Friday, August 28, 2009

Characteristics of Reincarnation Belief Systems

While there have been, and currently are, a number of different reincarnation belief systems throughout the world, there are basic characteristics they all share:

1. The dead person has only temporally left the body. Some part of them (the soul) survives and returns to the world of the living to continue a purpose.

2. There is a cycle of birth and death in effect. People are born, live out their lives in “this world,” and die. Their disincarnate essence (soul) passes into the “afterworld,” stays for a time, and is reborn. There are some belief systems that do not include a journey and/or stay in an afterworld.

3. There is a desire to have an ancestor reborn in a friendly place among people they know. Thus a person is usually reborn among immediate family or relatives. Accordingly, ancestors play a large role in many of the societies that believe in reincarnation. But ancestor worship is not found among North American Indians. Indic religions (Hindu, Buddhist, Jain) are an exception to this, for in over half the reported cases, individuals were reborn in another area among people they did not know. This is also true for reports of rebirth in the Western reincarnation model. Very often a person is reborn into another ethnic group altogether.

4. In a number of reincarnation belief systems, including North American Indian, rebirth as an animal or insect is possible.

Most everyone knows that Hindus and Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but few know that North American Indians have well-developed rebirth concepts, many of which show striking cross-cultural similarities to Indic beliefs. Although belief in reincarnation was expressed somewhat differently among the various tribes, it was found throughout Native North America and was a central aspect of tribal cosmologies in these societies. Reincarnation belief is widespread among Northwest Coastal and Inuit tribes, and it is from them that we have the most reported cases of reincarnation in the literature. (Mills 1994)

Central to the Indian idea of reincarnation is the belief in the connectedness, continuity, and interdependence of all life. Traditional people believed, and many still do, that the life force of the planet comes from a realm beyond creation and that plants, animals, and humans recycle, or are reborn, over and over again.

Analysis of the historical records collected by anthropologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries allows a look back into the distant past of human development and the evolution of belief systems. Many of the beliefs of North American Indians regarding reincarnation and the soul can be found in premodern societies throughout the world. If we can strip away the cultural influences and understand the limitations of experience and what is referred to as the “myth of the given,” we see that what is being described are universal human experiences shared by people of all cultures since the beginning of time, even into the present.

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