Rebirth in Hindu and Buddhist Eyes

Below is an excerpt from an interesting book called Hinduism and Buddhism, by Sir Charles Eliot, written just before WWI, on the topic of rebirth in the eyes of Indian philosophy. Rebirth is the topic of conversation/discussion/arguement/fisticuffs at our informal meeting April 20th (see Calendar).l

The book as a whole, while written in a slightly stodgy colonial style of English, is remarkably well researched, and holds up well against today’s improved knowledge of Indian religion. It is available as a free e-book download from the fabulous Many Books website here, for all those who have joined the Kindle/Tablet computer revolution (if you still hold out against this, you’ll have to print it out, or go without). Do forward any artilces, videos or quotes on the topic you think might be relevant to the discussion.

Quote is from Page 43 onwards:


… But there is a psychological and temperamental objection to the doctrine of rebirth, which goes to the root of the matter. Love of life and the desire to find a field of activity are so strong in most Europeans that it might be supposed that a theory offering an endless vista of new activities and new chances would be acceptable. But as a rule Europeans who discuss the question say that they do not relish this prospect. They may be willing to struggle until death, but they wish for repose — conscious repose of course — afterwards. The idea that one just dead has not entered into his rest, but is beginning another life with similar struggles and fleeting successes, similar sorrows and disappointments, is not satisfying and is almost shocking[45]. We do not like it, and not to like any particular view about the destinies of the soul is generally, but most illogically, considered a reason for rejecting it[46].

It must not however be supposed that Hindus like the prospect of transmigration. On the contrary from the time of the Upanishads and the Buddha to the present day their religious ideal corresponding to salvation is emancipation and deliverance, deliverance from rebirth and from the bondage of desire which brings about rebirth. Now all Indian theories as to the nature of transmigration are in some way connected with the idea of Karma, that is the power of deeds done in past existences to condition or even to create future existences. Every deed done, whether good or bad, affects the character of the doer for a long while, so that to use a metaphor, the soul awaiting rebirth has a special shape, which is of its own making, and it can find re-embodiment only in a form into which that shape can squeeze.
These views of rebirth and karma have a moral value, for they teach that what a man gets depends on what he is or makes himself to be, and they avoid the difficulty of supposing that a benevolent creator can have given his creatures only one life with such strange and unmerited disproportion in their lots.

…and they avoid the difficulty of supposing that a benevolent creator can have given his creatures only one life with such strange and unmerited disproportion in their lots.

Ordinary folk in the East hope that a life of virtue will secure them another life as happy beings on earth or perhaps in some heaven which, though not eternal, will still be long. But for many the higher ideal is renunciation of the world and a life of contemplative asceticism which will accumulate no karma so that after death the soul will pass not to another birth but to some higher and more mysterious state which is beyond birth and death.

It is the prevalence of views like this which has given both Hinduism and Buddhism the reputation of being pessimistic and unpractical. It is generally assumed that these are bad epithets, but are they not applicable to Christian teaching? Modern and medieval Christianity–as witness many popular hymns–regards this world as vain and transitory, a vale of tears and tribulation, a troubled sea through whose waves we must pass before we reach our rest. And choirs sing, though without much conviction, that it is weary waiting here. This language seems justified by the Gospels and Epistles. It is true that some utterances of Christ suggest that happiness is to be found in a simple and natural life of friendliness and love, but on the whole both he and St Paul teach that the world is evil or at least spoiled and distorted: to become a happy world it must be somehow remade and transfigured by the second coming of Christ.

The desires and ambitions which are the motive power of modern Europe are, if not wrong, at least vain and do not even seek for true peace and happiness. Like Indian teachers, the early Christians tried to create a right temper rather than to change social institutions. They bade masters and slaves treat one another with kindness and respect, but they did not attempt to abolish slavery.

Indian thought does not really go much further in pessimism than Christianity, but its pessimism is intellectual rather than emotional. He who understands the nature of the soul and its successive lives cannot regard any single life as of great importance in itself, though its consequences for the future may be momentous, and though he will not say that life is not worth living. Reiterated declarations that all existence is suffering do, it is true, seem to destroy all prospect of happiness and all motive for effort, but the more accurate statement is, in the words of the Buddha himself, that all clinging to physical existence involves suffering. The earliest Buddhist texts teach that when this clinging and craving cease, a feeling of freedom and happiness takes their place and later Buddhism treated itself to visions of paradise as freely as Christianity.

Many forms of Hinduism teach that the soul released from the body can enjoy eternal bliss in the presence of God and even those severer philosophers who do not admit that the released soul is a personality in any human sense have no doubt of its happiness. The opposition is not so much between Indian thought and the New Testament, for both of them teach that bliss is attainable but not by satisfying desire. The fundamental contrast is rather between both India and the New Testament on the one hand and on the other the rooted conviction of European races[47], however much Christian orthodoxy may disguise their expression of it, that this world is all-important.

This conviction finds expression not only in the avowed pursuit of pleasure and ambition but in such sayings as that the best religion is the one which does most good and such ideals as self-realization or the full development of one’s nature and powers. Europeans as a rule have an innate dislike and mistrust of the doctrine that the world is vain or unreal. They can accord some sympathy to a dying man who sees in due perspective the unimportance of his past life or to a poet who under the starry heavens can make felt the smallness of man and his earth. But such thoughts are considered permissible only as retrospects, not as principles of life: you may say that your labour has amounted to nothing, but not that labour is vain.

Though monasteries and monks still exist, the great majority of Europeans instinctively disbelieve in asceticism, the contemplative life and contempt of the world: they have no love for a philosopher who rejects the idea of progress and is not satisfied with an ideal consisting in movement towards an unknown goal. They demand a religion which theoretically justifies the strenuous life. All this is a matter of temperament and the temperament is so common that it needs no explanation. What needs explanation is rather the other temperament which rejects this world as unsatisfactory and sets up another ideal, another sphere, another standard of values. This ideal and standard are not entirely peculiar to India but certainly they are understood and honoured there more than elsewhere. They are professed, as I have already observed, by Christianity, but even the New Testament is not free from the idea that saints are having a bad time now but will hereafter enjoy a triumph, parlously like the exuberance of the wicked in this world. The Far East too has its unworldly side which, though harmonizing with Buddhism, is native. In many ways the Chinese are as materialistic as Europeans, but throughout the long history of their art and literature, there has always been a school, clear-voiced if small, which has sung and pursued the joys of the hermit, the dweller among trees and mountains who finds nature and his own thoughts an all-sufficient source of continual happiness.

One reply on “Rebirth in Hindu and Buddhist Eyes”

  1. I’d recommend this book for keen students of Buddhism and Indology. It is extremely well researched and provides a good insight into the nature of Indian thought at the time of the Buddha. Many Buddhist teachings came up in a particular climate of ideas. It is helpful to know what these ideas were, and what questions people were grappling with at the time. It is quite a dense read however.

Comments are closed.