It is indeed very difficult for even the most intelligent persons in this world to fully fathom meaning of such words as Religion, God, Sin (paap), Dharma, Adharma, and many other philosophical and religious terms. But most complicated and subjective among them is ‘Reincarnation’ (Punah janama) which literally means ‘rebirth’. Hinduism & Buddhism are only two mainstream religions in the world that not only mention in their respective religious discourse, but go into details as regards Reincarnation or Rebirth. Though Reincarnation and Rebirth literally mean the same thing; ‘taking birth again’, there exist considerable differences between the two as regards explanations in Hindu & Buddhist scriptures.
The term Samsara, meaning universal system of cycle of birth and death finds place of prominence in Veda, the oldest religious text of Sanatana Dharma developed in India nearly 1500 – 2000bc. The Gods and Goddesses as depicted in Sanatana Dharma (widely known as Hinduism) are said to be re-born again and again as Avatars. The underlining idea behind re-incarnation is that everybody whether God, Goddess, or human being should re-incarnate and must be either rewarded or punished by the almighty (Vidhata) according to his/her good or bad actions (Karma) in the previous life. The fact that even Gods & Goddesses are not spared from being answerable to the almighty (Vidhata) for wrong doings is ample material to gauge the degree of importance ‘Re-incarnation’ receives in Indian religious and philosophical thoughts and beliefs.
Though no formal reference of re-incarnation is found in Christianity and Islam, as practiced by majority believers, there are sub-sects of these mainstream religions, members of which do believe in re-incarnation. Many Muslims believe Muhammad reincarnated into historical Muhammad, and there is wide-spread belief in Christianity that Jesus will re-appear on judgement day. Jewish texts also mention of ‘soul-cycle’ or trans-migration of souls. This kind of re-incarnation however is not a general rule as found in India-born religions like Sanatana Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Even before organised religions (except Hinduism) came into existence beginning with Buddhism, re-incarnation used to dominate philosophical thoughts and discussion in ancient Greece, china, and South America.
Difference between Hindu Re-incarnation & Buddhist Re-birth
Re-incarnation or Punah janama is at the nucleus of Hindu philosophy of faith. There remains great deal of debate among followers of Hinduism as regards truth in the concept of re-incarnation. Nevertheless it is highly accepted as true by majority of Hindus, and even atheists. Hindus believe that soul (Atma) is in-destructible and eternal; it can neither be destroyed nor be created. A human body is like the base on which soul is paced. With death soul leaves the old body and enters into a new body, and a new birth takes place, and the same process goes on. There is a strong belief among Hindus that a person (even God) is answerable to almighty for his /her wrong doings, and conversely rewarded for good deeds in terms of service to man-kind and God. Deeds and mis-deeds not only include visible and quantifiable actions, but also thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, wisdom, and ignorance. Thus a person will re-incarnate, not only to serve the punishment term for wrong doings, or to get rewards in terms of happy life for doing good things for man-kind and unquestioned devotion to God in last-life, but also to fulfil un-fulfilled heart-felt desires. It is widely believed in Hinduism, that dedicated and deep love for another human being, be it father, mother, child, brother, sister, friend, romantic partner, or even pets can be the cause of re-incarnation of human beings. These are called Maya (attachment) which binds human beings to Samsara. Ignorance is the root cause of Maya that is material desire and attachment to relationship. A human being is freed from such Maya with removal of such ignorance, and final emancipation is attained, and the cycle of re-birth ends. Desire for material pleasure and attachment to near and dear ones are two different things. Like desire to become rich is a material desire, as it would enhance pleasure of sense organs. On the other hand attachment to near and dear ones is a deeper concept of Maya, although pleasure of sense organs like eye, ear, touch (feel), and even element of sexual pleasure are the constructs of such Maya. Lord Krishna in his teachings in Gita, one of the greatest Hindu Scriptures, talks about Purushottama, and Sri Ramakrishna, the great Indian saint refers to the same in Kathamrita, to mean a person free from any kind of sensual pleasure or psychological attachment to any living or dead human-being to be free from re-incarnation, and attains Moksha (freedom) with death. There are instances in Hindu mythology, where a rishi (saint), or Deva (God) or Avatar (semi-God) curses a human being or Rakshash (demons) to re-incarnate again and again contingent to happening of an incident, doing a particular act, or birth of a particular person, before the cursed can get salvation. Reason of such curse could range from sexual promiscuity to hurting or killing human beings or animals or disrespect to the curser.
Rebirth as postulated in Buddhism is fundamentally different from re-incarnation in Hinduism, though Gautama Buddha the propagator Buddhism got inspiration from Hinduism to delve deep into the concept. It should be well to keep in mind that barring Hinduism no religion existed in that time. Like Hinduism, Buddhist philosophy also to a great extent emphasises on cycle of birth. Gautama Shakyamuni was born as a prince in a royal family in Lumbini in northern India, now In Himalayan Kingdom Nepal, in 600bc. At very early age, human misery, illness, old age, and death moved Gautama and a paradigm shift in him took place. Gautama became ascetic and left the palace to find answers to these deeply disturbing questions. While seeking truth of life Gautama came to realise the idea of re-birth. Re-birth as perceived by Buddha and believed by the followers of Buddhism is fundamentally different in that Buddhism does not believe in any eternality & in-destructiveness of soul. For Buddha knowledge of rebirth was an integral part of his Nirvana (spiritual awakening) which he attained under the famous Bodhi tree in north India. In the process of attaining spiritual awakening, Buddha said to have experienced his earlier lives on earth. Buddhists enlightened by teachings of Buddha do not believe that Atma or soul is eternal and gets released from a dead body and enters in a new-born body, rather they subscribe to the view that state of existence for living beings occurs again and again, that is re-birth follows the law of cause and effect relationship. And this happens because circumstances conducive to birth arise again and again.
Buddha is said to have attained Nirvana during meditation. By Nirvana Buddha meant unbinding oneself from all earthly attachments, and thus getting freed from the cycle of re-birth. According to Buddha, the ultimate emancipation happens when one can extinguish his/her burning passion of desire, jealousy, hatred, greed, love, affection, and ignorance. This means cycle of re-birth breaks the moment a person gets absolutely rid of all material & psychological desires, so that reasons to live on earth cease to exist. The moment the cycle is broken, a feeling of Parama shanti or absolute bliss fills the heart, though Buddhist literatures are silent about the nature of such bliss.
Buddhism does not believe in the Hindu doctrine of reward or punishment for previous life’s acts. In Veda, we find elaborate texts on the ways to attaining Moksha or self realisation.
These are Bhakti Marg or devotion to God, Gyana Marg or wisdom, and Karma or actions. But Buddhists believe devotion to God cannot give nirvana to a person. In fact Buddha never asked for hundred percent devotion from his followers as he did not consider that either necessary or sufficient to attain Nirvana.
Buddhists do not subscribe to the view that soul transmigrates from one body to another, as nothing as permanent soul exists. Rather they believe our body and mind consist of energy and molecules, which never get exhausted. Fitted to the perfect circumstance, these start functioning in a new-born.
(1) Hinduism believes in re-incarnation; Buddhism believes in re-birth.
(2) Re-incarnation is akin to transmigration of souls; Rebirth is not akin to transmigration of soul.
(3) Re-incarnation is based on permanence, eternality, and in-destructiveness of soul; Buddhism does not believe in any such property of soul.
(4) In Hinduism re-incarnation happens as every person has to settle his/her account for good or bad deeds of last life; Re-birth in Buddhism has nothing to do with last life’s deeds.
(5) In Hinduism, unquestioned surrender to God can help a person to get un-leashed from the chain of re-birth; Buddhism does not believe devotion to God can bring Nirvana for a person.