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  Reincarnation (Latin, ‘being clothed again in flesh’) is a theory in tribal religion and in many Eastern religions (notably those of India), and was a feature of many ancient religions and philosophical systems (it was, for example, known to Pythagoras and Plato as metempsychosis, ‘transmigration of the soul’). The idea is that the body is a temporary home for the soul, and that when the body dies the soul transmigrates to a new body. In Pythagoreanism, the process was thought to be haphazard, so that you had no idea ‘whose’ soul was contained in any given body at any given time; Platonists, by contrast, believed that unborn souls could choose their future existence on the basis of their previous character; the philosophical implications for personal identity in the first case, and for behaviour in the second, were zestfully teased out.

In Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, the idea is linked to the views that there is a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, and that we suffer the consequences of our behaviour. The soul is continuously reincarnated, and the body it takes on each incarnation depends on actions in the previous incarnation. We strive to escape from the cycle by winning enlightenment or bliss for intermediate periods prior to rebirth, until we cease to be reborn at all. A few ‘great souls’ (such as the Buddha) deliberately opt to return in order to help suffering humanity. (The successive incarnations of Vishnu should also be seen in this light, since he comes at times of disaster to restore dharma.)

To some thinkers, the ethical and moral imperatives inherent in this belief imply a continuity of personal identity from incarnation to incarnation: we are aware of our actions in previous incarnations, and can reflect on their consequences in the present. Others hold that there is no continuity of identity, or at least of awareness of identity. The soul\'s identity is independent of that of the body, and we can only assume, never know, what our present situation implies about the nature or behaviour of the body which ‘our’ soul inhabited in its previous incarnation. Others again say that ethical implications of the doctrine of reincarnation are secondary, and probably came from the reforming zeal of the Buddha, since in earlier times the souls of the departed were thought simply to be absorbed into the elements—and indeed, in some areas of south India belief in ghosts and spirits dwelling in stones still prevails over that of rebirth. EMJ KMcL

Further reading W.D. O\'Flaherty, Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions.



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