When encountering Hinduism for the first time, Westerners (including many of the students in my community college Eastern religions classes) find themselves faced with a major world faith which in many ways differs drastically from the major Western faiths with which most of them are familiar.
For another thing, Hinduism also believes that individuals spend not just one lifetime upon this earth, but many.
Again unlike Judaism or Christianity or Islam (at least in their mainstream forms), which maintain that each soul lives but once upon the earth, Hinduism asserts that souls are endlessly “recycled,” so to speak. After death, each soul sooner or later is subsequently reborn on earth, to live out yet another earthly life. This continuing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (referred to by Hindus as samsara, the “wheel of rebirth”) has no natural conclusion, but repeats itself endlessly — unless, of course, something is done to terminate it.
Many Westerners tend at first to ask, “Why would anybody want to do anything to stop it?” At first blush, reincarnation sounds very appealing to many people. After all, it suggests that death is not the end, and that if one’s present earthly life is perhaps unfulfilling or disappointing (let alone miserable or tragic), the possibility of a better future earthly life looms as a glittering hope. Perhaps one was a famous personage of great stature in a past life, or perhaps one will enjoy living such an existence in some future life.
In any case, who wouldn’t want a second shot at life? Or a third? Or a fourth? Or maybe even a tenth?
Well, what about a hundredth? Or a thousandth? Or a millionth? Or a billionth?
Perhaps after a few trillion earthly lives, the “new” might begin to wear off. A cosmic sense of “been there, done that” might eventually begin to set in, at some level. And not all earthly lives are necessarily pleasant ones; suppose a fair number of one’s many, many reincarnations entail significant pain and suffering? The possibility of an endless number of lives characterized largely by hunger and malnutrition, disease and dysfunction, or violence and torment surely dims some of the lustre offered by the concept of reincarnation.
Even if blissful lives of pleasure and plenty overwhelmingly outnumber lives of misery or agony, surely eventually their sheer repetition might elicit feelings of existential weariness or aimlessness. In other words, even after a series of idyllic earthly existences, at some point one might nevertheless begin to wonder: “Is that all there is?”
Hinduism affirms that no, that’s emphatically not all there is. There is, in fact, something infinitely more — a supremely blissful alternative to samsara, or the endless round of rebirth. One can instead jump off of that metaphysical merry-go-round altogether, once and for all, thereby exchanging the slings and arrows of a limited and temporal existence for an infinite and eternal Existence.
In the Hindu religious tradition, then, reincarnation or rebirth is ultimately less of a blessing, and more of a curse; it is something to finally be transcended. Liberation from the otherwise-endless cycle of rebirth is, therefore, the supreme spiritual goal in Hinduism.
For Hindus, “salvation” (to borrow a Christian term which isn’t really an exact fit) consists not in atoning for sins in order to go to heaven, but in erasing the spiritual ignorance and blindness which prevent us seeing our own deepest nature — seeing ourselves truly, as eternal sparks of the Divine. Doing so results in permanent release from rebirth, and eternal union (or communion) with God.
How can such a radically transcendental feat be accomplished? Hinduism affirms that there is more than one valid way to go about it — more than one legitimate spiritual path that can effectively and authentically lead one God-ward. In other words, according to Hinduism, there is not just one single valid path to “salvation” (or spiritual liberation from rebirth by becoming one with the Divine), but many such paths.
(To be continued, in Part Three.)