A BRIEF OVERVIEW
Hinduism is the most ancient of the Indian religions and what it teaches regarding Karma and reincarnation (Punarjanman in Sanskrit) is perhaps most clearly presented in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.
Since Hindu reincarnation teachings are much better known in the West, and also among Theosophists, than those of other Indian religions – such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism – the aim of this article is to briefly present the views of those religions on these subjects.
Most people today have heard of Jainism but not much is commonly known about it.
This is probably because it has only a few million adherents. It was once far larger and more influential but suffered greatly due to a combination of persecution and Hindu proselytism, with numerous influential and prominent Jain figures in old India having converted to various forms of Hinduism.
H. P. Blavatsky, in her entry for “Jainas” in “The Theosophical Glossary,” says that Jainism “closely [resembles] Buddhism, but . . . preceded it by long centuries. They claim that Gautama, the Buddha, was a disciple of one of their Tirtankaras, or Saints. They deny the authority of the Vedas and the existence of any personal supreme god, but believe in the eternity of matter, the periodicity of the universe and the immortality of men’s minds (Manas) as also of that of the animals. An extremely mystic sect.”
It should be noted that there is an error there, as Jainism does not actually believe in the periodicity (i.e. the cyclic appearance and disappearance) of the Universe. Instead, it insists on the eternity of the Universe, saying that our manifested Universe has always existed and will always exist, and will never undergo any dissolution.
No-one is really able to say when Jainism originated. The Jains themselves say that it has always existed. Since Jain Saints are referred to even in the Vedas, the oldest Hindu scriptures, many people think there is no reason for considering Jainism as younger than Hinduism. They may be of equal antiquity or Jainism may even be older, although if it is, it is certainly not widely described or accepted as such. The historical origins of both are lost in the misty night of time.
The most fundamental and well known characteristic of Jainism is Ahimsa which means Non-Violence and Harmlessness.
Like Buddhism, Jainism is a thoroughly nontheistic religion, in that it expressly denies the existence of God. Both religions specifically say there is not even an impersonal God – there is no-one and nothing that can be properly thought of, referred to, or described, as “God.” It ought to be known that Theosophy says this also. The Mahatmas of the Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood behind the Theosophical Movement said it with unmistakable clarity and They and HPB repeat it numerous times in the book “The Secret Doctrine.” This can be seen and explored in our article What Does Theosophy Say About God?
The motto of Jainism is: Parasparopagraho Jivanam.
This means: “The function of souls is to help one another.” It is also translated “Souls render service to one another” and “All life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence.”
There are two main forms or denominations of Jainism. These are called the Digambaras and the Shvetambaras.
The Tirtankaras, also spelt Tirthankaras, are the great Teachers or Sages recognised by the Jains and they say there have been, and only will be, 24 of these. The 24th and last was Mahavira, who lived 2,600 years ago, around the same time as Buddha. Some people wonder whether Mahavira and Gautama Buddha were actually the same person but this seems extremely unlikely if one knows all that is said about each of them. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, Mahavira is never mentioned even once by H. P. Blavatsky or in the original Theosophical literature. The image at the start of this article is a statue of Mahavira in a Jain temple.
Although the world at large often thinks of or describes Karma and reincarnation as “Hindu” ideas, it is interesting to note that although they are indeed essential and fundamental doctrines of Hinduism, the Hindu scriptures explain and present them far less often and with far less detail and clarity than the Jain and Buddhist scriptures do. Jainism and Buddhism devote far more time and attention to the subject of rebirth and the Law of Karma than Hinduism does.
The reincarnating soul is called the Jiva in Jainism, as it also is in the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism. Some Theosophists think that “Jiva” is just another name for Prana. But if they read Indian scriptures with that in mind, they will seriously misunderstand them. In “The Ocean of Theosophy” William Q. Judge advises that it is better to call our life principle or vital energy Prana rather than Jiva, due to the latter term having numerous other meanings and definitions whereas “Prana” is much more specific. In “The Secret Doctrine” alone, the word “Jiva” is used for the Monad (Atma-Buddhi), the Manasaputra or Reincarnating Ego (Higher Manas), and for Prana.
Jainism tells us that the Jiva is presently entrapped in Samsara, the ongoing cycle or wheel of birth, death, rebirth, death, rebirth, etc. because it is still under the sway and dominion of Karma, i.e. its own self-created destiny and unwise actions, through this universal law of cause and effect, action and reaction, sequence and consequence.
But the Jain view of Karma is absolutely unique in the world’s religions and philosophies.
Their teaching is that Karma is not only a Law but also a SUBSTANCE – a substance of non-physical but still material particles, which exist everywhere in the Universe like a sort of “floating dust” and which are attracted and drawn to the soul or Jiva as a result of its own thoughts, words, and deeds. Being attracted to the soul, they stick to the soul, and become a sort of “Karmic coating,” a layer of Karmic particles, Karmic substance, fixed over and around the soul and which increasingly weighs down the soul, keeping it in bondage to matter.
From the Theosophical perspective, this might be a reference to the interconnection between Karma and elementals (see Elementals and The Astral Light) or it could be an attempt at describing the fact that a record of all the causes we set in motion is preserved in the mysterious akashic substance of what is sometimes called our Karana Sharira or Causal Body, “that in which inhere all the Karmic causes which have been generated by that “monad.” (HPB, “Theosophical Articles and Notes” p. 205)
Through self-mastery, self-discipline, and self-purification, we disperse and dissipate this Karmic substance, says Jainism, and the soul is thus freed and liberated, eventually to the point of no longer being bound to the cycle of rebirth. Such a person is called an Arhat while still alive and when the Arhat dies, that soul becomes a Siddha, one who has entered Moksha or Nirvana, from which, they say, there is no return, since the soul has become literally remerged into the indescribable Infinite Energy.
Until then, reincarnation is an immediately recurring process, they say. The moment the soul departs from one body, that moment conception occurs somewhere in this world and nine months later the soul has reappeared in its new physical body for a new lifetime.
And what of Buddhism?
It has to be understood that there are different kinds of Buddhism. There isn’t just one general thing called Buddhism and so there isn’t just one overall Buddhist position or perspective as regards Karma and reincarnation.
The two main forms of Buddhism are Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism. Within both of these are many schools, groups, sects, philosophies, practices, and teachings. Although the basic fundamental teachings of both Theravada and Mahayana are reasonably close in similarity, they differ greatly from one another in quite a number of other aspects.
“Theravada” means “Doctrine of the Elders” and is older than the Mahayana, although both originally developed in India whilst Buddhism was still flourishing there.
Many adherents of Theravada Buddhism view Mahayana as being largely distorted and false, whilst the adherents of Mahayana Buddhism have no problem with the Theravada, other than viewing it as being not quite complete and extensive enough, particularly because it fails to recognise and emphasise the Bodhisattva Ideal which is so central and defining an element of the Mahayana.
One of the books we often study and refer to in the United Lodge of Theosophists is “The Voice of The Silence,” translated by H. P. Blavatsky in 1889 from an esoteric Yogacharya Buddhist text which she called “The Book of the Golden Precepts.” “The Voice of The Silence” has been praised and endorsed by numerous respected Buddhist figures, including the present Dalai Lama and a former Panchen Lama. Those interested to know more can read the article “The Voice of The Silence” – An Authentic Buddhist Text.
In that book there is emphasis on the Two Paths: the Path of Liberation, where one works towards enlightenment for one’s own sake, i.e. for attaining Nirvana and being freed forever from this world and from having to spare any further thought for conditioned existence . . . and the Path of Renunciation, where one works towards enlightenment solely for the sake of suffering humanity and to reach to the very threshold of Nirvana – which is Absolute Bliss, the Infinite State, described there as “the glorious state of Absoluteness” – only to renounce it in order to be consciously reincarnated over and over again as long as all life continues, so as to help, serve, teach, and guide humanity and lead fellow souls on to that state of wisdom, compassion, and selfless service, in which alone true bliss can be found.
The Path of Liberation is the Theravada Buddhist ideal. The Path of Renunciation is the Mahayana Buddhist ideal. The one who chooses to enter into Nirvana is described by the Mahayanists as a Pratyeka Buddha, a “Buddha of Selfishness” or a “Solitary Realiser,” while the one who renounces is called a Bodhisattva, a Buddha of Compassion.
It’s the Bodhisattva Ideal, the Bodhisattva Path, which underlies the whole of the teachings and philosophy of Theosophy. And in the world’s religions, the only religion which teaches and specifically recommends and actively encourages it is Mahayana Buddhism. All the others – Theravada Buddhism, Jainism, the whole of Hinduism, and so forth – teach and encourage only the Pratyeka Path and not the Way of the Bodhisattva.
One of the other main disagreements between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism is on the matter of the soul and reincarnation.
Theravada Buddhism says that there is no soul. We do not have a soul; we do not have a permanent reincarnating individuality or Ego. The human being is nothing but the five Skandhas, i.e. the personal, emotional, mental, and physical elements. There is nothing above or beyond that, in their view.
What goes from life to life is not any type of inner individual but merely a type of residuum of Karmic energy; that’s all. And because of this they say that rebirth happens immediately after death . . . the moment the body dies, that moment rebirth occurs, which we saw above is similar to the Jain view . . . because, for Theravada Buddhism, there is no type of soul that could experience an intermediate state of heaven or anything else. Thus they dislike even the term “reincarnation,” as it seems to imply some type of enduring individuality, and insist on the term “rebirth” instead.
The notion of soul and of self – any type of self – has always been a major problem for almost all Buddhists.
The Mahayana Buddhists are more reasonable about the “soul question” than the Theravadins. Speaking of Tibetan Buddhism, which is the most popular and well known form of Mahayana today, they speak of a “reincarnating mindstream,” also calling it a “mental continuum,” and say that it is this which goes from life to life. So in other words, there is indeed some type of inner individuality, some type of Thinker, which is reincarnating.
Theosophy says that the reincarnating soul is the Higher Manas, the immortal Mind-Principle or Mind-Entity, yet even the Tibetan Buddhists strongly object to the idea that their reincarnating mindstream could be the same thing as a soul. To just call it “mindstream” or “mental continuum” is enough for them. They prefer to say as little about it as possible and leave the whole matter very vague.
Tibetan Buddhists say that reincarnation always occurs after 49 days; that the Bardo or period in between two lives is only 49 days long. This is according to the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which differs immensely from the Theosophical teachings about death and the afterlife, and which originates with Padmasambhava, the Indian tantric sorcerer who converted Tibet to Buddhism or rather a corrupted form of Buddhism. More on these points can be read in Theosophy and The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Gelugpas, Tantra, and Theosophy: Resolving a Complex Puzzle.
Sikhism, another Indic religion, is one of the world’s youngest religions, having originated with Guru Nanak in the 1500s.
It too teaches Karma and reincarnation but it says that the soul has to go through 8.4 million reincarnations (called the circle of Chaurasi Lakh, the 8,400,000 lifetimes) and that these can, and most likely will, include reincarnations as animals.
The Guru Granth Sahib may be considered as the “Bible” of the Sikhs and it contains some somewhat alarming statements in this regard, such as this:
“At the very last moment, one who thinks of wealth, and dies in such thoughts, shall be reincarnated in the form of serpent. . . . At the very last moment, he who thinks of women, and dies in such thoughts, shall be reincarnated as a prostitute. At the very last moment, one who thinks of his children, and dies in such thoughts, shall be reincarnated as a pig. At the very last moment, one who thinks of mansions, and dies in such thoughts, shall be reincarnated as a goblin. At the very last moment, one who thinks of the Lord, and dies in such thoughts, . . . that man becomes liberated and the Lord abides in his heart.” (526)
Unlike Buddhism, Jainism, and the Advaita Vedanta (non-dualistic, monistic) form of Hinduism, Sikhism is wholly theistic and believes in a rather personal God; not quite anthropomorphic but personal enough to have desires and wishes and pleasures. And the Sikh scriptures teach that although Karma – the law of cause and effect – is a fact, it can nevertheless be interfered with and altered by the direct intervention and will of this God.
We must touch briefly upon this idea that it’s possible for the human soul to be reborn as an animal or even a plant or stone or even something worse, such as a so-called “hungry ghost” such as Tibetan Buddhism often speaks of. This notion can be found in both the main forms of Buddhism (i.e. Theravada and Mahayana) and in Jainism and Sikhism and in some forms of Hinduism.
However, Theosophy strongly disagrees with this and says it is not the case. We have reached the human stage by evolving up through the lower kingdoms of nature but, having reached a particular kingdom, we cannot and do not revert back. When the metaphysics behind this are understood, it’s seen that it would truly be impossible. “Once a man, always a man” is the teaching of the Esoteric Philosophy. Yet there is a certain way in which part of us does enter the lower kingdoms, although that part of us is not the soul. This is elaborated upon in The Transmigration of Life Atoms.
This has only been a very brief overview and, of course, much more could be said. Vast books and volumes could be written on the Karma and reincarnation teachings of all the Indian and Eastern religions and, in many cases, they have been.
The aim of this article has just been to provide a concise and clear overview of the main views on these important truths as held by several religions. We thus gain a certain degree of awareness and understanding of the world’s religions (and this is one of the main aims and objectives of the Theosophical Movement in our times) and also some comprehension of where they agree with and differ from the teachings of Theosophy on these points.
The pervasive belief that Theosophy is just a 19th century blending together of different ideas from various different religions and philosophies is completely erroneous and needs to be challenged wherever encountered. Theosophy is the one Esoteric Teaching which underlies all the world’s religions and which is the primeval, archaic source and fountainhead of all the Truth that can be found in the various religions, philosophies, and sciences of the world. Theosophy precedes and transcends all religions, being Timeless Truth itself. The motto of the modern Theosophical Movement is “There is no Religion higher than Truth.”
The Theosophy presented in the writings of H. P. Blavatsky and her colleague William Q. Judge is of course only a few fragments of the THEOSOPHIA or Divine Wisdom itself . . . but its unspeakable and enduring value and benefit for the whole of humanity has barely yet been grasped or realised.
“As a whole, neither the foregoing nor what follows can be found in full anywhere. It is not taught in any of the six Indian schools of philosophy, for it pertains to their synthesis – the seventh, which is the Occult doctrine.” (HPB, “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 269)
In her article “Is Theosophy A Religion?” HPB states that “All [religions] are true at the bottom, and all are false on their surface.” The “anciently universal WISDOM-RELIGION” which underlies them all, and from which all initially originated, is what is to be uncovered and upheld. And this is what the authentic Theosophical teachings given in our era endeavour to do, primarily for the sake of Universal Brotherhood.
This article may have raised more questions about various things. Please make use of the site search function (the magnifying glass symbol at the top of the page) and visit the Articles page to see the complete list of over 300 articles covering all aspects of Theosophy and the Theosophical Movement.