In my article about Sati, I had written that Sati dates back to the time when the Hindu people did not yet believe in reincarnation, and that it was also known among other people who didn’t have the doctrine of reincarnation, such as the ancient Egyptians and Chinese. Predictably, some Hindus reacted furiously, stating that Hindus had always believed in reincarnation and quoting chapter and verse from the Vedas to prove it. Here is my answer: the Rg-Veda, at least, does not contain the doctrine of reincarnation at all, and it is a post-Rg-Vedic text that explicitly introduces it. So, this is not a foreigner’s answer, it is the answer of one of India’s own great seers.
The concept of reincarnation is first explained in the Chandogya Upanishad. The Brahmin young man Shvetaketu returns home from his studies, where he supposedly has learned all Vedic knowledge including the core doctrine of the Upanishads (the Self, Atmavada), and meets his childhood friend from the Kshatriya caste, who quizzes him about the knowledge he has gained. Has he learned what happens to us after death? No, admits Shvetaketu, that wasn’t part of my curriculum. So we can already conclude that the core doctrine of the Upanishads is not dependent on a theory of the afterlife, such as the theory of reincarnation.
In Buddhism and Jainism, reincarnation is absolutely central, and it is fair to laugh at Western converts who insist on declaring themselves Buddhists but refuse to accept reincarnation. In Hinduism, by contrast, it is merely the factual situation that most people believe in reincarnation, but the core doctrine in its original form is not dependent on it. The goal of Buddhist meditation may be conceived as stopping the wheel of reincarnations, but the goal of Hindu meditation is not so defined. Check Patanjali, who mentions knowledge of past lives in passing, but doesn’t define the goal of yoga in terms of the reincarnation cycle. It is simply, technically, the isolation (Kaivalya) of consciousness from its field of objects in which it is mostly entangled, egardless of what happens to the conscuious subject before birth or after death. Buddhism in its Zen form has rediscovered this view, where the here and now is all-important and beliefs about past lives or the afterlife don’t matter. Hindus, by contrast, have become crypto-Buddhists and have come to believe that liberation means stopping the wheel of reincarnation. Not so Shvetaketu.
Now, when even Shvetaketu’s father Uddalaka doesn’t know the answer to this question, they go and ask the king. He turns out to know, and to have known all along. So he teaches them the doctrine of reincarnation for the very first time in Vedic literature and in all the writings of mankind. He also says that this doctrine is commonly believed in among Kshatriyas. No wonder the doctrine is so central in the traditions of Mahavira Jina and the Buddha, both Kshatriyas. He finally reveals that this belief is the secret of the Kshatriyas’ power. Indeed, those who consider their bodies as merely clothes they can take off and replace with new ones, are not afraid to kill or to die, they are fearless and win the battles, and hence they enjoy the power.
The Upanishadic account is confirmed by the reincarnation doctrine’s absence in the Rg-Veda. Yet, my reader claims: “Contrary to mischievous propaganda taking prominence in last few months, Vedas have their foundations in theory of rebirth.” Note first of all the immature debater’s assumption that a statement with which he disagrees must necessarily be born from “mischievous” motives. In reality, a statement may be right or may be wrong regardless of the speaker’s motives; but let that pass.
The reader claims: “Almost all mantras of Vedas implicitly assume that rebirth happens across various species and situations as per Karma or actions of the soul.” This is definitely untrue. He may project his own beliefs onto the Vedic mantras, but most of these can be read without evoking in the reader’s mind the notion of reincarnation or any other doctrine of a life after death. For instance, the two most famous mantras, Vishvamitra’s Gayatri Mantra and Vasishtha’s Mrtyunjaya Mantra, are unrelated to reincarnation or to the afterlife. The first one is a hymn to the rising sun and asks it to enlighten the worshipper’s mind. The second one is a hymn to Shiva and asks him to deliver the worshipper from mortality. Come to think of it, this presupposes exactly that death is considered the problem, unlike in the doctrine of reincarnation, where rebirth (i.e. non-death) is an automatic given, and completely unlike the Buddhist and generalized Hindu belief that continuous rebirth is the problem and that liberation consists in getting rid of these repeated rebirths.
The reader them claims to “provide some mantras from [the] Vedas that specifically talk of rebirth”, and starts with RV 10.59.6-7: “O Blissful Ishwar, Please provide us again healthy eyes and other sense organs in next birth. Please provide us powerful vitality, mind, intellect, valor again and again in next births. We achieve bliss in this life and future lives. May we keep looking up to your glory always. Keep us in peace with your blessings. O Ishwar, you provide us space, earth and other elements again and again so that our sense organs function. You provide us the ability to have good health and enjoy life in every birth. You make us strong again and again in various births.” But in fact, the Sankrit original doesn’t mention rebirth (punarjanma), it merely asks the god to give this vitality etc. “again”, i.e. after having lost it. The hymn is about “quickened vigour” and “health-giving medicine”, i.e. about health and longevity, about non-death. It requires very special pleading to read multiple lives into this.
The source quoted is 19th-century reformer Dayananda Saraswati’s notoriously fanciful translation, in which e.g. the names of the different gods are rendered as “God”, making the Vedic seers into quasi-Christians. Like many modern Hindus, he projected his own Christian-influenced beliefs onto the Vedic text. Most Hindus read the Vedas, to the extent that they read them at all, through Puranic lenses, applying the post-Vedic Hinduism which Dayanand Saraswati claimed to despise but which still determined his interpretation to a large extent. What he added and what set him apart from mainstream Hinduism in his day, was that he also tried to bring in quasi-Protestant monotheism and anti-idolatry which he had interiorized from his colonial masters. But in this case, it is not a Christian but a post-Vedic Hindu notion of reincarnation that he projects onto the Rg-Vedic verses.
The reader then quotes Rg-Veda 1.24.1-2: “Question: Whom do we consider the most pure? Who is the most enlightened one in entire world. Who provides us mother and father again in the world after gifting us ultimate bliss or Mukti? Answer: The self-enlightening, eternal, ever-free Ishwar alone is most pure. He alone provides us mother and father again in the world after gifting us ultimate bliss or Mukti.”
The word Mukti (freedom, liberation) and the concept of ultimate bliss are completely imaginary here, the special pleading that pervades later Hindu reading of the Vedic compositions. The original speaks of “seeing” father and mother, whom we shall indeed see in the hereafter. That is what the Rg-Vedic seers believed in: the same story which we tell our children, viz. that our dead relatives are waiting for us in the hereafter. Sometimes we tell our children also that that particular star over there is where grandfather has gone to; and a Brahmanic funeral ritual (which, a Tamil Brahmin told me, is still performed) does indeed specify which part of the starry sky welcomes the deceased souls. This hereafter is incompatible with the notion of reincarnation. The verse contains the word “punah” (again), and this seems to be reason enough for our reader to believe that reincarnation is meant.
That’s it for the Rg-Veda. The other quotes which the reader gives, are taken from the younger Yajur- and Atharva-Veda. They were partly contemporaneous with the older Upanishads, and it is not unreasonable if we come across reincarnation beliefs there. Yet, even here we find similar mistranslations. According to him, i.e. to Dayanada Saraswati of the Arya Samaj, this is what Yajurveda 4.15 says: “Whenever we take birth, may our deeds be such that we get a pure mind, long life, good health, vitality, intellect, strong sense organs and a powerful body. In next life also, keep us away from bad deeds and indulge us in noble actions.” But other translations, and indeed the Sanskrit original, don’t speak of reincarnation. They say that breath and life and consciousness have come “again”, but doesn’t imply that we first must have died. At least one translator even specifies that the hymn was said upon awakening.
As for Atharvaveda 7.67.1, the reader or his source again indulges in misdirection. If that book contained the doctrine of reincarnation, it would still prove nothing about the Rg-Veda; but the verse quoted doesn’t even contain this doctrine: “May we get healthy sense and work organs in next life as well. May I [be] full of vitality. May I have spiritual wealth and knowledge of Ishwar and Vedic concepts again and again. May we be selfless for welfare of world in next lives again and again. May our deeds be noble so that we get human life and always get purity of mind and actions so that we can worship you and achieve salvation.” This translation is really very far from the original, which is another prayer for health and longevity, this time obtained from a specific medicinal herb. Many hymns of the Atharva-Veda are about health-restoration and medicine, i.e. about saving and prolonging life rather than counting on a next life.
About Atharvaveda 5.1.2, he translates very freely: “One who conducts noble actions obtains noble lives in next births with strong body and sharp intellect. Those who conduct bad deeds get birth in lower species. To experience the fruits of past actions is natural trait of soul. After death, the soul resides in Vayu, Jala, Aushadhi etc. and again enters the womb to take next birth.” We don’t see these “next births” there, but maybe we should sit together and perform a word-by-word translation. This hymn is significantly called the Immortality Hymn, a name which we have already shown to be at odds with the reincarnation doctrine and certainly with the later quasi-Buddhist doctrine that we are tired of these endless rebirths in this Vale of Tears.
In Yajurveda 19.47, however, the reincarnation doctrine may indeed be implied:
“There are two paths for the soul. One path Pitryana provides birth again and again through union of father and mother, good and bad deeds, happiness and sorrow. The other path of Devayana frees the soul from cycle of birth and death and provides bliss of salvation. The whole world reverberates with both these paths. And after both, the soul again takes birth as progeny of father and mother.” This is the same concept enunciated repeatedly in the older Upanishads: that either we can go to heaven (way of the gods) or we can come back here (way of the ancestors). This doctrine has the same origin as the doctrine of the old Upanishads, where indeed it is introduced as an innovation.
Our reader ends his letter with some lengthy quotations from “Maharishi Swami Dayanand Saraswati`s masterpiece `Light of Truth’”, which only prove that he, like most 19th-century Hindus, believed in reincarnation and could not imagine life without it. The Swami’s organization, the Arya Samaj, claims to this day that he abhorred the decadence into which Puranic literature had thrown the Hindus and that he merely wanted to restore the Vedas to the pristine purity they once enjoyed. In fact, he too was a “Puranic Hindu” who read the Veda through Puranic eyes. He believed that the Veda was of supernatural origin, hence his attempt to translate all reference to mundane people and places out of it.
But in fact, we know the family relations of the Vedic seers, the places where they lived or travelled, the reasons why they waged war and the tribes against whom they did battle, even their fondness for the psychedelic Soma brew. Short, they and their books were human, all too human. Of course they changed their mind once in a while, and they learned from their surroundings or from their own discoveries. This way, they first believed in a hereafter where we would meet again, but later came to the notion that we returned from the hereafter to be born again. Since this belief is attested among many different tribes the world over, and since India knew many tribes of whom the Vedic (Paurava and esp. Bharata) tribe was only one, we opine that it existed among some Indian tribes too at the time when the Rg-Veda was composed. But it was new to the Vedic seers, who had cherished a different belief for long. Only when a successful class advertised the new and hitherto secret doctrine of reincarnation as its key to success, did the doctrine catch on. This way, Hindu history is also the history of progress.