The doctrine of Reincarnation in African Thought

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Thoughts about the concepts of life, death, rebirth and the moral as well as practical significance of these to the evolution of humanity pervade various literary works of Hindu origin. The ones that offer the most classical insights into the concepts are the Samhita or Vedas, the Brahmanas, Upanishads and the Mahabharata epic poem of which the Bhagavad Gita is part. 90
Although the doctrine of reincarnation in Indian thought is often said to have been developed by the ancient Aryans, glimpses of belief in the afterlife and even postmortem (re)embodiment of some sort was held among the indigenous people whom the early Aryans came to meet. From J. N. Farquhar‟s remark that among the non-Aryan Indians „there were probably totemistic clans who believed that at death a man became, like his totem, a tiger, an ox, a frog, or a snake,‟ H. Rose surmises a reason for it: that the non-Aryans merely observed the resemblances „among kindred.‟91 But, all this suggests that the non-Aryans believed that the person could be thought of in terms of other non-human bodies after death.
The idea of reincarnation (in the sense of a return to this world in a human form) was however absent, just as it was in the case of the early Aryans. The latter taught the Vedas. Life was portrayed in the Vedic hymns as transcending the physical, a view made partly possible by the conception in the Atharva Veda that the human being consisted of an „unborn part‟ (aja bhāga) and a body (ashu). This unborn part is interpreted as the soul.92 The soul was believed to have some prior existence to birth and a post-death existence. But elsewhere93 in the same Veda, some important features of the body are mentioned; these are the Menas consisting of mind, feeling and will. But as one can see, these are para-physical features or, as Valea calls them „psycho-mental faculties‟ which, by being dependent on the mechanisms of the body, one would clearly not differentiate them from the bodily as such. In spite of this, the Veda just mentioned also treated the dead as whole persons, speaking of them in both bodily and non-bodily terms. This was common in the funerary prayers and rituals.
The abode of the person in the afterlife was important to the Aryans. A land for the righteous where there was not going to be suffering was envisioned alongside a terrifying abode for the wicked. At death the body was cremated, so the god of fire, Agni, was obviously at hand. And, due to the tendency for humans to seek the best for their loved ones (and in this case, the deceased) it seemed a rational approach to seize the moment‟s opportunity to petition Agni, through the funerary prayer and ritual, to take the soul to the world of the righteous. This they did. But, despite this significant role of Agni in the Vedic eschatology, it was not the god of death. Yama was. Yama also played some judgemental roles in the afterlife. „Divine justice was provided by the gods Yama, Soma and Indra, but not by an impersonal law such as karma. One of their attributes was to cast the wicked into an eternal dark prison out of which they could never escape.‟94 According to Rose, notably, the soul was never conceived to return to the earth.
Reincarnation as presented in the post-Vedic literatures cannot be well understood without first explaining the law of karma. It is the law that in every action is its effect. It is presented as a natural law that works independently of human will. Good consequences for good actions, bad for bad actions. Now, the earliest sign of reincarnation or samsara – which literally means „wandering‟ – is traced by both R. C. Zaehner (in his Hinduism) and Swami Agehananda Bharati95 to the Upanishads, but this credit can as well go to the composers of the Brahmanas in which afterlife experiences were said to be curtailed through a second death to enable souls come back to earth to live. This return took place after the souls had received the entire recompenses or punishments for their deeds in the previous life. This implied that, if souls were indeed imperishable, the person in the afterlife was conceived to have some physical (material) properties that could be expected to perish. I recognize though that by the term „reincarnation‟ the understanding is often that an enduring aspect of a deceased successively takes on a new body on earth, only to survive again after the death of the acquired body. As this suggests, all forms of death occur on earth.
The Upanishads contain the belief that apart from purified souls which pass through flame (or life) to live eternally with Brahman (the Godhead), certain souls – due to their lack of „knowledge of reality‟ – are rained down unto the earth by the moon to become, in the words of Zaehner, „worms, moths, and biting serpents‟ and, Rose adds, „fish, bird, or man.‟96 Although death in the Upanishads takes place only on earth, in contrast with what the Brahmanas contain, it may still not be right to dissociate reincarnation from Brahmanic teachings. Indeed, the Upanishads provide the earliest hint on reincarnation only on the count of second earthly death, because the thrust of reincarnation – the act of re-embodiment on earth – is not absent at all from the Brahmanas.
If, by karma, the collective deeds of a person are needed to determine the status of his post-mortem being, then this status cannot be determined exhaustively while the person is still alive. This is because the person ordinarily does not stop acting while living. In this respect, he needs to die or end that life session before the cumulative effect of his actions can be determined, since every single action matters for the emergence of the actor‟s „body of deeds.‟ The notion of adequate recompense and the tying of deed to being (or to ontic category) weave into the doctrine of karma the possibility of a next life, a rebirth, reincarnation. This, however, would not mean that „a next life‟ and „reincarnation‟ are synonyms. It is thus appropriate for P.T. Raju to assert that the ideas that different actions have different „fruits‟ and that humans must enjoy the „fruits‟ of their actions gave birth to, or necessitated the concept of reincarnation. These ideas he also observes, are central to the doctrine of karma, a doctrine which was somehow known to both the Brahmanas and the Upanishads, but „developed much later in the Mīmamsā concept of apurva (unseen force).‟97 Karma, more or less, has come to serve as a basis for the gradations of personality and of qualities of life in any earthly existence. For instance, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad declares „[a]ccording as one acts, according as one behaves, so does he become. The doer of good becomes good. The doer of evil becomes evil…‟98 Again, karma accounts somehow for the variations of being in the world, for a person‟s current karmic debts determine the being in the form of which he appears in future: a worm, dog, plant, or human. If human, the social status he or she occupies also depends on the same doctrine of karma.
In some sense, the earlier comment that karma is the basis for reincarnation is not contradicted by Sri Aurobindo‟s 99 attempt to make the evolution of the soul – in his words, the soul‟s „efflorescence out of the veil of matter and its gradual self-finding‟ – the true basis for rebirth. That, the soul having had some stints with the finite, the body, „is driven to seek its infinity again by the principle of succession …‟ This movement of the soul, he thinks, makes reincarnation logically unavoidable. While the claim about the soul‟s ability to seek its infinity might not be a misrepresentation, it definitely requires further analysis. By suggesting that the soul „seeks,‟ I understand him as saying that the soul desires and has the intrinsic capacity to achieve what it seeks or desires. I do not think that Sri Aurobindo would accept the view that in seeking its objective, so to speak, the soul moves in any direction at all between higher and lower form of life. The choice of direction must therefore be purposeful. But in the case of an embodied soul – that is, of a person who lives on earth – the direction to take would not be a matter of the soul‟s own choosing, since by so doing the notion of human responsibility would be made nonsense of. The reason for this is that it would become conceivable that the soul is given the opportunity to choose a direction, a future that would enable it to escape the deserved effects of its deeds in the present life. The only moment that the human soul can conceivably choose whether to move up in purity or down into a lower creature is when it is existing prior to its first attachment to a body and has no karmic debts to pay or credits to look forward to. But so far as humans who are already living on earth are concerned, it appears that the purposeful movement of the soul is in turn contingent on the drive of karma. Thus, reincarnation does not issue ultimately from the soul‟s propensity to achieve purity or infinity, but from the weight of karmic debts which must be paid. Whether there would be a rebirth in a higher or lower level of being, and whether a further embodiment would be necessary at a particular stage of the soul‟s development, all depend on the demands or dictates of karma accrued in a previous life.


1.1 Immortality and Reincarnation
1.2 Egypt and Africa
1.3 On the Meaning of Africa
6.0.0 On What Does Personal Identity Depend?
6.1.0 The Ontological Question in African Philosophy of Mind
6.2.0 The Normative Question in African Philosophy of Mind
6.3.0 Persistence (Survival)
Reincarnation in African Philosophy
7. 0. Reincarnation: Introduction
7. 1. The doctrine of Reincarnation in African Thought
7.2.0. The Language and Eschatological Concepts of Ancient Egypt and Traditional African Culture CHAPTER EIGHT: RATIONALITY OF BELIEF IN REINCARNATION
8.1.0 „Ancestral‟ Return
8.2.0 The Awomawuo Phenemenon
8.3.0 The Non-Admissibles

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