Concept of Rebirth
(A Tool to Transcend Death)
Mystery mystifies mankind. The thrill of the unknown has always attracted the human mind. This attraction is so deeply ingrained by evolution that man accepts it as a challenge and starts treading the unknown territories. In fact, it is this journey into the unknown that has resulted in all the knowledge that we have so far. Be it science or religion or any other field. Basically, the entire knowledge is footsteps of mankind into the unknown. This journey is still on, and will probably never end.
Death and Birth are the most mysterious of all mysteries. And since the beginning man is struggling to unravel these mysteries. A plethora of theories has been developed to explain these mysteries. Birth and Death are stark realities faced by mankind. They see it happen to them and other species around them all the time. In most cases, the female conceives after intercourse and gives birth to a child. Then they all age and disappear into death. If it is so obvious and real then what is mysterious about them? What is it that mankind is trying to understand about this reality? Let us delve a bit deeper into it.
Science and Death
Apparently, compared to birth, death is more painful and puzzlingly mysterious to humanity. Death is also very obvious but still a huge mystery. Probably that is why humans are in constant denial even though it is something that happens every moment everywhere. Even though science has explained convincingly the causes of death, the mystery refuses to go away. Now humans are struggling to understand what happens after death. They are also trying to elongate their life span for as long as they can. With the help of science, they have been successful to some extent. This has given them confidence. They don’t want to stop at this. They, in fact, want to defeat death with the help of science. The tech giant Google has a sub-company Calico whose stated mission is “to solve death.” Surprisingly like religion now we have immortality believers in science. Bill Maris, a neuroscientist is one such believer in immortality. In this fight against death, he said, “we aren’t trying to gain few yards. We are trying to win the game” because “it is better to live than to die.” (1) Looks like the wheel has come a full circle. Science, an antidote to religion, is now sharing a goal with religion. Even though the motivation for this goal is different. Immortality is now very much on the agenda of scientists.
It does not take long to understand that the motive behind solving the mystery of death is the fear of death. No one wants to die even though we all know that we will die one day for sure. Science and religion are dealing with this problem from different angles. Science is looking at the causes of death and trying to find ways to eliminate those causes so that we can live forever. Many respectable scientists do believe that we can defeat death with the help of future technology. History advises us that we cannot just ignore these claims. In the span of couple of centuries, we find that with the help of science and medicine the average age of humans has almost doubled. With the increase in understanding of the human body everything is possible. Search in the field of DNA is another tool science can use to achieve its goal. Artificial Intelligence, commonly called AI, is another field where science is trying to emulate nature. So far it has not been able to build or create sentient AI. If successful it will be a big revolution in human thinking.Recentlythere was news about Google’s AI chatbot system LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications) being sentient AI, but it was rebutted and challenged. (2)
Death and Soul
Even though both religion and science have immortality on their agenda, but their approach varies significantly. While science wants to defeat death, religion tends to cheat death. Science aims to eliminate the causes of death or at least delay the onset of the cause of death for as long as possible. Religion on the other hand played a different game. It gave birth to a number of concepts to cheat death. Soul, something that outlives the body after death, is central to most of these concepts. Interestingly, this concept of the soul is not peculiar to religion. It is also found in philosophy. In western philosophy, this concept goes back to the Greeks probably even further. For example, Socrates believed in it. As per Bertrand Russell “When Socrates is condemned to death, he reflects happily that in the next world he can go on asking questions forever and cannot be put to death as he will be immortal.” (3) Aristotle has penned a book titled “On the Soul”. So, this concept is older than most of religions except Buddhism and Hinduism. Religion, as a matter of fact, is also a philosophy. If you undress any religion of its supernatural coat, all that is left is a philosophy.
The concept in Abrahamic Religions
Among religions, this concept is used differently but the hidden purpose is the same viz. to mitigate the fear of death or cheating death. Abrahamic religions have concepts of heaven or hell and Judgement Day. The idea is that death is not the final end and there is a lot more to come after it. Muslims believe that Allah will decide Judgement Day and on this day everything on earth will come to an end. Even the dead, who ever lived on this earth, will be raised from their graves, to face Judgment by Allah. As per Bible, “God has set a day in which he proposes to judge the inhabited earth.” (Acts 17:31) This is also known as the final Judgement in Christianity when Jesus, the son of God will judge “the living and the dead” before destroying the old heaven and earth which are corrupted of sin now. Early Hebrew writers also “emphasized a day of the Lord. This will be the day of Judgement of Israel and all nations as it will inaugurate the kingdom of the Lord.” (4) The kernel of the matter is that all of them believe in the soul or some other element which is imperishable and outlives death to be judged on this day. Egyptian mummies are also a perfect example of the denial of death. Mummification, deliberate (or natural?) embalming of the dead body with chemicals to preserve it, was seen as an important step to ensure that the dead person is living well in the afterlife. The concept of this imperishable element called the soul has also given birth to so many rituals around graves. In movies, you can see people talking to the graves of their near and dear as if they are really sitting inside their graves listening to them. It has certainly embellished the culture with colourful rituals but it has also led to the exploitation of the masses by the clergy.
Rebirth and Hinduism
Hinduism does not believe in the Judgement Day. Instead, it has its very complicated concept of rebirth which is another escape mechanism to deny or cheat death. This concept is also known as transmigration of souls or reincarnation or metempsychosis. This concept has also links to western philosophy. Bhai (5) Kahn Singh, one of the most erudite scholars on Sikhism and Indian thought, states that as per Greek historian Herodotus ancient Egypt, and Greek also have similar beliefs. Bhai Kahn Singh in his classic work “Mahan Kosh” or Encyclopaedia of Sikh Literature, has mentioned below the classification of this concept by learned people. (6)
- God does not create a new soul each time a child is born. But the soul is already there hovering around bodyless and enters the body of the child for the first time. This is the first time it has got a body and will never again get the body after the death of the body it is residing in. This is called the doctrine of pre-existence.
- Soul has travelled through millions of different life forms like animals, trees, or birds before taking on a human body. It will go through a similar cycle again after the death of the body it is residing in. This is called transmigration or metempsychosis of the soul.
- The soul was residing in a human body before and will again reside in a human body after the death of the current human body. It will never reside in any life form, like animals, trees or birds, other than humans. This concept is called reincarnation.
Transmigration of soul or reincarnation is driven by Karma or the karmic cycle. The literal meaning of the word karma is action. The sum of actions in one life decides the form of life the soul will migrate to in its next life. In Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna persuades Arjuna with this argument to perform his duty as a warrior and stop worrying about the death of relatives he is fighting against because “one can kill only the body; the soul is immortal and transmigrates into another body at death.” (7) This concept is so deeply ingrained into the Indian psyche that it has become a part and parcel of their everyday idiom be it a learned person or a laity. Indians sincerely believe that death does not kill them. It is just a matter of time before they will come back alive in human or some other form of life. Death for them is a kind of sleep from where they will wake up into another life. But this has not eradicated the fear of death in them. They certainly fear it, if not the most, then at least the same as any other human being does. In fact, it is this fear that has given birth to the concept of the imperishable soul. The eggs of this concept nest in the fear of death. There is a plethora of rituals built around death to help humans overcome this fear or to adjust to the reality of death. Every single religion abounds with these rituals. Hindus donate money and food to the priests so that their dead relatives can have a comfortable afterlife. There is an annual feast called “sharaad” held in the memory of the dead relatives. It is an emotional blackmail and nothing else. These days even technology is helping people to have a feeling as if their dead relatives are still alive and talking to them. Amazon Alexa can help you speak to your dead relatives. Interestingly the scientist (Rohit Prasad) behind this new technology is also of Indian origin. The news report mentions that “Mr Prasad presented an example scenario of the voice of a deceased grandmother reading a child The Wizard of Oz as a bedtime story, TechCrunch reports. “This required inventions where we had to learn to produce a high-quality voice with less than a minute of the recording versus hours of recording in the studio,” he said. (8) This technology or science (if you want to call it science) is also doing an emotional blackmail for profits. It won’t be incorrect if we call this technology a techy priest.
Rebirth and Buddhism
There are two notable exceptions (at least in theory) to this concept in Indian thought. Buddhism and Sikhism do not believe in the eternal soul. Both deny the existence of this imperishable entity called soul that migrates from one birth to another. One of the core concepts of Buddhism is called “anatta, or anatman” meaning no soul or no self. Similarly, in Guru Granth Sahib, the text Sikhism is based on, there is no mention of the word “Atman” (in the meaning of soul) at all. (9) However, both of these religions do have their own concepts of rebirth. Buddhism believes that nothing including the soul is imperishable. But we are also told that once enlightened Gautam Buddha was able to recall a vast number of his previous lives. And he was able to remember as far back as ninety-one eons of time. Buddhist lama is also said to be incarnated. Not long ago, there was a piece of interesting news in the English daily “The Tribune” about the Tibetan boy said to be incarnated as Panchen lama as declared by Dalai Lama. In this news, the Chinese government is dismissing concerns about him and confirming that he is living a normal life as a Chinese citizen. (10) This news is interesting in the sense that while Dalai Lama has intimations about the incarnation of Panchen lama but he has no knowledge about his wellbeing and whereabouts. Anyway, there is no doubt that Buddhism does have a concept of rebirth or reincarnation. What is it? As per Barbara O Brien, the Zen Buddhism expert, Buddhism does not believe in reincarnation in the traditional sense of this term. “Buddha taught that all phenomena, including beings, are in a constant state of flux — always changing, always becoming, always dying, and that refusal to accept that truth, especially the illusion of ego, leads to suffering. This, in a nutshell, is the core of Buddhist belief and practice.” In this article, Barbara O Brien further explains the Buddhist concept of reincarnation by quoting Theravada scholar Walpola Rahula,” If we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like self or soul, why can’t we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a self or soul behind them after non-functioning of the body.” (11) Basically, in Buddhism what is reborn is not our soul but our neurosis, our tendency to suffer. This is a novel way of looking at the concept of rebirth.
Rebirth and Sikhism
Sikhism, as stated above, also does not subscribe to the concept of soul. However, it does talk about different types of rebirths or reincarnations experienced by humans. We can classify these rebirths into three categories.
- Natural Death and rebirth: Apparently, this is the most obvious cycle of death and birth experienced by everybody and science mainly focuses on this cycle. Guru Granth Sahib, the book Sikhism is based on, mentions it multiple times. This cycle of birth and death is constantly occurring around us and no one, good or bad, can escape it. Every single fraction of time has death and birth in it. At the time of death, the elements in a body go back to the source they come from and then get processed to become a part of another life. All this is happening as per laws operating in nature. This law is called “Hukam” in Guru Granth Sahib. There is plenty of evidence for the above assertion in Guru Granth Sahib. (12)
- Temperamental Death and Rebirth: This is the cycle that is experienced by humans only. In a single day in their life, they can act or behave in a way as if they have been transformed into different types of animals. Guru Granth Sahib tells us that this is caused by the human inclination to follow the dictates of their mind instead of thinking through things and events with wisdom and intellect. We have noted above that Buddhism also talks about death and birth happening every moment because everything is in a state of flux. Sikhism is talking about something different here. The focus here is only on human temperament instead of physicality. Behaviour of some people is a testimony to the fact that even though they are born as humans but they live like animals. Sometimes they act like dogs, donkeys, crows or serpents. (13)
- Death and Rebirth by Enlightenment: The third category is a kind of paradox. Guru advises us that what we call life is actually a death and the real-life comes alive only when enlightened with the wisdom of Guru, we are able to rein in our minds and solve this paradox. Undoubtedly, our mind has full control over us. Our mind mesmerizes us to believe to be our life what actually is our death. Spellbound we join a mad race to capture the mirage of this life and happiness. However, for us, a situation becomes sad or happy if it is so perceived by our mind. A switch of mind, which is never deliberate, can change our perception of the situation. Once harnessed we see through the game (the mind is playing with us) and instead of running after this mirage, we ride our mind with full control over it. Guru’s wisdom is the bull hook or ankus that controls this wayward and uncontrollable elephant called the mind. In a way, the Guru’s wisdom kind of kills us by eradicating our ego or hubris. Once we get killed, simultaneously a new person is born and this new person is beyond death. It is immortal as it transcends death. This life is life and will never meet death. This is a death-in-life and life-in-death situation. This life-in-death situation is called in “Nirvana” or “Mukti” in Sikhism. Unlike Hinduism “Nirvana” in Sikhism is achieved during the current life itself and not after death. (14)
The concept of rebirth is rooted in the fear of death. This fear permeates all segments of the human population. While science is trying to delay and defeat death, religion has invented concepts like soul, heaven or hell, the judgement day in order to mitigate or remove this fear of death. Buddhism and Sikhism are kind of exceptions. Buddhism denies the existence of an imperishable soul but still believes in reincarnation. Sikhism parts way with science as it lays more focus on the quality and rather than the quantity of age (life). It does not matter how long you live, what matters is how you live. (15) Similarly, it has brought forward the judgement day into this life instead of the afterlife. It has also given a new concept of “nirvana” in this life instead of after death. It will be much more beneficial to mankind if science walks in the direction pointed out by Buddhism and Sikhism instead of focussing on elongating the life span of humans.
July 13, 2022
- Quoted by Y N Harari in his book “Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow” page 28 paperback edition, Harvill Secker 2016.
- You may google this on google by searching for “Does Google really have sentient AI?”
- The History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Published by Simon & Schumster, Page 92
- A very detailed information about the Judgement Day can be read in the Encyclopaedia Britannica at this link. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Last-Judgment-religion Or just search it for Judgement Day.
- “Bhai” is a Punjabi word literally meaning a bother. Among Sikhs it is used as a prefix to the names of respectable persons in community.
- See entry under “Avagavan” in Mahankosh
- See Encyclopaedia Britannica, entry under Bhagavadagita. Or look up this link. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bhagavadgita
- You can read this story on this link. Speak to the dead: Amazon Alexa to use voice of lost loved ones (thenewdaily.com.au)
- The word “Atma” appears in GGS for 11 times but never in the meaning self and not soul.
- You can read this story on this link. https://www.bing.com/search?q=Boy+chosen+as+Panchen+Lama+by+Dalai+Lama+leading+a+%E2%80%98normal+life%E2%80%99+as+Chinese+citizen%3A+China+%3A+The+Tribune+India&form=ANNTH1&refig=e332586d68bc420a9612921d9eb7c9eb#
- You can read this article from Barbara O Brien on this link. Buddhist Teachings on Reincarnation or Rebirth (learnreligions.com)
- Given below are some quotes from Guru Granth Sahib along with their English translation, to support this assertion.
- ਢਾਹੇ ਢਾਹਿ ਉਸਾਰੇ ਆਪੇ ਹੁਕਮਿ ਸਵਾਰਣਹਾਰੋ॥ ਪੰਨਾ 579 (God demolishes and builds life by his order with precision and perfection)
- ਭਨਿ ਭਨਿ ਘੜੀਐ ਘੜਿ ਘੜਿ ਭਜੈ ਢਾਹਿ ਉਸਾਰੈ ਉਸਰੇ ਢਾਹੈ॥ਪੰਨਾ 935 (God shatters and then creates, demolishes and then builds it again)
- ਖਿਨ ਮਹਿ ਢਾਹੇ ਫੇਰਿ ਉਸਾਰੇ॥ਪੰਨਾ 1034 (In an instant, he can destroy and rebuild)
- ਹੁਕਮੇ ਸਾਜੇ ਹੁਕਮੇ ਢਾਹੇ ਹੁਕਮੇ ਮੇਲਿ ਮਿਲਾਇਦਾ॥ ਪੰਨਾ 1061 (By order creates and destroys, by order enlightens us)
- ਹੁਕਮੀ ਸਾਜੇ ਹੁਕਮੀ ਢਾਹੇ ਏਕ ਚਸੇ ਮਹਿ ਲਖ॥ਪੰਨਾ 1289 (The order creates and destroys in and instant)
- Given below are quotes from Guru Granth Sahib along with their English translation, to support this assertion.
- “ਕਰਤੂਤਿ ਪਸੂ ਕੀ ਮਾਨਸ ਜਾਤਿ॥” (ਪੰਨਾ 267) (Born as human, acts like animal)
- “ਗੁਰ ਮੰਤ੍ਰ ਹੀਣਸਯ ਜੋ ਪ੍ਰਾਣੀ ਧ੍ਰਿਗੰਤ ਜਨਮ ਭ੍ਰਸਟਣਹ॥ਕੁਕਰਹ ਸੁਕਰਹ ਗਰਧਭਹ ਕਾਕਹ ਸਰਪਨਹ ਤੁਲਿ ਖਲਹ॥” ਪੰਨਾ 1356 (Bereft of wisdom, life is cursed. The idiot lives the life of a dog, pig, ass, crow or snake.)
- Given below are quotes from Guru Granth Sahib along with their English translation, to support this assertion.
- ਜੀਵਤੁ ਮਰੈ ਗੁਰ ਸਬਦੁ ਬੀਚਾਰੈ ਹੁੳਮੇ ਮੈਲ ਚੁਕਾਵਣਿਆ॥” ਪੰਨਾ 129 (Following the wisdom of Guru, you get rid of filth of ego and live a life in death.)
- “ਸਬਦਿ ਮਰੈ ਸੋ ਮਰਿ ਰਹੈ ਫਿਰਿ ਮਰੈ ਨ ਦੂਜੀ ਵਾਰ॥” ਪੰਨਾ 58 (One who kills himself with Guru’s wisdom, transcends death and never dies again)
- ਸਬਦਿ ਮਰੈ ਸੋਈ ਜਨੁ ਮੁਕਤਾ॥” ਪੰਨਾ 1063 (One who kills himself with Guru’s wisdom gets liberated and achieves “nirvana”)
- It has been stated in the very beginning of Guru Granth Sahib in the seventh stanza of the verse called Jap. Sikhs are required to remember it daily in the morning. Its English translation runs like this.
If one has a long long life, long like eons even ten times more
Becomes a celebrity followed across the continents
Enjoys a good reputation acclaimed by one and all
Will still be an also-ran if unable to win favour from God
Is declared guilty revealing the worms of negative forces within
Says Nanak, God transforms meritless into meritorious
Bestows more merit on the meritorious
None can add to the merits of God.