The recent Pew Research Forum analysis of religion in India makes for interesting reading. One point which has attracted some surprise is the finding that apparently ‘only’ 40% of Hindus really believe in Reincarnation (as compared, as a point of interest, to 27% of Indian Muslims, 29% of Indian Christians, 18% of Indian Sikhs, 18% of Indian Buddhists, and 23% of Indian Jains). Now this should not actually be terribly surprising. Professor Michael Witzel wrote about this phenomenon – the apparent lack of serious Reincarnation Uber Alles for post-mortem situation of the soul amongst Hindus, I mean, not the intriguing Hindufication of Muslims upon some of these matters – some years ago. I shall quote his work below, however first I want to address the matter from a comparative Indo-European view.
Now, there appear to have always been two not-entirely-competing strands within the broader Indo-European sphere about what happens to a person after they die –
Either the person ‘persists’ in some form, whether this is a metempsychotic journey to an afterworld (possibly featuring return travel at specified junctures of the year, as seen with the Roman Lemuria and Hindu Pitru Paksha) or persistence as a ghost within this world of ours;
Or the person is ‘sent back’ in another form and very much alive.
We tend – understandably – to focus upon the former, here in the Western IE sphere, as that is what many of the great myths also place their evocatively illustrative emphasis upon. Who could forget, for instance, the tales of Odysseus sailing down to the Underworld in a bid to beseech advice from the Dead and encountering the horrifying reality of his own mother’s death while he has been away? Or the Nordic vision of winning one’s place within Valhalla through heroic feats of arms upon the battlefield.
However, the belief in reincarnation has also been in evidence in both the Classical and the Germanic spheres. In the latter, the hero Helgi Hundingsbane and his Valkyrie lover, Svava / Kara, do just exactly this – it is treated in the texts themselves (Helgakviða Hiörvarðssonar and Helgakviða Hundingsbana II) in a somewhat cursory manner, and in the case of the latter it is somewhat derisively termed an “old wives’ tale” … but it is there.
“Þat var trua i fornescio, at menn vęri endrbornir, enn þat er nu calluð kerlinga villa” – “It was believed, in the old days, that people were reincarnated, although this is now called old wives´ tales” [ Helgakviða Hundingsbana II ]
“Helgi oc Svava er sagt at vęri endrborin” – “Helgi and Svava are said to have been reincarnated” [ Helgakviða Hiörvarðssonar ]
“hon var Sváva endrborin” – “She was Sváva reincarnated” [Helgakviða Hundingsbana II]
Now, as the astute reader shall have likely detected – it is that word “endrborin” which refers to “reincarnation”. Literally, it is “Endr + Borin”, that is to say “Again-Born”. Quite direct, even if perhaps less ornately imaginative than some other cultures’ ways of putting it – although “Reincarnation” is, obviously, directly the same thing. There are some additional intriguing elements to the Nordic conception of such things around the rather strong potentia for patrilineal conditioning to this reincarnation (and a debate some will probably seek to enter into as to whether the female reincarnation observed here is ‘just because she’s a Valkyrie’) – but we can safely leave those matters for another time. The point is, there was an awareness of reincarnation … in amidst quite a lot of talking about not-this and various forms of more .. enduring afterlife either in the upper and more heavenly-construed realms or the dark and disturbing underworlds.
A similar “Do You Believe In An Afterlife Or In Reincarnation? “Yes” scenario is observed within the Classical schema.
People are not infrequently aware of Plato or Pythagoras being drawn upon to support various positions of this reincarnatory framework within the Greek world-view, along with the Orphic etc. mystery perspectives. What might be less prominent – although presumably of greater importance for our understanding of a more ‘orthodox’ archaic Greek belief, is what is found in Pindar’s Odes:
“When they die, hearts that were void of mercy pay the due penalty, and of this world’s sins a judge below the earth holds trial, and of dread necessity declares the word of doom.
But the good, through the nights alike, and through the days unending, beneath the sun’s bright ray, tax no the soil with the strength of their hands, nor the broad sea for a poor living, but enjoy a life that knows no toil; with men honoured of heaven, who kept their sworn word gladly, spending an age free from all tears. But the unjust endure pain that no eye can bear to see.
But those who had good courage, three times on either side of death, to keep their hearts untarnished of all wrong, these travel along the road of Zeus to Kronos’ tower. There round the Islands of the Blest, the winds of Oceanus play, and golden blossoms burn, some nursed upon the waters, others on land on glorious trees; and woven on their hands are wreaths enchained and flowering crowns, under the just decrees of Rhadamanthys, who has his seat at the right hand of the great father, Rhea’s husband, goddess who holds the throne highest of all. And Peleus and Cadmus are of that number, and thither, when her prayers on the heart of Zeus prevailed, his mother brought Achilles, he who felled Hektor, Troy’s pillar invincible, unyielding, and brought death to Cycnus, and the Aithiop [Memnon] son of Eos.”
Of particular interest for us, is Pindar’s additional contribution in his Dirges – of which, unfortunately, only fragments have survived:
“But, as for those from whom Persephone shall exact the penalty of their pristine woe, in the ninth year she once more restoreth their souls to the upper sun-light; and from these come into being august monarchs, and men who are swift in strength and supreme in wisdom; and, for all future time, men call them sainted heroes.”
Now, this line ought presumably be read in concert with other materials pointing toward an eventual ‘getting off’ the merry-go-round of (re-)incarnation, in the manner of the aforementioned Ode explication. The idea being communicated assumedly having several cycles of incarnation with the last of these being a truly ‘great’ one afore the eventual more enduring outcome / reward is attained. Perhaps amidst the Stars – but that is cosmological speculation for another time.
I say that it is ‘of particular interest’ for us, because it depicts Persephone in a rather active role engaged in the management of the Death And Resurrection Show – indeed, something of an Underworld (dare I say – ‘Iron’) Queen. This is coterminous with the presentation of Aditi in the Vedic understanding reigning over the Pitrs, and of course, Hekate as both Solar Goddess and ‘Underworld Sun’ co-identified with Persephone elsewhere. Freyja’s rule in Folkvangr is definitely relevant here likewise.
All of which brings us back to the Hindu perception of these things.
Now, I said I was going to quote Witzel at length here, and I shall indeed do that – but first it is necessary to set out some context.
The Vedic understanding does indeed have an afterworld prominently featured – and it is not an “underworld”, but rather it is on high. Indeed, Yama’s Realm is actively used at least once as something of a kenning in one of the RigVeda’s ‘riddle hymns’ for the Sun at its noon-day zenith-apex. The Solar Afterworld is, indeed, an archaic Indo-European understanding. I have looked at how this position has ‘migrated’ to a ‘night side’ one under the earth as a fairly consistent derivation in multiple Indo-European conceptual schemas elsewhere in the course of my work, and shall not seek to repeat that analysis here.
However, there is also conceptual space within the Vedic verses upon these matters for resurrective reincarnation to ensue. It is really a case of ‘both’ rather than either – although with not a huge amount of detailed explication upon the ‘how’ for reincarnation in the most archaic elements; and with some academics (interestingly, including Koenraad Elst – who is usually something of an on-side darling for various modern Hindu revisionist narratives) attempting to argue that these should be instead interpreted as something else entirely and positing reincarnation to be a non-Indo-European belief picked up from other (i.e. ‘non-Aryan’, non-Vedic) communities archaically upon the Indian subcontinent. Which would conflict with the evident fact that these other Indo-European peoples much to the west have long held reincarnation beliefs along with an afterworld, and presumably did not also pick up all of these from the same non-Indo-European Subcontinental source posited by Elst et co.
In short, when we find that the Pew Research Forum has identified that only a minority of Indian Hindus have this significant emphasis upon reincarnation, this does not mean – as some might scurrilously imply – that they’re “doing Hinduism wrong”. Rather, it more likely means that they are continuing to persist with elements that are archaically attested – and that it is a subsequent greatly enhanced emphasis upon the reincarnation side of things amidst the minds of various philosophers and theologians .. and the more modern or Western commentators attempting to engage with our religion largely through these … which have produced a somewhat distorted perception of the matter.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, archaic foundationals persist less obscurated amidst the ‘Rustics’ – the ‘Pagans’ (in the old Latin sense of the term) – than in the less peripheral ‘centres’ of intellectual development.
And now, Professor Witzel:
“Further, we must also distinguish between an ‘academic’ approach based on the systems of (some favoured) Hindu philosophers – all too often this is Sankara – and an analysis based on the thought and religion of the bulk of the (non-philosophical) populations. As, for example, I have frequently learned ‘on ground level’, in villages and towns, it is primarily neither the concept of karma nor the cycle of endless reincarnations […] but some much older and persistent features that are more prominent in the thought and lives of most Hindus.
We may, however, easily find individual examples where Vedic concepts and beliefs have been perpetuated into modern times. One such group is clustered around death and its rituals. The Vedic texts, for example, refer to ‘the departed’ (preta) flying around as birds or visiting their descendants in the form of birds […]. This thought is still found in various parts of modern South Asia and fits poorly into the idea of a departed soul on its way to the other world or in the process of reincarnating itself. First, there is the Kaka Bali, ‘Crow offering,’ in many rituals […]. Crows indeed represent ancestors in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and other places – though not everywhere in India. It is noteworthy that on a certain day, once a year, all crows are said to assemble in Benares, as if to take part in an annual sraddha feeding. In Bhaktapur this belief persists in the annual Kwa Puja, ‘Crow Puja’, just before the Newar New Year in October, which Levy characterizes as ‘Placation of Yama, the god of death’ […].
Another persistent idea is of a departed person going to heaven (or to the pleasant world of the ancestors in Yama’s realm; RV 10 135 1; ;VadhB 3 91). While this is prominent in Vedic religion from Rgvedic times, some doubt about it should have been expressed once the late Vedic ‘doctrine’ of reincarnation emerged. This juncture […] of an earlier common belief in rebirth and the new one in the retributive force of karma would turn ‘heaven’ into an unnecessary if not an impossible notion: rebirth should take place upon death. Indeed, medieval Jainas (and non-Nepalese Buddhists) ridiculed the Brahmans for performing ‘useless’ sraddha rituals since their ancestors must have already been reincarnated. Rebirth, however, is usually not stressed in modern South Asia; rather, a long sojourn in (Visnu’s) Heaven is supposed to occur. The stay in Yama’s, by now, dreadful world or the subsequent rebirth in this world are played down […], and this is indeed what I often heard express in Nepal and India: people do not talk about reincarnation, but everyone wants ‘to go to heaven.’ The expression is also used in the common Sanskritic term for a departed person: divamgata, ‘gone to heaven.’ It can be read, for instance, on the printed flyers commonly found on the walls of houses announcing someone’s death. Even the Newar Buddhists suppose that a departed person would go to heaven (for example, Amitabha’s western paradise) before the various constituent parts of his or her personality would reassemble in various new life forms. Both Buddhists (even though their interpretation may vary) and Hindus in Nepal, therefore, perform sraddha ceremonies to feed their departed ancestors. In other words, the Vedic idea of a stay in heaven has been integrated into the post-Vedic and medieval view of constant reincarnation, and it nowadays forms but one step in this process. It is, however, such an important step that it still takes precedence over all post-Vedic philosophy and perpetuates the age-old human wish to stay in a blissful world in the afterlife.
The importance of male children in the Mahabharata (1 19) shows links with Vedic as well as modern concepts. In the epic, the childless ascetic Jaratkaru meets his ancestors hanging on a string that is gnawed at by rodents. They are in danger of falling into a deep abyss. They explain that this is so because they have no descendants beyond Jaratkaru who could take care of them in the next world. […] If not, the deep darkness of Nirrti threatens, an abyss which has no light, no food, no children (RV 7 104)”