Reincarnation: Ancient Beliefs

The origins of the notion of reincarnation are obscure. They apparently date to the Iron Age (around 1200 BC). Discussion of the subject appears in the philosophical traditions of India and Greece from about the 6th century BC, but is conspicuously absent from the earlier Vedic texts of India. Also during the Iron Age, the Greek Pre-Socratics discussed reincarnation, and the Celtic Druids are also reported to have taught a doctrine of reincarnation.

Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, The Egyptian Book of the Dead mentions the travel of the soul into a next world without coming back to Earth. As it is well known, the ancient Egyptians embalmed the dead in order that the body might be preserved and accompany the soul into that world. This rather suggests their belief in resurrection than in reincarnation. Likewise, in many cases of ancient tribal religions that are credited today with holding to reincarnation, it is rather a belief in the pre-existence of the soul before birth or its independent survival after death that is taught. This has no connection with the classic idea of transmigration from one physical body to another, according to the demands of an impersonal law such as karma.

Eastern Religions and Traditions

Eastern philosophical and religious beliefs regarding the existence or non-existence of an enduring 'self' have a direct bearing on how reincarnation is viewed within a given tradition. There are large differences in philosophical beliefs regarding the nature of the soul (also known as the jiva or atma) amongst the Dharmic Religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Some schools deny the existence of a 'self', while others claim the existence of an eternal, personal self, and still others say there is neither self or no-self, as both are false. Each of these beliefs has a direct bearing on the possible nature of reincarnation, including such concepts as samsara, moksha, nirvana, and bhakti.

Reincarnation and Jainism

In Jainism, particular reference is given to how devas (gods) also reincarnate after they die. A Jainist who accumulates enough good karma may become a deva, but this is generally seen as undesirable since devas eventually die and one might then come back as a lesser being. This belief is also commonplace in a number of other schools of Hinduism.


Reincarnation is a teaching hard to find in the aphorisms of the Tao-te Ching (6th century BC), so it must have appeared later in Taoism. Although it is not specified what reincarnates, something has to pass from one life to another. An important scripture of Taoism, the Chuang Tzu (4th century BC), states:

Birth is not a beginning; death is not an end. There is existence without limitation; there is continuity without a starting point.

Existence without limitation is space. Continuity without a starting point is time. There is birth, there is death, there is issuing forth, there is entering in. That through which one passes in and out without seeing its form, that is the Portal of God (Chuang Tzu)

Western Religions and Traditions

Classical Greek philosophy

Among the ancient Greeks, Socrates, Pythagoras, and Plato may be numbered among those who made reincarnation an integral part of their teachings. At the end of his life, Socrates said, "I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, and that the living spring from the dead." Pythagoras claimed he could remember his past lives, and Plato presented detailed accounts of reincarnation in his major works.

In the Hermetica, a Graeco-Egyptian series of writings on cosmology and spirituality attributed to Hermes Trismegistus - Thoth the doctrine of reincarnation is also central.

Plato stated the pre-existence of the soul in a celestial world and its fall into a human body due to sin. In order to be liberated from its bondage and return to a state of pure being, the soul needs to be purified through reincarnation. In stating these beliefs Plato was strongly influenced by the earlier philosophical schools of Orphism and Pythagoreanism. The first important Greek philosophical system that adopted a similar view on reincarnation to Hinduism was Neo-Platonism, born in the 3rd century AD, under certain Eastern influences.


While ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Socrates attempted to prove the existence of reincarnation through philosophical proofs, Jewish mystics who accepted this idea did not. Rather, they offered explanations of why reincarnation would solve otherwise intractable problems of theodicy (how to reconcile the existence of evil with the premise of a good God).

The idea of reincarnation, called gilgul, became popular in folk belief, and is found in much Yiddish literature among Ashkenazi Jews. Among a few kabbalists, it was posited that some human souls could end up being reincarnated into non-human bodies. These ideas were found in a number of Kabbalistic works from the 1200s, and also among many mystics in the late 1500s. The idea of reincarnation as animals is well known in Hasidic Judaism in particular.

Among well known Rabbis who rejected the idea of reincarnation are the Saadia Gaon, Hasdai Crescas, Yedayah Bedershi (early 14th century), Joseph Albo, Abraham ibn Daud, the Rosh and Leon de Modena. The Saadia Gaon, in Emunoth ve-Deoth, concludes Section vi with a refutation of the doctrine of metempsychosis (reincarnation). While refuting reincarnation, the Saadia Gaon states that Jews who hold to reincarnation have adopted non-Jewish beliefs. Crescas writes that if reincarnation was real, people should remember details of their previous lives.

While many Jews today do not believe in reincarnation, the belief is common in Orthodox Judaism. Most Orthodox siddurim (prayerbooks) have a prayer asking for forgiveness for one's sins that one may have committed in this gilgul or a previous one.

The Kabala, the ancient mystical teachings of the Jewish faith is filled with references to reincarnation that are thousands of years old.


Many Gnostic groups believed in reincarnation. For them, reincarnation was a negative concept: Gnostics believed that the material body was evil, and that they would be better off if they could eventually avoid having their 'good' souls reincarnated in 'evil' bodies.

Christianity, The Bible and Reincarnation

Some Christian denominations reject reincarnation mainly because they consider the theory to challenge a basic tenet of their interpretation of Christianity. Many churches do not directly address the issue and leave the matter open to individual interpretation due to the few biblical references which survived the purging of texts considered to be heretical in the founding years of Christianity as a church.

Most of the philosophies associated with the theory of reincarnation focus on "working" or "learning" through various lifetimes to achieve some sort of higher understanding or state of "goodness" before salvation is granted or acquired. Basic to Roman Catholicism is the doctrine that humans can never achieve the perfection God requires and the only "way out" is total and complete forgiveness accomplished through the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross wherein He took the sins of mankind. There seems to be evidence however that some of the earliest Christian sects such as the Sethians and followers of the Gnostic Church of Valentinus believed in reincarnation, and they were persecuted by the Romans for this.

A number of Evangelical and (in the USA) Fundamentalist Christian groups have denounced any belief in reincarnation as heretical, and explained any phenomena suggestive of it as deceptions of the devil. Although the Bible never mentions the word reincarnation, there are several passages through New Testament that Orthodox Christians interpret as openly rejecting reincarnation or the possibility of any return or contact with this world for the souls in Heaven or Hell (see 9:27 and Luke 16:20-31)

The Bible contains passages in the New Testament that seem to refer to reincarnation. In Matthew 11:10-14and 17:10-13, Jesus says that John the Baptist is the prophet Elijah who had lived centuries before, and he does not appear to be speaking metaphorically.

There are various contemporary attempts to entwine Christianity and reincarnation. Geddes Macgregor, wrote a book called Reincarnation in Christianity : A New Vision of Rebirth in Christian Thought. And Rudolf Steiner wrote Christianity as Mystical Fact.

Several Christian denominations which support reincarnation include the Liberal Catholic Church, Unity Church, The Christian Spiritualist Movement, the Rosicrucian Fellowship and the Lectorium Rosicrucianum. The Medieval heretical sect known variously as the Cathars or Albigensians who flourished in the Languedoc believed in Reincarnation, seeing each soul as a fallen angel born again and again into the world of Matter created by Lucibel (Lucifer). Only through a Gnostic 'Rebirth' in the Holy Spirit through Christ could the soul escape this process of successive existences and return to God.

Ancient Rome

Reincarnation was a basic tenant of the Catholic church until the fourth century AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to tailor it to his specifications. Roman, having been the dominant military leader was on the verge of change. The Christians had been a cult that had been persecuted for over 300 years. That is when they were throwing them to the lions.

The ancient religions of the Gods were slowly disappearing, since the extraterrestrial contact that had caused them in the first place was no longer happening. Gaul had broken away from the Empire. Rome saw it's power slipping and the rise of another star coming.

The Roman Emperor Constantine married his way into power. His wife mysteriously disappeared. His second wife was his ticket to the throne. Then he had her killed. His third wife was a prostitute who had risen to the throne in the same diabolical ways Constantine had and who lived to have a devastating effect on the belief in reincarnation. She feared that her sins would follow from lifetime to lifetime infuriated her. She did not like the idea of Karma. Her life was filled with lies and treachery. She was not interested in advocated any religion that would demote her in another life. Thus she persuaded Emperor Constantine to remove reincarnation from Christianity.

Constantine, for all reports was vain and fearful for his many sins. He considered himself on one hand to be the incarnation of the Gods Apollo, Mytha, Jupiter, and Christ. On the other hand he was afraid that when he died he would anger these Gods in heaven. He was the first Roman Emperor to support complete religious freedom of all faiths so that when he got to heaven no God would want to take vengeance on him personally.

Norse Mythology

Reincarnation also appears in Norse mythology, in the Poetic Edda. The editor of the Poetic Edda says that Helgi Hjorvarosson and his mistress, the valkyrie Svafa, whose love story is told in the Helgakvioa Hjörvarossonar, were reborn as Helgi Hundingsbane and the valkyrie Sigrún. Helgi and Sigrun's love story is the matter of a part of the Volsunga saga and the lays Helgakvioa Hundingsbana I and II. They were reborn a second time as Helgi Haddingjaskati and the valkyrie Kara, but unfortunately their story, Káruljoo, only survives in a probably modified form in the Hromundar saga Gripssonar.

The belief in reincarnation was probably commonplace among the Vikings since the annotator of the Poetic Edda wrote that people formerly used to believe in it, but that it was in his (Christian) time considered "old wife's folly".

Native American

Reincarnation is an intrinsic part of many Native American and Inuit traditions. In the now heavily Christian Polar North (now mainly parts of Greenland and Nunavut), the concept of reincarnation is enshrined in the Inuit language. The survival of the concept of reincarnation applies across these nations in varying degrees of integrity, as these countries are now sandwiched between Native and European traditions.

Ancient Shamans and tribal groups worldwide have long believed that a traumatic experience within the realm of our inner selves can serve as a catalyst for the truth seeker to move beyond the illusions of the little self and enter the unity of the greater whole.