assumption in cultures that naturally assumed the soul to be inherently immortal.
Unfortunately, Westerners have traditionally had a tendency to consider foreign or primordial religious concepts as primitive and so reject them out of hand. However, this perception appears to be slowly changing as reincarnationist beliefs have become more prevalent in the West, especially in the last fifty years, and is becoming increasingly popular to ever growing numbers of people.
A Lost Western Tradition of How the Soul Returns
Of course, unbeknownst to most people, reincarnation has always been a part of Western thought. The prospect that the soul repeatedly returns to the flesh flourished in ancient Greece almost three thousand years ago and may have played a far more important role in our development as a civilisation than traditional histories have led us to believe. Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and Pythagoras all taught and believed in some form of rebirth, the foundations of which were later adopted by the great Roman philosophers Ovid, Virgil, and Cicero, along with a host of other great thinkers of antiquity.
In fact, reincarnationist concepts were so prevalent in the centuries immediately preceding the birth of Christ, that they played a major role in many of the “mystery” religions of the Mediterranean; religions which were themselves to become the template for other later mystical faith systems of the region. Reincarnation, then, far from being a purely foreign concept was, in fact, widespread and may have strongly influenced the shape and thrust of Greek and Roman philosophy.
Even more of a surprise to many people, however, is the fact that reincarnationist concepts were also part of some of the more mystical branches of traditional Western religion, from the Sufis of Islam to the Gnostics of the early centuries of Christianity, and even within the Hasidic and Kabbalist traditions in Judaism. In fact, at times it virtually flourished and, especially in the case of Christianity, almost became the predominant belief system during the first few centuries of the Church’s existence until it was forced underground by the more traditional, non-reincarnationist branches of Christianity. Its proponent’s writings declared heretical and burned, the concept was so successfully suppressed by the Church of Rome that few Christians today even realise it was ever a part of their own faith.
Why was it suppressed? The obvious answer is because it threatened authority. Western religion is largely dependent upon the belief that man is destined to “die once and then be judged” to maintain control. In promising multiple rebirths, however, reincarnation renders the proclamations of the Pope or the Grand Mufti or whomever was the ruling head at the time transitory and, the truth be told, irrelevant. As such, reincarnation threatened the Church’s very livelihood, making it a very dangerous idea that had to be either suppressed or labelled as heretical in order for the Church to maintain its power base. As a result, the concept remained largely unknown outside of Asia for probably seventeen of the last twenty-one centuries.
Its revival in the West was imminent, however, with the arrival of the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Once the long forgotten writings of the ancient Greeks again became available and one could hold to previously forbidden ideas without forfeiting their lives, such once forbidden concepts as reincarnation became increasingly popular, especially among the intellectual elite of the era. Amongst those who held to some form of multiple rebirths are such notables as Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Franklin, Shakespeare, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Voltaire, among others.
Interpreting What it Means to Reincarnate
However, since its reintroduction into the Western consciousness, reincarnation has undergone a transformation. It is no longer the unending “cycle of life” wheel taught by the Hindus and Buddhists, but has become a “school of higher education” designed to bring us to ever greater levels of spiritual enlightenment. This is why when a Hindu or a Buddhist and their fellow Western reincarnationist talk about the subject, it often appears as though they are speaking two different languages. This is because in some ways they are, which is where the confusion comes in.
To the Hindu, the soul is essentially stuck in a never ending cycle of rebirth which can never be broken due to the continual need to balance one’s karma. In effect, with each incarnation into the flesh, the human personality – a by-product of the underlying soul that birthed it – accumulates a degree of bad karma that must be worked off in order to restore balance to itself. Some of this karma can be worked off in life in the form of good works, but this is seldom sufficient to work off the entire debt, which must be accounted for in the next life by having the soul take on an incarnation that may be more difficult so the ongoing karmic debt can be worked off.
On rare occasions, a life may be so exemplary that the person might be born into a higher station (or caste in Hindu parlance) but as a rule, bad karma tends to outweigh good karma and, in being continually accumulated through each lifetime, adds to the growing debt that remains to be balanced and so perpetuating the rebirth cycle. (Of course, if one accumulates too much bad karma, they may not be reborn as a person at all, but could come back as an animal or even, in some teachings, an inanimate object such as a stone. This belief is called “transmigration of the soul” and is also a major element of Hindu teachings.)
Buddhism, on the other hand, while understanding the process of reincarnation in much the same way as does the Hindu, differs in that it teaches that the cycle of rebirth can be broken through achieving nirvana (literally, enlightenment), at which point the cycle is broken.
Enlightenment means essentially to be become aware of one’s true nature and to the realities contained within the Four Noble Truths as articulated by Gautama Buddha over two thousand years ago. These are: first, to be alive is to suffer due to the imperfection of human nature and the world around us; second, that the cause of suffering is attachment to transient things (in effect, craving or desiring things); third, that one can learn to let go of these attachments; and, finally, that the process of achieving enlightenment is progressive and may itself extend over many lifetimes.
In sharp contrast, to many Western reincarnationists, the purpose of rebirth is to learn the lessons we need to learn in each incarnation in order to advance to the next spiritual level which, while having some similarities to the Buddhist concept of slowly achieving enlightenment over a number of incarnations by practicing the Buddha’s Eightfold Path (right view, right intentions, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration), is actually quite different.
The Buddhist does not believe that one is “learning” new lessons with each lifetime, but simply applying the principles contained within the Eightfold Path until craving, ignorance, delusions and its effects gradually disappear as progress is made towards enlightenment. To the Western mindset, attachment is not seen as the source of the problem (though it does generally acknowledge that an obsessive attachment to things can be detrimental to spiritual growth).
Another significant difference between Eastern and Western concepts of reincarnation have to do with the perception of what it is, exactly, that is reincarnating. The Hindu sees the soul – the divine essence of God – as being the generator of each incarnation, with the individual personality or ego a transient expression of that soul.
In marked contrast, the Buddhist doesn’t believe in individualised souls at all, but believes the sense of self is merely an illusion created by our own perceptions – a conscious “memory” if you will, conceived by our assumption that we exist separately. To the Buddhist, we are all a part of a larger, divine consciousness that has simply taken on the very brief “illusion” that it is separate. The Buddhists compare our sense of existence to the waves upon the ocean; just as a wave is a temporary phenomena caused by wind and currents, our personality is equally as transient and is, upon death, absorbed back into the divine consciousness in the same way that a wave upon the ocean is eventually swallowed up by the ocean itself.
In the West, however, the personality – or ego – is more robust and generally considered immortal. To many, the soul and the personality are considered essentially synonymous, so as a result, when we die, our basic personality – complete with all its memories, life experiences, knowledge, and traits – returns in another body to continue its existence. It may not have a direct memory of its past life – though some people claim to be possess the ability to consciously remember their previous incarnations – but it is essentially the same personality starting life over again in another context.
The personality may experience dramatically new surroundings – for example, it may experience one incarnation as an Indian girl who lived and died in the nineteenth century and then return as a Spanish man in the twentieth century – but it is still the same “person” underlying each “role.” Of course, the experiences and environment it finds itself in through each subsequent incarnation will affect the base personality in both subtle and sometimes substantial ways, but this too is a part of the process. This is why the Westerner sees reincarnation in the context of “lessons.” After all, the Indian girl was able to experience and learn only so much in her short time on Earth, mandating that she return again – this time as a Spanish male – to learn those things she either neglected to learn or hadn’t the opportunity to learn in her previous incarnation.
This makes spiritual enlightenment a type of “to do” list that needs to be checked off in its entirety before we can cease the process of rebirth. (What happens after that is equally open to speculation among Westerners: some imagine we come back as avatars or spiritual teachers; others speculate that we start the process over again on another planet, while still others maintain that we move onto other dimensions. Apparently, the options available to the enlightened soul are extensive.)
Maybe in the end we were never meant to fully understand how reincarnation works, and that may be where the adventure really begins. Perhaps the question of what happens to us when we die was never meant to be answered but merely explored, for it is in seeking – not necessarily finding – the answer that growth can take place.