Rebirth: The Controversy

It is difficult to comprehend why contemporary scholars continue to assert that everyone in India during the Buddha’s time held rebirth as true. Contrary to popular belief, the Pli discourses offer convincing evidence that has been present in Western languages for more than a century.

The Buddha repeatedly mentioned eternalism and annihilationism as two extreme incorrect views that prevented advancement on the road. He labelled people who denied rebirth as practising “annihilationism.” According to MN 22, other teachers have occasionally accused him of being an annihilationist as well, therefore it appears that he did not coin the word himself.

In other parts of the Canon, annihilationism is addressed in some of the most realistic ways that it was practised during his time. They clearly identify two figures who were well-known for having annihilationist views.

There has been nothing sacrificed, nothing promised, and nothing given. Good or ill acts have no rewards or results. There are no spontaneously reborn beings, no this world, no next world, parents, mothers, or fathers. There are also no contemplatives or brahmans who, by residing and exercising rightly, proclaim the existence of this world and the next after having directly experienced and eventually realised it.

“Earth, water, fire, air, and space, often known as ether, are the five fundamental elements. They stand in for the energy and physical characteristics of the physical universe and the human body. The earth returns to the (external) earth-substance during death and merges with it. The fire returns to the exterior fire-substance and merges with it. The liquid returns to the exterior liquid-substance and merges with it. The wind returns to the exterior wind-substance and merges with it. The sense organs are scattered throughout space. The body is carried by four men, with the bier serving as the fifth. Only the charnel ground has heard of its eulogies. Pigeon colours appear on the bones. The tributes burn to ashes.Those who believe there is life after death are spreading erroneous, meaningless nonsense. Both the clever and the foolish are perished when the body splits apart. After death, they are gone.

Another well-known annihilator was a prince by the name of Pysi. According to DN 23, he shared Ajita Kesakambalin’s materialist philosophy and used his authority to execute people as an excuse to carry out horrible, fictitious scientific tests to see if any human body parts might survive death. Two of the experiments he conducted and reported to a monk named Kumara Kassapa, a devotee of the Buddha, were as follows:

“There is the instance, Master Kassapa, where my men present a thief or other wrongdoer to me after they have apprehended him, saying, “Here is a thief or other wrongdoer for you, lord. Describe any punishment you like for him. And I respond, “Very well, masters, after having put this man in a clay jar while he was still alive, despite having sealed the mouth, before having coated it in a moist skin, after having plastered it with a thick layer of damp clay, after having set it in a furnace, light the fire.”

They placed the man in a clay jar while he was still alive, sealed the mouth, covered it with damp skin, plastered it with a thick layer of damp clay, set it in a furnace, and lit the fire after saying, “Very well,” in response to my question. When we are certain that the guy has passed away, we carefully inspect the area while removing the jar, piercing the seal, and opening the mouth in hopes of catching a glimpse of his soul. However, we do not witness his soul departing.

“There is the instance, Master Kassapa, where my men present a thief or other wrongdoer to me after they have apprehended him, saying, “Here is a thief or other wrongdoer for you, lord. Specify any punishment you desire for him. And I respond, “Very well, masters, having weighed this man on a scale while he was still alive, having strangled him to death with a bowstring, weigh him on the scale once more.”

They weighed the man on a scale while he was still alive, strangled him with a bowstring, and then weighed him again after saying, “Very good,” in response to my question. He is lighter, more malleable, and more flexible when he is living. However, after passing away, he becomes heavier, stiffer, and less bendable.

This is the basis for my conviction that there is no other world, no spontaneously reborn beings, and no fruit or outcome of good or evil deeds, Master Kassapa.

By categorising them according to how they define the self obliterated at death, a more complete picture of the annihilationist viewpoints that were prevalent at the time. There were a total of seven types. Three of them described the self as a body: an astral body, a divine physical body, or a physical body made up of the four elements. Ajita Kesakambalin’s and Prince Pysi’s point of view would fall within the first of the three. However, according to four different annihilationist theories, the self is formless while it is experiencing an infinitely large space, an infinitely large consciousness, emptiness, or neither perception nor non-perception. These theories assert that the self, whatever it is defined, dies and is destroyed at death in each of the seven situations.

The Pli Canon expressly lists at least four non-Buddhist schools that supported the concept of rebirth: Brahmans (SN 42:6; AN 10:177), Jains (MN 101), and two contemplative (samaa) schools, one led by Makkhali Gosla and the other by Pakudha Kaccyana. The Canon reveals, however, that the other two gurus rejected that action played any function at all in rebirth. We know from other sources that the Jains and certain Brahmans acknowledged that action played a role in moulding rebirth.

Though one would believe that they can ripen unripened karma and eradicate ripened karma whenever they come into contact with it by morality, practise, austerity, or a holy life, that is not possible. Both pleasure and suffering are quantified, and the bounds of the wandering are set. There is no shortening, no lengthening, no speeding up or slowing down. “The clever and the foolish alike will put an end to pain. Just as a ball of string, when flung, comes to its end simply by unwinding, in the same manner, having transmigrated and wandered on.

There are seven substances that are unmade, irreducible, uncreated, without a creator, barren, stable as a mountain top, and standing solid like a pillar. These substances do not modify, change, interfere with one another, and are unable to cause one another joy, sorrow, or both. quelles seven? The seventh substance is the soul, which is also known as the earth-substance, liquid-substance, fire-substance, wind-substance, pleasure, and agony. These are the seven substances that are unmade, irreducible, uncreated, without a creator, barren, stable as a mountain top, and standing firmly like a pillar. They are also incapable of altering, changing, interfering with one another, or inflicting pleasure, suffering, or both on one another.

The Jains and Brahmans took great care to define what kind of self or essence was reborn, and it’s likely that Makkhali Gosla and Pakudha Kaccyana did as well because their theories of rebirth require a soul or substance in a person that takes birth after death. The Pali Canon doesn’t go into great detail about these rebirth theories. The Brahmanical Upanisads, which present numerous hypotheses regarding what is reincarnated, provide the most thorough descriptions of what a soul may be. 

The Upaniads also contain numerous explanations of how the soul develops after death, with ChU V.3-classification 10’s of all living things into three kinds being among the most fascinating. After death, members of the highest advanced class join Brahman. The intermediate class travels to the moon, where they feed on, stage by stage. Those with good karma get to be eaten by humans, while those with bad karma be devoured by lower forms of animals. They then return to earth as rain, turning into plants and then being reincarnated as the kind of animal that eats the plants. The fate of the lowest class of beings, which includes small insects, is not even mentioned in the Upanishad.

Therefore, it is evident that both sides of the debate felt compelled to take a position on two topics while debating rebirth. The first was an explanation of what a person is and how they are or are not destroyed at death from there. To put it another way, both parties believed that they had to defend their ideas by adopting a position on the metaphysics of individual identity.

The second topic of discussion among those who embraced rebirth was the connection between human behaviour and rebirth, specifically whether or not human conduct altered the trajectory of reincarnation.

Given the vast range of opinions on both sides of these issues, it is clear that the concept of reincarnation was not taken for granted in Indian society. It was among the most divisive topics at the time of the Buddha.

And not just philosophers were involved in the debate. The Buddha tells the Klmas, a group of doubting villagers, in one of his most famous speeches that by refraining from imprudent deeds and cultivating a mind free from malice, one can obtain four certainties in the present.

“‘If there is a world after death, if there is the result of activities done wisely or wrongly, then this is the basis by which, with the breakdown of the body, after death, I shall reappear in a good destination, the heavenly realm,’ the prophet said. This is the initial certainty that one obtains.

But if there is no world after death and no reward or punishment for good or bad deeds, then I may easily take care of myself in this life, free from hatred, malice, and strife. The second guarantee that one obtains is this one.

“Even if evil is accomplished by action, I have not wished harm onto anyone. Where does suffering come from when I have done nothing wrong? The third certainty that one obtains is this one.

“But if no harm is done by behaving, then I can think of myself as being clean in both regards. One obtains this certainty as their fourth.

The Buddha wouldn’t have needed to give the Klma villagers these guarantees if the concept of reincarnation and its connection to karma had been widely accepted in ancient India.

The Buddha’s teachings on karma and rebirth cannot therefore be dismissed as an unprocessed holdover from his civilization. He was intentionally addressing a contentious issue by teaching about rebirth in a society that wanted him to explain how and why rebirth occurred or did not.

Young tree emerging from old cut down tree stump


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