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    Reincarnation and the Afterlife in Hindu, Greek, and Roman Traditions

    Background: This is a paper I wrote in freshman year of college for a comparative literature class.
    I'm not particularly religious, but have been raised as a Hindu since birth. Meaning the stories I heard as a baby and growing up from my parents were not of Adam and Eve or the Ark but of how Ganesha, the god of Wisdom, received his elephant head.

    The Afterlife in Hindu, Greek, and Roman Traditions





    A remarkable aspect of ancient civilization is the similarity of beliefs across religions which evolved independently. Even quite distinct Eastern and Western ideologies, such as Hindu and the Greek and Roman religions, share ideas in mythology. Each is polytheistic. All three cultures often personify and anthropomorphize their gods. The deities in each culture constantly involve themselves in the affairs of mortals, and display quite human flaws. One belief, related to Reincarnation, called Samsara, lies at the center of Hindu philosophy and mythology. While not such a central aspect to the ideas in Plato’s Republic, Socrates does depict an alternate version of reincarnation, known academically as metempsychosis. Virgil, in the Aeneid, further transforms metempsychosis, rendering it nearer to the view of the afterlife adopted by the Christian faith. In each rendition of reincarnation, the soul re-inhabits a mortal body to continue life; the fundamental principles are the same. All three cultures believe the soul to be naturally pure, indestructible, and immortal. However, these three beliefs differ most greatly in their depictions of the duration of the afterlife and ultimate fate of the soul.

    Reincarnation and Karma comprise two core tenets of Hinduism. Hindus believe that the indestructible soul, or atman, perpetually accumulates karma for each belligerent or altruistic action. Samsara describes the cycle of flow between life and death; whereas human forms bloom and wither, the soul moves on, undying. Karma manifests itself quickly at times; during others, it is delayed, possibly for many mortal lives. Karma accumulates throughout life, and one’s value is judged upon death. Gaining good Karma allows one a higher, elevated birth and life. One with bad karma will find themselves born into considerably worse circumstances than in their current life. Those who live the most atrocious lives may be reincarnated into animals or demons, while those who complete a pure, just, dharmic life are rewarded with Moksha, a state of enlightenment and the ultimate resting place for the soul. Rarely do souls attain Moksha; until then, spirits are believed to desire to return to the physical world of Maya, so they may again experience the pleasures of life. Interestingly, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave closely resembles Maya; both suggest that we live in an illusory world, with a true, “hidden” world that we must uncover. Hinduism stresses that souls naturally draw themselves back into the world; the religion does not include a concept of Judgment Day. Unlike Western traditions, Hindus dismiss the notion of “Hell”; instead, karma maintains cosmic balance by punishing or rewarding souls through their next life, rather than the afterlife. Souls perpetually cycle through lives, without spending time situated in an afterlife; only after achieving Moksha are souls allowed to rest.

    In The Republic, Book X, Plato puts forth a similar idea as found in Hinduism of an everlasting, immortal soul engaged in an eternal cycle of rebirth, “So if no evil can destroy the soul, neither the evil intrinsic to it nor some other evil, then the soul must be indestructible, and if indestructible, then immortal.” (Sterling & Scott, 301). He also concurs in the belief that people can be reborn as animals, “The soul that drew the twentieth lot chose the life of a lion; …he rejected becoming human again.” (Sterling & Scott, 310). Plato’s idea of metempsychosis and the afterlife, however, quickly depart from the Reincarnation of Hinduism. He presents a more dualistic, judgmental Underworld, “Here he saw two openings in the earth next to one another. Judges sat between them. After each judgment they bade the just to continue their journey upwards to the right… the unjust were bidden to proceed with their journey to the left and downwards.” (Sterling & Scott, 305). Plato’s influence on the Aeneid, and ultimately, Christian philosophy, can be seen quite easily here. Book X also emphasizes punishment of sins in the afterlife, before reincarnation, “For every unjust deed they had inflicted and for every man who suffered wrong in their hands, they paid the penalty tenfold in each case” (Sterling & Scott, 304). Further distinguishing itself is the ability, or rather, requirement of the soul to choose its next life; this marks itself as the greatest difference between Platonic and Hindu reincarnation. Instead of automatic rebirth, Book X states, “Souls that abide for a day, now begins another cycle of the mortality that ends in death. The gods will not choose a spirit to guide you; you shall choose that spirit yourself.” (Sterling & Scott, 308). Plato’s views on the fundamental nature and basic attributes of the soul coincide with those of Hinduism; the qualities of the soul remain the same and the Karmic system displays itself in the reward punishment of spirits. What differs, however, are the inclusion of Judges in the afterlife, as well as the ability of the soul to take action and “conscientiously” inhabit a new life. These beliefs on the existence of the soul after death proved highly significant, and are further transformed by Virgil in the Aeneid.

    Virgil, in the Aeneid, postulates an afterlife highly influential (and therefore more similar) to Christian theology. While Virgil does not include distinct notions of Heaven and Hell, parallels to both are found in Dis, the Aeneid’s afterlife, through the Fields of Elysium and Tartarus. In fact, the Aeneid provides a much lengthier description of Tartarus than of Elysium; he goes as far as to suggest the idea of nine “levels” of Hell, while Elysium is referred to as a “field”. In stark contrast to Hinduism, and only slightly similar to Plato, souls in the Aeneid dwell in Dis for an extensive time, but exist as Shades, an impassive, ghostly doppelganger of their former selves. They are cold, emotionless, and distant, as exemplified when Aeneas encounters Dido, “These were the words Aeneas used, trying to soothe the burning, fierce-eyed Shade. She turned away, eyes to the ground, no more moved by his speech than if he stood as stubborn flint…” (Mandelbaum, 146). Through the descriptions of the sorrowful spirits, Virgil paints the bleakest picture of the afterlife yet. Gruesome, visceral, mutilated bodies lament their eternal condition; unlike the Karmic cycle of reincarnation, where sins and virtues are reciprocated in an upcoming life, souls absolve their misdeeds for all wrongdoings they commit through brutal torture by Rhadamanthus, clearly an inspiration for the Christian Devil. Although Virgil retains the idea of reincarnation, his ideas drastically departs from any previously recorded version. Aeneas’ father, Anchises, describes all the tribulations a soul must encounter, “They are schooled by punishment, and pay for their torments for their old misdeeds… for some the stain of guilt is… consumed by fire. Each of us must suffer his own Shade; then we are sent through wide Elysium – a few of us will gain the Fields of Gladness…. But all the rest, are summoned by the God to Lethe, in a great assembly that, free of memory, they may return.” (Mandelbaum, 155). In these lines, Virgil returns to the idea of reincarnation, although it is massively altered: only certain souls are reincarnated, only after penance for sins, and only after permission from God. In addition, the water from the Lethe cleanses them of all past memories, effectively bestowing a blank moral slate to those who are reborn. Interestingly, a similarity exists between Moksha and the Fields of Gladness, but Virgil prominently features Dis as the habitat for souls; he discards the Hindu and Platonic views of unending, cyclical phases of birth and death for a more permanent afterlife.

    The Hindu, Platonic, and Roman belief systems provide fascinatingly unique metaphysical views. Each reiterates the idea of an imperishable, everlasting soul. Hinduism believes the ultimate fate of the soul is to achieve Moksha, and until a mortal’s soul achieves that state, it will undergo perpetual reincarnation, with Karma transitioning over to the next life. Plato suggests that souls dwell with Hades in the underworld, judged by their sins. Once judgment and punishment are complete, the Platonic view decrees a soul will choose what life to inhabit. Finally, the Aeneid draws much greater attention to the punishment and atonement of sins in the afterlife. Although Virgil depicts reincarnation, few souls are given rebirth; Dis, or perhaps optimistically, Elysium, are portrayed as the final, eternal resting place for the soul.

    Mon, Jun 28, 2010  Permanent link

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