Beliefs in reincarnation have become commonplace throughout the West within the last two centuries, thanks in part to their inclusion in Western esoterism and New Age movements. While many of these tenets are heavily borrowed from religions on the Indian subcontinent, the idea that humanity experiences individual cycles of death and rebirth also exists in pre-Christian European and African civilizations, classical antiquity and various Indigenous cultures.
Samsara: The Indian Cycle of Rebirth
Reincarnation is a core philosophy shared by all religions originating in India. Known by the Sanskrit term “samsara,” the Berkeley Center at Georgetown University defines it as a “continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation.” Samsara can be literally translated as “wandering on” and is described in some contexts as the “aimless drifting” of a soul moving through multiple lifetimes, each time in a different suit of skin.
For many Hindus and Buddhists, the eventual goal is to achieve liberation from this endless sequence fueld by “maya,” or illusion. Staying in the cycle affects each person’s perception and actions, causing the generation of karma that impacts how he or she is reborn in future incarnations. Since samsara and maya are both unpredictable in nature, freedom from both is generally seen as ideal. While Hindus typically refer to this release from samsara as “moksha,” Buddhists are more likely to use the term “nirvana” to designate an ultimate end to desires that propagate the birth-death cycle. Meanwhile, the BBC’s Religious Studies site details that Sikhs call it “mukti,” a state in which the soul rejoins with a Divine presence they call “Waheguru.”
Beliefs in Classical Antiquity and Pre-Christian Northern Europe
The Ancient History Encyclopedia reveals the classical Greek notion that their dead resided permanently in a dreary underworld, dependent on their friends and families to keep their memories alive. Nevertheless, some mystery cults and alternative religions at the time purported that souls traveled on a continual birth-death cycle from which they could be freed by self-purification and the will of the gods. They called it “metempsychosis” and alleged that humans could be reborn as animals, an idea shared by followers of Jainism. The Greek historian Alexander Cornelius Polyhistor and the Roman emperor Julius Caesar both documented that the Celtic peoples of northern Europe regarded metempsychosis as a truth of existence. The Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse writings containing legends of Scandinavian heroes and deities, seems to indicate a hope that departed loved ones would be reborn into new bodies.
Reincarnation Among African and Indigenous American Cultures
Reincarnation as a religious ideology has been documented in some African religions, including the Vodun faith. The Yoruba people see it as occurring within family lines only, generally allowing departed loved ones to return in the form of their children or grandchildren. In their theology, Earth is termed “The Marketplace.” When a family member returns, one component of his or her soul is reincarnated into a new body while the other stays in the celestial realm, known as “Ikole Orun.” American Indigenous views on the concept are multifarious, varying widely by how each culture sees life, death and the soul. For example, the Lenni Lenape tribe holds theories similar to the Yoruba in that dead relatives can be reincarnated in their children.
Reincarnation may be a relatively new concept in modern Western societies, thanks in part to Christian cultural influence. Even so, the idea of humans being reborn after they die has played a key role in many belief systems throughout history. Whether it’s via the Indian notion of samsara, the Greek concept of metempsychosis or other ideological systems, humans want to believe that the dead can return and once again share a rich existence on planet Earth.