Religion has had much influence over the way we view reincarnation, some positive and some negative. I am not an expert on any religion but I was brought up as Church of England. Although I now consider myself to be spiritual as opposed to religious (I believe in an individual interpretation of god and not a humanised being), I still believe that the basic principle of Christianity is what we should be striving for. By that I mean to love one another and to treat others as we would be treated. As well as following this doctrine, I also feel that we can learn much from the ancient Eastern religions as they often demonstrate an unbiased view of all spiritual matters. The peoples who practised and still practice these religions have an understanding of the way we are connected to everything around us, something other ‘modernised’ religions have lost. Because of this, many people are now discovering the Eastern religions to reconnect with the universe and their spiritual individuality.
The following gives a very brief outline of a selection of religions, how some beliefs are connected to reincarnation and the reason why others are not. This is not meant to be an extensive listing of religions but rather an example as many religions have been omitted.
The ancient religions, prior to the birth of Christ, shared a common belief in ‘animism’. This is a belief that all things, both animate and inanimate, possess a spirit. Alongside this belief all types of divination, astrology, magic and spells were practised as well as talismans and charms being used. A universal energy or force was worshipped instead of a god as a person. We are all comfortable with the idea of the ‘Force’ in Star Wars and I’m sure we all wish it were true, well in essence it is and has been for thousands of years. Animism remains at the root of many religions still around today, although most now have a humanised god that has replaced the universal energy.
Druids and Pagans
The ancient Celtic peoples included priests called Druids. As well as being priests the Druids were teachers and judges, but they were also pacifists and this made them exempt from warfare. They studied ancient verse, natural philosophy, astronomy and religious lore. Unfortunately, they maintained an oral tradition and so left no written doctrine. Despite this, we know that Celtic worship centred on animism and also included a belief in life after death as well as reincarnation.
In ancient Britain the Roman invaders used the word Pagan to describe the inhabitants who would not conform to the Roman religious beliefs. The word pagan comes from the Latin ‘paganus’ which actually means ‘villager’ or ‘country dweller’. Eventually the word ‘Pagan’ has come to mean someone who is not a Christian. The first Christian missionaries frequently built churches on sacred Pagan sites or associated Christian holidays with Pagan rituals (e.g., Christmas takes place at the celebration of the winter solstice) and this was in an effort to stamp out Pagan practices. So anyone who did not conform to this new Christian religion was considered to be a Pagan, a non-believer. This included the Druids who were not influenced by this new religion and were happy to live peacefully alongside the Christians. However, after the death of Christ the persecution of Pagans, which included the Druids, began. So the Druids and other Pagans joined forces to keep the ancient beliefs alive and luckily there are a few today who have maintained much of this ancient knowledge. They still celebrate the solstices and their rituals at Stonehenge are widely known.
Christianity has become somewhat detached from ancient spiritual ideas and in the Western world we are discouraged from all connections with the ‘occult’, which is the label used to cover any spiritual beliefs of this kind. The connection between the devil and these practices has been ingrained in us over the centuries and all because of power. We can trace much of this back to the restrictions of the belief in reincarnation due to the Roman Empire in the 7th century. Constantine was Emperor of Rome and his power was being diminished by the many different religions, all claiming to be the ultimate authority. To resolve this he called a meeting made up from all the leaders of the various Christian religions around at the time. He told them that they would get his backing if they agreed to merge and form a single ‘catholic’ (meaning universal) church. They agreed and this new church gave Constantine ultimate power as emperor. To ensure this power was complete he removed all beliefs from the new teachings that would lessen it and destroyed all books that could be a threat. The main belief that was targeted in this way was reincarnation.
The belief in reincarnation was widespread and was a problem because it gave the individual their own responsibility for spiritual growth through rebirth. This meant that an external power (like that of the emperor) over someone’s actions in this life was unnecessary and so totally ineffective. So this belief was removed either by converting or killing believers, and the Church decreed that giving credence to reincarnation would result in everlasting damnation. So from this the concept of eternal hell was created and used to obtain complete control. This continues even today.
In contrast the early Celtic Church did not experience this type of enforcement and its teachings remained true to the original traditions. But unfortunately Celtic Christianity was eventually suppressed by the Catholic Church. Despite this, the idea of reincarnation did persist in the Celtic lands of Western Britain for many centuries afterwards and some traces of an early belief in rebirth can still be found in Celtic folklore.
Over the centuries any references in the New Testament that may have affected the power of the Church were removed. This was possible because different religions interpreted the Bible in their own way; so many amendments like this have been made over the years. A number of references to past lives in the New Testament were removed from Western European Christianity in the 13th century by the Church. This is a shame when it restricts individuals from their own spiritual growth. From my own understanding, I consider that Heaven is a representation of the spirit world and there is no such thing as hell.
Even today, Christianity teaches children that reading horoscopes is dangerous or a sin and premonitions come from an evil source. I strongly believe that children should not be restricted by religion or a fear of the unknown. I was horrified to find out that children were not allowed to read Harry Potter books in some schools because of the magical content of the stories. The thinking is that reading about magic will encourage children to practice the occult which will lead them away from Christianity. So instead of being encouraged as a way for children to use their imagination, Harry Potter books have been labelled as anti-bible by some Christians.
Jews believe that there is a single God who appointed them to be his chosen people in order to set an example of holiness and ethical behaviour to the rest of world. Jewish beliefs regarding reincarnation are similar to those in Buddhism as both believe that the spirit in some form continues after death. This is used to encourage spiritual and/or intellectual improvement in this life to take with you into the next. This seems to be a much more sensible way to ensure that people are good in this life as opposed to forcing them to be so with the threat of everlasting hell if they are not. It is interesting that although Judaism and Christianity have the same roots, the belief in reincarnation that remains in Judaism was removed from Christian beliefs.
North American Indians
Interestingly, in the ancient North American Indian languages there was not a word for ‘religion’. Instead of a formal religion they gave much importance to ‘visions’ and animal spirits. They were at one with the land where they have been for over 5,000 years. Their beliefs were based on a conviction that spirits are in all things and that the living are intimately connected with the souls of the dead. They recognised spirits in the natural world of animals, plants, and trees, as well as in natural features such as mountains, lakes, and clouds.
North American Indians had highly localised beliefs which were widely varied. Some saw a wise and good creator of the universe whereas others included multiple powerful spirits. Some had ceremonies that were performed for the specific needs of individuals whereas others had ceremonies that were performed communally and according to the cycles of nature. However, they all shared an understanding of ancestral lands and important local sacred spots. Also, they believed that initiation was required to keep kinship obligations of utmost importance. Following contact with Europeans, the beliefs of the North American Indians absorbed new ideas, but despite this they remain basically the same today.
Hinduism is generally considered to be the oldest of the major religions as it originated about 3,000 years ago. However, some elements of this religion are probably much older. Hinduism has a reputation of being highly tolerant of other religions and an example of this is a Hindu saying which translates as, ‘The truth is One, but different Sages call it by Different Names’. Central to Hinduism is a belief in reincarnation and a universal soul which is present in everything. Another key element of Hinduism is Karma. The principle of Karma is based on the present life being only one in a chain of lives and an individual"s past actions have a direct influence on this and future lives or reincarnations. In the course of these of lives it is possible for an individual to perfect themselves and so reach the highest level of existence, becoming one with the universe. At the opposite end they can degrade themselves to the extent that they return to life as an animal. The concept of Karma has also been incorporated into Buddhism.
Buddhism started in India as a branch of Hinduism. In Buddhism the aim is to reach ‘Nirvana’ and it is possible for the individual to achieve this by their own effort and discipline. Nirvana is not a place but more a state of being where all suffering ends and there are no desires. It is where the individual consciousness comes to an end and becomes one with the universe. Buddhists believe that every person must go through the process of birth and rebirth until the state of Nirvana is reached. Unlike Hindus, Buddhists believe that a person can break the rebirth cycle no matter what class they are born into.
As you can see, religion varies tremendously across the world and ultimately it is down to individual interpretation. But, however we interpret our religion, it does not provide our spirituality and what we actually need from religion is guidance. I see the purpose of religion as helping us to focus our minds and guide us on the path we should be following in this life. However, not all religions are currently geared up to do this so many people turn to other methods to understand their purpose in life.
Our ultimate aim should be to understand the connection between ourselves, the universe and everyone else in it with the result being a love for everything and everyone. Anyone who uses their religion as a reason to persecute or kill others does not have a religion. What they have is hate and by hating others they hate themselves. Religion is all about interpretation and if you interpret your religion or other guidance method as a message of universal love, then you are on the right track.
It was while I was conducting my research into religion and reincarnation that I had the following thought. If reincarnation had to start somewhere within the human race, is that where the concept of Adam and Eve originated? Were they the first humans to have a spirit and where reincarnation started? The idea of a god creating man would certainly fit where the god is the energy of the universe and man is the first human to be given a spirit from this energy, from God.
Author Bio :
Julie Chandler has been interested in astrology since childhood and has been producing astrological information for over 25 years. Julie set up http://www.astralarts.com in 2000 and the site currently receives close to 4,000 hits per day. Astral Arts includes horoscopes, relationship guides, a new mind/body/spirit section and much more.