The Idea Enters Eastern Religions
“I always thought that the immortality of the soul was a universal truth that everyone accepted. So I was really surprised to learn that some great minds both of the East and of the West have passionately argued against the belief. Now I wonder how the idea of immortality came into Hindu consciousness.”—A UNIVERSITY STUDENT WHO WAS RAISED A HINDU.
1. Why is knowledge of the development and spread of the doctrine of human immortality in various religions of interest to us?
HOW did the idea that man has a soul that is immortal enter Hinduism and other Eastern religions? The question is of interest even to those in the West who may not be familiar with these religions, since the belief affects everyone’s view of the future. Because the teaching of human immortality is a common denominator in most religions today, knowing how the concept developed can indeed promote better understanding and communication.
2. Why has India been a noteworthy source of religious influence in Asia?
2 Ninian Smart, a professor of religious studies at the University of Lancaster in Britain, observes: “The most important centre of religious influence in Asia has been India. This is not merely because India itself has given birth to a number of faiths—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc.—but because one of these, Buddhism, came to influence profoundly the culture of virtually the whole of East Asia.” Many cultures influenced in this way “still regard India as their spiritual homeland,” says Hindu scholar Nikhilananda. How, then, did this teaching of immortality make inroads into India and other parts of Asia?
Hinduism’s Teaching of Reincarnation
3. According to a historian, by whom was the idea of transmigration of souls possibly taken to India?
3 In the sixth century B.C.E., while Pythagoras and his followers in Greece were advocating the theory of transmigration of souls, Hindu sages living along the banks of the Indus and Ganges rivers in India were developing the same concept. The simultaneous appearance of this belief “in the Greek world and in India can hardly have been fortuitous,” says historian Arnold Toynbee. “One possible common source [of influence],” Toynbee points out, “is the Eurasian nomad society, which, in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., had descended upon India, South-Western Asia, the steppe country along the north shore of the Black Sea, and the Balkan and Anatolian peninsulas.” The migrating Eurasian tribes evidently carried with them to India the idea of transmigration.
4. Why did the concept of transmigration of souls appeal to Hindu sages?
4 Hinduism had begun in India much earlier, with the arrival of the Aryans about 1500 B.C.E. From the very start, Hinduism held the belief that the soul was different from the body and that the soul survived death. Hindus thus practiced ancestor worship and laid out food for the souls of their dead to consume. Centuries later when the idea of the transmigration of souls reached India, it must have appealed to the Hindu sages grappling with the universal problem of evil and suffering among humans. Combining this with what is called the law of Karma, the law of cause and effect, Hindu sages developed the theory of reincarnation whereby merits and demerits in one life are rewarded or punished in the next.
5. According to Hinduism, what is the ultimate goal of the soul?
5 But there was one other concept that influenced Hinduism’s teaching about the soul. “It seems to be true that at the very time when the theory of transmigration and karma was formed, or even earlier,” says the Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, “another concept . . . was gradually taking shape in a small intellectual circle in N. India—the philosophic concept of the Brahman-Ātman [the supreme and eternal Brahman, the ultimate reality].” This idea was combined with the theory of reincarnation to define the ultimate goal of Hindus—liberation from the cycle of transmigration in order to be one with the ultimate reality. This, Hindus believe, is achieved by striving for socially acceptable behavior and special Hindu knowledge.
6, 7. What is the belief of present-day Hinduism about the Hereafter?
6 Hindu wise men thus shaped the idea of the transmigration of souls into the doctrine of reincarnation by combining it with the law of Karma and the concept of Brahman. Octavio Paz, a Nobel Prize winning poet and a former Mexican ambassador to India, writes: “As Hinduism spread, so did an idea . . . that is pivotal to Brahmanism, Buddhism, and other Asian religions: metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls across successive existences.”
7 The doctrine of reincarnation is the mainstay of present-day Hinduism. Hindu philosopher Nikhilananda says: “That the attainment of immortality is not the prerogative of a chosen few, but the birthright of all, is the conviction of every good Hindu.”
The Cycle of Rebirth in Buddhism
8-10. (a) How does Buddhism define existence? (b) How does a Buddhist scholar explain rebirth?
8 Buddhism was founded in India about 500 B.C.E. According to Buddhist tradition, an Indian prince by the name of Siddhārtha Gautama, who came to be known as Buddha after receiving enlightenment, founded Buddhism. Since it sprang from Hinduism, its teachings are in some ways similar to those of Hinduism. According to Buddhism, existence is a continuous cycle of rebirth and death, and as in Hinduism, each individual’s status in his current life is defined by the deeds of his previous life.
9 But Buddhism does not define existence in terms of a personal soul that survives death. “[Buddha] saw in the human psyche only a fleeting series of discontinuous psychological states, which are held together only by desire,” observed Arnold Toynbee. Yet, Buddha believed that something—some state or force—is passed on from one life to another. Dr. Walpola Rahula, a Buddhist scholar, explains:
10 “A being is nothing but a combination of physical and mental forces or energies. What we call death is the total non-functioning of the physical body. Do all these forces and energies stop altogether with the non-functioning of the body? Buddhism says ‘No.’ Will, volition, desire, thirst to exist, to continue, to become more and more, is a tremendous force that moves whole lives, whole existences, that even moves the whole world. This is the greatest force, the greatest energy in the world. According to Buddhism, this force does not stop with the non-functioning of the body, which is death; but it continues manifesting itself in another form, producing re-existence which is called rebirth.”
11. What is the Buddhist view of the Hereafter?
11 The Buddhist view of the Hereafter is this: Existence is everlasting unless the individual attains the final goal of Nirvana, liberation from the cycle of rebirths. Nirvana is a state neither of eternal bliss nor of becoming one with the ultimate reality. It is simply a state of nonexistence—the “deathless place” beyond individual existence. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines “Nirvana” as “a place or state of oblivion to care, pain, or external reality.” Rather than seeking immortality, Buddhists are encouraged to transcend it by achieving Nirvana.
12-14. How do various forms of Buddhism convey the idea of immortality?
12 As it spread to various places in Asia, Buddhism modified its teachings to accommodate local beliefs. For example, Mahayana Buddhism, the form that is dominant in China and Japan, holds a belief in celestial bodhisattvas, or future Buddhas. Bodhisattvas put off their Nirvana for countless lives in order to serve others and help them attain it. Thus one can choose to continue in the cycle of rebirth even after attaining Nirvana.
13 Another adjustment that became particularly influential in China and Japan is the doctrine of the Pure Land to the West, created by Buddha Amitabha, or Amida. Those calling on the name of Buddha in faith are reborn into the Pure Land, or paradise, where conditions are more conducive to attaining the final enlightenment. What has developed from this teaching? Professor Smart, mentioned earlier, explains: “Not unnaturally, the splendours of paradise, vividly described in some of the Mahayana scriptures, came to replace nirvana in the popular imagination as the supreme goal.”
14 Tibetan Buddhism incorporates other local elements. For example, the Tibetan book of the dead describes the fate of an individual in the intermediate state before being reborn. The dead are said to be exposed to the bright light of the ultimate reality, and those who are unable to bear the light do not gain liberation but are reborn. Clearly, Buddhism in its various forms conveys the idea of immortality.
Ancestor Worship in Japan’s Shinto
15-17. (a) How did the worship of ancestral spirits develop in Shinto? (b) How is the belief in immortality of the soul fundamental to Shinto?
15 Religion existed in Japan before the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth century C.E. It was a religion without a name, and it consisted of beliefs associated with morals and customs of the people. With the introduction of Buddhism, however, the need arose to distinguish the Japanese religion from the foreign one. And so the designation “Shinto,” meaning “the way of the gods,” sprang up.
16 What belief did the original Shinto hold about the Hereafter? With the advent of the wetland cultivation of rice, “wetland agriculture necessitated well-organized and stable communities,” explains the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, “and agricultural rites—which later played such an important role in Shintō—were developed.” Fear of departed souls led these ancient people to conceive rites of appeasing them. This developed into a worship of ancestral spirits.
17 According to Shinto belief, a “departed” soul still has its personality but is stained because of death. When the bereaved perform memorial rites, the soul is purified to the point of removing all malice, and it takes on a peaceful and benevolent character. In time, the ancestral spirit rises to the position of an ancestral deity, or guardian. As it coexisted with Buddhism, Shinto incorporated certain Buddhist teachings, including the doctrine of paradise. Thus, we find that belief in immortality is fundamental to Shinto.
Immortality in Taoism, Ancestor Worship in Confucianism
18. What is Taoist thinking concerning immortality?
18 Taoism was founded by Lao-tzu, who is said to have lived in China in the sixth century B.C.E. The goal in life, according to Taoism, is to harmonize human activity with Tao—the way of nature. Taoist thinking concerning immortality can be summed up this way: Tao is the governing principle of the universe. Tao has no beginning and no end. By living in accord with Tao, an individual participates in it and becomes eternal.
19-21. Taoist speculations led to what endeavors?
19 In their attempt to be at one with nature, Taoists in time became especially interested in its agelessness and resilience. They speculated that perhaps by living in harmony with Tao, or nature’s way, one could somehow tap into the secrets of nature and become immune to physical harm, disease, and even death.
20 Taoists started to experiment with meditation, breathing exercises, and diet, which supposedly could delay bodily decay and death. Soon legends began to circulate about immortals who could fly on clouds and appear and disappear at will and who lived on sacred mountains or remote islands for countless years, sustained by dew or magical fruits. Chinese history reports that in 219 B.C.E., the emperor Ch’in Shih Huang Ti sent a fleet of ships with 3,000 boys and girls to find the legendary island of P’eng-lai, the abode of the immortals, in order to bring back the herb of immortality. Needless to say, they did not return with the elixir.
21 The quest for eternal life led Taoists to experiment with concocting immortality pills by alchemy. In the Taoist view, life results when the opposing yin and yang (female and male) forces combine. Thus, by fusing lead (dark, or yin) and mercury (bright, or yang), the alchemists were imitating the process of nature, and they thought that the product would be an immortality pill.
22. What resulted from the Buddhist influence on Chinese religious life?
22 By the seventh century C.E., Buddhism made inroads into Chinese religious life. The result was an amalgam embracing elements of Buddhism, spiritism, and ancestor worship. “Both Buddhism and Taoism,” says Professor Smart, “gave shape and substance to beliefs about an after-life which were rather sketchy in ancient Chinese ancestor-worship.”
23. What was Confucius’ position regarding ancestor worship?
23 Confucius, China’s other prominent sage of the sixth century B.C.E., whose philosophy became the basis for Confucianism, did not comment extensively on the Hereafter. Rather, he stressed the importance of moral goodness and socially acceptable behavior. But he had a favorable attitude toward ancestor worship and placed great emphasis on the observance of the rites and ceremonies relating to the spirits of departed ancestors.
Other Eastern Religions
24. What does Jainism teach about the soul?
24 Jainism was founded in India in the sixth century B.C.E. Its founder, Mahāvīra, taught that all living things have eternal souls and that salvation of the soul from the bondage of Karma is possible only through extreme self-denial and self-discipline and a rigid application of nonviolence toward all creatures. Jains hold these beliefs to this day.
25, 26. What Hindu beliefs are also found in Sikhism?
25 India is also the birthplace of Sikhism, a religion practiced by 19 million people. This religion had its start in the 16th century when Guru Nānak decided to fuse the best of Hinduism and Islam and form a united religion. Sikhism adopted the Hindu beliefs of immortality of the soul, reincarnation, and Karma.
26 Clearly, the belief that life continues after the body dies is an integral part of most Eastern religions. What, though, of Christendom, Judaism, and Islam?
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Buddhism influenced all of East Asia
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Reincarnation is the mainstay of Hinduism
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By living in harmony with nature, a Taoist tries to become eternal
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Confucius had a favorable attitude toward ancestor worship