Death and the Afterlife The Origins of the Universe

Common Sense About Reincarnation

23 COMMON SENSE ABOUT REINCARNATION (Ibrahim Lomholt) The idea that the soul after death returns to this world in a new body is an ancient one which is gaining ground in our age. It, therefore, deserves to be analysed rationally and judged in the light of current knowledge. The origins of the doctrine of reincarnation are not known. It is not contained in the teachings of the Vedas, the oldest sacred scriptures of the Hindus, but it is set out in some of the Upanishads. From these it has gained a position as a recognized dogma of Hinduism and also of Buddhism. Faith in reincarnation is currently spreading in the Western World, not only in conjunction with these two religions, but also detached from them. After the deterioration of faith in Christianity, a desire has remained for some kind of belief that the individual will continue to exist after death, but at the same time there has been an unwillingness to accept the moral implications of faith in an afterlife. The new version of the doctrine of reincarnation, therefore, rejects the idea that sins are punished in the next incarnation. Instead a concept of accumulation of knowledge is introduced. In all cases there will be progress, whether the progress will be great or small depends on how one has lived. In each “life” we are supposed to accumulate wisdom and thus continuously reach higher stages; irresponsibility or evil actions will only slow down, not reverse, the progress. This teaching promises eternal life and simultaneously freedom from responsibility to a supreme Being. It is beautifully termed as an ‘unending quest for knowledge’, but this undemanding outlook can hardly be taken seriously as a philosophy of life. In the following pages, therefore, the original religious doctrine of reincarnation will be examined. Though there is not just one such doctrine, the different religious teachings on this point generally have the same main characteristics. An attempt will be made to consider this, the basic doctrine, rationally. While there are parts of the discussion which do not apply to more recent concepts of reincarnation, the main arguments pertaining to these will still form a part of it. 24 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS REINCARNATION According to Hindu teachings it is not only God who is eternal, also the souls and matter are eternal and uncreated; they have always and will always exist. God’s role is -then to unite souls and matter in the form of the living beings that populate this earth- which is regarded as a place of suffering. At death the soul is separated from the body and after that it is re-admitted in the embryo of a new body. The type of body that the soul will enter depends on how virtuously the soul has lived in the previous life: an evil life is punished by rebirth in a .being of a lower order, a good life is rewarded with rebirth in a being of a higher order in better circumstances. Through gradual improvement it is possible to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth in this world of suffering- the soul will then instead enter a state of harmony and rest. The teaching on reincarnation thus gives an explanation why inequality is found in this life. Disparity of circumstances is seen as an expression of justice of a higher order, it is the result of our deeds in the past life. The first question concerning the doctrine of reincarnation must, therefore, be whether such a system would really be an expression of supreme justice. . JUSTICE Injustice to the Souls First of all one must ask by what right the god of this doctrine sends souls into such a painful cycle of rebirth. The souls are said to have been always co-existent with God. But in order that this god – who has created neither soul nor matter – may be worshipped, he must force the souls into a cycle of rebirth in a world of suffering. In other words, God has in his cruelty and selfishness instituted a world order which in its very foundation is unjust. Injustice to the Redeemed This injustice does not end when the souls leave this world. The day when all souls have escaped rebirth, God will again be in need of souls who will worship him. As, according to this doctrine, it is not within God’s power to create souls – which are eternal and uncreated – He will instead return the 25 souls to this world of suffering as punishment for a hitherto undisclosed sin. Injustice to Animals If someone is to be held responsible and judged, he must have been first given some knowledge of good and evil. One then has to ask, what moral code and what freedom of choice were given, for example, to bacteria. According to which standards does the god of this doctrine decide whether the souls of bacteria should be reborn in a higher or lower species? And which religion or code has been given to mice which some of them follow and others go against ? Injustice to Beasts of Prey According to this doctrine, God must be regarded as unjust to beasts of prey. As it is beleived that every living being has a soul, it is considered a sin to kill. But the beaste of prey must kill to live. Thus God would be held to have forced a sinful life upon them. Meaningless Sufferings The only accepted object of punishment is to improve – either through inflicted suffering or through deterrence. However, no one will gain knowledge from being returned to this life in one shape or the other as long as one does not know the faults causing one’s reincarnation. If we have no clear memory of the previous life, how are we to know the wrong we committed? How can we draw a lesson from it and improve ourselves? Being born again in the same state of ignorance as before, we are bound to commit the same ‘mistakes. If, on the other hand, the soul is brought to life in a world different from this, a world where man’s relationship’ to his Maker will be manifestly clear, then everyone will have the background for arresting the disease, and undergoing a thorough change. EXPERIENCE If any understanding of life is to be accepted, it should not only be free from contradictions and absurdities, it must also tally with experience. 26 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS The Return of the Soul It is not difficult to understand that a dead body does not contain a soul, but an explanation is required as to how the soul of the deceased finds its way into a new body. The founder of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu sect, taught that the souls of the deceased rise towards the sky during the day time, and at night they fall”as dew” in all sorts of plants, to be eaten in the morning by pregnant females. A charmingly poetic description if we disregard the fact that dew does not fall from the sky and that children inherit traits from both their parents. This does not tally with the idea that the souls come through the mother alone. Sexual Proportion Hinduism teaches that the type and sex of the being in which a soul is reborn depends on its previous life. If this was the case, one should expect to witness periods in which birth was given to far more boys than girls and vice versa. It would be inconceivable to have an equilibrium like the one we actually see, in which a slight surplus in the number of new born boys is balanced with an infant mortality rate slightly higher for boys than for girls. Proportion of Species, In recent years the standards of individual morality have been seen to deteriorate in large parts of the world. One would expect a consequent decline in the number of human beings and an increase in animal population-not the other way around as it is actually seen. Healing If physical defects and diseases were the outcome of sins committed in past incarnations,, they should be incurable – or at least it should be a sin to heal them. FURTHER IMPLICATIONS A third criterion for the acceptance of a philosophy of life is its pracitcability. Vegetarianism is a well known consequence of belief in reincarnation, but this is only the initial phase in the kind of life which would reflect belief in reincarnation. 27 Marriage Would anybody dare to marry considering the risk of marrying one’s dear departed relative – maybe a parent who passed on early in life? Life will become impossible for one who believes in reincarnation and permits himself to reflect in his beliefs. Fatalism Every sort of social relationship would change. If somebody, for example, is saved from drowning, he should not be grateful. It would have been no more than the destiny he had earned for himself in an earlier life through some good deed. Fatalism Every sort of social relationship would change. If somebody, for example, is saved from drowning, he should not be grateful. It would have been no more than the destiny he had earned for himself in an earlier life through some good deed. Religion. Gratitude to God would also come to an end. Comfortable circumstances and good fortune would not be gifts from God, but simply our recompense from Him for our meritorious acts in the previous life. If one ponders over this, one will see that, one after the other, the attributes which also Hindus ascribe to God must be rejected as baseless. God only distributes wages and these are not even from “his own pocket” as he has not created anything. Thus God is reduced to functions which could more adequately be termed laws of nature. This is one of the reasons why there is considerable confusion in certain eastern religions concerning the concept of God. In the major school of Buddhism the logical conclusion is drawn that there is no God, whereas in most Hindu sects the word God is used about many beings and even about dead matter. Outlook on Life If none were to commit sins, and return to lower incarnations, mankind 28 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS would also have to do without medicines produced by means of bacteria. This outlook on life would not just be sombre, as is that of the Christians who hold that man is born sinful, It would be pitch black, for sin would be the very basis of life on earth. THE QURAN AND REINCARNATION Muslims consider the Holy Quran to be the final book of guidance given to mankind. Within it, therefore, one should find arguments layed out refuting any erroneous religious doctrines, and also cogent and convincing explanations’ of the actual set up and dynamics of this world. Rational Reflection Turning to the Quran we find that firstly it expose the lack logic in the doctrine of reincarnation. Supposedly, the circle of rebirth serves the purpose of accumulating knowledge and understanding from rebirth to rebirth, so that man may gradually learn to avoid evil and eventually come to lead a perfect godly life, thus liberating himself from all earthly bonds. The Holy Quran draws attention to the basic irrationality of this doctrine, namely that man, when born into this world, is totally deprived of experience: “If thou could only see when they are made to stand before the fire! They will say, ‘Oh, would that we might be sent back! And then we would not treat the verses, of our Lord as lies, and we would be of the believers.’ Nay, what they used to conceal before has now become clear to them. And if they were sent back, they would return to that which they were forbidden. And they are certainly liars. And they say, “There is nothing except our life in this world, and we shall not be raised.” (6:28-30) Returning to the same world and to the same uncertainty about the basic truths of life would only lead to the same wrongs being commited again. What is needed in order for make progress after life in this, world is not a repeat under similar circumstances, but an existence where the experiences from this life are revealed in a new light. However -as the Quran points out- these people deny that there is an afterlife and a resurrection. Actual Observation The Quran thus points to the basic absurdity in the doctrine of 29 reincarnation. It also repeatedly draws the readers attention to universal knowlege which beliefs this doctrine. According to the teachings on reincarnation the proportional distribution of souls on the different species and the two sexes would depend on the merits of the individual souls. It is, however, clear to everyone that life on earth has started and is maintained in a state of equilibrium which bears no relation to any such mechanism: “Verily, We have created everything in due measure.” (54:50) “We spread out the earth, and set therein firm mountains and caused everything to grow therein in proper proportion.” (15:20) CONCEPTS OF JUSTICE One of the most fascinating aspects of the doctrine of reincarnation is the justification it gives for all existing inequalities. We shall therefore try to consider what justice is and what kind of justice we were made for. Uniformity If all were born alike with the same opportunities, talents and inclinations, a highly specialized society, like that found in the Western world today, would be impossible. Furthermore, a world in which everybody is and must always be alike would also be without challenges and opportunities for personal development. .The doctrine of reincarnation gives a justification for all the existing inequalities among men. Contrary to this, the Holy Quran does not endorse present inequalities, but admonishes and reminds us of the obligations these put upon us: “It is He who has appointed you viceroys in the earth, and has raised some of you in rank above others, that He may try you by that which He has given you. Surely, thy Lord is quick in punishment, and surely He is Most Forgiving, Merciful.” (6:166) Equality There would be true injustice if God had given us unequal chances of 30 REVIEW OF’RELIGIONS obtaining the purpose of life. The purpose for which we were created is union with God. This is a common belief in many religions, and it is upheld in’the Holy Quran: “The final end is unto thy Lord.”(53:43) “Thou, O man, art verily labouring towards thy Lord, a hard labouring; then thou art going to meet Him.”(84:7) “I have not created man – high and low – but that they may worship me:”(51.57) Every talent entrusted to us can be employed according to its purpose and thus in the service of the Maker. In this regard it does not make any difference whether the talent is commonly considered elevated or plain. We can all strive to serve God fully, to the limit of our capacity. The Quranic concept of worship and service of God is to strive to acquire those attributes of God which can also apply to man. As God is perfect, serving implies striving for perfection and for an increasingly close relationship to the Perfect Being, who is the ultimate source of all good, So our striving will be for our own good, not for the benefit of the One who originated our abilities: “Whosoever struggles, struggles only to his own gain; verily Allah is independent of all creatures.” (29:7) The Creator is not an incomplete being standing in need Of worship. He is independent of all. And because He is the ultimate source of everything, He is also the One who can best guide us to the beneficial use of our abilities. Hence the words of the Holy Quran on the importance of divine-guidance: “Say ‘Tell me; if it is from Allah but you disbelieve in it who is more astray than one who has drifted away?” (41:53) As mentioned our responsibility for each other holds opportunities for personal development. Only when we have the chance of translating intentions into action and do it will the intention leave a lasting impact on the soul. Or if we find that we do not live up to our ideals., We become aware of our shortcomings and only then are we able to rectify them. This is the meaning of “the statement that God ‘Tries us in that which He has given us'(6:116). THE APOCRYPHA 31 That which God has given us includes not only our abilities, but also the opportunities of employing them. For this reason every situation of loss is als’o a test for us. Times of loss are occasions for us to remember that all what we have, in the final analysis, is not from ourselves but. due to God. Remembering this we can go on seeking the meeting with God with that which we still possess/This is the meaning of the following verses from the Holy Quran: “We will try you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives, and fruits; but give glad tidings to the patient, who when a misfortune overtakes them, say, ‘Surely to Allah we belong and to Him shall we return.’ It is these on whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy, and it is these who are rightly guided.” (2:156-158) Justice, God’s justice is fully unfolded in His Judgment of our actions. If God will judge us according to our background, and in His grace reward us for everything good and punish only for the evil we have done, one can ask for no higher justice. Only be grateful for the forgiveness of God. This is the kind of justice which is promised to us in the Holy Quran: “Every soul shall be requited with that which it has wrought.”(39:71) “Whoso.does evil shall be rewarded for it. and he shall find no friend and helper other than Allah.”(4:124) “Every soul shall suffer death, and you shall be paid your full reward on the Day of Judgement.”(3:186) “Allah-has taken upon Himself to show mercy. He will certainly assemble you till the Day of Resurrection. There is no doubt about it. Those who ruin their souls will not believe.”(6:13) A moment’s reflection will show us that we were not made to receive a full manifestation of God’s justice in this life. Were I to put the hand of another in the fire, he would feel the pain but this is unjust, the fault is mine and he should not feel anything. If, however, it were to be impossible to harm others, it would also be impossible to do them any good, as every action has negative aspects and holds potential harm. If God were to manifest His justice fully, we would therefore be unable to affect each other in any way. Rather than this, we will accept responisbility for our actions and run the risk of harming and being harmed. 32 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS. THE SOUL When a religion teaches that the soul is a mortal creature and that it will be resurrected after death, one should not hold this as .blind faith, but seek to have it confirmed through experience and reflection. In this last section I shall demonstrate how the desire that faith and reason may go together is fulfilled by the Holy Quran as regards the soul. The Origin of the Soul The Holy Quran teaches that the soul is not eternal nor does it spring from nothing. It is generated in the embryo as a separate creation: “We placed man as a drop in a safe depository; then we fashioned the drop into a shapeless lump; then We fashioned bones out of this shapeless lump; then We clothed the bones with flesh; then We developed it into another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators.” (23:13-15) The Holy Quran does not contain any ‘mysterious statements about the soul coming from a deceased being or out of the blue. As in the case of every other living thing we know of, it is developed out of something which already exists. The Holy Quran also tells only a little about how the soul is created: “They ask thee concerning the soul. Say, ‘the soul is by the command of my Lord; and of the Knowledge thereof you have been given but little.” (17:86) That is to say, although we know a good deal about how the embryo develops physically, our knowledge of the development of the soul will remain very limited. On the genesis of the soul we can say little more than that as everything else it comes into existence in conformity with the will of God. Nevertheless, the Holy Quran draws our attention to an experience which will help us to understand that the soul does not come from a deceased being. It tells us: “We have created man from a mingled drop that We might try him.” (76:3) COMMON SENSE ABOUT REINCARNATION 33 The fertilized egg cell is a mixture of material from the father and the mother. This also holds good for hereditary characteristics and do not come from another being. That the soul is created, and is not something which exists independently from the Creator, is also evident from the soul’s yearning for God. It would be a strange coincidence that the soul seeks God, if it were uncreated and God was only the cause of its suffering in the material world. Ingrained in the nature of every man is love for his progenitors; but who would have given the soul its love for God, had it been uncreated? The Holy Quran draws our attention to this in an allegorical description: “When thy Lord brings forth from the children of man out of their loins their offspring and makes them witness against their own selves by saying, ‘Am I not your Lord?’ they say, ‘Yea, we do bear witness.’ This He does lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection. ‘We were surely unaware of this.” (7:173) Naturally it is far from being impossible to disregard or ruin this awareness. The Quran therefore encourages man to look at and reflect not only on the world around him but also his own soul: “In the earth are signs for the wise; and also in your own souls. Will you not then see?”(51:21-22) The Soul is Mortal The Holy Quran also helps us to understand that the soul will die. In sleep we experience that our will power and awareness of our selves are discontinued. Death is, in fact, nothing but such a loss of essential attributes. When a living being dies, this does not mean that it disappears altogether. But we say that it is dead because- it undergoes a radical change. In the following verse we are encouraged by the Holy Quran to ponder over this experience of a kind of death: “Allah takes away the souls of human beings at the time of their death; and during their sleep of those also who are not yet dead. And then He retains those against which He has decreed death, and sends back the others till an appointed term. In that surely are signs for a people who reflect.” (39:43) The Resurrection of the Soul Time and again the Holy Quran draws the reader’s attention to 34 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS phenomena which make it clear that God wiU raise the souls after death. It reminds us of the astounding evolution from a single cell to cognizant man and of the Divine pactice of revival: “O people, if you are in doubt concerning the Resurrection, then consider that We have indeed created you from dust; then from a drop, then from clotted blood; then from a lump of flesh, partly formed and partly unformed, in order that We may make Our power manifest to you. And We cause what We will to remain in the wombs for an appointed term; then We bring you forth as babes; then We rear you that you may attain to your age of full strength. And there are some of you who are caused to die prematurely, and there are others among you who are kept back to the worst part of life with the result that they know nothing after having had knowledge. And thou seest the earth lifeless, but when We send down water thereon, it stirs and swells, and grows every kind of beauteous vegetation^ That is because Allah is the Truth, and that it is He Who brings the dead to life, and that He has power over all things.” (22:6-7) If we consider this amazing evolution, the only conclusion we can draw is that life must have been created with a purpose and that it will not end abruptly at death, but continue in yet a higher form; “Do you think that We had created you without purpose, and that you will not be brought back to Us?”(23:116) Man, however, is inclined to take his own existence for granted forgetting the One who originated life: “Man coins similitudes for Us and forgets his own creation. He says, ‘Who can quicken the bones when they are decayed?” (36:79) Inorder that no one needs to be in doubt, the Holy Quran explicitly denies that the soul will return to life in this world: “When death comes to one of them, he says, ‘My Lord, return me; haply I shall do righteousness in that I forsook.1 Never, it is but a word that he utters; and behind them is a barrier until the day they shall be raised up.” (23:100) COMMON SENSE ABOUT REINCARNATION 35 Beholding God’s creation makes us realize that God has the power to repeat the creation, and that the creatio_n of man is only a small matter: “Say, ‘Travel in the earth, and see how He originated the creation, Then will Allah provide the latter creation.’ Surely Allah has power over all things.”(29:21) “Have We then become wearied by the first creation? No indeed; but they are in uncertainty as to the new creation.” (50:16) “Certainly, the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of mankind; but most men know it not. ” (40:58) With such evidence the conclusion will be: “If thou dost wonder, then wondrous indeed is their saying: What! when we have become dust, shall we then be in a state of new creation?’ These it is who disbelieve in their Lord.” (13:6) Beholding God’s creation makes us realize that God has the -.power to repeat the creation, and that the creation of man is only a small matter: “Say, ‘Travel in the earth, and see how He originated the creation. Then will Allah provide the latter creation.’ Surely Allah has power over all things.”(29:21) “Have We then become wearied by the first creation? No indeed; but they are in uncertainty as to the new creation.” (50:16) “Certainly, the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of mankind; but most men know it not. ” (40:58) With such evidence the conclusion will be: “If thou dost wonder, then wondrous indeed is their saying: What! when we have become dust, shall we then be in a state of new creation?” These it is who disbelieve in their Lord.” (13:6)