Repeat anything often enough and it will start to be seen as true. Take rebirth for example. How often have I heard or read this statement or versions of it - ‘The Buddha (Buddhism) borrowed (copied) the idea (doctrine) of rebirth (reincarnation) from Hinduism.’ Coming from Swami Vivekananda, Christmas Humphries, Paul Carus or the like, such a statement would be understandable – they were not scholars and they had hidden agendas. But coming from theologians, historians and even Indologists of repute it really is astonishing. It is also proof of the accuracy of the first line in this blog. I would like to briefly examine three words in this statement; (1) Hinduism, (2) borrowed and (3) rebirth.
(1) The Buddha could not possibly have borrowed the idea of rebirth/reincarnation or indeed anything else from Hinduism for one simple reason – Hinduism did not exist in the 5th century BCE. I am not being pedantic here, I’m being historically and chronologically precise. What we now call and recognize as Hinduism did not begin to take its present form until at least the 3rd century CE, a good 800 years after the Buddha. The majority religions that flourished during the Buddha’s time were Brahmanism (the worship of the Vedic gods) and Indian animism. Both these religions gradually merged, absorbed Upanisadic spirituality, various tribal gods (Ganesh, Hanuman), yoga philosophy, big chunks of Buddhism and emerged as what we would now recognize as Hinduism. To say that the Buddha copied rebirth/reincarnation from Hinduism is to be as uninformed about history as someone who would say that Jesus copied the idea of salvation from Islam. To take this comparison a little further, it is certainly true that Jesus borrowed or took for granted much of Judaism and it would be just as true to say that Hinduism borrowed the concept of rebirth/reincarnation from Buddhism; not the other way around.
(2) Now let’s have a look at ‘borrowed.’ Even if we accept the historically inaccurate notion that Hinduism existed at the time of the Buddha, the statement in question would still be wrong. Because from where exactly would the Buddha have borrowed the idea of rebirth? If we look at all pre-Buddhist (5th cent. BCE) Indian literature we find that there is only the Vedas, the Brahmana Shastras and the eairler Upanishads. Throughout the whole of the Vedas there is not a single mention of rebirth/reincarnation. They teach that when people die they go to the ‘world of the fathers’ (pitrloka). Read through all the Brahamana Shastras and there is no reference to rebirth/reincarnation there either.
The early Upanisads contain a lot of speculation about what will happens to the individual after death. The sage Yajnavalkya doubted the possibility of any after-death existence (Brhadaranyaka, 3,9.28,6). The Chandogya Upanisad says that when you die you go to the sun (Ch.3,17,6,7 and also Brh.5.6,1). In another place rebirth is mentioned but only to be dismissed as false (Brh.1,5,6). It is only in the Katha, the Manduaka, the Svetasvatara and the Maitri Upanisads that some form of reincarnation is accepted. Now the problem is that it is very difficult to date these Upanisads; they may be pre-Buddhist, contemporary with or after the Buddha’s time. Whatever the case, the evidence shows that reincarnation was neither a widespread nor a mainstream belief during the Buddha’s time or before. It is also worth pointing out that the Upanisads were secret teachings (upa + nisidati = to sit close) revealed only to the initiated; making it even less likely that their teaching of rebirth/reincarnation would have been widely known or accepted.
Now some Hindus may point out that the Bhavagat Gita mentions reincarnation and that ‘it was written 5000 years ago.’ Unfortunately, this claim belongs very much to the ‘Ancient Indians Invented the Airplane’ school of Indian history. The theme of the Mahabharata, from which the Bhagavat Gita comes, is certainly very ancient but in its present form it dates from somewhere between the 1st and perhaps the 4th centuries CE, long after the Buddha.
(3) Now let’s discuss the word ‘rebirth.’ The Upanisads, the earliest non-Buddhist Indian literature to mention the idea of rebirth/reincarnation, calls it ‘second death’ (punar mrtyu). The Buddha used the term ‘again becoming’ (punabbhava, e.g. Sn.163). The Upanisads that do mention a ‘second death’ give no details of why or how this happens, other than to say that it is a soul (atman) that is reincarnated. The Buddha by contrast gives a detailed explanation of the whole process of rebirth including the assertion that it is not a soul that is reborn but rather that an impersonal flow of mental energy re-animates a new being. In short, the Buddha’s teaching of rebirth differed significantly from that of the Upanisadic sages. So even to say that the Buddha copied the idea of some form of reincarnation from the Upanisads is wrong. It is like saying that because the Romans believed in a supreme god (Jupiter) and so did the Christians (Jehovah), that the latter must have copied the idea from the former.
Conclusion? It is unlikely that the Buddha copied the idea of rebirth from the Upanisads and he certainly did not and could not have copied it from Brahmanism or Hinduism. Whether he borrowed, copied or took for granted the idea from Jainism is another story. But that is something I might have a look at later.
The picture is a popular Hindu depiction of reincarnation.